Relief Patterns, June 1952

Relief Patterns, June 1952

Seismic gap: A segment of an active fault zone that has not experienced a major earthquake during a time period when most other segments of the zone have. Seismic gaps are generally regarded as having a higher potential for future earthquakes.

“It’s a beauty, is it not?” Lyla’s father slapped the old oak tree as though he were spanking the beefy hindquarters of a prized thoroughbred.

But Lyla didn’t answer. She was staring up at the tree, trying to figure out how she could crawl out along the branch to tie off the rope for her swing. Sure, the branch looked sturdy enough, its thick, muscular arm reaching high and wide over the grassy hill. But, it was also a good fifteen feet off the ground and she had never climbed that high before, not even when her cousin Robert had scrambled up there the summer before, calling her a scaredy-cat when she refused to do as he had done. But that was last year—when she was seven. She’d climbed plenty since then.

Still, Lyla bit her lip. What would happen if she lost her balance and her father was too distracted to catch her, like when she had jumped off the back of the couch last week, when he suddenly bent over to grab his drink off the side table and Lyla tumbled to the floor, twisting her ankle along the way. What then?

Over on the opposite side of the tree was another branch—equally strong, equally thick—but it was too close to the ground. She knew her father would never go for that one; he’d claim it was for sissies.

The tree was a massive California oak that stood just beyond her grandparent’s back fence like a giant, like Gulliver in the land of Lilliput, with arms stretched wide and ready to scoop up little children and steal them. Winter or summer, spring or fall, with or without its leaves, the tree commanded center stage of the Hawkinses’ property, as if everything—the structure of the house, the perimeter of the gray sun-beaten fence, and the rolling hills, both near and far—were all being held together by the tree’s roots. It was under this tree that Lyla’s family took their annual Christmas photograph or gathered for summer picnics when Grandmother Caroline declared it was too hot to eat inside. And four feet underneath was the very spot where poor old Jackson had been buried after the family dog finally succumbed to old age.

Even from inside the house, the plate glass windows framed the tree like a work of art, drawing one’s eye to the foreground so that the mind had no choice but to blur the rest. The surrounding landscape with its golden hills and deep vales was nothing more than a mere backdrop. Years later, when Lyla’s therapist would encourage her to draw a picture about the day her father left them, all she’d remember to sketch would be the tree. She wouldn’t include the hills at all.

“Earth to Lyla,” her father said, fiddling with the dials of an imaginary walkie-talkie. He even made the fuzzy, crackling sounds of a radio slipping in and out of range. “Zzzzz, come in, Lyla. Zzzzz, do you copy?”

Lyla pulled out her own pretend two-way from the pocket of her red jumper. “I hear you loud and clear, Daddy, but I think we should go find another tree. This one’s no good.”

“No good!” Her father roared. “Why, this is the perfect tree, Lyla, and you damn well know it.” Her father was no longer speaking into his pretend radio; he was staring right at her. “Listen, I’ve been itching to hang a swing in this tree since I was your age, and your grandmother just gave us the go-ahead. We can’t back out now.” He turned his pretend radio back on and walked away from Lyla. “This tree will do just fine. Over and out.”

Lyla took several steps back to get a better look at the tree, to see exactly what it was that her father saw. What made him so darn certain that this was the only one and that no other tree would do? But standing back like this, seeing how far the canopy listed over to one side, Lyla was suddenly reminded of the old-fashioned hat that they had forced her grandmother to wear when the family dressed up like pioneers at the state fair. How she hadn’t seen the tree that way before she didn’t know, but Lyla let out a small laugh, remembering how her grandmother, seated at the center of the Hawkins family, stared dour-faced into the camera with that ridiculous hat flopped over the side of her head while her two grown sons stood on either side of her—one hand on their pretend rifles, the other on her stone-stiff shoulders. Lyla could still hear her grandmother groan as the cameraman held up his fingers and counted to three before poof went the bright white flash in the phony saloon. Lyla’s grandmother didn’t say cheese; she didn’t even smile. Yet, that old-timey photograph was living proof that her grandmother could be convinced to do things against her better judgment.

Why, just after breakfast, Lyla had overheard her father as he begged his mother into letting him hang a swing in the tree out back, sounding as though he were still just a little boy himself. “Pleeeaaaase,” he nagged, drawing a long, slow ease out of his “please.” He sounded so silly when he talked like that, but surprisingly, her grandmother relented. Why she finally gave in, nobody could say exactly, but they certainly didn’t question it at the time. Yet, it would be a decision Lyla’s grandmother would regret for the rest of her life. They all would. “It was my damned tree,” she’d say to Lyla one night as they stared out the kitchen window into the dark. “He had no right.”

And it was true. No matter how many times Lyla’s father told stories about how he had climbed that tree as a child, how many times he had hid behind it in a game of hide-and-seek with his brother or avoided the belt from his mother, how many times he had snuck out back with his father’s cigarettes, smoking jig after jig behind the tree’s enormous trunk, or even the time he had kissed his first girlfriend under the wide canopy one September afternoon, it was still her tree. And she had always claimed that she didn’t want something like a crummy old tire swing to ruin her view of the back hills.

“Oh, phooey, go ahead and put one up, if you really want one so bad,” her grandmother finally said as she rinsed the last of the breakfast dishes. “But I don’t want anyone to come boo-hooing in here because they got hurt, do you hear me?”

“You won’t hear a peep,” her father promised, as he threw his dishtowel on the back of the chair where it hung like wet hair and burst out of the kitchen, wearing a bright-eyed look of disbelief on his face that soon gave way to conceit. It was the same look he’d had in his eyes after Bobby Thompson hit his famous three-run homer that settled the 1951 pennant race—when her father turned off the television and sauntered over to the bar to fix himself a drink as though he were the one responsible for the Giants’ ninth-inning victory that day.

“All right, Daddy. I’ll do it.” Lyla ran back toward the tree to where her father was leaning against the trunk with his arms folded across his chest, his hat dipped over his eyes as though he had fallen asleep, waiting for Lyla to make up her mind. “If you really think it’s the best one.”

Her father spat out the long blade of grass that he had been chewing on and kicked himself away from the tree. “I knew you’d come around, birdpie.” He winked. “You always do.” He then grabbed the rope off the ground and slung it over his shoulder like a woman’s purse and stared up into the underskirt of the tree. “Sometimes, we just need a little time to warm up to an idea, right?”

“Right,” Lyla agreed. “But at least I didn’t take as long as Grandmother.”

“Boy, I’ll say. I’d be an old man if you had waited any longer.” Her father peeled a piece of bark off the trunk and broke it in two. “Here,” he said, handing a piece to Lyla, keeping one for himself. He closed his eyes and ran the bark under his nose like a fine cigar. It was then that he confessed it was the smell he missed most during the war.

“More than mama?” Lyla took a small, careful whiff of the piece of bark he had given her. She knew her father loved the smell of the tannins of the tree, always declaring it to be the sharp woody smell of his youth, but could it really smell better than her mother?

“Oh, your mother smells awful nice, and boy, did I miss the feel of her during the war. But she doesn’t smell bitter, not like this old tree.” Lyla’s father went on to tell her about the time he had written to her mother, asking her to send him a piece of bark, a piece small enough to fit into the breast pocket of his uniform so that he could pull it out from time to time and smell home.

“Did she?” Lyla rubbed her thumb along the soft, mealy underside of her bark chip as if it were a rabbit’s foot.

“No,” he said and bit off a chunk, tucking the oaky rind under his lower lip like a plug of chewing tobacco. “Somewhere along the line, my letter got lost, and I never got my piece of bark.”

“Why not? Didn’t you write her again?”

“No, sweetheart. I couldn’t.” Her father picked an eyelash off of her cheek. “Make a wish,” he said, holding the single dark lash up in the sunlight.

Lyla closed her eyes and tried think of something to wish for, something good. But in the moment, she couldn’t come up with anything, nothing at all. Not one single good wish. Lyla opened her eyes. “Got one,” she fibbed, and her father blew the lash from his fingers where it trailed away like a dandelion puff.

“So, what did you do?”

“The simplest thing of all, kiddo. I learned how to manufacture the smell of the tree by memory.”

“By memory?” Lyla repeated, confused as to what on earth her father could be suggesting.

“Yes, darling,” he said, tapping the side of her head with his bark chip. “You can do a lot with memory. Trust me.”

And it was there under the shade of the tree that Lyla’s father told her about how he’d sit in those foxholes night after bloody night, concentrating on nothing else but the color and the smell of the tree. How he was able to fool himself into smelling past the rot of their feet, past the stench of stale urine, past the lingering smell of sulfur from a recently fired cannon.

“Even past the unforgettable odor of man’s fear itself.” Her father paused and put the hard piece of bark up against his nose, inhaling once again. “Until I could finally smell the oaky pitch of home.” He turned to Lyla with a look—not quite a smile, but something awfully close to it. “It was then, sweetheart, when my mind and olfactory nerves worked together, that I would ache so damn hard, I’d want for nothing more than to be back here at home in your mother’s arms. God, how I missed her.”

Lyla closed her eyes and drew in a deep inhale, just as her father had done. She couldn’t quite smell what he had described, but she didn’t doubt him either. She tucked the small flake of bark in the pocket of her jumper, determined to try again later that night, after her mother tucked her in bed. Lyla looked up at her father. “Mama’s the best. Isn’t she?”