Philip drove to the local hardware store and bought a truckload of recycled wood: smooth, solid wood that would endure the rain and snow. He piled it on the ground next to the old oak tree in the backyard, and waited for Henry and Anne to discover the surprise and appreciate him again. He would work on it every weekend until winter. It would be ready for Henry by Christmas. This was Philip’s promise.

“Look, Henry,” Philip said when he showed his son the blueprint. “A tree house, just like you’ve always wanted.”

Henry, who had red hair like his mother’s, leaned over his bowl of half-eaten corn flakes and looked at the scribbled sheets of white printer paper his father had laid out before him on the dinette. It was indeed just what he’d always wanted. He had asked for one every birthday since he was five. He was eleven now.

“See, this is where the rope ladder will go,” Philip said pointing. “And here are the windows–with shutters. We can work on it together on the weekends.”

“Cool,” Henry said, gulping down the last of his orange juice. “Thanks, Dad.” He got up from the table, went to the sink to rinse out his glass and bowl and then grabbed his sneakers from the mat beside the backdoor. “I’m going to go play soccer with Cameron,” he said. “See you later.”

Philip, 6’2″ and 185 pounds, spent the next several Saturdays sitting in the tree trying to decide how best to situate the house. He had always been a slow, contemplative thinker given to sudden bursts of inspiration. It was this combination of characteristics that had earned him the nickname U.S., for Ulysses, at West Point. The same characteristics got him into law school and law review when his colorblindness kept him out of combat. They got him in with his wife’s family and the Pentagon, and now they would get him in with his wife and his son.

He examined the angles and thickness of the limbs, knocking on them for soundness, spearing them with his Swiss army knife for density. He knew that he would need to cut off a few of the smaller branches and saw a few right angles into the larger ones so that he could lodge the house in between them. But it would work. He was just the right height off the ground to see into the neighbors’ backyards with just the right amount of protection from the leaves. Philip imagined Henry and his friend Cameron playing spies in the tree house, watching Mrs. Dancewicz water her geraniums, concluding that she was a member of the KGB and then running dangerous ground missions to her garden, stealing a petal or two for laboratory testing before running back to the tree house, victorious.

From his position in the leaves, Philip could also see into his own 9-room colonial that he and his wife, Anne, had lived in and worked on since they graduated from law school in 1974, before Henry was born. He could look down through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the sunroom to see Brutus the yellow Labrador sleeping on the old leather couch. At eye-level with the little dormer window on the second floor, he could also see Anne folding Henry’s clothes in the laundry nook, arranging them by color and then separating them into stacks of T-shirts and shorts. Her perfect straight red hair was tied back with a blue and white bandana and she seemed to be humming to herself. She looked genuinely content, happy to be folding her son’s clothes before she went on to vacuum the living room and water the plants. Philip rarely watched his wife that way, rarely thought to himself, “Here is a whole other person with whom I share my life. And she hums and wears a blue and white bandana while she folds our laundry.” But that day, up in the tree, he realized, he was thinking a little bit differently.

Anne had a straight, sweet nose that turned up at the end like elf shoes and sharp, green eyes that missed little and were too easily compared to a cat’s. These were the clever features of his darling, clever wife, who glanced up from her folding to catch him there in the tree. The tree! she thought. My husband is in a tree, his butt wedged between the two main forks of its largest limb, his legs dangling and spread wide to support him. Don’t get angry, she thought, and went back to her folding, ignoring him. He wondered what she thought of all this, writing the screenplay in his head. She’s so patient, he thought, so encouraging; it clearly touched her that he cared so much for their son, that he would throw himself into this project, this kind-hearted and selfless gesture, this symbol of a father’s love. So strange, she thought. Sometimes he thought he saw her eyes water a bit. Perhaps it meant more to her than he knew; perhaps it affirmed her life in some way. He smiled to imagine he had that kind of impact. Why is he so strange? she thought. But sometimes, when they weren’t talking about it, he caught glimpses of her frowning, really frowning the way she had in law school when she couldn’t get her head around a deposition, the corners of her sweet mouth turned down almost to her chin. That day, up in the tree, he saw her frown like that. Her smile faded and her humming seemed to stop before she even finished folding the laundry. Suddenly, she turned to face him again, frowning, her eyes narrowed to slits, and frowning. She seemed to forget he could see her there through the glass thinking there was something wrong with him. Or something not quite right. What’s wrong with him? she thought. He squinted back and dug his heels into the trunk of the tree, trying to imagine himself the way she seemed to see him: as a grown man in a tree, a grown man who was not playing with a child, but sitting by himself, a grown man who was her husband, a colorblind West Point grad, and growing heavier and balder by the month.

She hadn’t always seen him this way. When she first brought Philip home to her parents, just a year or two before her father died, he had bounded around the house like a puppy, his mouth open wide, eager to please the humans. That was how she always described it when asked to recount the story. Just like a puppy, she would say, over dinner at the Schwartzes or cocktails with the Finches. Then she would reach over and scratch the back of his neck with all the affection she would show a puppy, genuinely fond of the memory. They were in law school then, with Watergate and judicial precedent on their minds and Anne knew she had landed an excellent partner in Philip, who was president of the law review and the kind of man who sympathized with the feminist movement but who still got down on one knee to propose.

“You’re going to love him,” she told her parents the day after. She had called from the bed of their browning three-room apartment over a bookstore just a few blocks from the Penn campus. They had already been living together for several months, a fact Anne said her parents didn’t ever need to know. Philip remembered watching from a chair in the corner of the room; she had turned her back to him to make the call because she said it would make her nervous to have to look at him and talk to her parents at the same time. He remembered how she coiled the phone cord around her index finger as she talked, her left leg tucked under her butt, her right leg hanging down off the bed, her narrow shoulders hunched forward towards her lap. She had already downed a glass of red wine to relax even though she had assured him they could not possibly disapprove.

“You’re engaged to a boy we’ve never even met?” was her mother’s shrill reply. He could hear it even from across the room.

“Mommy, he went to West Point. And he’s at the top of the class. He’s coming for Christmas.”

“But Anne, is he Catholic?”

Philip was, in fact, Catholic, which would please Anne’s parents, or her mother anyway, who cared more about that kind of thing. But secretly, he was a non-practicing, non-interested Catholic, which pleased Anne, who secretly hated the Church and everything it stood for.

That Christmas, after Anne had been wearing her engagement ring for two months at U-Penn, she brought Philip home to Chicago in their new used Cadillac. It had snowed the night before, leaving the air clear and the sidewalks covered in sand. Philip could remember the crunch of the sand beneath their shoes as they walked in step towards the private front entrance to the redbrick Whalen Funeral Home. She clutched his arm, taking long strides to keep up. He was more than half a foot taller than she was, an arrangement that pleased them both. It made them a more attractive couple–she with her pearls, her long red coat, and her long red hair pulled back into a ponytail, he with his sharp black suit, square military jaw and terminally good posture. She gripped his arm tighter, and breathed more heavily with each step. Her heartbeat, their quick pace, the neighborhood sounds of slamming doors–everything seemed to Anne to move in time to the song in her head. “I’m going to marry a milit’ry man. He’s strong and he’s good, he’s my milit’ry man.” Da Dada, da Dada, da Dada, da Da. She had no idea where the words came from, or why she should be wasting her time making them up when really she should be practicing the looming introductions. How silly! she thought, shaking her head in an effort to knock the words out. But Philip somehow sensed Anne’s rhythm, and fell back on an old military joke that had always pleased the women, Anne being no exception. With a playful tilt of the head, Philip barked a command–“Ten-HUT!”–and lifted his knees high in the play-pretend marching style often mocked by Cadets who knew what the game was really about. Anne laughed, startling herself out of her thoughts, and joined in, playfully saluting her man like a USO girl sent to entertain the troops. Philip whistled the tune to “Over There,” while Anne, who could not whistle, looked up in admiration at her tall, noble man, and decided that everything would certainly be all right. The sand crunched under their marching feet all the way to the house.

Eunice Whalen came out onto the porch to meet them, stopping their ditty mid-measure. Another future son-in-law might have been fooled, but Philip could see that Eunice had come out not because it was polite, but because she wanted to make sure they didn’t change their minds at the last minute and head off to someone else’s Christmas dinner instead. She wore a ruffled holly patterned apron over a high-collared, long-sleeved dark green dress that seemed to cover her entire egg-shaped body. Her tightly wound hair had been set recently, possibly as recently as that morning.

“I thought you were going to be late!” she blurted.

“We’re early, Ma. It’s 6 o’clock,” Anne said.

“Oh, is it? Well, your father’s having a busy night at work so I need your help in the kitchen.” She was herding them into the wood-paneled hall now, stripping them of their coats and nudging them towards the kitchen in one swift motion. Anne inhaled. The house smelled, as it always had, of formaldehyde, gladiolas–the funeral flower–and scented lamp oil. It was pine-scented that day, for Christmas.

“Where’s Carrie? Shouldn’t she be helping you?” Carrie was Anne’s baby sister, five years younger, with whom she had been forced to share a bedroom growing up. This was especially bad because Carrie was the pretty one, the blonde one, the future Homecoming Queen and trophy wife, who was somehow always too young and perfect to help out with funeral preparations. Her brother Billy, who had already died in Vietnam and was supposed to have inherited the funeral home when he returned, had been too perfect in the same way. But what of that, Anne thought, trying to shake herself of such negative thoughts on this important occasion.

“Oh, she’s around,” Eunice waved her hand at the door, as if she had already dismissed her. “Do you think you can peel the potatoes for me?” She fished a compact and a strip of rouge out of her apron pocket.

“Ma, this is Philip, my fiancZ,” Anne replied.

“Well, of course he is.” It was obvious enough to Eunice. “Can he peel the potatoes?”

“Ma, I can do it. I was just saying that this is Philip.”

“I hear you. It’s nice to meet you, Philip. Now go peel the potatoes. I’ve got to help your father. Car accident.” Eunice hurried towards the chapel, make up in hand, leaving Anne and Philip in the front hall.

“Is it always like this?” Philip asked, tilting his head to one side in curiosity. Just like a puppy.

Anne was a fan of smart answers. Philip half expected her to say something like, “No, it’s worse.” Or, “Only during the holidays. Lots of car accidents during the holidays.” Or even, “Well, sometimes we have beans instead.” But she had lost her sense of humor for the moment. As she watched her mother hustle off in the direction of the chapel, her eyes lingered, dully, and the nightmare of life in the funeral home came flooding back. She envisioned the body in the other room–more likely than not, a disfigured body. And she knew that her parents were probably putting the finishing touches on it that very moment, powdering the reconstructed putty face, adding rouge to the cheeks to create the illusion of life. And they were doing all of this with the same hands that had washed the dishes and basted the turkey and would later butter the cornbread and pass the peas. She shuddered at the thought. This was exactly what she had promised herself she wouldn’t think about, exactly what she didn’t want to–and couldn’t bear to–think about on this important day. She simply had to stop thinking about it, about the absence of life, the opposite of this, of Billy and all the other lifeless, embalmed bodies she had seen and smelled over the years. She simply had to! If she thought about those empty bodies too much, it made her lose her focus on the room. It made her feel like she was falling even though she was standing on solid ground. Snap out of it, Anne, she thought to herself, shaking her head.

Philip watched her in silence, waiting for her answer. He hated to see her suffer, to see those lively, clever eyes grow dull and lifeless. She didn’t respond for what felt like eons. What had the question been? Something about the house and the nature of things. He could barely remember.

“Yes,” she said, suddenly, breaking the spell. “It’s always like this.” She sighed. It was the simple answer. She reached out as if to thank him for his presence, squeezing his hand. He squeezed back quickly, almost as a reflex, surprised.

“I guess we should go peel the potatoes now,” he said, for lack of anything brave or clever to say.

But then tight-faced Eunice came barreling back into the hall as quickly as she had left, still clutching her compact and rouge.

“Can you tie a bow-tie?” Her voice, already shrill, rose in desperation.

“A bowtie?” Anne asked. It was a genuine question. She was sure she had misheard.

“Yes, a bowtie.” Eunice was impatient, breathless. She dug her balled up fists into her hips. “Mrs. Kerrigan insists that her husband have a green bowtie, but wouldn’t you know it, neither your father nor I know how to do one. Can you?”

“No, I can’t do a bowtie! Does it really matter that much?” Anne asked. She knew it did. It always did. Every goddamn day of the year, but especially on Christmas. Anne could feel herself losing her cool, losing her bearings. Standing back at the base of the stairs, Philip was losing his balance too. The situation was preposterous, really, he had never been in a more preposterous situation. There, before him, were two women, ready to explode onto each other over a silly bowtie. Anne’s face was as red as her hair and Eunice’s, which was the same face, only older and wider and looser around the edges, was even redder. But maybe, he thought, everything mattered that much when you were dealing with dead people and their relatives. Maybe a bowtie is all there is when you’ve lost your husband. He looked around at the oversized holly garland winding down the staircase, the potted poinsettias sitting like bookends on the sideboard, the fat tree with a cross on top standing proudly in the next room. And especially, things must have mattered on Christmas, when objects already seemed to matter most. Philip tried to imagine what Anne’s Christmases must have been like as a child: turkey and family tainted with the arrival of a new casket or a solemn phone call followed by a flurry of activity in the embalming room, the morbid dissonance of Bing Crosby’s Christmas as the soundtrack to a viewing.

“Well, then, can you do a bowtie?” Philip looked up, surprised. Eunice was so desperate she was actually talking to him. She had him cornered against the base of the stairs, and she loomed, like a raging, wrinkled blob, summoning all of her shrill and piercing force to get the job done. One more inch and he would have pitched backwards–the most awkward kind of fall.

Anne winced in anticipation of it.

“Ma, leave him alone,” she said. “He’s our guest.” She stressed this word, hoping to appeal to Eunice’s tyrannical sense of hospitality. Reason and logic were worthless by then; if there was one thing Anne knew–oh, god, did she know it!–there was no point in reasoning with Eunice when she was dealing with dead people.

Looking from his fiancZe to his future mother-in-law, each one desperately looking back at him, Philip knew he had to act, and he had to act fast. Eunice wanted a bowtie. Anne wanted the whole thing to be over. The solution–Philip knew in less than two seconds of thought–was to tie the bowtie and to do it quickly. This would please everyone. Like a good solider with a clear command, he wasted no time carrying it out. Philip stepped forward, away from the stairs and out of danger, his voice oddly spirited. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I can tie a bowtie.”

Eunice paused for a moment and looked at Philip, really looked at Philip, for the first time, squinting over her gold-rimmed reading glasses. “Of course you can. You see, Anne, he can tie a bowtie. I don’t know what they’re teaching you in law school.” It was a terrible joke. It wasn’t even a joke. But it caught Philip off guard, and before he knew it, Eunice had him by the wrist and they were weaving through the wallpapered reception rooms en route to the chapel at the back of the house. Anne was clinging to Philip’s free arm and abandoning subtlety. “Mr. Kerrigan is a corpse, you know,” she told him, uselessly digging her heels into the tan hotel grade carpet. “You’re going to have to tie a bowtie on a corpse.” A corpse! she thought hysterically. A corpse on Christmas!

“Anne, go peel the potatoes,” Eunice said over her shoulder. “We’ve got this under control here.”

But Anne stayed close to Philip, tugging on his arm. She would save him from Eunice and she would save their marriage in the process. He would only have to see the body, all placid and pale and dead, to change his mind about everything–she knew it. The dinner, the wedding, her–it would all be over in an instant if she didn’t stop him. She hung firmly on his left arm while Eunice pulled on his right. Good god, thought Philip. These women made him dizzy, with all their yanking and pulling, with their overwhelming desires to avert catastrophe. For Anne, the world would end if Philip tied this bowtie. For Eunice, the world would end if he did not.

Then they were in the chapel, marching down the aisle between the perfect rows of cushioned chairs. The mahogany casket stretched out before them on the bier, gladiolas all around. Howard Whalen was bent over it, his gin set aside for the moment as he fiddled with the buttons on Mr. Kerrigan’s suit.

“Philip can tie a bowtie,” Eunice announced, swinging him toward her husband.

“Very good,” Howard replied, straightening himself and his suit before shaking Philip’s outstretched hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Son.”

“Likewise, Sir,” Philip said. “Shall I?”

“Give the boy some room, Eunice,” Howard barked, reaching for his gin.

Philip squeezed past her, stepped up to the bier, and peered into the placid, powdery face of Mr. Kerrigan–Mr. Ronald Kerrigan, 56, butcher, loving husband and father of three, some obituary would later read. The face was stoic and bloated, reconstructed quickly but deftly by Howard’s nimble fingers before the death smile of rictus set in. He smelled vaguely powdery and sour, presumably from the embalming fluids and the makeup. Philip held his breath and tugged firmly at the green tie draped around the corpse’s neck. He had tied countless bowties around his own neck, but always while he was standing, looking at his reflection in a mirror. This was a little different: the angle was all wrong, and as placid as Mr. Kerrigan was, he could not shift to accommodate Philip as he reached awkwardly across the casket. He could feel Eunice leaning over him, breathing heavily, waiting for him to make a mistake.

Anne, who was watching from a cushioned chair in the front row, the row typically reserved for the family of the deceased, sucked in her breath and held it. Could this be any more absurd? she wondered. Can I really be seeing this? She sat with her hands in her lap, limp and distant, her eyes focused on nothing but Philip’s long, black suit as it stretched like a whip of licorice across the bier. He’ll surely leave me now, she thought. He’ll fall in, he’ll fall right into the casket, right on top of that fat, puffy corpse. He’ll touch powder and death and he’ll leave me for making him see and smell it so close. But this is absurd! she thought. The word lingered in her mind and on her tongue. This isn’t happening!

By the time Philip had finished the tie and patted Mr. Kerrigan’s cold shoulder as if to say, “There ya’ go, Buddy,” he was breathing normally again. With each breath, the powdery, sour smell became more tolerable, too tolerable. It was everywhere, on him even. He sniffed his lapel. The smell seemed to have jumped off of Mr. Kerrigan’s body and onto Philip’s jacket. He sniffed his lapel again, then his sleeve and his other sleeve. He looked over at Anne in the front row. Ruined. She knew it too. His suit, his nice black winter suit, would have go into the box for charity back in Philadelphia. Anne couldn’t have that smell in her new house, it was already permanently stained in her memory, and reappeared in her nose at all the wrong times and places, causing her to look over her shoulder in bookstores and banks, to see if there were somehow a corpse in the room. The suit absolutely had to go. It would ruin their taste for her cooking and the efficacy of any cleaning product they ever purchased. This was a smell that endured.

But the job was done. He stepped back ceremoniously, looking first at Howard, then at Eunice for approval. As he stood at ease with his hands joined proudly behind him, Howard moved towards him, gin in one hand. The other he extended and placed firmly on Philip’s shoulder. Philip looked down at this small but gruff man who he had only just met to find a look of acceptance in his eyes. He smiled and nodded his head as if to say, “Go on, son. Take her.” Philip smiled back as if to say, “Yes, sir,” and then turned to Eunice. Anne had warned him that Eunice never touched anyone, and Philip couldn’t imagine he’d be the one exception. He wasn’t, but she was beaming, her large hands folded across her large belly, her small shoulders arched back and her breathing deep and satisfied. He knew he had won her approval too.

“You know,” Howard said to Philip, squeezing his shoulder, “this one was a real chore. There were thousands of slivers of glass in his face from the windshield.”

“Well, he looks beautiful, dear, just beautiful,” Eunice said. “And these flowers are the best I’ve seen all year.” Gladiolas, thought Anne. They were always gladiolas. The funeral flower, the flower of death.

“Very impressive, sir,” Philip said to Howard as they admired their joint efforts in the presentation of Mr. Kerrigan. “I never would have known about the glass, really.”

“Guys?” Anne said to their backs. They all turned around, flushed and smiling and generally very pleased with themselves. “Maybe we could go work on dinner now?”

“Great idea, Honey,” Philip said, giving her a knowing wink. He was in. “You find Carrie. I’ll peel the potatoes.”

But Philip was older now, a still handsome, but balding Pentagon lawyer with a growing gut who worked late every weeknight, and every weekend, sat in the tree. Always with the goddamn tree, Anne thought whenever she thought about it. Things were so great after that Christmas, she thought fourteen years later as she looked through her old fabric-covered box of pictures–secretly, obsessively–crouched down near her hiding place in the bedside table every night when Philip worked late or slept soundly while she couldn’t. She looked at them every time as though she hadn’t seen them in years, flipping them over to read the dates and notes she had written on the back–September 1974 (Our house! 1137 Norwood Drive, Chevy Chase), January 1975 (Caribbean cruise with Todd and Allison), August 21 1975 (1st Anniversary, Philip gives me a tennis bracelet), April 15 1976 (Henry Whalen Littlefield, 8 pounds 3 ounces, with proud parents). She looked at them slowly, closely, and critically, trying to remember what it felt like to laugh like that, with her head thrown back and Philip’s arms around her waist as they posed for some relative in front of their new house. She looked for evidence of future disillusionment–the distance between them on the couch at a friend’s house, the distracted look on Philip’s face as he carves the Thanksgiving turkey while Anne grins like a Cheshire cat for the camera, the worried look on baby Henry’s face when sitting on his father’s lap. When she had convinced herself that life had always been like this, that happiness existed only if you didn’t think about it, she would put the box away and climb back into bed and drift off to sleep, thinking Philip had always been such a strange man, but Henry–oh what a smart boy!–he’ll grow into a kind man, a generous man, that kid, that sweet, sensitive, darling kid–I’m really one of the lucky ones to have a kid like mine.

“Henry,” Philip said to his son one Saturday during the morning cartoons. “I think we’re ready to start laying down the floor boards for the tree house today. What do you say we start when your shows are over?” It was a bright morning and Philip was energized, ready for some real father-son time, before it was too late, before little Henry was too tall and too cool for his old dad.

“I don’t really want a tree house anymore, Dad,” Henry said. He had red hair like his mother and he was sitting in the middle of the couch with his bare feet up on the coffee table. He was eating Oreos with milk, dunking and munching, dunking and munching, while the crumbs accumulated like dirt in the glass.

“Well,” Philip said. “Why don’t you just tell me when your shows are over, okay?” Then he went out into the yard and climbed the tree and cried.

Later that evening when the sky was already dark and the air smelled of chimneys and dried leaves, Philip sat in the tree and watched Anne peel potatoes through the kitchen window. Her lean body was perfectly framed by the white casing, and from overhead, he could see her slicing away at the potato skins with the vegetable peeler, rapidly and evenly like some kind of motorized shredding machine. She was in a groove, slicing, slicing and then tossing the bare potatoes into a shiny stainless steel stockpot to her right. Her hands never slowed, never strayed from their regiment. And yet, for all her efficiency, there seemed to be not an ounce of tension in her arms, not a single clenched muscle in her shoulders or back. From up in the tree, Philip couldn’t even see her breathing; she was so smooth and even, her calm face oblivious to the rapid flicks of her wrist and forearm, oblivious to him watching her from his hideout in the tree. From up here, he thought, it looks easy. From up here, life looks almost effortless.

But then the sound of adolescent shoes kicking gravel on the driveway drew his attention away from Anne, and Philip turned his gaze to the western side of the house, where Henry appeared, dribbling a soccer ball in front of him, his breath making short but explosive puffs in the cool, November air. He was talking to himself the way kids do, narrating his moves like a sports caster, and dodging invisible opponents. Philip gripped the tree limb tighter with his legs and leaned forward, inch-by-inch, down towards his son.

“Hi there, Henry!” he called out, louder than he meant to. Startled, Henry kicked the ball a little too hard and looked up. The ball bounced off the tree trunk and rolled back to him. He trapped it with his foot and bent down to scoop it up, all the while keeping his eyes on the tree.

“Dad?” Henry looked uncertain about something–where Philip was, what the hell he was doing, whether or not such a weird man could possibly be his father.

“I’m up here, in the tree,” he replied. He waved one arm, but not two, so as to maintain his balance while straddling the limb.

“I see you.”

“Okay then!” Philip said. “I’ll see you inside for dinner!” He smiled broadly and then immediately regretted it–it must have looked so false.

“Okay,” Henry said, slowly, still uncertain. He went in the back door, clutching his soccer ball, the springy screen stretching open with a creak and then slamming shut with force behind him.

“Mom,” he thought he heard him say. “Dad’s in the tree again. It’s embarrassing.”

Philip looked down at the wrinkled bark for a moment and then over at Anne, who was now on the third to last potato. She was talking, probably to Henry, across the counter. She would be calling for him in no time. Philip leaned back on his palms, breathed in the smell of chimneys, and waited.

A few moments later, Henry emerged from house again. He came to the base of the tree and looked up, trying to spot Philip in the leaves. “Dad!” he called out, finally, after his eyes met Philip’s without blinking. “Mom says it’s time for dinner! She says it’s time for you to come down now!” He stayed there, staring blankly, and waiting for an answer.

Philip breathed. He breathed in the smell of chimneys and then he listened to his breath as he sucked it in and let it out. He tried to breathe deeper but couldn’t. Something was stopping him.

“Dad!” Henry’s voice was impatient now, on the verge of a tantrum. “Did you hear what I said? I said Mom says you have to come down now!”

Philip stopped trying to breathe and looked down at his son who seemed to have no trouble at all.

“Tell her,” he said. “That I’m not coming down. Not until she climbs up here to talk to me.” He looked over at Anne in the kitchen, on her way to the last potato. He wondered if she would finish it first.

Philip sat straddling the second lowest of the main branches, his back against the trunk, a notepad and measuring tape in hand. It was cold out, about 40 degrees, and his cheeks were rosy. He was wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt and no jacket. A pile of aged wood lay at the base of the tree where it had laid for months. There were no notes on Philip’s notepad, but he intended to measure every limb and the distance between them before dinner. At that moment, however, he was waiting for Anne to climb up to him.

She appeared in the doorway wearing her quilted green jacket, pausing only for a moment before walking straight, determinedly to the base of the tree. When she got there, she grabbed hold of the lower branch and swung herself up onto it, effortlessly, as though she had been climbing trees her whole life. Then, less gracefully, she edged down a few steps before hoisting herself backwards onto the branch above. Next to Philip, she swung her leg over the branch to face him. Out of b