One Wednesday morning in the middle of March, Isaac Thomas arrived at his father’s house to find the elderly poet recumbent on the attic staircase, holding onto a Christmas tree. The tree, which Isaac recognized from his childhood, lay on the stairs above, its contorted limbs jutting in all directions. With one hand, Isaac Sr. kept the dusty behemoth from crushing him. In the other, he clutched a glass of bourbon.
“Finally,” he grunted. “Help me with this thing, will you? I need it for inspiration.”
Isaac placed the bag of still warm crullers he’d been carrying on the floor and took the weight of the tree.
Though its emergence from the attic this far from Christmas was odd, Isaac hoped it signaled a change in the elder Thomas’s writing. In his youth, Isaac Sr. had been a poet of earth, but now all that he knew was his body. Gone was Mt. Hood with her girth and luxury. Gone was the mad Potomac. All that remained for Isaac Sr. was the sagging, the damp, the unabashedly corporeal.
Last year, he’d written and — astonishingly — published a volume of sestinas concerning the consistency of his bowel movements. Rhapsodizing a plastic tree wouldn’t exactly be Wordsworthian, Isaac thought, but it would be far better than the alternative.
Isaac set the tree up in the living room beside his father’s rocker. A fire was burning in the fireplace, but something was wrong with the flue and a soft haze filled the room.
With a sigh, Isaac Sr. sat and began dunking a cruller in his whiskey.
“What a son I have,” he said. “Leaving me for dead.”
Isaac plugged in a strand of lights someone had left snaked around the tree. The lights blinked spasmodically. Isaac jiggled them, trying to ignore his father.
“That damn thing could have killed me,” Isaac Sr. said through a mouthful of sugary dough. “But I bet you’d have liked that. Then all this would be yours.”
Isaac resisted the urge to laugh. The tumbledown house would be demolished as soon as possible after the old man died.
The lights were a lost cause. Isaac unplugged them and began to remove the strand.
“What are you doing?” his father snapped. “Leave that alone.”
Isaac dropped the strand.
“Oh, never mind.” His father shook his head. “You’ve ruined it. Might as well put her back in the attic.”
Isaac stared at him. “What?”
“The muse has flown,” Isaac Sr. said mournfully, waving his hand, “Nothing to be done.”
Mechanically, Isaac put one hand on the tree, but then he stopped, staring down into the warped plastic branches. His eyes burned in the haze.
“Mom bought this tree,” he said. “For ten years you made us get a real one even though you were allegedly allergic. You couldn’t abide “besmirching the Christmas spirit.” She finally got sick of you coughing and gasping all the time.” He looked at his father. “Are you really allergic?”
Isaac Sr. had taken up his notebook and was staring down into it.
“What’s a word that rhymes with eyelid?” he asked.
“Katydid,” Isaac said.
The old man shook his head, evidently mystified by his son’s stupidity.
“The tree’s not going to move itself,” he said.
Isaac could haul the tree back to the attic, he thought. Then he could bring in the mail, make sure there were still a few smoked salmon canapés left in the freezer and promptly depart just as he did every Wednesday, but something stopped him.
One of the sleeves of his father’s frayed cardigan had worked its way up, revealing a section of liver-spotted flesh. Isaac saw his mother’s hands folded in her casket.
“You made life hell for her,” he said. “All your ailments. Your sinuses. Your moles. Your toes. For six months you had her drive you to specialists because you were convinced you had gout. And all the while, you’re sitting there plastered, shouting at her, ‘Goddamn, Lindsey, can you even drive?’”
His father was scribbling and didn’t look up.
Isaac knew he should stop, that senseless outbursts nourished his father, but it felt too good to let the words pour out.
“But you won, didn’t you?” he asked. “Because despite all your bullshit it was her body that had a time bomb in it.”
The pen stopped moving.
“And you keep winning,” Isaac said. “You get to write your gruesome little poems and people eat them up, thinking, ‘God, the genius is dismembering himself just for us!’”
Suddenly, Isaac Sr. coughed, a dry report like a rifle shot. The sound made Isaac feel as if his father had unzipped his chest and blown cold air on his heart.
“Are you quite finished?” Isaac Sr. asked. He was looking up now, his eyes gleaming. “Or do you want to stick this pen in my eye?”
He held the pen, a Mont Blanc, aloft.
“Or jam it down my throat? Would that make you feel better?”
Isaac held the trunk of the plastic tree. Tears had come to his eyes. He considered turning away, but the time for that had passed. His father studied him a moment longer.
“I thought not,” he said returning to his notebook. “Ineffectual. Couldn’t even perform CPR correctly on your own mother.”
Isaac took a deep breath.
Then he snatched the notebook from his father’s hand and threw it into the fire. For a few seconds, the two men watched the flames lick the pages in silence. Then the poet dove, gnarled fingers flashing.
Isaac stood above, holding the tree as his father flung the flaming notebook onto the floor, tongues of fire working their way up his cardigan.
“Help me,” he sputtered. “Help me! You idiot, help me!”
“I can do that,” Isaac said.
Then he began, perhaps a bit too vigorously he would later admit to the paramedics — but who would blame him? His poor father had been engulfed! — stomping at the flames.
Kevin Tasker’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, Entropy, Lunch Ticket, Flash Fiction Magazine and elsewhere. He is currently quarantining in Cleveland with his fiancé and their three cats.