“The Tree Man” by Lynne Barrett
When we moved to Aqua Marina everyone—not just realtors—spoke of the neighborhood’s luxuriant trees and the pleasure of strolling the sidewalks under their shade. The oldest residents sometimes mentioned that our houses were built with thick stucco walls to withstand high winds, but it had been a long time since a real storm had hit this old Florida resort town. So Hurricane Alan, a strong category one, took us by surprise. My husband and I came out after a night of howls and creaks and bangs to find our black olive had toppled, with its head brushing our baby’s bedroom wall and its roots lifted out of the front yard like claws. Daniel said, “I’ll need to find a service with a wood chipper machine to get rid of this mess. Could take a while.” He went inside to start calling around.
Next door, through a gap in the shrubbery that divided our yards, I saw Bianca studying her fallen ficus. I met her in the street, feeling the unaccustomed weight of the sun on my head. We mourned the wreckage we could see for blocks, down to where the road curved towards the bay.
And then a man with white teeth, dark hair, and muscles like knots in his arms turned the corner, walked up to us, and presented us each with a card that read, “Eligio Lucani ~ The Tree Man.” He announced that he was new in the neighborhood and, lucky for us, “Just the guy to rescue you ladies. That is, of course, your trees.”
He said the men in his family, from Argentina but long before that from Italy, understood the laws of leverage and nature. For a modest fee he could lop our fallen friends to lighten their crowns, then pull them upright and give them a chance to live. Later he would thin our other big trees so that future storms, even stronger ones, would pass harmlessly through their foliage. Though skeptical, Bianca and I made appointments. It was worth a try.
Lucani—he said to call him just Lucani, everyone did—arrived at my house in his truck two days later. Daniel’s office had reopened that morning, and he’d left, saying I should make sure to stay clear of the tree work. He, second generation Cuban-American himself, distrusted Argentineans and people who promised miracles.
I greeted Lucani and the young helper he’d brought, then went inside and watched from the baby’s window as they dug out a pit beneath the roots of my black olive and cropped its crown with power saws. Lucani walked about sizing things up before he arranged a block and tackle system with ropes on pulleys run between a fat palm and the black olive’s trunk. Then, standing in the pit, stripped to the waist, his body covered in sweat and leaves, Lucani hauled on the rope and slowly, pausing often, hoisted the tree till it was vertical. I cheered and waved through the window. Lucani took a bow. He kept hold of the rope and had his helper shovel dirt around the resettled roots. I closed the blinds and settled in the rocker to breastfeed.
I’d just put my son down for a nap when Lucani tapped on the back door. He had put on an orange shirt but left it unbuttoned. Grinning like a pirate in an old movie, he asked me to come out and see. He escorted me around to the front and showed me the black olive, standing. It was a diminished, awkward version of itself, but its remaining cluster of foliage should be enough, Lucani said, to keep the tree alive. He’d weighted the roots down with chunks of concrete and used thick cut branches as props to support the trunk from four sides. I should leave them there and do deep watering, he said, “until the tree remakes his true connection to the earth.”
Lucani told his helper to load the rest of the cut branches into their truck while he and I made a plan for the back yard. So I followed him down our side path, and he told me the big avocado and the lime must be pruned this spring, and that he would clear out the poisonous oleander bushes along the garage before my son became a curious toddler. I agreed, of course. I handed Lucani our check, already filled out, and he said, “Don’t you feel like celebrating?”
“I’m very happy,” I said.
“Me too, being here with such a gorgeous, sexy lady. How about we make love, over there, hmmm?” he said, pointing to a dappled corner full of avocado leaves.
I panicked, said, “No, thank you, no. I think I hear the baby,” and dashed inside and locked the back door. Crouched in the dining room, I could hear him whistling as he walked along the side of the house and returned to the truck. I went to the baby, who was sound asleep, and wondered how the man could have imagined that I, a plump new mother, on maternity leave, breastfeeding, was likely to make love out in the yard—or anywhere!—with him.
Later that week, Bianca told me that after he resurrected the ficus he’d declared himself overwhelmed with desire and said she must, really must, have mercy on him and relieve his pain. But Bianca, an attractive divorcee, had more experience than I did in rejecting. Lucani argued cheerfully, but he wasn’t difficult. Perfectly affable, Bianca said. We decided we would call him to trim trees in the spring because we needed his expertise, but we’d have to be careful not to let him catch us alone.
And that was the beginning. Eligio Lucani soon became famous in Aqua Marina because there was no woman he would not proposition. It was one thing to approach Bianca, or glamorous Karen the boutique owner, but then we heard he pursued Eleanor, a middle-aged attorney, and Chelsea, a firefighter who had a distinct mustache. He would grin as he was setting up his ladder and suggest a tumble into a bed of ferns, or advise planting Florida native mahogany then declare himself ready to satisfy a need he was sure we had whether we knew it or not. He tried to kiss Madeleine Farr in her driveway one day when she was writing the check for pruning her Royal Poincianas, and she was a dignified lady of sixty-five at least and not one for makeup or hair coloring. She told us, “When you are my age and wearing Bermudas and gardening gloves, you feel safe from seduction.”
As to whether Lucani’s overtures sometimes succeeded, I cannot personally say. There were rumors and surmises, but certainly no one would admit it. Bianca and I negotiated the late spring trimming together on our front lawns. We wanted to be sure we wouldn’t foolishly respond to the neighborhood satyr. But omnivorous and unselective though Lucani might be, I believe we all felt prettier. Chelsea had electrolysis, and I began to work out. And those of us who had husbands found they paid us more attention. Mine made sure to be home on tree-trimming days.
By then we had learned that a young woman who we sometimes saw walking with a little girl in a stroller was Lucani’s wife. She was quiet and wore long, dowdy skirts. When one or another of us asked her if she’d like to participate in something—planting the area around the “Welcome to Historic Aqua Marina” sign at the entrance to the neighborhood or taking part in a pot luck barbeque organized by Malcolm and David—she said only, “Not the English.” When Bianca tried Spanish she shook her head, perhaps not understanding, perhaps afraid to respond. Karen learned from the local U.P.S. guy that Lucani insisted his wife could not open the door if a man came to deliver packages. Malcolm said that when David gave Lucani an invitation to their annual Halloween party, the tree man said he was not fooled. He knew that gayness was merely a masquerade they used to get close to women. His lechery, we concluded, made him see his own reflection everywhere.
We felt sorry for the wife, but what could we do? We had offered friendship, but she had declined. And we needed the tree man, as storms came more often in their new cycle, with, each year now, two or three big enough to have names. Lucani’s business grew far beyond Aqua Marina, and we had to make annual reservations to be sure we got his visit in before the rainy season started in late spring.
Once the girl began school, we rarely saw the mother. Soon it seemed we hadn’t glimpsed Lucani’s wife for years, though the daughter was visible in her blue uniform when her father drove her to and from school in his truck. As she turned 9, 10, we noticed how pretty she was becoming. She had her father’s coloring and dimples that must have come from her mother, though we’d never seen the mother smile.
One Saturday in March, at the farm market Karen had started in the lot of an old closed motel outside the neighborhood, Lucani’s daughter was spotted buying a strawberry smoothie. The girl was dressed in an oversized t-shirt and baggy jeans, but even so, she had the strange beauty of a promise.
Over the cherry tomatoes and tarragon, the girl’s mother approached Bianca, and said her first name was Ana.
Karen and I joined them. Suddenly friendly and fluent, Ana said she’d met Lucani—she called him Eligio—when he’d returned to their town in Argentina, wanting to marry a girl who was not “Americanized,” while she had longed to get away and come here. Her husband hadn’t wanted her to learn English, but her daughter, Caterina, had taught her.
By now, our whole group was listening. Ana explained that Lucani had become more and more obsessed about their daughter, imagining that perverted men were after her. Now he wanted to send her to a convent school, far off, in the Virginia mountains. “He has gone crazy,” she said. She needed to leave with the girl, to get away from him. She’d come to the farm market to find us and ask for our help, while he was off picking up a shipment of blades for the spring trimming. She said we, her neighbors, must understand. “You must know what he’s like, so bossy, so puritanical.”
We glanced among ourselves and then agreed to help.
Eleanor gave her legal advice, Bianca knew of a women’s group that helped relocate women in danger, and I found a program that would train Ana for a job. And everyone chipped in to give her money to start out with. One afternoon in April, while Karen had Lucani looking at her jacaranda in full purple bloom, Chelsea brought her SUV, and the mother and girl loaded their things and disappeared.
After Lucani went home and found them gone, we saw him tearing around the neighborhood in his truck. The next morning as I drove out he was standing by the welcome sign, staring into each vehicle that left the neighborhood. I lowered my window to let him be sure that I had with me only my son and his school backpack.
“Did you see a man with a red sports car?” Lucani asked. “Going to my house?”
“No,” I said. “No man. And no red car.” (Chelsea’s SUV was light green. I knew someone had given Lucani this scrap opposite to the truth.) As we rolled past, I noticed his clenched fists.
Madeleine Farr called me at work to say he had been going door to door demanding to be told where his wife and daughter were.
Late that afternoon when I got home, Lucani waited out front in the shade of our black olive tree. Daniel, who got out earlier than I did and picked up our son, came out the back door to meet me as I pulled into the driveway.
“What’s up?” I said. I had told Daniel almost nothing about Ana, just that she had left Lucani for good reasons.
Daniel said, “Lucani insists on speaking to you.”
“Okay,” I said, and I walked to the front, with Daniel following.
I said, and this was true, “I have no idea where they are.”
Lucani said, “The woman is a slut, an unfit mother. I will take my daughter away from her. I’m going to the police.”
I replied that that seemed a good idea. I imagined what the police would make of him, with his eyes bloodshot and his hair twisted into knots.
Lucani said, “You are all helping her, I know it, all you witches. Las brujas.”
Daniel said, “Witches?”
Lucani hissed, “Las brujas. The women are all in it together. Watch out, they’ll get you too.”
I said, “If your wife has left you, you must look to yourself for the reason.”
But of course he did not listen to this. He stomped off, muttering curses.
“The witches of Aqua Marina,” my husband said. He thought it was funny. And perhaps he liked seeing Lucani fallen.
We convened on a Saturday afternoon in early June at Madeleine Farr’s. Bianca, Eleanor, Karen, and I laid out cheese and crackers, spinach tarts, hummus and pita, carrots and cucumber dip. Malcolm and David had put together a platter of charcuterie. Chelsea made a big batch of mango daiquiris.
We ate and drank and discussed the progress of our plan. Eleanor had been able to get Ana a restraining order after Lucani made a scene at the school, trying to find out where they’d transferred Caterina’s records, and police were called. Ana and Caterina had safely been moved to another city, better we didn’t know where. Now the house was for sale, Lucani had disappeared, and there were rumors he might have left the country.
“Gone home to find another wife, perhaps?” said Karen.
“Surely Ana will have let people there know he’s no prize,” said Eleanor.
David said, “I wonder how many women said yes to him.”
“Whoever did just made his madness worse,” said Bianca.
“But,” I said, “a lot of women turned him down. Maybe all—he didn’t exactly approach with finesse.”
Madeleine said, “You think he just did it as a test, then?”
“No,” said several voices at once.
There was a long silence. Of course, it was possible someone who had succumbed was present.
Chelsea got the pitcher, refilled our glasses, and sat down with a sigh. “He was a handsome man, after all,” she said. “And he knew it.”
Again we were quiet, remembering. Hadn’t I, hadn’t the others, in some ways enjoyed being approached, at Ana’s expense?
Malcolm said, “He was simply a hunter. He thought he could lock his wife away and keep her ignorant and safe, while he hunted.”
“Well, it’s a shame,” said Madeleine, “that we weren’t able to wait till after the spring trimming.”
“Still, we’ve done a very good deed,” said Bianca.
We made a toast, to us, the witches of Aqua Marina, as we’d begun to call ourselves.
As we drank the rum and mango, we heard thunder, the first of the rainy season. The sky slowly turned gray-green. We sat thinking of the summer winds to come and the ocean, so close to us, full of turmoil and stings. As we listened, our lush trees whispered among themselves, awaiting ravishment.