Sorrow - Tiffanie DeBartolo


My name is Joseph Harper and if there is one thing you should know about me, it is this: I am not a brave man.

Over the course of my thirty-seven living years I have been called a lot of respectable things: intelligent, sensitive, even good-looking and gifted. But not brave.

Never brave.

And now, a confession. One I’m not proud of. I was recently asked to leave the Whitefish Community Library in Whitefish, Montana, due to intoxication. It wasn’t even lunchtime yet, and the three shots of tequila I’d had before I got there began to hit me in an obvious and somewhat disorderly way.

I am not brave, I said to no one. I have never been brave.

I was alone in a warm, light-filled corner of the Botany section, on a leather recliner where, to my left, outside the window, the leaves of an aspen tree were announcing the steadfastness of spring. That settled me for a moment. Spring. Rebirth. New beginnings. But then I noticed the aspen’s eyes trained on mine with what I was certain was disappointment.

“Stop looking at me like that,” I said to the tree, louder than what was considered polite in a library.

I had the footrest up so my feet were comfortably elevated, and there was a rectangular coffee-table book called Remarkable Trees of the World on my lap. I used the book as a desk for my laptop because I found that if I just set the laptop on my legs, it eventually heated up and burned my skin, even through my jeans.

“Mr. Harper, is everything all right?”

Patty, the librarian, had wandered over to check on me. She knew me by name because I had been going there for almost three years to read and write and check my e-mail. The little guest cabin I lived in on Sid’s property didn’t have an internet connection, and even though Sid said I could get one, I never bothered because I didn’t think I’d be staying in Montana long enough to need it.

“Mr. Harper?” Patty said again.

She was wearing her usual camouflage pants, and I said, “Patty, where are your legs?” but she didn’t get the joke.

“Are you all right?”

I wanted to shake my head and tell her that I was most definitely not all right, but I gathered she was aware of this fact, that her question was largely rhetorical. She’d seen me when I was there an hour earlier, and I had been fine then. Well, I’d been sober. We’d exchanged trite pleasantries about the weather, and I was as right as a guy like me can be, which, if right were the whole, is only a fraction. But then I opened my inbox and saw the e-mail from the Thomas Frasier Gallery announcing October’s upcoming Living Exhibit entitled Sorrow, and the fraction halved.

I read the e-mail, even though I told myself not to. What’s it to me? I thought. Who cares?

I did. I cared so much that I shut my computer, left the library, and walked straight to the Great Northern Bar & Grill, where in quick succession I had the aforementioned shots of Cuervo Gold.

After that I returned to the library, intent on writing October an e-mail.

How are you? I typed. Long time no talk. Congratulations on SFMoMA.

October had once told me that having a show at SFMoMA was one of her biggest dreams in life.

You did it, I wrote. Hope you’re well.

Even in my inebriated state, I knew this was a pathetic attempt at communication, particularly since it had been 949 days since I’d last seen and/or spoken to her, and I deleted the whole thing. That’s when I directed my attention to the tree, and then Patty came over.

The aspen knew I wasn’t brave. I could see it in its eyes.

“Do you know why aspens have eyes?” I asked Patty, who was standing near my chair, looking either worried or fearful; I couldn’t tell which.

“They’re shade-intolerant,” I explained. “They need light. Lots of it. They battle with their neighbors for sun, and the higher they grow, the shadier their lower branches get. So you know what they do? They basically cut off the blood supply to the lower branches so that the taller branches, the ones that get all the light, can thrive. They’re smart trees. They don’t want to expend any energy trying to save the branches in the dark. Not when the ones in the light can flourish. The lower branches eventually fall off, and that leaves a scar. That’s what