The boy lived in a painted faded-white red-brick house with an old fence that was bleached white on the top and stained grey on the bottom by the six a.m. summer sprinklers. Just outside the backyard, leaning over the fence, there was a small green and white grove of aspen trees that, if they were all mulched to dust, could fit inside twenty or thirty-four black garbage bags. And less than a block outside that fence was a girl who lived behind a pine tree on the second floor of an old house.
But he didn’t know who owned the middle-sized deciduous trees, and he knew that they wouldn’t care about the missing leaves, so he began to pluck them. Each rounded leaf would probably just pass out in a few months anyway and end up giving off heat, like a ghost, in the fall as they yellowly decayed in some waste hole on the edge of town. Like his mother had on the kitchen floor—the time that he found her throwing everything in the kitchen on the floor and the plates, cups and glasses shattered like heavy dehydrated leaves. And his older sister got scared and ran away with all the children, but he walked in when she had thrown the last plate on the ground, and she was sobbing on the floor, and blood was coming from somewhere on her body, about as much blood as there were tears falling out of her eyes. Then again maybe the leaves wouldn’t end up in a dump like that. In fact, if the trees were a little smaller, and if there were just one stark naked tree with green hair and its heavy catkin male-flowers, and if he wasn’t working on making some aspen-leaf-pinecone combination, and if the girl he wrote a poem about would just hug him one day, and if it were fall and the leaves were all turning colors with frequencies between four- and five-hundred terahertz, then he probably would have stood at its base and caught each leaf mid-air as it fell, stacking them like quarterly reports in a folder, later to perhaps catalogue them for an accountant who has a summer house in Dubai—taking a pen with the most liquidated ink, the most black he could find, maybe a feather with an inkwell. And then he would scribble on the back of each leaf the exact time it fell—second, minute, hour, day, year—accompanied by a poem that described the action of its fall, or the way the wind smelt like the dried grey wood on the fence, or how the sun was setting fire to the mountains, and the valley was filling up with smoke, and it all felt like the second coming.
And as he plucked the leaves off one at a time he thought maybe he would just write someone’s name on the back of those leaves—a real name or a made-up name, and he would write that name and bury it like a memory in a book, like the girl in his mind—a memory that he wanted to keep from getting crushed and lost. Lost like the time he screamed as an infant all night in a compact hotel-sized folding crib with tall sides, because his father was in the bathroom snorting crack because he hated his job ordering screws for manufacturers, and his mother was hiding in the closet with more bruises than his three year old sister could count. If only people would turn colors when they died like the leaves do. If only the hidden colorful aura of their life came out through their skin and pores at death. Or better yet if that aura came out like a smell—a hovering foggy light that hung about the dead body and produced all the images of the person’s life—that is, if anyone dared to lean in close enough and risk smelling it and reliving someone else’s life—maybe sweet, maybe bitter, but definitely most pungent around the heart and the brain. Like the girl around the corner who has been to Europe three times and recreationally sews with her mom on the weekend. And he thought this all before his bowl was full of leaves and he walked back into the house, back down the stairs into his basement bedroom.
Then he went out again and salvaged a few old pinecones that hadn’t been eaten by the Craftsman 190cc 22” Front Drive, Self Propelled EZ Lawn Mower at the girl’s house, which pinecones he considered were in perfect condition. He gathered them after he had shoelessly skipped through her early morning sprinklers, and he tried to dry the pinecones out in the oven, because they were closed off when they were wet and would open up when they were dry. Open up like he did a year ago in the midwest when his cousin dared him to stand in the biggest puddle they’ve ever seen, and his cousin would drive by in his old ’89 honda civic and cover his whole body with neighborhood runoff, and they both laughed ripples into the night past the fireflies and light-polluted, starless suburban sky.
And now the pinecones, eleven of them, were scattered on the saxony carpet in his room all dried out—open and orificial—with the pinecone’s seeds at the core ready to fly out if someone would only shake them a little harder—shake them like his sister shook the bottle of aspirin when she pulled it out of the cupboard with tears in her eyes and ran upstairs, and he didn’t know what suicide was or why she was crying or why there was an ambulance outside his house, and where are they taking her, and was her headache really that bad, and how come she’s living with their cousins in Texas? And the boy looked at his pinecones and then took a skein of brown string and cut it so it would reach a little more than from the ceiling to the floor, a little more because he needed some length to tie to a thumbtack on the ceiling and a little more to tie it to the top of one of those dried out pinecone and suspend it over some water, which was contained by a purple taco bell tray a friend had stole one weekend in August when there wasn’t much to do in San Juan Capistrano. And somehow it ended up in his room, and somehow he decided to keep it and somehow he decided to use it. And somehow his family found a used condom in his older brother’s room when his parents had had enough of the mess, and they all thought it would be a nice service project until his little sister picked it up like a sock and asked what it was, and his mother screamed, and the service project was over, and there was yelling that night, and he didn’t see his brother for three days.
And there was the pinecone suspended in it, just barely touching the surface of his artificial pond, just barely. And not far from it was a stained and striped spring twin-mattress without sheets or a bed frame, just lost asymmetrically in the middle of his room like a cracker on the floor of a sterilized hospital—the pillow like a body and the single blanket like a blue ghost covered in yellow sunflowers—much like the body of his step-grandfather looked in the hospital when he died, whom he had only met twice but had heard plenty of things about—alcohol, gambling and that time he burned the bible—and why were all the other grandchildren crying and telling good stories about such a terrible man? And the boy had a stack of stories, a stack of books, that he had checked out from the public library, in the corner of his room without a bookshelf—Barrie, Spinelli, Milne, Grahame, Saint-Exúpery—and in another corner were his clothes—socks and thrift-store shoes on the east wall and everything else on the north. And while the pinecone hung there the boy took his bowl of aspen leaves and balanced each stiff leaf above a protruding pinecone spine, much like his spine would look if there were no skin on his nape nor muscle to support his skull. And the pinecone started to look like the pine tree the girl lived behind, and he started to think about what the pinecone would look like when it closed off in the water, and he started to think about sunflowers and how the girl would take pinecones and tear off the spines when they went on walks together. Maybe she was nervous. He definitely was—because of that time she wore corduroys, and because of that time he touched her nose in a crowd because he wanted to kiss her so badly, because of that time she walked by his house and he watched her from the front room, because of that time he cried all night praying and asking God to make choices for him and just take away his agency, because he didn’t want to live or die anymore, because he didn’t want suicide or depression anymore, because he was finished. And he finished placing each leaf with an excited and trembling hand and got a spray bottle of water and gently misted the pinecone and leaves. And the yellow incandescent light penetrated all those misted water particles nearly suspended in flight, which were light enough to float and heavy enough to fall like a miniature swirling galaxy—a galaxy that was there in the bottle all along, and if he had had the time and the patience and the tools the boy would have put those particles one by one in the dried white cracks on the back of his hand, and he would watch it all flow like a river—all creating a miniature landscape, a breathtaking landscape with creased knuckle mountains and veins of blood flowing just barely under the surface without trees that have any fruit or knowledge in them but plenty of water. And the water on the aspen leaves of the pinecone bulged, much like the water that was trapped between the two glass panes of his basement bedroom window. Trapped like his mother had been in the closet, trapped even after she left the closet and even after she left his dad, and trapped like his step-father, who had married a divorced and lactating mother with four kids—having to quit college, sell cars and wear shoes with cereal-box cardboard over the sole and under the tongue of his shoes so he didn’t have to buy new socks or new shoes with money he didn’t have. Trapped like the grass that grew out of a crack in the cement just barely outside the boy’s basement room window.
The boy’s older brother opened the door while he was misting the pinecone and asked him who the girl was around the corner. He pretended not to hear him until his older brother pulled out a faded ninety-nine-cent composition notebook and started to read a poem that the boy had written about the girl, and the boy yelled stop it, and the brother laughed and read it louder, and the boy yelled to cover it all up, and the his brother laughed to uncover it all, and then his brother threw the journal in the corner and asked him why he was wasting his time. Just like the boy’s art teacher had asked him if he took medication, and the boy said that he didn’t, and she said that he should, and he thought that he shouldn’t until he was on his way home just staring at the sidewalk and avoiding all the cracks because he didn’t want to break his mother’s back. Not that he believed the stupid rhyme, but he didn’t want to take chances with her, or him or him or perhaps even her, but he might take chances with this and those, and he just climbed in bed when he got home at 2:34 that afternoon and woke up the next morning with the same chance at life he always had. And then the older brother saw the pinecone hanging there and the boy grabbed his leather belt in the corner and swung it once as if to say that he would swing it again, and he did say to the older brother that he better not touch the pinecone and the older brother put his hands up and said look I was just giving you your book back, I’ll leave okay, and then the older brother left after making some comment about the girl. And the boy shoved the door closed, like the time his step-father had shoved the door open in rage and knocked him over and he fractured his arm and his step-father just walked away and thought about the time his own father had whipped him, and he thought about the time his own father had lied to him, and he thought about the time his own father had lost all their money on a horse and they ate canned beans and ketchup for dinner the next six days. And the boy—after five minutes of fiery pain in his fractured arm and plenty of tears mixing with his freckles—got in the car with his mother and they sat in a waiting room without any insurance.
The boy tossed the belt down, now that the room was silent, and picked up his notebook, and he read his own poetry and tore out all the pages and crumpled them up and threw them into the corner where several unclean spirits possessed the unprotected poetry and started the process of decay—throwing their sub-quantum surreality against the fibrous paper—and they started to twistedly whisper the poems into the air, and they started to cut the ethereal strings that seemed to attach the boy to the girl, and they started to cut the string that suspended the pinecone just barely touching the surface, just barely. But the boy picked up his pillow and hit it against the wall and his head and the floor and scattered the books with a swing of it and threw it at the window, which cracked a little more, and the boy sat against the wall hugging his legs in melancholic despair. The possessed crumpled paper barely trembled. The pinecone’s string remained taut. The girl was still around the corner, and the surface water barely, just barely, rippled.
The water was slowly sucked up past that brown fibonacci fibers for the next four hours, and the pinecone closed completely. The boy blankly stared at the ambiguous textures on the ceiling as the leaves weren’t crushed or turned to dust, because there was so much water, but as they were bruised. And the microscopic green cell walls were pulverized as the spines turned inward and closed tighter and tighter—fully engaging the surface.