The Tree on Quarry Street

At a point after it all happened: after the kids had moved away, after his wife had died, after the 2008 market crash took most of his hard-won assets, after his department “downsized” and laid off every one of the men over 55, after the house sale in the worst market in his lifetime, Roger Chadwick stood staring out the window of his city apartment, in a former Victorian factory building, to Quarry Street below. In the 19th Century, this had been one of the commercial alleys in Old Philadelphia, used by merchants to move goods from the river at Water Street into the shops and pubs. After a few decades of decay and abandon in the 20th Century, developers moved in with a zeal to convert, to repurpose, to restore, and now these tiny blocks were transforming into residences for both the up and coming city dwellers and the escapees from suburban affluenza. Certainly no longer up and coming, Roger counted himself among those the all-knowing market economy spit out into oblivion.

On Bread Street, trucks were edging down the narrow cobblestoned alley, delivering food supplies to the restaurants and markets. Shopkeepers called to each other as they rolled up their metal gates and opened their stores for the day. Parking police were strolling the street, issuing tickets. The eye doctor at the corner had just opened his office for the morning, and his dog, a Samoyed, was settling into the doggie bed at the window. People hurried by, dodging each other’s umbrellas, trying to avoid the puddles as an icy rain continued to fall.

Maybe it was because the grey and miserable morning left him starved for warmth and light that Roger’s eye was drawn to the balcony window of a home across the street, in which a fully decorated Christmas tree was lit and glistening. It was early November, a little soon, he thought. He and his wife never put up their tree until the week after Thanksgiving, preferring to keep the holidays separate, always complaining to each other about the merchandisers rushing the Christmas shopping season.

Still, something about the tree lifted his spirits, which were very low, and he stood looking at it, feeling his heart lighten a little with the thought of a family, so close by, already preparing for the holiday, already beginning the joyousness. Memories of his own children, in their footed pajamas and tousled hair, rushing from sleep on Christmas morning, pulling their mommy and daddy from bed and urging them down the stairs to the foyer, where the enormous, lit tree was surrounded by piles of beautifully wrapped gifts.

Julie would prepare the coffee and hot chocolate, load a plate with muffins and tea breads, fill a basket with fruit, and carry it all out into the foyer on the large silver tray that had once belonged to her Grandma Stephens. Then, they’d begin their morning of opening presents. Roger would light the fire, start the Christmas music on the stereo, then supervise the children who had to be reminded each year that their family took turns opening gifts, one at a time, to prevent chaos. William was the orderly first-born who preferred this disciplined approach. He felt it was his right to keep his baby sister, Jessica, in check, and enjoyed reminding the parents of Jessie’s second Christmas, when she ran and dove headlong into the pile of gifts, knocking over the Christmas tree and sending Clancy, their Irish Setter, dashing through the livingroom, upending the Christmas muffins and coffee onto the 19th Century Aubusson that had been in the family for six generations.

Remembering that disaster now, Roger smiled, and wished that he could have laughed the morning it happened. Instead, he showed his characteristic temper, storming out of the room and up to his office, leaving Julie to calm the crying children, settle the dog, and clean up the mess of broken ornaments, ruined muffins, splattered coffee, stained carpet, cracked cups and plates, and, hardest of all, to soothe the hurt feelings.

It was he who ruined that Christmas morning, not 2-year-old Jessica, he thought – and not for the first time. Holidays were often ruined by his tantrums, his rages, his inflexibility.

It occurred to him, as he stood, still looking at the tree sparkling in the window across Quarry Street, that William didn’t so much love the order and discipline as he clung to it for protection – not in fear of his sister’s silliness, but in fear of his father’s unpredictable and erratic fury. The precision of their Christmas morning was not calm and orderly, Roger knew now, but was based on fear – the fear his family had of him.

He shook these thoughts away. What good were they now? These realizations, and knowing all these years later that he drove his wife and children away. What’s the point? If you don’t have the clarity at the time, when it mattered, why be plagued with the epiphany when it was too late?

Of course, years ago, Julie had suggested therapy. Marriage counseling. Perhaps medication. He heard words like mood disorder, bipolar disorder. But Roger only grew angrier and refused outright to discuss doctors or medical possibilities. Instead, it was Julie who met with a therapist regularly, who brought the children for counseling – all so they could learn how to survive him. They were like the family of an unrepentant addict joining Al-Anon in desperation.

Even all these years later, it was not as if Roger’s temper had abated. He still felt storms of rage at the ruined economy and how his life had gone from one of comfortable upper middle class existence to one of severe financial limitations, destroyed credit and under- and unemployment. A man at his age, to find himself suddenly out of his profession, with over six years to go until full retirement age, depleted unemployment, devastated savings and investments, no assets -- if he ever had reason to be explosive and furious, it was now. The only difference was that he lived alone, and the rage no longer exploded over others in the family. Now it boiled inside of him. He recalled the day the HR department called him in, when they made the announcement of their decision to “right-size.” He stormed out of the office, terrifying the young woman who had given him the news. He bypassed his office, heading straight to the elevator with a bulky packet of paperwork that included 401(K) options, severance, buyout possibilities, and several brochures on Depression and Anxiety. The bastards throw me out on my ass just shy of retirement age in the worst economic meltdown in my lifetime, he smirked, but they are worried I’ll get depressed?

Of course he’d get depressed. He’d flatten anyone who’d try to stop him. Rather than face anyone, he sent a moving company to clean out his office. He answered none of the emails or phone calls from concerned colleagues.

And now, he was drinking too much, ordering large quantities of Scotch from a delivery service – first his usual top-shelf brand, but then, as money got tighter, the cheaper bottles that made him embarrassed as he paid the delivery boy. His health was bad; this he knew, although, as ever, he refused to go to the doctor. He knew it was possible that he qualified for medical assistance and for food stamps, but he was too proud to apply. Still, he could barely walk up the steps to his apartment without getting dizzy and breathless, and envied those who lived in buildings with elevators and doormen, like the place his daughter rented in Knightsbridge a year ago. He had only gotten this rental through the kindness of a friend, a former business partner. He was the owner of the building, which was purchased as a condo-conversion investment during better times, and as a favor, overlooked Roger’s ruined credit. It was a 2 bedroom walk-up reached by climbing uneven narrow, dark stairs, above a converted theatre and hot yoga space. The building had once been an old factory of some kind, and still had the pipes and aging machinery here and there, for “authenticity”. The crumbling bricks and old wood plank floors held that old building smell which combined centuries of rust, water damage and wood rot with generations of mean living and human desperation.

The building stood on a blue brick and cobblestone alley, only steps away from the gallery district of Old City and the more posh addresses of Society Hill.

Until recently, most of what was left of his former life was in a low-rise cinder block storage facility outside of the city, but at the end of the summer, he posted online that the furnishing was free to anyone who could cart it away. In that way, he got rid of an entire 3-story home’s contents of 18th Century furnishings, a Baldwin upright piano, most of the Bokhara, Kazak, and Kashan carpets that had been bartered and haggled for in marketplaces all over the Middle East, the entire contents of a gourmet kitchen and some of his artwork, which he should have had auctioned at Sotheby’s. His wife’s Limoges went to a halfway house for battered women. Had he been in his right mind, he would have wrung every penny of worth from those valuable belongings, since they were his last tangible assets. But somehow, he was beyond caring about the estimated value of those things, even though it was considerable. What if there was expensive artwork now hanging in the apartment of a middle-aged pizza delivery man who had no idea what it was worth? Roger rather enjoyed trashing what was left of his life, since up until now, it had been trashed largely by forces he felt were beyond his control. Why try to hang on to things, like one of those old Russian aristocrats after 1917, pawning the solid silver goblets or gold encrusted icons? When does it all finally become meaningless? You can’t save it, he realized. So, he let it go, more in exhaustion than in anger. But at least, he thought, he let it go in his own way. Isn’t that what all the new age gurus tell you to do? Something like that, anyway, he thought. He’d been watching self-help youtube videos occasionally, but only half-heartedly.

Some sense of responsibility remained; he kept the most valuable artwork for the children. He held on to a few of the most valuable carpets. It also occurred to him that he might auction some of these things to make his own life easier. Foolish, he knew, that pride is what kept him from doing so.

So, now, he had an all-but empty storage facility, filled largely with the personal items: the boxes of legal papers, the stored toys and children’s belongings. Jessica, working and living in London, didn’t want anything. William hadn’t spoken to his father in years. So Roger dutifully paid for storing these belongings, seeing them as a physical form of hope for reconciliation at some point with those children he drove away. His wife’s grave was near their former Gladwyne neighborhood, at a beautiful, manicured cemetery of historic significance, where they had purchased a family plot decades before. Sometimes, he would rent a car and drive out there, walking through the cemetery, sitting for a while on the bench beneath the Jack Pines. Sometimes he would approach her gravestone and talk. Sometimes he felt a protective energy around her, pushing him away. Truth be told, most of the time he felt that energy pushing him away, and it was becoming more rare, those moments when he was strong enough to push back. He visited less and less. He’d changed his will to request cremation, not caring where he was scattered. Let the children’s remains huddle with their mother; he knew he was unwanted.

The Christmas decorations went up through the city – wreaths on the lampposts, garlands and lights on the residences, the horse drawn carriages now jingled with the bells set on the horses’ reins. Shops played Christmas music that spilled out into the streets.

Roger didn’t put up any decorations. There was no sense in it. There would be no holiday for him. Colleagues had long since stopped reaching out. He’d send checks to both children, mailed to his daughter. Jessie would call, briefly. She’d send a gift card via email. Willie would remain silent. All conversations with his daughter were the same. He’d ask the generic questions about her life and her brother’s.

Jess would always answer the same way, “I’m fine dad. And Willie doesn’t want to be discussed.”

Roger didn’t even know where, in the world, his son was living.

“But you are both okay? And you are in touch with your brother?”

“Yes, dad. Yes to both questions,” she would always answer.

She never asked him how he was. He understood that there were two reasons for that. One, she didn’t want to get that personal and two, she knew he’d never tell the truth.

The Christmas tree across the street began to feel like his own, since it was the first thing he saw out his bedroom window each morning when he woke, and the last thing he saw each night, as he pulled down the blankets and went to bed.

Christmas came and went. New Year. It was late January, and still the tree stood in the window. He found it curious, and then a bit odd, but as the time stretched into Easter, then the Fourth of July, he found himself more and more annoyed by the continued existence of this tree, still decorated and lit, every day.

He mentioned it to the eye doctor one day when they met on the street, but the man merely shrugged as the dog strained on his leash, wagging his tail, eager to move on.

He mentioned it to the man who owned the Irish Shop, a small, almost elfin man who listened politely, nodding quickly and repeating, “Yes, yes, I know,” in a way that gave Roger to believe that he didn’t know at all but was eager to agree with whatever Roger said.

No one seemed to know who these neighbors were. The woman who ran the tiny Greek pastry shop said that they’d moved in only just before Roger had. It was a loft conversion, one of the nicer buildings on the block. There were lights on at various times, then off. But the more Roger began to look into the open window, searching beyond the tree that filled the window, the more he realized that, for the most part, there seemed to be no one there. The home seemed uninhabited.

He asked the mailman, who was useless. This is the dolt, Roger reminded himself, who one month put all the electric bills for the whole street into his mailbox. He delivered the wrong mail more than he delivered correctly. What would he know of anyone on the street? So, Roger began to stand for long periods of time at the window. He positioned his small desk so he could work on his laptop and keep an eye out.

The Christmas tree began now to taunt him, and he felt that its mere existence was vicious, a mocking presence, something out of time, out of sync, inappropriate and disrespectful of the calendar, the cycle of time, the rules. He felt the stirrings of his anger shaping itself around his resentment of these people.

Finally, he saw her – a woman, maybe in her mid- to late forties? Average build, with very dark hair that tumbled to her shoulders. He began to watch for her, and realized that she left home in late afternoon, and one morning, near dawn, he saw her arrive back. She wore medical scrubs and sneakers. For a week or so, he confirmed his discovery of her schedule, and then devised a plan. He’d time his errands so that he’d be out on the street when she left in the early evening. But what errands did he have? His food and liquor were delivered. He would occasionally wander out to a store just to get out of his apartment. What could he do that would look purposeful? A bookstore, he decided. He’d go to a bookstore, and carry a small bag of books. That way, he could sit on the bench beneath the small elm tree closest to her front door, and read.

No, he thought. That made no sense. Who sits on a bench across the street from his own perfectly good desk and reads under a tree? And do people even buy books any more? Suddenly, he found himself thinking of Clancy and wishing he hadn’t given him away when Julie died. Walking a dog would be a perfectly believable reason to be on the street. He considered getting a dog, and immediately dismissed the thought. He wondered if the eye doctor, whose name he didn’t know, would accept his offer to walk the Samoyed.

Then, one day, the incompetent mailman dumped a handful of envelopes addressed to Pilar Bardem, at the address he’d so long been watching. For the very first time in a long time, Roger felt his heart pounding in his chest, and not from the stress of climbing the stairs. The pounding seemed to drive a thick sort of energy into his throat. His head began to feel light. His hands shook a little. He wanted a Scotch very badly, but resisted. Instead, he stood and tried to calm his breathing. He shifted the envelopes from the palm of his hand to the tip of his fingers, for fear that his sweat would dampen them. He would, he decided, deliver them in person.

Instead of walking across the street immediately, which would have seemed the most natural thing to do, Roger carried the envelopes with him as he climbed the stairs back to his apartment. He laid them carefully on the ledge of his kitchen window, and walked slowly into his bathroom, where he looked ruefully at his own reflection. Bleary eyes. Graying stubble on his chin. Greasy, thinning hair that had been unwashed for several days now. He wondered, Have I brushed my teeth recently?


He’d been wearing the same sweatpants for a few days, sleeping in them, spending the day in them, sleeping in them again.

He wondered: Jeans? Khakis? What kind of shoes?

These decisions were always a misery to him. Each weekday of his life for decades his choices had been easy. He’d choose from a closet of well-made suits, starched shirts and a rack of silk ties. He’d wear a simple pair of Gold-Toe black or brown socks, and slide his feet into a pair of his highly polished, Johnston & Murphy Conard Cap Toe Oxfords or Wingtips. Sometimes he’d splash on some after shave, and fold in a silk pocket handkerchief.

But weekends were hard. Decisions seemed too challenging. What kind of pants? What sort of shirt? Sneakers? Lace-up casuals? All the choices seemed ridiculous. Some men looked good in casual clothes. But Roger always looked as though he was trying too hard to be at ease.

So, he went to his closet and looked at the suits he’d kept, after donating the larger number of them to a charity that helped homeless veterans. He’d kept his shoes and socks, his ties and most of his shirts.

After shaving, showering, brushing his teeth twice, blowing his hair dry, trimming the annoying hairs in his nose and ears, clipping and filing the nails on both his toes and his fingers, Roger put on a slate grey pin-stripe double-breasted suit and a light blue shirt with a button-down collar. He buffed some dust off his shoes before putting them on.

A long look in the wardrobe mirror convinced him that, somewhere inside him, this man had existed all along, just waiting for this moment of rediscovery.

It was mid-afternoon by the time he had made himself presentable. At the door to her building, he hesitated before pressing the doorbell, suddenly feeling light-headed. The intercom buzzed.



Debra Leigh Scott

Debra Leigh Scott ( is a writer, playwright, and singer who is also writing and co-producing a film about the corporate takeover of American academia called Junct: The Trashing of Higher Ed. in America. She is the Founding Director of Hidden River Arts, and the Editor-in-Chief of Hidden River Publishing. Debra recommends Wooden Shoe Books and Philly AIDS Thrift.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Monday, July 13, 2020 - 22:04