Few circumstances lead to a person balancing precariously in a pine tree a hundred feet over the Pacific Ocean at dawn on a cloudless summer day. Bankruptcy, a messy divorce, an unmanageable addiction, a broken dream. Nagging guilt over some nameless transgression that can no longer be endured. Or the doctor explaining how you’ve got two months and they’re not going to be pretty. But Katie isn’t one misstep away from certain death for any of these mundane reasons. She’s on a mission. As she edges out over the rocky shoreline, the bowing branch quivers under her feet.
“What should I do next?” she whispers breathlessly into the phone. “I can almost reach it now.”
“Wait, you’re calling me from the tree?”
“Yeah, I’m on the branch just below them.”
“You’re on what?” I wrest myself from a dream. “Katie, get down and call me back. This is insane.”
“Terry, listen. Yesterday afternoon before I left my house I told you I was too busy and stressed out to deal with this kind of thing now. And remember what you said? You said, ‘If not now, when?’?”
“Yeah, I know what I said. But not now, okay?”
“Hey, I’m out here, so let’s do this.”
I hesitate as the alarming image of what Katie is up to shifts into focus. From my distant, half-conscious state, I try to imagine the line of reasoning people walk themselves through before calling me at all hours: Maybe I’ll give Terry a call. After all, this is an emergency, isn’t it? I hope she doesn’t think I’m too weird calling her from thishookah lounge (the caller all pumped up at two a.m.), or gentleman’s strip club (the stripper calling, not the gentleman), or all-night Korean spa (while in a sweat), or Guatemalan village (¿Hablas español?). Still, despite this rich cultural variety, Katie is my first tree person.
“Yeah, I’m here.” I sit bolt upright in bed. “Okay, do you have the clippers I mentioned?”
Garden clippers came up purely hypothetically yesterday when a frantic Katie called me after discovering a hummingbird trapped in her home office. She had had the French doors to the backyard propped open, and the bird flew into the house in the late afternoon just as Katie had an industry event — which her entire career and life ambition depended on — to attend. Katie called me for advice but was unable to catch the terrified bird rocketing around the rafters, so she left the French doors open and went out. When she arrived back home after midnight, she didn’t see the hummingbird anywhere and assumed it had flown out, so she closed up the house and went to bed, despite my warning about checking the room carefully.
Now two chicks in a nest overhanging the steep cliffs of Malibu are screaming their heads off, and their mother is dead behind the filing cabinet. It’s just two tiny birds. But these little birds create big guilt. The nestlings will sit out there crying all day as they slowly starve to death. So for Katie, there is only one way out from under the crushing weight of self-recrimination.
“I have the clippers in my hand,” she confirms.
“So you’re holding the phone with .?.?.”
“I have a Bluetooth.”
“Great, then reach under the nest and cut the branch at the far end first, about two inches from the nest.”
An endless silence follows, punctuated by a few muted curses over the roar of wind and waves.
More silence, then: “Okay, now what?”
“Now cup one hand under the nest and cut the branch on the side closest to you.” I let out a deep breath, recognizing that these instructions leave no hands for holding on. “And for God’s sake, be careful.”
“Don’t worry. I competed in gymnastics in college. I have excellent balance,” a strained voice comes back.
“Good to know.”
“I finished first in the state in ’95 and competed in the nationals in ’96,” she continues, as if we’re conducting a casual, precompetition interview on ESPN.
“Even better.” That will be my first line of defense in court, I assure myself.
“I do a killer handstand.”
“Well, let’s not press our luck.”
Another long silence.
“Okay, I’ve got the nest.”
“Good, now —”
I hear the haunting wail of the eternal wind, and nothing else.
“Katie? Are you there?”
After a deafening silence that sends me vaulting off the bed and pacing around the room in panicked circles, I hear a faint voice drift back through a crackling connection. “A pinecone just fell on my head.”
Something they never prepare you for in gymnastics.
“Are you okay?”
“I think so, but .?.?. damn .?.?. yeah, go ahead.”
“Okay, now, how do they look?”
“Um, well, they’re tiny, green, and super-cute.”
“I mean, do they look alarmed, like they’re about to fly away?”
“They look a little nervous” — she pauses reflectively — “but no, they’re just kind of staring at me with big eyes.”
“Good. Then cup your hand over them and make your way back, slowly. And if I were you, I’d ditch the clippers.”
“Got it.” She breathes heavily as I hear the sound of bark scraping under sneakers and try not to imagine the lead story on the evening news.
Finally, after the longest thirty seconds of both our lives, she exhales. “Okay, I’m back, we’re back to the ladder so .?.?. can I, let me call you back when I .?.?.”
“Good idea. Put the nest in a box on some crumpled Kleenex when you get in the house and call me.”
“You got it.”
“Oh, and Katie. One more thing.” I sigh, rubbing my eyes. “Just for the record, I never told you to do this.”