tagLoving WivesThe Pinion Pine Tree

The Pinion Pine Tree


To understand why the decorated Christmas tree was so out-of-place it is important to have a visual picture of where the Christmas tree was. The road leading to Bishop from Mammoth Lakes can be beautiful and austere at the same time. Mammoth Lakes is at 7,600 feet and Bishop is 4,600 feet. The drive "down" takes about 30 minutes and takes you through mostly stark and barren land. Sage and dried grass sprinkled with a few gnarly juniper trees constitute the rolling land scape. Here-and-there reddish-brown outcropping of rock further contribute to the starkness of the terrain.

To the East the craggy snow-capped Sierra Nevada range looms like a painted back drop. About 13 miles south of Mammoth Lakes Sherwin Summit tells you that the elevation is 7,000 feet and the immediate decent almost requires decompression. At the least I begin my gum-chewing to help keep my Eustachian tubes open.

Christmas last year Cheryl, my wife, and I got into an argument about whether the top of our Christmas tree should be decorated with a star or an angel. I was opting for a star because it represented, for me, the Star of Bethlehem and lit that evening to guide three Wiseman to the baby Jesus manager. Cheryl thought an angel needed to go on top of the tree, not because it represented the host of angels or anything remotely Christian, but because it gave the tree a richer, classier look. I relented and we ended up placing a white velvet angel on top of the tree.

It was, in the end, a beautiful Christmas tree. After turning around on Highway 395, so I was once again driving south I slowed down to get a better look at the 8-10 foot decorated pinion tree. It appeared to be the only thing growing within 50 yards and I was surprised I'd never seen the tree. Then again I never expected to see a decorated Christmas tree in the middle of "no-where".

The tree had a large gold star perched on top of it. The star didn't tell me anything other than the fact it provided an eerie reflected light as the early morning sun seemed to make the tree a beacon. I had to smile thinking I finally had a Christmas tree decorated the way I would have done it.

Nonetheless it hurt to see the tree because of the memory it evoked.

To think I'd spent most of this last year trying to "get over" last year's Christmas Eve surprise, that is, finding someone I loved so bad it hurt, with someone else. Sometimes you just don't "get over" things. You might grow old and through the grace of early onset Alzheimer's Disease be spared the painful memory of your love and how the emotion hurts like hell. Maybe this is the thing that causes people to turn bitter inside and shun the outside world? So what happened that Christmas Eve?

Cheryl had called from work to say she would be home around 8:00PM. She was apologetic and contrite and I did my best not to get angry. If it hadn't been for the fact that she had been "working late" frequently the last few weeks, spending less and less time at home, I think I simply "lost it" as I tried to inquire as to who works late on Christmas Eve? Who ignores their family? In the end I think I simply told her to do what she wanted and hung up on her. It was also the first time she'd called to tell me she had to work late that I didn't believe he! Yet, I had to run a last minute errand to pick up her Christmas present, a pair of diamond earrings and matching pendant. I had ordered them several months ago and began making payments early on to afford such an expensive gift. I knew I loved Cheryl dearly so I rationalized her working late would give me time to pick up her gift and finish roasting the prime rib. Yes, I had cooked Christmas Eve dinner complete with her favorites that included a sour cream apple pie for desert. In many ways it was also a romantic dinner designed to feed her senses and present her with a gift of my love.

While at the jewelry store picking up the gift I received a call from my brother who wanted to wish me a Merry Christmas. He was calling from the Chart House where he was having dinner with his entire office. When he learned I was alone until Cheryl got home he persuaded me to join him for a drink. It didn't take him long to convince me so I tucked the gift for Cheryl in my jacket pocket and drove to the Chart House.

I remember being surprised so many people were out on Christmas Eve shopping, eating, drinking and having a good time. That probably gives you an idea about how "traditional" I can be, even if I try and present the "liberal" front. My brother Harry was his gregarious self and was at the head of a long table to the back of the restaurant with glass windows as the backdrop. When he saw me he waved me over with a half-finished drink in his hand. I think back on that evening as if it was a slow-motion film that plays over-and-over in the back of my head. I remember smiling as I caught sight of Harry having a good time and smiling along with his infectious joy. I walked with a confident stride through people seated at fine-dining tables smiling and laughing. I also remember glancing to a row of booths along the opposite side of the restaurant where families and couples ate and drank.

It was a very intimate setting with a fireplace fire burning in the center of the restaurant. Stopping in the middle of the restaurant I remember seeing something that was so out of place that I didn't at first believe what I was seeing. Cheryl, my wife who had to work late, was at a table with a man I did not know. Cheryl was wearing a tasteful silk blouse that was unbuttoned 3 buttons down. She looked absolutely beautiful. What caught my eye was the fact she had a hand extended across the table, a hand that this man was holding. Both seemed lost in conversation so they never noticed me retrieve my smart phone, a Droid, and snap off two rather clear photographs. "Smart" phones really aren't very intelligent; they just allow you to do so much more than make a phone call. I can access my three email accounts, send messages, and take video records and photographs that tell more of a story than what is visible to the naked eye.

I was so shocked at what I just witnessed that thinking was out-of-the question.

Without speaking I turned and walked out of the restaurant. I did not look back or say hello-good-bye to my brother. I just remember sending the photographs to my personal email then getting in my FJ and making the drive to our condo. In retrospect I often wonder what would have happened if I had walked over to Cheryl's table punched her date and confronted her.

Retrospection is wonderful but it never changes the reality, whatever the reality is. I remember being hurt and shocked to the point where I simply felt, foolish. I felt foolish because I'd believed my wife; I'd loved her to the point of trusting her blindly. I felt foolish for feeling foolish then I got angry with myself for feeling foolish.

"So much for having to work. Merry Christmas Cheryl." The words seemed to slip from my lips like a gastrointestinal belch. No one heard me. When I made it home the smell of roasting prime rib hit me. It now was just a smell that did not make my mouth water. My appetite would not return until my body screamed for sustenance. I do remember, for a moment, wondering how long her affair had been going on, and then I thought it no longer mattered. Yes, I immediately assumed she and the well-dressed man were having an affair. At the very least Cheryl had blatantly lied to me. Yes, I was feeling sorry for myself and just wanted to be someplace far away where bull shit explanations were not necessary. At the same time I wanted friends and family to know why, on Christmas Eve I simply disappeared.

Without thinking much about what I was doing I printed off the two photographs and wrote on one these words, "So much for working late. I hope you will now be happy. Merry Christmas!" I dropped diamond gifts on the dining room table, un-wrapped, the price tag attached to the small boxes.

Yes the table was set with a linen table cloth, her mother's fine china, crystal wine goblets and sinning silver wear. I had gone all-out for this Christmas wanting it to be as memorable as possible. I'd wanted my wife to know how much I loved her.

Now I wanted her to feel my disappointment and my pain and I wanted her to feel it now! I reasoned she would not feel anything, especially if she could lie to me so easily on Christmas Eve!

Before I had time to think about what I was doing I created a distribution list that included several of our close friends, my brother, her parents and her current boss. (Did I mention the "Smart" phone let you do so much more than make phone calls?) I then attached the two photographs and added the following caption, "Who is this man dining with Mrs. Vasser on Christmas Eve? If you know him please DO NOT TELL her husband, he thinks she is just working late! Merry Christmas!" With a single click of the "send" button the message and photographs flew across cyber space to multiple destinations.

Yes, Cheryl would receive the message as well.

Within an hour I had packed most of my clothes into my FJ Cruiser, along with a few personal items like my computer. Then I drove off into the night. It was Christmas Eve and I had wanted to go to midnight Mass but Cheryl thought she would be too tired when she got home. Now she would not have to argue with me about whether or not we would go to church. After all going to Church was something she clearly could not be bothered with when a lover held her now clandestine hand!

Via email I resigned from my job with "immediate effect", took all of our savings, canceled my personal internet access, and drove off into the night looking for a star. I drove west towards Lake Tahoe then veered off southwest towards the road that would take me south to Mammoth Lakes.

That was Christmas Eve a year ago and I had, until seeing the decorated pinion tree, "come to grips" with the fact I would be spending another Christmas this year alone. Only this time I was doing so with my eyes open and by choice.

There was nothing, other than the star atop the tree that made me think Cheryl had anything to do with the decoration. After a few minutes of appreciating the Christmas tree for what it was I climbed back into my FJ and continued my drive into Bishop.

When it is super-cold in Mammoth Lakes Bishop is a good place to go to get warm and maybe have a Thai food meal at the County Airport and do a little grocery shopping. This was not a Christmas where I had anything planned and I was not buying gifts for anyone. I'd thought about getting something for my brother and his children then rethought the idea. I had not contacted anyone; friends or family, for the past year so now didn't seem like the best time to re-establish contact with anyone.

The other reason for driving to Bishop was to work with the Salvation Army doing a little bell-ringing between now and Christmas. I'd taken a part time job working for Mammoth Hospital as a Psychologist, mainly to keep my skills sharp and largely because I derive great pleasure from helping people less fortunate than I, even if I'd been unable to help myself.

It also helped me keep my mind off of my own depression and loneliness.

Until last Christmas Eve I had always thought I was a fairly together individual. Now I wasn't so sure and did not have the confidence I once wore on my sleeve. Learning to ski had helped control those anxious moments and, if I was to be honest with myself, had helped heal my broken heart.

Seeing the decorated pinion tree on Highway 395 had done nothing but rattle the skeletons that still haunted me, I just did not want to admit I was still a pretty fucked-up guy.

My chocolate lab and "confidant" sat beside me as I greeted people going into and leaving the Vons grocery store. The dog and I were quite a team as people would stop to put change into the red can that swung from the Salvation Army tripod.

Children always stopped to pet my dog and ask his name. People, more out of guilt, would leave a little something extra for those less fortunate. I learned early that if I was with or near people I could maintain fairly well. I also started recognizing people who were "locals", some would stop and say hello, but I was still a fairly withdrawn individual and I liked it that way. After all I had run-away a year earlier with every intent of not being found.

I also learned I didn't need much to live on and be relatively happy. Making other people smile and feel good about themselves, was all that seemed to matter. Just as I had put everything into a Christmas dinner for my wife I made sure I shared as much as possible with people who befriended me. Frequently I would not charge my patients or would at least charge them less than what I could charge for. Yet the loneliness remained.

"Hi Tom." The words came from behind me and to my left but I recognized the voice as if I'd heard it that morning.

When I turned I was looking into the eyes of Janice, my wife of a year ago, from a time and place that was now more a dream than a memory. She was a bit thinner, if that was possible, and she looked like she had lived in Mammoth Lakes all her life and never cared about fine clothing, manicured beauty and things that go along with superficial make up.

I was wondering, for a moment if this was really Janice or simply a halucination.

"Janice, Merry Christmas." I was ringing that little bell that drives many people crazy. It was my volunteer job. I did not stop to hug or give her a warm greeting. The bell-ringing was, at that moment, a way to cope with the shock of suddenly seeing her.

An older woman going into Vons dropped a dollar bill in the red can so I stopped to say, "God bless you and Merry Christmas." The old woman smiled and ambled into the store on legs that probably were full of arthritis.

"Doing a little grocery shopping today?" I asked Janice in as neutral a way as possible realizing that not seeing her for a year left me with little to say to her. At the same time I was more curious than anything else. I wasn't so much curious about what had happened to us as I was curious to see if she would be up-front-and-honest with me. I was also curious to know if we were still married.

I smiled at the irony of her cheating, or at least lying to me to be with someone else.

"Maybe, but you are the reason I am here. Do you realize how hard it was to find you?" I wondered why she would bother looking for me, she had looked so happy last Christmas Eve, holding hands with someone not myself.

"Merry Christmas . . . . Merry Christmas . . ." I was now greeting people going into Vons with less attention.

"Was the decorated pinion tree something you did?" My question brought a slight smile to her face.

"You noticed? Like it? You will never know how difficult it was to even figure out where find such a tree."

"Yes, it is nice. It reminds everyone who sees it, especially on that long open stretch of highway, what Christmas is all about. Merry Christmas and God bless you sir." It was good to remember what Christmas was all about, even if I was still trapped in the recessing of my mind, harboring an image of Janice holding hands with someone else. "So, Janice, why are you here?" I was doing my best to remain civil when what I wanted to do was scream at her to go back to her lover.

Working as a bell ringer on a busy day before Christmas was not the best place to air hurt feelings. Yet, as I thought about it, a public clearing of the air, so to speak, might be just the thing we both needed.

"I owe you a Christmas Eve dinner, an explanation and an apology. You also need to know I never stopped loving you." Janice did not hesitate or lower her voice so no one might over hear her.

Two young girls, maybe 15 or 16, had stopped their chatter to look at Janice then back to me, probably at hearing the words "loving you." I never stopped ringing my little bell. In fact I may have actually begun to bang it with a little more force to increase the projected volume. If I was nervous it was being displayed in my bell-ringing-wrist action. If I was holding back pent-up anger it was beginning to emerge in the increased volume of the bell-ringing.

The communities of Bishop and Mammoth Lakes are comprised of, maybe, 15,000 people combined. More than 1.5 million tourists cycle in-and-out to ski, hunt, fish and hike the rugged wilderness. It was more local folk that would shop the Vons so it would only take one person to visually record enough of our discussion to tell the communities all the juicy gossip.

"Hummm . . . I am curious, are we still married?" By the time my question left my lips both of the teenage girls, watching in wrapped and un-characteristic silence were joined by a co-worker from Mammoth Hospital. The co-worker was an Emergency Room nurse who loved the world of "chismoso", gossip. Great, I thought to myself, now everyone at the Hospital will know all about my dirty laundry.

A Vons employee leaving the building to retrieve shopping carts left in the parking lot also paused to eavesdrop on our now very public discussion.

"Yes, we are. And you have a son who was born August 13." My inclination was to ask her how she knew it was my child but I did remember making love to Janice a couple of weeks before that fateful Christmas Eve.

"His name is Tom Vasser Junior and he has your deep blue eyes." I would reserve judgement because I had never seen Tom Junior to make such a judgement.

"Merry Christmas, and thank you mam." A middle aged woman dropped a couple of one dollar bills into the Salvation Army can and stood back. The woman seemed to be smiling and did not immediately go into Vons. She remained at a respectable distance to listen to the exchange between my wife and me.

The scene was becoming a little weird. A glance at Cheryl told me she was uncomfortable with our audience. I continued to ring the bell and didn't care if people were donating because they felt charitable or just wanted to hear the rest of our story, as sad and lonely as it was.

I wanted to ask Janice about the man she was with last Christmas Eve but decided this was not the time or place. Was I really a daddy? Should I be happy or sad?

"I know what you must be thinking, why didn't I tell you about your son? I didn't know until early January when I missed my period and was lost in my own self- pity. When you left the way you did something snapped inside and the guilt made it impossible for me to even work. So I did not, at first, think I was pregnant. Then I had no idea where you had gone and that drove me further into depression."

"So why the hell did "he" leave you?" It was an older woman who had stopped to listen to our conversation and was almost-rudely pointing to me. The older woman had rightly deduced that I had left Janice. When the bystander interjected her question I didn't know if she was upset with me or Janice. She was probably just impatient and wanted to know what happened so she could get on with her shopping.

Janice looked from me to the older woman, who was on her way into Vons to do a little grocery shopping, and then back to me. I was tempted to suggest we take our conversation someplace private then changed my mind. Don't ask me why, but I needed to know if she would be honest in a public situation.

"Well, he saw me with another man on Christmas Eve and it must have hurt him." Hurt me was an understatement. It had ripped my heart out and left it in the gutter to wallow in pity. It looked like Janice was about to cry as she took a breath before continuing.

The bystanders gathering around had grown to 12 maybe 13 people. I continued to ring the little bell and people continued to put money in the Salvation Army can. A Deputy Sheriff stopped to see if everything was OK then drove off after talking to a few people he knew.

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