I was five minutes into weeding the flower bed next to the back deck, when I heard him. The sound of apples dropping into the galvanized pail was unmistakable. Feeling the eyes on my back sent a shiver up my spine. I stood, turned towards the tree and crossed the lawn between us
“Not too many apples this year.” He did not look up.
“When are you cutting down this Godforsaken tree?” I stood, my hand on the back of the bench that faced the tree. The wood was warm from the late autumn sun.
“I figure she has a couple of seasons left in her.” He was bent over, his back to me. Two more apples hit the bucket. “You can have the whole bucket, if you want it.”
“I’m flying to Cleveland.”
“Well, what?” My voice held an edge. He was humming faintly. Apples continued to find the bucket. My cheeks were getting warm. The fuse was lit.
“Well, okay.” There was almost no pause in the bucket or the tune.
“So, what about the tree?” It was a demand, not a question.
He stood, took a step backwards, and looked admiringly at the tree. He put his hand on the back of the bench. “I think she’s beautiful, don’t you?”
“Face it, Jeff. The tree has a real problem. The side closest to your roof is all but dead. As we discussed in August, I can’t get a contract on my house with this thing on the property line. You might as well cut it down.” He still looked at the tree. It was as if I didn’t exist. The gray silence was a gathering storm.
“My dad planted this tree.”
“It has to go.”
“I’m serious!” I pushed back a hunk of unruly red curls. I was about to lose it.
“Go ahead and sigh if you want, Gilly, but it’s my tree. She stays.” He waived a hand in the air. “I broke my arm climbing that tree, when I was twelve.
“Fell on your head, did you?” The words left a bitter taste.
“Yah, maybe I did.” His head bobbed ever so slightly as he suppressed a soft chuckle. His hand slid easily across the back of the bench to touch mine. The touch was gentle, and yet I felt the lightening. The hand remained still, he finally turned his head, and looked at me. “Summer was too short this year. Can’t we ignore the calendar and go back there?”
“It’s my work, it’s my career.” I said thickly.
“We have careers here too, Gilly. I want to go back to lazy Sunday mornings and long, warm Saturday nights.” His hand moved and covered mine.
“You didn’t call.” I accused, a little louder than I intended.
“You were gone.”
“I told you—I have to travel!”
“There’s always a choice.” His voice was flat, but my hand felt the edge behind it.
“That’s what you all say.” My eyes flashed daggers. “You don’t understand!”
“I’m not Brad, Gilly. Help me understand.”’
“You didn’t even try!”
“Nether did you.” His eyes held mine. Frustration made me want to pull away, again, but I remained still. Memory of the Summer was a labyrinth. Every path seemed to meet the same end. “We have been over and over this.” I took a deep breath, tying to let the tension escape. The edge of the storm did not disappear.
“True.” He nodded. “But, I’m not stomping out now.”
“You hung up on me.” It was barely a whisper, the rejection was like a hot needle. The barricade was shaky now.
“I’m an ass.” He cleared his throat. “I will try to do better in the future.”
My hand felt the lighting again. “I must be crazy.”
“I’m crazy too. Don’t hold it against me, I fell out of the tree and hit my head.” His mouth softened, not quite a smile. He held my eyes. Could he see the battle there, or was his ego just that sure of himself?
“We’ve got to resolve this like adults. The tree has got to go!” The fuse was short now.
“I’m not trying to make you angry. I want to resolve it too.” He took a breath and let it out slow. “I’m not joking or trying to mislead you.” The silence had a quality that I could not identify. I turned my head away to the apple tree. I was sure I felt his hand move. Our eyes locked again. “The truth is, I want you, Gilly. I have been alone since the folks passed. I want you with me. I love you.” His voice was low, almost a whisper, but the thunderclap gave me a start.
“But Jeff, we haven’t really resolved—” We were face to face now.
“Can’t we promise to do that over coffee? Tomorrow is Sunday, we can take all day to solve this.” His hand waived faintly towards the tree. The same hand moved the hunk of unruly curls off my face again.
The storm broke in a cascade of gentle, tentative kisses that became hungry. His arms were relaxed but reassuringly around me. He was not particularly athletic, but his body against mine was strong and warm, as the embrace stretched out, reluctant to let the moment end.
My hands felt the soft plaid flannel of his shirt and then the dusty brown hair of his head. I pulled his head down for more of those kisses. Hunger meeting hunger, lighting and thunder. First the lips, and then my neck. “Jeff?”
His head lifted. “Yes, Gilly?”
“Promise we’ll discuss Cleveland tomorrow.”
“We’ll take all the time we need to resolve our issues, promise. You just shivered, are you cold—let’s go in.” He smiled at me. A gentle, solid promise.
“Jeff, what were you humming before? I don’t think I recognized the tune.” We were headed for his back door, his arm about my shoulders.
“Something Dad used to sing all the time: Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me, anyone else but me….” His arm around me tightened just a little as he sang softly.
“Pretty sure of yourself…”
“Nope, just hopeful.”
“Yeah, we do like a long warm night, don’t we?” We laughed as he opened the door.