by Tabaré Alvarez
|part 1 of 3|
Dutch regularly works as a mover: boxes, furniture, all the clutter of everyday life. But he once helped the Mayor solve a problem with squatters. Dutch removed them from the Mayor’s properties through a combination of force and what Dutch liked to think of as charm. Since then, Dutch has become the Mayor’s ad hoc factotum and troubleshooter for delicate situations.
Now the Mayor has called for help from both Dutch and Mrs. Medina, who is the Mayor’s former wife and a professional chef. While married to the Mayor, Mrs. Medina had effectively served as co-mayor: rational and practical in the face of her husband’s numerous erratic and far-fetched plans.
For fifteen years, Dutch and Mrs. Medina have been mere acquaintances, people who nod to each other on their way elsewhere. Now, though, they will come into close contact in close quarters...
From what they could piece together afterward, the rain, proverbially, was to blame. This was not immediately apparent. The first strange thing was the trees. For two weeks the city of Sans Souci had been buffeted by wet gusts from the Gulf — not a proper hurricane, though it was certainly the season, but on the scale of a tropical storm.
The citizens of Sans Souci, a mercurial bunch, had panicked, stockpiling batteries, gasoline, drinking water and canned goods as well as duct-taping large X’s on all the windows. For a moment, it seemed to Dutch, an end-of-times mood threatened to take hold, until people began noticing the trees.
All along the boardwalk, the wind, so strong that it brought in the rain sideways, had been toppling the few almond trees that remained after the last hurricane. But some mornings — and Dutch observed this himself, as he drove along the water in his truck, carrying the furniture and plates and clothes of other people — a toppled tree would appear upright again, replanted, and, to all appearances, none the worse for wear.
As the winds picked up, felling more and more trees, the invisible overnight workers kept apace: what was done in daylight was then undone in darkness. It was a crime, perhaps, to plant trees in municipal land — a wide swath of grass grew parallel to the long, continuous cement bench that ran along the boardwalk — but few would think to prosecute on such a technicality, especially as there was no victim to press charges, and the deed, all would agree, was clearly good.
The second, slightly more criminal, thing was the joyriding — for lack of a better word. People — movers, confederates of Dutch himself, tow truck drivers — would park their trucks in the evening after a day of work and, the next morning, they would find them cleaner and with a full tank of gas. Sometimes bits of evidence escaped the scrubbing, and they would find leaves or a clump of black earth or a bit of root or bark.
The papers quickly put the two things together, the midnight joyriding and the uprighting of trees, but the connection, though unavoidable, made little sense, as the boardwalk trees were never transported to a different location, simply pushed back to their regular, pre-storm position. Stealing a car, clearly, was a crime; but, again, the vehicles were being returned washed and refueled. The victims’ net loss was negligible to non-existent.
Then, and this was the third thing, new trees finally began appearing along the boardwalk. They were new in the sense of not having been there previously, but they were also old: gnarled, knotted, with Spanish moss hanging from the branches like a patriarch’s beard: they made you want to say venerable.
Now Dutch could accept the connection between the joyriding and the boardwalk trees. It was at this point, too, that his boss, Mayor Medina, told Dutch to collect the Mayor’s ex-wife, Mrs. Medina, and look into this. The Mayor said he didn’t mind the distraction this whole thing provided from worrying about hurricanes, and there was little movement at the DA’s office, but the escalation worried him.
Dutch picked up Mrs. Medina at her apartment, and they drove to the boardwalk. The trees were regular trees, nothing peculiar about them, except that, invariably, they were very old, and, of course, had sprung up overnight.
Mrs. Medina had very pale skin, so pale you could see tiny blue veins on her eyelids when she blinked, and she had covered her head with a Panama hat to stave off the bursts of sunlight that occasionally broke through the cloud cover.
It wasn’t raining at the moment, but everything was still wet. It was not unpleasant, the bright, wet, gusty day, with the waves crashing noisily, throwing up a salty spray. Beneath that, a loamy smell, as of rich black earth, came off the green swath of grass, and even the wet concrete of the sidewalk seemed fresh, clean.
She was noting how evenly the trees had been spaced along the boardwalk. “And they haven’t been pruned,” she said. That was certainly strange, as the Mayor had recently declared a “Tree-Pruning Day” and all of the city’s ornamental trees, along sidewalks and highway dividers and in front yards, had been pruned by city employees. It had been free of charge and compulsory, one of those ideas the Mayor would fixate on out of the blue and carry out with manic energy.
Dutch and Mrs. Medina examined the ground around the new trees, which had been cleared of grass. The earth just at the base of the trunk was darker than the surrounding dirt. Mrs. Medina, a chef by profession and an eclectic reader in her spare time, confessed that she could not identify the species. She was familiar with the common flora of the Gulf Coast — oak, pine, hickory, dogwood, wisteria, magnolia, tupelo, cypress — but the new boardwalk trees, all of which seemed of one species, she could not name.
“Someone took the trouble to transplant these,” she said. She was rubbing sunscreen on her forearms; a slight breeze blew in and a few droplets of rain began to fall. “They must be rare.”
Pointedly, Dutch made a show of unfurling his umbrella.
“That was a wave,” she said defensively, stowing the sunscreen back in her huge beach-style wicker purse and, in the same motion, extracting a pair of sunglasses. Her eyes were blue and changed tone with the weather and with the color of her clothes; before the sunglasses covered them completely, Dutch caught a glimpse of them, mirroring the exact shade of the ocean at the moment, a turquoise rendered bright by dappled sunlight.
She took his arm, and they made their way down the boardwalk, Dutch with his umbrella above her head, to keep away the sunlight or the rain or the mist from the crashing waves. For a moment he imagined what they looked like, the two of them, to a neutral observer, and, though it wasn’t true, he didn’t mind it.
Tomorrow was Halloween, not exactly Valentine’s Day in terms of social pressure toward gregariousness, but it was nice all the same to have someone on your arm, and secretly he hoped that it would take them longer than a day to get to the bottom of this tree thing.
Her cell phone rang: it was the Mayor. The police and the fire department had been receiving calls from the apartment buildings around Sans Souci Park. Dutch turned away from the water, north, toward the center of the city, to see if he could spot a plume of smoke, but it was hard to tell: it was still raining in certain parts of the city, further inland, that strange play of the weather where, as you’re driving, you can see the exact demarcation between rain and non-rain, when the pinging on the windshield suddenly goes quiet — and maybe starts again, just as abruptly, a half-mile later.
It had been like this for the last two weeks. They were on the tail-end of hurricane season, and the absence of a proper hurricane this year had people on edge; the common wisdom, fallacious, no doubt, was that they were due.
Mrs. Medina was wearing flat, open-toed sandals — the exposed skin, of course, had already been sunscreened — and when they began to race back to the truck, the sandals became a hindrance, slowing her down. “I’ll take them off,” she said, but Dutch said that he could bring the truck around, and then she said that he could go ahead, and she turned up her hands, and he scooped her up and ran toward the truck.
He spent most days lifting up furniture, and in his arms now she felt tiny, light, but not fragile: she settled herself, her arm over his shoulder, her head in the hollow of his neck, and he was simultaneously comfortable and on edge, quickened and soothed all at once by the concentrated warmth of her, and with the salt spray and the smell of the sunscreen, sharp and sweet. It was easy to imagine a beach, a huge parasol, lounge chairs, paperbacks, and tiny-umbrella drinks, maybe an actual coconut with a straw in it.
Her forehead touched the skin of his neck, and for a moment he grew confused, convinced that the vision had been hers, transferred to him by touch, or that perhaps they had formed it together, through the bright, rainy, loamy, salty alchemy of this unexpected proximity.
It was his truck, but she insisted on driving, and he, thinking he understood, gave her the keys. She sped through the city, weaving through traffic, sticking her hand out the window to signal a turn, even though there was nothing wrong with his blinkers, and braking, when she chose to, with a downshift of the gears: the motion, the bustle, she was in control.
Her apartment was within walking distance from the restaurant, so she walked to and from work; and before that, when she had been married to the Mayor, she had had a chauffeur. Dutch couldn’t think where she would have picked up this sort of driving. It would have had to have been in college, where she and the Mayor met, or before that, even, in her hometown, Interlachen, Florida, where her parents grew orange and grapefruit trees and, in the winter, took in tourists.
But Dutch shouldn’t have been surprised: he had seen her in decision-making mode, back when she was the Mayor’s wife and everyone, especially the Mayor, deferred to her judgment; and more recently at work at the restaurant, where she, as chef, kept a tight grip on the kitchen staff.
It was only once she returned to her apartment that something would switch off — or on, he supposed — and her other mode, the one where her default was solitude and a book, would kick in. If he knocked on her door, he could almost be sure she would open it with book in hand, and then she would see him, and she would remove her thumb from its place as a bookmark and offer him some tea — blinking, slightly dazed, half of her still inside the book — and he would say he was on an errand from the Mayor, and would she be kind enough to give them some of her time.
Copyright © 2010 by Tabaré Alvarez