He presses the side of his once-famous face hard against the warm velvet of the giant sequoia, breathing the scent of eons of growth and struggle, feeling the basin and range of the bark against the length of his out-flung arms, his widest stretch embracing only a tiny span of the epic circumference. A tree-hugger some would derisively call him, but his life, too, had been a period of growth and struggle, and if he finds solace and hope in the presence of this ancient being, who with any compassion could condemn him?
The low sun highlights his faded curls, attended to not quite adequately nor often enough in these shrunken times. A bee, drawn to his poppy-colored shirt, searches among the folds until it finds an opening at the top of his right shoulder, worn threadbare by a thousand heftings of his backpack. The bee traces the tear’s rough edges, tests the loose threads, and walks the warm skin, but can find no pollen and moves on to a patch of purple lupine.
He takes one final deep breath then reaches down and swings his pack back into place. He cranes his gaze upward toward the crown, too distant to be seen from this intimate proximity. From the sheer joy of the tree’s immensity, he laughs a hearty laugh then turns back down the trail.
Not far down the path, his laugh reaches a hiker, who, startled by the human sound, hesitates in hope of company. The hiker watches him stride out of the grove, a stride that has grown painful and unsteady from the wear of the millions of steps he has taken through valley and high country, town and city, in search of stories. Upon observing the hiker, his contemplative face shatters in delight, and he hails the man with the enthusiastic greeting of a friend well-met.
“I heard your laugh,” the hiker explains, “thought I’d say hello.”
“So glad you did. Did I laugh? It’s just so beautiful here, guess I couldn’t help it.” He sweeps his arm to encompass their surroundings. “It’s a magnificent forest.”
“Yes, I come here as often as I can. Don’t often see people. Too bad really; if more folks knew about it, maybe it wouldn’t be up for sale.”
“Which way are you heading? Let’s walk a ways, and you can tell me what you mean.”
He falls into step with the hiker, and over the next mile, he weaves his magic spell of questions and interest, provocative comment and love for his fellow human beings, and learns of the hiker’s family, his enthusiasms, his worries about this forest becoming vacation homes. He hoards away the hiker’s story among the thousands that have come before it.
“Say,” the hiker looks carefully at him as they pull out their keys in the small parking lot, “I feel so much like we have met before, but I’ll be damned if I can remember where.”
He laughs his signature, gleeful laugh, the one that used to resound from the radio every Sunday morning, and the hiker remembers.
“You’re that guy with the radio show. My kids and I loved that show, listened to it over pancakes. How in the world did you find all those wacky people to interview? Haven’t heard it in a while, I’m afraid. Don’t know what happened.”
“Yep, guilty as charged,” he grins, comforted that he’s not yet forgotten. “I had as much fun as anybody, meeting those people, telling their stories.”
“When’s it on? It’d be great to hear it again.”
“Station cancelled it a few years ago; not enough advertising dollars to go around.”
“That’s a real shame. I don’t know anyone who didn’t listen. You felt like part of the family.”
“Thank you, but I’ve got some new projects now, things I’ve always wanted to do.” He reaches over and touches the hiker on the arm. “It’s all good.”
“Well, the kids will never believe it. Me, taking a hike with Jim Carlisle! You’re just exactly like I always thought you’d be.” They shake hands as the hiker gets in his car, grinning in anticipation of the fun he’ll have telling his family. “You’ve made my day!” the hiker calls as he turns onto the road.
And you mine, friend, he thinks as he unlocks his car door and settles into the torn seat, adjusting his posture to avoid the collapsed spring in the backrest. He rolls down all four windows and drives slowly along the winding road, savoring the damp of ferns, the tang of mountain misery, the spice of cedar as they waft in turn through the car. Soon he parks at a way-side restroom and lifts a garment bag and piece of plastic sheet out of the trunk and rummages for his dress shoes that have somehow migrated behind the box of pots and pans he meant to drop off at Goodwill.
In the toilet, with the only light coming through the triangular openings under the eaves, he places the plastic sheet onto the dusty concrete floor and hangs the garment bag from the doorknob. Standing on the plastic sheet, he steps into his tuxedo pants, gathering each leg into an accordion to make sure they don’t touch any exposed floor. He buttons his pleated shirt and fastens his quartz cuff links. He starts to tie his bow tie, then looks over at the piece of tin nailed to the wall, and realizes that in the fading light, it is impossible to use as a mirror. He retrieves a second bow tie from the bottom of the garment bag, one of those pre-tied ones you get from rental shops that he keeps on hand for emergencies. He clips it behind his neck then straightens it as best he can.
Although he’d rather wait and put the jacket on when he arrives, he goes ahead, afraid of any stains or weak seams visible in his shirt. He wraps his discarded clothes in the plastic sheet and peers into the useless mirror. He runs his fingers through his hair; it’s the best he can do. Yet again, it is his comb that he’s forgotten.
He drives a few miles to some river-rock gates, bright with floodlights and festooned with bouquets of boughs and balloons. He is directed to park in the VIP area to the left of the entrance and is met immediately by his host.
“Great to see you, Jim!” His host bounds down the front stairs two at a time, hand already extended for a warm welcome. “Did you have any trouble finding us? You’re looking good Jim! Not a hair out of place and no worse for wear after that damn cancellation. Everyone is looking forward to seeing you again; it has been way too long. But first, would you like to see the stage, do a sound check, go over the schedule with the event planner?”
“No, I think I’m set to go. But tell me, who’s here tonight? Who are we counting on to make the big donations? Any particular buttons I should push with this crowd?”
“Pretty much the usual. Senator Bernstein and Mayor Gonzalez; they won’t be big donors but their political support is critical to protecting the land. Irma Harrington, Tricia Mountjoy, and the rest of the land trust folks are here; they’ve all got fat wallets. You might not know Paul and Judy Erickson, big Silicon Valley money, just bought 250 acres. Really want them to contribute; the parcel touches the north boundary of their property. They’ve got lots of friends they could tap for donations if we can convince them that conservation is better than development.”
“OK, got it. Lead the way.” They turn and walk up the wide stone steps and enter the foyer.
“I hope you know how grateful we all are that you’re willing to MC this event. With you running the auction, we’re sure to raise a million dollars tonight!”
His host shepherds him through the foyer into the ballroom. The boughs and balloons of the entrance gate are here in profusion. They cover the walls and tables, even the trays of hors d’oeuvres and champagne being passed to the swirling crowd by a swarm of servants. Hundreds of candles shine on the crystal glasses and silver service, gold watches and diamond earrings.
Here’s the heart of the action, he thinks to himself, recognizing most of the politicians and philanthropists, socialites and celebrity activists that fill the room. His host sights the Ericksons and rushes to introduce him. With absolute sincerity and seeming effortlessness, he charms, first the Ericksons, then every guest he has the ability to meet, making sure that each feels special, that they understand that the forest at risk for development is dependent on them for its very survival.
As he stands at the podium after dinner, waiting for the guests to quiet, he imagines himself once again embracing the sequoia. Driven by empathy for the icon losing its home, he delivers his keynote speech with such passionate timbre and vehement gesture that the guests, too, are moved to tears. By the end of the auction, checks have been written for a million and a half dollars, and the room is in ecstasy with its righteousness.
While a new round of champagne is being poured for a final toast, he casually steps off the stage and through a side door leading to the foyer. He tells the event planner to thank his host but that he needs to get back home, has a busy day tomorrow. With her shrill congratulations following him to his car, he tosses his jacket onto the back seat, rolls down all four windows, and drives back through the forest that he hopes will now be able to share its scents for all time.
In the darkest hours of the summer night, he drives west across the great Central Valley, his open windows now admitting the dust of the fields carried on the rippling heat and the notes of Tejano carried from the crossroads cantinas. He thinks of how the Valley has changed since the first settlers arrived, when the San Joaquin River meandered through a savanna of grass and oak that gave sustenance and shelter to grizzly, antelope and jaguar. Then he climbs out of the Valley and down to the shores of the Bay, itself so altered as to be unrecognizable to the first explorers who had navigated it. When he pulls off the freeway into his neighborhood of respectable homes and good schools, he wonders how it will change and tries not to begin missing it.
He parks in his driveway and doesn’t notice the overgrown grass and wilting hedge, just hears the welcoming bark of Memphis, hungry and lonely. He pushes open the front door, steps automatically over the daily pile of bills and foreclosure notices deposited through the mail slot, makes his way through the maze of moving boxes, drops his backpack, and braces for the canine onslaught.
“Miss me, girl? I was gone,” he says kindly to the old hound as they waltz into the kitchen. “Bet you’re hungry.”
He opens a can, mixes it with kibble, and waits till Memphis sits, tail sweeping the floor violently, before putting the dish down on the blue-speckled linoleum. He pours himself a glass of cold wine from a box in the vacant fridge then steps over to a notebook on the windowsill. Tattered and faded as it may be, it is the record of all the money he has ever raised. The very first time a charity asked him to help at an event, he decided that he would never turn down a request from a cause he believed in and that he would never accept any type of payment in return.
That vow had been harder and harder to keep these last thin years, but he kept his promise. The notebook falls open in his palm at the page marked by a miniature yellow pencil he carried away from a polling booth years before. He picks up the pencil and deliberately writes the date, the charity, and the amount raised. He’s never totaled up all the entries, never wanted to tempt himself into being prideful, or lately resentful, of all the riches that have passed through his hands. Whichever reason it may be, he closes the notebook again tonight with the reckoning still undeciphered.
He settles into his arm chair, the one piece of furniture he hasn’t yet sold. The one placed specifically right next to the window so he could watch the stars over the lightless hills of the open space. Memphis leans her body hard into his knees, head resting on his lap, and looks up at him as he looks up at the sky. He leans back in the chair and feels a tickle against his ear. Reaching up, he picks out a length of sequoia bark that had tangled itself in his hair and been his secret date at the party.
How many people noticed and were too polite to tell me? he wonders, and laughs a quiet laugh on this, the last night in his home.