Mr. White was a widower who lived across the street. His wife had died the previous year and he lived alone in the house. He was a wiry old fellow in his early 80s and even though his mind no longer functioned as clearly as it once had, his body was strong.
Mr. White had an aversion of fallen leaves. Years before, his wife had planted a small tree by the driveway and with the passing of time it grew to tremendous height. It was constantly shedding its leaves.
When Mrs. White was alive, she had a gardener care for the yard, but now that he was alone he lost interest, and the property was deteriorating. The only time he was seen by his neighbors was when he came out of the house to angrily rake the leaves that had dried from the hot sun and would crumble under the force of his rake.
One day, as I was on my way to the market, I saw him struggling to set a tall aluminum extension ladder up against the tree.
“Mr. White,” I yelled as I ran towards him, “What are you doing?”
He turned to me squinting through the thick lens of his glasses, sweat pouring down his aging face and body as he strained to keep the ladder erect.
“I’m gonna cut this tree down. Can’t stand these leaves all over the yard!”
“You’re not going to do it yourself are you?” I asked incredulously.
He leaned the ladder against the tree and pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe the sweat from his face. It was a hot July day and the humidity made it more unbearable.
“Of course I am. I’ve gotta get this cleaned up by the time my wife’s nieces claim the property.”
In past conversations, Mr. White had revealed that upon his death the house was willed to his wife’s nieces. It was a subject constantly on his mind and he incessantly brought it up, that and the history of his family who had migrated from Poland. Unfortunately, his mind wandered and he kept repeating those stories over and over, much to the impatience of his listeners.
“Well then, let me help you.” I grasped the other side of the ladder. With great exertion, we finally were able to secure the ladder between two thick limbs high up on the tree.
Mr. White grabbed hold of one side of the ladder, the other hand clutching a big hand saw, and slowly pulled himself up the rungs until he was at the very top.
“Oh, do be careful. I’m so afraid you’ll fall!” My voice trembled as I strained my head upward to watch him perched on the ladder. His small frame seemed to sway back and forth as he raised the saw.
“I’m all right. Don’t worry. You can go about your business. I’ll be able to get down.”
“I’ll leave only if you promise not to move the ladder yourself,” I insisted.
With an acknowledging wave of the saw, he edged the blade into the limb and began to saw back and forth, sawdust sifting down onto my head. I stepped back quickly and went to my car.
As I drove away, I shot an apprehensive glance back at the old man, my heart skipping a beat at the sight of that slight figure teetering so precariously on the ladder.
Every day thereafter Mr. White was out in his front yard sawing away, limb by limb, on the tree. He would carry the dismembered branches onto the other side of the driveway and stack them neatly into a pile. Day by day the tree grew shorter and the pile of sawed limbs higher.
The ladder remained in the same place where I had helped him position it; only Mr. Brown moved lower on the rungs as he continued his daily ritual of eliminating his enemy. The weather continued hot, but the old man never deterred from his crusade, even when his body seemed to shimmer with sweat from the hot sun.
At last, one month to the day, Mr. White conquered his bitter enemy, the tree. Its thick trunk, protruding about twelve inches above the ground, looked like a decapitated animal. The jagged wood, glistening with its newly exposed juices, resembled a fresh wound seeping blood. Mr. White stood back and surveyed his conquest.
The following week the city garbage truck came to pick up the huge pile of limbs and branches. Unfortunately, they left behind the dried leaves that had shriveled and fallen from the dead limbs. They lay scattered about in the yard in brown, crunchy piles.
Mr. White did not rake them up. He was found, by a friend, in his house depleted and exhausted, his body shrunken from the lack of fluids. He had not taken enough nourishment and water to supplement the liquids that his body had shed during his exhaustive work. He was in a confused state and could only babble about the tree.
An ambulance arrived and he was carried out on a stretcher into the vehicle. As he was being borne across the driveway, his eyes turned hauntingly toward the littered yard. He tried to raise himself with his elbow.
“The leaves!” he moaned. “I’ve got to rake those leaves up. I can’t go away and leave that mess.”
But he didn’t have the strength to hold himself up and fell back exhausted onto the stretcher. It was then his eyes glimpsed once more the protruding trunk of the felled tree.
“You see, George,” he gasped to his friend, “I finished the job.”
Mr. White never returned home. He died a week later from dehydration.
Within a month, his wife’s nieces arrived at the house.
“This is very nice”, one of them was overheard to say, “but I do wish there were some shade trees in the front.”