Alex tells the arborist to fuck off, and then he takes his chainsaw and begins to cut down the dying spruce himself. First he climbs the tree with a ladder, and when the ladder isn’t tall enough, he scuttles upward using one of his dead wife Sharon’s belts, one of the sturdier ones from before her gastric bypass. Cutting down a tree isn’t as hard as it looks. Alex threads Sharon’s belt through the loops of his painter’s pants and around the tree trunk, keeps his weight back, and crabwalks up the trunk. The belt ends up working just as well as that expensive safety harness the guy at Home Depot tried to sell him. While Alex is in the tree he thinks about buying a bunch of these belts and rebranding them as tree harnesses. Maybe that would finally be the thing that would replenish the boys’ college funds.
Alex didn’t think he was going to enjoy chopping down a tree, but he enjoys it a lot. It’s nice to be up so high, breathing cooler, fresher air, doing satisfying, brawny work. First the saw rips through the wood, and Alex yells “Timber!” so his twin sons, Kellen and Kip, get the hell out of the way.
Every half-hour, Alex stops to play with his boys. Usually they play Pinecones, a game Alex invented to trick Kellen and Kip into picking up all the pinecones that litter the backyard. The two boys are a great age, nine, still excited by games Alex invents. Pinecones has been their favorite lately, a more dangerous slingshot/tree-based brand of baseball. When they play this morning, Kellen accidentally nails Alex in the head with the Wiffle ball bat, and Alex’s glasses skid across the driveway.
“Christ,” Alex yells, grabbing his temple. “Hold on. Hold on. Timeout!”
While Alex stumbles over to retrieve his glasses, he notices his vision is suddenly crisp, that even without his glasses everything looks clear. He blinks; closes his eyes for a count of ten. When he opens them, everything is still perfect.
“I think you fixed my eyes when you whacked me,” he tells Kellen.
Kip runs into the backyard then, past the old schoolbus where Alex is keeping a sleeper sofa. Kip pulls back his slingshot and rifles a pinecone at Alex. With his new eyesight, he can tell this pinecone is not one of the agreed-upon fluffier ones, but one of the smaller, rocklike pinecones the boys are supposed to pull out of the pinecone mix. He doesn’t care about it, though, mesmerized by how it looks as it flies—how it knuckleballs toward him, zero spin, each shinglette visible. Alex has written off God since Sharon’s death, but now he wonders if perhaps God has a plan for him. He’s excited about this possibility, but then Kip’s pinecone plunks him above his eyelid, and Alex grabs his face and yells “Owww!” When he opens his eyes again, everything is blurry. Everything that was transcendent a few seconds ago is gone, and God has transformed right back into a fuckstick who likes to place beauty and hope in the palm of your hand, only to rip everything away.
“I called timeout,” Alex says, kicking the Wiffle ball bat across the driveway. “Didn’t you hear me?”
Sympathy from either of the boys would be great right now, but he knows it isn’t their strong suit. For instance, the boys didn’t move a muscle when that wasp flew inside his ear last week. Alex was hopping around the yard, trying to shake the wasp out of his head, and the twins were pointing and laughing.
Also not sympathetic: the boys never locking the back gate, and the teenagers who use this unlocked gate as an invitation to shortcut through Alex’s backyard on their way to the nearby trestle bridge to smoke gateway drugs and eat gateway potato chips, and the subsequent chip bag littering that happens when the drunk and/or high teenagers shortcut back to their homes, and then the constant and howling prairie winds that whip the chip bags to and fro in his yard until they braid themselves around his chain link fence, becoming nearly impossible to untangle unless he’s got an entire Saturday free and his arthritis isn’t acting up.
As expected, neither of the boys picks his glasses up off the ground. They leave them on the driveway near that cigar butt or decomposed pinecone, which Alex could have, with the laser vision he possessed only moments ago, been able to identify, but which now is simply an indistinguishable brown lump.
“Smack me in the head again,” Alex tells Kellen, handing him the Wiffle ball bat. “Maybe if you hit me hard enough the miracle vision will come back.”
“Sure,” Kellen says. “Okay.”
Kellen’s more of a yes man than Kip, doesn’t ask too many questions. Last weekend, Kellen helped Alex dig the pit in their backyard and then cover it up with a tarp and then cover that tarp with grass and leaves and sticks. Even though none of the trespassing teenagers have fallen into it yet, one of them will soon.
“Hit me right here,” Alex says, pointing at his temple.
Kellen swings the plastic bat, but instead of hitting Alex in the temple he nails him in the cheek. When Alex opens his eyes, everything is still blurry. He still can’t tell what the brown thing sitting over by his glasses is, probably just a leaf?
“That didn’t work,” he says, tossing the bat to Kip. “You try.”
During Kip’s swing his foot slips and instead of hitting Alex in the temple he nails Alex in the neck. Alex screams “Ouch!” and then “Fuck!” because now there’s a stinging neck welt in addition to his forehead welts. Alex starts wasp-hopping around the driveway, and the boys point and laugh. While he’s hopping around, his shoe lands on top of that mysterious lump and Alex finds out exactly what it is, not a cigar or a leaf, but dog shit.
Alex is supposed to go on a date with his neighbor Lana later that night. He’s cancelled on her twice and is calling to cancel again.
“You’re not cancelling,” Lana tells him when she answers. “No goddamn way.”
Before he can tell her about the welts on his neck and forehead and his splitting headache and how even though he’s washed his hands like nine hundred times and they’re still sticky with spruce sap, she hangs up. He calls back, but it rolls to voicemail.
In the living room, Kellen and Kip are wrestling, bumping into furniture. They knock over an end table, smash into a bookshelf.
“Can you two quit?” he asks. “Give me a goddamn minute of peace and quiet?”
When Alex walks into the living room he sees black marker on Kellen’s forehead. When he lifts up the boy’s bangs up, he sees that a penis has been drawn there.
Both boys have had trouble coping since Sharon died. He’s been called into the school to meet with the principal a number of times this semester, nearly once a week. Kip can’t stop hitting William on the playground, Kellen got kicked off the bus because he brought a cigarette lighter. Alex knows he’s probably to blame, that he’s failed them in so many ways, both big and small, since Sharon died.
“Kip was supposed to draw a lightning bolt on my forehead,” Kellen tells him, “but then he didn’t.”
“Thirty minutes inside the belt,” Alex tells them.
“What?” Kellen whines. “But I didn’t do anything.”
“You trusted your brother,” Alex says.
Alex stands in Sharon’s closet, picking out a belt to cinch the two boys together. Cinching was a punishment that Sharon thought up. She thought forcing the boys to be in such close quarters meant they’d stop squabbling and resolve their differences. Alex always thought the boys enjoyed this punishment a little too much, that it reminded them of their time in the womb, pleasantly smushed shoulder to shoulder, cheek to jowl. Punishment or not, it never failed to calm them down.
There is a box of garbage bags on the floor of Sharon’s closet, still unopened. Two weeks ago, Alex was going to gather up her clothes and donate them to Goodwill, but then his nose brushed up against one of her cardigans and he caught a scent of her old perfume, and he was too overwhelmed to do anything other than lie down on the floor of the closet and sob.
Alex grabs a gold belt with an oversized buckle, one he remembers Sharon wearing to a Christmas party a couple years ago. He makes the boys stand back to back and he pulls it around their bodies, not too tight, but not loose either. They squirm for the first couple of minutes, seesawing this way and that, trying to bend the other to their will, but then they get comfortable. Alex has thought about suggesting this punishment to the principal at their school, but he knows if he tells anyone about it, he’ll get a visit from child services. He leaves the boys on the couch, washes some dishes. When he checks on them a few minutes later, they’ve fallen asleep. He unhooks the belt, covers them up with a blanket. He’ll wake them up for dinner in a bit, but for now he likes looking at them. Awake, they really look like Sharon, but when they’re asleep, they look like him.
When Lana arrives, Alex pours her a glass of wine. The lights are low, not for romance, but to make his welts look less jarring.
“Saw you cutting down that tree in your backyard,” she tells him. “I waved to you, but I guess you didn’t see me.”
Lana is here tonight because they made out at the block party a month ago, kissed in a neighbor’s pantry while they were looking for more lemonade mix. Since then they’ve been trying to find a time to get together, to see if there’s something between the two of them that stretches beyond simple pleasantries and neighborliness. Scheduling has been difficult. Alex had to cancel once when Kip came down with pink-eye and a second time when Kellen got hives from some shrimp he ate, but now Lana’s here, and they’re sharing a pizza.
“The arborist wanted to change me a grand,” Alex tells her. “I mean, screw that, right?”
He doesn’t remember how dating works. He remembers how he and Sharon grew into each other’s eccentricities together, slowly, over time, but lately, when he meets someone new, all his foibles and fears come spilling out of him in five minutes. Sometimes at the grocery store or the post office he’ll overwhelm a stranger with his sudden neediness, words rushing out of him too quickly and not stopping, the person holding up their palms, going whoa, whoa, whoa and backing away.
“That’s total bullshit,” Lana says.
They finish the pizza and move out to the back deck. There’s a full moon, but it’s being blocked by the spruce.
“You smell like gin,” Lana says, moving her chair closer to him.
“It’s my hands,” he says, holding his palms out to her. “I can’t get the spruce sap off them.”
Why is she really here? Alex wonders. He knows her divorce was a shit storm. Maybe he’s looked semi-competent whenever their paths have crossed? Maybe that’s enough for her right now? He’s trying to talk himself into why she’d be interested in him, but it’s hard for him to comprehend.
“I wish I could sit here all night,” Lana says, pulling his palms toward her face and taking a deep whiff. “But I’ve got a long day tomorrow.”
Lana stands up and gives Alex a hug. Alex wraps his arms around her, but when he tries to pull away, there’s a ripping sound. He looks at his palm, and there’s a small swatch of her sweater stuck there.
“Oh shit,” he says.
He tries scraping the piece of fabric from his palm to give it back to her, but it’s really stuck and he can’t get it off.
“It’s okay, it’s an old sweater,” she says, giving him a peck on the cheek and then heading down the alley toward her home. “Make it up to me on our next date.”
Alex tries scraping Lana’s sweater off his hand with a flathead screwdriver while he watches TV, then washes his hands three more times, but there’s still a bit of blue fuzz on his palm when he goes to bed.
As he’s brushing his teeth, he hears someone in his backyard. At first, he thinks it’s teenagers shortcutting through his yard again, trampling his flower beds, trying to make it home before their curfew . When he looks outside, though, it’s Lana. He opens the window, calls out to her.
“Did you forget something?” he asks.
“Couldn’t sleep,” she says. “I thought I’d come over and see if you were still up.” She tick-tocks the bottle of wine in her hand back and forth.
“Give me a second,” he tells her.
He’s about to go get dressed to go down and meet her, but then Lana takes a step toward the house and she screams, higher pitched than he would have imagined from a woman with such a throaty voice, and Alex watches the earth swallow her.
Lana is okay, nothing too bad, just a twisted ankle and a scrape on her arm.
“Who digs a grave in their backyard?” she asks as Alex helps her out. “What kind of psycho does that?”
“It’s not a grave,” Alex tells her. “It’s to catch anyone who’s fucking around in my yard.”
Instead of bringing her inside and risking waking up the boys, he helps her inside the schoolbus. Alex bought the bus three years ago at an auction from a charter school that had gone belly up. He had every intention of getting it running, using it for summer camping trips. He ripped out the seats and built bunk beds, but then Sharon died, and he stopped working on it. He comes out here sometimes when he gets anxious, pulls open the sleeper sofa and pretends he’s camping somewhere under the stars.
“Prop your leg up,” he tells Lana.
He runs inside and gets a package of frozen peas for her ankle and some wine glasses. They sit on the sofa for a while, and then he opens it up into a bed, and he strokes her hair until she falls asleep.
In the morning, Alex is making breakfast when Lana limps inside.
“How swollen is it?” he asks.
“Not horrible,” she says.
He pours her coffee. When the boys were younger, they used to get up at 5:30 every morning, but lately they’ve started sleeping in. Alex thinks he’s got some time before they’re up, but then he hears them bumping down the stairs. They stop when they see that their father isn’t alone.
“You remember Lana,” Alex says.
“Hi,” Kip says.
“From down the block,” Kellen says.
The four of them eat breakfast together, and then Alex helps Lana back home. After he drops her off, he gets the chainsaw out of the garage and cuts down the rest of the spruce. First, he dumps all the branches inside the pit, and then he tosses in trunk pieces on top of them. When the hole is filled with the tree, he shovels dirt on top of it. Then the boys jump on top of the dirt, tamp everything down. Later today he’ll buy some grass seed and then he’ll water the seed for a couple of weeks and the grass will grow thick and green, and no one will be able to tell there was ever a hole there.