The Year I Lost My Ass
By Mark Walling
This was the year I lost my ass.
I‘m not talking about financials.
I took it as a sign I was dying. That I had a terminal disease.
My wife said it looked like I’d taken a dump in my pants. She didn’t laugh until she saw I wasn’t. It became her favorite phrase.
This was the year I tore down the playhouse in the backyard. My wife said the removal of the playhouse would open up the space. Let it breathe. Our daughter doesn’t like to play in it by herself and is too young to have an opinion about the yard. She breathes fine but she cries a lot and often doesn’t sleep well.
We didn’t have the money to pay someone. The remodeling of our house was supposed to take six weeks. We stopped counting at thirty. I said we didn’t buy a new house because it was gonna cost too much and be too much trouble. Remember? I didn’t laugh until I saw my wife wasn’t. It became my favorite phrase.
I told my wife I would tear down the playhouse. I told her it would take a month.
This was the year it took me three months to tear down the playhouse in the backyard.
This was the year a 30-pack of beer would not last two nights in our home.
This was the year the sweet gum tree died due to the drought. It was neither a young tree nor an old tree. It never looked like it was dying.
A lot of guys went door to door offering to remove dead trees. I hired Jim the Tree Guy to cut down the dead sweet gum. Jim was lean and tall, like a tree. He underbid the competition and I was persuaded by his confident moniker. And he made a flyer, which he kept folded in his back pocket. His jeans sagged like mine. Least I still had my teeth. I don’t remember if I was drunk when I hired him.
This was the year I found a message on my wife’s phone that, in response to a question asking what are you doing, said undressing you with my mind.
This was the year I discovered the playhouse in the backyard was built better than our home. The previous owners, a couple from Minnesota, constructed the thing. Fuckers. They wanted a refuge in case of a blizzard, I guess. Or a nuclear war. We live in Oklahoma.
They believed screwing the half-inch plywood walls to the two-by-four studs was not sufficient. They added nails for security so that destruction of the walls required a meteor or a tornado. Or the combination of me, a sledge hammer, a crowbar, a bunch of beer, and a brand new ax.
It was educational. I learned that swinging a sixteen-pound sledge hammer is good exercise. It can also, when used during July and while drinking and after your wife changes lunch plans last minute and then cannot be reached by phone for the remainder of the afternoon, bring a person to a peak condition known as a heart attack. Or, fortunately in my case, an effective approximation of one.
This was the year I stood naked in front of a full-length mirror, squeezed my fading buttocks and asked them why.
This was the year my wife turned on the passcode lock on her phone.
This was the year I discovered Jim the Tree Guy’s assistant was his wife, who was far-sighted and did not like to be called Jane the Tree Girl. Jim didn’t speak much when she was around. She wondered about the drought and the trees and God’s plan. She told me it says plain as day in the Bible if you cannot see signs and wonders you will not believe.
I became aware of the sweat on my body. I wasn’t wearing a shirt. I hadn’t been wearing one all summer. I used to laugh at men my age who did yard work with no shirt.
I told her to make sure she didn’t pull down the stop sign in my yard. Just the tree. Get it? I said fortunately the stop sign tells you to stop. It has the word right on it. I told her I wished other signs did that.
She said science was to blame. Science and insincerity. She smirked. This must have been her favorite phrase. It was why she home-schooled her twelve-year-old daughter, who stayed in the truck until it was time to “tim-ber” the tree.
Jim didn’t attend to the limbs or the branches. He said it was the tree I wanted down. Not the limbs and the branches.
He hacked a v-shape cut in the trunk with his chainsaw. He said this was easy. He wished we had more droughts.
Jim the Tree Guy couldn’t remember how many trees he had cut down. He tied a rope around the trunk of the dead sweet gum then around the truck’s trailer hitch. His wife got behind the wheel. The rope stretched but the tree didn’t fall. Jim told her to stop but she didn’t hear him.
The rope broke.
This was the year I discovered I couldn’t predict the four-digit number of my wife’s passcode lock. But I could bring her beers, wait for her to get a call, and then glance over her shoulder.
This was the year I hired a kid to help me tear down the playhouse and fired him within the first hour because he asked for too many breaks.
Later that day the father of the kid who had been hired to help me tear down the playhouse but not lasted an hour came into my back yard to complain about my language. I told him if he didn’t like my way with words maybe we should have a different kind of conversation. I wasn’t wearing a shirt and was standing beside a pile of beer cans.
It was ten o’clock in the morning.
He didn’t want to have any kind of different conversation with a man whose language he didn’t appreciate in the first place. As I approached, I thought he was backpedaling so he could see me as he clarified his observation but after he had a hard time with the gate latch and then jogged, wordlessly, to his Nissan I understood that the starter pistol for his flight was the ax in my hand. I held the tool, which can be also be considered a weapon, over my head then flung it end over end at the sweet gum. The
blade sunk into the heart of the trunk. I held my arms aloft, sweat streaming down my ribs. I might have roared.
I wished my wife had seen. But, of course, she wasn’t around and if I sent her a photo she would think the thing was staged.
I tore down a lot of playhouse that day.
This was the year my wife said she and Kyle were just friends. It didn’t matter that they worked together. She said they flirted on the phone because they were both struggling in their marriages. And no longer felt attractive because their partners neglected them. If not for the children, she said.
I told her we only had the one child. Didn’t we?
This was the year my wife told me she was not going to allow me access to her phone or her email. No matter how many coffee cups I broke. Or beer bottles.
This was the year the rope around the sweet gum broke and the tree rocked back and forth. If it fell it was going to crash through our bedroom. I didn’t whimper as I watched the tree rock back and forth because I thought it would be wonderfully ironic if a dead sweet gum crashed through our bedroom.
As it turned out, Jim the Tree Guy really was a tree guy. He hugged the sweet gum and it stopped rocking.
His daughter was still in the truck, shooting the scene so she could post it to YouTube. She was disappointed when the tree came to rest. Jane the Tree Girl wondered what was taking so long.
This was the year I began to conduct surveillance and discovered I was pretty good at it. I wondered if I should make a career change. I knew Kyle’s daily habits better than his wife, who didn’t search her husband’s phone.
I carried new binoculars under the seat of my car. In addition to the crowbar. And the ax.
My best friend told me that I could go to jail if I really hurt Kyle.
This was the year Jim the Tree Guy said his prayers had been answered when the sweet gum didn’t crush him to death or crash through our bedroom. He stretched his jaw and felt for blood on the side of his face that looked scalped from pressing against the bark. When I told him I never met a real tree hugger, he sucked one of his remaining teeth. I didn’t mean to insult him.
He told me, as he was fashioning the rope higher on the tree, that prayer had worked once already so he was planning on using it again. Handing me the ax, he asked if I had a better idea. He was still hurt by my insult.
This was the year my wife told me that I had been angry or depressed for a long time. She showed me bank records with red circles around liquor store purchases. They went back and back. To the days when I still had an ass. But the circles grew like a contagious rash as she turned the pages forward.
This was the year I told Jim the Tree Guy a plan in addition to praying would be the best way to “tim-ber” the tree. I tossed the ax in the air and caught it. I did it again.
Another trick I was proud of.
Jane the Tree Girl blared the horn when I asked for her opinion. Then I said some things to her I regret saying in front of her daughter, who was still shooting the scene with her phone.
This was the year I wanted to hatchet every phone.
This was the year Jim the Tree Guy began to unfashion the rope around the dead sweet gum, telling me he didn’t want to work for atheists. I pushed the trunk of the sweet gum, intending to topple it on the space left by Jim’s departing truck, hoping his daughter was still filming.
But the sweet gum listed toward the street and then began to rock back toward our house. When I saw the brake lights on Jim the Tree Guy’s pickup I hoped he had changed his mind about atheists.
I dug my feet into the dry ground, braced myself against the falling tree, and prepared to die. I whimpered. I saw the lonely ax lying on the ground where it had been dropped by irony.
This was the year I discovered that my abundant desperation and my newly-acquired strength were enough to nudge the sweet gum past the house and onto the rubble of the torn-down playhouse. I was unconcerned with irony because it would have come at the price of me but I did note that the falling tree could have done to the playhouse in an instant what it took me three months to do.
This was the year I learned that a dead tree was not enough to teach me a lesson.
I drove to my wife’s place of employment. But it was not her I was waiting for.
Her car was there but she didn’t come out at five. Kyle did.
I planned to cross the road to confront him but realized he could get in his car and lock the doors before I reached him.
I raced my car across two streets and skidded to a stop in the space beside him. He stopped as quickly on the sidewalk. My heart was swinging a sledge hammer in my head.
I wondered if the awful squeal of my braked tires had damaged my hearing but then I heard a girl crying. Kyle’s wife was in the car but she wasn’t looking at me now or making a sound. His daughter was.
I moved closer to the window so I could see better, as if a different vantage point would change the view. Of me. Of this scene. It did.
My reflection appeared in the glass. The ax and crowbar in my hands, which I told
myself I had brought for show, were positioned such that they flagged beside my head
like ears. Donkey ears.
This was the year I lost my ass. Because I had become one.
This was the year, as I lay on the floor alone in my new apartment, I thought I could hear the wind sifting through the leaves of the sweet gum or the sound of children having fun in a playhouse. Or a wife talking to me at home.
This was the year when, though I lost my ass, it seemed for a while that with my new ears I could hear everything.
About the Author
Mark has stories in recent issues of the Sewanee Review, Concho River Review, Louisiana Literature, and South Dakota Review.