Reprinted from "The Journal of the Blue Planet," June 2002
"Morning, Doctor," Walt rasped. The unfamiliar voice from his own throat startled him.
Dr. Jeremy Mills paid no attention to the patient. He talked to residents and interns–they talked to patients. "Mr. Gray was referred to the VA by Encinitas Hospital," he prefaced his presentation reading from the medical chart. "He was admitted to Emergency there after being stabbed in an altercation with a neighbor. He sustained minor cuts and bruises along with a deep laceration to the neck. It appears his opponent was attempting to cut Mr. Gray’s throat."
"They ought to lock that Scarlak up," Walt ranted, "he’s always been a nut. Had trouble with him since the day we moved in. Wish I had brought my gun when he came at me with that knife last week! Should have blown Carl away, him and all his damn lawyers. Where the hell is he?"
Rounds usually went better when he ignored patient outbursts. Not always: sometimes the irrational ones had to be placated. Dr. Mills flipped Walt’s chart to the police report. "Scarlak made bail; he’s out on his own recognizance. Now–"
"–Out on bail, and back to ripping me off! Here I am, flat on my back, while he’s home … " Walt’s voice trailed off.
Dr. Mills continued his presentation over Walt’s whistled rage. "The patient was lucky the resident on duty that night was observant. She noted inflammation and irregularities in the throat tissue she was sewing up. Her biopsy showed some of his throat tumors to be cancerous. Mr. Gray is a retired Navy lifer, so they transferred him here to the VA for treatment. Ear, nose and throat is working with oncology to remove the tumors with minimum damage to his vocal cords."
Walt Gray fondled the pipe clenched in his jaws and inhaled wishful puffs from its imaginary tobacco wad. "Just one load, please, Doc." His nicotine patch had spent itself during the night.
"This is a hospital," Dr. Mills refused, "and look where your habit has gotten you."
"Carl Scarlak put me here, not tobacco," Walt bolted upright and roared. "That redneck has been a problem since the day I met him: caught him stealing water and he came after me with a knife–that’s what he did," his voice faded to a squeaky whisper.
"And what did you do to him?"
"My lawyer told me to keep my mouth shut," his voice was barely audible.
"Your doctor did too," Dr. Mills sounded professional. Discomfort would keep the patient quiet even if caution wouldn’t. Jeremy Mills returned to the patient’s saga of stabbing and surgeries.
Walt Gray got bored with all the doctor talk, and drifted away. He remembered Carl had been an ugly surprise from the day he had moved in next door to him. He was a weird duck who spent summer nights on the roof of his purple trimmed trailer, sipping ‘shine as he ruled his realm. At odd hours, he would climb down and commit some petty mischief to right a despised neighbor’s imagined wrong.
Once upon a time, Carl had had free run of all the empty fields surrounding his trailer and its tiny plot. Civilization dared march right up to his front door. Carl banished it behind a wall of eucalyptus. He crammed his lot with trees, and force-fed them water to keep the outside world out. Desperate for space, the trees clawed outward and upward, gnarling and twisting in protest. Wisps of progress still showed through the trees—he needed more. Feigning ignorance, Carl planted more on adjacent properties and protected them with lawyers—a eucalyptus could grow its weight in lawyers in every postponement.
There must have been well out behind Carl’s trailer, or the place was on an old septic system, Walt was sure. The worse the drought became, the more lawns died–but Carl’s trees kept on growing.
The government encouraged water conservation. Walt put bricks in his toilet tanks and cut back to one military shower each Saturday night. The government demanded more. Walt added bricks and installed shower timers, but it still wasn’t enough. His water bills escalated and Walt searched for leaks. "There has to be a spill the size of Rhode Island out here somewhere," Walt remembered muttering as shined his flashlight in every cubbyhole for the hundredth time.
Walt had slipped out of bed that night and stole to the living room to answer nicotine’s wake-up call. He left the lights off so he wouldn’t wake his wife, or so he claimed. Actually, he left the lights off to bask in the solitude of quiet darkness.
Settling into his old leather chair for the usual ritual, his fingers searched out a pipe and other paraphernalia among the debris on the table. Blackened shards reamed from the bowl dropped into the large ashtray. Walt crushed a fresh wad of tobacco into the bowl, and relaxed back in the chair. A wooden match offered its flame. He drew the flame gently, and consummated the smoke. Its orange glow was too faint to light the mottle of surrounding gray blobs. Wisps of smoke wafted down his throat; he caressed each with his tongue before letting it billow free to swirl in the soft light. The aroma stroked his taste, and a haze of relaxation oozed through him. Walt’s mouth fondled eddies of soothing flavor. He drifted toward serenity as unstimulated senses shut down. The din of civilization had faded away.
Running water whispered somewhere out there in the night. No, he was just obsessing, imaging the sound. –Yes, the intrusion was real, but where? There was no one else up at that hour. No water should be running anywhere in the house–he had double-checked that. Well, he better check it again! "Damn!"
It was coming from outside. Crazy old Carl was out there with a hose, watering his trees at 2:30 in the morning!
The old fool was watering with Walt’s water–no wonder conservation wasn’t working. Anger raged through Walt’s nicotine haze. He snatched a knife from the butcher block on the counter and marched out to confront the neighbor.
A door slammed. Carl’s hose went dry. His eyes searched in the direction of the sound. In the shadow of the trees, he could see a huge man in furious activity. It was Walt slashing his hose to shreds. Carl paused, then challenged the dark figure, "What are you doing to my hose?" A deep growl answered. Carl yanked on the hose. Another growl answered. Carl jerked the hose free. He flailed the loose end at Walt. Walt flinched and backed away; Carl picked the knife up from the ground and charged.
Walt didn’t remember anything after that until the pretty nurse in the emergency room–the one who kept telling Walt she was a doctor. Now he was flat on his back with tubes and bandages. Drugs faded his whole world pastel. His attacker was out on bail–probably planting more trees and watering with his hose.