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Short Story
3968 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Simple Economics

by Dan Leach

Aside from the halo of needles on the ground there was no evidence that an eight-foot Fraser had ever stood sentry beside the tattered sign that advertised for “Marty’s Trees.” Someone had come in the night.

Marty turned to the remaining seven trees and chose a replacement—a fattened Douglas Fir with a pleasing symmetry. He dragged it over to where the Fraser had stood and positioned it to catch the haze of a streetlight several feet away. From his pocket he retrieved a roll of red ribbon and cut a length. Dollar-store fabric, but still it shined like velvet when he tied a sloppy bow to the tree’s top.

He packed down the dirt at the base of the Douglas with his boot and stepped back onto the highway to judge his choice. The pavement was still soaked in pre-dawn blue, but the tops of the trees to the east were tipped in amber. A Ford with one headlight drove past, its driver too busy lighting his cigarette to return Marty’s wave. Three muffled beeps from inside the trailer sailed across the morning chill, signifying the day’s first pot of Folgers. The frost crunched beneath his boots as he crossed the lot. The Douglas would do. It had to.

He emerged from the trailer, steaming mug in hand and a newspaper tucked under his arm. He settled into a dirty beach-chair that, after seven years of sitting, had molded to his frame. By the time he emptied the mug and pinched off his first dip, the sun had stripped the morning of its chill and steam no longer laced his exhales. He waited. By noon, three cars had slowed, one even pulled over, but no one had stepped out. Marty gave the same slow wave and good-natured smile to each of them as they drove away to look for whatever it was they were looking for—something better, he supposed; or, as he sometimes suspected, just the idea of something better.

Real business came with the night. Though it had lost much of its momentum in recent years, buying a tree was still something of a tradition played out among the families in town—a tradition, it seemed to him, that was less like an errand to be checked off in the tedious afternoon hours and more like a story played out at a slow and measured pace against the dusk. He imagined fathers coming home from work and meeting their families for dinner at the tables and, afterwards, mothers coaching kids into shoes and winter coats. He imagined Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole and Andy Williams singing. He imagined these things not because he was, at heart, sentimental, but because when they pulled into his gravel lot and came spilling out of their mini-vans, their faces—year after year after year—always had the same glow. You never saw that kind of glow when someone picked up eggnog from the grocery.

Several days before Thanksgiving, Marty would begin taking trips up to Jackson, each time returning with five or six trees stuffed in the back of a rental truck. By the first week of December, a mix of Frasers, Spruces, and Douglas firs would fill his cramped dirt lot off Highway 219. A glance from the highway could swallow the whole set-up: the sign, the trees, the trailer. On 219 alone there were four other vendors, each one eclipsing Marty’s in quality, size, and price. Being aware of this, he did not blame people who gave his trees the once-over before going somewhere else. There were no illusions, in his mind, as to how the whole thing worked. Even in the years when he spent the day after Christmas burning unsold trees in the field behind his uncle’s house, he could never bring himself to believe in something as child-like and elusive as luck. It came down to economics, in his mind. Supply and demand. Luck had nothing to do with it. It was economics. Simple economics.

Amy had her own way of thinking, though. When she was still young enough to want to help him—six, maybe seven—she would spend nights at the lot, usually standing at the edge of the highway. Too shy to wave, she would just watch the cars as they slowed, casting her hope onto faces pressed against the glass, their calculating eyes, their lips that seemed so stiff, and, more often than not, their swift, decisive refusals. The ones that hurt her worst were the families that came with the intention of “just browsing.” Most parents were cordial enough to at least feign interest, but their children—too young to censor their observations—would tug at the sleeve of their parents’ coats and whisper indignantly that the trees were “ugly,” or “too small,” or—and this cut Amy the deepest—“not as good as the other place’s.”

Some nights she would cry. Burying her face in the coarse fabric of his Carhartt coat, she would start complaining about the fairness of it all. This triggered the same old lecture, packaged a little different each time.

“Come on now,” he would say, hugging her tiny frame that seemed to radiate anger. “Those folks just wanted something else. If we can’t give them what they need, you can’t blame them for going somewhere else.”

“But there ain’t nothing wrong with our trees, Daddy,” she would insist with balled fists. “We got plenty of good ones. They’re just not looking at them right.”

“Or maybe they just see things differently than you?” he would say with a grin.

“Maybe they’re just stupid,” she would say, settling the matter.

Then she would resume her place by the highway while he watched her with a smile. When she got older—fifteen, maybe sixteen—she understood the economics of the thing. Too old then for tears, she would embed her disgust inside of brutal silences, nodding through his assurances, but secretly cursing with all the laws that came around each Christmas to make her feel so small and unwanted.

“Screw economics,” she concluded in the last conversation they ever had on the topic of trees.

It was December 17th when a familiar pick-up pulled in. He recognized the old man who stepped out and stood up to meet him with a handshake. Whether it was complacency or sympathy that brought him back each year, Marty had seen him six years running.

“Got something under forty?” the old man shouted from across the gravel lot. “The wife’s itching to put something up for the grandkids.”

“I got something,” he replied, leading the man to a fifty-dollar Douglas. He grabbed it by the trunk and stood it upright for the old man’s observation. “Think it’ll do?”

“Perfect,” the old man replied, fingering one of the branches and eying it top to bottom.

“Thirty-five sound fair?” Marty said.

“Always has,” the old man said with a smile. “I’ll get my rope.”

They carried the tree to the bed of the truck and tied it down together. The old man cordially refused a cup of coffee, but lingered long enough for small-talk.

“Noticed your girl’s not out here this year,” the old man said. “Still off at college?”

“Sure is,” he lied. “Studying at the community college and looking to transfer next fall.”

“She like it?”

“Loves it,” he lied again.

The lie was stitched with a few thin threads of truth. Amy had, in fact, enrolled at the community college the fall following her high-school graduation. The plan, according to her, was to finish the bulk of her general education classes, save the tips she earned working nights at Waffle House, and transfer to an art program after two years. That was the plan.

She met Trevor that first semester and stopped coming home in between classes to study. By spring, she stopped coming home at all.

The first time he put his foot down and demanded she come home, she didn’t return his calls for a week and his one trip to Trevor’s apartment resulted in a threat to call the police whispered through a locked door.

Months passed and she changed. He could hear it in her voice when he dialed up Trevor’s apartment. Math suddenly “sucked,” biology had become “worthless,” and, according to her, the aspiring novelist teaching composition was a loser who had slept with half the females in the class. She would follow these observations with sweeping accusations about men and women, college and work, and America in general. He had a hard time following her logic, but spotted the recurring theme clearly enough: she wanted something different.

He did too, incidentally. There were words—like drop-out, like divorced, like drinker—that covered his name like a patch of bruises. And though he blamed no one for the course his life had taken, he secretly wished that someone had warned him. Too late now for him to gain much from these truths; redemption lay in Amy. He tried to make her listen.

He told her to leave the boy and stay in school.

She claimed that college was not for everybody, that Trevor said she could learn just as much by staying home and working on her paintings. The next day, he drove to the college, met with several advisors, and jotted down their words on a yellow legal pad. It sounded strange to hear his Southern drawl wrap itself around phrases like “A college degree can empower you to pursue your passions,” or facts like “Over a lifetime, college graduates can earn up to one million dollars more than a high-school graduate.” Still, he repeated them the next time they spoke. She dismissed everything he said and claimed that Trevor would soon be a manager at Target, making forty-thousand dollars a year. Plus, she said, Trevor believed moms should raise their own children and not just stick them in daycare.

“We’ve become too dependent on institutions,” she said. “Families were what made this country great, but we’ve sold them out for the almighty American Dream.”

When he got tired of hearing Trevor’s thoughts come out of her mouth, he asked why they had not gotten married. She told him to go to hell.

Her first year at the college was, as he had guessed, her last one. She wouldn’t leave the boy. Clear as clots beneath the skin, he could see her mistakes forming.

“Be proud of her,” the old man said. “There’s plenty around here that don’t do nothing.”

“And some that do worse than nothing,” he muttered, almost to himself.

After swapping a few comments about the price of gas, he shook hands with the old man and waved as the pick-up disappeared down the highway. Then he resumed his post in the lawn chair. As always, he waited for the night and tried not to think of Amy.


On Christmas Eve morning he sold the last tree to a group of teenagers from a Baptist youth group. Not one of them was over seventeen. Judging from their energy, the tree was part of some service project or outreach effort. They pulled up, paid in cash, and sloppily tied the tree to the top of their Honda before speeding back onto the highway. Staring across the emptied lot, it occurred to him that for the first time in years, there would be no trees to burn.

He took his time cleaning up, even making an afternoon run to the Coffee Spot for a tall boy. By the time he had packed up the sign and locked up the trailer, it was getting dark. Sitting in his truck and staring at the dash, he considered the options. He had seen this moment coming for almost three months now, but all the sleepless nights spent thinking had done little to equip him. Amy’s present was tucked beneath the seat and he reached down to retrieve it. He held it in his hands and fingered the note that had been attached with scotch tape. The note—all he might have said in the calls she never took—came off with one slight pull. He stuffed it in his pocket and returned the box to its place beneath the seat. Note in hand, he started the engine and pulled out onto the highway. Their apartment was several miles up the road. It was October the last time he was there. It was October when he had hurt the boy.

That was not something that he had planned. He had called to talk—not about school, since she had quit that in the spring, but just about life. Out of nowhere, she told him she was pregnant. Six months. Said it was a girl. Smiled and said she was glad. When she said that, a chord inside him snapped, a cord pulled taut from the beginning. Urgency more than anger burned inside his veins. He told her to pack up, that he would be there in half an hour. She probably said some other things, but he had already hung up. When he showed up at the apartment, the boy met him at the door. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember what was said. In all his recollections, the entire incident appeared hazy and disjointed.

There were things he did remember. He remembered pounding on their door. He remembered the door flying open and the boy rushing forward to meet him. Mostly, he remembered the hands against his chest. At first, he thought Trevor was just trying to block him, trying to seal the apartment’s entry. But there was something more at work inside the hands, something hateful and electric, and he could feel it on his chest as the boy continued shifting his weight to push against him. He was not resisting and yet the boy continued pushing. Staring into the boy’s eyes, he saw a gleam of indignation. This is the man, he thought in that moment, who ruined my baby.

Then, from just behind the boy, Amy’s voice. She said she didn’t want to see him. Said there was no point in talking.

He had yet to say a word.

Their refusals slammed against him with the cadence of an angry tide. When he opened his mouth to speak, her screaming became louder, Trevor’s hands angrier. They pushed him back into the hallway, away from the apartment’s open door. All the words he had hoped to speak converged to form a lump in his throat, a single, hardened ball trying to emerge against the weight of their denial. A neighbor came out and cast a look of suspicion at Marty. He raised his arms, palms upturned in a gesture of humility and turned to the neighbor, as if to prove his innocence. The neighbor turned to Amy and, forming a telephone with her right hand, signaled her intent to call security. Amy nodded and kept on screaming. Trevor continued pushing, driving him out of the hallway and into the parking lot.

Drawn by the sound, several more neighbors exited their apartments and gathered. Amy got louder; the boy, bolder. The boy’s pushes suddenly felt more like open-fisted punches, his tensed palms slamming against Marty’s sternum. He warned the boy to back off, signaled for Amy to be quiet. He scrambled for some tactful word in the wreckage of his thoughts, but came up short. Speechless, he stood his ground and refused to back-peddle any further. Still, the boy continued pushing. The neighbors, who had formed a loose ring around the two men, seemed to be closing in. Marty felt a hand clasp his shoulder. A voice he had never heard told him he needed to leave. The boy was still pushing.

Amy stopped screaming, the growing sense of tension reaching a strange and silent crescendo. The boy stopped pushing. For the first time, she looked Marty in the eye. He hoped his face registered fatherly concern. Sympathy seemed to flicker across her features. He was ready then to speak. But the crowd around him stirred and the boy’s next shove came in high, delivering the sensation of a brick to the windpipe. That was more than Marty could take.

He had heard from a friend at the hospital that, in addition to the contusions, the boy checked out with three broken fingers, a dislocated jaw, and a shattered nose. Of the nine witnesses, eight neglected to mention the boy’s shot to the throat. They did, however, recall in great detail all of Marty’s punches. The boy had agreed not to press charges: a mercy birthed from his love for her, Amy pointed out in her one and only call. They were, as she put it, past the point of hating him. A frigid indifference had overcome them and, as she objectively explained, they intended to ensure its permanence:

“We talked to a lawyer yesterday and he’s getting us a restraining order. Said it’s good for five hundred feet. And when the judge signs off on it you’ll have to leave us alone.”

“That’s supposed to stop me?” he muttered in a voice that was harsher than he intended. “You are my daughter and I’ll do what it takes to save you.”

“Save me?” she said with a mocking laugh that stretched the word to two syllables. “What do you think I need saving from?”

“You don’t buy the cow if you’re getting the milk for free, sweetheart. Trevor is a—”

“Trevor loves me.”

“He’s using you.”

“He loves me.”

“What you have with him. That ain’t love.”

“Oh it’s not?” she said, the laugh returning. “Then what is it?”

“I don’t have a word for it. But, whatever it is, it ain’t love.”

“Right,” she said. “And you would know.”

“Come home, Amy,” he pleaded, sensing the end of the conversation approaching. “Just come home and we’ll figure something out.”

“Goodbye Dad.”

“You’ll never be—” he started, before realizing that she had already hung up.

Several days later he appeared before a judge who informed him of his rights—quite extensive outside of five hundred feet. Phone calls were ignored and a week after his conversation with the judge, he showed up at their apartment and had a conversation with a locked door. Two armed policemen came and he was taken away in hand-cuffs. A night in jail and a fine twice that of his mortgage payment did little to deter him. Several days before Thanksgiving, he tried again to see her. The same unanswered knocks, the same two frowning officers. Time and fine were doubled and he left beneath the threat that one more violation would result in what the judge referred to as “serious time.”

Christmas, though, compelled him to reconsider the situation. When he reached the turn for Amy’s street, he pulled over to the shoulder and let his options play out across his tired mind. Home: a microwavable Salisbury steak that came with a frozen block of green beans; a six pack of PBR in the fridge; It’s A Wonderful Life on at nine; Jimmy Stewart’s second chance. Or: a chance at Christmas in a jail cell. He whipped the wheel to the right and sped towards Amy’s unit, thinking to himself how, just like the other times, it somehow seemed unbearably wrong to call them options.


He pulled up to her apartment, slipped the keys out of the ignition, and sat in the dark, staring at the string of lights that lined her porch. They were blue, all of them, blue. Recalling the soft white bulbs that dotted the neighborhoods of his youth, he wondered about their choice. Past the porch with its patio chairs and potted ferns, a sliding glass door led to the living room. The curtains were open. From his car, he could see a coffee table littered with dirty dishes and beer bottles. He could also see her feet.

He got out of the truck, note in hand, and slowly approached the porch. When he reached the brick lattice that separated the porch from the small strip of lawn, he crouched down and tried to look inside the apartment. Dead leaves, also bathed in blue, had gathered at the base of the brick and he was careful to be quiet as he shuffled to get a better view. He inched to the right. Still just feet atop the table. Several more inches and the feet became shins. Another shuffle and the shins were legs. The leaves rustled and he worried that someone might hear. Without thinking, he shuffled once more. He could see their bodies slumped down on the couch, catching the flashes of light from a television in the corner. Canned laughter came from inside. He looked over his shoulder just to make sure, then shuffled once more. It was there, squatting in a pile of dead leaves and pressing his forehead against a brick wall, that, for the first time in three months, he saw his daughter’s face.

Trevor’s head was thrown back in sleep, motionless against a couch cushion. One of his arms was slung over Amy’s shoulder, and, apparently dreaming, his eyelids fluttered. She was outstretched, her legs dangling off the couch, her head resting on the boy’s lap. Her hair, thinner and greasier than he remembered, hung in strands over her eyes. She had gained weight. Her face and neck looked swollen and slightly pale. He looked at her stomach, but could not see much because of her baggy t-shirt. He wondered if they had chosen a name. His eyes drifted back to her face and it nearly took his breath away to find that she was staring directly at him. Surely, he convinced himself, she was staring at the door, some absorbing swirl of blue that played upon the glass. He knew Amy well enough to know that, if she had seen her father’s face, framed tightly in red brick lattice, something more than sympathy would have surged in her eyes. Surely, he thought, she did not see me.

The scuttle of paws against concrete stirred him and he nearly jumped up from his place against the wall. He clumsily ducked into the hallway as a middle-aged woman and a frantic black Lab puppy hurried past. He exhaled and an inexplicable sense of shame quickened his heart. He thought of what might happen if he had been seen. The concrete stairs were at least five feet wide and cast a hulking shadow onto the space below. The darkness felt impenetrable and he stared at Amy’s door, no longer worried about being caught.

There in the darkness, he prayed the only prayer he knew.

And because his eyes were closed, he did not see the cruiser park.

God, if you’re listening, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

He continued praying as the policeman’s footsteps echoed down the hall.

The courage to change the things I can.

When the footsteps stopped, he opened his eyes and turned, expecting to see a neighbor returning from some late-night errand, but blue lights were splashing against the wall and the officer was walking toward the staircase holding a pair of handcuffs. The officer, considerate of the tenants, leaned into the darkness and whispered his name. He asked him to come out with his hands in plain sight. Amy’s door opened just a crack. Marty stood still in the darkness. The officer repeated his request, this time through gritted teeth, his free hand moving towards his taser. The door swung open further. Marty saw the tears in his daughter’s eyes, and then stepped out into the light, arms outstretched before him, still praying as the cuffs went on.

And the wisdom to know the difference.


* Note from the Webmaster:

“The Serenity Prayer” was originally composed by theologian and philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, in 1932 or 1933, and adopted in 1941 by Alcoholics Anonymous. For details, see Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer? by Fred R. Shapiro, in The Chronicle of Higher Education (28 April 2014). An associate director of the law library at Yale Law School, Mr. Shapiro is the author of The Yale Book of Quotations (Yale University Press, 2006).


SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Dan Leach

was born in Greer, South Carolina, graduated from Clemson University in 2008, and taught in Charleston until 2014 when he relocated to Nebraska. His short fiction has appeared in The New Madrid Review, Deep South Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, Two Bridges Review, Drafthorse, and elsewhere. He is currently at work on his first novel.

Visit to read more of his work.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury