“Call for Alan in the breakroom. Alan, line two in the breakroom.”
Shit, thought Alan. Ah, shit. He’d known this moment would come someday, that his literal number would be called, and he’d have to leave the comfort of the customer service desk and quest to the breakroom. For most of the hardware store’s employees, it was nothing to get to the breakroom: a quick stroll past Paint and down the lumber aisle. Alan was not most employees.
“That’s Alan Mantree. Line two. At our only phone. Which is in the breakroom. Line two.”
Alan’s father had been a birch tree. Alan grew up bi-speciel, the only half-boy, half-sapling in his class and always struggled with a sense of identity. Alan’s father turned out to be driftwood and his mother lost contact with him as soon as she got pregnant. No one was around to answer Alan’s questions as he grew: what caused knots, how best do you hide all that sap when puberty comes along, what, seriously, is the deal with squirrels. Alan came up quick and came up tough. The confusion turned into anger. A sharp tongue and strong frame, equal parts bark and bite, Alan was never poplar with the other kids.
A few years out of school, the only place he could find work in his one-centaur town was at “Hammer Time Hardware” helping with returns and holding tire swings at company outings. He enjoyed the work but worried it would all come crashing down someday when he had to approach the break room. He’d been able to get by safely so far. Alan was sturdy and held water well, so he had no real need for breaks; however, he had never missed a phone call in his life and would be damned if a trip through the lumber aisle was going to stop him now.
The lumber aisle. That was what really shook him. Not the breakroom, but the lumber aisle that sat between Alan and those tattered couches and sexual harassment posters and bad coffee. It was the stacks and stacks of wood glaring, reminding him who he was that made his tree heart race.
“Alan Mantree. There’s still a call for you. Line two. Break room. Phone line. Electricity. Sound waves. Receiver. Graham Bell. Line two.”
There was no way around it. Alan faced the aisle. Planting one foot in front of the other, he started off. If no one would consider the potentially triggering effects of sending someone half-flesh, half-pulp down a lumber aisle, he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of letting it slow him down. He could do this.
Alan marveled at the aisle’s size, its frightening majesty. Metal shelves rising like trees themselves from the glossy concrete floor. The smell of sawdust and faint burning, acrid on the air. Sheets, beams, planks, trim. Ladders on wheels. A half-filled shopping cart abandoned near the gate posts. Stacks of Alan’s history, broken, manipulated, stripped bare and laid out for the patrons of “Hammer Time Hardware” to see.
“Hey, Alan, did you hear there was a call for you in the break room?” Wally was a beaver who worked in the lumber department. Specist hiring practices had kept his people in the lumber industry for years, but Alan felt no sympathy for Wally. Wally was an asshole. He thought that because they shared some history of oppression they were both in on something together. Alan didn’t want to share anything.
“Timber, please. You better get that call or who knows what will happen.”
Alan trodded on. He didn’t want this. He didn’t want this history. He didn’t want this hurt. He didn’t want this hollow sense of self. If you’d asked him, all Alan ever really wanted to do was dance. Honestly. The only thing he ever cared for. Slow, natural dances. He wanted to choreograph for larger forces and not deal in the mundanity of hardware stores and specists. His favorite steps were the ones done by planets dancing in orbits across thousands of years, the best poetry he thought was scrawled by glaciers over eras, the most beautiful art happened in changing colors across seasons of expressionistic, ever-shifting foliage. That part of him he understood. That want to be with something greater, something true.
Instead, here he was, feeling new, hated emotions at the sight of these stacks. He found himself standing close to the industrial wood chipper at the end of the aisle.
“Alan. Line two. Aline. Lan two. Twolinephonephone. Twolinephonephone. AlanphonealanphonealAAAAAN.”
If I collapse in the store when no one is around, will I make a sound? More to the point, will anyone care? This world is only interested in trees when we can hold things up or throw shade or they can use our image on logos for landscaping businesses. Sure, there are preservation groups out there, we have an Arbor Day, but we’re a country built on libraries and log cabins. In this dogwood eat dogwood world, what’s the point?
Alan leaned closer to the chipper. Maybe this is best. Maybe this is what the world wants. And as his foot turned on the motor and the piercing sound of electronic woodchucks overtook the silence of the lumber aisle, a voice cried out from the one-by-fours.
Alan stepped back and turned to the stack of precut beams. And there, in pristine eight-foot long chunks of choice Midwestern wood was Alan’s father. Even cut into a dozen jambs and under the fluorescent lighting, he’d recognize his grain anywhere.
For a moment neither of them said anything. Then, Alan’s father smiled and lit a cigarette. Risky, but hell, that was just the kind of birch he was.
“The apple doesn’t fall far,” he started.
“Save it,” said Alan. “I don’t need yew. I’ve been doing just fine without some stack of sticks trying to be my father. I’ve got a call to take, man.”
“It was me, Alan. I was the one calling. It’s been me trying to reach you since I arrived on the 2:30 truck this afternoon. It’s been me calling all along. You may not believe it, son, but you know only a tree could have rings that lasted this long.”
Alan didn’t know what to say. But you left me, he thought. You left us to see the world. I’ve had to do this alone for so long.
“How could you leave me? A tree in a world like this without his father. Who does that, what does that?”
“I’m not proud, son. This world is chaos and all outside of time. And we do best to not worry about what’s behind us or what’s ahead. At least that’s how I’ve tried to live. It’s been selfish, certainly, but in this moment, I’m here, son. And the time has come for you to know a bit about what you are.”
And Alan’s father began speaking in the tongue of trees, in the tones of wind carried through hillside groves, the chatterings of birds migrating through the night sky, the hidden resonances of sunlight enchanting leaves and filling them with life. He told him of the times before man when trees were the noblest passengers on this giant rock and of the times to come when they would be alone again once more.