Fine. I give up. There’s no such thing as trees.
You make the two-hour drive back to Marquette for the holiday. At dinner, grandpa asks, “Have you heard the truth about trees?” And you say, “What truth about trees?” And he says, “There’s no such thing as trees; the government replaced them with surveillance machines that look like elms and poplars, but they’re actually highly advanced reconnaissance systems put in place to monitor our thoughts.” And you say, “That’s ridiculous.” And he says, “That’s what they want you to believe.” And you say, “Not everything on the internet is true.” And he says, “That’s what they want you to believe.” And you say, “Not everything is a conspiracy.” And he says, “Just keep on swallowing what they’re feeding you, my dumb little child.” And you say, “I don’t have to listen to this bullshit.” And he says, “Spoken like a loyal pawn of the establishment!” Aunt Beatrice stabs the honey baked ham with her fork but doesn’t eat anything. Uncle Nathan pushes the mashed potatoes from one side of the plate to the other. Buddy asks, “Is it cool if I go check the score of the Packers’ game?” Everyone just stares at him. The dog whimpers under the table. Then grandpa says, “They’re probably listening to us right now.” Buddy says, “Who’s listening to us, the Packers?” Grandpa looks at your mom, and says, “You sure didn’t raise a very bright one here, did you?” And you leap to Buddy’s defense, like you always have, and say, “That is uncalled for, Grandpa. You need to apologize.” And mom says, “Let’s all just calm down a little.” And grandpa says, “How can I be calm when they’ve stolen my liberty?” And you say, “Who has stolen your liberty?” And he says, “Don’t even pretend you don’t know about Obama and what he’s doing to the trees.” And you say, “Obama isn’t even president anymore.” And he says, “That’s what they want you to believe.” And you say, “I’m going outside to smoke.” And mom says, “You’re not going anywhere. We’re not finished with dinner. Can we please just have one nice dinner together? Just one normal dinner as a normal family?” but you push away from the table and head for the door without even grabbing your coat. And grandpa says, “Let him go. The deep state has gotten to him. We’ll have to knock him out later if we want to extract the microchip.” And you close the door behind you, but not before hearing Aunt Bethany saying, “What the fuck?” and Uncle Joseph saying, “This family, I swear to God,” and mom saying, “I spent all day on this casserole,” and grandpa saying, “That’s what they want you to believe.” The door closes. It’s colder outside than you imagined. You tap a Newport from the box, put it in your mouth, and your hands go numb while trying to light the thing. You can’t feel your fingers. In the driveway, a fox slinks through a track your tires made through the snow. You look at the cluster of elms gathered across the yard. A clump of ice falls from one of their branches. You stare out at those trees and say, “Are you listening to me right now?” The trees say nothing. And you say, “Yeah. That’s what I thought.” Later, in the aftermath, you’ll help your mom clean the debris of the evening. You’ll straighten up the living room then move on to the kitchen. She’ll sigh and look out the window, maybe looking at something in the distance, or maybe just not wanting to look at you. You’ll ask, “What’s wrong?” She’ll just hug you and kiss you on the cheek, then say that she’s going to bed. You’ll finish the dishes and when you’re done, you’ll get ready to leave. Putting on your peacoat, you’ll find your grandfather passed out in front of the TV. It’s where he now spends most of his days, according to mom. On the screen, one man will yell, “Our God is an awesome God,” and another will yell, “Our America is an awesome America,” and another will yell, “Can’t we just go light some shit on fire?” In the dimness, if you look close enough, which of course you will, you’ll notice that your grandfather still looks like the man who once taught you to tie your shoes, how to make a snowball, and how to whistle. In the flickering TV light, from across the room, if you don’t move an inch, you can believe he still is that man. Is this the natural progression of endings? Change. Adaptation. A ball of swirling gasses and dust becomes planet Earth. Tectonic plates rearrange themselves again and again. Dinosaurs turn to fossils. Small towns become empires become ruins for tourists to visit. Everything gets older and meaner and breaks apart. Entire forests are reduced to fields of ash, then little green things sprout up like futile ideas from the soot. You recognize the world, then you don’t. You’re standing in the house you grew up in, then you’re not. Already, you’re outside, climbing into your car. Already, you’re miles away.
Matthew Olzmann is the author of two collections of poems, Mezzanines and Contradictions in the Design, both from Alice James Books. His third book of poems, Constellation Route, is forthcoming in January 2022. He teaches at Dartmouth College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.