Birthday Tree by Chris Raia

Julia looked at me like I was crazy and then stared back at the oversized palm tree sitting in the middle of our living room decorated with Christmas lights, streamers, and little Styrofoam stars. Naturally she was confused; after all, a decorated palm tree isn’t a very conventional gift to give your wife on her first birthday since you were married.

Normal girls would probably expect a necklace. Or a pair of earrings. Julia got a tree.

“You like it, don’t you? It was the finest Birthday Tree at the lot! I made the decorations this morning while you were at work.” I loved the look on her face that day: her mouth slightly open as if her brain really wanted to make words but then got preoccupied with something else; a skeptical bite of the lower lip, then a slight head cock and there it was: raised eyebrows and the slightest hint of a smile, her universal sign for “what the fuck are you talking about?

“What the hell are you talking about?” Julia doesn’t curse. “Of course I like it. It’s lovely, especially the Styrofoam stars. Now... explain. Why a Birthday Tree?”

Fair question. I wished I could have told her it was my very own original idea. But it wasn’t. I had stolen it from an old man who sat next to me on the bus. He may have been senile. I thought he was interesting. But he was certainly original.

I had to go to New York City for a weekend to meet with a client. I work for a publishing agency, and we were trying to land a deal with an author who wrote a book directed at a predominantly gay audience. Come on Out, The Water’s Great! I thought the title needed some work, but we heard that it had the potential to become a revolutionary self-help book for the LGBT community. My boss sent me because he saidhis words not mine“those people like you for some reason.” He’s outstandingly offensive, but apparently correct. We got the deal, the book sold everywhere, and the author made appearances on all kinds of talk shows.

After the meeting, I spent the rest of the day aimlessly wandering around the city. I probably should have gone out to celebrate, but I just started walking. I walked and thought, mostly about Jules: how we met, how our relationship grew, what was next. We had only been married for six months at the time, so the future was still an unseeable smudge in our horizons. I had no interest in thinking about it. I would have rather just lived it out. I didn’t want to know the ending. So I thought about the beginning.

We were juniors in college, and I was still living at home. She had just transferred from a community college in Rhode Island and lived on campus in a dorm. We weren’t even dating yet. She came over to my house one night to work on a project, ate dinner with my family, and then it started raining. Pouring, actually. My mother wouldn’t let her drive home.

“You are not driving home in this weather! What’s your number? I’ll call your mom and tell her you’re staying here.” Julia’s from Rhode Island. Seven hours away from D.C. Her parents wouldn't care. We explained this. She still called. She’s like that.

The next morning, we both skipped class, and sat in a hammock outside and talked all day. I knew there was something there. Pretty girls don’t sit on hammocks and talk to guys for six hours if there isn’t. She beat me to the first move. In the middle of telling a story, she stopped talking and kissed me for the first time, then finished her story without skipping a beat.

“Thought we should just get that out of the way.” That’s when I knew.

My mom loves that phrase. “That’s when I knew.” For every person in her life, she claims she has a specific moment where she knew that person could stay. She even turned this phrase into an acronym: TWIK. Then she turned that acronym into onomatopoeia, claiming it was the sound the world makes when something good happens. Twik. It made no sense, but it’s kind of catchy. That day on the hammock, that’s when I knew. Twik, I suppose.

A decade later, we got married. Six months after that, it was the day before her birthday, and I needed to buy her a present. It had to be something special but couldn’t be over fifty dollars. We had our rules. A solid gold necklace would just be excessive. I’d figure something out eventually.

I boarded the bus, took off my jacket, and put my briefcase on the seat next to me, hoping I’d be able to sleep until we were pulling into D.C. But then I looked out the window and saw an old man, sprinting toward the bus, cradling a large, potted tree. He couldn’t have been less than eighty years old, wearing a light gray blazer with dark gray slacks, loafers and a bowler hat, as classy as bowler hats get, crookedly on top of his head, covering the few locks of wispy white hair that he still had.

He knocked on the door of the bus, handed the driver his ticket, and walked on without a hint of embarrassment on his face. “Excuse me, miss. Pardon me. Excuse me, excuse me. I do apologize. How are you today? Excuse me, pardon me.” The branches of his trees were brushing against passengers’ arms and faces; he knocked off a teenager’s hat. “I’m sorry about that, young man. Excuse me, beg your pardon. Ah. Here we are. Is anyone sitting there?”

I moved my briefcase onto my lap and abandoned all hope of sleeping. “No, sir. It’s all yours. Nick”: I outstretched my hand.

“Nick, pleasure to meet you, my boy. The name’s George.” His voice changed. When he came onto the bus, he was British. Now, he was apparently an American who lived in the 1920’s, the kind of person who would start sentences with “Listen here…” and end them with “See?”

I usually like to let people live their lives no matter what, no questions asked. But I had to know just out of sheer curiosity.

“George, quick question. I need to know. Why are you bringing a tree on a five hour bus trip when you don’t even have a suitcase?”

He looked at me very matter of factly and then started beaming. “I’m glad you asked, Nicky! This right here,” he shook the tree, “is a Birthday Tree!”

I was smiling skeptically. “What the fuck are you talking about?” I wish I had Julia’s restraint for cursing.

George laughed. “That was always Hank’s favorite part about the Birthday Tree. That look you just gave me. It never gets old.”

I was still confused. “Oh, right, Hank. That’s my best friend, you see. Has been for the last 65 years, ever since we were bunkmates in the Navy. We were stationed somewhere in the Pacific – I don’t remember where exactly, and I had a birthday coming up. Hank wanted to make it special – he liked doing things to make everyone feel they were still at home with our families. But there weren’t any gift shops over there, so what did he do? He went out to the jungle and chopped down a tree. He decorated it with, with, with whatever he could find. Bullet shells, tabs from empty cans, cut up pieces of old fatigues, you name it. He told me it was a Birthday Tree. Screw cards, he said. This tradition will sweep the nation.”

Since that year, no matter how far apart they lived or what was going on in their lives, George and Hank found a way to keep their tradition alive. Every single year, they found a way to visit each other with a tree.

“Well, except for one year. 1986. I heard a knock at my door, opened it, and just found a package sitting there. No Hank. Attached to the package was a note. ‘Had a heart attack the other day. Bastards won’t let me out of the hospital. But this right here, George, this is a great looking Birthday Tree.’”

I was impressed with that and told him about Julia. About how we first kissed on a hammock, how we got married six months ago, how her birthday is coming up tomorrow, and how she needed a gift.

“Steal my old tradition and make it new again. Buy her a tree and decorate it.”

“You know what. I think I will”

We stopped talking. I looked out the window and saw my old high school. We were pulling into D.C. I looked at George. He was probably going to take his tree and walk to the nearest Metro stop so that he could deliver it to his best friend like he had done for the last 65 years. My car was parked in a garage near the bus stop. I offered him a ride to Hank’s house.

“That awfully nice of you, Nicky. I’d love one. Hank isn’t home at the moment, but his wife gave me an address where I could drop off the tree. 2219 Lincoln Road. 2219 Lincoln Road. I’ve been saying it over and over again so I don’t forget it.”

Lincoln Road. Lincoln Road. Lincoln, Lincoln… there were no houses on Lincoln Road. There was a college, a few playgrounds, a church, an elementary school and Glenwood Cemetery.


“Okay, George. Hop in.”

We stopped at a convenient store to buy Christmas lights and streamers and little Styrofoam stars. He decorated the tree in the parking lot, and then I drove him to 2219 Lincoln Road, to Glenwood Cemetery. We got out of the car, he grabbed the tree from the backseat and we started walking.

After five minutes of walking, George stopped and said this was the spot. He looked straight past the tombstone with Hank’s name on it as if it wasn’t even there.

“Well, Nick, this is it. Hank said to drop it off here and he’d be back to pick it up.” I looked at him helplessly. George’s normal, carefree expression looked empty. “I’m going to stay here for a bit and see if I can catch him before the next bus comes to take me home, okay, Nick? It’s been a pleasure, send my absolute best to your Julia.” He tipped his bowler hat and sat down in the grass

I nodded, shook his hand, and started walking away.

“Be safe getting home. And hey, George?”


“That right there, that’s a great looking birthday tree.”

I'm a senior Advertising major at Marist College located in Poughkeepsie, NY. I very much enjoy black pens, whiskey, the Oxford Comma, and short author bios that include an eclectic list of personal interests. I like writing simple stories about strange characters because I think that strangeness is what makes people real. Want to talk? I'd love to! Send me an email at