Clown walks into a bar. Bartender says, “What’ll you have?” Clown says, “Gimme a treefort!” Bartender says, “What’s in a treefort?” Clown says . . .
Playboy mags and cigars, hee-hee-hee!
I smiled but did not laugh. Tommy’s voice rang clear and cold in my ears, telling and re-telling his stale old jokes. I heard him as clearly as if he were still standing there beside me. Our tree fort never had Playboy magazines or cigars; those would come as we aged, but our fort was free from such degradation.
I stopped smiling.
The fort looked like it was still in decent shape. I tilted my head back as far as it would go, studying the warped plywood that served as the fort’s floor. I saw cracks, but no splits. I gazed down the length of the trunk. The wooden crossbeams we’d nailed through the bark all those years ago had been swallowed partially by the growing tree. Where once the rungs were weak and prone to popping off, they were now embedded in the bark. I grabbed the lowest rung and pulled on it. It was like trying to pull off a branch. The rungs were safer now than they’d been when Tommy and I first nailed them in.
Grasping the lowest rung, I began pulling myself up the ladder, careful not to disturb the lower branches as I ascended. We’d built the tree fort when we were ten, and no grown-ups had helped. We’d nailed the old wood together with nails pilfered from Tommy’s father’s workshop, and he’d never missed them. We’d surrounded two sides of the plywood with a short wall, constructed out of two-by-four scrap. We camouflaged one side of the fort with green netting I’d asked my mom to buy us. From the ground, you had to look closely to see it. It felt like a sniper’s nest, exactly what Tommy and I had intended. We even had an emergency exit: a thick, black nylon rope tied to a branch above the fort that we could drop out and slide down in case the fort was ever overtaken—or if we just wanted the thrill of sliding down the rope, which was often. It was a straight drop of twenty feet or so, a stupid height to be jumping from, but we had faith in our rope and our immortality. Even after all these years, the rope still held firm.
I reached the trapdoor and shoved it upward. The hinges complained bitterly, but didn’t resist. The trapdoor fell to the floor and startled a flock of birds, which took flight in a cacophony of whistles and caws. I glanced down, making sure their flight didn’t disturb the branches.
I pulled myself cautiously up through the hole. I weighed a good deal more than I had when I was ten. Back then, Tommy and I could scramble up the ladder and be hidden behind our green netting in about five seconds. Imaginary foreign invaders were always chasing us, but our cap guns held them at bay once we were secure in our fort.
The floor wasn’t big enough for an adult to crawl onto. I knew that from visiting the tree fort previously; once a year since Tommy died. Sort of a commemoration. Somehow it seemed appropriate that Tommy had died here. As if the invaders had finally taken one of our own. Tommy hadn’t gone without a fight. He’d fired his cap gun empty before the end came, and I admired him for that. Even to this day, I admired him.
I heard myself sigh. Tommy never gave up on anything. Even when our imaginary enemies invaded the fort and took us hostage—Tommy and I had tied the rope on ourselves –he was always full of ideas on how to escape, and of course, they always worked. When we were ten, eleven, and twelve, we were able to switch roles on a dime, better than any actor. Make-believe required it. I had to switch from fearless defender of American freedom to cold-blooded mercenary at the drop of a hat. Tommy took his turns too, though his mercenaries were always better—more evil and more sadistic—than mine. I envied his playacting as much as I did his stubbornness.
We were best friends, I almost said aloud as I began working my way back down the ladder and shutting the trap door above me. Even when Tommy got loud and obnoxious, which was frequently, I still loved him. I didn’t have the maturity to call it that when I was twelve, but looking back, I knew that’s what it was. It seemed only logical that the two of us would get our first crushes on the same girl upon entering junior high school. We were that much alike. Like brothers. The object of our crush, Lindsey McNaughton, had been swayed by Tommy at first, but in the end, had come to enjoy my company more.
Maybe it was because she felt bad for me when Tommy died. It didn’t matter to me at the time. Of course, by senior high, Lindsey and me weren’t an item anymore, but Tommy was still dead. I think Lindsey had only gone out with me as a sort of comfort, and I didn’t mind. Tommy wouldn’t have either, I figured.
I dropped the last couple of feet to the ground, careful not to disturb the lower branches. I glanced up at the nylon rope that hung taut from above, making sure everything was still in place. Tommy hadn’t questioned me when I suggested we play War one more time, even though at that point video games and girls had become much more important to us both. He’d joined me in one last daring escapade, this one involving more mercenaries than we’d ever faced before.
Our cap guns almost glowed red with the amount of imaginary hot lead we rained down upon our enemies. We were outgunned, in the end, but determined as ever to go down fighting, even as the mercenaries climbed into our fort. I’d prepared for them, setting a neat trap with a slipknot in the rope that served as our escape route. When the mercs burst into the fort, guns blazing, I’d dropped the noose over Tommy’s head and shoved him out the escape hatch. Tommy stayed in character till the end, firing his gun at me all the way down.
I’d never heard a sound like the one I heard that afternoon, the wet-stick snap of Tommy’s neck when the rope had played out. With that sound, the assault had stopped, and I never played make-believe again. There was no need. Lindsey didn’t play make-believe, and certainly never played War. She wouldn’t understand that I was a hero, that I had saved us both. From Tommy.
I shoved my hands in my pockets as I watched Tommy’s bones sway gently from the end of the rope. The police had never made it this far out of town when they searched for him, and I didn’t feel like helping them out. So here Tommy stayed, where he belonged, his weathered bones and leering skull protecting our fort from all invaders, foreign and domestic.
I wondered how long his skeleton could remain intact. Tommy’s blue jeans lay crusted solid on the ground beneath his fleshless feet where they’d fallen several years ago, his green t-shirt tattered and almost gone completely. But Tommy’s old stubbornness must have run as deep as his bones, for the skeleton was a model of perfection. It looked like a fake, something you’d find in a biology classroom, except for small tufts of brown hair clinging to his dry, ivory scalp. I watched the lower branches sway again in a light breeze, fearful they would disintegrate whatever remained of the sinews and cartilage holding Tommy’s bones together, but the branches veered away from the specter, as if in respect.
“What’s in a tree fort?” I asked.
Tommy’s skull was still and silent, smiling.
He loved that joke.
# # #
Tom Leveen is the author of six novels with imprints of Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Abrams. He can be found at www.tomleveen.com and on Facebook at facebook.com/AuthorTomLeveen.