Out on a limb

Behind our apartment building is an alley. In the alley is a four-story tree. And in the top of the tree, twisted among the outer branches, is a pair of bright yellow rain-pants.

I say that with a certain authority. In fact, it took us rather a while to define the situation. Partly out of sheer neglect: only after we'd spent a few days in our new place did we begin to wonder what that patch of rubber-slick fabric blowing in the breezes was all about. But partly, too, I suppose, because of the inexorable inertia of expectations. Trousers, after all, don't belong in trees. And even to minds trained up on surrealism, Salvador Dali, and Star Wars, the appearance of actual rain-pants in a real treetop is, at the very least, an alien and puzzling sight.

Even as I write, however, there they are: an exceptionally large pair of trousers, looking for all the world like something torn off a Winslow Homer seafarer in mid-squall. Nor are they simply draped idly over a limb, waiting for freedom on the next wind. No, the waist is hopelessly coiled around one branch, while an overall-strap, stretched out tight and straight, has knotted itself firmly around another. We've already had the winds of March and the rains of April, and the pants show not the slightest interest in leaving. They simply hang there outside our window, a central focus in what would otherwise be a pleasant vista of leaves, sky, and quaint city row houses.

Now, the problem of pants in a treetop is largely one of provenance: where, after all, did they come from, and how did they get there? A friend, no doubt trying to console us in our visual pollution, brushed it all aside as a mere commonplace. She claims to have a pair of scissors high up in her tree. Kind though her motive was, I had to explain to her that, compared with these prominent and voluminous drawers, scissors are tiny things indeed. Besides, she could account satisfactorily for their presence: they had been used, she suspects, as ballast on a kite that later came to grief in her upper boughs. Nor did we draw any insight from the dead tulips that suddenly showed up one day in the tree outside our other window, hanging forlornly three stories above the terrace. Someone above us, no doubt, had chucked them out the window - a reprehensible but ultimately harmless act, and one rapidly righted by the next storm.

But the pants? How they got there remains a mystery. Oh, we've had our hypotheses, to be sure - guerrilla parachutists intent on stealing secrets from suburban-Boston computermakers but missing their targets by a few miles, or firemen climbing after stuck cats on rainy nights and having their pants clawed off. In the end, I suspect it was far simpler: a windy evening during the construction of our ten-story building, when some unsuspecting workman hung his rain gear over a sawhorse on the roof and went home. Mundane, to be sure, but more probable.

Once we had settled into that comfortable explanation, in fact, the pants became more tolerable. Their presence, after all, was mere happenstance - neither dark enigma nor nagging symbol. Besides, the leaves of May would no doubt swallow them up and erase them from our roofscape. Or so we thought. But the more we watched May, the more alarmed we became. For, with the same resolute malice with which slicker-rubber always resists its wearer, those pants had positioned themselves strategically in the one place where the leaves evidently would not hide them from our view. From other nearby windows they would be unseen. To us, it seemed, they fully intended to remain on display all summer.

That very perversity, of course, committed us even more deeply to their removal. Being city-dwellers accustomed to civic-action groups, our first thought was to seek assistance from our neighbors. But the pants, lodging where they did, had foreclosed that opportunity. Nobody could see them but us. And, as our building was only now filling up, a lot of its residents had arrived since the leaves. We could imagine our neighbors' responses to our pleas for concerted action. ''Pants? Yellow slicker-pants? In a tree? Whaderyew, cray-zie?'' they would probably whisper in disbelief at us past the safety-chains on their doors. ''All I can see out my window is a beautiful tree.''

So I contemplated going round the corner to see the man in whose backyard grew the offending tree. But the more I thought about it, the less fruitful it seemed. ''Lemme get this straight,'' I could hear him say. ''You want me to climb sixty-five feet up that tree with a saw and cut off a limb. Whaderyew, bonkers?'' No, I would have to say, two limbs, explaining the peculiar nature of the entanglement and trying to make out his mutterings as the door slammed shut.

''We could always hire a sharpshooter,'' said my wife.

''Oh, I don't think the neighbors are that bad,'' I replied.

''No, stupid, for the pants, not the neighbors - somebody to shoot through the limbs like they do in westerns.''

I imagined the reaction to a rattle of rifle-fire from our third-story window. ''Maybe arrows would be quieter,'' I proposed. ''You know, sharp-tipped ones that could cut through the material?''

I thought it sounded good, until she pointed out that a rain of arrows falling two blocks away in Sparrow Park might not be welcomed by local residents.

We even contemplated what we might do if money were no object: rent-a-crane services, perhaps, or helicopters, or even buying up the fellow's house, tree and all, and razing the whole thing.

And then, all of a sudden, the answer dawned on me, so purely and simply that I nearly gasped. Obviously I couldn't change those pants. So I would have to change my view of them. And the more I looked at them, the more they seemed to take on a different appearance. From being mere junk, they came at last to look like soft sculpture. Moving and shifting with the winds, yet firmly fixed in their essential angles and hues - perhaps they were, after all, a great symbol for mankind's dizzying restlessness and resilient strength.

And with that, yet another possibility occurred to me. Perhaps those pants were the work of an anonymous artist. Perhaps, like Christo and his plastic-wrapped islands in Biscayne Bay, he had brooded for months about how to get just that piece of fabric into just that position. And I found myself flooded with compassion for him. I knew just what it would be like as he approached my back-street neighbor.

''Lemme get this straight,'' he would have said, ''you want to climb sixty-five feet up my tree and hang out a pair of rain-pants? Whaderyew, nuts?''

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