Under The Spreading Chestnut Tree

by Willard Manus

Harvey stared at her, wondering if she were the one. She stared back, thinking likewise.

They were in a park, near a statue of Edgar Allen Poe. There were trees and shrubs, a few benches. It was a splendid day in spring, an ideal day for lovers.

But Harvey and Lena were not lovers, not yet anyway. They were two stocky, middle-aged people who hadn’t even met yet. But that was about to change.

“Is it possible?” Harvey asked as they exchanged a few words. “Hot Dates.com?”

“Exactly,” she blurted. “Harvey, right?”

“And you must be Lena.”

“The one and only!”

Harvey stared at her. “But your profile: ‘Slim, beautiful, ex-Victoria Secrets model.’”

“That was last year,” she said, with a roguish smile. “But what about you? ‘Rich, dashing playboy living in 12-room mansion on grounds of a polo club.’”

His turn to confess. “That was last year.”

When they plopped down on one of the benches, Harvey said, “Tell me about yourself. What do you do for a living?”

“What’s it matter?”

“Hey–-I’m just trying to break the ice.”

Lena twisted two strands of her long, shiny black hair into a plait. Then came her answer.

“Before I got laid off, I was a bouncer in a lesbian bar.”

“Get outta here!”

“You asked. I responded.”

“Tell me something. If you’re gay, why’d you list yourself on a hetero dating site?”

“I’m not gay...just different.”

“In what way?”

“That’s for you to find out.”

He turned away, staring at the bird sitting on Edgar Allan Poe’s head. It had shiny black feathers and a sharp beak. A raven! How appropriate!

Then he glanced at Lena. “Have you ever gone on a virtual date before?”

“Never. You?”

“Nah. It’s kind of nerve-wracking, isn’t it?”

“Tell me about it.”

She had a deep, soft voice. He liked the sound of it.

“Before we go any further,” she suddenly said, “answer me this. You’re not married, are you?”

“If I were, why would I be looking for a date?”

“Most men like to play.”

“Not me. I was faithful for all ten years of my marriage.”

“Why’d you and your wife split?”

“We realized a third character had come to live with us: murder.”

She gave a laugh. Then: “Kids?”

“Fortunately, no.”

“Next important question. Do you take drugs?”

“I got hooked on Demerol once, when I was taking it for pain relief. I finally managed to kick the habit.”

“I’m glad to hear that. It shows you’ve got willpower and resolve.”

“What about you? I’ll bet lots of coke gets passed around in that gay bar of yours.”

“True. But I try to avoid cocaine. It reacts badly with the legal pills I’m taking for a bunch of pre-existing medical conditions.”

He asked if she had ever been married.

“Haven’t even come close,” was her answer.

“Why is that?”

“I seem to repel most men I meet.”

He fell silent. “Is that a turn-off for you?” she asked. “Would you like to end things right now?”

“Nah. I’m okay. Let’s keep going.”

They sat quietly after that, soaking up the warm sunlight, staring at the cluster of ravens on Edgar Allan Poe’s shoulders. Then she suddenly asked, “What do you do for a living?”


She studied him. “You work with your hands. Correct?”

“In a way, yes.”

“Are you a longshoreman?”

He chuckled. “What an unusual guess. But no cigar.”

“What then?”

“I’m a coach.”

“What kind of coach?”

“You’re going to laugh.”

“Try me.”

“Okay. High-school wrestling.”

She eyed him narrowly. “A real jock, eh?”

“Does that annoy you?”

“Why should it?”

“Most women hate jocks.”

“I’m not like other women,” Lena said, adding, “I actually like wrestling.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Not only that, I’ve wrestled myself.”

“Yeah, sure. And I’m the king of Monaco.”

“I’m telling you the truth.”

“The truth? ‘Slim, beautiful, ex-Victoria Secrets model.’”

“That was last year, remember?”

“Come on, you lied on your personal profile–-“

”–-so did you–-“

”–and now you’re telling another lie--”

“Not true. I did wrestle...” Lena broke off and eyed him, before adding, “...only not as a woman.”

“I don’t understand.”

Lena reached up and yanked off her wig, revealing a man’s short-cropped hair.

Harvey stared at her, dumbfounded. “Just what the fuck is going on here?”

“I know I’ve shocked you,” Lena said. “I hope you can handle it.”

“Handle your being a man?”

“A special kind of man, one who likes to dress up as a woman.”

“Why? So you can trick guys into bed?”

“It has nothing to do with sex. I just like to put on makeup and wear beautiful, slinky clothes.”

“Why’d you single me out?”

“It was the wrestling connection that drew me.”

Harvey shook his head. “My brain is spinning. I’m finding it hard to process all this.”

Lena hesitated, then made an announcement. “I wanted to meet the only man who ever defeated me in the wrestling ring.”

He recoiled. “Just what in hell are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the state championship bout at Chestnut Tree Junior College.”

“Chestnut Tree! You know it?”

“All too well.”

“Describe it to me.”

“It’s in this grimy industrial building, right at the edge of some railroad tracks. Freight trains rumble by on the hour.”

“That’s it, all right! That’s my alma mater!” Harvey cried out.. Then he peered at her. “Did we really face off against each other?”

She nodded. “I went by the name of Lewis Hargraves at the time.”

“What was your weight?”

“167 pounds. But that of course was last year.”

“You were in my weight class, all right.”

“That’s exactly what I’m trying to tell you! We fought each other for the junior-college state championship.”

He sat back down and did some thinking, only to confess, “I don’t remember much about it. It was a helluva long time ago.”

“I remember everything about the match. I was supposed to win it, you see. I was the better wrestler. I was undefeated on the year. I should have whipped your ass!”

“Shoulda, woulda, coulda.”

“I had such a masterful plan. I was going to attack you with a back-step and get penetration on you, followed by a head-lock–-“

”Hey, now I remember the match!” Harvey said. “Yeah, it’s all coming back! First I tested you with a far-side cradle, then caught you by surprise with an outside standup! I pinned you to the mat like a dead butterfly--!”

“You were lucky,” Lena shouted, her voice full of fury. “I made a dumb mistake. It cost me the medal!”

“No argument there.”

“You didn’t deserve to win! I was the better wrestler,” she insisted. “You had no business even fighting me!”

“Is that why you tracked me down? To make me feel small and guilty?”

“Not really.”

“What then?”

“I had to get rid of the resentment I’ve been carrying around all these years. It’s been eating at me, poisoning me! I had to do something about it!”

“Why’d you wait so long to confront me?”

“The guy I wrestled for the championship was named Herman Goetz. But you changed your name, didn’t you?”

“That’s right. I became Harvey Grant.”

“You look different as well. I wasn’t even sure I had the right person when I spotted your photo on Hot Dates.com”

“We wrestled each other thirty years ago. So much has changed since then–-“

”Not my need for revenge, though. It’s still as strong as ever.” Lena eyed him. “You and I are going to fight mano a mano again!”

“What? Are you nuts?”

“Oh no, I know exactly what I’m doing. I’m going to punish you! I’m going to make you beg for mercy!”

“Dressed in that wig and skirt?”

“You bet! I’m going to humiliate you!”

“In your dreams, bitch!”

“What did you call me?”

“A bitch, a crazy bitch!”

Lena reacted by springing into a wrestling stance.

“Come on, let’s get it on!”

Harvey hesitated, then took up a stance of his own. They faced off and began to wrestle.

They grabbed, twisted and flailed, grunting and groaning all the while. The contest was over quickly;

Harvey gave a cry of pain, let go of Lena, and sank to his knees.

“What’s wrong?” Lena growled.

“It’s my hip,” Harvey said. “I had it replaced last year. I think I just threw it out.”

Lena backed off and suddenly clutched at her left knee. “Agggh, agggh!” she cried, pointing. “It’s nothing but bone on bone in there.”

He got to his feet and tried to walk. “They also removed my prostate.”

She nodded and said, “I recently said farewell to my spleen.”

He sobbed, “I’m also suffering from a deviated septum.”

“What a coincidence!” she wailed. “Same here!”

He plopped down on the bench, put his hands on his knees and wheezed noisily for breath.

Lena sat down beside him and moaned, “Listen to us. We sound like a couple of old pack horses!”

“Ready to be put out of our misery!”

There was a long silence now as they recuperated. Then he looked over at her and said, “My apologies for calling you names. You really are quite a remarkable woman.”

“So glad you feel that way.”

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not interested in having sex with you, but I wouldn’t mind spending time with you. You know, just to see what makes you tick.”

“The feeling is mutual.”

Harvey smiled and asked, “Would you like to get together tonight?”

“On a regular date?

“An irregular one, is more like it.”

That drew a laugh out of her. Then, “Where should we meet?”

“How about at Chestnut Tree Junior College?”

“You’re kidding!”

“There’s a wrestling match every Friday night, followed by a dance. How’s that sound to you?”

“I can see us watching a wrestling match together. But dancing–-?”

“What’s the problem?”

“I’ll be dancing with a guy I once wrestled in college.”

“So what? I’ll be dressed as a woman.”

“So you will.”

“Well, then what’s the problem?” she asked.

Harvey thought about it for a while, then shrugged and said, “It’s a brave new world, isn’t it?”

“Indeed.” She turned and began to collect her things. “I’ll see you later then.”

He raised a hand. “Hold on. There’s one thing you must do before you go.”

“What’s that?”

“You need to learn the school fight song.”


“Everyone sings it at the end of the evening.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Not to worry, it’s not difficult.”

Harvey put his head back and began to sing:

“We rock, we roll, we crunch our foes.

We are the victors, we are the champs.

We win all the trophies, we light all the lamps!”

Lena joined in soon after that.

“Three cheers for Chestnut Tree, Hooh-hah-hah!

Chestnut Tree, Chestnut Tree, sis-boom-bah!”

They stopped singing and began to laugh, so loudly and giddily that they frightened the ravens and sent them soaring into the sky.