ARBORIST by Lanny Durbin

Guy was just standing there in my backyard. He was hacking at the Sweet Gumball Tree that reached up through powerlines and my touched my neighbor’s roof with its old, outstretched arms. Chopping at it with an axe. I’d been watching him for fifteen minutes from my kitchen window. He’d barely gotten through the stiff bark. The spiky little gumballs that grew from the tree’s veins were raining down on him. He just kept chopping, chopping, chopping.

This was bullshit. I’d called off work again, spent the morning willing myself from the bed. I’d driven across town to the used video game store and bought a Sega Genesis. I was depressed and I was going to try to numb it by sinking into some old soft memory for the day, because that’s what you do sometimes when you’re depressed, you line up every futile gesture you can think of. I was going to play Zombies Ate My Neighbors until things cleared up or until my boyfriend came home and shamed me, whichever came first.

I watched him chop away. He looked so angry yet so determined. I decided I should find out why he was trying and so far failing to kill my tree.

“Why are you chopping at this tree?” I asked as I approached.

“S’posed to do it,” he said.

“Yeah, okay, but I know.”

It seemed that the man couldn’t be reasoned with.

“Who sent you?” I asked. I didn’t see a work truck around or any orange flags or a company logo on his grey T-shirt. He didn’t have the build of a city worker, that burly, greasy look. He was skinny and soft like me. “Do you have some ID or something?”

“No ID,” he said. “Listen, buddy, I work for the city. Tree removal.”

“But this tree doesn’t need removed.”

“Says who.”

“Me. It’s my tree.”

The man stopped hacking then. He considered me and considered the tree again. “Is it really anyone’s tree?”

“Mine. My house, my yard, my tree.”

“But think about it. You didn’t plant this tree. Way too old, look at it. Can you own something that’s already there? It’s just there?”

 “What is happening right now?”

He wiped the sweat from his forehead and swung the axe at the tree again. I went back inside. I poured a glass of water and drank it over the sink. I stared at the brown tile behind the sink, wondered what the hell just happened out there. He had me stumped, no pun intended. I wondered if I was getting pranked. I sat down on the couch and tried to focus on the video game again. Still, the chopping continued over the digital bleeps. I poured another glass of water and went back into the yard.

“What about this,” I said to the guy’s back. “If the tree’s not mine then it’s not yours either. By your own logic this tree belongs to no man, so what gives you the right?”

He stopped and leaned against the axe while he reflected on my inquest. Finally he said, “Well, got me there.”

“I suppose,” I said. I handed him the glass of water. “Hot as hell out here.”

He smiled and drank up.

“Can I assume that you’ll stop chopping my tree down now?”

“I’ve already gotten through the bark though,” he said. “Would seem cruel to stop now. Listen, I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

“You’re telling me.”

“I thought this would do the trick,” he said, almost as he if he was just thinking out loud. “See, I don’t work for the city. It’s just, well, things aren’t going so good for me. I don’t know anymore. I wanted to be an arborist when I was a boy but now I’m too old to follow that dream, huh?”

“I don’t think arborists just chop trees for no reason,” I said. “They study them?”

“Study, chop down, what’s the difference.”

He looked like he could cry. I walked away and went into my garage. It was packed full of shit my boyfriend James and I had bought and never used. We’d come to the realization that there wasn’t anything left that we liked in one another, so we started buying shit. To fill the space, I don’t know, but now I understood this man in my back yard chopping my tree. In my garage there was a brand new axe we’d bought for some reason. I had to peel the plastic sticker off the handle.

“Know what,” I said to the guy when I returned. “I hate this tree.”

We started hacking at it together, one on either side. Maybe if we’d been better prepared we would have gotten one of those long, two-manned saws. We chopped together, the spiky gumballs raining down hard. Bugs crawl away, squirrels took the hint and hopped to another tree, birds wondered what the hell. The guts of the tree really started to show, pale and splintered. My arms were killing me already.

Still, it felt good. Something was loose inside again.

James came home from work and flipped. The guy and I shook hands and he walk on, axe over his shoulder. I think of him now when I see an arborist on the landscaping TV show and wonder if he’s okay. I think of him when I don’t want to see James anymore. I think of him when I wonder what’s wrong with me. I think of him, and I wait for him to come back so we can finish chopping down this fucking gumball tree.

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LIBERTY KID by Lanny Durbin

I saw the kid's face when he got hit by the car. He was standing there on the sidewalk with a blank look and then the car jumped the curb. Just nailed him. The blank look stayed on his face when he flew through air, stared right at me. Like he meant to do it. A party trick.

He was wearing a statue of liberty costume, which, for a short moment, made the visual a little funny. He stood out in front of the Liberty Tax building a few nights a week, one of those preying fast tax return spots in the same lot as the grocery store I work in. He stole a pack of smokes out of my car one night I'm pretty sure, but he was just a kid, seventeen at max. I wished it was the regular guy standing there that day, the day shift statue. That guy danced and waved at the passing cars like he really cared. Either he would have seen the car coming and been vigilant enough to dodge it or he would've been the one to get creamed. Both seemed like better outcomes. The kid was just there for a couple extra bucks—he wore the foam green hat and matching frock with no pride and stared at his cell phone. Lady Liberty's lost disappointment of a son. The hat caught the wind and drifted away when he careened over the hood of the Nissan. It looked like he was doing a killer move on an invisible skateboard.

The EMTs showed up, cops showed up, blinking lights and stoic professionalism. They set out orange cones, scraped the kid up off the asphalt. I watched them work quickly. I stocked shelves most of the day. I opened the store and counted the till. I dealt with the customers, took the trash out, locked up the store at 9 PM. I watched the EMTs take the kid away and thought that I could probably do that. A little training and I’d be alright, but then someone would need to be here to receive the produce delivery, so I’ll leave the rescue work to guys with nothing else to do.

The officer was terse when taking my statement, like, this dipshit in his work uniform better give me a straight answer. I thought, hey man, we both wear uniforms. Yours is dark blue, mine's orange and white creamsicle. We both have our names on our shirt pockets, but hey, mine's only safety pinned—they stitched yours right into the fabric. Officer Ottman. You’re locked into the force, like a blood oath. I could take my name tag off right now and disappear to a new life. I can stock shelves anywhere. A valuable skill set.

Maybe I don't know how to hold a pistol or book a perp at the station but I do know when the frozen goods delivery is coming, what'll be on it, where to stock it. You don't have to deal with Ms. Henderson when I tell her the Amy's Chile Relleno meal was out of stock, she'll have to wait until Friday. Your stern bullying wouldn't work on her—she requires a more delicate approach. I'd like to see you be the shift supervisor in this goddamn place. I'd love to see it.

They towed the woman’s Nissan away while she gave her statement. She was crying, inconsolable. Was on her cell phone and bam, jumped the curb. She probably killed a teenager but she did get to read that Facebook notification. I recognized her from the store. She came in to buy slivered almonds, which reminded me that the bulk order was due in by noon and all this police business was holding me up.

The next morning, the regular Statue of Liberty guy was out on the curb, inches from where the kid was nailed. The guy danced and waved like a real dipshit. I went out and asked him if he’d heard about the kid.

“Yeah,” he said. “Heard he broke his legs and ruptured his spleen or something.”

“So he’ll live, huh?”

“Sounds like it.”

“Can’t you live about the same without your spleen?” I asked. “I think I read somewhere your liver just takes over for it.”

“Heck if I know,” dancing statue said with a big dopey grin. “Hey, I’ve got to cover his shifts until he gets back, so hopefully one can live without a spleen. I should get back to work now.”

I walked back inside to the office in the backroom and googled spleens. I thought about the kid without a spleen. I read that you sure can live just about the same without one; you could just become more susceptible to infection. I thought, hey, that’s not so bad, considering. Plus, working in the vitamin section here at the store, I’ve picked up a few things about nutrition. The kid would want to cut back on dairy fats, for starters. I decided that, if I saw him again, I’d offer the kid a job on the spot, here at the grocery store. Your life was rarely on the line in here, Nissans rarely careened into you in here.

I knew that Officer Ottman wasn’t going to help the kid get back on his feet. Offer the kid a badge? Yeah right. He didn’t really know anything about protecting and serving his community. I’d love to see Officer Ottman try to run this store. I’d love it.

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