The Tallest Tree House in a Medium-Size Town
About the Writer
Like nomadic Pericú natives centuries earlier, Matthew Dexter survives on a hunter-gatherer subsistence diet of shrimp tacos, smoked marlin, cold beer, and tropical sunshine. He lives in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
I began building tree houses soon after being fired from the fire department for being videotaped smoking at a gas station in front of the pump, repeatedly. The late local news did one of those gotcha stories on me and then their competitors did some follow-ups and before long, there was a petition with six thousand signatures calling for my dismissal.
“How could ya pump gas with a flaming cigarette dangling from your lips?” asked
“I’ve always been oblivious to danger, impervious to fire and explosions,” I told her.
“Not anymore jackass,” my mother said.
She suffered a heart attack the next day. I’m the one who found her sitting on the toilet, the rigor mortis had shaped her into a bunny, all scrunched up against strawberry wallpaper, well-worn panties around sockless ankles. She had that look in her eyes, you know, the one that said Son, you are a jackass for the ages and my reputation is destroyed, irrevocably, and my bowels are distressed by your actions.
I pulled her from the throne and told her to relax, that everything would work itself out. I dialed 911 and told them there was a dead body to be picked up. The paramedics recognized me from the news.
My newfound celebrity soon followed me everywhere, and so did the cameras. The news anchors never said so on air, but I know they blamed me for my mother’s death: the stress and all.
Anyway, I began building tree houses after I moved across the country to escape the scrutiny and start a new life. I had no baggage other than the crap that filled the U-Haul. There was no wife, no kids, nothing but the red-hot spotlight of a small town burning through bloodshot retinas.
Cameras followed me the first few blocks. I lit a smoke and watched that town fade into my rear-view, doing a bump from the wrinkles between my thumb and index because I knew it would be a long lonesome drive across states that have no sympathy, like Texas.
Reckless was what they called me in the newspapers. The white lines in the road began to smile. I took sips from my nose, lost myself within the webbing of the thenar space. Pervasive saguaros and I pretended there was a man jumping between them, over them, impervious to the thorns. Labyrinthine wrinkles in my right hand gripped the wheel; mind clouded with motivation, nose running, I trudged across the desert highway (I-10 West) in search of salvation, something different, eager to get away from the teasers on the boob tube and its rabbit ears that shit on me as they ran clips with euphemisms about the delinquency of this lone wolf of the fire department.
So I plopped myself into this medium-sized community bustling with children and set up shop to build them the best goddamn tree houses money could buy. I chose my customers carefully, knocking on the affluent doors of single mothers while their children were home. The adults would be ready to shut me out, but before they could, I spit the words “tree house” and pointed toward the backyard with my index powdered from the blow I did in my van parked down the street.
All it took was one fat kid to get the whole neighborhood interested. I built the first one the next day and then it spread like wildfire.
Soon the cameras were following me again. Not the paparazzi assholes from the town that made me famous, or at least blew me up, but the news cameras of the stations in my new haven came to spread images of my feats. My tree houses were intricate, fortified like castles and all the special individual whims of the children were taken into accommodation during design. I donated half my money to the local fire departments and built tree houses pro bono in the backyards of poor children who lived in decrepit apartments, and those who lost siblings or limbs in house fires, or parents in car wrecks.
I was the golden boy of the local news. Teasers flashed my recent designs like porno clips between their primetime lineups and even the teenagers were excited to see what new pirate ship or giant octopus I had just christened in Ms. Gavin’s eucalyptus. Degenerates wagered on how many days each tree house would take to construct till the kids in the backyard could climb the ropes and ladders to the platform.
My ambitions rose with every project. My aim was to ignite the vision of the fire chief’s daughter, to land a rocket ship three hundred feet in the branches of a redwood. The view would be to die for.
We began dating while collaborating on the blueprints for the rocket ship, not really dating, but going at it in the back of my van in front of the chief’s house. We began building. The ink from her diagrams and depictions of space gadgets tattooed my palms, hammering away three hundred feet above the chief’s bedroom. Sweating through the leathers of our harnesses, humping on a giant branch older than our grandmothers, leaves brushing against green foliage that enveloped us, we shook with the inertia capable of knocking a hole through the roof.
It was violent; we had scratches all over our arms, legs, and faces, but I’m no goddamn pedophile, so get that thought out of your head right now. She was nineteen and though sleazy, she begged me for it. The project took months, mainly because of her complex design and the distance materials had to be lifted, and the insistence from the young woman that she accompany me to oversee construction. I could see my mother sitting there on the toilet reading a Danielle Steele novel, shaking her head over my downfall.
The ratings for the local news suffered during construction because everybody only cared about the rocket ship. The reporters no longer had stories about me to write, so they interviewed the chief’s neighbors and that’s when they honed in on the rumor of a teenager. A producer from a satellite truck three hundred feet below persuaded her news director to inform the helicopter pilot to forego rush-hour traffic in order to fly on over to the tallest redwoods in the neighborhood. Though invisible from the ground, there was an angle through the treetop where the Doppler Chopper zoomed in, broadcasting us hanging there naked and entangled, unharnessed in a sliver of sunlight.
By the time we covered our genitals--with tarps and small branches borne by the breeze of the rotors--our images--with private parts bubbled into obscurity for viewer discretion--had already been beamed into the brains of thousands. She shrugged it off, eager if anything for the forthcoming publicity.
Inspecting her harness and safety equipment for descent, our phones rang, text messages, and voicemails by the dozen. She kissed me and slipped out into the green, and I saw her fingernails full of sawdust as she climbed down the freshly-sanded ladder before disappearing into the leaves.
I gazed through the openings of emerald at the sky--not a cloud in sight--grinding the winch with the rope that confirms the climber has made it safely back to earth. Earlier in the week, caught in a gust, we were feathered into the branches for a few hours until the fireman’s daughter was able to call for help from one of the ladder trucks and explain to her airborne ex-boyfriend that her kitten had gotten stuck in the redwood. Her father was never told about the incident.
The Doppler Chopper returned and hovered there a few minutes as loose branches broke against the cockpit of the rocket ship. I chucked my phone as if it were a grenade and then began tossing empty beer cans. The inner lid of a pink paint can was coagulated with cigarettes and roaches; a fluorescent lighter was hanging from a nearby branch in risk of falling due to the negligent maneuvers of the cowboy chopper pilot. I ignited small branches so the smoke would obscure my greatest design. Any great artist must never show his or her masterpiece until the final brushstrokes have dried.
I knew something was wrong when the orange began to climb the green. Hanging from my harness, the rocket ship littered with charred leaves, I swatted the flames. The redwood was burning and all my effort was concerned with protecting the project, defending the rocket ship at all costs as it melted. The sirens wailed through the leaves and my ears absorbed them like the faint imagery of the ocean inside a pink conch, the salt water of an ancient island.
I considered my options and jumping seemed a dignified way to go, better than burning, like a captain going down with his ship--but the branches would probably paralyze me with broken bones--so I returned to the cockpit. I tightened the chinstrap on my climbing helmet, unscrewed the blue carabineers and cut the harness with my pocketknife. I covered myself in tarps, pretended they were fire retardant as ashes rained through the plastic, burning my armpits and shoulders and then the branch broke with a crack that sounded like an explosion and the rocket launched itself downward. Branches tore through the webbing of the thenar space smudged with powder.
It happened fast, though in slow-motion, as if it was on the local news. I smelled singed hairs, and then my nose was bleeding. The redwood fractured with the weight of the wood--but the thick branches provided sufficient cushion for the famous tree house artist. The vessel tearing apart, my face was struck with flaming foliage and hot falling ash.
The cameras and microphones met me at the bottom, even before the police officers and paramedics. The fire trucks were aiming their hoses not at the redwood but at the chief’s house and the roofs of some of his neighbors. Two hydrants had been opened in an attempt to save the street. From this angle the tree was a torch, until it blackened and the orange imploded into chards of hopeless decades and lost centuries and they questioned me, the deputies did, with no handcuffs.
Of course they had no evidence that it was arson, not yet anyway. An ash from a cigarette could have drifted into the upper branches; it happens, and perhaps the flammable fluorescent paint might have added accelerant and acted as a catalyst to spread the flames.
They let me walk away. She was waiting inside my van and we drove fast to escape the news crews. They were not the paparazzi and were reluctant to run red lights. We lost them and then listened to the sirens as the emergency vehicles raced in the opposite direction toward her house. We talked of drawing up new plans for a more ambitious rocket ship, of running away and sending postcards to let her family know that she was fine and doing what she loves.
As I went inside to pay for the gas, the cashier was transfixed on the television inferno. The rabbit ears captured a glimmer of sunshine and sparkled as images of the spaceship were intermixed with live shots of the chief’s house engulfed in flames. She bit her bottom lip, handed me my change. None of the attendants were willing to pump my gas, so I stood there and watched my tree house money go up in flames.
She drove over to the parking spots with the assumption that I went to take a leak and clean my face and bloody thenar space full of black holes in the restroom sink covered with pubic hair and toothpaste globs. But before doing so, there was something that needed to be completed.
I waited for two satellite trucks to aim their cameras and their reporters to juxtaposition themselves in front of the pumps. I waved, cigarette dangling from parched lips, thumb grinding the knurled wheel of a fluorescent lighter, ready for primetime.