Kate was only four the first time she saw the man in the tree.
She was looking out her bedroom window when he appeared. It was still quite dark, and she almost missed seeing him. He had walked to their end of the housing project, then climbed up the tree that sat in the round plot of dirt, where no grass ever grew. The road to their duplex circled the old tree and the dusty, barren plot of land.
When he was halfway up the tree, just below where the branches began, he sensed her watching him. He swiveled his head around, saw her there in her window. As he had turned, she ducked down, but only halfway. She was both excited and a little scared of the man. She knelt next to her window, with only the top of her head and her eyes showing. The man smiled at her once, flung a lazy little index-finger salute at her, turned back to the tree, and then quickly climbed the rest of the way up the tree, disappearing into the canopy of leaves. He had looked vaguely familiar to Kate, yet she couldn’t assign a name to his face.
Kate felt mesmerized and filled with so many questions!
Who was the man?
Why had he climbed the tree?
When would he come down?
What was he doing there?
She couldn’t turn away from the window and watched the tree intently while the questions continued to run vigorous laps through her brain. Her mother shouts up the stairs, telling her children to wake up. Kate had watched the tree for two whole hours, and yet the man still hadn’t climbed down out of the tree!
She doesn’t want to leave her spot by her window, fearing she will miss seeing him climb down and out of the tree in the circle.
What if he looks for her and she’s gone? Who was he?!
She already misses the indescribably wonderful feeling of peace she got when he had smiled at her. His clothes were ragged and dirty, his overall appearance unkempt, and his face smeared with grease or mud, but his smile was infectious. He might be homeless, but he also seemed like a very contented person.
He was not a young man. But neither did he seem old, Kate thinks. Had he climbed the tree quick or slow? She didn’t remember! She felt vexed by all her uncertainty.
Her mother yells up the stairs again, calling her children to breakfast. Warning them that if they don’t hurry, they will be late for school.
Her mom means her two brothers will be late, Kate knows. She loves her brothers and is always a little sad when they go to school in the mornings. The oldest one is thirteen (though he acts like he’s a hundred and thirteen sometimes, Kate thinks), she will turn five in August, her middle brother eleven in December. The older one walks to the high school that is not far from their duplex. Her middle brother has to take a bus to the grade school on the other side of their little town. Next year she will get to ride the bus with him when she starts school. When she considers the idea, she gets a nervous, tingly feeling inside her stomach that she hasn’t felt before. She can’t decide whether it’s a happy feeling or a sad feeling.
Kate gets to her feet but never takes her eyes off the tree directly across from unit 116A. She has a plan, she will wait until her brothers have gone downstairs, and then she will hurry down the stairs, rush to the front door, and open it. She figures this should take her no longer than half a minute. There’s no way the man can climb down the tall tree that fast. So she will be able to see him again. See if he smiles at her again.
She hears her brothers walk past her closed door, their heavy feet stomping down the wooden steps. She walks backwards to her door until she can no longer see the treetop. Then she throws open the door and rushes down to join her family.
Kate flings open their front door. Her mom is in the kitchen getting another cup of coffee; her brothers are trying to solve a puzzle on the back of the Captain Crunch cereal box. No one even notices when she steps out of their home. She walks barefoot down their cold sidewalk, quickly crosses the road, and steps into the dusty, dry, grassless circle. She cranes her neck upward, trying to see the man in the tree as she walks across the little pockmarked earth. The dirt on her bare feet here always reminds her of the beach. She scans the treetop twenty feet overhead. She reaches the base of the tree and looks up. It’s empty!
Where did he go?
The man is gone. He has vanished; Kate feels a loss that she cannot explain. She realizes then why he had looked so familiar. He had looked like her dad, only older. She had never seen her dad climb a tree, but she’d heard him frequently boast about how he had loved to climb them when he was younger.
‘ … she will turn five in August, her middle brother eleven in December.’
Through the years, Kate occasionally sees the man in the tree again. The first several times, she repeats her trick of trying to catch him in the tree. But by the time Kate gets to the base of the tree, he is already gone. So she contents herself with watching him climb the tree, smile at her, and salute her. Then, until her mother calls her down the stairs for breakfast, she studies the tree, imagining him sitting there behind his curtain of leaves as the breeze blows the branches back and forth.