A Short Story By David D’Ettore
The large sycamore tree in the front yard of the farmhouse seemed as wide as it was tall. No one knew the age of the tree since the house was built in 1897 and the tree was there when the first Clintons moved in. Initials of family members were carved along the trunk and even into the higher reaches since the lower limbs were near the ground and made it easy for daring young boys and girls to climb to the upper elevations and find a place that would hide their mark from future generations, or maintain a secret tryst. Most of the family had submitted to the carving ritual. There was one set of initials, though, that was noticeably missing.
The homestead was affectionately referred to as Clintonville. My name is Mark Clinton. Yes, one of the inhabitants of Clintonville until I decided to go off to school. I attended St. Bonaventure University, not because it was nearby, but for its journalism school. From when I was young, I loved to write. It was an escape from the daily happenings that were many and sometimes frantic. It was a therapy when difficulties arose and I had to sort through information surrounding the event to determine the truth. My father called me The Truthseeker. He used to say “Some people lie, some tell the truth. You happen to be good at identifying who’s who.” The truth shall set you free.
People of the time led simple lives and were happy to be free from conflict and have a place to live and a job that would cover expenses. Since 1901, three generations of Clintons had lived in the house, located near Olean, New York. The family didn’t venture into the city often, choosing to stay close to home and away from “Little Chicago” as Olean was known. Rumor had it that members of organized crime would frequent the city. Associating with criminals or other deviants wasn’t the Clinton way. We were a god-fearing American family with strong Irish roots, and adhering to these values was our way of life, a foundation for who we were, no deviations acceptable.
After graduating from St. Bonaventure, I got a job running copy for the Olean Times Herald. Running copy is like taking notes. I would help the reporters with their assignment by attending a sporting event or going to a press release, writing about what happened, and letting them blue-pencil the copy for final submission to the editor. After a while, the changes became few and far between and it wasn’t long before I became a staff reporter.
Other projects filled my days and nights. I started a novel entitled East of Nowhere that was waylaid by a project I undertook at the request of my father.
He approached me one summer day as I sat under the sycamore, comfortably leaning against the large trunk, penciling notes for the novel. He was lean with a ruddy face and strong hands forged by the hard work it took to run a 40- acre farm. “Son, I’ve been thinking,” he began. This usually meant he wanted you to do something and it would be best if you agreed. Even at twenty-three years old, I realized this and adhered to the wisdom inherent in compliance. “You’re quite a writer,” he continued, “a talent a lot of us Clintons don’t have, although as story tellers, we rank right up there. It’s putting the right words on paper that eludes us.” Knowing my dad, he would make his point directly in a round-about way, if such a beast existed. By the time he finished what he was saying, one was convinced of whatever he was peddling and felt obligated to proceed.
“For the sake of the family and those that will come in the future, I thought it would be good to have a diary of our existence.”
I followed his thought process and tried to clarify what I believe he wanted. “Sort of a chronicle of the family history that could be passed on to the subsequent generations of Clintons.” He nodded. “When do we start?” was my question.
He put his hand on my shoulder and smiled. “How about today?” he asked, or should I say, stated. “June 8, 1949. No better day than the present. I’ll give background on what happened before you arrived on this earth, and you know the rest,” he said with satisfaction. “And what you don’t know, you can either dig it up or make it up. That’s your problem!”
I knew full well that my problem was as much him scrutinizing the effort as it was coming up with material for the diary, as he called it. As a disclaimer, you have to realize that when my father said start today, he meant start today, probably within minutes of stating such. So, I put aside East of Nowhere and began the chronicle I would appropriately entitle Clintonville.
In my room, I procured a spiral notebook from my dresser drawer and began the outline. My mother walked in and put her arm around my shoulder. “You know, you’re old enough to say ‘no,’ Mark,” she said in a re-assuring voice. “You’re working on your own book and have a full-time job to boot, so writing this diary might be too much.”
“He’s got you calling it a diary, too,” I joked. My mother blushed for the first time I can remember. I looked at her and smiled, trying to change the moment. “I want to do this, Mom. Not just for Dad, but for the whole family and those who come after us,” I said with conviction. She was a strong person and probably could sway my father to her perspective.
She hugged me and added “That’s why you’re my favorite.” Mind you, depending on who she was involved with at the time and the circumstances, any one of us could be the favorite, including the dogs.
The title was set. Initial chapters would involve the details related by my mother and father about the family history and moving to Clintonville. The rest would be the story of our family. My mother, Mary, and father, Vincent; Maggie (the oldest); my big brother Andrew; my sister Eileen; and yours truly would be the stars of the chronicle. Oh, and I couldn’t forget at least a mention of Rusty, the Golden Retriever that had been the family dog for twelve years, or his successor, Blackie, a black Labrador Retriever that had been my dog growing up. Putting the outline together would be the easy part. Prying the stories about the family from my mother and father would require no encouragement. The difficulty would be eliciting the cooperative efforts of my siblings.
My father was generous with his time in relating the stories about his ancestors and the family doings before I could remember. He provided enough to create a memoir in itself! In the draft stage, I broke down the chronicle into the early days; family stories once we reached the homestead at Clintonville; and personal insights into family members, as well as current status. In order to achieve this perspective, I needed to call together my siblings. A formal meeting with my brother and sisters might be the only chance I could extract personal history from each of them. My plan was simple. Tell them what I was going to write about them and they could either nix the idea, provide a story of their own, or agree to both. Of course, whatever my father chose to add or delete was going to be the chronicle, and I didn’t have to make that known to any of them.
I had thirty pages prepared for the first draft when I decided it was time to bring the troops together. Everyone was within reach, although Maggie and her husband, Ewan MacBriar, had moved to Ellicottville, a town about twenty miles from the homestead. Both Eileen and Andrew resided in the house with Dad, Mother, and I. Andrew helped my dad on the farm while Eileen and my mother did arts and crafts, traveling to shows around the area and fabricating items for local emporiums. The most common items were afghans, sweaters, winter gloves, and scarves, although Eileen had become quite adept at making ceramic ashtrays she made in a kiln that my mother had purchased and placed in the barn.
I called for the gathering on the first Sunday in August. Everyone showed up and we went into the front parlor at the large table where we would have formal meals as opposed to the kitchen where we usually ate. The parlor was cooler and a nice breeze flowed through the room. My mother and father sat on the porch with a pitcher of iced tea, throwing tennis balls for the dog to fetch.
With the group settled, I started. “There’s a couple items I’d like to achieve today. You are aware, I’m sure, of the Clintonville chronicle,” I coughed and smiled. “I have most of the background writing done. Now, I need to insert us. I’d like to include for each of us a noteworthy accomplishment in our lives, and a dark secret to share with the family and future generations. Agreed?” I looked around the table. Eileen nodded in assent while Maggie agreed with raised eyebrows. Andrew was sullen and pensive. He was not overly effusive. He kept to himself, though he could be very funny when he wanted to be and had the admirable habit of making genuine eye contact. Andrew was my big brother. I idolized him growing up and he was always there for me whenever I needed him. We shared a room and, as the years passed, our nightly conversations became more engaging. I looked forward to bedtime and what new discussion would ensue before we fell asleep. I thought I knew him well, at least as well as any brother could. I was in for a surprise.
“Ladies first,” I offered for no gallant reason.
My sisters were far from shy so both started. Eileen deferred to Maggie being the oldest. The two girls related incidents we all remembered that they finally confessed to, especially the loss of Dad’s prize possession, a 1921 Birmingham sedan affectionately known as “Benny.”
“Andrew, you’re up,” I continued after the ladies had their say.
“It’s more difficult going third since I don’t want to upstage any of my siblings, although I don’t believe that will be a challenge,” he smirked as the others hurled rolled up napkins at him. “As an accomplishment, I am proud of being the first Clinton to graduate from college and receive a degree.” Andrew had attended Rochester Institute of Technology after spending two years in the Army where he fought overseas in World War II and returned with a purple heart, much more life experience than any of us had. He received a degree in engineering which he planned to use to develop the farm, at my father’s request. “The price of an education,” my father would tell Andrew. “Time to pay back, son.” Even though the army ordeal could be considered quite an achievement, Andrew felt his education trumped his stint in the armed forces.
When secrets are dark, people can be unsettled by their reveal. Often, the secret emerges and travels as rumor. This causes speculation, argument and, depending on the nature of the secret, disagreement and denial. Why and when such secrets surface is a puzzle and I wondered why Andrew chose now. As he cracked his knuckles in nervous anticipation, his words were clear. “My secret? I’m homosexual.” A slight smile curled around his lower lip as his eyes toured the table. The rest believed the smile indicated a prank as they laughed heartily. I knew better. I saw it in his eyes. When he looked at me, he knew I knew.
As the laughter subsided and references to his senior ball and carousing the pubs in Allegheny finished, Andrew confirmed my suspicion. “You can laugh and joke about it, yet once you realize I’m being straight with you,” he laughed at the pun, “then you’ll understand.” He pointed at me. “Ask him.”
I nodded. The laughter dissipated into silence. Our first reactions were uncomfortable, not wanting to make eye contact with Andrew. This melded into awkward chatter. Naturally, it would be Andrew to the rescue. “OK, you’ve all swallowed your tongues and turned your eyes away from me. It’s time to look back and see that it’s still me sitting here. Your brother. I’m not wearing a dress, and at least I didn’t become a Republican!”
The humor eased the tension and he is still Andrew, no matter what shade of pink you color him. My sentiments were that this would be the easy part.
Before I could speak, Andrew said “I will tell him. He won’t have to read it in your draft.” Of course, this was a relief and what I expected from Andrew. My father was just as predictable. He would not take the news well. As odd as it may seem to the ignorant, Andrew was more a man than many I had encountered. No false bravado. No egocentric view of himself or self-important gestures. No testosterone overflow. He stood up for what he believed and came to the assistance of those who needed his help. What else can anyone expect from a person?
Andrew went directly to the front porch where Mother and Dad were relaxing on the warm, summer day. I purposely didn’t follow for the simple reason that that it should be him telling them, not him telling them with me there. The others had wisely departed, hastily offering their good-byes, which raised suspicion in our parents.
It was not a pretty sight. My mother was calm and understanding. My father, after his initial bewilderment, raged against Andrew, punched the front door, and began a tirade that included a multitude of slurs and the question as to how the Clinton name would endure. That one naturally offended me, but it was about Andrew and where it left him. My father threw him out of the house and the family. Andrew expected the reaction, as did I. He came to our room and packed his suitcase. On his way out, he grabbed my shoulder and said, “At least I know you understand. I’ll keep in touch.”
That night, the room was lonely. No late-night talk, only the silence of my thoughts. I searched my mind, poring over conversations Andrew and I had. Did I miss something, some indication of his sexual preference? Did I ignore the innuendo and the message he was trying to send? Whenever we talked about relationships, it was about our ideal person, rarely identifying gender as a sole criterion. Maybe I assumed that a woman was the common denominator. What kind of brother was I, not being there for Andrew while he endured this difficult emotion, not so much for him personally but from the family perspective and what it would mean?
It was almost two years before Andrew came home to Clintonville. My mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. As with most people of the time, doctors and hospitals were not a part of day-to-day lives so the disease had spread. The prognosis was six months. She died in thirty days.
The sound of the pick-up rumbled outside the window. We could hear truck doors slamming and idle chatter filter into the room. We went downstairs to meet the group. Their faces were somber. Maggie and Eileen came in, followed by Dad, his head bowed and back bent, shuffling into the house as if he was carrying the cross to Calvary. Myfather looked up and began to weep. He stood straight and made his way to Andrew, shaking his hand and then bringing him close in a warm embrace. He took Andrew’s head in his hands and looked him in the eye. “I’m sorry, son, for being such a fool. I’m glad to have you home.”
With that, the pair embraced again. The drama served a cathartic effect and appeared to bolster the family’s sagging spirit. One of the flock had left and returned. The Prodigal Son was home and the son that had remained was happy
Andrew stayed at Dad’s request. Part of Andrew wanted to help fill a chasm that could never be filled. Another part kept him close to the place where he felt most comfortable.
I had married, moved to Olean, and countered my father’s fears by having children, two boys, James Vincent Clinton and Jonathan Andrew Clinton. I also had one girl, Alison Mary Clinton. We traveled to Clintonville regularly, mostly for Sunday dinner, and to celebrate birthdays and other family occasions. My father had deteriorated and, ultimately, we had to put him in a nursing home in Olean. Maggie had moved back to Ellicottville with Ewan and their family. Andrew was the straggler trying to keep up the homestead as best he could.
It had been ten years since he made his proclamation that sent the chronicles into a holding pattern. Now, even though he maintained his quick wit and ability to finesse situations, his body had waned. Like his mother, he avoided doctors and hospitals. Finally, he conceded and made an appointment with a physician that I knew working at Olean General. The smile was there but it was fading. As sad as it made me feel, I knew he was dying.
One day in late autumn, when I went to the house to see him, he wanted to take a walk to the sycamore. I had a sense of why.
We started the walk that was always so short, yet the tree loomed in the distance. Leaves had fallen from the branches and, unlike the vibrant colors of fall - the reds, yellows, and oranges - the brown, dead leaves crackled under our feet and moved away from us with the wind as we made our way to the sycamore. “I never carved my initials into the tree,” Andrew said.
“I know,” I responded. “And I always wondered why.”
Andrew put his hands into his pocket as a chill wind whipped through us, scattering more of the fallen leaves. He brought out a knife. “I would be honored if we could put our mark on together.”
I took the knife and held him close. “It’s my honor, Andrew. I went over to the tree and etched the letters “AC + MC” with “Bros 4 Ever” underneath.
“Very nice, but, not for nothing, you spelled brothers wrong.” We laughed as I instinctively buried my elbow into his ribs. His sudden gasp for air reminded me of Andrew’s failing health. After admiring the handiwork once more, we left with the memento safe under the protective limbs of the sycamore.
Andrew died a month later. I spread his ashes around the base of the sycamore and held my hands over the carving, the light skin of our initials darkened over the weeks since they had been etched into the bark.
I walked back to the car. As I drove away, I saw the barren sycamore in my rear-view mirror, its limbs like bony fingers scratching at the grey background, stark silhouettes against
the late autumn sky, preparing for the cold winter that it would need to endure before it could blossom once more in the spring. I thought of the last words of Clintonville.
“New life follows old life.”