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Falling Leaves

William Rausch's "Falling Leaves" is the grand-prize winner of the 2008 Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards. To read more about Rausch and other category winners, click here.

I still remember that cool Sunday morning in May when she and I planted our little tree. A dewy fog hung over the ground like meringue, refusing passage to the sun’s warming rays. After two cups of coffee and aimless meandering about our scant front yard, we finally agreed on the exact spot. The perfect location. Little did I know how dramatically the leaves on that small sapling would impact the rest of my life.

“So, what do you say we move in together? Just you and me,” I managed to say without slurring as I looked at her across the table at the Riffraff, the smoky little college bar we frequented after cutting classes on Friday afternoon.

“Well … I don’t know,” she replied, being more coy than unsure. “It sounds like a mighty big commitment to me.”

“Shelly,” I pleaded trying not to sound whiny. “It’s not a commitment at all. It’s just that it makes perfectly good sense. It’s the logical thing to do. It’s…it’s…an arrangement. That’s it, an arrangement.”

“Well, that certainly doesn’t sound very romantic does it?”

I took another drink of my beer (what was it…the fourth…fifth?). “OK then, it’s a romantic arrangement. Like in that book we read in World Lit by some French guy. What was it…Madame Bowery or something?”

Madame Bovary,” she came back with her infectious laugh. “Honestly Benjamin. You engineers can build a bridge to China but cannot remember anything about a book unless if has numbers and formulas and stuff.”

I laughed at myself along with her as I looked deep into her eyes (hoping that mine were focused) and repeated, “So…what d’ya say? Let’s do it.”

“Ben you are insufferable. What am I going to do with you?”

“You, my dear, are going to move in with me, that’s what,” I smiled back. And then, attempting to justify the practicalities of this “arrangement” I added, “Look Shelly, with graduation only a few weeks away and no one exactly beating down our doors with job offers, it makes perfect sense. Look at the money we’ll save. You know what they say; two can live cheaper than one.”

She suddenly became very quiet and I saw “The Look” in her eyes. Either what I said made sense or I completely pissed her off. Shelly was funny that way. There was always a quiet, reflective pause before the storm. All one could do was sit back and wait to see which way the winds were about to blow. Then it was either a hug or run for cover.

She picked up her nearly empty glass of Sam Adams, drained it and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth in such a way that would make even John Wayne proud. She swept a wisp of strawberry blond hair back to where it belonged and looked at me with those penetrating emerald green eyes. “OK pardner (still with the John Wayne thing), let’s do this. Tomorrow morning. My place at eight o’clock sharp. And don’t be late. Bring a truck.” Then her broad smile broke into laughter as we shook hands on the arrangement.

“Jimmy! Be careful with that box. It has those Wal-Mart wine glasses packed inside. They are the only things I have that are made out of real glass and I don’t want them broken.” Shelly barked at Jimmy Allison, my best buddy and the only person I knew who actually owned a pick-up truck. It wasn’t much to look at and it smoked like a steel mill, but it still ran...sort of. He carefully placed the box in the front corner of the old ’86 Dodge.

“Geeze Shelly,” he said. “Don’t get so excited. I haven’t broken even one dish in my apartment since our freshman year.”

“That’s really amazing Jimmy,” she shot back. “Considering that all of your mismatched stuff is vintage yard sale plastic.”

Everything that she owned, books, records, clothes, dishes, pots and pans, blankets and sheets, a ten-speed bicycle, and two cats fit into the back of Jimmy’s truck. She personally supervised the loading of nearly a dozen back-breaking boxes of books. They were prized possessions that she collected through four years of haunting the various second hand book stores and flea markets that invariably pop up in the bohemian neighborhoods that surround most college campuses. We looked like the Beverly Hillbillies rolling down some L.A. boulevard with the swaying top layer precariously secured with twine and yellow plastic rope. Jimmy and I prayed that it would hold on for the treacherous fourteen block journey to my place. We wrapped the contents of the fridge with her Mickey and Minnie bed spread. Nothing thawed or even got warm.

Later that night, after Jimmy left, a light rain started to fall. While we picked up the empty pizza boxes and beer cans, she took me by the hand and pulled me close to her. “Benjamin, I’m so happy that we decided to make this … this arrangement between us. But just so you know where I’m coming from, I really meant what I said about no commitment. Let’s just keep it light and fun. OK?”

“Shelly, that’s fine with me. Nothing has changed between us as far as I’m concerned. It’s just that this makes more…”

“I know, I know. It just makes sense,” she smiled.

“Yeah, that’s it. It just makes sense. But it doesn’t mean that we still can’t get a little crazy, does it?” I smiled back as I pulled her toward the bedroom.

We awoke to a damp, chilly Sunday morning. The sky was gray and overcast with the remnants of an overnight thunder storm, a window rattler complete with its own pyrotechnics. After a hot shower together, we sat on the front porch swing with a hot cup of coffee steaming in our hands as we cuddled under a lap blanket. I watched her from the corner of my eye as she quietly surveyed the surroundings of her new home. Something was troubling her. Something was not right.

“Ben,” she suddenly blurted out. “We need a tree. This yard … just look at it. It’s empty. It’s naked. We need a tree.”

I looked out from the old brick lined porch, past my trusty ten speed bike. For the first time since I moved in, I did not simply see two symmetrical rectangles of weedy grass dissected by a cracked walk way. It was my little front yard. No. Now it was our little front yard and it was, well … naked.

“Honey, you’re right. I guess I just never noticed it before. It does kinda look bare.”

“Naked is a better description Ben. The sonofabitch is just down right naked.”

“Well, then let’s go out and get us a tree or bush or something,” I said. “The landlord shouldn’t give a shit. I mean, what the hell can he do? Dig it up?”

I helped Shelly make our breakfast of eggs, hash browns and fried fish that she caught herself (don’t ask, it’s a Sunday morning tradition in her family. Her dad is a little weird). Then, after a pillow fight which started after she insisted that we make up the bed, even though it was just a mattress laying flat on the floor, we finally got dressed. I went out back to the musty dirt-floor garage and found an old rusty shovel that I borrowed from my neighbor, Professor Phillips, a retired geology professor. I threw it in the car along with a tarp and some twine.

I backed the car around to the front. Shelly came bouncing down the porch steps wearing a floppy red knit stocking hat that her aunt Mildred knitted for her dad, but she claimed for herself. She found my old rubber boots on the back porch which were at least three sizes too big and extended nearly to her knees. She almost tripped as she came sloshing across the muddy front lawn. Finally, with Shelly in the front and the shovel in the back, we were ready to go.

The Volvo splashed its way around potholes filled to the brim in the deserted rain soaked streets. We eventually found our way down to her favorite fishing hole at Mills Creek. It’s a storybook little stream that meanders through the countryside, oblivious to property lines and fences. We parked the car a safe distance away and started hiking along the rain swollen banks gushing with root beer colored water in search of the perfect tree. One that we would adopt. That’s how Shelly put it.

“Honey, we must have passed a million trees by now,” I whined as we continued trudging through the mud and weeds.

“I’ll know it when I see it,” Shelly said with just a hint of consternation in her voice. “Don’t be so impatient Ben.”

We hiked another hundred yards or so when suddenly she stopped. The clouds parted just enough to permit a single shaft of sunlight to fall on a small maple tree. It was clinging precariously to the river’s edge with claw-like roots. Many of its swollen buds had already burst open to reveal tiny, perfectly shaped leaves. The leaves that would soon control my fate.

“That’s it Ben. That’s our tree,” Shelly squealed with excitement as she ran up to it.

“Careful Shelly, you’re awfully close to the edge there. It’s a little too early in the year for a swim,” I cautioned.

She rolled her eyes at me but stepped back anyway. She reached out and tenderly held one of its branches in her hand. “Oh Ben, we have to adopt this one. It’s just perfect. Will it fit in the car?”

Fortunately I drove an old ’74 Volvo station wagon. The cargo area would easily accommodate our new baby. I carefully dug around the roots in the wet sandy soil, remembering how my father taught me to preserve as much of the root system as possible. He was constantly transplanting shrubs, flowers, and bushes in our yard to satisfy mother’s ever changing botanical whims. We carefully wrapped the muddy root ball with an old blanket and secured it with a web of twine.

We turned into the driveway just as the clouds dropped from the sky and hugged the ground. They would remain there for most of the day. By noon our little tree was planted and staked. After a hot shower, we sat on the front porch and admired our adopted baby like a pair of doting suburban parents.


“Yes,” I answered.

“Thank you.”

“Oh Shelly, you don’t need to thank me. It was fun. And you were right. This old yard really needed it. It looks great.”

She looked out at our little tree with her beautiful green eyes that nearly matched the rich hew of the newly formed leaves. As I studied her eyes I knew something was about to get said. Something serious.

“You know Ben; I’ve been thinking about our little…what did you call it?”

“What did I call what?”

“You know, our living together thing?”

“What…you mean our arrangement?”

“Yes, our arrangement. I mean our romantic arrangement,” she corrected herself. “Ben, you know that I think an awful lot about you. And I do believe that someday this arrangement could grow into something much more meaningful. But somehow, I’m just not sure that I want to rush into anything, you know, long term. Not just yet.”

“Baby, I know that,” I offered. “Remember, we both agreed, no commitment.”

“Exactly, no commitment,” she smiled back with the knowing expression I had come to love during the past three years with her. “So Benjamin, here’s what I am thinking. You see our little tree out there?”

“Yeah,” I muttered, somewhat puzzled as to where this was going.

“Well,” she paused, “I will stay with you until those shiny new leaves turn fire red next autumn and fall to the ground. Then…I have to go. OK?”

“Well…sure Shelly,” I reluctantly replied. “But why? I don’t get it.”

“Because, my dear Benjamin, I have to go off on my own for a while, out into the world as writers put it, and experience…oh, I don’t know what. This is all going to come out wrong. I have to experience life I guess. I have to see what it’s like out there for just me. Michelle O’Hara. No college, no academic incubator. No mom, no dad.” Then she paused and bit her lower lip. “And…I’m sorry. No Ben. Just Shelly and the big bad world. You know…discovery.”

I was so stunned that I sat there quietly on that creaky old porch swing with my arms wrapped tightly around her. I found myself unable to respond. Me. Mr. Big Time Engineer Guy who could explain anything. Just give me a calculator and I could figure it out. But this was something else. Suddenly my heart felt empty. “But…Shelly” I started to say.

“Honey, don’t. This is one time you just cannot explain it. And you don’t have to. There are no physical laws, no formulas. It’s just me. It’s just this.” Then she tenderly took my hand and placed it over her heart.

Slowly, I was beginning to understand. A dim light bulb clicked on above my head like you see in the comics. It sort of made sense. I didn’t like it, but I knew that I had to somehow accept it. “Then I, er … I mean, we have until the leaves fall to the ground. Right?” I asked with a tear tracing a shiny path down my cheek.

“There ya go Ben, now you’re beginning to understand it,” she sniffled. “See, that gives us four or five months. Promise me that we will just hold this in our hearts and not talk about it again. What do you say we just live day to day and go and have us one hell of a summer?”

And we did exactly that. We graduated at the end of the month (Shelly, cum laude) and spent the summer fiddling away at our part-time jobs to make rent and groceries while we both continued looking for full time positions. Many of our college friends moved away to new jobs, those that were fortunate enough to get one. Others simply moved back home with frustrated parents. But some die-hards like us remained behind, near the campus, unable or unwilling to cut the umbilical that tied us to the only life we had known. As the months and the summer heat wore on, we all stayed close. We met at the Riffraff for beer and pizza or deliberated the world’s political woes over some smoky backyard grill.

Shelly and I nearly wore out the porch swing that summer. On the steamy hot nights, our stuffy apartment forced us outside to seek the slightly cooler air. We slowly rocked back and forth to the mesmerizing screech of the rusty chains accompanied by a chorus of crickets. In the silvery moonlight we held each other as we drank in the stillness of the night. The stillness in our hearts.

Soon autumn was upon us and the cycle of campus life continued. The neighborhood was invaded by old familiar faces returning to their old familiar apartments reserved with nothing more than a promise. Countless fixed-income widows were as eager as the students themselves for the fall semester to begin. Shiny new faces also appeared. Freshmen with the much coveted dorm waivers knocked unsuccessfully upon any promising door, only to be pointed in the direction of the next neighborhood. And the next, and the next. Each farther and farther from the campus.

Then it happened. It was October 12th. I dreaded the day. Our little red maple finally lived up to its name. Slowly at first, but with inexorable obedience to Mother Nature, it transformed itself into a brilliant fire ball. Any day now, its leaves would carpet the ground below. Our date with destiny would soon be upon us.

“Ben, I’m going to the store for a few things,” she yelled up the narrow stairs to me as I was fidgeting unsuccessfully with a new black and orange tie. It was the only tie that I had. Shelly bought it for me. She said it was a Halloween tie. I was getting ready for my first day on the job with a small engineering firm that saw something in me that other, more prestigious firms had somehow missed. Their office was a mere ten blocks from our house which meant that I could ride my bicycle to work.

“I can’t think of anything,” I yelled back. “What the heck do we need? I thought we pretty well stocked up last Saturday.”

“Oh, you’re fine. I just need some tape and stuff. Plus, I forgot to get my prescription filled.”

Then I remembered, “Hey, could you please get me a can of shaving cream. I didn’t realize that this one was almost empty.”

“Maybe that’s because you never used it all summer, Slick!”

I smiled as I smeared a clear spot and peered out of the steamy bathroom window to watch her drive off. Reluctantly I looked at the tree which I had been avoiding all week. Nearly half of its scant leaves had already fallen to the ground and were lying under its scrawny branches fading to brown. Dead and lifeless. By the end of the week it would be almost bare. Naked. As Shelly liked to put it.

What ever would I do without her? What could possibly fill the void she would leave in her wake? We had crammed through finals together for three years of college. Six wonderful semesters. We held hands in movies, in umbrella-less rain storms, and in grocery store check-out lanes. We laughed at corny movies, corny jokes, and corny friends. We cried at her grandmother’s funeral. We cried as we watched a rented Bogart and Bacall movie, and we cried when her mother called and told us about her breast cancer. We had shared so much. And soon she would be leaving. Walking out of my life. Would she ever come back? Damn those leaves.

My first day on the job went well…I guess. I found myself drifting off and unable to focus on what the HR manager was trying to explain about policies, benefits, vacations, and sick day provisions. It was all just bureaucratic nonsense that my engineer’s brain found difficult to comprehend. My supervisor showed me to my cube that I thought more closely resembled a cell, but without the obvious bars. As he departed he told me that I needed to attend a three o’clock conference. Sort of introduce me to “the gang”, as he put it.

After some perfunctory introductions around the massive conference table and all of the “new guy” wise cracks, the gang, as it turned out, needed to discuss a new water conservation project. So the little conference ran long. I specialized in an area that was directly involved with this project, located somewhere in one of those Western states (Utah, I think). I was assigned as one of the team members. Rod Katowsky, the team leader, asked me to stay afterward to discuss some of the details and his expected time lines and goals.

By the time Rod and I finished it was already dark and I was late getting home from my very first day on the job. As I pedaled into the driveway my heart stopped when I noticed that the house was also dark. I ran up the porch steps carrying my bike and shoved it into the corner. I rushed in the front door.

“Shelly, I’m home,” my heart was pounding. “Honey…”

“Up here, Mr. Big Shot Engineer Guy.”

“Thank god”, I whispered to myself as I ran up the stairs. I rushed through the bathroom door, trying to catch my breath as the hot moist air steamed my glasses. There she was, lounging in the tub under a mountain of suds, calmly shaving her legs. “Just wanted to be sure that your new can of shaving lotion worked,” she smiled through the steamy glow of candle light. “So, how was your first day on the job?”

“Oh, pretty good I guess. This wonderful tie that you bought for me finally stopped itching about noon. The boss already assigned me to work on some big-ass project out in Utah or some place,” I said flatly.

“Well, don’t sound so enthused. What’s the matter, baby? You should be proud of yourself,” she smiled and then paused a bit. “Hey, you’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking, are you?”

“What?” I stammered, a little defensively at first. Then I confessed, “Hell yes. As a matter of fact I am thinking what you’re thinking I’m thinking … geeze, did that come out right? Anyway, what do you expect me to do? It’s been on my mind every day for the past two weeks. That damn little tree out there is almost naked!”

“Come here, you number crunchin’ dude,” she motioned for me to come closer to the candle enshrined tub. “Let me give you a big kiss and then I’ll climb out of here and we’ll go downstairs to the kitchen for your favorite dinner.”

She faked the kiss and playfully smeared a dollop of Barbasol on the tip of my nose while I still had my eyes shut. I splashed her and got a little too enthusiastic and drenched half of the candles. They sizzled and spit as I made a fast retreat to the bedroom and changed into my sweats. Shelly dried herself and wrapped up in a thick white terry cloth bath robe and pink bunny rabbit slippers. I heard her snicker to herself as she took me by the hand and led me down the narrow stairway.

When we entered the darkened kitchen, I saw several plastic grocery bags filled with junk that she was relegating to the recycle bin. For some reason my flashlight was lying on the table next to them.

“What the hell’s this?” I asked her. “Hey, Shelly, what’s going on here? I don’t smell your famous Irish spaghetti sauce.”

“You just never mind buster,” she said with an impish grin. “Just grab that flashlight and follow me.”

As I took the flashlight from the table I noticed that one of the bags had several empty tape spools in it. Obviously she had been busy all afternoon with her packing.

“Come on slowpoke,” she yelled from the front door. “And don’t you dare turn on the porch light. I don’t want Professor Phillips seeing me like this.”

I stumbled into the already frosty air. “OK Shelly. What the hell is brewing in that devious little mind of yours?”

“Turn on that flashlight and hush up,” she ordered.

I did.

“Now, shine it out on our tree.”

I did.

The penetrating beam of light danced across a frosty carpet that had been nothing more than dry grass a few hours ago.

I couldn’t believe my eyes! It must have taken her all afternoon. But there it was, right in front of me. The most beautiful tree I had ever seen.

She had lovingly taped every fallen leaf back onto its branches!

“Welcome home sweetie,” she said as she wrapped her arms around me. “Ready for some dinner?”

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