The Tree Kings

Christmas trees for sale at the market in Providence, Rhode Island, December 1940. Photograph by Jack Delano. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

I sell trees. I’m not only a seller of trees. In the past five years I’ve been a carpenter and a plumber and a house painter. I can be a handyman and a dishwasher and a short-order cook. Now I sell trees. It’s now what I do.

It’s six hours to New York and Moe talks the whole way. I drive. Moe’s big. He fills the cab. He leans across and says to me, “Sparky, I bet you wonder why I send my best workers to sell the trees.”

“Not really,” I say.

“Why my best guys. Why I come myself,” he says.

“None of my business,” I say.

“I tell you anyway.” Moe’s dark. The oils in his skin glow in the dashboard lights. “College kids, you hire them, they don’t give a shit. They give it all away. Trees to their friends, trees to everybody. And the for’ners? They rip you off! They got no idea of a dollar.”

“The for’ners?”

“Mexicans! Illegals! You know! I don’t hire them!”

I shrug and watch the wipers.

Moe waits. I don’t reply. He acts hurt. “You really don’t wonder, do you?” he says.

“You do what you want,” I say. “You’re the boss.” Who am I to tell a man how to manage his affairs?

Moe laughs. “Sparky, Sparky! You a funny guy.”

What’s funny is Moe’s feelings towards foreigners, him being one. Moe’s Armenian. He came over years ago and made enough of himself to buy his farm. That’s where the trees come from. I work for Moe. The truck I’m driving is Moe’s. Mostly I shovel and haul. Now it’s selling season. Moe tells me to sell trees, I sell trees. I do the job I’m given.

There’s three of us, Moe and me and Cliff. Moe hired me in May. Cliff’s been with him longer; he went through tree season last year. Cliff’s scrawny. He’s scrunched up behind me, wedged in the space between the seat and the wall. Cliff snores. He’s sleeping or pretending to be. The air sings with the smell of liquor rising off him.

Hauling so many trees, we brought the big truck, the twenty-five-footer. It’s late, but the sky’s clear. You can still make out the moon. We come down the West Side Highway, the river ranging out on our right, the city the other way. I see it there. The city’s a blinking blanket. Traffic will be packed there. The streets will be teeming there. New York’s not for me; glass and steel and stone, hard and hard on you. I’ve spent the last five years steering clear of cities. What’s funny is this: I go to Vermont to get away from people, I go to work for Moe, and now I’m coming into the place that has more people than anywhere, to sell Moe’s trees. Don’t think I don’t see the joke in that.

We skirt south along the fringe, past piers and parking garages. “Here,” Moe points, and I pull off the exit. I come off too fast and hit cobblestones. The street’s slippery. Snow fell earlier—the first of the season—not enough to hold, but the stones are slick. The truck rattles like a white house in a high wind. The trees shift in back. Black shapes rise up around us, brick facades faceless except for steel doors and loading docks. It’s desolate down here, lit with queasy pools from infrequent streetlamps. Narrow alleys wind off into nowhere. Nobody around and no wonder. This is not a place to be at night.

The truck shakes and shimmies until the streets smooth out. I turn onto Hudson Street, three lanes heading uptown from the Holland Tunnel. The scenery starts to show signs of life. Cabs zip by. The buildings are fancier, a variety of sizes and shapes, crammed together like too many teeth. Walls have windows; fire escapes skitter up the sides. Storefronts stud ground floors, shuttered closed at this hour. Bars are open. People are out.

Moe says, “Here.”

“Where?” I say.

He jabs a big finger. “Here!”

I yank the wheel and pull up by an all-night deli. Folks loiter out front, smoking and stamping against the cold. They eye us as we wheeze to a stop.

I cut the engine and look around. The crowd’s made up of losers and users, killing time. Panhandlers and pimps stand in doorways and squat on stoops. Whores press up against parked cars. A homeless guy hunches over a wire trash basket, pawing inside. Another basket sits beside it, contents quietly on fire.

“Here?” I say to Moe. Who buys trees here?

My surprise shows. Moe howls. “Don’t worry,” he says. “Daytime is different! You’ll see.” He points to a long, high wall that runs next to the deli. “We set up there.” Moe bangs the back wall and Cliff stops snoring. “Cliff, you unload. Sparky, you sweep. I get the powering.” Moe grabs his clipboard and jumps down. I can only guess what he means by “the powering” before he ducks into the deli.

Cliff uncoils himself from the cab. Already a lit cigarette dangles from his lip. I follow him around back and stand by as he slides open the heavy door and climbs in. He tosses me down the shop broom.

The curious crowd around. “New talent on the block!” somebody says and somebody else laughs. I bring down my brim and go to work.

The sidewalk is wide slate slabs instead of poured concrete. It gleams with wet snow. Brittle air nips at my nosehairs. Somewhere a car alarm is going off. “Don’t clean us up too much, Sugar, nobody know us!” Sounds seem to ping.

I sweep up butts and wrappers and broken glass, shove it all to the curb. I scrape at stains left by gum ground in. Something rolls out from under a ledge, a calcified lump with a tail. This close to the river you’re bound to get rats.

Shoes step aside for me until I come to a pair that don’t. They stop me cold. They’re work boots, bright orange and fresh out of the box. They’re new; the first scuff on them is the one I just put there.

“’Scuse me,” I say.

“Fuck you,” comes the reply.

My ears bristle. I stop in my tracks. I bring the broom handle up to lean on. I’m not one to look for trouble but I won’t back down if I find it.

I take my time looking up the boots, over the baggy jeans and the quilted jacket, past the hands counting the money, up to the eyes. They’re angry eyes, linered and mascaraed and open so wide there’s white all around them. They glare. I glare back.

“’Scuse me,” I say again.

“Least he polite, Tootsie,” comes a wisecrack from the back. There’s a crew behind him, but Tootsie’s the one I’m up against.

Tootsie’s a sight. Rouged cheeks, shiny red lips, hair a burst of crazy braids, dyed and decorated. Here’s a creature built to be seen from the street. “Zackly the fuck you doing, man?” Tootsie says.

“My job.”

“You job?” Tootsie sneers. “The fuck you mean, you job? You got no business here.”

“I’m told different.”

Tootsie comes in closer than I care for. “This our corner! This corner belongs to the Lollipops.” Tootsie jabs back a thumb.

Two whores stand by, huddled together under a big fur coat. “New York’s Finest on a stick,” Lollipop One says. “Mmm hmm,” says the other. “Any flavor you want.” They whoop and throw open their coat. Flesh jiggles and jewelry flashes. Then the coat shuts again.

Tootsie glares. We square off. Cliff bangs around in the truck behind me, missing this. Moe’s still in the store. All eyes are on me. Lollipop One says, “Oh, girls, look at ‘em snarl!” “It’s nostril-flaring time!” Lollipop Two squeals.

Just then Moe strolls out. He scopes the situation. “Please please please!” he says. “Can’t we all get along?” In one hand he holds a sheet of paper. In the other is the “powering,” the plug-in end of an orange electric cord. It snakes out the deli door behind him.

Tootsie looks past me at Moe. “What you want ’round here, anyways?”

Moe addresses the crowd. “Ladies and gennel men, I must ask you all to vacate.”

“Say what?” Tootsie says.

Moe waves the paper. “By the authority vested in me by the fine City of New York, I now declare this area, for the next 30 days, the famous site of the Moe the Tree King!” Moe is a bright bull. His voice is a trumpet.

“You trippin’,” someone says.

“Inspect please our permit!” Moe flaps the paper like a ringmaster.

Behind us, Cliff stamps down the ramp. He hoists a pair of Douglas firs, so fat and full he’s hidden under them.

The Lollipops holler. “Oh, look, ladies, Christmas trees!!” “Fa-la-la-la-la!” “It’s Santa’s Helpers! Hi, Santa’s Helpers!” There’s a few catcalls, some clapping. “They big for elves,” someone says.

Tootsie’s disgusted, mumbles “The fuck.” Tension averted, I walk away. I don’t look for trouble. The Lollipops pick at me as I pass. “I got your comfort and joy right here, Santa’s Helper,” one says. “Where my mistletoe?” says the other, hitting me with a hip.

Moe works the crowd. I join Cliff by the truck. “Friends everywhere I go,” I say. Cliff doesn’t laugh but Cliff never laughs. Cliff’s sour. His tongue worries something in his teeth. Cliff’s old. He’s so old you wonder how long a man can do this kind of work. He watches where I came from through slitted lids. “Skanks,” he says.

“They’re tall girls, alright,” I say.

“They ain’t girls,” Cliff says.

Just then Moe pushes in between us and tapes the permit to a lamppost. He turns back to the bystanders. “And now if you’ll let us proceed,” he tells them, spreading his arms grandly, “I’m wishing you all the greetings of the merry season!”

It takes the rest of the night to unload. We bring trees down and stack them against the wall in a row five deep. We nail together a rack out of two-by-fours and stack them on the street side, too.

“Lay out the lot!” Moe says. “The whole cargo.”

I’d do it differently. “Better to hold back,” I say, not thinking first.

Moe picks up on it. “What you mean, Sparky?”

I know I should’ve keep my mouth shut. But there’s no choice now. “I’d keep some on the truck,” I say, “Keep replenishing. That way your stock’s always fresh. Nobody gets last pick.”

Moe stares. I feel him fix on me.

“Just good business,” I say.

Moe’s sly. “You know business, huh, Sparky?”

“Just common sense,” I say, and go back to work.

We make the trees into a valley, a mountain pass, a stretch from end to end. It’s long enough to lose yourself. One minute you’re on gray pavement, next thing you’re walking in the woods. In the middle of it, all you see is trees. Close your eyes, all you smell is pine.

We build a shack. We use leftover lumber, and staple on plastic tarp for walls and the roof. The entrance is a hatch facing the yard. The doorway is a flap. It’s cramped inside. The walls breathe with the wind. Moe hauls in bales of newspaper left for trash and makes a chair out of it. I hook up cheap scoop lamps and shine one on the sign over the doorway. The sign says “The Tree King.”

The Lollipops watch us work. They hoot and yoo-hoo from across the street. “Hey, Santa’s Helpers! You need a lap warmer?” “I sure could use a ear warmer!” It’s all show: they’re exiled and they know it. This corner is Moe’s for the month we’re here. The Lollipops pose and preen. They croon Christmas carols with dirty words. That’s what Cliff meant: the Lollipops are imitation women, a gaudy sideshow of commerce and desire. I see it now. It’s in their height and heft.

By dawn we’re done. The sun comes up, the denizens come out. The derelicts disappear, the Lollipops with them.

The neighborhood changes over. It’s like somebody blew a whistle. Once I had an apartment with ants. They swarmed the kitchen and I went to get insecticide. In the time that took, poof, they were gone. It’s like that here. What’s leather and latex at night is business suits and briefcases by day. Now there’re dog walkers and cell phone talkers. Runners dodge puddles and people flag cabs.

Stores open. A coffee wagon materializes by the subway steps.

Even the buildings look different. There’re apartments on those upper floors. “I tole you!” Moe laughs. “All this used to be factories, warehouses. Now people live here.”

There’s families. There’s kids.

“Of course, there’s kids!” Moe says. “Christmas is for kids!” Then he asks: “You got kids, Sparky?”

“Not last time I looked.”

“Sparky, Sparky, the man with no past. You don’t tell nothing, do you?”

“There’s nothing worth telling.” Moe’s nosy. He doesn’t let up, wanting what I keep at bay. Moe digs. But I don’t let him at it. Past is past. He knows as much as he needs to.

A guy comes out of the deli. He’s short. His camouflage parka is two sizes too big. He rolls up metal grating in the deli’s wall. There’s a hollow behind it, the newsstand, decked with wire racks and wooden shelves. A tall swivel chair is crammed in the corner. It’s garbage-picked; stuffing pokes out of holes in the vinyl upholstery.

Cliff and I are stacking sawhorses when the little guy comes over. I’m kneeling and look up to see him. “I’m Pete,” he says. His hood is up and his muffler is wrapped to his nose. His face is the space between. He holds out a stiff mitt.

I reach up but before I can take his hand, he goes over to Cliff.

“I’m Pete,” he says, and leaves before Cliff can shake either.

I shrug. Cliff corkscrews a finger at the side of his head. He spits at his feet and watches the little guy shuffle back to his hole.

Soon we’re selling. Scotch pine and blue spruce and Douglas fir. We string them with lines of blinking colored bulbs.

Moe’s known. Customers greet him. There are other tree sellers on other corners, but Moe’s customers come back. “See, Sparky?” Moe brags. “They remember Moe the Tree King!!”

Life takes on a routine. Nights the Lollipops are out. The day begins, the Lollipops vanish, the newsstand opens and the little guy appears. Then it starts over again.

A week into it, there’s regulars. Somebody brings you the cup of coffee in the paper cup. A crusty old guy comes by with the off-color joke. A nanny leads a conga line of kids through the trees. The kids giggle. I smile at that. That’s something Junie’d do.

There’s money. It’s clear in the clothes and the names printed on the shopping bags. Tips are good.

Moe works the customers and leaves the handwork to Cliff and me. Customer likes a tree, one of us lugs it out, shakes the snow off and stands it up. Customer buys the tree, we make a fresh cut at the tip of the trunk, so it’ll take in water.

It’s cold, but the work warms us. There’s three of us and we each have our ways. I keep busy and I’m there when I’m needed. I pride myself on being honest and punctual. Moe’s Moe, all bark and bluster. “Tree season is a month,” he says. “30 days. Then we’re rich from the trees.” Cliff’s tight. His face is a closed fist. He has the glazed, careful look of a dedicated drunk. Cliff’s sloppy. He cuts corners and he’s short with customers. I’d mention it to Moe but I know better. Just pointing out a problem can make it yours.

“Sparky Sparky, my partner in crime,” Moe says. He slaps my back. “Sparky, the next Tree King!” He’s joking but he’s not. He’d like me to be beholden. But I’m not a partner and don’t want to be. I like it right where I am, working for somebody else. Moe’s the boss. I work for Moe. If I wasn’t doing this job, I’d be doing some other.

Downtime, I wander over to the newsstand. The little guy’s there, planted in his swivel chair. He’s bundled up tight, hands jammed in pockets, chin to chest. “Hello, Pete,” I say.

Pete nods.

“Nice chair,” I say. “Looks comfortable.” A damn sight more comfortable than Moe’s newspaper-bale creation. “Have to get me one of those,” I say. Pete’s mute. He watches me warily over his muffler.

I slide out a magazine and scan headlines. “Some world we’re living in today, huh, Pete?,” I say.

Pete looks up. His eyebrow twitches. “Four fifty,” he says.

“Four fifty what, Pete?”

“Four fifty dollars.”

“For what?”

“That.”

“This?” I stuff the magazine back in the rack. “Naw, I don’t want the thing. I was just making conversation.”

He stares at me hard. “Four fifty,” he says, sharply.

I shrug and walk away. Why be friendly, that’s what I get? Hell, he’s the one who wanted to know names.

Moe rents us a room, little more than a bed and a shower. I don’t sleep much. I’m not one to lay around. You lay around, you think. The truck is parked at the piers and there’s a cot in that too. I could drive to Vermont as long as I got back for my shift. But what’s there? Just another room.

When I’m awake I work. When I don’t work I walk. I walk by brownstones and up avenues. One day I’ve gone past Central Park before I realize it. Christmas is everywhere. Times Square sparkles, Rockefeller Center gleams. Shoppers clot the sidewalks.

New York’s not for me. I’m not one for crowds. I’d get a kick out of the commotion if Junie was with me, but since she’s not it’s just so many people pushing. Sometimes I take in a movie.

There’s three of us so we work shifts. Moe likes nights. I suppose he dozes in the shack. All I know is he’s wide-eyed when I arrive.

Mornings, the Lollipops are still on the corner, flouncing for passing cars. They come as a set, a crazy cartoon with six legs. Tootsie’s the pimp, flagging down the cars and turning the other two out.

I have to pass them to get to the yard. They rub against me as I come by. “Look who it is, ladies! Santa’s Helper!” “Uh huh.” They flick long nails and pink tongues. “Deck your halls, Honey?” Tootsie’s in a long green coat, tinsel in his hair. Colored balls dangle from his earlobes. “S’matter, Blitzen?” he says. “You think you the only Christmas tree around here? Now crawl under here and see what Momma got for you.” I keep walking; they whoop and slap hands behind me.

“How do you do it, Moe?” I ask inside the shack. It’s like a lair, takeout boxes and debris strewn around. The odor is loamy.

“Do what, Sparky?” Moe asks.

“Put up with the Lollipops,” I say. Moe’s wedged in the newspaper bales, covered in a thermal blanket. A small space heater at his feet blows air up it. He watches a small TV I bought with tips. “It’s a zoo out there. They ever give you grief, Moe?”

“Don’t worry, Sparky,” Moe says. “I handle them. What, Sparky? You got a problem with that?”

“No problem here, Moe.”

“That look.”

“It’s not for me to have a problem. It’s your business, Moe.”

I know the Lollipops’ve been by. There’s clues in the trees: I sweep up butts and matches, tiny plastic bags, spent condoms. Streamers of bright tinsel curl like serpents out of the shadows.

There’s three of us and then Cliff wins the Lottery.

“You heard me!” Moe says.

“How much?” I say. Moe tells me. “Jesus,” I say. Cliff’s rich.

“That’s what I’m telling you!”

“What now?”

“He hit me up for a bus home to collect.”

“No,” I say. “I mean what now for us? You and me, Moe. Here, now.”

“We sell the trees!” Moe says. “Only two weeks left, Sparky.”

Rains patters on the plastic roof. It’s not noon but Moe brings out a silver flask. He pours a shot each into two plastic cups and hands me one. “A toast!” he says.

“Wait.” I pull back the flap and look out. Pete’s there with a high-powered hose. It snowed last night and he’s spraying slush off the sidewalk. I whistle to him but his hood’s up. He can’t hear me. A wind rips off the river. I put up my collar and go over. Pete jumps when I tap him. “We got an occasion,” I tell him. “Come on.” I start back, and turn to see he’s not with me. “Come on,” I say. Pete’s cautious. His brow crimps but he finally follows me.

I duck into the shack. Pete dawdles in the doorway, watching us over his scarf. I hand him a cup. He sniffs it and blinks. Moe raises his. “To Cliff!” he says. “To luck!”

Pete watches and does what we do. He pulls his scarf away from his mouth and gulps down his shot. Tears spring to his eyes and he chokes.

“Well, Pete,” I say. “Cliff’s gone. That’s one less nutty neighbor, huh?”

Pete blinks again. His face darkens and he hands me back the cup. Then he turns and shuffles back to his stand. He hasn’t said one word.

Moe watches him go. “Good riddance,” Moe says to his back.

“What’s with this guy, anyway?” I say. “I’m just being friendly.”

“Don’t bother.”

“It’s like he doesn’t know English.”

Moe snorts. “He don’t.”

“What?” I say. “‘Course he does. He told me his name that first day. It’s Pete.”

Moe huffs. “Pete’s not a name. It’s a word, easy to say. He’s a for’ner. Name’s prolly Pedro. Prolly he takes some class to learn English. Meet people and try to have a talk. Believe me, the last thing he can do is have a talk.”

“Where’s he from?”

“Who knows. Somewhere.” Moe shrugs. He sees an opening. “Where you from, Sparky?”

“Man.” I shake my head. “You never let up, do you, Moe?”

“Sparky, Sparky, Man of Mystery,” Moe chuckles. He tips the flask and pours more into my cup. “Forget the for’ner. To Cliff!” he proclaims. “To America! Land of opportunity!”

I slug it back and wipe my mouth. “So that’s it for Cliff?” I ask.

“Naw, what you mean?” Moe says. “He’ll be back—to say goodbye!”

I look into the last lick of whiskey pooling in my cup. Moe’s wrong. Cliff won’t be back. No two ways about it. Cliff’s gone. We only get so much luck in this life. The trick is to take it when it comes.

We go a week this way. It’s tough just two of us. We divvy up duties. I sell more, and pack the trees. Cliff gone, there’s more to keep track of.

“There’s Pete,” I say to Moe.

“The for’ner?” Moe says. “What about him?”

“We need another guy.”

“He has a job.” Moe flips a hand toward the newsstand.

“He can do both,” I say. “Finish there and come here. Hell, he can do both at the same time. He can use the money.”

“What do you care?”

“Well, I don’t,” I say. “More guys means better service and increased profits. True every time.”

Moe puts up a palm. “Only 13 days, Sparky. Two guys can do it.”

Putting on Pete is a smart move. It’s what I’d do when I ran things. But I don’t run things, not anymore. It’s Moe’s call. Moe’s the boss and I back off.

There’s two of us and that means I work some nights.

Day’s done and the corner’s a carnival. There’s night noises, yelling and honking and laughing.

I patrol the row every so often. Once I hear a noise and check it out. The trees sway. I swat the branches. Figures fumble in deep shadows. “C’mon, now,” I say. “Break that up.” Two shapes struggle out. One flies by, a flurry of shirttails. Tootsie’s the other. He prolongs coming out.

“Sure fucked that up, Frosty,” Tootsie says to me. “Just when I was in love.”

“C’mon, now.” I swat the air. “Move on.”

“Say what?” Tootsie plays amazed. His makeup’s mussed. Tootsie’s a scarecrow, draped in a robe of what looks like colored mirrors. Tootsie towers. He’s a head above me in platform shoes.

“Can’t have that here,” I say. “Moe wouldn’t like it.”

“Well,” Tootsie says. “Me and the King, we got a deal.”

“I don’t know about any deal.”

“We got a ’greement,” Tootsie says. “I back off, he leaves me alone in the trees.”

“I sure don’t know anything about that.”

“The King knows. Ask him.”

“He’s not here.”

“Where then?”

“Off for the night.”

Tootsie zips. His eyes narrow. “This bad business, Frosty.”

“Be that as it may.”

Tootsie tucks. “The Lollipops here before you come, be here after you leave.”

I point the way out as an answer.

Tootsie walks. “I’d be careful, I was you. Cross the Lollipops.”

“I don’t want any trouble,” I say.

“Don’t matter what you want, Frosty,” Tootsie says over his shoulder. “This is what you got.” Then he’s gone, swallowed up by the street.

There’s two of us and Moe tells me he’s got to go back.

What?” I can’t believe I’m hearing this. “You serious, Moe?”

Moe’s grim. “We need more trees.” Moe won’t meet my eye.

I look the length of the yard. Trees as far as I can see. “What?” I say. “How can that be?”

“Cliff,” Moe says. “Cliff did a bad count.”

“None in the truck?”

Moe’s solemn. He shakes his head.

“If you go,” I say, “that leaves just me, Moe.”

“I trust you, Sparky.”

“That’s not the point,” I say.

“What? What’s the point?”

The point is I don’t want it. The point is it’s more than one man can handle. The point is let’s pack it up, Moe. We’ve sold enough. Let’s cut the season short and go back to Vermont. I don’t want it is the point. But I say nothing. I keep it all to myself. I do the job I’m given.

“Don’t worry,” Moe says. “I’ll be back.” He puts a big hand on my arm. “You’re the Tree King ’til then.”

I don’t want it.

There’s one of us, alone. There’s me.

Days are okay. Business is brisk. Customers come by. I try to stay on top of it, but there’s too much to do. I try to keep track of the trees, but the yard’s too big and I’m too tired.

Pete hoses off slush at the newsstand. I call him over. “Give me a hand, Pete?” I say. Pete’s silent but he comes. I pick up a tree, shake it and wrap it, show him how. Pete watches. He’s dubious. “Nothing to it, Pete. Help me out here?” I say. I hold up a 10. His eyes go wide. I stuff it into his pocket and pat it to show it stays. Pete blinks. He walks over, hoists a tree and makes it ready.

Pete helps out. The rest of the day he stays by the newsstand but hops back and forth. He works well. He makes his own tips and when the day’s done I give him mine. “Thanks, Pete,” I say. “Adios.” Pete’s happy when he leaves, judging by what I can see of his face.

Night comes it’s cold. Your breath could break off in front of you. The shack is warm but in the yard it’s frigid.

Two o’clock I do my rounds. I swat trees. No sign of anything. The day’s done. I turn off the blinking bulbs, casting our stock in shadow. I turn off all the lights except for the one over the hatch. That one shines on the sign. “The Tree King.”

I’m ducking back into the shack when behind me there’s a crash. Down the row the yard erupts. Trees topple like dominoes, taking a line of lights with them. Bulbs pop on the pavement. “Shit,” I say. I run to it.

There’s crazy laughing. Bodies flash by in the dark, one hits me and knocks me back. There’s confusion. There’s a bang. I struggle upright. The Lollipops streak by, flailing lights and streamers of tinsel. They’re taking trees. There’s a flash. It comes from the shack. I throw back the flap to see the bale chair on fire. I grab at the bottom stack and drag them all outside. I whack at them with the blanket, sending up crackling sparks. Behind me lowlifes cheer. The Lollipops whoop across the gleaming street, trees in tow, heels clicking. They dart into traffic. Tires screech.

I chase them to the corner but I have to stop. I swear. I stomp. The corner is as far as I can go. Somebody has to stay with the trees.

It takes the night to repair the pile. I tug the smoldering bales to the curb. I restack trees and string up new bulbs. I wait for Moe but he doesn’t come. I call Moe but he doesn’t answer.

Pete shows up. He stares, baffled, over his scarf at the charred mess. “It’s bad, Pete,” I say. “Don’t know how it happened.” Pete nods.

We work the day. Pete pitches in. When it’s over, I go to pay him but he’s gone. Nowhere in sight. I didn’t see him leave, but I see what he left. It sits in front of the shack, blocking the doorway: Pete’s swivel chair. Its seat sags, its stuffing sticks out. It looks abandoned. I have no choice but to carry it inside.

That night I’m jumpy. Any noise rattles me. There’s the usual hubbub on the corner, but no Lollipops. I walk the rows with a hunk of two-by-four hidden under my jacket. Snow falls. I’m tired and I’m tense. The trees are Moe’s but they’re mine to protect. It’s the job I’ve been given.

I’m in the swivel chair, half-dozing when there’s a tap. I’m up like lightning, and yank aside the flap, my club ready. But it’s not the Lollipops. Pete’s there. Snow clumps on his hood. His eyes gaze at me over his scarf. I signal him in and give the yard a last good look before I lower the flap.

Pete sits on the ground. “Take the chair, Pete,” I say. “It’s yours anyhow.” But he just squats down on the ground and pine branches. I step over him and take the chair myself.

Pete settles in. He undoes his hood, twists off his scarf. Pete’s hair is black and thick. This is the first time I’ve seen it. Pete could’ve been bald for all I knew. Pete’s young. His face is round and smooth, no stubble to speak of.

Under his arm is a black plastic bag. “What you got there, Pete?” I say. He peels back the bag and reveals what looks like hair. Pete peels more. It’s a doll. It’s cheap, like what you see hanging from wires on Canal Street. It’s blonde, arms out to hug, plastic head with two blue eyes, one always winking. A green dress.

Pete holds up the doll. “Es un juguete.” Pete beams. The thing’s a prize to him. “Es una muòeca para mi hija.”

“I don’t get it, Pete.” I point to my ear. “No comprendo.”

“Mi hija,” he says, squeezing the doll’s head as if that explains. “Mi hija!”

“Sorry, Pete.”

Pete mutters. He digs into his parka and pulls out a book. The pages are dog-eared. He thumbs through them. He stops and runs his finger down. “Dog. Ter,” he says. “Mi hija.”

“Let me see that.” It’s a dictionary. “Oh, you’re saying ‘daughter’. Mi hija means ‘my daughter’.”

“Si!” Pete nods. “Mi hija!”

“Jesus, Pete. You got a daughter?” Pete’s a kid himself. “How old is she?” Pete’s confused. I count fingers: one, two, three—he stops me at six. Pete’s daughter is six years old.

“Where is she?” I say. “Here?” I point to the ground. “America? You Ess?”

“No.” Pete frowns. “No aqui. Yo le enviarè la muòeca a ella a Veracruz,” Pete says. “May. He. Coe.”

“Oh,” I say. I get it. Pete grins. His face is a moon.

Pete starts to talk. He winds his story. He builds up speed, waving his hands, doing voices. It’s Spanish so it’s lost on me. Pete doesn’t care. He talks away, rat-a-tat-tat, words in the beat of a bug bouncing off a screen door, trying to get to the light. I nod and smile. Pete’s happy, telling me about his little girl. I bet she’s beautiful. I bet Pete’s daughter is the second most beautiful little girl in the whole world.

Pete finally winds down. He looks at me like it’s my turn to tell. I reach for my wallet. Pete watches me open it. I go through the fold and I take out a picture. It’s bent and torn from handling. I pass the picture to Pete. “That’s Junie,” I say. My Junie Bug. “Mi hija.”

Pete holds it like gold. His eyes go from the picture to me. His brow’s knotted.

“’Course, that was taken a long time ago,” I say. “Five years. That’s how she looked last time I saw her. She doesn’t look like that now. She’s big now. Grandè.” I think that means “big.” It does when I order coffee. “I probably wouldn’t even recognize her if I saw her,” I say, though I know that’s not true. I’d know Junie Bug anywhere.

Funny how the hurting hits. You go along, make every day the same. You keep the memories at bay. You think they’re gone but they’re not. And then something brings them back. Pete’s stupid doll does it for me. Pete has a daughter and can’t be with her. That makes me sag inside. At least he knows where she is. At least he knows that much.

I cough to clear my throat. My eyes throb in a dull ache. This always happens when I take out the picture. I start to talk. I tell Pete my story. I tell him who I was and what I had and how I lost it. The words rise up in me and spill out in a gush. I tell it all. I don’t dance around it like I do with Moe. I tell it straight, as I know it.

Pete sits cross-legged feet at my feet. He watches my lips move. He perks up when he hears words he knows— “Si! Job!” or “Wife!”—pouncing on them like they were dollars in the street.

When I’m done I go quiet. Pete does, too. I’ve reached the end and he knows it. Pete respects the silence. We sit like that awhile, in our own thoughts.

“Well well well,” says a voice above. “Ain’t this cozy?”

The flap’s pulled back. The doorway’s darkened. Tootsie’s there.

The Lollipops peer over his shoulder. Their eyes are hard little stars. “He the king?” Lollipop One says.

“Naw,” says Tootsie. “Look like his trusty reindeer. All tucked in his stall.”

The Lollipops whoop and stomp. Tootsie leans in. He looks down at Pete. “Ain’t you the little lost lamb,” he says. “S’matter, Sugar, no room at the inn?” Pete gazes up. His daughter’s doll nestles in his lap. If he knows there’s danger he doesn’t show it.

“Help you?” I say.

“Where’s the King, Blitzen?” Tootsie’s a fright mask. His makeup gleams.

“Not here,” I say.

The Lollipops confer behind Tootsie. “No king?” “The man not here?” “Well, he supposed to be.”

Tootsie sneers. “The King’s not here, huh? Too bad. I got something for him.”

“What is it?”

“A Christmas present,” Tootsie says.

“Somepin for his stocking,” a Lollipop says.

I reach out a hand. “I’ll take it,” I say.

Tootsie chuckles. “You will, huh? Soon enough, Snowflake.” He sniffs the air. “The King’s gone, huh? Smart move. He knows we coming.” Tootsie’s a demon. Black shadows shape his face.

“That so?”

“Mmm hmm. That’s why he ain’t here. He didn’t tell you? He ain’t the King no more. He been overthrowed.”

“Dethroned,” Lollipop One chimes in. “The King been dethroned by the queens!” says Lollipop Two. They hoot.

Tootsie leans back outside, reaches up above his head. There’s a crack. “The Lollipops claim back the corner, Honey!” He tosses something in my lap. It’s Moe’s sign. It says “The Tree King.”

I grope for my club. I find it and stand as straight as I can in the narrow shack. But Tootsie’s gone. The doorway’s empty.

There’s a creak and a sigh outside and the plastic wall behind me buckles. I stumble over Pete and jerk back the flap. I step out and a blast of heat shocks me. I reel around. I whiff gasoline. The trees are on fire.

All hell breaks loose. Figures flash by me, the Lollipops and others, jostling and shrieking. Their chaos fuses into a single screech. I grab out and get one by the throat but he slips away, leaving me holding a handful of cheap gold jewelry. There’s a pop and the scoop lamp bursts.

I have to deal with the blaze. The trees go up. I tear off my coat and slap at the flames, swinging as widely as I can. But that only riles it. Sparks burst up. They sizzle and spread. More trees ignite. There’s yelling around me, and applause, rooting for the fire. A beer bottle crashes at my feet.

The trees go up fast. Smoke singes my lungs and stings my eyes. I swing in vain. Something inside me clenches. Moe’s trees are being destroyed and I can’t stop it.

Suddenly I’m shoved aside. I stumble down to one knee. There’s a whoosh and a blast of hard spray. Pete’s there. He stands beside me and points his hose at the blaze. He finds its heart and trains the water there. The inferno billows out in foul black smoke.

Pete hoses it down. The flames halt and hiss. Water streams down from its target. I stay on my knee until it starts to soak.

I get to my feet. The screech in my head subsides. Sound bleeds back in. There’s booing across the street behind me.

I survey the damage. What’s left is a crater, a black hole scooped out of our valley. The trees shoosh and crackle. Sprigs of black ash drift down. The trees are ravaged, a good half of the stock ruined.

“You know what, Pete?” I say. “I give up.”

Pete’s turtled in his too-big jacket, sweeping the hose in wide arcs, dousing stubborn flames. He blinks at me.

I throw up my hands. “They want what the trees, they can have them. Burn ’em, steal ’em, fuck it. I don’t care anymore.” Pete watches me. I hold a burnt branch in my hand. “This is what I get for caring.” I throw the branch into the smolder and stomp back to the shack.

Inside the roof’s collapsed. The tarp hangs limp, weighted down by water. The chair is soaked. I dig through sopping mess to salvage what I can. I find the blanket and the heater and the TV. And a tiny arm, buried. I pull at it, extract twisted limbs, crushed head, matted blond hair. It’s Pete’s doll.

Rage rises in me. My eyes burn. My chest creaks. Outside, sirens shriek this way. I hold the doll in my hands. How did I let this happen? How many times do I learn the same lesson?

A sharp crunch, something being detached, sounds outside. “Don’t they ever quit?” I say. The hanging ceiling blocks my way. I shake off the shroud and rip aside the hatch.

I come out a crazy man. Footsteps clomp away, splashing puddles. A runner crosses Hudson Street. The tree he carries wags at me, taunting. Lowlifes cheer like he’s going for a touchdown.

I sprint up behind him and grab the tree. Needles slice my hands. I ram down on it then yank it aside and bring him off his feet. I rear back and land a solid punch to the base of his skull.

The guy grunts and goes down. I mash his face into the gleaming street. I grab his collar and jerk him over. My eyes clenched tight, I punch. That’s for Moe. I punch blindly. That’s for the trees. I punch wildly. Bones crunch; blood stains my fist. That’s for Pete’s doll, and our daughters and the rest of it.

I rear back, poised to punch again. I’m sure it’s Tootsie or a Lollipop, lips split, makeup smeared. But no. I look at him and it’s Pete.

“Son of a bitch!” I say. Pete blubbers beneath me. “What the fuck, Pete?”

Pete cries out. “Pero tú dices...! But you say—!”

“What?! What I say? I say what?”

Pete flinches. His hands go up.

I grab his collar and bring his nose close to mine. “Was I unclear about something?” I yell. “Did I not make myself clear?”

Pete sputters, “You say...take trees!”

I drop him hard. His head cracks pavement. “No comprendo! No take trees!” I yell. “My trees! My job!” Pete’s face is slick with tears and blood and snot. He covers his face with his hands. I grab up the tree. Pete rolls into a ball and I leave him there.

I was more once. I ran things, made decisions. But I got ahead of myself and didn’t see things as they were. That was my mistake and I live with it. Success isn’t for some of us. I’ll be more again when I’m ready. Until then I’m where I am. I do the job I’m given. I sell trees. The trees belong to Moe. They aren’t mine to give.

Contributor

Chet Kozlowski

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