Malcolm’s desk was a paperwork ruin, like a left behind village after a tsunami had washed back to sea. Insurance claims overlapped estate taxes and invoices drifted unstapled, set loose from stern letters demanding payment for failed procedures. He shuffled and stacked and went so far as tearing off perforations and affixing stamps to pre-addressed envelopes, but when it came time to seal them he stopped. The newspaper thumped outside on the front porch, so Malcolm retrieved it and laid its broadsheets like a boardwalk to cover the flotsam and jetsam washed up on his desk.
Like any Sunday he went straight to the crossword, puzzling in pen for no other reason than he had one at hand for the forms, and he wondered how many stories and songs had employed that cliché about crosswords and ink, as if ink even lasted forever. The stakes were so small: answer the clues, don’t answer the clues, and either way throw out the paper at Sunday’s end. It was a worthy distraction but could only go on for so long. His father had been a fast puzzler, bearing down hard and muttering under his breath over breakfast without lifting his eyes until he was finished, his bacon and coffee gone cold and the rest of the family dispersed after eating. When the spaces were filled with every answer he had, he sat at the table and waited for something to happen, a game to come on or a household appliance to break, for Malcolm or his mother to make some demand on his time.
Malcolm worked slowly on his own puzzle, pausing between solutions and sometimes between letters to watch leaves fall from the elm tree outside. After solving most of the Down clues — he always began there before looking Across, and he’d always done it that way — he set down his pen in the crease of the newspaper sheet. Leaf after leaf slid by the glass in tiny dozens of orange sunsets, even as the real sun finished rising around the other side of the house. Each descent followed the same swaying trail: a leaf might swing an inch to one side or the other, but such small variations made no real difference to where each of them ended its fall.
A funeral home ad staring up from the paper reminded him of the crematorium invoice hiding under the puzzle somewhere, long overdue but so macabre Malcolm couldn’t bring himself to sign it. Instead he found his gray tape dispenser tucked away in a drawer, its heavy base weighted with sand, then rose from his chair with the groan he’d lately inherited from his late father. His chest felt tight as if his allergies had changed with the season, or like he might come down with something in the next day or two.
He dug a rake from the jumbled garage, then gathered all the leaves into a pile and went back to the garage for a ladder. He found an old delivery bag from a newspaper route, left behind by the house’s previous owners, and he stuffed it with colors like a smoldering fire, slung it onto his back, and climbed to the top of the ladder. One by one he taped leaves where the elm tree was bare, wrapping cellophane around stems and branches as invisibly as he could manage. Some of the leaves hadn’t fallen off yet but he taped those, too, so even if the branch dropped them the tree never would.
The tree started to look like itself again and the tightness in his chest relaxed. But when he turned his head at the top of the ladder he saw the half-naked oak tree behind the elm and beyond it a long row of skeletal crowns stretching through his yard and the next and away down both sides of the street. Only the yew tree wore more than its branches, with toxic red berries suspended like stars on its evergreen shroud, as thick as a shadow against the pale dawn. There wasn’t nearly enough tape or time to repair all the trees, so he left the ladder against the elm’s trunk and dropped the bag on the ground and took along only the dispenser of cellophane tape when he walked back into the house.
He taped the couch and the chairs to the living room floor, and the petrified wood carved into an ashtray he bound to the coffee table and carpet. No one smoked in the family, but it was from a vacation when he was the child begging his parents for useless mementoes as his own children did now. Each dish in the cupboard he bound to its mates and their shelf, and he set each pantried canned good and drawered utensil in place with a firm strip of film. The apples and oranges he strapped to their bowl and to the dining room table and the table to the floorboards beneath it, then ran a long strip across those same boards so they wouldn’t come loose from the house.
He replenished the dispenser with a new roll and gently wound his sleeping children and their beds in tape. He climbed under the blankets beside his wife and passed the dispenser first around her, then the headboard, then three times around his own body until on the last pass he could not move his arm and let the weight of the sand pull itself to the floor and tear off the tape as it fell.
Malcolm lay with his eyes closed and listened to quiet, until something fluttered and flapped in the hallway and a newspaper sheet glided into the room like a ghost. The window was still open beside his desk, all those invoices allowed to wander like driftwood where and how they would, out the window and into the world, or down the hallway to hover just beyond his restricted reach.