Joan Dobbie


“Sometimes I wish I was a tree/ Not a beautiful tree, but a tall one...” by the poet whose life, and death, inspired this story.

Greg Philips died drunk, but not drunk enough. Chuck Conners, the only human survivor (and the town sheriff besides) was passed out in the back seat when they went over the cliff and never woke up until three days later in the hospital. He’d been thrown 200 feet into shrubbery. If he hadn’t been dead drunk and limp as a washrag he’d have never survived. Only the dog wasn’t hurt.

Some kids noticed the dog wandering around town the next morning and followed him down the cliff to the wreck. It was a good thing for Chuck that they did. As far as Greg was concerned it didn’t make one hell of a lot of difference. He’d had his head split open wide as a Halloween pumpkin after the fact. It had been a hard job for the funeral home to get it back into good enough shape for an open casket, especially since Betsy had insisted on formaldehyde-free embalming . But now Betsy still couldn’t decide if she should or should not have little Melissa look at her dead father’s corpse. It was a question of closure.

In the end Melissa was lifted up and even kissed his cold waxy nose. I found the stiff manikin thing they’d replaced Greg with more ludicrous than pathetic. When it was my turn to march by the casket, I just sort of stared, then went back and sat beside Walter, my x, who took hold of my hand, almost as if we’d never split up. I was glad he was there. The next day we went to the funeral together, as if it was some sort of date.

Walter was in nursing school. On the side, he did midwifery. It was illegal as hell, but it was all under the table, so if the law intervened they wouldn’t have a thing on him. You can’t blame a guy for just happening to be around when a baby just happens to be born. No matter how often it happens. And since he and I were a couple, I tagged along.

We turned out to be a good team. I used to stay at the head end of a birthing, while he dealt with the tail. I’d hold her attention, keep eye contact, rub her down, that sort of thing. A man, even a good man, can’t be there for a woman that way, I don’t think. And the fathers so often aren’t there at all. Or if they are, they’re still not, if you know what I mean. Anyhow, that’s how we met Betsy and Greg.

They lived in this little log cabin ten miles out on the north side of town. They were trying to “go back to nature” as so many of us were in those days. It might have worked better if Greg had managed to keep himself sober more of the time. But Greg was a drunk. Not an ugly drunk, really, just a sad one.

He was kind of obsessed with saving the planet long before “saving the planet” was on any of our minds. Gardening, for example, he refused to use chemicals, but surrounded his every tiniest plot with a forest of marigolds to protect against slugs, and he insisted on composting every possible kitchen scrap to the point where Betsy was just about pulling her hair out in frustration.

He had this intense stutter, and maybe he drank so as not to hear himself talk. Or not to hear himself think. I suppose he drank, like every drunk drinks, to kill something painful inside.

“I- I - I - w-w-w -a-a-sborninthewrongcentury,”I once heard him say.“I b-belong in a s-s-simpler world ... a w-world where there’s more trees... than people.”

Maybe we all felt that way, at least somewhat, us North Country Imports, as we called ourselves. That’s why we’d moved way up north to the only place in the entire state where there was still at least some old growth forest. That’s why we lived amongst rednecks, put up with beer bellies, racism, rifles in the backs of rusted-- out trucks... That’s why we put up with the cold.

When I use the word “we” I’m actually lying. I’d grown up there, hating and loving the North Country, moved away to the city forever, married, divorced and come back with two kids. And Walter, well... he was my yoga teacher. He used to teach classes out there in his cabin on the Howling Dog commune not far from my town. I’d discovered his ad on the co-op store bulletin board. And, as they say, the rest is history. He ended up leaving the commune to move into town with me and my kids. He signed up for nursing school. And, he was miserable.

“I moved to the country to be in the country,” Walter would grumble through tight lips over his breakfast granola. He wanted to homestead, build us a cabin in the woods, grow our own food, cut our own wood. But I’d rather sit up in my room with a typewriter when he wanted me out in the cold stacking wood.

As for Betsy and Greg, already back then, at the eve of the birthing, their relationship was “stormy” to say the least. Betsy was yelling at Greg for just about every wrong move he made, which, since he’d been drinking pretty steady all day, was just about all of them.

And Greg, who had enough trouble speaking at the best of times, couldn’t produce even a word when he’d been yelled at. So, in dead silence he wandered around smoking his dope, nursing his wine and dropping sterile tongs and scissors and things on the floor. While Betsy marched through the kitchen like an Amazon warrior, boiling water and laying out sheets for her own labor.

Meanwhile, Walter was growling at me for just about every wrong move I made. Which was, as always, just about all of them. I suppose I was nervous. I kept dropping things. And I didn’t talk back any more than Greg did. I still hadn’t recovered from our ninety+ mile an hour race over glare ice at 50 below to get to the birthing. I had been clinging to the door of the cab with both kids on my lap, just praying we’d make it alive. Truth is, I was mad as hell.

Betsy’s contractions closed in to one every three minutes. I put the kids down on the floor by the stove, sang them to sleep with Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne and when I was sure they were down for the count, I tiptoed away and climbed up to the loft bedroom. Walter and Greg were both on the bed with her, holding her, passing the joint. I settled in by her head. She panted and moaned. We panted with her. We counted and panted. Time slipped out the window. At first she was more or less dressed, but as the birthing wore on, she lost track of her modesty. She tore off her clothes. She shitted and sweated... and... she was beautiful. Amazing it is, how a woman in labor is beautiful. It never ceases to amaze me.

When finally the baby came out, a bright, chubby girl, Walter threw back his head and started to sing: Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound. Then I remembered, as I always remembered when we did birthing together, why I loved Walter. And then I was singing along, and Betsy was too, and Greg... And Betsy was laughing. And Greg was crying. And the baby was wide-eyed, taking it in.

“Hope,” whispered Greg, with no stutter. “Let’s name her ‘Hope’.” But Betsy wanted “Melissa” after her sister.

And then things got weird. The afterbirth just didn’t come loose. So there sat Betsy, propped up on this huge pile of pillows, naked and singing, happy as a lark, with that sweet chubby baby in her arms and a thick bloody tail hanging out of her crotch. She simply wasn’t having any more contractions at all. After a while Greg sort of passed out on the bed beside her. And Walter started to get nervous. He pushed the baby's face up against Betsy's breast, trying to get her to suck. But no. No sucking. He shook Greg, told him to kiss Betsy, touch her, do something to wake up those hormones of hers, but Greg was dead to the world.

So Walter kissed her himself. He kissed her and kissed her. He tried massaging her breasts, her belly, nothing happened. Nothing helped. Then Walter told me to get Greg moving. Do anything. Whatever. I tried shaking him. No luck. I slapped him. No luck. I stuck the baby’s face into his face. He smiled and said, “Hope.” And then, God knows why, I kissed him, that is, I really kissed him. Deep, powerful, tongue and soul kissing. Greg never woke up.

Walter tapped me on the shoulder. He didn’t seem to notice what I’d been up to, or he didn’t care. Neither did Betsy. Then Walter told me to suck Betsy’s breasts. Hard. Which I did. I had never before sucked a woman’s breast. It felt odd, but not bad. A musky sweet fluid came into my mouth. But still no contractions. Not a one.

Walter wrapped up the baby and called in to the hospital. Good thing the phones were still working. Outside it was still 50 below. You could hear the sharp cracks of the ice coated branches. Our van wouldn’t start. Neither would their truck. We finally got hold of Chuck Conners who managed to get his sheriff car started and came out.

“How’d you happen to be way out here at this time of night, Walter?” asked Chuck.

“Oh, you know,” said Walter. “Just shootin’ the shit.”

“What’s that funny smell, Walter?” asked Chuck.

“Oh, you know,” said Walter, “just incense.” Walter gave Chuck a beer.

Chuck drove Betsy and the baby the twenty odd miles to the hospital. Walter went with them. I crawled up on the bed beside Greg, who was still dead to the world. I wrapped my arms tight around him, and I slept.

By the time they got to the hospital, Betsy’s body had long since forgot about birthing. They had to do a D & C and God knows what all else besides. She had a long, hard stay in the hospital. And as far as I know, she never had any more kids.

Greg used to say how if ever he died he’d want to be planted in the earth just like a seed, become part of the earth, that sort of thing. But it was state law that bodies be buried in vaults. “A health law,” explained Lawrence Putsch, the pasty faced funeral director, ever so politely. While he was saying it I was thinking how much I detested funeral directors. Vultures at least are born to be vultures. They don’t choose their profession.

After the burial we went out to the cabin with Betsy and partied. There was lots of wine and lots of pot. It was my first time out there since the birth. We drank and smoked and told stories about Greg. Melissa, who was almost two by then, toddled around passing out brownies. Walter and I held hands the whole time. It was our first time together in months, and our last, ever.

“Good thing old Chuck’s stuck in the hospital,” Walter sort of chuckled, and we all laughed. I know it wasn’t funny. None of it was funny. But sometimes there’s nothing to do except laugh. There was a full harvest moon, I remember, and far in the distance coyotes were howling.

About midnight we climbed into our trucks or our cars or whatever, shovels in hand, and in something of a caravan, drove out to the cemetery. It was the old Pioneer cemetery some miles out of town at the edge of the woods. Greg’s had been the first burial there in almost a century. We dug up the dirt that Putsch and his cronies had covered the vault with. And somehow we managed to pry that thick cement top off the vault. Shovel by shovel we covered his bare wooden coffin with dark forest soil. And we planted a tree there on top of his grave. By now, I expect, it’s a very tall tree.


Joan Dobbie grew up in the North Country, in the the foothills of the Adirondack Mountain range. She has a 1988 MFA in creative writing from the University of Oregon, and has been writing, publishing, and teaching since 1981. Her books include, The Many Faces of Hatha Yoga, Kendall Hunt, 2012, Woodstock Baby, self-published in 2013, The Language of Stone,  Uttered Chaos Press, 2019 and Zenyatta/Joanna, Finishing Line press, 2023 She has two grown children and six nearly grown grands, and has been teaching Hatha Yoga at the University of Oregon since 1998.



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