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 mean…you 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.”
“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.