Silver Maple

A short story by Michael Byers.

PETER LIVED IN a house with a long backyard and a big silver maple in the yard out a ways from the back door. He was renting, he was young, but this was the sort of thing available where he was, there weren’t any apartments and he didn’t particularly mind it, he had always been a domestic sort of fellow and enjoyed mowing the lawn with the push mower and edging his way around the perimeter of the cedar fence and sweeping the leaves from the sidewalk. Across the back fence was a family whose children jumped all afternoon on a trampoline. From his kitchen window as he washed dishes he could see the children appearing and disappearing, one after the other, and as it was a fairly large family he could not keep track of the children, and as a renter he had not felt it his place to introduce himself. Also they were girls, young girls, and it would seem strange to go to the fence himself and stick out his hand and ask them their names, it would be looked at suspiciously. So he just watched them go up and down.

Also in the neighborhood somewhere was a rooster. At dawn the rooster would cry just as they do in movies, though it also tended to crow a few times prematurely, so his predawn sleep was often interrupted. Possums climbed on the back fence. He heard rumors from the landlord of a mule being kept in the neighborhood somewhere, though he suspected this was just a rumor. His landlord was old and tended to mix things up, and occasionally he accused him of having not paid his rent when in fact he had, and when his landlord died one summer there was a terrible misunderstanding. Peter had been paying his rent in full every month, but the records did not indicate this. The son of the landlord arrived in a belligerent mood and took a skeptical look around the place. “At least you’ve been keeping it up nice,” he said.

Peter showed him the canceled checks and Mr. Fuster’s wobbly signature on the backs. “We got no record of this money ever showing up in dad’s account,” said the younger Mr. Fuster.

“But I paid it.”

“We got no record of it.”

“But that’s your fault,” Peter said. “Look, that’s his signature, isn’t it?”

“Hey,” said Mr. Fuster, “that’s not exactly the hardest signature in the world to forge, is it?”

“Look! Look at the stamp, that’s his bank’s stamp, isn’t it?”

“How the hell would I know?” asked Mr. Fuster. “How the hell do I know where his bank is?”

As it turned out, Peter had to move. He was angry about it, because it wasn’t necessary at all, but in the end it turned out to be easier to move than to go to court, which would have been his other alternative. So he moved six and a half blocks away, to a similar house. He could still hear the rooster, though faintly, and his new neighbors had motorcycles, not trampolines. It was not an improvement but it wasn’t bad, either, though the yard was smaller and it did not have the big beautiful maple tree in the middle. Now and then on his way home from work, Peter would make a detour past his old house. It was obviously unoccupied, the lawn unkempt and the leaves collecting in the corners of the porch. Someone had begun to paint the garage door but had stopped after one panel.

He was a fairly mild man but he managed to hold on to a grudge for the younger Mr. Fuster. One night Peter went out and, using his old keys (which he had copied long ago), let himself into the old garage. He took out the mower and mowed the entire backyard, which was a foot deep at least, then raked the grass and fallen leaves into neat piles and stowed everything in big trash bags. Then he hosed off the mower and returned it and put the bags on the curb. All this took him most of the night. Mr. Fuster was at his door the next day. “What the hell’s the big idea?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The hell you don’t!”

But Peter wouldn’t budge. Mr. Fuster was much taller than Peter, immensely muscular. He was full of loathing for Peter and, Peter saw, for his dead father. But the man’s father had been a nice guy. What could be the source of such fury? Peter did this two more times before the younger Mr. Fuster got around to changing the locks, and after that the two men never saw each other again.

Michael Byers is the author of The Coast of Good Intentions, a book of stories. He grew up in Seattle, where much of his work is set, and where he now lives. His novel, Long for This World, will be published next summer by Houghton Mifflin.