It’s a crisp autumn day, clouds jogging across the sky like portly triathletes. I’m driving Bryant Street, where the town squires have blocked off the avenue at regular intervals, and inserted narrow bridges so only bikes and pedestrians can get through. I take great pleasure in living in a place where they actually think of such things. Or perhaps I am desperate for positives. A quintet of cyclists passes me the other way in their European silks, like grimly determined tropical birds. I turn left into Mrs. Brendel’s driveway.
My lovely daughter meets me at the door. Her T-shirt features a baroque composer in Schwarzenegger sunglasses and the words I’ll Be Bach.
“Hi, Dadsalish.” She turns back toward the living room. “Bye, Mrs. Brendel!”
“Bye, honey! Remember – posture!”
“Posture!” she says, giggling.
I can hold back no longer. I grab her under the arms and swing her into the air. Songsheets go flying.
“Dadsalish!” she scolds. We scurry across the yard, picking pages from the boxwood. “You must be more careful!”
This makes me laugh for a good long time. Realizing how witty she has been, Laura drops her show of disapproval for a self-satisfied smile. When she ducks under a rose bush after Für Elise, I slip a couple of fallen leaves into her music folder. We’re halfway home, sitting at a backed-up intersection, when she discovers my sabotage.
“Dadsalish!” She takes the leaves in either hand – a red and a yellow – and makes them dance like puppets.
“Are you leafing through your music, Lauralish?”
“Oh!” She takes an invisible arrow to the shoulder. (I have told her that puns are dangerous things, and she has taken it to a logical, nine-year-old extreme.) “Dadsalish! That’s bad.”
“Would you like me to leaf the subject alone?”
“Aigh!” The other shoulder.
“You autumn not fall for such tricks.”
“Gah!” The stomach.
“I used to be uncertain about such matters, but now I’m deciduous.”
She opens one eye to peer at me quizzically.
“Yes, it’s a pun,” I explain.
“Eeh!” Straight through the heart, and she slumps backward, holding the leaves over her chest like lilies.
“Howl! Howl! Howl!” I lament, drawing on my scant Shakespeare. “I have slain sweet Cordelia with my savage punnery.”
The corpse returns to life and whacks me on the shoulder.
“Get thee to a punnery!”
“Gack!” I take an arrow in the neck. But the light turns green, so I heal quickly. Laura gives her leaves a closer study.
“What are these from, Dadsalish?”
“Gimme.” She puts them in my hand, and I peek while dodging cars.
“The yellow’s a birch, and the red’s… an Oregon maple.”
She takes them back and holds them next to each other as if they’re having a conversation.
“Mrs. Schmidt says that leaves are sun-harvesters, and to do their work they put on green jackets. Chlor… chloro…”
“Phyll,” I say. “Chlorophyll.”
“Yeah! But in the fall, when it gets cold, the leaves take off their work clothes, and yellow is their real color. And the tree can’t support them anymore, so it lets them fall to the ground. And that’s why they call it ‘fall.’”
“You are a brilliant child,” I say. “Where did you get all these brains?”
“And Machiavellian, as well.”
“And observant, as well. But… what about the red leaves?”
“Umm…” She runs the maple across her lips, willing it to give up its secrets. “Oh! She says they’re not sure, but the red might be a way for the leaf to send as much sun as it can to the tree before it falls off. It’s kind of a… panic attack.”
“Or a red alert,” I say. Laura giggles.
We cruise the last two miles in silence. Laura, my daughter who makes Hamlet jokes, is scouring the yards and strip malls for red and yellow trees.
It occurs to me that I’m a big fat liar. I’ve told that story about failing my medical exam for so long that I believed it myself. It wasn’t to spite my mother; it wasn’t to avoid dealing with people. I failed that exam because I wanted to be a scientist, I wanted to poke and prod the giant quizbox of nature and make her give up her secrets. But not all of them, because I wanted the game to go on forever.
Now, nature has tricked me. I am a big red maple leaf, about to be dropped from the tree.