By Don Hymans
Every Twelfth Tree
My four-year old son has a poopy accident in his bedroom before bed so I throw his underpants with the log in it into a Hefty leaf-sized garbage bag on the floor in my kitchen nook because there are no outside garbage cans where I live in Wisconsin and since trash collection is only once every three months. I call my ex-wife and ask her what I should do with it. She tells me to put the bag with the log in it in my car trunk or to burn it or to do whatever with it—to leave her alone—or to take it to a Shell or Mobil gas station, where I can get rid of it once and for all, and forget about the whole thing.
I ask her whether it would be fine with her for me to bring it to her house—that the log is half hers, in any case—that she can keep it and live with it if she wants to—that it might even cook for her to make her happy the same way that I did for twelve years. She has five silver-plated garbage cans in the three-car garage that she kicked me out of, anyway, and hundreds of Craftsman tools, nail boxes, screw cases, plaster wall hangers, shovels, brooms, coolers, and ladders that I bought for her. She even has the $12,000 engagement ring that I gave her—which she refuses to give back to me—and a bag of rock salt that I bought to melt ice for her on our rose bush driveway in winter before we moved, when she was pregnant with our son. I do not know why, but she even has my Cannondale bicycle.
We used to ride bicycles together in blameless loving affection on weekends with our infants behind us in a double chariot stroller by a mallard duck pond on a three-mile suburban trail in New Jersey. She would sing paintings to me, marry her green eyes sideways to me, and look back and smile in ponytailed kindness at me every twelfth tree—coasting without peddling through the beginning of the downhill disappearance of art from our lives, the disappearance of simplicity and connection. I would remind her that mallard ducks mate for life on every bicycle visit to the trail, every twelfth tree. I would point out how mallard ducks isolate themselves from the aggression of bread-throwing children and Canadian geese to avoid conflict at all times—to avoid argument, disappointment, boredom, routine, and misunderstanding. There were thousands of pairs of them—thousands of blue, gray, and green artistic male mallards and brown, wealthy females—mating for life in the sophisticated streams on that bike trail in autumn back then. This was before our divorce—before the confusion about our son’s log in my bankrupt apartment in Wisconsin.
I have to stop buying Sponge Bob ice pops for my six year-old daughter and four year-old son so that we can afford baked beans and French fries for lunch in order to skip dinner. We are soldiers of blamelessness and familial decay, so we can take it – – losing ice cream and Sponge Bob, for now, and in the future. I refuse to give them fruits or vegetables. I give them lake water and not milk. My ex-wife accuses me of causing tooth decay and gum disease and goes so far as to accuse me of not wiping them well enough before drop off, even, which is when they poop – – not wiping them well enough in the Starbuck’s bathrooms we live in for cake pops and apple juice, or in the Mobil gas station highway Porto-johns we hurry to that even pavement road crews and recently released felons use to pee in.
My son relates to me in terms of candy. I get licorice for him when we visit the frog pond where we torment bull frogs with wish bone sticks away from land into the pollution of the unknown reed world of nitrate water. My daughter relates to me in terms of the Hersey’s chocolate bars that she wants, which I will not buy for her, then to the candy necklaces and spice drops that I do share with her to calm her down from kindergarten confusion. We have to give up and lose all of this. I am unemployed, but a teacher. My children travel extreme wealth in the care of their executive mother, but listen to adagios and dirges with me, their father, so that I can teach them that it is difficult for the rich to return to where they were born, even, when they grow up, or even to be recognized in admiration when they return there for failing at everything.
I hope that my children, and all children, for that matter, will succeed, and return blameless to pre-natal reunion, as the teachers among us, who lost our wives to cuff links, conformity, and estate planners, believe. I hope that my children are fine watching The Lion King as far out as the year 2070, when I am gone, when I hope to return bodiless to the disgrace of the changing of gazes at the races, which is safe with my children, and all people born after me. I hope to return to my ex-wife, who told me to eat beans once and to work collecting garbage after our separation. I cooked, cleaned, and changed diapers for her, for twelve years – – confusing strong and ancient, vicious men – – taking the blame for them – – being bullied, transformed, and disgraced by the ghosts of the women who knew them.
My ex-wife refuses to help me move out of the two-bedroom alley apartment that I rent from a bankrupt, Romanian exotic dancer. She refuses to help me disassemble the Pottery Barn bunk beds that I bought for our two kids with Monopoly-like settlement money, or to help me box up the three Southwestern faux-patterned, plastic dishes that I own from Target. She refuses to be intimidated or to identify with me. She refuses a close encounter with the pregnant water rats that jog in Spandex biking shorts along the power station barbed-wire fence in the dumpster diver’s alley that is my front yard, or even to smell the rotting empty cans of crushed kidney beans and turkey spaghetti in the garbage can that I use as my ashtray, and as a cooler for my twelve packs of skunked, blameless beer.
I know how to move, but I do not know how to move without money. I have moved twenty-two times and have worked twenty-eight jobs in twenty-two years. I explain to my four-year old son about our northern European Cro-Magnon ancestors—how they avoided conflict at all times and just left places whenever deer meat or fish was taken from them or when their wives were stolen away from them by force with conforming aggression. I explain to him how our relatives always moved North—always North—that even the hurtful freeze of foodless winters did not stop them from eventually building great, powerful, and safe nations. I explain to him how women left with them and how they left with women—in loving handfuls and groups—away from divorce—always North—and away from the terror of unexpected and unwanted sadness and misunderstanding.
Don Hymans has taught at the University of Iowa, Emerson College, DePaul University, and Loyola University Chicago, among other places. His writing has appeared in American Literary Review, The Best American Poetry Series, Black Warrior Review, The Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, The New Orleans Review, and Verse, among other places. He has also worked at Houghton Mifflin Company, Penguin Putnam Inc., and The New York Review of Books, Inc. He is completing Every Twelfth Tree, a collection of stories