There were too many trees out back, some so high they were dangerous. If one of those passing storms came, the kind that tore off roofs and stripped shingles, a sky-high pine could definitely rip out its roots and crash down on our home. It was a serious fear of homeowners in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, where many families like ours owned almost an acre. There was one tree in particular that had to go, Dad said, and he was going to do it himself. He didn’t need to pay someone to cut down a tree. He had a chain saw, an ax, a pruner — The same tools the professionals use, Dad said when he and Mom argued over it. Dad won, because what man wants to be told he’s not tough enough to cut down a tree? He could fix cars and split wood with ease. This would be simple, he told her.
At the age of ten, I wanted to help. Sometimes, when Dad was working on a project, he’d let me run for a Phillips-head screwdriver or an adjustable wrench. Whatever the task, I’d do it. Often, though, I would grab the wrong wrench or drill bit, and Dad would grow frustrated by my inability to follow directions. He wasn’t cruel about it; he just decided it was easier to do it himself. He came from a line of do-it-yourself men and had learned many skills from his father and grandfather. I, meanwhile, needed help opening a jar of jelly. I was weak and had no resilience. Blame my nerves or my lack of attention span, but I was not like Dad.
I sat on the deck, watching him prepare to cut down the tree. He measured the circumference of it with his tape, stepped back, then measured again, adjusting. With a can of orange spray paint, he marked the trunk at a spot about waist high.
What’s that for, Dad? I called from the deck.
So I know exactly where to cut. If I cut too low or too high, the tree might fall right there, on you.
I squirmed at the thought.
Gotta get it just right, he said.
Mom had told me to sit your butt down, but there was nothing I could do to help while on the deck. Dad. Dad. Can I get you anything? I projected my voice through my cupped hands.
Some birds flew from the treetops, wrestling in midair. He wiped his brow, sweat glazing his face. A big cup of water with ice, he said.
I ran inside in search of the largest cup I could find.
Dad was often disappointed in me. I couldn’t do anything right. Once, he’d asked me to help carry in the groceries, handing me a gallon of milk: Davon, are you sure you’ve got this? I cradled the container in both arms as if it were a bomb. Halfway across the garage I stumbled and dropped it. Milk everywhere. The same thing happened when I tried to carry a watermelon. Plop, the melon exploded across the floor. You might think Dad would have learned not to ask for my help, but he knew that if he didn’t, I would complain to Mom, and she would make him. He could never say no to her. She insisted he let me go to the store with him, rake the leaves, wash the cars — spend father-and-son time. Mom was the ultimate authority, our judge and jury. If I talked back or cursed, Dad would make empty threats: Davon, go to your room. You’re grounded. But all I had to do was go find Mom and twist the story of why I was in trouble, and she would send me back to help him with whatever he was doing — which only made him more upset and annoyed. That was the way in our family. We formed a triangle with Mom pointing fingers at us: Davon, stop; Dad, stop; both of you, stop.
I was infuriatingly sensitive, always whining when he teased me. Every time I spilled something, which was often, he’d sing, Mr. Spiller, Mr. Spiller, and I’d throw a fit, stomping my feet, shouting, my eyes filling with tears.
I completed my mission, delivering Dad the biggest cup of ice water ever, in a 7-Eleven Big Gulp cup. I ran it out to him, holding it in two hands. He drank it quickly and wiped his mouth on his knuckles, the thick bristles of his mustache making a scratchy sound. He dropped the cup near where he had lined up his tools in the order he would use them: pruner, chain saw, ax, bungee cord. I wondered why he had picked that tree, how he had known it was the one that needed to go. Dad had an intuition for the way the world worked; he knew things other people didn’t. He could have been stranded in the woods with only a knife, and he would have survived for weeks. It was who he was: a problem solver who thought everything through practically and pragmatically. I wanted to be like him, but in school I was terrible at word problems about width and length. Give Dad a pencil, a piece of paper, and a ruler, and he could design a house. Give me a pencil, a piece of paper, and a ruler, and I could draw our family.
Maybe I wasn’t the son Dad wanted. Maybe, if he could have, he would have picked another kid, a son he could enjoy parenting. They could have built things, worn matching tool belts, read how-to books, and cut down trees together. I wanted to be that kid. I wanted to like cars and the smell of gasoline. I wanted to like making trips to Home Depot to search the aisles as if looking for ourselves: our eyes in the shades of paint, our skin tones in the wood, and our hearts in the steel frames of rolling red tool chests. I wanted to look like Dad, to think like Dad, to be like Dad. I wanted to have the same last name as him. But none of those things were possible. No matter how much I loved him, no matter how often I called him Dad and he called me Son, no matter how much Mom encouraged our relationship, we always would have these differences between us.
I was wearing my good clothes that day — a collared shirt and khaki shorts — because later I was going to lunch and a movie with my biological father, Harry. He and my mom had broken up when I was a baby, and he hadn’t been a part of my life until recently. I was excited about the movie, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go with him or stay with Dad. It was complicated. Dad had been my father for seven years. Harry had been around for only three. Going places with him felt like choosing a new friend over an old one. This new friend bought me toys, waffles with ice cream, extra-large tubs of popcorn, giant movie-theater sodas. And he never yelled at me or teased me. We looked alike and had the same last name, and Mom said he liked painting and drawing like me. But Dad was my everyday father. He’d raised me. He’d taught me how to ride my bike and tie my shoelaces. He cooked dinner and helped me with my math homework and chaperoned field trips. We kicked the soccer ball together. So what if he yelled at me? He was still my dad. Those two men embodied two different definitions of father: one was my father, and the other fathered me.
Harry had never visited our house before. Mom and I drove two hours to Hackensack to visit him once a month. On the way, I’d ask why he never came to us. She’d say it was because he was so much older than she was, and the long drive was too much for him, and one time he’d fallen asleep behind the wheel. I thought it was because of Dad, though — that maybe the two of them didn’t like each other. Maybe, because they both loved Mom, they couldn’t be in the same room together. But today, for the first time, Harry was on his way to see me. I wondered if he and Dad would fight over me. Part of me was eager to show my father around: show him my room, my bike, my action figures, my school, where I waited for the bus, the places I hung out with my friends, the swing set and the basketball hoop. Show him my world.
Dad looked up into the branches while holding the pruner — a saw blade on a long pole. With it, he reached high into the thicket of boughs and began sawing off limbs. He was focused, methodical. His eyes were rulers, measuring how much to cut here, how much there. If it weren’t for his shirt’s whiteness, he would have disappeared into the thick trunk, the bark and his skin almost the same color. Sunlight flooded through the treetops, its heat radiating like rip currents. I had already refilled his water cup twice. On the deck I sat still, hands on my knees, admiring Dad and listening to the sawing of the serrated blade and the reverberations of insects rubbing their legs together and the calls of birds far in the distance. It all sounded wonderful and harmonious.
When my father arrived, I ignored the humming of his car’s engine. I didn’t turn around when I heard his feet crunching fallen leaves as he followed the sounds of the saw blade around back. I ignored him until he was right in front of me.
Mom lightly placed her hand on my back: You ready, honey?
I was not ready. I’d decided that I wanted to help Dad. I stayed put, gritted my teeth, planted my heels in defiance.
Mom’s thumb stopped its gentle circling. She tapped my head. Your father drove a long way to see you.
I didn’t want to upset him. But what if Dad needed my help? My chest rose and fell heavily.
Mom knelt, looked into my eyes, and quietly said, Dad won’t be upset. You can help him when you come home.
Harry stood patiently, observing, the way a photographer would. After a few minutes he turned to Dad and called, Hey, you need a hand?
This was not the first time they had met, but it was, as I said, Harry’s first time at our house. Dad was standing in a pile of leaves and branches, the pruner in his hand like a giant scepter. He gave the enormous tree a long stare while considering my father’s offer, then said, Sure, Harry. If you don’t mind. As my father untucked his shirt and walked toward the tree, Dad asked me: Do you mind, Davon?
I looked at Mom, smiling uncontrollably, then shook my head.
Their handshake seemed longer than normal: the two of them standing like stone statues with hands clasped. Maybe Dad was squeezing my father’s hand harder, or maybe my father was squeezing Dad’s hand harder. Maybe it was a stalemate of strength. After they let go, Dad proudly showed him around the yard, pointing in various directions, the two of them walking far enough away that I couldn’t hear what they were saying.
The movie can wait, Mom said with approval as she scooted me over and sat down next to me. I wondered how she felt, what she was thinking watching these two men. I don’t think you ever stop loving someone — especially the father of your child — but at that age I didn’t consider the possibility that she could love them both. At least, not in the way I defined love: emotional and intimate, with kisses and hugs. She loved Dad; this I knew. I’d been there when they’d promised to love each other at their wedding. I’d even hand-delivered the rings on a heart-shaped cushion before they’d each said, I do. Dad and Mom had been together for as long as I could remember, since I was a year old. Dad had become my father long before Harry ever called me his son.
We had almost an acre of land, but we lived on only about a quarter of it. The rest was uncharted, unruly, unmanageable, and full of ticks. Mom never let me go back there. But Dad and my father had ventured so far into the brush and shrubbery of our private wooded corner of the Pine Barrens that I’d lost sight of them among the trees.
When they returned, Mom and I were still sitting shoulder to shoulder. Dad called out, It’s time to cut this tree down. He and my father stood under the tree. Dad gripped the chain saw.
Excited, I jumped to my feet. Mom, can I go over there?
No, honey. You have to stay here, just in case the tree falls the wrong way.
Like a puppy on a leash, I strained to get closer as the chain saw’s motor ran: brum-brum-brurrrrrrrrr. Mom drew me back toward her. Dad put on a pair of safety glasses and pulled earplugs from his pocket. He sent a thumbs-up our way. He said something to my father, and Harry, with his arms crossed, took two steps back.
Feet shoulder-width apart, Dad wielded the chain saw like a weapon. Where earlier he’d spray-painted a mark, he drove the blade into the tree. Splinters and sawdust billowed as if the tree were coughing out its insides. Dad thrust the saw in farther, its roar unrelenting. Mom covered my ears, but I swatted at her hands. This is so cool, I told her. After a minute or so, Dad pulled out the saw. The tree had a jack-o’-lantern smile on one side. He investigated, tilting his head back and forth. My father said something to him, and Dad shrugged, then nodded.
My father picked up the ax. Now Dad stepped back. Harry checked the weight of the ax, tossing it from hand to hand a couple of times as if to say, This will do. Then he squared himself up to where the bark grinned sinisterly and swung with all his might. The wood creaked and begged for mercy. He swung from his hips, sending the force through his arms and into the tree tirelessly, the sound of the blade hitting the wood forming a rhythm. I was excited. Mom appeared nervous. When my father stopped, a crack echoed, and the tree began to sway. He stepped backward. Mom clenched my arms tightly. The wind pulled at the tree as if with an invisible string, whispering, I’ll finish the job.
Both men yelled. The pine tree went one way and then the other, leaning like a table that’s lost a leg. Dad and my father quickly moved to try to steady it, but their strength wasn’t enough. Rope, rope! they called. The long bungee cord was coiled with the pile of tools, about twenty feet from the tree. I wrestled my arm out of Mom’s grip and ran over to it. The giant tree loomed over me. My two fathers, both with one hand on the tree and the other reaching in my direction, yelled, Throw me the rope!
I gave Dad the bungee. It took him a few seconds to wrap it around the trunk. Mom yelled for me to return to the house, and I did as she said, more fearful of her than of the tree. Dad repositioned himself beside the trunk, bungee in hand. My father joined him, and, standing only inches apart, as if they were one person, the two men tugged on the rope in the same direction, away from the house. Together, with fear and desperation, Dad and my father fought that tree.