by Stephen Haines

My neighbors used to watch my father chop down trees while they drank their morning coffee. It was something of an event—like watching live, extreme sports from your backyard patio. Wayne and Renee would set their alarm, eat breakfast, and then saunter outdoors, with steaming cups, to an old set of wicker chairs adjacent their gargantuan gas grill. My dad would methodically clean, fuel, and then test his chainsaw, before waving to his small but committed fanbase, their mouths already inching into their inevitable gapes.

When we first moved into that house in my 7th grade year, it had the look of a place that hadn’t been touched since the day it was built. Perched high on a hill above the main road in a suburban housing development, this modest two-story home was faded paint, old wood floors, landscaping circa 1985. The property was large for the neighborhood, but it was, especially in the backyard, unkempt. Dense with overgrowth, and misguided, do-it-yourself flourishes like pebble walkways, sporadic flowerbeds, and rickety trellises, it might’ve been nice, charming enough, if the previous owners had followed through designing it or simply maintained what they owned. Because neither was the case, though, there was a lot of work to do. But for my father, this was a perk of the purchase.

Dating all the way back to the first house my parents bought—a single-wide mobile home on a two-acre parcel—my dad devoted most free time and energy to making our family’s house a pleasant place to live. Even that first single-wide inevitably acquired handmade porches, flowers, trees, and rock walls. Then when my parents saved enough money, the single-wide turned into a double-wide, which received more elaborate decks with overhangs and benches. More expensive and embellished plants and landscaping. A custom “shed,” as my father referred to it, though the thing was, in truth, a miniature kind of garage for what dad lacked in his carport—which he also built—complete with electricity, insulation, ample counterspace, and places to store tools, park lawnmowers, and hang extension cords. Around the holidays, he dressed it in Christmas lights, same as the house.

My dad did not grow up learning how to do things like landscape, pour foundations, or build carports and “sheds.” But necessity took over whenever he wanted to enhance our home, polish the property. He didn’t have the money to pay for someone else’s labor, so in almost all cases, he simply learned to do whatever was required himself, scoffing at each estimate that he received from various contractors, and sub-contractors, as if the overpriced total, written at the bottom of the page, doubled as a dare.

This escalated, as dares often can, until dad decided he would remove twenty-two sizable trees, along with smaller ones, and miscellaneous brush, from our new home’s backyard himself.

My mother, a sane person, protested.

As did my parents’ new Homeowners Association Board.

Dad couldn’t just topple all those trees the way he could if we were still living on a piece of property, out in the country—there were rules and regulations, restrictions and covenants now. Everything a resident did, in this meticulously maintained suburban community, required tedious approval from The Board before any significant aesthetic work could be undertaken, particularly by homeowners themselves. And there was often a long waiting period before the final decisions were made. When my father first told our new neighbors about all the crazy things he planned to do, they were dubious, perhaps even a little frightened. They wished him good luck, with uneasy smirks, taking solace in knowing there was no possible way anyone was going to let this earnest though clearly demented maniac down trees with impunity.

But then my father showed up to the approval hearing with painstaking, precise plans on graphing paper. He detailed exact geometric considerations, common arborist methods. He went on as the group of sweater-clad men and women soon met the conclusion of their understanding and began to consider their afternoon tee-times. By the next day, my father’s plans were approved.

“They were expecting some lunatic hick or something, I don’t know,” my father boasted afterward. “They didn’t see me coming!”






Before we moved to the nice suburban community with a Homeowners Association, back when we lived in that double wide on acreage, I dreamed of having my own basketball court. My dad erected a hoop for me above a dirt court where I played relentlessly after I finished school each day. And each weekday after he got home from work, I would ask him to play with me. Though he was a mediocre shot, and cared little for organized sports at all, he occasionally obliged. But the majority of the time there was something that was more pressing. There were flowerbeds to weed. Decks to paint. Gutters to empty. There was a two-acre “lawn” to be cut, a “lawn” which my father maintained with a simple, hand-push mower. This task alone took him hours, after he already worked for nine or ten that day. Afterward, he would emerge sweaty and flushed from outside, and sit for dinner in relative silence, before eventually showering and retiring to sleep.

One year after my basketball team finished top three in the league, there was an award ceremony. Dad didn’t attend this event—like most events—but, really, he couldn’t, so he said. There was too much work to do back at the house.

There was always so much work. After a while, even as a boy, I hardly understood how one person could do so much and not eventually teeter and topple from the strain. How my dad could always return outside for hours, days on end, committing every spare moment of his existence to labor. In lieu of his attendance at family events, there was, first, whatever project, whatever maintenance. We would sit down for a meal together, then look about for my father, one of us inevitably leaving the table to search for him before he’d finally be discovered in the greenbelt or on his knees tinkering with a sprinkler and then finally, always reluctantly, join us.

The results were beautiful to be sure. Our homes, even when they were manufactured, all looked pristine, because he spent so much time sculpting them. And when he finished each day, he would call for my family to come and admire his handiwork, and we would all nod in unison, mesmerized by his impressive attention to so much detail, although perhaps a little befuddled, as well, knowing that we hadn’t seen much of him—rarely saw much of him—in such a long time.

When my brother grew and moved out on his own, and my parents and me moved from that older piece of land into suburbia, the landscape was so remarkably different that my father required photos, bound in leather albums, to remind us of what the older place used to be like. He’d show us the once barren property, the unremarkable mobile homes, and we’d watch as the pictures filled with terraces and decks. The double-wide, the carport, and the “shed” appeared, as if by some deft magician’s legerdemain. The overgrowth receded into trimmed foliage, flowers, huckleberry bushes that staggered where my basketball hoop was eventually placed. The hoop didn’t fit with the rest of the immaculate landscaping, but my dad put it there, for me, anyway.

Most of all, though, in those pictures, I remember the trees.

Old growth trees dominated that property. Staggering, gargantuan ones. Every year we lived there, my parents talked about having some of them cut down and sold. And though they knew the price they would fetch would’ve been astounding—tens of thousands by my father’s calculations—they could never quite go through with it. Those trees, just as much as the work my father did around them, made the property what it was. It didn’t feel right to remove them, to disrupt what not even my dad could improve upon in his tireless toiling.

When my parents eventually sold that property, the first thing the new owners did was cut them all down. We saw this later when we drove by on some nostalgic afternoon, and on the ride home, no one seemed to have the words.

When one of us eventually spoke, it was my dad.

“I do not understand their priorities.”

I struggle with the precise connection between what happened on that older property with the trees and the clearcutting my father likewise ended up undertaking at the newer home when I was a teen. He did not take those trees down because they were valuable—he did it because they were making the property ragged when it had the potential to feel manicured. But still my mind wanders between memories of the two properties: a singular vision in some odd, amalgamated landscape of trees. The things that remain. The things that are taken—that perhaps were never really ours anyway. The things that we pine for, even when they are agonizingly absent.

My dad missed a lot whilst busy tending to the places we lived. He still does. Holidays. Birthdays. Even when we’re at my brother’s house, and it’s someone else’s responsibility, it is often the case that he’ll still wander outdoors to admire a fence, a firepit, some new lights that my brother has strung like stars above his groomed lawn. But still there seems something in my dad’s manner that eludes outright neglect, something that shows me he’s always attempted to do in his own way what he—for whatever reason—could never find the right tools to do otherwise.

When I was a kid, there were a lot of things for me to feel proud of, even when we lived in a mobile home and didn’t have a lot of money. And when we moved to the suburban upgrade, and my dad began to topple trees like Paul Bunyan in our backyard, I reveled in the community gossip about the maniac from the sticks who was able to do such a thing without a massive team of workers coordinating every movement—who got the nod from The Board within twenty-four hours. And when our neighbors stepped outside and cheered from their backyard patio, waving their foam fingers each time dad completed another successful drop, I felt lucky to be his son.

When I visit my parents now, at that house in the suburban neighborhood where they still live, we often drift from inside to outside, admiring some new molding my father has installed or some new batch of beauty bark and planter beds he has spent days, weeks, forming and combing. Some new batch of trees he has planted that will grow and bloom and take on miraculous colors, ones that no sane person, hopefully, would ever want to cut down.

We sit on the patio taking it all in. And when my father inevitably leaves my wife and I alone with my mom, and drifts off somewhere, without explanation, sometimes in the midst of conversation, there’s always a moment where I pause, reflect, and attempt yet again to accept it. This is his way, and he hasn’t really left, I tell myself. He is not absent. Here he is, in this place. All around us.

When he returns and inevitably inquires over what we think of the new landscaping—the plants just now flowering for the season; the slight but deliberate changes he’s made in some old stone walls that wrap the lush, meticulous gardens—I smile and nod appreciatively. Knowing, at least in some sense, that what he is really asking me is something else entirely.

“It’s beautiful, don’t you think?” He turns to me. His old hands worn and red. His weary face somehow always damp with the same timeless perspiration.

I lean toward him, forgiving everything else for just that moment, and I tell him, “Yeah, Dad. It really is.”

Stephen Haines is an MFA graduate of Western Washington University and the former managing editor of Bellingham Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at The Los Angeles Review, Epoch PressHypertext Magazine, Rathalla ReviewSiderealOlitThin AirAdelaideCreative ColloquyBright Flash, and Bellingham Review.