Written for /r/WritingPrompts upvoted contest.
I was stumbling back home from the bar when I saw him in the park planting trees. It was well past midnight, and miserably cold and drizzling rain, but I wasn’t surprised to see him out there. If you knew Jerry like I did, you wouldn’t have been surprised either.
I ran across the park, my feet slipping and sliding across the wet grass. He saw me coming and tossed his shovel to the side. We hugged tightly.
“It’s been months, Jerry.” I let him go and pounded him on the back. “How was your trip?”
“Fantastic.” His eyes shined with the inner fire I remembered so well.
“Where did you go? Tell me all about it.”
He waved his hand as though to encompass the world. “Overseas. I went so many places. ” He looked up at the dark night sky and studied the gravid clouds. He shook his head. “You wouldn’t believe what I’ve seen. There’s no words.”
I looked at the dozen saplings spread out around him. “What are you planting?”
“Trees I got from the back of a catalogue. You know how regular trees breathe in used air and recycle it?” I nodded. “Well, these trees breathe in bad shit—you know, guilt, shame, anger, hate, all that—and breathe out good stuff.”
“You bought these out of the back of a catalogue?” I laughed. “Man, no one buys shit out of catalogues anymore.”
He grinned, his teeth flashing in the park’s lamplight. “You don’t know what y’all are missing out on.”
He held out a shovel to me. I took it from him. The wood handle was slick with raindrops and it nearly slipped from my hand. He picked up his shovel and we worked next to one another, digging holes in the moist, loamy soil.
When the holes were dug, I set my shovel aside and wiped the rain and sweat from my face. I picked up one of the saplings and spun it around, studying its barren limbs. Its bark was warm under my fingers.
“You know, Jerry?”
“You ever think people need the bad shit? Like, if we lost that, what would take its place?”
He looked at me and laughed. “Man, you are drunk as hell.”
I joined him and our laughter spread across the empty park, echoing between the lamp poles and the tree trunks.
Some days when I pass the park, I look at the trees we planted. They’ve grown in the years since then. Their roots dug into the soil, their branches spread wide, and their trunks fattened. The birds won’t roost in them and there are never any leaves on their branches. Their shimmering black trunks reflect the light in an odd sort of way, and they tower above the other plants that grow thin and scraggly as they reach for the sun.
Those days I look at the trees and I think about that night. But then I look around at the children playing, and all the parents sitting in a circle watching them with small, easy smiles frozen on their faces. I see the policeman leaning against the lamp pole, his hat tipped over his eyes as he sleeps, the cobwebs draped across his nightstick and gun. A serene silence envelops us: the cicadas I used to listen to are gone. They stopped singing the night we planted the trees.
And Jerry’s lying in the middle of the circle of trees like he always is. He looks pleased. Though the fire left his eyes a long time ago, his grin is still there and it’s a hell of a lot easier to see since his skin dried up and pulled back from his teeth.
And after all this I walk down to the bar like I always do and I stare into my empty glass and I laugh.
Jerry always made me laugh.