The Painted Tree in the Valley by Hayden Sidun

art by
Morica Pham

On the night his marriage lay on its deathbed, he went to the bar after work. Every night since he came home from Vietnam, he would go to the bar and drink with three guys he met in the infantry after every grueling second of his twelve-hour shift at the auto shop. The bar (which closed fifteen years ago, though the barkeeper still let his regulars in) was his temple of sanity where he could be himself, give advice to his buddies and seek it from them, and take his first misery-free breath of the day.

When his youngest child took her last breath in the lake down the street from his house nine years ago, he could only shake his head as he baked in the sun and sat in his plastic beach chair. He could still remember the look on his wife’s angelic face as rage suppressed the devastation within her; even years later, her anger was ever-present in her now-haggard face. They shared nothing except a fading marriage license, a worn-out mattress, and the house they called home in a small town in the Sierra Nevada. On that night, he could only think of the stack of pristine court papers, ones that boasted nonsensical legal jargon that would end their marriage, that lay on his dining room table. He could already see his wife’s signature on that paper, crisp and bold as ever, and waiting only for his for the divorce to be one step closer to finalization. Only his wife’s signature remained in his mind, staining the darkness he saw when he closed his eyes, as the image of those papers faded away.

As he had for years, he drove his most prized possession, a red Chevrolet Bel Air his father passed onto him before he died, to the bar that night. He sighed as he sat in his parked car, hesitating to get out of the car and walk into his favorite place on Earth. Overcome by a dreadful feeling of sickness, he groaned as he got out of the car and began walking toward the bar.

The bar, named Tom’s Pub after one of their Army buddies whose final glimpse of the world was a Viet Cong soldier holding a gun to his head, was a dingy, dismal place, lit only by dusty incandescent lightbulbs and the little sunlight allowed to enter by windows covered in dirt and mildew. Cracked leather furniture and stained wooden tables lined one wall, opposing the wooden bar and a yellowing window hidden by a myriad of half-empty bottles of beer. Among the only decorations in the entire building hung outside next to the front door; it read, in emboldened capital letters, “All trespassers and health inspectors will be shot upon first sight.”

He made a beeline to the stool he occupied for years and rested his elbows on the counter as he rubbed his face with his grease-covered hands. He looked up and noticed the barkeeper was nowhere in sight. Correcting his posture, he yelled, “Jerry!”

Something crashed in the back office before the barkeeper, an old, slender fellow named Jerry, walked out from the back office, ready to serve him and prepared for the others that would follow. Jerry looked at the clock, which displayed the logo for an old beer company from the fifties, and said, “You’re early today.”

He nodded. “Is that a problem?”

“Not at all.” Jerry grabbed a glass from underneath the bar counter and turned around to fill it up. “How are you doing, Ray?”

Resting his elbow on the counter, he rubbed his forehead and sighed. “She’s got those papers, Jerry, those goddamn divorce papers.”

Jerry set a mug filled with his favorite beer on the counter. The beer spilled onto the counter as he picked up the mug and took his first sip. Jerry sat down on his stool on the other end of the bar and stared at him as he indulged himself. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

He set the glass on the counter as he swallowed the beer. Taking in a breath, he looked at Jerry. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without her, Jerry. She’s been my rock since college.”

Jerry shook his head as he threw his hands in the air. “So why not fix it? There’s always time to work out the kinks and save a beautiful marriage.”

He laughed. “Fuck that, man. I’d rather drive my car into a ditch.”

Jerry shrugged. “Seems like a waste to me.”

“When I’m away from home, she doesn’t notice. When I’m at home, she ignores me. Hell, Jerry, if I died tonight, I’d bet you she wouldn’t notice until next month. She just doesn’t love me anymore.”

“You’re being dramatic.”

Taking another sip, he rested his elbow on the counter and raised his middle finger as a teardrop formed at his eye.

Jerry shook his head as he stood up and turned toward the yellowing mirror. Perusing his vast collection of alcohol, searching for something to enjoy, he said, “You should become a college professor, Ray. I’m sure they’re looking for someone to teach a course on how to waste thirty years.”

“You should teach a course on how to be an asshole when your friend is in a crisis.”

As Jerry spun back around to look at his sullen friend, he replied, “I’m sorry to hear you’ve given up on your marriage.”

“Jesus Christ, Jerry, who are you? My marriage counselor?”

“Get a grip, Ray. You know damn well it’s fixable. The two of you have problems that you need to work out and that’s—”

“You can’t undrown a child, Jerry,” he shouted. He brought himself to his feet and planted his hands on the counter as a single tear ran down his face. “You need to shut yourself up before I do it for you.”

Jerry nodded his head as he turned back toward his rows of glass bottles. The silence and the tension, the latter so thick the knife would break if you tried to cut it with one, were broken when the door flung open, creaking as it swung toward the wall and bouncing back when it hit it. Swallowing a mouthful of beer, he spun his head toward the door and forced a smile as two other men, Stephen and Carl, walked into the bar. They paid no attention to him—or to each other, for that matter—as they took their seats. After finishing his drink, Jerry turned around and smiled at the arrival of his two other regulars.

They spent hours laughing and talking through a half-keg of beer as another night at Tom’s Pub came and went. They knew they could drink at home, but that eleven-mile drive up the narrow dirt road that connected the bar to town was well worth it if the bar still stood on the other end of that road. Their camaraderie had kept them returning each night since they came home from Vietnam.

Hours after the sun had set, he bid farewell to Jerry and the others as he walked out of the bar. He opened the driver-side door and stepped inside of the car, closing the door behind him. He sighed and watched as the cloud of his breath dispersed. He fixed his sight straight ahead and sat as he lost track of time. He could feel his favorite ballpoint pen in his hand and ever so slightly moved his hand as if he were signing his name in the air. A tear ran down his cheek as he put his key into the ignition switch and pressed down on the gas pedal. He slammed his foot on the brake before the front of his car hit the building, and he shook his head as he put the car in reverse and found his way onto the dirt road.

He became more comfortable in his warm, leather seat, and his eyes grew heavier until he could no longer keep them open. The car veered off the winding road and continued down a steep hill to a valley of towering pine trees. His eyes flew open as the car tore through the valley at its highest possible speed. His screams turned to laughter as he gripped the steering wheel and floored the gas pedal.

The front of the car plowed into the trunk of a towering pine tree and catapulted him from his seat. He could still feel the seat underneath him as he flew through the windshield. He flailed his arms as he soared through the air like an eagle and held his breath as the memory of his wife carrying his dead child in her arms at the beach stained his mind for the final time. His skull shattered into pieces as it collided with the tree, and he painted his own blood onto the tree as he slid down and landed in a pile of glass shards on the hood of his car. Tom’s Pub was only two miles away as the crow flies.

He had been dead for three days before his wife reported him missing, and through the next two days, investigators questioned the few people who were close to him. On the third day of the investigation, Stephen led police up the dirt road to Tom’s Pub, hoping his friend was there. Jerry had spent his morning cleaning his beloved shotgun and loaded it when he heard a car outside. As the door swung open, Jerry clenched his shotgun and watched the officers walk into the bar.

“Good morning,” one of the officers began. “Are you the owner of this establishment?”

Holding his shotgun beneath the counter, Jerry asked, “Do you have a search warrant?”

“We just want to ask some questions.”

“I asked if you have a search warrant.”

The officer shook his head. “No, sir. We just want to ask a few questions about—”

“I could give a fuck what you want to ask me. Did you see that sign outside before you walked in? It says no trespassers. I know my rights, officers, and if you don’t have a warrant, I’m going to ask you to leave.”

“Sir, please allow us to—”

Jerry lifted his shotgun and aimed it at the officers. “Get out of my bar. I’m not afraid to shoot.”

The officers drew their guns and aimed them at Jerry. “Put the gun down. We just want to ask you about the disappearance of—”

“I want you out of my bar. Get out of my fucking bar!” He steadied his aim as he placed his finger on the trigger.

“I said put the fucking gun down!”

Jerry clenched his finger, and as the shots left the shell and shattered a window, the officers pulled their trigger and watched Jerry’s life slip away from him as he fell to the floor with bullets in his chest. The officers looked at each other, and through a moment of silence, one of them took out their radio and reported the barkeeper’s death.

When the sun disappeared into the horizon that evening, a second police car made its way up the dirt road to respond to the shooting, its wheels turning in the deep grooves forged by the same three cars that made its way up and down that dirt road every night since the end of the Vietnam War. After twenty minutes of driving, the officer driving that police car noticed a car-width path veering off the dirt road and, wondering if the path might be a clue in the missing persons investigation, turned onto it. The path led them three miles through the valley and and stopped at the tree and the damaged car. They found the damaged car covered in dirt and leaves inside and out and occupied by a family of squirrels. His decomposing body laid in a puddle of dried blood and glass shards on the hood of the car. The officers shook their heads as they reported the discovery.

The divorce papers were still on his dining room table.

Hayden Sidun is a high school student whose short fiction appears in The Dillydoun Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and Literary Yard. Outside of school and work, he is active in local politics and often finds himself writing stories and listening to music in the darkest hours of the night. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, of which he is a proud native.

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