Read Time: 7 minutes.
Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?
© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers
BOB, OF BOB’S TREES, stamped his feet to warm himself. The Wisconsin cold froze his bones this year because business sucked.
Most years, Bob sold trees, bundled trees, fresh-cut their butt ends, and carted them to people’s cars, hardly aware of the weather. After twelve hours on his feet, he gorged himself on the calorie-laden supper that Peg kept on simmer for him, then lapsed into a coma till dawn. Sometimes he fell into bed on arrival, leaving Peg to simmer for the both of them. From Thanksgiving to Christmas Bob could lose twenty pounds.
Most years, there would be a few days with gaps between customers, welcome respite. Then he would sit in his little office shack and listen to the carols on the radio.
But this year, trade slumped so that he stood in the elements and waved to motorists to remind them they needed a tree for Yule. This cajolery drew in every hundredth car, so it repaid the vigil in the bitter cold.
Here came one now—a black Lexus SUV that turned left into the mall parking lot, then continued around to the square of pavement occupied by Bob’s Trees each December for the past twenty years. The driver backed into a space against Bob’s curb blocks—a good sign. Backer-inners meant business. They came to buy a tree and would not go home without one.
The car sat idling while Bob shifted his weight from one foot to the other. At last the motor died and the doors swung open. Out stepped a middle-aged woman, a lanky teen boy, and a slender girl who came up to the boy’s shoulder. Their black face coverings prompted him to remember the plague. He slipped his Packers-themed COVID mask in place.
“Merry Christmas!” he called. “Welcome to Bob’s Trees.”
The woman, cloaked in a long cashmere coat over Italian leather boots, gave a curt nod. Her green eyes skipped his face to scan the trees ranged on his lot. “Are these the tallest you have?”
That voice. Bob peered at the patch of face above her mask but nobody came to mind. “How big a tree were you looking for, Ma’am?”
“The tallest you have.”
“That would be these in the corner.” He strode across the lot. The woman followed. The boy stumbled along behind, thumbs on his smart phone, while the girl hugged herself and chattered her teeth.
Bob plunged a hand into the wall of greenery and pulled out a nine-foot Norway spruce.
The woman’s brows beetled. “I don’t know. I was hoping for something taller.” She leaned back to view its top. “What do you think, Rory?” She nudged her son’s calf with the toe of her boot. “Will it stand out in the great room?”
The boy jerked at the touch of her toe, rolled his eyes, dived back into his phone. She put her hands on her hips, head forward, and glowered.
“Maggie!” It came to him. “You’re Maggie Flensgaard, aren’t you?”
She snapped her head toward Bob, green eyes round with surprise. “I am Margaret Prescott.” She sniffed. “I haven’t been Maggie Flensgaard for . . . ever so long. And you”—her eyes flashed with recognition—“Bobby! Bobby Achtemeier. Is it really you?”
“Rory, look!” The girl’s eyes glowed with interest. “It’s Mom’s old boyfriend.”
The boy looked up from his phone.
“Shush, you. Mister Achtmeier happens to be an old school chum. From way back, isn’t that right, Bobby?”
“Not all that long ago, Mags. But things are way different now, I guess.” Your tangled brown hair has become smooth and chestnut, with hints of auburn and whispers of silver. What was wild is now controlled, and controlling.
The girl looked up at Bob. “Hi, I’m Veronica. You can call me Ronnie. All my friends do.” Her brown eyes sparkled above the black virus mask.
She must be thirteen. Going on twenty. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Ronnie punched Rory in the arm. “Dolt! Show some respect to your elders.” Whoops, back to thirteen.
Rory raised his hand to slug her back.
“Stop it, you two.” Maggie sighed. “What’s it been, Bob? Twenty years?”
He snorted. “Good deal more than that, my dear. I won’t say how long. Little pitchers have big ears.”
“They know I had them late in life,” she muttered. “They may not know exactly how late.” Her eyes rested on him, took him in. “Look at you. I thought you’d wind up a tycoon.”
He spread his arms to span the Bob’s Trees empire. “Exhibit A.”
She had the grace to look embarrassed. “Well, yes. Touché.”
He saw himself reflected in her eyes: A thickset old guy doing roustabout work out in the weather. I won’t tell her about our winters in Florida.
“I kind of lost track of you after we . . . after high school, Maggie. What became of you?”
She gave him a weird sideways look.
“No, I didn’t mean it that way. You know. What have you been doing with yourself all these years—besides raising these two delightful children, I mean?”
Veronica giggled. Rory pinched her.
Margaret Prescott waved her hand self-consciously, the very gesture Maggie Flensgaard would have used. “Just the usual. Went to college. Worked in New York for a while. Then I came back home and married a guy that owns a lumber yard.”
Bob smiled. “Guess you got into the finished end of the tree business. Me, I’m closer to the raw product.”
“But you can’t sell Christmas trees all year. You must do something else.” She looked desperate for him to explain this was only a hobby.
He shuffled his feet. “Oh, Peg and me got a few rental units up in Door County. Keeps us busy in the summertime, you know.”
“Peg. You married Peggy Schneidermann?”
He put a finger on his nose. “You’re good. First guess.”
“I didn’t even know you two were an item. What a lovely girl.”
“We kept it kind of low-key.” Of course she hadn’t known. Why would she take an interest?
“And how is she?”
“Peg? Oh, she’s fine. Keeps the home fires burning.” Warming a stew that I’ll be grateful for tonight and will eat before I fall asleep, so help me God.
Rory and Ronnie now giggled like toddlers over Rory’s smart phone. What were kids all about these days, anyhow? Walter would not act that way. Of course, he was ten years beyond them, well-launched in life as a freelance accountant.
Margaret sighed: that long sigh that sounds like the satisfaction of shared memories but signals it’s time to wrap things up.
Bob shook the Norway spruce, spread its lower branches with his free hand. “It’s taller’n you might think.”
Margaret reached a hand out, touched the upright needles. “What do you think, kids? Good enough?” They both nodded. “Okay, I guess we’ll take it. How much?”
“All of these here are a hundred and fifty.”
“Really? That much?” Her question dangled in the frosty air, a gambit best declined.
Maggie Flensgaard might have got it for seventy-five. But Margaret Prescott will need to fork over a fistful of those finished lumber simoleons.
Bob smiled. “You wanted the tallest,” he said with a shrug of apology.
“Well, yes. I did.” She nodded defeat.
“Let me square off the end for you.”
“No, leave it. Don will want to cut it fresh himself. Just help us get it in the car.”
He led her into the office shack, scanned a QRC from her phone, printed a receipt for the tree plus tax. Then he helped Rory shoehorn the spruce into the back of the Lexus. They tied the tailgate down gently over the three feet of crown that protruded out the back.
“Keep in touch,” he said.
With a casual nod, Margaret drove off.
He visualized a svelte shape under her tapered woolen coat, considered the upscale tilt of her nose, the sheen and understated elegance of her hair. He gave thought to the half-formed Rory and Veronica.
He remembered Peg, waiting for him at home. His mind’s eye saw her solid form limp over to the kitchen stove, turn on a burner. She ought to get that knee replaced. She kept a dinner warm for him every night, whether he ate it or not.
He smiled to think of Walter, their stolid son, with his year-in, year-out accounting practice.
Would Bob and Peg manage their usual Florida rental, this COVID winter?
Sure we will. We’ll figure it out somehow. And then the vaccines will take hold, the virus will go away, and by June all Door County businesses and lodgings will be having a banner tourist season.
Maggie Flensgaard, eat your heart out.
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)