The ripping of chainsaws through tree bark has clued the entire neighborhood in to the murder I’m committing. I’m on my porch, watching a crew of arborists destroy the white pines threatening to topple onto my roof. “It’s a healthy tree,” the boss told me when he showed up to do an assessment of the biggest tree, patting its thick trunk. Now he’s standing alongside me, explaining that “World War Three is the only way to save this country,” while one of the apprentices – a narrow elf of a person hooked to the side of the decapitated tree with chainsaw boots – relieves the once-mighty pine of its last few limbs.
When the work is done, the apprentice is the only one left. The rest have loaded the logs into their massive truck and taken them to – I’m not sure. The tree graveyard, maybe. I remind myself to look up how long it takes trees to decompose. Maybe I’ll leave the pines a letter of apology once they’re settled into the dirt in a few months, nourishing other trees, then I’ll feel like I did the right thing.
The apprentice takes off their gloves, claps the dirt and bark fragments out of them, unlatches the fence, and walks up the steps, only looking at my face once they reach the top.
“I’m Kennedy,” they say. “Supposed to tell you that. Boss likes us to maintain the friendly image.”
“I get it,” I reply. “The World War Three thing was a good start.”
Kennedy laughs a little. “He hit you with that? Jesus. Sorry. If it helps, he calls your place The Cool House. ‘Hey Kennedy, we’re going to The Cool House today.’ You know?”
“I must kill a lot of trees.”
“Technically, you’re only putting out a hit on them.”
I laugh too. By the time I realize the conversation is over, I also realize that Kennedy has been holding out the bill the entire time we’ve been talking.
Having wasted all of my charm, I read over the charges and make out the check in silence. Kennedy shuffles their boots. I hand them the check and the yellow top copy of the bill.
“Have a good day,” they say before I can come up with a good closing line. They leave the way they came, start up their old stick-shift beater, and back down my driveway. There’s a bubble in my chest still waiting to pop.
Later, I look up how long it takes for pine logs to decompose. Three hundred years.
For some reason, it is Kennedy’s responsibility to announce who has made the team and who’s going home. They stand before the uniformed squad in a blue jammer helmet, looking down at the list that Coach Xana has put together.
How do I do this? Think of something nice to say about each person? Nah, I barely know any of them. How about, As you know, a derby team is made of of fifteen members – nope, they know that already.
Some of them tap away on phones, others devour sandwiches wrapped in brown paper. A few stare, waiting for the results. One is doing Sudoku.
Kennedy remembers winning something called the President’s Award in fifth grade and overestimating how serious the ceremony would be. They tore one of their older brother’s suits out of the closet in their shared room, smeared their hair with Dad’s mousse, and felt their intestines quiver even as they realized they’d be receiving a piece of printer paper in front of twelve kids and the school principal. These days, they couldn’t even remember what the award had been for, what it’d had to do with the president.
“Alright,” Kennedy says. “Anne Brawny, Pain Austen, Kill O’Reilly, Salman Crushdie, Lou Bleed, you’re in. The rest of you –” Good luck in your future endeavors? No, I’m not an automated job rejection. Sorry, not sorry? Nah, I’m not a dick, either. “– see ya when we see ya.”
As they pack their gear and reach for the big metal bar on the door to the lot, Kennedy hears someone say, “Hey.” It’s one of the girls who didn’t make it. They prepare to be yelled at, insulted, clobbered, whatever Coach knew was coming and foisted on Kennedy.
Kennedy turns around. The girl has long charcoal hair worn in braids and a ratty old tee that reads I survived the Soapstone Shipwreck and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.
“Sorry,” Kennedy says. “You’re tough, you’re talented, blah blah blah. It wasn’t my decision.”
“I didn’t expect to make the team,” she says. “My question was more about whether you like chicken wings, and whether you’d want to get some tonight.”
Kennedy feels their eyebrows shift. “Like a date type thing?”
“Sort of. I’ll be working at the place that serves chicken wings, and I’ll be bringing them to you for free while we talk for a couple minutes at a time.”
Why does the promise of salt, vinegar, and a high-top table sound like the best thing in the world? Why do I want to tell her I have work in the morning?
“Alright,” Kennedy says, hesitant, but fueling their voice with confidence, trying not to worry about the 7AM oak-toppling project, picturing the night with this freckle-specked derby fan who’s looking at Kennedy like a spool of cotton candy – laughs, a cab ride, maybe a polite forehead kiss, maybe a sweaty roll in the hay. They imagine accepting a paper boat full of wings, cupping it in two delicate hands, like an award.
I’m trying to watch The Last Village Girl when my phone lights up with client calls.
“What setting on the mower do I use to keep the lawn the way you got it?”
It’s not about the mower setting. It’s about not grinding your lawn down to a monoculture.
They say you’re supposed to really focus when you watch this movie.
“What chemical is best to get rid of ticks?”
You don’t dump chemicals, you get chickens.
I’m pretty sure this movie is a single two-hour tracking shot.
“Can you tell me what kind of worms are eating my trees?”
Those holes are from woodpeckers, not worms.
Who is this actress? Where have I seen her before?
“Will chopping my trees down kill the emerald ash borer?”
No, and those are hemlocks (no resemblance to ashes). Chopping hemlocks down won’t kill the hemlock woolly adelgid, either.
How long is this character going to argue with a starling? Aren’t starlings invasive? Is this some weird commentary on immigration?
“The last guys who chopped on my property didn’t have a disposal truck, they just left these monster logs on my property like a pile of fucking corpses.”
At least the wasps have a home now. Valuable pollinators.
Where did they find the old farmland this was filmed on? Were they trespassing?
“Kennedy, I found your high school yearbook in the junk drawer.”
Thanks, Mom. You can throw it out.
Okay, the starling’s gone. Now she’s singing. Nice tune.
R.W. Hartshorn is a nonbinary and queer fiction writer, educator, and amateur environmental activist living on the Rensselaer Plateau.
image: MM Kaufman