The Arborist

Stephen Benzel


        The arborist was to be at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Simon Delahanty at ten in the morning. He looked at his father’s brass pocket watch to see that it was half past nine, realized he would be twenty minutes early, and pulled his truck to the side of the road. He took off his broad-rimmed hat and scratched his fingers through his thick hair, easing the tension of a long drive on poor roads. Now that the truck had stopped, a fly had found its way into the cab, settling on the driver’s forehead, and he brushed it away. His wife’s cornbread muffins lay wrapped in a green napkin on the seat next to him; he took one out, carefully refolded the napkin, and ate the muffin slowly.


The sun shining warmly through the passenger window, added to a slight

breeze kissing his cheek from the other side, endeavored to make Matthew Brown drowsy. He missed the vigor of his youth, and the slow trip through unknown country had spent the energy of that morning’s breakfast and the previous night’s rest. It was not often that his work took him so far from home, and he knew he would worry about his family all day, but they were desperate for the money. The considerable sum the Delahantys had promised above his usual rate, as well as his affection for northern Kentucky, had prevailed over his misgivings and his daughters’ pouty faces. For their sake, he hoped that the day’s task would be simple and quick, although he did not expect it.


The fly, or one like it, returned, and Matthew studied it quietly as it traveled along the circumference of his steering wheel. He watched the fly for some time, wondered about it, and eventually it flew away. He looked at his pocket watch, and it read a quarter till ten, and he was suddenly afraid he could have misjudged the remaining length of the trip, making him late. He quickly started the truck and continued his journey. No one had passed by him during his respite.



The farmhouse sat on a slowly sloping hillside. Thick woods flanked it from behind and from the left, and to the right of the long drive up to the house stretched farmland, as far as Matthew’s vision would take him. The drive circled in front of the house, and this is where he parked his truck and first set his foot on the Delahanty land, at nine fifty-six.


The house had two stories and looked natural enough to have grown there from a seed. A railed porch hugged the front and sides of the house and, he assumed, the back as well. The white-painted wood was broken up by black shudders, black roof, and a bright red chimney, and both sides of the house were nearly overgrown with bushes and small evergreens. An old weathered barn rested off to the left, its boards warped and separating, as though the barn was shedding a skin. An old dog lay by the barn door, watching the truck as it approached.


The screen door opened, and a tall woman in a light blue dress appeared, her hair tied up neatly and her feet adorned in white heeled shoes. She greeted him with a welcoming smile and a glass of ice water.


“Good morning, Mr. Brown. Right on time, I appreciate that. I’m Alice Delahanty. Take some water; it’s hot as Hades today.”


“Thank you, ma’am.” He considered his client as he drank. Her accent told him she was not an original Kentuckian, and that she came from somewhere farther south, perhaps Alabama. He thought she was pretty, and imagined she had been very beautiful in her youth. Her fingernails were painted, she wore make-up, and she was dressed far nicer than she needed to be, all habits that he deemed admirable in a woman, habits his own wife had disregarded more and more as the years passed. Mrs. Delahanty was older than him, but her face showed few wrinkles and she glided quite gracefully, conveying youthful vitality.


“Mr. Brown, I’ve been thinking on this all morning, so please indulge me. What is the name of your profession? I mean, I know you’re called an arborist, but what is the name of the field in general? Arboristry? Please, I’m a glutton for knowledge of the English language, I do apologize.”


Matthew was surprised by this strange direction in which she immediately lead him, so it took a moment before he answered, smiling. “Ma’am, I just call it tree care, but I reckon you could call it arboristry, that might be the word. Arboriculture is another you might use.”


“Arboriculture? Why, I hadn’t thought of that. Splendid.”


He took another drink of the cold water, and she stood watching him. It seemed to Matthew that she had trouble looking him in the eye, and that she appeared nervous. Perhaps she’s not used to greeting strange men, he thought, and wondered if Mr. Delahanty was nearby. His gaze left her and went searching the yard around the house.


“If you’re ready, I can take you to the subject, Mr. Brown.”


“Yes ma’am.”


“Please, please call me Alice.”


She led him around the side of the house, through a path congested by bush and vine, and behind the house appeared a grand white oak, a hundred yards away, half way to the line of trees that watched over the hill. It was over a hundred feet tall and nearly as wide, and the only tree between the house and the forest behind. Two months of summer had filled the branches out completely, and the crown made a deep green circle against the blue sky.


“Isn’t she lovely?”


“Yes ma’am. You’re right to want to preserve this one. She’s as tall as any white oak you’ll see, and her canopy has a real nice shape to it. And I think I can see from here what you’re worried about.”


Mrs. Delahanty led Matthew up the hill to inspect the tree. He noticed she had discarded her white heels. “May I ask if Mr. Delahanty is around today?” He walked behind her, and could not see her face, but he could tell that she tensed and slowed her pace for a moment. She recovered almost immediately and continued towards the tree.


“Mr. Delahanty passed away nearly a year ago.”


He scowled at himself and silently cursed his foolish mouth. “Ma’am, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. It’s just my wife wrote ‘Mr. and Mrs.’ when she took the address. I’m sure she just made a mistake.”


She didn’t respond, and Matthew was sure he had wounded her with his inquiry. Still she marched toward their goal, graceful as ever, and he vowed to speak of nothing but trees, branches, and leaves for the remainder of his stay.


When they reached the great white oak, she finally spoke, clearly and calmly. “I’m sure your wife made no mistake, Mr. Brown. I’ll not have her suffer the consequence of my foolishness. My husband’s passing is still with me, and it is a struggle to cope with it. I’m sure I said ‘mister and missus’ because the thought of being only a missus is too much to bear.”


“Yes ma’am, I understand. Again, I’m real sorry.”


“Let’s look at this old girl here.”


“Yes ma’am.”


The trunk of the tree split into two large branches very near the base of the trunk, about eight feet from the ground. The two main branches curved up and out from the trunk, and from these two sprang more branches, and yet more from those, until hardly an inch of blue sky shone through.


“Ma’am, this is what we call a split crotch. Where the tree splits right here, all the weight of the canopy is tryin’ to split it more and more, till it can’t hold it no more. And since both sides of the tree are as big as they are, it catches a lot of wind too, and that just makes it worse. All that wind pushin’ it just adds to the burden on this union right here.”


“And is there anything that can be done?”


“Yes ma’am, we can tie the two mains together with a cable, about two-thirds the way up, and that’ll strengthen the whole tree. And I’ll get up there and prune the dead limbs and even some of the live ones, so it won’t catch so much wind. But she’s a strong tree, I can tell. These split crotches can doom a tree sometimes, but this one is strong.”


She smiled at him, looking genuinely relieved. “That’s wonderful news, Mr. Brown. Thank you. Do you need anything from me to get started?”


“No ma’am. I’ll just pull my truck around here and get to it.”


“Oh, please call me Alice, Mr. Brown.”


“Yes ma’am.”


It was a long, hot job for the arborist. He had worked on trees as tall and wide as this one, but it was always difficult work. It took almost three hours to secure the cable across the span between the branches, and another four to prune away the surplus of limbs. Mrs. Delahanty watched him from the back porch all day long. He took a break at one, when she brought him a lunch of pork chops, lima beans, mashed potatoes, and lemonade. Despite her urging to come inside, he ate his meal quickly under the shade of the tree, and climbed back up as soon as he was finished.


At half past five, he stood between the house and the white oak, examining the new look of the canopy. He circled it, keeping the same distance between man and tree, assuring himself that he had done his job well. After taking the discarded limbs and foliage to the woods, he walked towards the farmhouse, where she stood on the back steps.


“Well done, Mr. Brown. She looks beautiful. I was afraid your work would leave her thin and spare, but you have improved her.”


“Thank you, ma’am. I reckon she’ll stand there a long time.”


“Won’t you come in and have some supper before you leave?”


“Beg pardon, but I’m eager to get back to the family. It’ll already be nearin’ nine o’clock before I get back.”


“Oh, of course, I’m sorry. I should have realized what a burden this was for you. Let me fetch your payment and you can get back to that family of yours.”


She returned with a white envelope, and handed it to him; he did not open it.  “Thank you, ma’am.”


“Thank you, Mr. Brown.”


Matthew got in his truck, thinking about the cornbread muffins, and turned the key. The truck started, faltered, and quit. He turned the key again and the truck would not start. Over and over again he turned the key unsuccessfully. He got out and examined the engine, anger and frustration making the heat of the day more unbearable than tree-climbing ever could. He diagnosed the problem quickly and, though his faith would not allow him to swear, he may have clinched his teeth a little harder than a good Christian should. He looked up at the house to see Mrs. Delahanty standing in the doorway.


“Is there a problem, Mr. Brown?” she shouted.


“Yes ma’am,” he said quietly.



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Story Copyright © 2006 Stephen Benzel. All rights reserved.