June 23, 1991|By PATRICK A. MCGUIRE

In the winter a stiff wind toppled a tree into Broome's back yard. It was dead before it hit the snow, in fact almost two years before. Broome had always meant to do something about it, though he never pinpointed exactly what. And then it was too late. It snapped off at its trunk two feet above the ground and wrapped itself in the power line on its almighty rush to earth. His hand was forced.

What he did was call the power company. They reconnected the electrical line and in about five hours his life was back to normal. Except for one thing. He now had a dead tree in his back yard: a tree that was no longer just simply dead and therefore possible to ignore, but a tree that was actively dead, lying face down on his lawn, its dark, rotted branches extended grotesquely in a final, dying lunge at his patio deck.

"Lucky no one was out here," said Harris, his neighbor.

Broome frowned. "It was midnight in a windstorm."

"Still, it could have hit a burglar," said Harris. "And they sue."

Broome's house sat on a half-acre lot thick with trees. He had paid extra for his little forest, agreeing with the Realtor's gush that trees would provide an extra dimension of tranquillity and security. He remembered that conversation as he walked the length of the dead tree the next morning, shivering. It looked blacker lying against the wind-whipped canvas of snow. And it seemed much bigger laid out horizontally than it ever did standing up alongside its pals.

"Ironical, isn't it?" said Harris. "I mean you didn't cut it down. And now you have to cut it up."

Broome looked back toward his house, watching his breath disappear against the gray-white siding. He did not feel tranquil or secure. What he did feel was an extra dimension of anxiety, and he turned abruptly and kicked the tree hard. Though long dead, it hurt his toe unbelievably. It barely moved at all.

"In the spring," he said through gritted teeth as he limped back to his house.

For the next four months the tree lay unattended, gradually disappearing under a covering of snow. In May, the grass in Broome's back yard shot up to knee height and the dead tree was again almost invisible. Broome had left his gas-powered push mower out all winter and twice he had tried to start it without success. He might have left it at that, the grass might have reached armpit level, but Harris, who mowed his lawn twice a week on a tractor equipped with a drink holder, wouldn't allow it.

"Bandits like to hide in that stuff," he warned him one Saturday. "They crawl right up to your deck and leap out at you and you never know they're there until they've got their hand around your throat. Didn't you ever hear that crime dog on TV warning people to mow their lawn?"

Broome eventually got the mower fixed, but it wasn't the grass or bandits that worried him. He'd surprised himself by the amount of brooding he'd done all winter long over the tree. He'd tried to ignore it, but it just wouldn't leave him alone. Every time he peeked out his window he saw not a lovely yard with its graceful stand of trees, but the elongated hump under the snow, or a dark, menacing presence lying in the weeds like some belly-skulking murderer waiting to pounce. It was a nagging detail hanging over his head, an unsolved problem. Broome was a multi-degreed manager who made his living by solving problems.

Meanwhile, the guests he'd entertained in the past four months had likewise noticed the tree, despite its natural camouflage.

"It reminds me of Moby Dick," breathed one who viewed it in winter. She had added cryptically "whales never forget." Another swore she saw it moving, ever so slightly, toward the house. Broome saw it repeatedly in his dreams and even found himself using the tree in metaphors during sales meetings at work. His startling "get rid of the deadwood" tantrum to his supervisory staff was soothed away by understanding colleagues as unresolved sylvan conflicts at home.

Broome had never had to deal with a dead tree before. He'd never owned a tree for that matter, dead or alive. In the city, where he'd grown up, the trees grew in the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. When they got unruly the city dispatched crews to trim them or spray them or, in some very unruly cases, to cut them down.

Broome spent his childhood in a row house with a tiny apron of grass out back. His father had not even owned a lawn mower. And, anyway, there were no trees. No, the plain fact was that nothing had ever died on Broome before, and he didn't particularly like the idea of a dead tree or a dead anything being out there in his yard. Instead, he started thinking of it as "an old log" that had stumbled accidentally onto his lawn and collapsed -- an uninvited guest who just wouldn't leave.

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