the tree is growing younger
BY VINCENT POTURICA
The tree is growing younger. Its trunk is slimming, its branches are becoming stubby, the spaces between its leaves are growing big enough to throw a baseball between.
But the man and the woman sitting on the park bench don’t notice this devolving wonder. They are—once again—having problems: stupid hopeless problems exist between them like frightened children knife-fighting in the dark. Raised by frightened children who were, in turn, raised by other frightened children, the man and woman inherited their knife-fighting logic honestly: you must hurt them before they can hurt you. They guard their knives and scars like rare jewels that require protection as they sit, holding hands now in a moment of tentative reconciliation. They are not special.
Several squirrels scramble to the diminishing peak of the tree’s uppermost branches to ride them like the swell of a breaking wave. The squirrels chirp joyfully. It’s 2pm. The tree began the day at 200 ft. If it could stand on its tippy toes, the tree wouldn’t reach 70 ft. No, not even 65 ft. now.
The man kisses the woman’s finger that has a little rose tattooed on the knuckle. I love you, he says, I really do. The woman refuses to look at him. Not yet. She’s still angry, but she’s no longer yelling.
The park is mostly deserted aside from a young bum drinking peacefully in the grass. The bum recently quit his job as a fry cook. He’s from a smaller poorer country where most people, like him, are also raised by knife-fighting children. The young bum will sleep in the park until the winter makes the grass blades sharp. Then he’ll find another job or jump off a bridge. He hasn’t decided yet.
The woman has the day off from work. The man is between jobs. The tree is doing a fine job of bending the light between its thinning leaves while it defies time’s forward progress. To save money, the man and woman are eating peanut-butter sandwiches and baby carrots from a plastic grocery bag. The man realizes he has been eating primarily peanut-butter sandwiches and carrots for the past ten years. This is sad and funny to the man. He laughs. The woman thinks he is laughing at her. He tries to explain, but she thinks he is being critical—he is often critical. The man becomes angry. He spits a stream of you-are-so-fucking statements.
The fight continues beneath the tree that is now less than 40 ft. tall. The tree, having no eyes, doesn’t have to watch them.
The sun shines like a familiar miracle, and the fight becomes a third person growing larger between the man and the woman. They give their knives to this third person and close their eyes and let this faceless third party stab them. Their knives complete their wounds. Finally, the third person evaporates from exhaustion, and the man and woman are silent as children sent to their rooms. They stare straight ahead at the tree that is now shorter than a basketball hoop. They do not see it.
The young bum wakes up from a boozy dream and asks them for a cigarette. The man is trying to quit smoking. The woman is trying to quit smoking. They both hand the young bum a cigarette. He thanks them with a nod because he doesn’t speak their language. They nod back at him and feel a little better. They fight less when other people are around. The young bum makes a motion with his hand against his ear like he’s talking on a phone—he wants to call his young son who already pretends he doesn’t exist.
The squirrels leap from the tree because the branches are now too short to hang from.
The man hands the young bum his cell phone, and, though he tries very hard to remember the number of the aunt—or is it his grandmother?—who cares for his young son, the young bum cannot remember the number. So he calls his friend who was born in the same country and whom he recently met at the local detox to see if he can sleep on this friend’s kitchen floor. He likes the dreams he has when he is lucky enough to sleep on floors. The young bum vomits after he leaves this friend a message.
The woman puts the remains of her peanut-butter sandwich in the grocery bag. She can’t eat anymore. The man strokes her hair. He does this when he especially hates himself.
The young bum thanks the man with a nod and returns the phone.
The tree is less than a sapling now. The young bum points as the hole left over from the tree’s once massive stump slurps the skinny plant down like a string of spaghetti. The young bum gestures wildly and says Where did the tree go? in his language. But the man and woman think he is a crazy drunk kid who has probably had a rough life, so they give him the rest of their carrots and peanut-butter sandwiches.
The young bum gives up and walks to the hole. It is closing. The young bum looks down into it and cannot see the bottom. He crosses himself and jumps into the darkness. Soon the ground is sealed.
The man and woman are fighting again. They close their eyes, and the third person, once again, grows a knife in each hand.
The squirrels paw at the ground where the tree disappeared. The young bum used to feed them bits of the hardboiled eggs that he sometimes ate. But the ground is hard now. There is no hole. They hear no sounds. So the squirrels run past the man and the woman who are still cutting each other open. They climb up to the top of another tree and chirp. They plead with it to grow younger. The squirrels want to take another ride all the way to the bottom.