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Foxx Finds a Tree

From his kitchen window, Nathaniel Foxx counted six bulldozers in the neighboring cornfield. Or what was left of the cornfield. It began with a For Sale sign that Foxx drove by for months, but ultimately ignored. No one was going to buy eighty acres out here, he’d told himself. Not for the ransom the old farmer’s widow was asking.

But then, one day and out of the blue, a surveying crew showed up, marking out existing telephone and gas lines with little colored flags, and spray-painting lines on the earth, and weeks later, ground was broken on what Foxx imagined would be a sprawling, stupid, McMansion. Where once he had spied on turkeys and deer with a pair of old binoculars, soon would  be a house. More than one, Foxx knew, because houses had gravity. No one house could exist in a vacuum for long before it attracted others. A neighborhood was a galaxy writ small—very, very small.

Foxx’s family was asleep, and a gentle snow was falling. A novelist by trade, Foxx had written nothing that day, but had managed to empty the dishwasher, wash a load of laundry, vacuum, and sort the mail, all of which had left him feeling utterly taxed. Completing this list of domestic chores meant that he could avoid any questions of productivity leveled at him by his wife, a successful radiologist. Questions like, “So, what did you do today?” Or, the always difficult-to-answer, “What’s on your docket?” At least if the house was clean, she could plainly see that he had done something, could see, with her own eyes, the vacuum’s furrowed lines in the carpeting or the intentionally preserved streak on a newly cleaned window. Had he opened his computer that day? Of course. But only long enough to order the new Sturgill Simpson album on vinyl.

Just before bed, as Amy was brushing her long brown hair, she’d said, “We really need to get a Christmas tree. And this weekend is going to be so busy. … Ugh. I’m almost ready to fold and get a plastic one.”

Of course, she was right and on all counts. A plastic tree would be more practical—but, Christ, so unromantic. And the upcoming weekend was jam-packed with activity. Every weekend, it seemed, revolved around the kids’ swim-meets and long journeys to La Crosse, Wausau, or Black River Falls, with Foxx spending his Saturday and Sunday in a crowded natatorium on narrow bleachers, making small-talk with other swim-parents while unsuccessfully hiding behind a novel he pretended to be engrossed with. How he wished his children had no athletic talent whatsoever.

From the refrigerator, he retrieved his stash of pre-rolled joints (a souvenir from a recent family trip to Colorado) and, donning his Woolrich jacket and winter cap, stepped out into the early December cold.

He patted his pockets, feeling around for a lighter. Be prepared, that was Foxx’s motto. The cold was exquisite, the air wet with snow. He cupped his hands and held the lighter’s flame near his mouth, inhaling as he walked through the night towards the bulldozers.

His neighbor wasn’t a bad guy, but he was a developer, which Foxx felt was a misleading term. Wayne Delacourt destroyed farmland, so, more accurately, he was a destroyer, and sometimes in polite conversation with Wayne, Foxx would stymie a giggle as he thought of his neighbor in this Conan-like light. Wayne-the-Destroyer, clad in rabbit fur shorts, leg muscles bulging over tall deerskin boots, chest glistening in the sun, a giant sword slicing through the Wisconsin air. Funny. Really, Wayne was a nice-enough man in his fifties with a penchant for Orvis clothing and Sperry shoes. Divorced, and with kids in college, Wayne lived in the offending house—a rather tasteful take on the modern farmhouse, actually—by himself, and only sometimes.

“You ever get lost in that house?” Foxx said one afternoon when Delacourt happened to be next to him pumping gas at the Texaco on the southern end of town. “Just you, kicking around in all that space?”

“It’s really only three thousand feet,” Wayne said. “Modest by a lot of standards.”

“Still,” Foxx pressed, “plenty of guys your age, they’re thinking of downsizing. Am I right?” Foxx realized, as he sometimes did, what an ass he was being.

“Well,” Delacourt inhaled, “what can I say? I like the country. Grew up on a farm.”

“Huh,” Foxx sighed, recollecting his own childhood in suburban Minneapolis, the neighborhood newly carved out of a forest, a small lake, and some old farmland.

“I divide my time,” Delacourt had explained, “between the spec-house and my condo in the city. I don’t think it’s good practice to have that house sit empty.”

“So you’re going to sell it? Just like that?

“It’s the first of many, I hope,” Delacourt grinned. “Whitetail Prairie, I’m calling it. Five-acre minimum lot size. Each property on its own well and septic. A few shared neighborhood amenities. A stocked pond, walking and biking trails. Maybe use the leftover fill to build a sledding hill. Going to be the bee’s knees.”

Foxx nodded gravely. All of that sounded both appealing and fucking awful, like a perfectly produced pop song.

“Good to see you, neighbor,” Delacourt had called, before climbing into the cabin of his shiny Ford F-150.

Foxx relit his joint, felt snowflakes on his eyelids. The lights seemed to be off in Delacourt’s house; no doubt he was in Eau Claire, perhaps canoodling with some divorcées at Mona Lisa’s, sipping expensive cocktails at the bar and exchanging small-town gossip.

“Fucking bulldozers,” Foxx muttered. The weed was loosening him now, and he had a habit of talking to himself, a guard against the overwhelming rural darkness. He still froze in terror at the sound of midnight coyotes singing.

But it had to be said: Delacourt did good work. There was no vinyl siding on his stupid neo-farmhouse, no cheap Menards roofing. If this was the future, it would no doubt raise the value of Foxx’s house—and that was something. When Foxx began feeling righteous about his rural privacy, he occasionally recalled a Dennis Miller bit from the 90s, back in the days when Miller was still snarky-hilarious, something to the effect of, “A developer is someone who wants to build a house in the woods. An environmentalist already has a house in the woods.”

Foxx closed his eyes, felt the snow sizzling on his skin. That felt nice. He stuck out his tongue and tasted snow, then felt a deep melancholy, imagining some distant point in the future when his rapidly warming planet would be snowless, iceless, and on fire. He almost began weeping, aware of his own fortunate existence, in this place, in this time. What did he hear on the news, something like a billion animals were killed in the fires raging across Australia?

The snow was intensifying, and now Foxx walked closer to Delacourt’s house. The landscaping that sonuvabitch had paid for was really something: bunches of native prairie grasses, big slabs of native shale wedged into the lawn, young pine trees and a few oaks, all elegantly encircled in white Christmas lights. Foxx walked up the driveway, up the sidewalk, and, leaning against the wide picture window of the porch, stared into Delacourt’s house.

For a straight man in his late fifties or early sixties, Delacourt had a tastefully appointed house. No taxidermy or framed Green Bay Packers jerseys. In fact, there seemed to be a largish Tom Uttech painting on a wall in the foyer, just above a wooden bowl full of pine and sumac cones.

“A fucking Uttech?” Foxx said. “Son-uv-a-bitch.”

By now he was cold and, increasingly, peckish. Stepping carefully, if not awkwardly, into his own boot prints, Foxx returned home. In his own kitchen, trying to be as quiet as possible, he summited a footstool to reach a bowl in the cupboards above the refrigerator where the kids’ Halloween candy was stored. The children had been told a month ago that the candy had all grown stale.

Two pieces, he told himself, no more than two pieces.

Foxx sifted through the bowl, trying to determine if he was more enticed by the notion of chocolate, nuts, and nougat, or sugary fruit—

Alright, four pieces. But no more than four pieces.

He carried the candy into the living room and, settling onto the couch, decided to watch Meru for the sixth or seventh time. Rock-climbing and mountaineering documentaries were a passion of his that no one else in his family shared, and the best of them combined themes of bravery, brotherhood, tragedy, and triumph in ways totally inexplicable to Foxx, who suffered a debilitating fear of heights and a general aversion to discomfort. Aside from climbing the insurmountable summit of Meru—not to mention surviving avalanches, horrific storms, trench-foot, and frostbite—Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk had eaten couscous for days on end in freezing, freezing cold. Couscous!

Now the fourth piece of candy was long gone, and Foxx had once again climbed the footstool and was balancing the candy bowl against this stomach as he rummaged around for peanut butter cups.

He carried six pieces of candy back into the living room and peered out the window into the darkness. Even through the gloom, the snow was visible, and falling harder than ever. In the distance, Delacourt’s house glistened like champagne crystal, festive little lights sparkling through the snow.

Foxx had an idea.

•  •  •  •  •

A month earlier, Amy had dropped him off at a nearby dairy farm where Foxx had noticed a beater pickup truck with a plow attachment for sale. An old farmer hobbled out into the cold on a pair of tragic crutches to give Foxx a full history of the vehicle before confessing that he was selling the beloved truck because he was dying of cancer and drowning in debt. Foxx had written a check for twenty-five hundred over asking, a gesture the farmer found insulting, and for thirty minutes they stood in the farmer’s driveway, arguing, the farmer too proud to take the payment, until at last Foxx seized the old man’s hand, stuffed the check into his fist, said sternly, “You deserve this,” and drove off, embarrassed but unsure what else to do.

For years Foxx had ignored the need for a truck with a plow—a requisite, really, for country living—and instead had hired a snow-removal company. And yet, he’d discovered that plowing, or at least being in the truck, had become something of an obsession. How the truck smelled like that old farmer: sweat, cow shit, dust, hay. In the glove box were maps long since outdated and a pack of Chesterfields Foxx kept like a relic. 

Now Foxx donned his jacket, winter boots, calfskin gloves, and, trudging back to the kitchen, threw another joint and four more pieces of candy in a paper sack before marching out to the truck. Six more inches of snow blanketed the ground.

The truck started sluggishly. Foxx gave the cab time to warm, gave the windshield time to melt all that accumulated snow. In the garage he rooted around for several minutes before finding a shovel and a handsaw, both of which he deposited in the bed of the truck. Slung in the toasty cab, Foxx felt a real sense of purpose and satisfaction electrifying his body. He tuned the FM dial to a classic rock station, dropped the plow, and began clearing his long driveway.

Plowing was something of a hobby for Foxx, a novelty. But he could see another path for his life in which he started a lawn maintenance and snow removal business. Foxx imagined captaining a small crew of four to six damaged, semi-reliable men, marshaling their orders, writing their checks, listening to their tribulations, paying bail to spring one of them from the hoosegow. He lit another joint and considered that life. It was an easy thing to do with the sound of the Allman Brothers filling the cab and the thick snow falling through the haze of his headlights. 

When his driveway was clean, Foxx drove over to Delacourt’s house, and, parking the truck on the road, marched onto his neighbor’s lawn. After evaluating several six-foot-tall spruce trees, he selected one, unplugged its Christmas lights from an extension cord, and cut it down. Foxx dragged the tree to the truck and threw it in the bed, huffing from the effort.

He stared at the sky, hoping it would continue to snow to cover his tracks and the telltale drag mark.

Delacourt’s driveway did not take long to clear, and, when that swath of concrete was clean, Foxx shoveled the sidewalks, carrying snow whenever possible to a point from which he could fling it towards his tracks in the yard. When the work was complete, he stood in the driveway, dripping sweat. He re-lit the joint, inhaled, and coughed rather raggedly. Through the dark, dark night, two lights dimly appeared. Foxx studied their slow approach, utterly mesmerized. Traffic was scant, at this hour, save for last-call at the Cleghorn Keg, a crossroads bar about a mile distant.

Foxx’s reverie dissolved as Delacourt’s truck was nosing into the driveway. He flicked the joint out into the snow and waved, focused on looking normal. Delacourt’s tinted window rolled down, revealing in the passenger seat a woman Foxx recognized from around town.

“Well, Nathan,” Delacourt said, peering around the driveway in disbelief. “I’ll be damned. You did not have to do this.” He turned to the passenger, “Elise, you know my neighbor? Nathaniel Foxx? The writer?”

The lightbulb did not immediately turn on, but then it seemed to warm and flicker, and finally her face broke into a wide, thousand-watt smile. She even clapped her hands excitedly. 

This was old-hat for Foxx, and the novelist lowered his eyes to look at his boots. Midwestern writers were not supposed to have egos.

“Oh sure,” she said, “you’re the firefighter guy. I love that show you do on the radio! Ohmygod!” 

Foxx was not, in fact, the firefighter guy, a talented and beloved man who was a Wisconsin legend, though the two were friends.

“Yes,” Foxx said, humbly. “I surely am.”

“You’re so funny! And talented! Is there anything you can’t do?”

Delacourt cocked his eyebrows a bit, but Foxx guessed that was because he was pondering the fresh-cut tree in the back of his truck rather than his little white lie.

“Merry Christmas, Wayne,” Foxx said, grinning rakishly, snowmelt collecting in his eyebrows and dripping off the tip of his nose. “And Merry Christmas to you too, Elise,” he said, impressed that he could recall her name. “I’ve got to get home now. These books don’t write themselves.”

“Wow,” she said, “when do you rest?”

“Oh,” he demurred, “it’s not working in a coal mine, I assure you.”

“Merry Christmas,” Delacourt mumbled over the window as it rose.

“Keep up the good work!” Elise shouted exuberantly into the night.

“I’ll try,” Foxx said, balancing the shovel on his shoulder and affecting the walk of a man whose daily toil was the most back-breaking labor imaginable, when, in fact, all he really did was write fiction. Lies. The snow stopped falling, as if on cue.

•  •  •  •  •

Amy woke him out of a deep slumber. Foxx had been dreaming of a delicious ham sandwich: a soft, warm, and yielding buttery croissant; yellow mustard and brown mustard; Swiss cheese; a small pile of spicy, crisp arugula; and a few circles of sharp white onion.

“I don’t know how you did it,” she said, sitting on the edge of the bed and running a hand through his thinning hair. “It’s a beautiful tree, Nathan.”

“It was nothing,” he said, turning away from her and burrowing deeper under the covers.

“You made Christmas,” she said, “all by yourself. In the middle of the night.”

He opened his eyes and saw beyond the bedroom window to where bulldozers pushed the sad sticks of a hundred-year-old oak forest into a huge pyre. Already, a plume of black smoke was rising into the blue morning sky.

“Writing,” he yawned, “that’s the hard work.”

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Nickolas Butler was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and educated at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

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