Writer and theology student, Jonathan Callard, is looking for some kind of revelation while on house sitting assignment in Berkeley, California. He ends up having a tussle with one of the absent couple’s precious heirlooms. But do fir trees really spontaneously combust? And to what ends of the Earth does a house sitter have to go to avoid violating city codes? Luckily the neighbour with the Navajo earrings wasn’t watching the whole thing (but the cats were).
30 December 2003
‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.’ So says Jesus to an official in today’s Lectionary.
I prayed on that phrase this morning. Mainly because I thought if I prayed it then I would see signs and wonders and thus I would believe. Halfway through my prayer time I realized that perhaps Jesus meant to goad the official into being different-into believing without seeing signs and wonders. But it was too late. I’d already started praying.
The biggest sign and wonder that happened this morning was the fall of the Christmas tree.
I’m housesitting in Berkeley, feeding a couple of cats. Their owners have gone off to London to celebrate their wedding anniversary. They have a fir tree that I am supposed to water every few days. ‘If we don’t, it’s a fire hazard,’ the woman’s handwritten note said to me on the kitchen table.
Well, I didn’t want some guy in his fire-proof clothing surprising me at 9 AM this morning (I was wearing long underwear and a capilene top-I was very warm, mind you, but it’s not how I’d want to come across to a fireman…or anybody, for that matter). I could see it now.
‘I’m sorry, sir, but we’re going to have to write you up for a violation of Code 9069.4,’ says the big guy in the boots with the rubber hooks and a yellow outfit with a matching yellow helmet that curved like an upside down banana bike seat. He’d be writing something down there, just by the tree, and if somebody looked through the living room window they’d see a guy in long johns bowing his head in shame and silent fury, muttering to himself and saying, ‘Why didn’t they give me a few minutes to prepare? How do they know I wasn’t going to water the tree in the hour or so, after breakfast?’ (that’s what the guy-me-would be saying, if a passerby could hear it).
Shrugging off this awful vision I filled a giant mug with the slogan ‘I only drink to make other people more interesting’ with water and turned to align myself with the Berkeley City Codes. The tree and I would become citizens again, and my criminal record would remain tabula rasa.
I bent down and gently, I thought, lifted the lowest branches of the fir to get a good look at the tree holder and its water basin. It was much smaller than the giant metal octopus torture-instrument tree holders I grew up with out East, when my family and I trudged into snowdrifts with a toboggan and Dad and my brother and I took turns sawing at a big twelve footer in the Connecticut Berkshires. We’d lay the big one on the sled and it seemed forever to get the thing to our station wagon. Anyway, when we erected it in our living room, with its high ceilings, Dad screwed that tree holder extra tight.
This tree holder looked almost virginal, its basin sloping inward into a pixie cup point. I pushed some more branches aside to get the water in there and then PFFFFTTTTT the whole thing began to fall towards me. The ornaments and those bauble ball things and the tinsel and everything made an ominous tinkling and still the slim trunk was falling, falling. Down on all fours, in my long johns, I had a bad angle on the tree to stop its motion. It was all I could do to roll out of the way as the tannenbaum crashed to the rug where I had knelt only seconds before.
The two cats scampered into the living room and gave me a deep look. ‘Now you’ve really done it,’ the orange tabby seemed to say in burning eye messages. ‘It’s one thing to give the other cat more chow than me, or push me off the bed when I want to snuggle with you. But this. You’re going to hear it from the Big Folks when they get back. You housesitters are all the same. You think you run this place.’ I swear I could see the cats lips moving.
I took a first aid course once and the only thing I remember is the alliterative saying ‘Survey the Scene’ after a disaster happens. I checked my body parts and they were all there. Then I looked out the living room window to see if the retired junior high teacher neighbor, the one with the stringy grey hair and Navajo earrings, was looking in. Coast clear.
Well, whatever water HAD been in that tiny basin (where did they make this tree holder? California?) was now seeping out onto the white blanket that was rolled (to be like snow?) around the tree holder. I thought of Charlie Brown’s Christmas special. At least Linus’ blanket really did hold that stick of a tree up and save Charlie Brown from having a nervous breakdown. Linus whipped off his blue blanket and in one cartoonish motion, like he was a swami snake-charmer, he secured the tree, no tree holder needed. This white blanket, swirled around the basin, was one cruel joke. This tree had been living on a prayer and Jon Bonjovi had just walked out the door. One touch and that thing was horizontal.
I squished the tree against the window behind it, leaned it really, and fed that pixie cup holder as much water as I could. I hated firemen and firecodes and blankets that were merely decorational. As the tree changed its center of gravity one of the Trinitarian metal legs of the tree holder came loose. I jammed it back in the grooved metal slot, only to dislodge the opposite leg. The trunk pitched away from me drunkenly.
(My vivid imagination aided me in picturing the woman hostess, returned from London, looking at me with tears in her eyes. ‘These ornaments…they were given to me by my long lost brother…this bauble…has hung on a bough for the last century…How,’ she was asking, choking back sobs, ‘How could you lose control of such a little tree? All we asked you to do was keep it watered. What could you have possibly done to send it to the floor with such force? What? Oh, how?’ She’d turn away, at loss for words, her hands trembling with shards of colored glass and wisps of tinsel. In my mind I was still wearing my long johns – I had remained in bed for days after the tragedy, no showering, no eating, and definitely no more prayer, for I had destroyed a Christmas tree and its ornaments-Jesus’ ‘signs and wonders’ quota did not include scrawny firs in Berkeley. The host, fixing me with a stern look, his mouth set in a firm line, would gesture me wearily away as he held his wife’s face to his breast).
Needless to say I recovered from my awful vision of Christmas Future in time to grab the thin trunk, and with the anxious cats watching a safe distance away, swing my body around to counter balance the weight. An angel swung dizzily from the tree’s point and I prayed for no more signs and wonders. I prayed for metal parts to fit together. With one final shove with the heel of my hand I got all tree holder legs fastened. The tree was woozy and half of its needles were on the Persian rug. No ornaments were broken-just tiny birds dislodged from microscopic nests, and a card from 2000 (?) covered a stained glass rendering of the Holy Family no larger than my palm. The hook to hang it was missing but I shoved it deep into the boughs. The tree was once again standing. An earthquake tremor, low on the Richter, would definitely dislodge it. So would a hard stamping.
But the water was in tree holder. There would be no fire here. I vacuumed up the needles and draped the tinsel as lovingly as I could having not eaten breakfast yet and my bladder crying for relief.
I believe in strong tree holders. A crashing symbol of Christmas, with a stranger’s family heirlooms, is quite a sight, and perhaps a sign. But I’m just here to feed the cats.