Rain mixed with snow fell from the night sky over Gig Harbor, Washington. A log cracked in the fireplace sending sparks up the chimney. Two orange cats snoozed on the corner of the sofa next to large red and green tubs. Brothers, Caleb and Richard Cranium carried the spruce into the living room.
“I’ve got the tree stand ready,” I said moving out of the way.
Richard guided the trunk into the stand. I pulled out a yard stick and a ball of twine. Caleb straightened the tree in the stand. Richard turned the screws into the trunk.
“Okay let go.” Crawling out from under the tree he asked, “how does it look?”
Caleb stepped back, “does it look straight?”
Richard stood up, “not quite. Let me get my level.”
Holding the level up to the tree, Richard said, “we’re almost there. Fannie, my love, would you crawl under the tree and adjust the screws while we get this straightened out?”
Laughing I asked, “how many Craniums does it take to straighten a Christmas tree?”
They both stared at me. Rolling my eyes I crawled under the tree.
After twenty-two minutes of micro adjustments, the tree demonstrated a straightness it never knew in life.
Richard took a hammer and some nails from his pocket.
“Are you crazy, what do you think you’re doing?” Caleb asked.
“We have cats,” Richard said as he nailed the tree stand to the floor, “and I want a tree.”
“Richard would you help me with the string?” I asked holding out the ball of twine when he finished.
“What’s the string for?” Caleb asked.
Looking at the two balls of fur dozing on the sofa I said, “they think the Christmas Tree is their personal toy buffet. I use the string to mark the height above which Wicket cannot reach so we don’t loose any of the good ornaments.”
Holding the yard stick up to the tree Richard tied the string to the branch above it. We circled the tree. I snipped the string. Richard tied it to the first branch.
“That’s thirty-six inches, that little cat can reach that far?” Caleb asked looking from the cats to the tree.
“He usually can’t get above 30 inches unassisted,” I said.
“Unless he decides to climb the trunk, then all bets are off,” Richard said.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Caleb said looking from Richard to me.
We both shook our heads.
“Caleb, before we were married, I used a table top ceramic tree, so they had no experience with real trees.”
“But the first year we put up a tree,” Richard shook his head laughing, “my train set bought the farm among other things.”
The dark green Ford Explorer pulled into the driveway of the apartment in West Seattle. An oversized fir tree held on to the roof at an odd angle by yellow twine. Richard climbed out of the driver’s side and I jumped out of the passenger side.
“I didn’t think it was going to stay up there after the last curve,” I said holding the tree steam rising with every word. “I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold on.”
Richard cut the twine. “I know. How’re your hands?” he asked.
“The hands are fine, the gloves are ruined. But we saved the tree,” I said grinning.
“Help me get this up the stairs,” Richard said grabbing the trunk.
Grabbing the top of the tree, I trotted as fast as my short legs could go. Richard hauled me and the tree up two flights of stairs. We stopped at the end of our hallway. I stood panting as Richard set the tree down.
“What’s the matter?” I asked catching my breath and wiping the sweat off my face.
“I hadn’t counted on that,” Richard said.
“Counted on what?” I asked.
“That,” Richard said pointing.
I climbed over the top of the tree. Richard filled the hallway and the tree branches flanked him on either side like out stretched wings.
Tiffany, our next door neighbor, opened the door of her apartment, which stood opposite our door at the end of the narrow hall covered in a white quartz chip and cement facade. Sandy, her harlequin Great Dane, barreled down the hall ahead of her stopping at Richard and the tree.
“Sandy,” Richard said lowering his voice to a deep bass, hugging the dog.
Sandy barked once wagging her tail at maximum warp. Tiffany reeling in the leash said, “whoa, that’s one big tree, good luck getting that down the hallway.”
“Where there’s a will there’s a way,” Richard said smiling moving the trunk out of the way so they could leave for their walk.
As Tiffany and Sandy walked down the stairs, Richard looked from the tree to the hallway and our front door.
“Fannie, wait here for just a moment, I have an idea,” Richard said walking down the hall into our apartment.
I could hear the sound of furniture moving, hands clapping together and Richard’s voice saying, “that should just about do it.” Followed by an “oh no you don’t,” a couple of meows and the bedroom door closing.
Richard reappeared in the hallway smiling.
“So what’s the plan?” I asked.
“You’re gonna join me at the trunk. We’re gonna pull the tree butt first down the hall and into the apartment. I moved the furniture out of the way so we’ll have to angle it maybe twenty degrees to get it through the door.”
Adjusting what was left of my gloves, I grabbed one of the large branches near the base of the tree. Richard reached his arms around me. He grabbed the branch I held and one of the opposite side.
“Okay, we’re gonna treat this like we’re marching, I’ll count to three and we’ll lift, pull and step together starting with our left feet. Ready?”
“One, two, three, lift. Left. . . right. . . left. . . right,” he said as we progressed down the hall.
The branches folded back toward the trunk. About halfway down the hall the tree wedged into place. We leaned back as far as we could, suspended in the hallway.
“This isn’t working,” I said letting go of the tree.
Richard scratched his head for a moment.
“I have an idea, but you aren’t gonna like it,” he said. “I want you to crawl under the tree, lie on your back and push with your feet while I pull on the trunk and see if we can get it loose.”
Crossing my arms I raised one eyebrow.
“Or there’s Plan B. I’ll grab some of the climbing rope from the closet and we’ll create a pulley system,” Richard said.
“I think that’s a much better idea.”
Ten minutes later, Richard tied the rope on to the trunk. Ropes ran through the apartment to the sliding glass door and around the metal railing of the balcony and one back out to Tiffany’s front door.
“Stand back,” Richard said cranking his ascender. “This isn’t exactly what it’s designed for.”
The ropes pulled taunt. We held our breath for a moment. Richard cranked again. The tree moaned. He cranked again. It inched forward down the hall. We could hear a couple of rock chips hit the floor of the hallway. Two feet from the door the hallway widened and the tree fell to the floor.
Richard and I pulled the tree the rest of the way into the apartment.
“Quick, we maybe have ten minutes before Tiffany gets back, let’s see if we can get the hallway cleaned up,” Richard said handing me the broom and dust pan from the closet. “I’ll get the ropes.”
Eight minutes and a small bit of Elmer’s Glue All later all traces of the tree’s passage were gone. As I closed the door to our apartment, we could hear Tiffany and Sandy walking up the stairs. Sandy sniffing every inch of the hallway.
Richard and I leaned against the door stifling laughter as we heard Tiffany say, “Wow, I guess they got it in all right, huh Sandy.”
After a moment of silence, two orange and white paws slid under the bedroom door rattling it.
“I guess we should let them out,” I said opening the door.
Wicket and Sadie walked out of the bedroom sniffing the air. Wicket spotted the tree. He turned sideways, arched his back and hissed.
Richard ran into the bedroom for the camera.
Sadie crawled on her belly toward the tree. Extending one foot, she touched a branch with her paw. Moving forward she sniffed the trunk. Wicket approached behind her.
Richard returned to the living room. Sadie on one side of the trunk and Wicket on the other sniffing the lower branches.
“It’s getting late, we need to get the tree up and decorated before dinner,” I said.
The cats sat on the sofa, tails twitching as they watched us decorate the tree.
“I have one final touch,” Richard said pulling a box out of the closet.
“It’s the train set my parents gave me for Christmas when I was twelve,” he said patting the box. “I haven’t had it out in years. It’s going around the Christmas tree.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea with the cats?” I asked.
“It’ll be fine.”
Richard laid the track out around the Christmas tree. He removed the wrapping from each section of the train and assembled the engine on the track. Plugging the controls into the wall outlet he turned on the train.
“Well here goes,” he said smiling.
The train whistle sounded. Both cats leaped from the sofa and ran for the bedroom. Richard pushed a lever and the train moved forward. After it circled the tree once, he sent the train in reverse.
Wicket crawled out of the bedroom. Hugging the wall he circled the outside of the living room behind the sofa and television. He made his way into the dining room. He sat under a chair watching the train move around the tree.
“It seems to be sticking on one side of the track,” Richard said stopping the train.
A section of the track separated. Richard unrolled synthetic snow and used it to prop the track up into alignment. He started the train again. Running it forwards and backwards over the same section of track.
“No,” Richard yelled.
“Richard, I told you this was a bad idea,” I said stifling a laugh.
“He’s your cat,” Richard said stiffening, “what’re you gonna do about it?”
“I’ll put him in time out.”
Softening he asked, “you can do that?”
“Just watch me,” I said scooping the cat up. I pulled a chair away from the dining room table, put Wicket in the seat and said, “Stay.” I set the timer to five minutes and put it on the table in front of him.
Richard’s jaw dropped. The cat sat in the chair head hanging. When the timer sounded, Wicket hopped off the chair and disappeared into the bedroom.
“How did you do that?” he asked.
“You have to start them when they’re very young,” I said smiling, “his first time out came when he broke my mirror using it as a spring board off the wall to race down the hall.”
Caleb laughed. “So did he ever bother your train again?”
“No,” Richard said shaking his head, “he left the train alone. Instead he focused on the ornaments.”
“Yeah, we would be sitting in the living room watching television and Wicket would sit up like a prairie dog watching for predators in front of the tree,” I said laughing, “he would choose an ornament, stand on his hind legs, lean forward, grab it in his mouth and extricate it from the tree. He would turn to us with such a look satisfaction on his face, tail held high, and then strut out of the room to put the toy away where ever he thought it belonged. We found them stashed in some of the craziest places.”
“Speaking of ornaments,” Caleb said, “I got a little something for you and Richard, hang on a minute.”
Caleb returned a few moments later and handed me a box wrapped in red foil paper.
“Go ahead, open it.”
Inside the box a gold angel blowing on a trumpet suspended on a gold thread.
“Wow, Caleb, this is beautiful. Thank you,” I said hanging it on the tree above the string.
The next morning we found the L.L.E.U. (Leg Lamp Equivalent Unit) on the floor of the dining room and Caleb’s angel leaning against the spot light on the window sill.