Schmutz

Schmutz

Read this short fiction with a coffee.

It was a game they played all along the suburban streets through here but we have it on good authority it’s widespread. I noticed it here first, an arborist following up on early and incorrect research on my own street, from the foot of my brick apartment block that held my life and a set of eight others. Other blocks around us punctuated still by freestanding places holding individual groups of lives without density but with, at least, backyards and no body corporate. Not all of the trees play this game because their branches just aren’t home to leaves that pollinate or that can drop such detritus down upon the road. Those that can play do and those that can’t spectate and score. The winner is announced in the slow way of the trees by this committee of watchers. Trees never sleep, after all, and they need something to do. A distant colleague, esteemed and so on, first reported the phenomenon far away where polite societies also build houses and streets they adorn with trees. This colleague discovered this process when she correlated the amount of greenery streaked upon the street with the rush of chlorophyll, as if pumped by a heart under stress, through the trees. She just thought it was a game about spreading your wings, if you will.

The way it works is that the trees with broader canopies, whose tendrils attract insects and children and young adults looking for careers and so on with their colour and their nectar, compete to see how much they can cover a car parked beneath in leaves, flowers, pollen, schmutz as my German colleague described it. Anything that sticks to cars and comes off naturally only in heavy rains and artificially under the hose or the mechanised car washes for which you have to pay. The objective of the game is not a simple measure though of weight or those blessed with larger cars below would win every time. This is against the spirit of good competition because of its necessity upon luck. It wouldn’t be much of a game in the way that pokies aren’t a game. And the trees know about the pokies. They can smell it on those stumbling home beneath them late at night. Whispers in the late hours from taverns that are closer to cutthroat casinos than to public houses. Instead, long sedans, SUVs, and two-door coupés are all playing for the same subjective prize.

The cars park overnight on the street because they have to, generally. Sometimes the trees don’t love the game but they play along. There’s not a lot else for trees to do except shake in the wind so when it comes it’s simple to join in. Some varieties don’t need the wind at all but that’s what we call expectations and residents generally are aware of these ones. It’s guests that get it good there sometimes so there are occasionally surprise upsets. Once the cars are at rest, their owners retreated to the indoors out of the elements, the heat or the cold depending on the hemisphere and the season and the time of day and the sensitivity of everyone individually to the thing, the goal is for the tree to cover the cars as much as they can. Remember that victory is not a function of the weight of the shedding as my learned colleague suspected. It’s true that it’s often related but my notes, to follow, are what elevates this process from observation to science. The full blanketing of a car does often crown a winner. Before we proceed with the finer details of the game know this: for all their lack of eyes, ears, and outward sensory organs, trees are remarkably receptive. They can hear, in particular, much. Your whispered secrets, your gossip, and especially your arguing, even the first words your children say when you’re not in the room because you’re briefly out of sight and earshot. This accurate measure of the subtlety of things is useful for their scoring.

They have a running ladder that exists informally, street by street, with trees on corners overlapping in different competitions and in some instances finding ways to place on more than one routes’ fixtures at a time. These ladders live in the collective, democratic memories of the trees and they have done since the first car, long ago, was parked underneath a tree within branchshot of another. On my street, I don’t reckon the first tree to win is any longer in the lead. By my math, it’s placed sixth. Some loose numbers that I’ve pulled from the changes in viscosity of the sap around bouts of competition seem to confirm something similar. Maybe fifth. Maybe seventh. It’s a developing field. It has, in its defence, had to contend with the sale of the house behind it and the leaving of that family’s many children, now grown, and their first and second cars now long gone.

The game is: to cover these cars and, by way of a score, to draw from frustrated and half-awake commuters a measurable exasperation when they see how much has been glued by nature to their vehicle overnight. I track this in decibels. I’m sure they have their own register. Some trees are cursed with those whose routines have stuck and who’ve given up on fighting the schmutz and left it instead to aggregate and so, on the mornings of the game, offer nothing. These unfortunate trees have tried to grow in different directions from those cars, away from the street, but they remain — as with just about all plants big and small (a good reminder I need to water mine) — at the whims of the weather and the sun. In my studies I’ve found some disappointed trees in streets amongst suburbs farflung from capital cities where there are blocks of rentals about them and because of which they’ll never win. The human spirit fading, sort of, at a distance from the energy of the glass batteries climbing high into the sky. Aging Pulsars cheap to buy and cheap to run simply not worth the opportunity cost of a good clean. This human frustration for which they play a function, ultimately, of caring. And the trees play for that because otherwise all they have is pride and honour and nothing else tangible about their own spirits and learning to care would be for them interesting even as they breathe out our own vital oxygen.

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