Seeing Red

The Surly Little Sumac

As the father of a 10-year-old and a 10-month-old, I have read and will for years to come be reading scads and heaps and oodles of children’s books. Indeed, if it weren’t for those books, I’m pretty sure I would have let oodles drop from my vocabulary long ago. Plenty of other words have spiraled off into oblivion, as I am painfully reminded every time I try to work a crossword puzzle. But oodles remains. Oodles abides. Oodles may end up on my tombstone.

“Of things undone,
I must admit,
the final count is oodles.
But when it’s time,
you’ve gotta blow
this mortal pop stand.

It must be the season that’s got me mulling the boneyard. When icy-fingered autumn puts the touch on your lower spinal/upper gluteal region as you stoop to grab the morning paper, your thoughts tend to run something like this: Man, these sweatpants have got to go…. I should have been a plumber—I’ve got the butt for it…. Death waits in an inky shroud beneath the crimson maple…. Coffee! Coffee still has the power to banish all fears…. Spare me, o Death, at least until I finish my children’s book…. A smoke sure would go nicely with that coffee. If only I hadn’t quit for my health. Still, with Death so nigh and all….

I realize that a guy who thinks such thoughts may not be anyone’s idea of a suitable children’s author. I’m not exactly my own idea of a suitable children’s author, but after reading so many slim volumes from the juvenile genre, a person starts to think it would be a snap to crank one out himself. All you have to do, it appears, is select a subject—animal, vegetable, or mineral—and anthropomorphize it. Give it a name, give it a quest, give it a few quirky pals and mildly intimidating enemies, and off you go. The tough part is finding a fresh protagonist. Choo-choo trains, tugboats, heavy machinery, cats and dogs, bugs and rodents, birds, fish, clouds, rainbows, toys, garden tools, household appliances (e.g., The Brave Little Toaster), cookies, rocks, pencils, underpants—they’re all dead horses, thoroughly beaten. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a book out there somewhere called The Sad Little Butter Wrapper, in which a semi-opaque rectangle of waxy paper suffers through a dark night of the soul because he’s forced to embrace, with his very being, a yellow brick of pure cardiovascular poison. No doubt it ends happily when, after many vicissitudes, he succeeds in plastering himself to a blob of organic tofu.

I wanted to write a book that would communicate to my children—and, ideally, to millions of their demographic peers—my great admiration for fall, or what Keats called the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” I sometimes think Keats must have had a sideline in writing wine labels. Anyway, I wanted to write this book to counterbalance a disturbing habit that had crept into my parenting. Simply put, I had become a nature nag. I was forever hectoring my offspring about the wonders of creation: “Look at that harvest moon! Look at the fog coming off the Mississippi! Look—a hummingbird! Look—an albino squirrel! Look at that sunset! How cool is that? Do you see how”—stealing from Keats again—“the ‘barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day’?” These yelps were generally met with silence and Game-Boy-glazed stares. So, yes, let’s do a book. A book will solve everything!

My main character, I determined after a brief period of brain wracking, would be a tree: a flame-spangled maple, a russet oak, a sunny ginkgo, maybe a bronze beech. Breathtakingly unoriginal? Admittedly. It’s just that I’ve always been a tree guy. I love the whole tree thing—bark, leaves, shade, beauty, the graceful tossing in a brisk wind. A tree would inspire me; a tree would summon forth my most penetrating insights about life and death, spirit and nature, which I would render in simple, eloquent sentences that any child could understand. I decided to name my tree Nicodemus, and that’s when everything went to hell.

“Nicodemus?” said a voice. “Uh, no. Name’s Dave.”

“Who’s there?” I said. “Who is that?”

“I’m your tree,” said the voice. “Well, more of a bush. Sumac. Dave the sumac.”

I had heard novelists talk about unruly characters—characters who don’t follow the author’s intentions, who start saying and doing things the author had never envisioned, who hijack narratives wholesale. That must be what’s happening here, I thought.

“Of course that’s what’s happening here,” said Dave.

“You can read my thoughts?” I said.

Dave made an annoyed, long-suffering sound. “Look,” he said. “This hijacking-the-narrative thing? You want to know when it happens? It happens when your basic premise is stupid. A wise, kindly, colorful tree named Nicodemus? Gag me.”

“Some people might have enjoyed it,” I mumbled.

“Please,” he said. “Give people some credit. Especially kids.”

“Fine,” I said, sulking. “So what’s your story? Just who is Dave the sumac?”

“Dave the sumac is hell on wheels,” he said. “Dave the sumac is autumn’s majesty on a stick, baby. Dave the sumac is red delicious ruby scarlet cherry coral rose, with some flaming highlights along the leaf tips and a few low notes of claret and blood.”

“You’re a good-looking shrub, then. How fantastic for you.”

“Why don’t you lose the attitude?” said Dave. “Look, I know you were hoping for a classic slab of arboreal pulchritude—the whole lone-sentinel-on-a-hazy-blue-hilltop deal. Not in the cards, pal. I’m what you get. I live in a no-man’s land between a warehouse full of FEMA tarps and a metal-stamping plant. There’s a liquor store up the street that caters to the highly price-sensitive shopper. As a consequence, my roots are mulched with shards from bargain hooch jugs. My diet consists of tar-flavored roof runoff, occasionally augmented with an illegal degreasing agent or a warm spritz from a neighborhood tippler. And I’m fine with all that. When fall rolls around and the sun gets lower and the frost gets to work on the ratty grass, I have my apocalypse for a week or two. Which is to say, I take all the light and liquid I’ve been given throughout the year, and I turn it into glory for the likes of you.”

There was a lengthy silence. “I’m starting to think there might not be a children’s book in you,” I said.

“No,” Dave replied, “there isn’t a children’s book in you.”

“Where did you come from, anyway?” I said.

Again Dave made his sound of annoyance. “You remembered me.”

“Huh,” I said, and there it was: a gray October day some 30 years ago, a bite in the air and an ache in my chest. I don’t recall why. A dubious hero had let me down, a girl didn’t like me, life had failed to be all beer and Skittles. I was on a city bus in a not-great part of town, a sorry mope in a molded plastic seat, a sad little butter wrapper who suddenly was given, by the grace of the big side window, one look at true red beauty, a long-enough look to cure him of a few bad habits. He stared and blinked, and his heart relaxed some. And meanwhile, a few rows ahead, a young mother with a very young child was urgently crooning, “Look, honey, look! Look at the fall colors. Have you ever seen anything so pretty?”

Contributing editor Jeff Johnson was once tricked by his elder son into pressing an artificial leaf between the pages of a dictionary.