My mom said we lived in the kill zone.
Our small, 1940s-style house sat on a bluff overlooking the port of Anchorage. What she meant by that is if one of the many massive white fuel tanks in the port blew, our house would vaporize instantly.
‘Better to die instantly than be maimed with a flying hunk of shrapnel,’ she would say. This worried me to no end, but really, the tanks were nothing to fear. Of all the things, they proved to be the most stable.
Trees grew along the bluff, blocking our view of the Knik Inlet, Sleeping Lady, and the Alaska Range. On clear days, we could see Denali and Mt. Redoubt, the volcano. There was a large spruce tree, but we let it stay. My dad loved spruce trees. The cottonwoods, however, were another story. Both my parents despised them. They grew like weeds, dropping sticky, sappy buds in the spring that stained everything an unpleasant shade of yellow. In the summer, they released clouds of fluffy seed pods that coated the ground like snow.
Over the years, my dad trimmed the cottonwoods as much as he could. Once, he got a climbing rope and crawled up the trunk of a mature cottonwood to saw off its limbs. Every branch he sent crashing into the undergrowth revealed the inlet's white mountains and gray waters.
The large picture windows in our living room were perfect for admiring the view. When my brother was born, I moved downstairs into the finished basement and got the view. My dad had converted the creepy old stairwell, leftover from our house’s day as military lodging, into a loft. At twelve feet high, my window sat just above ground level. The brilliant summer sunsets filtered in and lit up the cave that was my room, transforming it into a glowing cocoon.
I’d been downstairs for three years when everything changed.
Six months prior, my mom had started sleeping on a mattress outside my bedroom door. She said the new mattress in my parent’s room hurt her back. But I knew better than that. The walls in our house were thick but not dense enough to mask the fighting tones at night.
We weren’t here when she moved out, my dad and I. We had gone to Washington to see family and have an early summer vacation. My eighth-grade year had ended the week before. While we were gone, my mom moved all her stuff out into her new house downtown. She wasn’t far. We could see the modest collection of tall buildings from our neighborhood. It was just across the bridge that went over the train depot and Ship Creek, where she used to take me in the summers to watch fishermen pull three-foot-long sockeyes and Chinooks from the river.
Still, downtown had never seemed further away.
I didn’t think much about what was going on while we were gone. I also wasn’t upset. I’d known divorce was inevitable for years and was glad they were finally going through with it.
The house was too small for all that tension.
But then we came back, and her car wasn’t in the driveway. We paused involuntarily when my dad unlocked the front door. The emptiness was overbearing. Our footsteps echoed. All the knick-knacks and décor were gone. Until that moment, I never realized the items I grew up seeing every day belonged to a person and were not a part of the house. Without them, it was hard to tell who lived there anymore.
My brother’s room still had some of his things, but only the essentials. Mine remained untouched. I don’t know about my parents’ room because the first thing my dad did was go in it and shut the door. He didn’t come out, at least not in any significant sort of way, for three days. He ordered the first of many pizzas to come. Pepperoni and black olive. Always pepperoni and black olive.
His retreat didn’t bother me. What did were those stupid cottonwood trees.
There was a cluster of them growing up a few feet below where our backyard dropped off. They were still young – I could clasp my hands around the trunk – but they were getting awfully tall and had branches shooting off in all directions. Something had to be done. So, I went to the toolshed. On the shelf above the garbage can filled with beer bottles I found a pair of gloves, a handsaw, and some clippers.
Ready to work, I carried my tools to the bluff. I crouched down on some unstable brush that slid me down to the cluster of young trees. Due to the incline, I had to intertwine myself in the branches. One foot here, another there, lean forward, reach, and cut. Eventually, I found a rhythm. It didn’t matter that it was awkward and uncomfortable or that the clippers were dull. It felt good to make progress. The more I cut, the more I saw how many more were shooting up. I found this intolerable and sawed vigorously through their taunt green limbs.
Once I’d collected an armload of cuttings, I’d trudge up the bluff to deposit them in the yard, grabbing at alder branches to help myself along.
I timbered trees all day while my dad was in his room. He was having a tough time, I’m sure, but I was fine. I was proud of the pile of brush I’d accumulated, stacked neatly in the backyard and ready for discarding. The young cottonwood cuttings would need to be thrown away soon. If not, they would seed in the lawn. We usually tossed our lawn trimmings down the bluff, but I couldn’t throw the same trees I’d just cut back. Where was the sense of that? My dad and I would need to put them in his trailer and haul them away to the pit on the southside of town, where the city let construction workers throw away debris. They were building subdivisions, but the earth on that part of town was full of clay. Not great for foundations in a place with so many earthquakes. Debris made the ground more stable, I supposed.
I enjoyed going out there. I liked being to one to unhitch the clasps on the trailer, watch the load tumble down, and feel the satisfaction of a job well done.
Luckily, our house wasn’t going anywhere. ‘They don’t make houses like this anymore,’ my dad would say. With steel reinforcement beams every twelve feet, it was the safest place to be during a quake. The walls didn’t sway, and the floor didn’t roll. Sometimes, I could hardly tell when the geologic forces slipped beneath our feet.
My cat wandered by, poking through the undergrowth, coming home after doing whatever it was that he did for days on end. He gave me a puzzled look.
“We’re going to have the best view in the neighborhood!” I explained, wiping the sweat and dirt out of my eyes.
The port answered me in return with the thud and crash of heavy machinery.
It was loud living on the bluff. The port and train depot made noises all hours of the day and night. Hissing, screeching, and hammering as the ships and trains came and went. Nearby, the air force base sent shockwaves through the sky when the fighter jets practiced overhead. It made the dishes rattle, and you had to pause conversations until they passed. You got used to all the noise after a while, and anywhere else felt too quiet. Too empty. Sometimes, though, the military would set off drill alarms. Those sounds were so alien and apocalyptic they gave me goosebumps every time.
After three days of labor, I was exhausted. My arms and legs were sore from maintaining awkward positions, and my hands blistered. As accomplished as I felt, I didn’t want to admit that while my removal of the young cottonwoods was preventative, it honestly didn’t do much for the view. If anything, the lack of new growth made the mature trees that blocked our view stand out more.
“Good job, kiddo.” My dad said anyway, dark circles under his eyes. This statement instantly brought a huge smile to my face.
“Let’s get those loaded up in the trailer,” he said.
Once the cottonwood remains were securely strapped under the tarp, we drove to the other side of town in silence, passing by my mom’s new place as we went.
When we arrived, I got to unlock the hinges on the trailer door. But as my dad raised the bed over the pit to send the little trees tumbling down, I didn’t feel the pride or satisfaction I anticipated. I felt longing and even some regret. Like I wanted to climb down and gather them in my arms, bring them back home and plant them, water them, care for them.
What a strange and silly thing to feel. I quickly turned around, secured the trailer, and jumped back into the rumbling truck.
My mom’s new house had two bedrooms and a backyard with a fireplace and a mountain ash tree. It was nice, but it was also too quiet and didn’t have steel support beams every twelve feet. It didn’t have my cat, my things, a view, or any memories. What it did have were all the familiar knickknacks and décor, presented in a pleasing way but nonetheless looking confused and out of place.
As I climbed into my new, strange bed that night, I stared up at the popcorn ceiling, briefly illuminated here and there by passing cars. I worried about the cottonwoods. They would be back – I hadn’t even attempted to unroot them, and now this display of laziness twisted around in my stomach. I wished I could go back, cross the bridge that connected the city to our neighborhood, and take care of it. Laying there in bed, unoccupied and helpless, the feelings began to take root, where they would sprout into an unknown species of tree not so easy to remove.