Chuck studied the pine tree towering up toward the crisscrossed powerlines overhead. He never did consider himself an expert in trees—an arborist, as he thought one might be called—but this one looked about the same as all the others. Green, tall, and made mostly of bark. Well, maybe not mostly of bark. Considering his limited expertise in trees, he wasn’t entirely positive that trees consisted mostly of bark. There was a chance that they were majority leaf, or possibly even water—like humans, for example. Most people would think that humans were mostly flesh, or bones, or ice cream if they happened to be particularly overweight. Yet, in reality, humans were mostly water. Regardless, the only thing Chuck was sure of was that this tree was definitely a tree.
“Why is there a traffic cone in that tree?” Chuck said, glancing over at the hard-hatted man beside him, his high-visibility jacket doing little to make him less visible. In fact, that was probably exactly what it was supposed to be doing.
“Broken. It’s an identifier,” the man said, momentarily glancing up from the clipboard in his hand, and then immediately returning his attention back down to it.
“Broken?” Chuck said, turning back toward the tree. It looked pretty functional: tall, green, and possibly mostly bark. As far as he was aware, that was pretty much all a tree was intended for. Sure, it could break once converted into a stack of paper, or a desk, or a desk holding a stack of paper, but that was post-tree. During-tree was a very different story. No, this tree didn’t look broken at all.
“Right,” the man said, head still buried in the clipboard. “Broken.”
“How?” Chuck said. He couldn’t see so much as a crack in the tree, aside from the hundreds—or maybe even thousands—of cracks the lined its hard, bark exterior. Those didn’t count, though. They were natural. Most trees had them, and the ones that didn’t were not particularly good at being trees.
“Malfunction,” the man said, glancing up at the tree again, then flicking his chin right back down to the clipboard. “Wiring issue.”
Chuck stared at the tree. Everything this man was saying seemed to do little to answer his questions. He had never known a tree to have wires, except for artificial trees—and those didn’t really count as trees. Plus, he was relatively certain that this was a natural tree. Sure, he’d seen natural trees with wires *on* them: powerlines, Christmas lights—a whole slew of wires. Yet those were exterior. This was interior, wires within the tree.
“How does it have a wiring issue?” Chuck said, turning toward the hard-hatted man.
“Happens when something goes wrong with the wires.”
“Oh,” Chuck said, nodding his head slowly. That did make sense, that a wiring issue would occur when there was an issue with the wires. He was now pretty clear on the whole idea of what might cause a wiring issue. Admittedly, he’d begun the conversation with a relative comfort around what constitutes a wiring issue, but he was certainly now even more comfortable with the idea. Where he lacked clarity, however, lay in the question of why a tree had wires in the first place. As far as he were aware—while bearing in mind that he accepted the fact he was not an arborist, or whatever a tree-expert might be called—real trees did not have wires in them. Just on them, occasionally.
“Can I ask another question?” Chuck said, tilting his head slightly.
“No,” the man said, eyes locked on the clipboard. “Please just let me work.”
“Why would a tree have wires in it?”
The man inhaled deeply, lifting his chin up toward the sky and sighing with a loud, deliberate puff of air. “I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “Do I look like some sort of tree expert to you? I’m just here to do repairs.” He shoved the clipboard toward Chuck, lightly tapping it against his chest. He glanced down at it. The paper was upside down, the words slightly jumbled but still legible. “Malfunction,” it read, a photograph of the very same tree that stood before him, powerlines crisscrossing atop it, “high-voltage wiring issue.”
Chuck openly admitted that he was less than an expert in the study of trees—possibly even by more than he’d realized, given these latest findings—but he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he were anything but an electrician. In fact, his experiences with fixing electronics were mostly limited to hitting his television with the palm of his hand whenever it became, as his grandfather declared, “fucked.” He’d also recently tried to fix a broken toaster by shoving a metal fork inside of it while it were on, which he later learned was the reason why he—and several of his neighbors—had to spend Thanksgiving without any heat, electricity, or toasters. Yet, even still, he felt as though he might be harboring some knowledge that could assist his new hard-hatted friend in accomplishing job.
Chuck cleared his throat, turning toward the man. “Is it possible that the powerlines are what’s broken?” He smiled, pointing to the lines crisscrossing over the top of the pine tree with his eyes.
“What?” the man said, pulling the clipboard back over toward his own chest and staring down at it. His face melted from a stern, annoyed expression to one of what seemed to be that of worry. “Of course it’s the powerlines,” he said, face again contorting to that of concern as he glanced back up at Chuck. “Did you—did you think it was the tree that was broken?”
Chuck stared at the man, then at the tree, then once more at the man, before finally coming to a stop on the tree, powerlines resting heavily atop its pointed tip. A spark jumped out from the thick, black cable, slithering down the bark of the tree and disappearing in its pointed, emerald pines, just beneath the plastic cone. “Absolutely not,” Chuck said, shaking his head vigorously as he turned back to the worker. “No way. I meant to say ‘it’s definitely the powerlines that are broken.’ Slip of the tongue. Obviously it’s not a broken tree.” He cleared his throat. “Obviously not.”
“Right,” the man said, squinting as his eyes slid up and down Chuck’s now-exposed soul. He never did consider himself an expert on reading people’s non-verbal cues, possibly even less-so than he thought himself a tree expert. The last time he’d tried to understand the body language of another human was just a few hours prior, while he was out at a coffee shop. It had been with a woman standing ahead of him in line, her hair a wheat-like blonde. She seemed to have been giving him serious, and possibly even violent, “I want you” vibes, which he somehow gathered the courage to act upon. Yet, as he soon introduced himself, he quickly discovered that it was not he she wanted, but rather the epi-pen stuck in her jean pocket. Her eyes had not been screaming “kiss me,” but instead “I’m suffering a severe allergic reaction and need medical assistance.” Yet even despite that horrendously embarrassing experience, Chuck was confident in the fact that the gentleman’s body language screamed that he did not believe Chuck’s lie.
“Anyway,” Chuck said, dropping his hands down to his side, “I better head off. Good luck with your tree.” Without waiting for a response, he swung around and immediately began walking as far away as he could possibly get from where he currently was. Although he could now proudly say that he knew enough about trees to not expect them to malfunction due to wiring issues—which he also knew were issues that involved wires—he did not feel he’d actually learned anything of merit during the exchange. All he did know was that he had yet another section of the town he could no longer show his face in. He sighed, pulling a small, red notepad and pen from his pocket and flipping to a half-full page toward the end of the pad, the words “Off Limits” in thick, black letters on its top-most line. He lowered his pen to the page has he walked and hastily scribbled the words “Park” beneath the word “Movie Theater,” followed by “Coffee Shop.” At this rate, he wouldn’t be able to leave his house without seeing someone he’d said or done something dumb to by the end of January.