by Stephen Sachs
“Hi,” chirped the boy’s voice from somewhere on Addison Street. I was on my morning walk, my coronavirus mask strapped to my face. It was just after nine in the morning, but the sun was already heating up the asphalt on the oak-lined streets of my neighborhood. I plodded along, deep in thought, agonizing over my coming week’s schedule. The Zoom meetings, the convening of the Board of Directors on Wednesday, the need to formulate spreadsheets, the financial planning, the fundraising, the digital staff meeting to lift employee morale, the pulling out of thin air the hopeful vision for a coming season that may not ever come. In my news feed, all the while, the chart of the dead daily rising, the corruption and incompetence of government ballooning as the bodies pile higher. All of this tumbling around and around in my head like an overloaded dryer of dirty laundry, when suddenly, as if from the air, the boy’s voice – “Hi.”
I stopped in the middle of the street. Looked around. To my right, the handsome landscape of a ranch-styled home, the front yard mottled with lavender sagebrush, orange hibiscus, yellow roses and a cluster of full bodied trees. Saw nothing, no boy. Where was he? “Up here.”
He was perched in the fork of a sturdy Sun Valley Maple, barely visible, hidden behind branches and leaves. I had to step a few feet to my left to catch sight of him. He looked about ten or twelve. Brown hair, a striped shirt. Barely visible. “There you are,” I said. “I didn’t see you. Couldn’t find you.”
“That’s the whole idea,” said the boy.
I chuckled through my hospital mask. “I don’t blame you.”
When I was a boy, I had a tree. Near the swing set in my backyard in San Rafael, California. I was seven. I don’t know what species of tree it was, its genus. All I knew was that it was thick at the bottom with a huge green canopy overhead. A twisted knot protruded low enough for my foot like the stirrup of a saddle and, with a grunt I could hoist myself up to the first branch and sit. And that is what I would do, where I would be, for hours. Sitting. Dreaming. The tree and I so bonding in essence, my parents called it “Stephen’s tree.” We moved away, to Los Angeles, but the tree is still there. Through the magic of Google Earth not long ago, I hovered over it like a ghost and stared down. There it was.
As a teen in the San Fernando Valley, I would climb the tree at the end of my street, climb as high as I could, to the tippy-top, and peer out across the suburban terrain like from the lookout of a ship. Up there on windy days, I’d wrap both my arms around as the tree swayed back and forth, back and forth, like a twenty-foot metronome.
I wrote and directed my first play when I was twenty-seven. I had just read Italo Calvino’s enchanting short novel, The Baron in the Trees, and instantly imagined it as a play. It told the story of a young boy who, refusing to eat his dinner one night, climbs up into the tree in his backyard, telling his parents he will never come down again. His parents laugh. “He’ll come once he gets hungry,” they scoff. But he doesn’t. He never comes down for the rest of his life. He travels across the countryside from tree to tree, builds a treehouse, fights a few pirates, falls in love. He becomes a legend as years pass, admired and ridiculed, living a unique, unfettered, and meaningful life up in the tress without his feet ever touching the earth again. When he is old and gasping his last breath, instead of falling dead to the ground, he reaches out to a rope dangling from the basket of a hot air balloon which just happens to be floating by, and he rises skyward and away into the clouds and is gone.
I walk down Addison Street, the morning heat rising in waves from the pavement. I am tired. I plod onward, masked like an outlaw, hot and sweating, legs aching. I glance skyward. No hot air balloon drifting by. No rope dangling to grasp.
I cross Laurel Canyon and head left on Hesby Street. Homeward. My wife and my son will be there. My tree-climbing days are gone, but the sycamores still spread their long branches over me, beckoning, “come.”
Stephen Sachs is the Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.