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  • Lesser Crimes
  • Helen Elaine Lee (bio)

The chainsaw ripped through gauzy sleep. 7:03, and I couldn’t recall anyone murdering the Saturday morning peace this early or this loudly.

Weekdays were often ravaged by the sounds of tearing down and building up and out, by sanders and nail guns, saws and drills. Aluminum ladders expanding and contracting. Grumbling motors and idling trucks. The incessant noise often made the newspaper column I worked on in my makeshift home office a mere aspiration. Home improvement in mid-Cambridge never stopped for long. There was always another kitchen upgrade to granite and stainless steel taking place, another open-plan family room addition coming into being, a top-of-the-line Toto toilet going in. There seemed to be endless ways and endless means to reclaim and improve the turn of the century frame houses and multi-family dwellings on our block, but rehabilitation usually paused on weekend mornings.

The chainsaw snarled. Stopped. Started up again. I rose from the soft warmth of the bed, my feet shocked by the mid-October chill of the floorboards. From the window I saw Bernice, from two houses down, standing at her backyard fence, her hands on her floral, house-coated hips, and I could tell that she was shouting at the man in the bucket of the cherry picker that was high up in the huge, bottle brush arms of the magnificent pine tree that grew in the yard between our two small green refuges. The silenced chainsaw dangled from his hands. I couldn’t hear what Bernice was saying, and the only noise was the percussion of my own heart. The tree, twice the height of our building, had a wound, raw and pale, where a limb had shaded two backyard plots the last time I looked.

As I raised the window, I saw Bernice kick off her slippers and climb the chain link that marked the line between what was hers and what now belonged to our new neighbors, the Morleys. Bernice’s housecoat snagged on the top of the fence as she went over, but undeterred, she snatched it free and landed, her feet in white ankle socks, in the Morleys’ yard. Her gray hair was standing up on top and mashed in back.

“Just what in God’s name do you think you’re doing?” she yelled.

The response came not from up high, but from a hard-hatted man on the ground. He took off the headphones protecting his ears and approached her. “Maham,” he said, the polite word at odds with his harsh, dismissive tone, “you need to keep back.”

Bernice’s fury lit her face. She stayed put.

“Lady, he said more loudly, taking a step toward her, “for your own safety, return to your yard.”

Bernice reached out to him, her palms upturned. “You can’t just cut down our tree. There must be some mistake.”

I could hear the irritated amusement in his voice as he said, “Look, lady, we’re just doing what we’re paid to do. Don’t yell at us for taking it down.” [End Page 35]

“But . . . but what will these people,” Bernice said, gesturing toward the Morleys’ house, “these people who just bought this house, what will they have to say about it?”

The man tilted his head back and laughed, and then began to walk away with what looked to me like a swagger. “Who do you think hired us?”

I felt my son Nathan’s shoulder leaning against mine. “What are they doing to Anthony?” he whispered, using the name he had given the tree, four years earlier, with the nine-year-old exuberance that had since given way to teenage nonchalance. It was hard to break through his remoteness these days, but he was unguarded and distressed now. And I couldn’t remember when he had last called the tree by name. I closed the window and tried to steer him to the kitchen. “Why don’t we go make some breakfast?” I said, “Pancakes, cornbread, cheese grits. . .” But he pulled away from my grasp, informing me that I didn’t need to protect him from “everything...


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pp. 35-43
Launched on MUSE
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