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Finding Perfect

Adam Smith




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WHEN I STEP OUT THE DOOR DAD HAS THE ENGINE STARTED AND THE SOUND TRAVELS CLEAR ON THE GRAVEL DRIVE. On the short brown grass of the yard a shadow from the barn is settling as a winter sun sinks in the fields. My breath and the truck's breath and inside the cab my dad's breath take form and vanish in the air. Everything has an edge of clarity. The world is real, and we are in it, heading out.
______Old snow falls off the windshield and takes a curve around my sidemirror as we shift from first and pick up speed. I watch it fly away. My eyes are atop the rows of broken corn stalks lined up behind the fencerows. Light poles pull up and fall away and come again like tides of trees. Everything, and I know it all by sight, everything is still and silent and moving alongside like a dolphin with a boat. I crack the window and gather its scent.
______As he drives my dad takes perfect sips of coffee from an open mug, and never spills a drop. Every bump and pothole is a rhythm in his head. I watch his arm move up and down in answer to the road and the truck and the little art of driving. At times he sets the cup down on the dash, taking no precautions I can understand, and still the brim is never breached. He's a god to me. Not the thunder-wielding kind, seeking whom he may devour. A little god, a god of knowing what he's about, and how to be about it, and how to make his place his own. Someday I will have his confidence.
______Outside the last light is pooling on the crust of snow and mixing all the white with the red and orange and purple. We're going to the tree farm down the road, just a few miles. Usually mom and the girls would be with us, but Beth and Court are sick and mom is taking care of them with chicken soup and thermometers. In the back we've got the chainsaw and some hatchets. I am feeling masculine, sitting easy and quiet in the truck knowing conversation is unnecessary. When we find and cut our tree the moon will be up and stars will be everywhere, and the most perfect moment in the world will be there waiting. After that I will try for the rest of my life to put the feeling of that moment into words, and I will always believe the effort is worth the failure.
______Now, yes, it is close: the bright darkness, the brilliant stillness of a certain winter night. Kitsch is born right here - every greeting card and TV ad with horses and sleighs and endless heavens above and that special shade of blue-white light is calling back to this. At Christmas time we're hungry for its blessing and the authenticity it can give and so we're susceptible to its imitations. A night like this can soften your intentions and make you real. It can make you stop. It can let you be.
______I believe this as we drive through the open gate and up to the low ridge where the halls of spruce are laid. Dad cuts off the engine and drains his mug and opens the door as I do the same. My boot crunches through to the ground and leaves my print pointing outward at the trees. We take the chainsaw and the hatchets and walk through the branches into the outermost aisle, and here I know we will part and wander by ourselves until one of us finds something to show the other. We split up to save time, yes. But also, there is a way to experience this night that needs a sense of independence. Independence, and proximity. Dad and I go our own ways, looking for what we hope is the "perfect tree," and listening to each other's footfalls in the snow.
______His fade away as I go to the left and down the hill. My nose, my fingers inside my gloves, the rims of my ears, my toes at the ends of my boots, everything at the edge of me is cut through by the cold. I pretend my lungs can exhale fire but hold back out of kindness, and that my power's only sign is a subtle cloud around my lips. I squint at the moon and draw the light in a beam to my pupil so my eyes can fire lasers at the sky. Underfoot is an avalanche destroying arctic cities. A snowball in my hand packed tight explodes against a tree trunk and burns the image of a several-pointed star. I am clear and hard and I extend myself to the world in love.
______On either side the pungent boughs are dressed in snow and the soft shag bark is dimly lit by the ground around the trunks. I could set my nostrils in the green for hours and inhale every spark and lilt till the needles fill my soul and make my bed and ease me to eternity. As I walk and breathe there are things upending my mind's stability, things whose only given names are doctrines or cliches and so are better left unsaid. Up above the moon and underfoot the snow, and down the long slope of Miller's Tree Farm the empty field and its border with a darkling patch of woods that draws my gaze and holds it. In the same way a fearful height can tempt you to jump - what if? - the inside of that woods gets inside my head and for a minute I think of running in and getting lost, and the invitation is a pleasure even though I'll decline it and return to what we're here for, which is either the Christmas Tree or the trip to get it and the place it comes from. I'm not sure which or if they can be distinguished.
______So I quit my fantasies and turn to the shape of the trees around me, gauging height and heft and girth in terms of the north corner of our living room and rug and hardwood floor that would stand in for the earth. Too scraggly, too short, too tall, too ugly, too big around, too something else than perfect even though it's perfect here beside its siblings. It might be my father's found the one already, might be more than likely knowing him and his way of finding things. In spring we hunt for mushrooms and I might come back with a dozen in my shirt. He goes out with a grocery sack and brings it home full up. I used to think he was like a strong-arm detective or hard-faced gambler with some unscrupulous inside track. But I watch him closer now and I know that's not right, that's not how he works. It's more like he just sits and waits or strolls a while in some place he's been before, and things eventually turn up. And then he's just as happy to find them as he was to look for them. Someday . . .
______Sure enough before I'm satisfied with any of my prospects he calls out from a few yards uphill and I sigh and go to see what he's got. I know when I get there that I'll agree in my heart that it's the best tree here, not the grandest or strongest but the best because it will stand in our house like it was born there, and because when Christmas is over and the presents are gone and the new year begins it will split in our driveway and scatter its chips on the gravel and fit through the basement window in chunks cut short for the stove that keeps us warm. I know that at the same time I'll wish I'd found it first, or that I'd found a better one and called my dad to approve it and cut it down and help me load it on the truck. Someday. Some Christmas I'll choose the tree, and it will be right. Someday I'll learn to find things like he finds things.



Adam Smith

Adam Smith grew up with the corn on an Indiana pig farm. He studied political science in Chicago and political theory in Toronto. After that he married his high school sweetheart and traveled the world. At the moment he really misses a certain flat in downtown Seoul. This summer he ventured west on a whim and came to Portland, where he keeps busy writing grant proposals for a nonprofit and PhD applications for himself. This is the first thing he’s published that doesn’t include footnotes.



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