Parker Jones’ Tree
by Ron Van Sweringen
Parker Jones wanted a Christmas tree. Not any Christmas tree, but a tall fir with heavy green boughs, to make the house smell like pine needles. A tree hung with shiny silver icicles and green and red lights glowing in the dark.
Parker Jones and his mother were poor enough to receive food stamps and an assistance check every month from the state of Georgia. It was enough to pay the rent on a small, run-down frame house at the edge of town, near the river.
A mile up the road on Baker’s Hill, there were fine brick houses with white porches shaded by large oak trees in the summertime. Baker’s Hill was off limits to the likes of Parker Jones. It was where the rich folks lived and where his mother went to work every day.
“We can’t eat a Christmas tree,” Delia Jones told her son after he brought up the subject for the hundredth time. “So quit pestering me about it.”
Parker Jones gave up on the Christmas tree in his mind but not in his heart. The same way he never gave up on his father, believing that the tall man with large hands was not what the townspeople called him. Parker believed in his heart that someday his father would walk up the porch steps again, smiling at him.
Willmar Jones, Parker’s father, was assumed drowned on December 15, 1954 in the South Georgia River while night-fishing with his friend Mavis Clover. Mavis had somehow managed to cling to the overturned rowboat, but Willmar Jones was gone. He never made it out of the murky water — at least not to the knowledge of anyone in Grover Township.
An empty Jack Daniels whiskey bottle had been found floating in the water. That was enough to convince a lot of folks that Willmar Jones and Mavis Clover were drunk the night they fell into the river. Mavis Clover’s reputation in town for occasionally emptying a bottle and making a nuisance of himself didn’t help any. After a while it became the town joke that Jack Daniels was the third man in the boat with the two drunks that night.
That had happened four years before, when Parker was eight years old. He could still remember the taunts from older children at school. “Jack Daniels can swim better than your father.”
After the accident, Parker’s mother took two jobs cleaning houses on Baker’s Hill in order to support the two of them. Parker did odd jobs, ran errands, and caught and sold catfish in an effort to help his mother.
His favorite fishing spot was beneath a large cottonwood tree shading the banks of the South Georgia River. On many hot summer days, he would look out over the brown water, tormented by the question of what had really happened to his father.
The weather was cool the week before Christmas. Parker threw his two hand-lines out from the riverbank and sat down in the tall grass, waiting for the fish to bite.
Mavis Clover saw Parker from the fisherman’s path that ran along the river. The stoop-shouldered old man tried to avoid the boy’s view; he had not spoken to Parker or his mother since the night Willmar had disappeared. In truth, Mavis Clover had become a recluse, keeping mostly to the woods. He was rarely seen by the town folk.
Parker noticed Mavis on the path, but made no sign of recognition, turning his eyes away. He felt a sudden wave of sadness tinged with anger. Somehow in his mind, Parker felt Mavis Clover was partly to blame for his father’s death.
On her way to work, Delia Jones had second thoughts about the Christmas tree. She was sorry for speaking so harshly to her son and decided that somehow, with the good Lord’s help, he would have a Christmas tree. It would take some penny-pinching, but she was good at that.
Even before the accident, life had not been easy for her family. Parker’s father had no formal schooling and could not read. He depended on handyman work to support his family, and money was always scarce.
Mrs. Johnson, one of the women Delia cleaned for, asked her to stay on Christmas Eve and wash the family’s dinner dishes. They would be eating early, at four o’clock, and Delia would be home well before dark.
Mrs. Johnson would also give Delia an extra five dollars, plus ten dollars as a Christmas gift. Delia could also take home any leftovers she liked. It was almost too good to be true.
Parker was waiting for his mother on the back steps of Mrs. Johnson’s house at six o’clock. He could smell the turkey and dressing in the large covered basket she gave him to carry.
“As soon as we get this food home,” she said, “we’ll walk up to Miller’s store and you can pick out your Christmas tree. They should be half-price by now.”
Parker and his mother were smiling when they turned onto River Road and caught sight of their front porch. A moment later their smiles changed when they made out the gray figure sitting in the front porch swing. It was Mavis Clover.
“Before you pick at me,” Mavis said, standing up to face Delia Jones, “I got something to show Parker. Something I should have showed him a long time ago. Something his Paw left for him.”
Delia Jones was silent for a moment, looking at the frail man standing on her front porch. He had changed so much in the last four years that she hardly recognized him.
“You’re not welcome here, Mavis Clover,” she said coldly, yet in her heart she couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.
“I reckon not,” Mavis replied, “but I ain’t leavin’ till you two come over to my place and look at what’s there.”
“Please mother,” Parker interrupted, “it’s something my father left for me.”
“Alright,” Delia answered. “It’s against my better judgment, but we’ll go.” Then she added, “And you, Mavis Clover, had better not be up to any tricks on us this Christmas Eve.”
Parker felt that the ten-minute walk to Mavis’s cabin took forever, and his heart beat faster with each step. When they finally arrived at the rundown shack beside the road, he saw it was covered with overgrown vines and weeds.
“Before I show it to you,” Mavis said, stopping at the edge of the road, “there’s something that needs saying.”
Parker could feel his mother’s hand tighten on his shoulder.
“There was no drinking between me and your paw on the river that night,” Mavis said, looking at Parker. “I tried to tell that to folks, but nobody believed me, they just shook their heads.”
“What really happened that night?” Delia Jones asked, her voice quivering.
“We was in the middle of the river, up near the old power plant. Fishin’s usually good up there at night,” Mavis replied. “A wind done come up out of nowhere and blew out the kerosene lantern. Willmar was trying to relight it when the boat hit something. Maybe it was a sunken log or a large ’gator. It was pitch black and we went over. I come up near the boat and grabbed on. I kept hollering for Willmar, but never heard nothing back but my own voice.”
“But the whiskey bottle?” Delia said.
“It was an old one I kept in the boat to fill up with drinking water,” Clovis answered with a sigh.
“I knew it wasn’t true,” Parker beamed, hardly able to control himself.
“Walk around back,” Clovis said to Parker, “and see what your Paw left you.”
Parker handed the basket of food back to his mother and did as Clovis said. The back yard of the cabin was strewn with junk. Weeds stood ankle-high. An old wooden picnic table leaned against the back porch.
In the middle of the yard stood a perfectly formed Christmas tree hung with colored lights glowing in the twilight.
“Your Paw planted that tree for you, Parker,” Clovis said. “He watered it and staked it up, so it would grow straight and tall. He said he couldn’t give you much, but he wanted you to have a Christmas tree.”
Then the old man lowered his head, “I knew it was time to show it to you when I saw you at the river today. I should have done it long ago, but I figured you didn’t want me around.”
“Well, you figured wrong,” Delia replied, setting the basket of food on the picnic table. “It’s time we all had something to eat.”
Parker Jones wasn’t listening. He was gazing at the tree glowing behind an old shack in the Georgia woods on Christmas Eve. The tall man with big hands had walked up the porch steps again and was smiling at him.
Copyright © 2011 by Ron Van Sweringen