Oracle Park has one tree. It’s a little non-fruiting cherry that seems nervous because cherry trees usually grow in numbers. They typically line parkways and chatter amongst themselves like a backstage gaggle of pink-clad chorus girls. By itself, however, a cherry tree seems fretful. Now, a lone wolf oak is expected—for it has a greedy nature that sucks up the best of the soil and hastens the death of the grass around it. But not the cherry; they are used to sharing resources as though they are swapping garters and smoking off the same cigarette. One suspects that without intervention the little cherry in Oracle Park may die of anxiety, or from overdosing on too much sunshine and minerals. If this one survives, it will most likely grow to cast an uneasy shadow.
Holly More sits on Oracle Park’s only bench and does his best to assure the little cherry that everything will be all right. “Come spring, I will bring you a sister,” he says. He’d do so now, but there’s an omen against it: For three days running, the annual eastern Washington lowland wildfires have caused the sun to rise as bloody as Antares. Besides, it’s August, and Holly has always had it in his head that August is an unlucky month in which to sow. “No, we have to wait ‘til spring,” he says. “It’ll be all right. Come winter, you’ll sleep. Having a sister to awaken to will give you something to dream about.”
Holly is a poet, and being such, he has great sympathy for trees: they do so much for people and seldom get more than the axe and poems in return. Poems for, yet on, murdered trees, Holly thinks. He considers writing this in the notebook he has in his back pocket until he remembers what the notebook is made of (the cherry seems agitated enough as it is). Moreover, the idea seems to have come from without, not within—which means he is certain that he’s either read or heard the phrase before. “Too obvious,” he whispers. “Probably first writ the same week verse got invented.”
Most people confuse Oracle Park with a bus stop. Officially nameless, it’s little more than a vacant lot that has had a few dollars thrown at it; and considering its location in Charleston, Washington’s impoverished Torqwamni Hill neighborhood, it’s the type of place at which dime-bags and “rental cuddling” may most likely be purchased after sundown. In Holly’s mind there is only one of everything that exists in Oracle Park: one tree; one bench; one trash can; one swing set; one hedge; one sky, one poet. Being an artist, Holly is attuned to such things, and he has the enviable ability to ignore the facts that contradict his muse. He believes that no poetic image holds up upon too much examination—or under further introspection. After all, there is more than one living thing in the park—billions, if you factor in bacteria. But that too is all right: Poetry is a distilling process; it transforms plentiful pretty lies into single drops of unadulterated truth.
Holly is fifty-six and has achieved a face that’s Albert Einstein via Keith Richards—booze, mostly. Half a lifetime ago, he had been good looking in a fragile sort of way. He had had high cheekbones, which had served as lofty perches for a set of mated blackbird eyes; a smile that had gotten him out of most of the trouble it had caused, and as a serious actor who had studied at the prestigious Cornish Institute of the Fine Arts, he had developed a melodious voice that can still get across from a whisper all the way to the back row. But the same old story that has felled bigger talents dropped Holly, as well. Again—booze, mostly. That and his devouring need to hop from bed to bed, as though there was a Nobel Prize for such an activity waiting for him at the end, combined to kill his theatrical ambitions while they were still in utero.
An impossible bed enters Oracle Park. Holly watches the steady approach of his lifelong best friend and “patron,” Bethlehem Shelby. She is a neatly kempt, small woman who is a year older than Holly but appears much younger. Even though both of them know that Beth is the only reason why Holly isn’t dead, or in jail, or living out his days as an “Almost Person” beneath the Alaskan Way viaduct in nearby Seattle, theirs is an equal, symbiotic relationship in which no advantage may be gained (nor ever used) from ephemeral qualities—such as money and sobriety. Beth has a genius for higher mathematics, which has made her a fortune, and though quick witted, she has never been especially creative. Holly is creative to the point of raising the suspicion of mental illness (he believes in omens and an inner “oracle” that travels with him from place to place); yet when it comes to practicality, he’s someone who could drive a lemonade stand into bankruptcy. Together Holly and Beth form a third person, who is comfortable in silence, and who has the odd knack of speaking frankly in the most round about method possible.
Late summer is Beth’s least favorite time of the year; the air feels unclean, and she can always pick up on a note of affected melancholy in the song of the goldfinch—a perfunctory, rehearsed trill , that sings of a mythical winter that no goldfinch sticks around to see.
Even though it’s only a park in the most technical sense (someone from the city empties the trash once or twice a year), Oracle Park has a fine view of the Port Washington Narrows, which separates East and West Charleston. The Narrows communicates with Philo Bay, which in turn is a subject of the Puget Sound, which eventually leads to the Pacific Ocean, then the world. When they were children, Holly and Beth would sit on the dock at the Philo Bay boat launch and dip their bare feet in the perpetually frigid bay. She’d imagine children sitting on a dock across the globe in Japan, dipping their toes in what was essentially the same body of water.
As always, Beth’s smoking a cigarette. And just as always, her initial remarks to Holly do not match the affection she displays for him in her ineffably large eyes. “Sir Hollyhock,” she says, calling him by the nickname she has had for him (when peeved with him) since their shared childhood on Corson Street, “I’ve been looking for you. Your goddam cell is dead again. I really ought to tie a bell around your neck.”
“The world would be better off with some things uninvented, Woodsy,” Holly says. “Come spring,” he adds, with a motion toward the cherry, “I’m giving this tree a little sister.”
A briefest trace of an ancient annoyance transits Beth’s expressive eyes upon hearing “Woodsy,” but she lets it go. She sits down beside Holly on the bench and glances at the tremulous cherry tree. “That will involve physical labor,” she says, “as in digging a hole, lifting, planting, and making certain that the crows don’t take the sapling apart for their nests. I don’t see you and farming working out well. Still, that bell around your neck might scare off the crows.”
“I aim to do good,” Holly says. “You’ve got to get your senses fouled and hands dirty to do good. Those townies that stretch yoga pants and don pink tutus and go on weekend ‘fun runs’ for the benefit of the unwashed and diseased, think they do good, but they are only being nice. There’s nothing wrong with being nice—you ought to try it sometime, Woodsy—but nice isn’t good. Nowadays, however, I think you are learning that on your own. And you didn’t even have to plant a tree.”
It takes an agile mind, a lockdown memory, and patience to make sense of Holly. Fortunately for Beth, she has the first two qualities to the nth, and enough of the last to get by. Most people think that Holly is bottle-blown, or, at best, desultory; but Beth knows better. Throughout his life, Holly has always sidled up to what is really on his mind through endless, quite often mystifying asides. Before, during and after his long run with drunkenness (which he suddenly and startlingly gave up on without withdrawal or regret three years ago), he has been a verbal puzzle. This happens to the degree that Beth would wonder how he ever got himself across to other people if she didn’t already know that he didn’t bother. About ten years ago Holly went down to The Temple of the Dow Lady Emporium on Corson Street and had two laminated cards made. When he is feeling particularly antisocial, Holly carries them in his back pocket, tucked inside his always present notebook. The most used card has YES on one side, and NO on the other. The second card, the “special card,” caused perpetually composed Beth to laugh until she cried when she first saw it: I’M MUTE. NOT DEAF. AND I DON’T KNOW SIGN LANGUAGE, EITHER—EXCEPT ONE EXPRESSION I’LL DISPLAY IF YOU KEEP TALKING TO ME.
“Isn’t it funny how we’ve come full circle?” Beth says. “When we were kids I’d look for you up here on the hill, first. After I grew up I had to sift through the vile contents of the taverns and whorehouses to get a line on you. I guess finding you up here nowadays must be indicative clean living—that, and the bald fact that you’ve become as useless, down there, as a Tickle Me Elmo doll.”
Holly’s return smile reminds her that it’s time to send him to the dentist for a snugger set of dentures. “You’re getting less touchy about ‘Woodsy,’ Beth,” he says. “It used to take just one to win an ugly reply. Now I’ve got to do it twice. You’ve become better, almost nicer, if not yet good about Woodsy—maybe even quite wise.”
“As wise as an owl?” Beth asks. “As wise as Smoky the Bear’s pal, Woodsy Owl? As wise as ‘give a hoot, don’t pollute’?” Then mostly to herself she mutters, “And the shitty thing about it was that I did look like that goddam cartoon owl.”
“Have you ever heard Poems for, yet on, murdered trees, as a title, or in verse?” Holly, in a typical show of suddenly veering off one subject into another, asks.
Beth brings a kitchen match off the bench and lights a fresh cigarette. Not one to not give a hoot and pollute, Beth lays the butt of her previous cigarette and the spent match inside a tin she carries with her for such purpose. Whenever she is alone, or with Holly, her voice often drops into a thoughtful purr. “Nope,” she purrs. “But it sounds as worn to the cord as one of your old girlfriends. You’d do as well with ‘There once was a tree from Nantucket.’”
”It’s neither nice nor good,” Holly sighs.
“Your Aunt Frances—you do remember your Aunt Frances, don’t you?—thinks that your last book of verse is pretty good. She’s also stunned to see that you’ve actually sold a nice amount of copies of it.”
Holly blinks, and Beth knows that she has caught him off his guard. I guess I’ve jumped the subject on him, the poor dear, Beth thinks. Serves him right for the Woodsy cracks.
The “Aunt Frances” mentioned is currently Beth’s housemate and she’s at the White Pig Tavern watching baseball, nursing a long Mai Tai, trading friendly insults with the human ossuary who owns and runs the joint, and is “gacked to the nines”—albeit in a ladylike fashion—on prescribed marijuana and morphine, which dim the pain caused by terminal cancer. Fran is considered Holly’s aunt in the most stretched kind of way. He’s the son of the sister of Fran’s late husband’s first wife, yet Fran knew Holly long before she had met her husband to be. Fran was closer than a friend or a sister to Beth’s late mother, Harry, and through that relationship she had met and had developed affection for Beth’s little “tag-along” boyfriend, twenty years before she had married Ray Bowers.
“Death is lucky, Bethlehem, the best of the good,” Holly says softly. “The omens and oracle stand for it.”
Beth takes a thoughtful drag off her cigarette. She then gives Holly a playful nudge of the elbow, and a quick blink of a smile. Between You and I, even though its title is possibly as threadbare as the line about murdered trees, is her favorite poem written by Holly. It describes the soul of their mutual knowing, which isn’t composed of mostly secrets, but of an innate understanding of one another’s secret selves. Beth knows about the omens and the oracle that has actual sway in Holly’s beliefs and decisions. And he is the only one who understood early that Beth isn’t gay, as everyone else (Fran and her mother, included) believes, nor is she straight, nor an omnivore, nor even asexual in the strictest sense. A long time ago, after a clumsy, almost perfunctory sexual overture had threatened to extinguish their closeness, something that has always stuck with Beth had clicked in Holly’s mated blackbird eyes. “Oh, Jesus, Beth, I’m sorry. You are love.”
“I need your help with to do good by Fran,” she says.
She reaches out and takes his hand in hers. She again glances up at the little cherry tree. “A few months back, right after Harry died, I considered removing the urn of a jack-off who had been a bastard to her a long, long time ago from the cemetery; I even filched his temporary marker, but nothing else has come of it, yet.”
Holly reacts to this as if Beth had told him she had chosen Kung Pau chicken over pizza for dinner last night; for in the run of their give and take relationship, she isn’t the only one who has to make allowances for peculiar thinking processes.
“Oracle draws a blank on that, Bethlehem; it requires further introspection.”
“Maybe, you’re right about the cherry tree,” she says, “maybe we ought to bring a little sister. Better to get cited for planting on city property than arrested for grave robbing.”
“Come spring,” he says.