My Father Tells Me About Trees

I hear my office phone ring, see his name flash across the narrow digital screen, and next I sigh, which makes me feel shitty. You know it’s not so easy to identify Florida trees, he tells me soon as I pick up. My father always calls with something very specific to communicate. Yes, I tell him, I know. This tree outside the kitchen window, he continues. I’m looking at it right this instant. I believe you, I say, noticing an Egyptian goose family out my own window crossing the parking lot two stories down toward the crappy, manufactured pond. You’ve seen the tree, he continues, the tree with the glossy leaves and the roots hanging down, the one your mother likes. I swallow hard at the present tense. It’s a ficus, I tell him, like I told him last week, and last month. Yes, but what kind of ficus? he asks as if he’s caught me in a lie. There’s lots of different kinds of ficus, he says. I checked out a book from the library. His home healthcare worker must have driven him to the neighborhood library. I imagine the both of them combing the most remote stacks for neglected titles on the exotic trees of the subtropics. They’re in the Moraceae Family, he says. Yes, I tell him, I know. With all the mulberries, he says. My father knows that I’m a botanist, or still mostly knows. I specialize in cycads, these ancient gymnosperms on the brink of extinction, their earth business almost complete. You’d think you’d be able to tell from the bark, he says. The texture. This is not something that I’ve ever thought, but I let him continue, scrolling down the list of emails on my screen that I’ve yet to open. But lots of different trees have similar bark, he says. Smooth, shiny, rough. Even the special kind of rough, the . . . uhh . . . as he gropes for the word, my eyes follow the geese, waddling past the parked cars. They don’t seem to rush. Doesn’t the black asphalt under the blazing sun scald their webbed feet? But my father’s talking again. . . . Patterns, he says. No, patterns isn’t the right word. I don’t think I’m describing what I mean. I know what you mean, pop. You’re doing fine. The leaves are more important than the bark, I explain. Yes, he replies, the leaves. That’s what the book says, he says, citing the greater authority of the book. More specifically, he carries on, it’s the veins and folds in the leaves that you have to watch out for. I might as well mention here that my father worked for sixty years as a forensic accountant. The expert testimony he provided to the federal government and the state of New York versus this or that corporate scumbag accounted for a good chunk of his income that now pays for his home healthcare worker. The veins and folds, he repeats, veins and folds, as if he fears I’m not paying close enough attention to his words, as if he knows that I’ve just opened one of the emails from my Department Head reminding me of various important deadlines fast approaching. The book, he continues, shows all sorts of veins across the leaves that I’m supposed to be able to see but that I don’t see. Marceline neither. Marceline is the name of his home healthcare worker. She’s from Haiti and has unlimited patience, it took me no time at all to determine, and lives with her mother and two daughters, and the father doesn’t seem to be in the picture, it took me a bit more time to learn. It’s not just the veins, or even the shape of the individual leaves, I say, but now I’m not sure he’s listening, because I can hear his muffled glottals (he’s covered the microphone with his hand) as he hectors poor Marceline about something or other, his own mention of her name prompting a memory, perhaps. I’m back, he says now. I’m here. What were you saying about the leaves? It’s the way the clusters of leaves grow from the stem, I say, that might help us narrow it down, too. Yep! he replies, then, Yep! once again, because I’ve pleased him with this nugget of information, maybe proven my bona fides to speak on the topic of trees. Alternate, opposite, whorled, I continue. After all these years, I still want to please my father. Mr. Fancy-Shmancy, he says. How many needles on a white pine? He quizzes me on the clusters, as he’s quizzed me on pine needle clusters since I was a child. Four, I answer. Very funny, wise guy. He knows I know that the correct answer is five. Good. I wait for him to quiz me on pitch pine and jack pine clusters, but he returns to the topic at hand. Listen, he says, you’ll have to come over and help me with the ficus. The stems are too high up for me to reach. You know they’re in the Moraceae Family, right? Yes, pop, I know. Now individual leaves, he says, leaves from the ground I can give you as many of those as you want. Maybe you can see the veins, he says. Marceline and I can’t see the veins. Okay, I say. I’ll come over soon. Maybe not today. No, not today, he says. There’s no rush. Whenever you have time. I know you’re busy. I’ll come over soon, I repeat. I’m not so busy, I say, because I’m not so busy. Not really. My two daughters are grown and out of the house; I’m out of the house, too, since the divorce. It’s not an emergency, I hear my father saying. The tree’s not going anywhere, he jokes. I try to laugh hard enough that he can hear my laughter through the phone, wanting to please him as I do. I wait for his next words, but all I hear is his breathing through the phone. His joke about the tree not going anywhere seems to have put him in a different place. The goose family waddles across the coarse St. Augustine grass now, over-fertilized by the grounds crew. They’ve almost made it past the gauntlet of iguanas to the water’s edge and the dense stand of invasive cattails, supping the nutrients from all that fertilizer. I think about these invasive (though handsome) birds competing against these invasive (and fearsome) lizards for prime territory around the crappy pond, both creatures squeezed by us invasive humans. Are you still seeing your Spanish lady friend? my father asks. I’ve been seeing Ingrid for almost two years. She’s Argentinian, and Jewish, as it happens, though the “Spanish” part, for my father, seems to cancel out the Jewish part as if he can’t hold these two details about my “lady-friend” in his mind at the same time. Yes, I tell him. It’s a shame you and Julie couldn’t work things out, he says. Now it’s my turn to breathe into the phone, though I know he doesn’t say this to be cruel. As long as you’re coming over, he says, if you can find some fruit up there, or seeds, that would really help too. The book shows lots of pictures of fruit and seeds under the descriptions. Yeah, I tell him. They’re important too. So, we should try to get some fruit or seeds to look at, he says, as long as you’re coming over. Okay, I say. Can you come now? he asks, as he often asks, and then I hear the falsetto notes of Marceline’s voice in the background, maybe reminding him that I wasn’t planning on coming over now, but soon. I’m thinking it’s either a false banyan or a laurel fig, he says, according to the book, but the fruit on both are sessile and ten millimeters in diameter, same color too, so the fruit might not help us. You know what sessile means, right? No, I say, as I know that my father wants to tell me. I had to look that one up in the dictionary too, he admits. I imagine him at his breakfast table flipping through the large leaves of the big blue dictionary that he still uses. It means the fruit is attached directly to the stem without any stalk, he says. Oh, I say, feigning surprise. Interesting. So, when are you coming over again? he asks. I’m coming now, I say, shutting down my computer. Oh good, he says, we can walk outside and pick some stems and fruit, maybe walk down the block a bit to compare it to some of the other trees. I’ll use my walker, promise. Okay, I say, looking out the window for the geese. But they’ve disappeared into the thicket of blonde and green reeds. So, I’ll tell Marceline to unlock the door, he says. Don’t bother knocking. Just walk in. We’ll get to the bottom of this tree mystery, he says. Are you coming now?

Cover art: “Disturbances: Erosion” by Christopher Squier

Andrew Furman

Andrew Furman is a professor of English at Florida Atlantic University and teaches in its MFA program in Creative Writing. Recent stories and essays have appeared in such publications as Prairie Schooner, Santa Monica Review, Terrain.org, and Willow Springs. His books include the novels Jewfish (Little Curlew Press, 2020) and Goldens are Here (Green Writers Press, 2018), and the memoir, Bitten: My Unexpected Love Affair with Florida (University Press of Florida, 2014), which was named a finalist for the ASLE Environmental Book Award. You can find him at andrewfurmanwriter.com.

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