The Deciduous Man
Each February, March, Vernon’s wrinkled skin would flake and form newfangled pink cells and an itch and burn would spread along him that no salve could soothe. Fresh teeth would bud, shy and white, forcing through his gums. He would cry in the dark of his bedroom, in the nothingness of his bed, run his tongue along the sensitive bumps. Teething toys. Milk baths. Game shows. Drawn drapes. He would remind himself soon he could chew again, no more fruit smoothies and bouillon come April, May.
He would run a dry hand along the tiny hairs sprouting from his scalp. He would blink his half-blind eyes at the kitchen window where, beyond, the plum trees blossomed, white-pink blurs, and think of the sweet bursting taste of promised fruit. Soon his teeth would be back, full and shining, all in a white row; his bald head would be thick with blond the way summer is thick with sunshine. His fingernails would strengthen and grow in. His eyelashes and eyebrows and facial hair returned as the weather warmed, scarves discarded, sleeves unnecessary. He could walk upright. He would go outside. The weather was a long-awaited kiss. Women would dance with him under moonlight and heat lamps at the seasonal beach restaurant he worked at starting in May each year, the smell of cooked crabs in the salty air, Latin jazz buzzing from the speakers. He would look handsome and fresh faced in his uniform in the summertime. No one would have any idea. The beach by this time of year would be warm and welcoming even in the evenings, the saltwater and sand would tickle between his toes on his twilight walks, strangers would stop staring, stop asking if it was cancer. It wasn’t cancer. Vernon was simply a deciduous man.
By June, July, his skin was healthy again, no itch, no peel. His hair was a flat flaxen buzz along his head, his beard was thick and gold. If, say, he met a woman, a customer at the restaurant, perhaps, she wouldn’t believe he resembled a wizened old man months earlier. They wouldn’t believe him if he told them. The only person interested in his case was old Friday night regular Dr. Greer, who, boozed up on gin and tonics, had many heart-to-hearts with his favorite waiter who he clapped on the back and called Vern. Vernon explained his deciduousness. He pointed at the woman in the silver scarf who had become his summer girlfriend – Flora was her name – and made a bet with Dr. Greer that by the time the tides had bulged, sky swallowed by the autumn equinox, the days shortening, she would be too afraid to come visit him.
The restaurant closed each September, just when Vernon’s hair started turning from gold to auburn. It happened day by day – at first a hint of strawberry, then a burning red, and finally, a deep brown. He would notice the wrinkles forming beneath his eyes and around his mouth. His beard and temples had flecks of gray. Putting the tables and chairs and heat lamps back into storage left him with an aching back. When Flora stopped returning his calls around the same time the Halloween decorations appeared in the drugstores, Vernon dropped by Dr. Greer’s office to collect his winnings. Dr. Greer, smelling of gin and breath mints, stroked his bald chin and listened to Vernon’s heart through the stethoscope. His pulse was slowing too. His muscles were atrophying. Soon he would need reading glasses.
By November, Vernon’s hair would be entirely gray, and that gray would shock itself, week by week, to white. Dr. Greer came to Vernon’s dark apartment on Sundays, visited with a small medical bag, took pictures. He shined lights in Vernon’s ears, nose, eyes, mouth. Cataracts would begin to form on Vernon’s irises. His bones frailed and he had to be careful, shifting from refrigerator to TV to window to toilet to TV to refrigerator, not to break a hip. He had a walker with the little tennis ball feet. His eyebrows and lashes thinned. His teeth loosened. His hair, now all white in the new year, would begin to fall from his head, and he would turn to applesauce and teething toys and cry and wait for spring.
It was the middle of May. It was his twentysomethingth revolution through the seasons. Vernon sat a park bench, inhaling the sky, thanking the clouds for not raining, listening to the redwood trees, envying the evergreens. A woman clad in hiking boots and khaki rode up to him on a horse and told him it was time to close the park. She was the ranger and the name stitched on her breast was Sally, and Sally was the loveliest, sun kissed woman Vernon had ever seen. She wasn’t like the restaurant ladies, not like Flora from last summer, with her hundred dollar purse and the touch phone she never stopped looking at and her blinding peroxided teeth. Sally had a mole on the tip of her nose. Her skin resembled leather and he wondered how it smelled. The second time Vernon revisited the bench he did so for her and not the redwoods. He waited until sunset and finally Sally rode up on her horse. There were scabs on her knees and she was beautiful. Vernon told her that he wished he was a redwood tree. He rubbed at his hair growing in. He opened his mouth and pointed at his molars. He showed her pictures that Dr. Greer had taken of him in winter, hairless, decrepit, covered in a blanket.
“I’m a deciduous man,” he said.
By June, they were friends, and his visits at the park’s closing time became regular occasions. Vernon brought carrots for her horse. Sally let him see the inside of the ranger booth, which was cluttered with paperwork and photographs of trees. They made love against the picture-postcards of vermillion maples, eucalyptuses decorated with monarch butterflies, pine forests of green and gold. He was often late to the restaurant’s closing shift because of such trysts.
Sally’s father had been an arborist. Sally grew up talking to the trees. As an adolescent, she became involved with an anti-development cult and chained herself to an oak and ended up losing a finger to a logger’s chainsaw. No matter, she said, wiggling her prosthetic wooden pinky. Trees lose branches all the time.
On Friday nights, Dr. Greer would arrive at the restaurant’s happy hour and stay until the candles were blown out at closing time. So many hours of gin on the rocks left the man rather drunk, and the drunker he got, the more liberty he took to shouting as Vernon bussed tables, tallied checks and mopped up spills. He thought Vern should go to some clinic in Houston, be studied by a team of doctors.
“Don’t you want more than this silly dance around the seasons,” he said into his glass, twirling a miniature black straw in his fingertips. “Don’t you want it to be summer, be autumn, be something, so you can settle down and live a normal life, whatever in the hell that is? Don’t you want to be studied, contribute to science? Aren’t you tired of winters spent hiding from the world in your apartment?”
Vernon was embarrassed by the old doctor who wore his lab coat out even to fancy restaurants and counted his change on the counter like a bum. Vernon nodded and smiled and brushed him off and left Dr. Greer at the bar when his shift was done. There was a woman in khaki and hiking boots he was in a hurry to meet nowadays.
It was a summer of record-high temperatures. Vernon spent every waking minute possible in Sally’s park, beneath the emerald applause of redwood leaves, the dank stinky shade, within the green and beneath the blue. He dipped his bare feet in creeks, and Sally let him ride her horse, and he had never wanted summer to last so much as he did that August, when the sun was high and his hair was just beginning to turn, and his muscles were hinting of the decline to come, and the wrinkles formed around the corners of his eyes.
It was September, after the yearly run to storage with folded tables and stacked chairs, that Vernon started getting the phone calls. In the first day, he got so many he had to turn his phone off completely. From the Star-Herald and the Herald-Star, the Times and TIME, the News-Press, the Press-Enterprise, California Medical Journal, even a national talk show. Dr. Greer had sold his pictures and his data from the year before to a magazine, and now everyone wanted to meet, photograph and interview the Deciduous Man. There were people on his doorstep with cameras and microphones. He left his apartment, running up the street, running and running until he couldn’t hear anything but his footsteps, rhythm without reason like the rest of him.
Vernon cried as he wandered the park. He sat on the bench and stared at the sky until his eyeballs burned. He ran a hand through his hair and pulled out a few strands of auburn. He didn’t want fame. He didn’t want curiosity, he wanted peace and quiet where he could burst and fade and thrive and wither and dance from winter to spring. Sally rode up on her horse, and he asked if she’d seen the papers, and of course she hadn’t, because she only subscribed to newsletters about local flowers and trees.
They made love in the ranger station surrounded by the usual patchwork of glossy poplars. Vernon warned Sally about winter, clutching her warmth closer, burying his beard in her neck. Winter was inevitable. Soon she would be disgusted by him, a toothless hairless shriveled excuse for a man. She wouldn’t want him to come visit her, and anyway, he would be too frail to. He would be stuck in an apartment surrounded by paparazzi and greedy doctors. He would drool applesauce and zone out on talk shows and walk with a walker, and he didn’t even have Dr. Greer as an ally anymore.
Sally answered, you will winter with me. We will go pack you a bag and never mind the nobodies on your doorstep. You will live in my guest room here in my cabin at the foot of the park. You can hibernate. The guest room has a window overlooking the creek. You will like this window better than TV. You will watch me ride around on my horse. You will be comforted by the surrounding reality of evergreens. I will feed you soup and open your windows so you can feel the breeze. I, the daughter of an arborist, the lover of the trees, know what deciduous means.
Vernon filled with a sensation he couldn’t remember ever having, although surely he had. He was understood, and unalone.
Vernon’s mother, a gardener with rough, gloveless hands, had spoken of his specialness before she died of pneumonia. She had told him that his father was the weather and the trees. That his sisters were the flowers and the blossoms and the bulbs. That behind the face of decay, there was a young heart waiting to be born, and that he knew this better than anyone, and this was his gift.
Faith Gardner lives in Oakland and has work in or forthcoming in PANK, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Word Riot. Find her here.
The Deciduous Man