by Justin Le
The phone’s alarm went off for the sixth time that Saturday morning. Not that Mike needed to be anywhere. Generic, high-pitched rings synchronized with vibrations muffled on his Marlboro-stained bedspread. 11:47 a.m. Fifteen minutes passed since he stopped the previous alarm and set a new one. Then, with feet on the floor, right then left, his eyes adjusted to the darkness, focused on the strip of light sneaking past a bend in the blinds that lit up his unclipped toenails. Up before noon. A milestone.
The gym downtown gave out a two-person, six-month membership to the seventeenth caller on the local radio station. Mike’s neighbor Ron, a friend since high school, won and asked him to be his workout partner. Mike held in a breath of tobacco smoke—a second later, he let it out with a quick laugh.
Mike, come on, gringo, cold turkey those dusk-to-dawn home shopping marathons and get up early with me, help me fight off my prediabetes.
Ron, I don’t know.
Let’s go, this Monday, pick things up, put them down, pretend to exercise on the elliptical while checking out some chicas bonitas with the curves, come on.
Mike pulled an all-nighter so he could force himself to sleep early on Sunday. And out before midnight he was, a half-eaten buffalo chicken wrap cozied up in bed with him. Monday morning, he called out sick from his job at the mattress warehouse. At eight in the morning Ron buzzed his cell. Hey, you alive, Mikito? I’m coming over.
The buffalo sauce stain on Mike’s collar would have to do. Laundry, the procrastination of which was causing Mike constant regret, gave him something to do on especially lonely days. A decade ago, his mother did his laundry for him. His sole pair of polyester gym shorts hid beneath his thrift shop joggers and jeans in the bottom drawer. Too tight—a red waistline inevitable.
He draped a towel over his shoulder and opened the front door to a waiting Ron, who shoved a plastic bottle full of a murky brown liquid into his chest.
Bro, try this Whey. Internet says you’ll go from flab to fab with this gross stuff.
Well, if it kills me, I won’t have to look at myself in the mirror anymore. Mike grabbed the protein shake and shut the door behind him. Sorry, I’m optimistic. He shook the bottle in small circles, whirlpooling the slush round and round.
The gym’s ivory-painted brick walls looked too bright despite the graying patches that revealed either its age or cheap primer. The automatic doors opened to a lobby that smelled of ammonium and spandex. The man at the front desk stood up with a small jump, strode toward them, and offered his hand.
Hi there! I’m Pete. You two must be new.
Nice to meet you, Pete. Ron. This is my good friend, Cletus.
Pete stepped back and looked Mike up and down. Well, Cletus, Mike actually, when you’re here it doesn’t matter who you are. It matters who you want to become and where you want to go.
Great! I’d like to go home.
* * *
Meanwhile, one of Mike and Ron’s neighbors, Henrietta, who lived a few streets over in the middle of the neighborhood, walked out of her single-story house and toward her two-hundred-thousand-mile Corolla. Her daughter, Mila, stood by the car and pulled the handle of the locked passenger door. With a turn of the key, Henrietta unlocked the doors. She backed out of the driveway.
Henrietta had been taking Mila grocery shopping every Sunday for as long as she could remember. It was her only day off from waitressing and one of the few times she got to spend an entire day with her daughter. They took a right onto Green Marsh Lane. Mila curled her hair around her fingers and munched on it. A month ago it was nail-biting, now this. A sharp left onto Shepherd Street. A tractor-trailer zoomed by on the road ahead.
On the corner, there it stood: that damn tree. That thick, untrimmed weeping willow wouldn’t stop growing, its serpentine green leaves stretching from far above the nearby houses, all the way down to the brown grass it towered over. Another tractor-trailer swooshed by, stirring the tree’s long and narrow leaves. Henrietta drove down the road toward the tree and the intersection. She slowed to a stop to the right of the weeping willow.
Mila, anything coming?
A van zipped by from Mila’s side and shook the car, clearly going over the fifty miles-per-hour speed limit. The palm-scented air freshener swung from side to side. Henrietta leaned over the steering wheel and tried to look past the tree—pointless. Long leaves, nothing but long leaves. She tapped the gas, sneaking past the stop sign. Brake. Her seatbelt dug into her neck. A black Nissan coming from the tree side made a right turn onto her road. False alarm.
Black car, Ma!
Yes, I saw it turn.
The leaves were still. It was time. The Corolla’s engine hummed. Another tap on the gas. Nothing. Firmer now, putting her foot down, she turned the wheel counterclockwise and the car followed.
Another engine roared. Then a car horn, nothing but car horn. And a scream—Mila’s scream, higher pitched than the approaching car’s screech, its rubber scraping against asphalt.
Henrietta kicked the gas. The brake would’ve stopped them dead. She didn’t even see the other car head on, only a flash of orange from her driver’s side window. She waited for a clack, a thud, something, the steering wheel cold against the joints of her fingers. But there was only screeching and screaming, then silence.
The orange car’s tail lights flashed on and off in her rearview mirror. It had stopped past the intersection. Henrietta kept driving, her foot still firm against the gas. Mila’s open mouth and open eyes pointed in her direction.
* * *
Mike’s white shirt was gray with sweat except for a few spots at his sides. His boxer shorts rolled up too high, making his thighs rub together. He followed the instructor’s lead. Down on stomach, prone. Push. Back on feet. Jump. Ron stopped doing the full motion minutes ago, instead alternating between doggy style and standing up with arms raised, gelatinous like a lone man doing the wave at a sports game.
The stale scent of Mike’s buffalo sauce stain pushed its way into the room. Two more reps and maybe he could eat the other half of his wrap without wanting to smoke cigarettes in place of the following meal. Did the dozen or so people in the group feel the same? A blonde woman in a pink tank top and black leggings jumped a second ahead of the rest of the group. She breathed through white teeth. No way she felt the same. Ron stood over a puddle of sweat. He must have felt his own kind of thing.
Okay, good job, team. No—don’t sit. What you’re all feeling now, you wanna keep feeling. Hand weights. Let’s go.
Ron walked toward the weights, stopped, then tried to sneak off. The instructor caught him, physically caught him by the shoulder, and didn’t say a word.
This stuff hurts, man. How about I get some water and I’ll be right back?
The instructor kept a large, hairy hand on his shoulder. Ron went from all-dimples to a pooch swatted in the nose for sniffing under the pantry door. He returned to the box of weights and grabbed the five-pounders.
Mike held a ten-pounder in each hand. The instructor began. Hammer curls. Half extension, full extension, repeat. If Mike could keep this movement going, surely he could lift himself out of bed on the first try one day. He’d hear the alarm and sit up. Half extension. Turn it off and stand up. Full extension.
But at the moment, Mike’s forearms pumped blood through thick veins. His body was jelly laced with tobacco. Tears dried to salt. The instructor and the woman in pink, everyone around him, they must have been hurting the same way. Yes, that’s how it worked. How fitness and health and living worked. He had heard many times that pain was actually weakness leaving the body. Or was it sanity?
Afterward, Ron dropped Mike off at his house. Not a moment after Mike had plopped himself down on the couch, someone knocked on the door. He had forgotten to give Ron back his water bottle. He opened the door, but instead of a hefty, brown man stood a white woman wearing a baggy blouse and tight jeans. Her brown hair hung down to her shoulders and a shiny piercing jutted out from either side of her left eyebrow. She pointed to the tree in his front yard.
That thing needs to go.
She kept a finger pointed at the tree. Mike kept quiet.
This morning my daughter and I almost got hit by a car, all because of that tree. You can't see past the dang thing! You—
I’m sorry. Just got back from the gym. I’m not really following you. Who are you?
Henrietta. My name’s Henrietta. My little girl almost died today because of your tree. Cut it down. Or trim the leaves. Do something, please.
I’m sorry that happened to you—
To me and my daughter.
—to you and your daughter, but at least you two are okay. No scratches, no bruises, you look fine. And hey, it could be worse, I mean, one of you could look like me.
Henrietta didn’t flinch. A plane flew by overhead.
You gonna do something about the tree or not?
The wrap from earlier was still only half-eaten. He still had to do laundry and get out of his sticky clothes so that he could get them dirty the next day doing squats or lunges or whatever the instructor forced him to do. And here was this woman who wanted him to cut down his tree.
Listen, if it’s really that big of a deal, call the city. Ask them to install a traffic light.
A traffic light?
That tree’s been there for a long time and hasn’t hurt anyone. You’re the first person to complain.
Trim it. Maybe it was fine at one point, but you can’t see through it, around it, over it—it’s in the way. By the time they put up a traffic light, if they even do that, someone will be dead.
No. How could you live with yourself knowing that someone died and that you could’ve prevented that?
I don’t even know how I live with myself now, to tell you the truth.
You need to do something.
I gotta go.
* * *
He closed the door. She stood in front of the red door, its paint peeling. Mila slept in the passenger seat with the seat belt supporting her head. A strand of hair rested between her lips.
Back home, Henrietta boiled spaghetti on the stove. Her daughter watched cartoons in the living room. The noodles started getting soft when a fly landed on the counter. It rubbed its front legs together, as if smelling the spaghetti cook, an uninvited guest. Henrietta shooed the bug away with her hand. It flew in a circle around the kitchen and landed again a moment later.
The flyswatter sat around somewhere. Ah, by the microwave. She grabbed it and hid it behind her back, imagining the fly watching her with its thousands of microscopic eyes. Then, she carefully brought her weapon of choice up like a sword and—wham!
The fly still twitched.
Mila called from the living room. Ma, what are you doing?
Making dinner, love.
Henrietta ripped off a paper towel. No—too easy. She set the towel down and retrieved a toothpick instead. The water popped and boiled, steam rising like smoke. The fly buzzed on the counter, shaking, seizing, barely moving its wings. She crouched down, eyes level with the fly. To its left the blue fire blackened the bottom of the pot. That would do nicely. She poked the fire with the toothpick and let it catch. Tilted at a downward angle, the toothpick let the flame travel up its length. Henrietta brought the flame to the fly and pressed against its defenseless body.
Henrietta jumped and shook the flame out in the process. Her daughter stood on her tiptoes and peered into the pot.
Yes, Mila. Spaghetti. It’s almost there.
Spaghetti makes me happy!
* * *
Mike, Ron, and the rest of the group did their next exercise: sets of running in place, Hindu pushups, bicycles, and Russian twists. Mike felt the weight slipping right out of his body. Or maybe it was gas.
The gym kicked his butt. But at least it distracted him from the long days he’d lie in bed, curtains drawn. With exercise, he could lie around over the weekend and consume twice his typical amount of food and cigarettes. Later. He was at the gym now. At the gym—with a dull ache in his lower back.
He stood up and rubbed his back. Mid-Russian twists, the instructor called out to him.
Give up now and you’ll never make any gains! Pain is good. Pain is purpose.
Mike sat back down and tried to keep up with the rest of the group. His lower back pain refused to subside.
A few more sets, a few more twists and pulls, and the ache in his lower back shot a stinging sensation through his spine. He collapsed on his side. Ron leaned over and shook his friend. The instructor called out.
You gotta push past the—
Eat it, pendejo! He’s hurt.
It took him a few minutes, but Ron got Mike up and sat him down in the lobby.
You better get that checked.
Ron went to the restroom. Mike sat alone. He needed to see the doctor anyway, hadn’t been in a while. The last time he’d gone, the doctor told him he was getting fat and that his teeth were turning yellow. Dude was a prophet. Maybe the doctor could help him get out of bed in the morning. Help him call his mother, cook a meal. Not that he didn’t know how to—he just didn’t know the purpose of it all sometimes.
Ron returned. Let’s go home, Mikito.
Sure. Mike stood up. But first, let’s swing by the shops and buy some shears. That tree out front needs grooming. I think I’ll prune it this weekend.
* * *
2:15 a.m. Henrietta gathered her supplies in a backpack: a roll of paper towels, a lighter, and a bottle of ten percent ethanol gasoline. Only her underwear was white—her hoodie, shoes, jeans, and gloves black as the starless night. She’d already put Mila to bed, read her a story about talking koalas.
The walk to the tree was cold but windless, almost tolerable but not warm enough. Crickets chirped. She half-expected an owl to hoot, but nothing happened. Her footsteps clapped against the concrete. Cars rested in driveways and along curbs.
Minutes later she turned onto Shepard Street and approached the tree. Its leaves hung low against the grass. The tree stood still—shocked by her presence, or perhaps sleeping. Mike’s house, its blinds drawn, hid in the weeping willow’s shadow, lit only by the gibbous moon and a distant streetlight.
The leaves now hung before her. Her gloved fingers stroked their smooth surface. She pulled the bottle of gasoline from her hoodie pocket. She stood out in the open, standing on the sidewalk. Behind her, every house was dark, lightless. No cars drove down the street. A mile away, cars raced down the highway. They could sneak up on her from around the tree at any moment. She parted the leaves, diving through them and taking cover. Slivers of moonlight lit up the dry hump of mulch and the trunk it surrounded. Weeds, nasty creatures, tangled around one another. They had to burn, but their time would come. The leaves were her target.
Crouched down where the leaves met the grass, Henrietta untwisted the cap of the gasoline and poured a small puddle. It smelled like Sunday: twenty dollars at the cash register, a bag of gummies for Mila, the rest for the car. Standing up, she zig-zagged the gasoline up the hanging leaves, then over—splash! In a wide circle, splashing the leaves and the ground on the other side, she drenched the tree until the bottle ran out.
Next was the roll of paper towels and then, at last, the lighter. A match could survive the fire, but Henrietta preferred to leave no survivors. She rolled her left thumb down the metal spark wheel. The flame appeared on the first attempt, ready to do its job.
* * *
Mike slept through the branches crackling. Couldn’t taste burning sap in the air. But for the first time in years, he awoke before dawn.