Rosalia Scalia

A Nut Job

Let’s get something straight right at the beginning: I don’t make trouble, but I don’t take it lying down either. I give zero fucks about what happens to people who piss on a rope and try to tell me it’s raining. Far as I’m concerned, they get what they deserve, and I can tell you something else: the harpy next door got what she deserved. At sixty-nine, I’m like that Johnny Cash tune: I’ve been everywhere. And I’ve done a boatload of things. I taught French at a Philly elementary school back in the late ’60s before quitting and getting the hell out Dodge. I can tell you the education system wasn’t worth a damn then with all the stupid rules, and that was forty years ago, and the same goes for now. Nothing changed. Different faces, same old story. I moved to Baltimore in the late ’70s to work as a cop in the police department there. After a fourteen-year run, I got sacked. Stupid rules again aimed at the sheeple tripped me up. I confiscated an illegal automatic firearm from an informant. So what, I didn’t turn it in right away. Doesn’t mean I intended to keep it. I just didn’t get around to submitting it to the Evidence Room fast enough for the Brass. I do admit to hanging out of my patrol car window waving a medieval sword, threatening to stab perps in the ass if they got out of line. Yes, I did that on the city’s west side. Nobody had a sense of humor back then. The Brass Asses didn’t like it, but those pork chops on my post kept their hoodlum asses inside when I was on duty. They spread the news that I was a nut job—do I look like a nut job to you?—but the crime stats backed it up. They didn’t want to be out on the streets on my shifts. Some numbnuts—probably a pinko commie bleeding heart liberal—complained about due process, civil rights, and all that, and dropped a dime on me to the Internal Investigation Department. Those IID motherfuckers had a field day. I do admit to mocking a captain who couldn’t speak English properly. How the hell do you get to be captain if you can’t speak proper English? How the hell was I supposed to know that he had a speech impediment and just wasn’t a stupid fuck, saying “pacific” instead of “specific”? Let’s just say the corrupt-assed PD and I agreed to a mutual parting of the ways down there in that Podunk mini-city that thought it was a German shepherd when it was only a Chihuahua. Even before I went to Podunk Baltimore, thanks to my parents I possessed a wider view of the world than most of those bozos in that teeny-tiny city with their stupid, ignorant accent of which they’re so proud. My squad, those stupid fucks, would say “pockeybooks” for “purses” over the radio, serious as a heart attack.

After the PD I poked around awhile, trying out this and that: sold insurance but didn’t make a cent; worked as a cook in a country restaurant for not enough money, especially for a guy with two bachelor’s degrees; and then I went back to school to become a nurse. In ’Nam they called me “Doc,” so becoming a civilian ER nurse, a piece of cake. When on the PD, I showed my squad my left arm, scarred from my wrist to above my elbow, a gunshot wound. From ’Nam. Fighting gooks. Can’t feel anything hot with my left hand to this day, which suited me fine, especially when cooking.

The battle with the harpy next door started with that goddamn tree, the one over there, the black walnut tree. Let me tell you, those trees can drive anyone to the brink of hell and back. It drove both me and my neighbor to hell and back. Its branches severely overhung my yard, dropping large walnuts from high up in the air—twenty or thirty feet or so—like mini bombs, silent explosions all over my yard that left ugly stains all over the place. Only luck prevented them from knocking my head off and killing me. What if a kid—let’s say, for shits and giggles, one of my grands—if my kids weren’t assholes and actually came around with my grands—was playing in my yard when those suckers dropped? They pocked my yard with indentations and holes, making it hard to mow. I spent a fucking hour picking all those damn nuts up before mowing. It robbed my yard of sunlight, killed my herbs, my prized roses, my fig tree. But that damned black walnut tree overgrew wild into my yard because that old harpy refused to prune it. If you looked up, all you’d see was that damn tree, a canopy wider than the moon. No sky. Not a speck of sky anywhere in my yard. At night my yard looked darker, creating a safety issue. Anyone could’ve climbed down that tree into my yard and robbed my house.

The old harpy dished up enough excuses to feed an army of hopes. She loved that tree so much, she couldn’t bear trimming one branch, which might be how it came to overtake my yard. I got tired of her neglect and sick of listening to her billions of excuses. I got a chainsaw and started sawing from the bottom. She heard the chainsaw and came running out. By this time, I already sawed off a good portion of the bottom branches. When she realized I wasn’t going to stop chopping those branches, she called the cops on me.

The limb—thick and fat with age—required serious effort, and God damn, my mood turned lousy because even with a chainsaw, it proved to be hard fucking work. Two Boy-Scout cops arrived. They looked twelve years old, playing dress-up in their daddy’s clothes, and when they hollered up to me from the harpy’s yard, I ignored them and just kept sawing. I knew, and they knew, they can’t do a fuckin’ thing about my trimming the overhanging nuisance branches trespassing on my property.{

“What’s going on, Mr. Thorne?” one of them shouted above the noise of the saw.

What a stupid thing to say. Obviously what was going on looked plain as day with me up on a ladder sawing those branches off. “Nothing to see here, boys. You can move along now.”

“Maybe you can shut that thing off, and we can find a better way to resolve this,” the other one said.

After waiting for months for that harpy to trim her damn nuisance tree, resolving the issue, in my mind, translated to cutting it back to the property line. “Why?” I asked.

Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum shrugged.

“It would be more neighborly,” Tweedle-Dee finally said.

“Noted. Material for the circular file. Thanks for dropping by, boys,” I said. I climbed up the ladder and turned the chain saw back on.

Months ago, when I rang that old harpy’s doorbell to complain about the tree branches, she shut the door in my face. Never met a ruder, more disagreeable woman in my entire life. Always a shrew—complaining about one thing or another—after her husband kicked the bucket, she specialized in being a bitch. She could have snagged herself a new man, one who would take care of the damn tree. Her sour personality and attitude worked against her. Sending her a bill for services rendered crossed my mind. I tossed offending limbs over the fence into her yard on the other side of the cops, the unripe green hulls of the nuts quivering on the branches.

“Whoa, Mr. Thorne,” Tweedle-Dum said.

I kept sawing. My hands began to cramp from clenching the weight of the saw, forcing me to take a small break and flex my fist. I turned it off. The old harpy dragged an aluminum ladder behind her that she leaned against the fence separating our yards. Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum explained what I already knew: nuisance overhanging branches can be pruned by the property owner of the yard in which they’re trespassing. What was the bigger nuisance, the tree or the harpy? I wondered.

Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum moved on because the harpy refused to understand the concept that I can cut the branches in my yard all the way down to the property line, marked by the fence.

“Mr. Thorne, I thank you to leave my magnificent tree alone,” she said, her mouth barely moving as if she was sucking on marbles. Plain as the nose on your face, she considered herself superior without knowing anything about me.

“You’re murdering my tree. A beautiful and majestic life form,” she said, waving her arm theatrically in circular motions. “And please stop tossing those branches over the fence. Someone could get hurt.”

Who would get hurt? I wondered. She lived alone. She didn’t even own a pet. She climbed up her ladder to tell me this in a scolding voice. Well, fuck her.

“I’m returning your own shit back to you.”

At this point, I sawed off many of the thinner limbs that had extended their fingers into my yard as if they wanted to pluck something out of it. The heavier, thicker ones extended their arms into my yard, looking ready to capture one of my cats, which never go outside.

“You’re destroying my tree!” she shouted. “It’ll die! You’re butchering it!”

“It’s destroying my yard. Look at all those indentations in the ground. It looks polka-dotted.”

“I never complain about your cats,” she said. “They ruin my rosebushes, dig up my herb garden, and shit in my seed beds.”

My cats never go out. They stay inside, safe from chicken hawks, safe from foxes, and safe from poisonous people like the harpy who probably sees them sitting in my windows, plotting against them. I turned the chain saw back on to finish off another branch, tossing it over the fence. Then I thought about it and turned off the saw so she could hear me loud and clear.

“My cats don’t go outside. Ever.”

“Do you specialize in being a dick? Did you take special how-to-be-a-dick classes?”

Her eyes, twin blue chips, glared at me from her prune face, no doubt dried up from all the sun beaming into her yard which her tree robbed from mine.

“How kind of you to notice,” I said, forgetting that my short sleeves exposed my scarred arm, its length and depth along my arm looking like a white river and its tributaries. Part of me for more than half my life, I forgot about its initial effects on someone seeing it for the first time. Gunshot wound. ’Nam. All that.

“No doubt some brave woman somewhere who got tired of your bullshit did that,” she said, pointing to the exposed scar. “Stabbed your sorry ass. Too bad she missed anything vital.” She climbed up a few rungs of her ladder and started pitching hard, green walnut hulls at me.

“Maybe if you had a man in your life, you’d have a better attitude. Maybe you need a good boner to set you right,” I said, tossing more limbs into her yard.

Her face turned crimson with anger, and I knew I must have hit a nerve.

It was true: I got shot. But not in ’Nam. It was also true a woman shot me but not how the harpy thought. Those ’Nam stories about taking and retaking Hamburger Hill? Also true. They happened. But not to me. I read every book about ’Nam I could find and then combined and retold stories to my squad when I was a cop while those fuckers feasted on my beef stroganoff, pilaf, and beer. Stories about gooks and Bouncing Betties, stories of calling in air strikes on gooks, about Agent Orange stripping foliage clean, about “doctoring” wounded before loading them up on helicopters, about guts hanging out of the dead and beautiful Mama-sans. Nobody doubted my stories, regardless of what job I held. Not one of the dumb fucks at any job ever bothered looking up anything, or they’d have discovered that I lived in Quebec City, Canada, during the war, finishing college at Laval University after getting tossed from the military one in Philly after I got shot and after the draft notice fell into my parents’ mail slot. Marching in dress grays and fighting mock battles on a military college campus and marching into combat anywhere consisted of two different kinds of marching. I’d’ve gone to ’Nam, no problem, but my parents embraced a different notion—one that included me taking over my dad’s company, which I desperately wanted to avoid. I loved wearing the dress grays, the light-blue trousers of the military college’s uniform. I can still fit into it. Maybe if those fuckers at the military college hadn’t expelled me in sophomore year, my life would have unfolded differently. Maybe I would have shipped out to ’Nam and died there, or been one of those poor bastards struggling with PTSD, homeless and addicted, kicked to the curb by a country that sent them there to die but killed them in other ways instead when they came home.

I got expelled along with another cadet. We commandeered a ferryboat that crossed the river bisecting the town. We suffered a small accident—not with the ferry but with a small derringer, a .22 caliber that I gave to my date to hold in her purse after the Coast Guard boarded the boat and ended our adventure. It proved to be a helluva joyride. Yes, other passengers were on board but nobody got hurt. How hard is it to pilot a ferryboat across a river, for Pete’s sake? I gave my date the gun—a tiny thing with pearl handles—because I knew I’d be in less trouble with it safely hidden in her purse. Only nineteen at the time, I was a kid. I still own the gun, a true beauty, after a huge legal battle that my parents and I waged to get it back. My date, whom I never saw again after that night, had not seen or held a gun before, and especially not one as pretty as that pearl-handled derringer, so small it fit in her hand like a toy. Instead of dropping it into her purse, she held it, admired it, and when the ferryboat lurched due to my friend’s inexperience as a ferry pilot, she accidentally shot a .22 into my left arm. Small-caliber bullets do a lot of damage. It took a long time to recover, a shit ton of surgeries, but my arm functions normally thanks to my parents’ money. The doc gave me the misshapen bullet, which I kept for a while but then lost along the way.

The harpy fired those green walnut hulls at me, but I ignored her and the nuts and kept on sawing. 

“Mr. Thorne, enough. Stop chopping my tree,” she shouted over the chainsaw, continuing to shoot those unripe green balls at me, trying but failing to hit my head.

What a lousy shot! I wondered if she was totally sober. It pissed me off that she correctly assumed that a woman injured my arm. I contemplated telling her to fuck herself but said nothing. I contemplated hurling those green walnut hulls back at her and imagined taking out her eye, or her nose, or seriously injuring her pruned-up face, which would be doing the world a favor, a favor lost on the likes of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, who’d only return to haul me off for assault. As a nurse, I couldn’t do it. So I just kept sawing those fucking branches.

“Do you have to cut every blasted one?” she shouted, her indignation turning her face red. She nailed me with a green walnut hull, one for every word. I turned off my chainsaw.

“Yes,” I said calmly.

I descended my ladder, chain saw in hand, and set it on the ground before moving the ladder closer to the fence but further away from that harpy and started sawing the slightly thicker branches closer to the trunk. I carefully sawed the branch right at the property line to keep things legal. Ignoring her, I grabbed my chain saw and carried it up the ladder to cut through the thicker branches, yelling, “Tiiiiimber!” just to piss her off as I tossed the branches in her yard.

I hadn’t noticed that she moved her ladder closer to mine on her side of the fence. That old harpy fired another unripe walnut hull at me, this time hitting me hard in my face, gouging my right cheek, which started bleeding. I dropped my saw to the ground and held my face, which hurt worse than getting shot in the arm.

“Son of a bitch,” I yelled, my cheek bleeding into my hands. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

I looked up just in time to see her arm reach over the fence, trespassing into my yard just like her tree limbs. She pushed the ladder over with all her might, saying how sorry she felt that I fell off the ladder, and what a terrible accident it was. This time I called Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. When they arrived, I lay flat on the ground, unable to move, my cheek still bleeding, my ankle swollen. They referred to me as “Old Man” when they called an ambo. I wanted to tell them I wasn’t an “old man.” Before I could speak, I heard the harpy describing how she witnessed me falling off the ladder. Technically true: she watched me fall. Also technically true, she pushed the ladder while I was on it; in my old cop brain, that translated to attempted murder, which was what I told Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, and yessiree, you best believe I filed a complaint for attempted murder.

After I got home from the hospital with all these casts, I called a few buddies over, and for a couple of cases of brewskis and delivered pizza, they fed my cats, cleaned all the litter boxes, and sawed every branch of that tree that took up air space in my yard. My new neighbors—cat lovers—pruned and cared for the tree so that its branches no longer hogged my yard. Every now and again I mailed that old harpy some picture postcards of the tree at her new digs at the state penitentiary, her vacation place for the next few.

© Rosalia Scalia

Rosalia Scalia is the author of the story collection, Stumbling Toward Grace (Unsolicited Press 2021). Her second collection, Under the Radar, is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press in January 2025. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Medicine and MeaningBig Muddy 21, Notre Dame Review, The Oklahoma Review, North Atlantic ReviewThe Portland Review, and Quercus Review, among others. She holds an MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University and is a Maryland State Arts Council Independent Artist’s Award recipient. She won the Editor’s Select award from Willow Review and her short story in Pebble Lake was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives with her family in Baltimore City.

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