Ann Linquist’s Prompt:
Once upon a time a forty-year-old man named Peter sat under a red maple tree in a secluded corner of his backyard and tried to figure out the meaning of life. He had a happy marriage: Check. He’d found a profession that was reasonably satisfying: Check. Two rather nice children: Check. Saved for their college education: Check. On track to retire in twenty years: Check. Health holding up fine: Check.
So, with his wife and kids out of town at the family reunion he’d preferred to skip, he was on his own this week and on vacation as well. No one was depending on him; no one was expecting him to show up. He had complete freedom for seven days.
He finished his morning coffee and set the mug down on the grass. He ate a cereal bar and stuck the wrapper into the pocket of his wind breaker. He sat. He licked his lips. He sniffed the early autumn air. Now what?
Peter sat under the maple tree in his back yard with a cup of coffee, contemplating the meaning of life. This was the first of seven days of absolute freedom—freedom from work, the wife and kids, and anything else that got in the way.
I can do anything, he realized, and no one would be the wiser, as long as I don’t get arrested.
First thing I’m going to do, he decided, is go over to the Village Inn and have some bacon and eggs. Jen would never allow bacon in the house, so here’s my chance. This is my first little sinful rebellion, he laughed. So, off he went to the Village Inn Pancake House.
“Coffee, black. No, wait. Coffee with real cream and real sugar,” said Peter. “A rasher of bacon and a soft-boiled… no, make that two eggs over medium, rye toast.” He paused. “And a short stack.”
When his feast arrived, Peter savored every last bite, then sat back in the booth with a self-satisfied smile. He tipped the waitress thirty percent, throwing economic caution out the door, and headed home.
Peter got up late, very late, before going to the maple tree to contemplate the meaning of life over a glass of milk. “Before the crack of noon,” as he used to say in college, which was the last time he could remember sleeping so late.
Actually, Peter had to get up several times during the night and use the restroom, thanks to the vast quantity of water he drank yesterday because of the salty bacon. Every time he got up, he’d also had a glass of water with an Alka-Seltzer fizzing in it, thanks to the unaccustomed fat intake at breakfast.
As he drank the milk, he remembered Al, the guy at work who always had the hottest stories about the strip club across town. That’s what I’ll do, he decided, and off to the strip club he went—after looking up its address in the phone book. The stink of cigarette smoke almost changed his mind when we walked in, but he decided he could tolerate it for one night on the town.
“Bud Lite,” he said to the barely-clad girl, then sat back to watch the show. On stage a girl with torn fishnet stockings who looked to be about sixteen was squirming around a pole, somewhat in beat to the horrendously loud music. He tried to catch some of the lyrics, but the singer was screaming and lyric-detecting was impossible. Instead, he concentrated on the girl’s
He caught sight of some guys across the bar. He noticed their buzz cuts and figured they were from the nearby military base. They were partying hearty, perhaps too heartily, Peter realized, and remembered he’d done the same thing before shipping out to Vietnam. He signaled the server and bought a round for the GIs.
When she served it, they turned to Peter with expectant faces. Peter raised two fingers to his eyebrow. The boys did the same, their expressions gone solemn, their shoulders straightened, their jaws rock hard with determination, but with the shadow of fear in their eyes.
It was hard to think of those young men going to war. He left his beer unfinished. It seemed to have gone skunky sometime in the last few minutes.
Peter sat under the maple tree until mid-afternoon, contemplating the meaning of life. Earlier, he’d taken his jacket to the dry cleaners to get the cigarette stink out of it. He threw the rest of the clothes he’d worn into the washer.
Now what? Poker. Yeah, Jim always invites me to poker on Wednesdays, but that’s the night I coach Bobby’s Little League practices so I was never free to attend. So, poker it is.
He called Jim and walked over to his house.
“What’s the ante, guys?” asked Peter. They were in Jim’s garage because Jim’s wife wouldn’t allow cigarettes or cigars in the house, and what’s a poker game without smoke? They also had to keep the overhead doors open, and that let in the mosquitoes.
Later on, fifty bucks poorer, Peter walked home, grabbed a glass of water, and sat under the maple tree, scratching the mosquito bites on his forehead. Fifty bucks, he moaned. For that, I could have taken Jen and the kids to a movie they’ve been wanting to see.
Peter sat under the maple tree, contemplating the meaning of life. He was at a loss as to what to do today. Jen had called late last night. She had her relatives on the line. Peter spoke with her father, Ben, a man he’d come to love as much as his own father.
Darn, he missed that guy. He should have gone to the reunion.
Peter went to bed early that night, but sleep was to find.
Peter sat under the maple with his morning coffee, contemplating the meaning of life. Today and two more, thought Peter. If I’m going to break loose and do something wild, it better be soon.
His gaze crossed the yard and landed on a blue tarp covering a pile of lumber that he’d foolishly bought a few years back. Probably rotten by now, he thought.
Well, that’s what I’ll do today—cut it up for firewood.
When he pulled the tarp off, though, the cedar was a clean as the day he’d bought it. He looked at it for a while, then went back to the maple tree.
Something wild and crazy, he thought, and stayed under the maple tree for a long time.
Peter got up early, feeling like a million bucks. He had a quick cup of coffee under the maple tree, briefly contemplated the meaning of life, then got to his agenda for the day. A half hour later, all the neighborhood guys showed up with their toys.
“Man Cave day!” declared Henry and the others cheered.
Peter sat under the maple tree with his coffee, contemplating the meaning of life.
He finished his coffee, then hustled about cleaning up the evidence of Man Cave day.
Peter had to skip his morning contemplation of life under the maple tree because Jen’s plane arrived at 6:30 A.M. Life-contemplating would have to wait, he decided.
He parked the car in the driveway, unloaded the suitcases, and followed his family into the house. “I missed you guys, really missed you. I have something to show you,” he said, and led the way to the back door. “This is for you.” He opened the door onto the beautiful, exquisite multi-level cedar deck. He’d even gone to Home Depot and bought some potted plants to dress it up.
Later that day, his kids yelled and shouted down from their new tree house in the maple, “We love it, Dad! It’s the best tree house ever. We love it!”
A leaf with the first blush of autumn landed in Peter’s lap while he and Jen sat under the maple tree enjoying the meaning of life. He laughed, knowing the leaves were going to have to hang on tightly this season if they were going to survive two rambunctious kids playing in the arms of the old maple tree.