Chain of Events
When he went away on one of his infrequent business trips, Roger always told his twin sons, Ryan and Brian, that they were the “men of the house” while he was gone. For many years, Ryan understood that his father was joking. Back when Ryan was five, seven, ten, thirteen years old, he was aware that he was still a boy who knew nothing about being the “man of the house.” He assumed Brian felt the same way. Ryan had no question in his mind that his mother, Lois, was the real “man of the house” while his father was gone—probably at least half the time while Roger was home as well.
Ryan had turned seventeen the previous winter. His brother Brian was away at an August “young scholars” camp in Maine. Ryan had also qualified for the camp based on his GPA, which was only slightly lower than Brian’s near the top of their class, but Ryan couldn’t imagine such a camp being even slightly fun. Their little sister Tessa was attending her yearly soccer camp, honing the skills that had already made her a standout on her middle school team. Ryan was about to begin his senior year of high school, a head taller than his mother–even, when he didn’t slouch, taller than his father. So when Ryan’s father stood at the door on Sunday afternoon in a bland, brown suit, weekend bag in hand, ready to depart on his quarterly trip to check the seven storage facilities he owned in small towns across the Northeast, Ryan asked, “Am I the man of the house while you’re gone?”
His father laughed at their old joke. “Sure,” he said, sharing an amused look with his wife. “Okay with you, Lois?”
Ryan’s mother mussed his hair as Ryan tried not to flinch. “Sounds good to me, Roger,” Lois said. “I have some man’s work lined up for him while you’re gone. The basement needs cleaning and the garden weeded.”
Ryan had something else in mind for his first real stint as man of the house.
Monday morning, Ryan rose early, as the man of the house should do, earlier than he had all summer. The house was deafeningly quiet without his father and siblings. Only the family dog, little Ruby, noticed when Ryan quietly descended the stairs and tiptoed through the living room to the front door.
Ryan went to the garage of the family’s suburban raised-ranch and carefully poured gasoline into the tiny opening on his father’s chainsaw, spilling acrid-smelling streams onto the porous concrete floor several times. Then he added a splash of oil from a tiny plastic bottle, just as he’d seen his father do many times. He scraped a round, pencil-thin file across the curved teeth of the chain, finding it more difficult than he had expected to sharpen the pieces of steel that tore through the fleshy wood with deadly force. Twice he scraped his knuckles, something he’d never seen his father do.
The old man always makes this look easy, Ryan thought as he fumbled through the preparations, glad his father wasn’t there to see his struggles.
“Dad told me I should,” Ryan said when he left the garage and encountered his mother in the driveway. Not accustomed to the early hour, he didn’t even know she was out of bed yet, but there she stood, fully dressed, rooted on the blacktop, blocking his path to the backyard.
“He did?” Lois said. “When?”
“Last week,” Ryan responded. “When we were clearing some of that brush along the back fence, he said that I should take down the dead tree in the corner.”
The lie came easily to Ryan because it was rooted in the truth. His father had said that they would cut the dead tree. Ryan knew that it was something they were meant to do together as soon as Brian returned from science camp.
They’d taken down a few trees in recent years as the wooded areas planted two decades earlier behind their house matured. Ryan’s dad learned tree cutting from his father while growing up on a small farm in Southern Vermont before moving to Western Massachusetts and starting his storage business. Roger knew what he was doing, so he handled the most difficult aspects of the task: felling the tree, cutting the trunk and large limbs into manageable sizes, hauling the pieces away in the back of his pick-up. Ryan and Brian would clear the smallest branches with the clippers, drag those branches to the truck, and stack them with the trunk pieces in the truck bed.
During the past year, Roger started letting the boys use the chainsaw for a few of the simple, smallest cuts on mid-sized limbs. Brian never liked the chainsaw. He preferred the clippers and even the hatchet he used for clearing branches. He liked the quiet simplicity of planting the blade in exactly the right spot to remove the branch in one or two graceful swings. But Ryan could still remember the thrill as the saw vibrated in this hands. For days afterward, when he stood still, closed his eyes, and held his breath, he still felt those vibrations.
Ryan knew that his father wouldn’t approve of him taking down an entire tree alone with a deadly cutting machine, but he was determined.
“Which tree?” Lois asked.
“It’s small, maybe fifteen feet,” Ryan lied again. “You know that scrubby Poplar,” he continued, hoping his mention of the specific type of tree would inspire his mother’s confidence. “It’s dead, so it’ll fall this winter if we don’t cut it now. Dad says that the wind could take it into the fence back there, maybe even the house, cause a lot of damage.” That part was true.
“Your father really said you could do this by yourself?” Lois asked.
“He lets Brian and me use the saw when we work together,” Ryan responded. Technically, this was not a lie. Nor was it a direct answer to his mother’s question.
Lois glared at Ryan for a moment, shifting her appraising gaze to the chainsaw in his right hand. He tried to hold the machine casually but confidently, pretending it wasn’t heavy enough to have already caused an ache in his shoulder. And then, to his surprise, Lois exhaled and said, “Okay. If Roger thinks you can do it, then I won’t argue. But I won’t watch. I can’t watch when your father uses that thing. So I’ll tell you the same thing I tell him: Be careful.”
“I will,” Ryan said, successfully suppressing a smile.
Lois turned and walked toward the house. “Clean up and put everything away when you’re done,” she called over her shoulder before disappearing through their front door. After a second, she re-emerged and looked steadily at Ryan. “And if you cut off your legs, don’t come running to me!” She cackled at her joke and then leveled a penetrating look at her son. “Seriously,” she deadpanned. “Don’t hurt yourself.”
Ryan stood beneath the dead Poplar and stared up into its network of tributary branches, twisting his back and neck to examine every angle, just as he’d seen his father do to estimate which direction the tree would fall. Brian sometimes offered a formula from his trigonometry class to the discussion, but their father preferred his “eyeball method,” assessing the tree’s potential path simply by examining it from every angle.
Ryan noticed that the trunk leaned slightly toward the east side of the yard, but he could see that the bulk of the leafless limbs above were gathered more toward the north. Ryan’s father had taught him that the tree would usually fall where its branch weight took it, not the direction of the trunk.
Ryan was glad to see that the northern path would take the tree between the wooden fence that lined the backyard and the small deck that protruded from the corner of the house near the covered steps leading to the basement entrance. And it would miss the garden where his parents grew carrots, peppers, and various herbs. Ryan understood the utility of the garden, but he still loathed getting down on his knees to weed with his parents. That was a child’s chore, he reasoned, not suitable for the man he was now.
The tree was far taller than the fifteen feet Ryan had told his mother. He wasn’t good at estimating height, but he visualized stacking the basketball hoop in their driveway at least four times to match it. He guessed that made the tree forty feet high—or maybe it was one hundred. How could he know? The only thing he knew for sure was that the tree was slightly more than a foot thick at its base. Substantial but doable, he hoped.
He strode the distance to the house, calling each stride three feet and counting out twenty-four strides. He guessed that the tree would fall harmlessly in the backyard as long as his directional estimate was correct. For someone cutting his first tree, he was moderately confident. And if he was off by a few yards, he reasoned, the small, brittle branches at the top of the tree probably wouldn’t cause any damage.
His father’s heavy, leather work gloves fit well, but Roger’s chrome hard hat slipped down over Ryan’s eyes. Height and head size don’t always coordinate, Ryan realized. He figured out how to adjust the band so that the hard hat more or less stayed on his head. When he wiggled his neck, the hat shifted a bit from side to side but didn’t fall off. If he held his posture and didn’t make any sudden moves, his skull would be safe enough. He slipped on the plastic safety glasses and anchored the hard hat in place with his father’s bulky plastic and rubber earmuffs to dull the chainsaw’s roar.
He looked again at the tree’s upper branches and retraced his steps toward the house, counting to himself. “Measure twice, cut once,” his father recited each time he pulled out any cutting tool, be it a chainsaw or a pocket knife. Ryan said the words aloud in a calm voice, but he felt a bit silly. He knew his measurements the second time around were as much a guess as his original guess. He was surprised to find himself wishing for Brian’s trig formulas. For the first time, he wondered if his father had also been guessing. He had always assumed that adults knew what they were doing–but maybe not. That wasn’t a comforting thought.
“Guess once, screw up twice,” he mumbled.
Ryan visualized the three cuts that would bring down the tree. The first would start a foot off the ground, angled downward to about a fourth of the way through the trunk’s thickness. The second would begin near the dirt and angle upward to complete the notch. The third would enter the opposite side and go straight toward the notch. If all went according to plan, the tree would follow the notch and drop into the open part of the yard exactly where he planned. He had seen his dad cut trees this way many times, so he figured it shouldn’t be too difficult.
The one time Roger didn’t use a notch was years ago when he was in a hurry to finish their work before a storm hit. The tree was barely a third the size of this one, but it didn’t cooperate. The chainsaw sputtered to a stop and was pinched in so tightly that Roger couldn’t pull it out. Ryan and Brian pushed with all their weight against the trunk while Roger pulled on the saw, but they were barely half the size they are now, and the saw remained stuck.
As the rain pelted them, an annoyed Roger got a rope from the garage, tossed it over a branch fifteen feet up, and the boys pulled until Roger could work the saw free from the tree’s grip. Roger restarted the saw, cut a small notch in the opposite side of the tree, returned to the other side, flicked the raindrops from his safety glasses, and made a second cut an inch below the first. The tree fell perfectly where he intended, and father and sons sprinted for the house, rain soaking them.
On the porch, panting, Roger called out above the drone of rain and approaching thunder, “Lesson learned, boys … Always notch!”
Despite all of the many mishaps that Ryan knew could befall the operation of a chainsaw, the part he dreaded most should be one of the safest in the process: starting the machine. He had studied his father’s method many times. There seemed to be some kind of secret code involving switches, levers, and rubber bulbs to depress an exact number of times to prepare the saw before even engaging the pull cord. Ryan did his best to imitate his father’s method, feeling like a novice safe-cracker on his first caper.
Ryan braced his foot atop the saw, pinning it to the ground, and yanked. As he’d feared, the cord caught and recoiled as the rubber handle slipped from his grip on the first pull. His fist shot upward and barely missed his own face, instead slamming against his earmuffs, sending the hard hat flying off his head. He retrieved the hat, shook the pain from his hand, and glanced around to see if anyone was looking. Specifically, he scanned the house windows to see if his mother was watching. He didn’t see her, and he had no way of knowing that she was watching from the darkened second-floor bathroom, standing far enough from the window to be invisible to her young son. Their little dog Ruby had somehow sensed her anxiety and nuzzled Lois’s leg until she picked her up and hugged her warm, fuzzy body for comfort as she tried to do the hardest thing a parent can manage: stand back and allow her child to grow up.
Ryan gripped the handle tighter, drew in a deep breath, and pulled again. This time, he held on, and the motor spun but didn’t catch. He pulled again. And again. Then six more times. Nothing happened. Ryan noticed that his breathing was getting faster as the first trickles of sweat dropped from his forehead and streaked his goggles. He checked the levers and switches and noticed that the saw’s on/off switch was in the “off” position. He swore quietly to himself, a word he had heard from his father now and then during yard work sessions that weren’t going as planned. He was especially glad that Brian wasn’t here to witness his boneheaded omission. Ryan flicked the switch to “on” and yanked the cord again.
With this pull, the chainsaw thundered and burst to life. Ryan was startled but had the presence of mind to push down the choke lever while imitating his father’s twitching finger on the trigger to keep the engine going. Even through the earmuffs, the noise was overwhelming. The times Roger had let Ryan use the saw to make routine cuts on small branches, he thought he would never get used to the volume. It was like he held a motorcycle in his hands, except instead of wheels, a chain consisting of dozens of biting, metal teeth spun just inches from his fingers.
Ryan lifted the chainsaw and cautiously extended his arms to keep the idling blade away from his body. He took one last glance up into the tree and then focused his vision on the section of the trunk where he would make his first cut. Dropping to one knee, as he had seen his father do many times, he moved the saw into position.
Above, Lois backed out of the bathroom and closed the door, still clutching little Ruby.
Ryan was surprised at how smoothly the saw delivered the first cut into the tree. He held tight as he squeezed the trigger and felt the saw buck just slightly as the chain spun and the teeth bit into the wood. The saw was actually easier to control as it cut, a fact that Ryan had forgotten from his limited experience under his father’s close supervision.
Let the machine do the work. Ryan could hear Roger’s words in his mind. And it was true. He barely had to push as the saw seemed to pull itself forward on its own momentum. Within seconds, he was deep into the tree trunk, almost beyond the spot he had mentally marked to stop the top wedge cut. He pulled back harder than he intended to extract the saw from the tree, and he forgot to ease up on the trigger. As it came out from the neat cut, the spinning teeth caught wood and jerked forward. Ryan yanked back reflexively, and he gunned the trigger, accelerating the chain and nearly wrenching the saw from his grip. Fortunately, his finger slipped from the trigger, and the saw immediately fell quiet and still in his hands.
He stood and regripped securely, keeping his index finger as far from the trigger as he could. When he looked up, he thought for a moment that he could see the treetop swaying farther in the slight breeze than it had before. For an instant, he feared it would fall in the wrong direction, but it swayed easily back the other way, barely moving and looking as secure as it had before his first cut.
The second cut was more challenging. He had to angle up from just above the ground and aim to connect with the first cut. If all went well, a perfect wedge of trunk would drop harmlessly onto the ground. His father always seemed to manage this task with the skill of a diamond cutter. Ryan again dropped to his left knee about two feet from the trunk. He held the saw out to the tree and carefully lined up the blade, measuring the angle as best he could. The saw’s engine and his own arms slightly blocked his view, so he stretched his neck to look above and below, but he still couldn’t get the precise view he wanted. Finally, he guessed and engaged the trigger.
The saw bounced awkwardly off of the trunk. Ryan had to gun the engine and hold as steadily as he could to start the upward-angled cut. Once the teeth had penetrated the bark and started digging into the wood, the saw stabilized and cut smoothly again. Within a few inches, however, Ryan saw that he had miscalculated. His second cut would miss the first one by six inches, so he eased back on the trigger and slipped the blade gently from the tree. He couldn’t help thinking for an instant that Brian, with his keen eye and careful nature, wouldn’t have made the same mistake. Moving quickly this time, he put his nagging doubt aside and recalibrated the angle to start the cut again. This time, the blade moved directly along the perfect path, and the wood wedge popped out before Ryan even knew he was finished.
Feeling something close to confidence, Ryan stepped to the other side of the tree and started what his father called “the money cut.” This one would, for better or worse, triumph or destruction, bring down the tree. Ryan clenched his jaw and pushed the roaring saw through the soft wood directly toward the center of the notch. Three inches before the blade made it through, the tree began tipping so gradually that Ryan barely noticed at first. Then he glanced up and saw the treetop moving far faster than the trunk, seeming to accelerate against the sky on an inevitable path.
Holy crap! Ryan thought. It’s going the right way! Ryan disengaged the saw and stood, thrilled to see the tree falling in exactly the direction he planned. For just a moment, he was hypnotized by the graceful, almost peaceful motion as the tree slipped soundlessly through the air. Then the uncut section of trunk broke fee with a solid thunk, shattering the still air. Suddenly, with an explosion rivaling a car wreck, the brittle tree top crashed to the ground, dead limbs splintering into hundreds of pieces.
The slightly curved trunk flexed as it encountered the ground, rising like the base of a rocking chair and sending the jagged butt of the tree upward and straight toward Ryan’s head. He managed to lean back and step slightly sideways so that he only felt the thick, spikey base graze his chin before slamming back to the ground inches from his feet.
Ryan staggered back before regaining his balance. He stared at the tree, now motionless and prone before him. His brain instantly catalogued the seven different things that had almost gone wrong during the previous nine seconds, and he marveled that he had actually made it through the experience without being seriously injured or killed. He didn’t even think to look for his mother in any of the windows. Next time, he thought, that will go better.
The next part of the process was harder work but much safer. He cut the tree trunk into two-foot lengths, big enough to burn an hour in their firepit but small enough that he could lift them into the wheelbarrow to transport to the woodpile near the deck. He managed to section the trunk while only twice grinding the saw into the dirt, dulling the blade slightly each time. The smaller limbs make for easy cutting, and he had the benefit of previous experience to know exactly where to start the cut and how to keep the saw from pinching when gravity bent the branches in predictable directions.
The only surprise he encountered was near the top of the tree where a branch had impaled one of Tessa’s soccer balls. He pulled it loose and pushed it deep and out of sight within the garbage can. She had so many that he hoped she wouldn’t miss this one when she got back from soccer camp in a few weeks.
As Ryan loaded the last set of logs into the wheelbarrow, he noticed that one of his chainsaw cuts had fallen short by several inches and hadn’t actually separated that length of trunk. He kicked at it a few times, but it held fast. He retrieved the chain saw, pulled it to life again, and finished off the cut, feeling confident that he had accomplished something today. He had done an important job, done it right, and had fulfilled his promise to his mother. He hadn’t hurt himself.
As he held the saw and reached for the toggle to switch it off, his grip failed and the blade jammed against his upper thigh just as his finger accidentally slipped down to the trigger. The saw lurched from his hands and fell against his leg, and Ryan felt the teeth tear into his jeans as the saw tumbled to the ground and sputter to a stop.
Ryan almost couldn’t look at this leg, but when he did, he saw that the blade had cut through the denim shell and the two layers of pocket beneath. He could clearly see through the gash in his pants a rosy-pink line on his skin where the chainsaw’s teeth had encountered his bare leg just enough to leave an abrasion without breaking the surface.
For the first time in an hour, Ryan looked toward the house to see if his mother was watching. If she was, he couldn’t see her, but just for a flash, he thought he saw Ruby’s little head disappear from a downstairs window.
Ryan quickly hauled the last wheelbarrow load of wood, raked the area to clean away the remaining sawdust, twigs, chunks of bark, and then returned the chainsaw to its resting place in the garage, exactly matching his father’s positioning. He slipped into the house through the unlocked back door and tiptoed to the bedroom he shared with Brian. With the scissors Brian used for his art projects, he cut off both legs of his jeans where the chainsaw had left its mark. He scraped the fabric to fringe the denim and give the cutoff a worn look, as if he’d had them for years. Then he grabbed his basketball from the closet and started down the stairs.
Just before he got to the front door, his mother called out, “How’d it go?”
“Just fine,” he replied. “All done, wood stacked, everything put away.”
Lois eyed Ryan’s shorts for a long moment. Then she asked, “Any problems with the saw?”
“Nope,” Ryan responded. “It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, but everything went well.”
“Good,” Lois said. “Your dad will be proud.”
“Thanks,” Ryan said, blushing slightly. “I think I’ll shoot some baskets for a while.”
“Okay,” Lois replied. “You’ve earned some fun. But later, let’s tackle that basement.”
“Sure thing, mom,” Ryan said with a chuckle.
Ryan stopped on the porch to survey the front yard. He couldn’t see any trees that needed cut, but he thought he’d take a look around the backyard again later. Maybe he could take down another tree when his dad got back, show him what he could do. He was slightly surprised that his first solo experience felling timber had gone so well. He had a strange but ineffable notion that today was an important day. He had done something that a boy couldn’t do. His work today was a man’s work. He sighed as he realized that maybe, just maybe, he actually was the man of the house today.
Ryan tossed the basketball underhanded into the driveway. He liked to throw it high with heavy backspin so that it hung in the air as he skipped down from the porch and caught the ball off the bounce as he imagined receiving a pass from a teammate and driving to the basket to hit the layup that would win the state championship. The crowd roared his name as he fantasized about his teammates carrying him off the court in celebration. He’d played this scene in his head hundreds of times since he was a small boy, and it still thrilled him.
This time, though, perhaps because he was tired from wrestling the chainsaw and lugging logs, he fell slightly short as he skipped down the last step. His right heel caught and he lurched forward. His left ankle buckled and twisted as he rolled into the driveway. He got up and limped around the driveway, walking off the injury as best he could. He knew from past experience that his ankle would ache for days, maybe weeks, well past his father’s return and even to the time when his brother and sister would come back from their adventures far from the home where he had lived his whole life.
He looked again for his mother’s worried face, possibly watching him from the front door. Again, he didn’t see her.
John Sheirer (pronounced “shy-er”) lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with his wonderful wife Betsy and happy dog Libby. He has taught writing and communications for 28 years at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where he also serves as editor and faculty advisor for Freshwater Literary Journal (submissions welcome). His books include memoir, fiction, poetry, essays, political satire, and photography. His most recent book is Fever Cabin, a fictionalized journal of a man isolating himself during the current pandemic. (All proceeds from this book benefit pandemic-related charities.) Find him at JohnSheirer.com.