We sat around the table, the four of us.
“Where should we eat?” Saundra said.
No one wanted to choose. It was already past 8pm and all of us had gotten up early, worked hard, and despite it being Friday, staying up late through throngs of weekend-starting revelers who wanted to eat out didn’t sound so good.
Steve mentioned it first. “I’ve never been to that place down the road. That old white house that sells barbque. Anybody want to try that?
“You mean Trees?” Silent Bob named the place.
Tree’s isn’t a place that you could take just anybody to. Its not run like an ordinary Houston restaurant.
Tree’s sits about 50 yards back from the road, a little up from Heiden’s feed store. Both establishments have been in the northwestern part of Houston back when the road they front was dirt and all around them were cotton fields. Tree’s was probably a homestead back then and not a restaurant, as it’s white clapboard exterior and lopsided piered and beamed supported insides attest to converted bedrooms and hallways rather than planned restaurant seating.
You’d miss Tree’s unless your observant. Me, I had something of a history with the place.
My first experience with Tree’s was with Jake. Despite Jake dying at 27, he’d managed to visit Tree’s often enough that rummaging around in Tree’s outside garage area, he negotiated a price for a non-working V-8 engine someone had pulled from something. To this day, its still a mystery to me why Jake was captivated enough with that piece of junk to drag it home to our garage, let alone pay 100 dollars for it with the exception that it might have just been the spirit of the Tree’s that over came his good senses.
The year after Jake died, I made my own acquaintance. In grief, I grasped at parts of his life that reminded me of him, especially those of which I had no personal foreknowledge of, so for over a year, at various times, I sought to visit Tree’s and know the place the same way Jake did. Most restaurants I go to repeatedly are about the food and the food only. Tree’s is about the food but its also about the man who runs it.
Tree is a handsome black man, about my age, who doesn’t look it. His hair is pulled back from his forehead in nappy corn rows that outline the shape of his head and there aren’t any threads of silver running through the rows. He has beautiful teeth, straight and white. I’ve never asked Tree if that’s his real name. If it isn’t, it suits him. He’s a big man, not fat, but strong and sturdy looking. He pours concrete in the daytime and runs this place at night, except for Mondays.
Each visit that year I learned a bit more about Tree.
For instance I know that Tree learned to cook from Big Momma, she was a good cook and she loved Tree. The way he talks about Big Momma, I wish I had a grandmother like her. At the very least I wish I had known her. I know that when he and I were about 6, he was picking cotton in this bottom land of Houston and I was catching lightening bugs in Arkansas and while my dad was switching boxcars in Little Rock a few years later, Tree was breaking into them in Houston. Never in my wildest dreams would I have dreamed that I would listen to this black man decades later and wish I could write his story, in his words, in his voice and know that I can’t, and over that year of visiting, wonder at the loss. I had asked Tree if he could write it down. He shook his head no.
As we pull into the gravel drive, I don’t know if Tree will remember me. I’ve aged and changed in the years since those first raw months. We park our cars, the place is filling up as it always does on Friday night. The screen door slams and everything is the same in the clapboard house if you don’t count that age has made the structure a bit more lopsided. Tobacco smoke still fills the air and the jukebox still sits in the corner of what used to be a front bedroom. Tree meets us, his small tablet in hand and sits at our table. The brisket is gone, the next one won’t be ready for 45 minutes he tells us. He does have homemade onion rings and he bought a sack of potatoes for fries.
I look at the formica topped table, still by the door, still good for sliding dominoes and wonder if the retired railroad engineer still comes to play every night. Tree had told me that the old man had no one. The old man was old when I was here 5 years ago, he must have been close to 80 then. Tree respects his elders. More than that, he has a heart for them. The good ones that is. He’s quick to tell about the no account cousin whose family owned the place before he took it over and how the streak of laziness runs way back on that side of the family.
Tree makes us hamburgers, wrapped and tucked into a waxpaper sleeve. He serves ours on plates with poppies on them. There’s still no menu or list of charges. The parking lot is full and I know that shortly its going to get rowdy. It’s a mix of people, old and young, black and white, lost and found, seeking and finished. I walk over to Tree. I tell him how good the hamburger was and I clasp his hand. I feel the calluses in his palm and wonder that for all the things I despair and grieve, the fact that he and I know each other is something really good about this time and our place in it. If Tree’s history is never written there are ways for the good things of this earth to be kept forever.
I hope Tree is planning on going to Heaven. Spending an eternity with his ilk and my Jake’s, must be part of God’s ideas for paradise.