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Tree Hugger

 

A chainsaw pierces the air, a death bell for a tree in a city so dearly in need of them. Ike, on his tranquil morning meditation walk, feels his positive energies waning. He inhales deeply to calm his increased pulse rate and reaches, instinctively, into his pocket for his energy guardian. He rubs his crystal and gives it a squeeze as if it were a refresh button back to harmony. But peace eludes him.

 

"Yo, Tree Hugger," says a brawly biker who has never called him by name and whose negative energies keep Ike from ever recalling his. His head had been under an open hood of a Chevy truck. Now he just leans on the truck, which is parked on the grass, and lights a cigarette.

 

"Hear that noise?" He guffaws, then he adds, "I'm just messin' with ya, dude. Don't go holdin' no vigils now. Does no good."

 

Ike gives him a courtesy wave, glancing, as he always does, at the five-foot-diameter eucalyptus stump in the biker's yard. He had claimed the tree impeded his work-space freedoms when he reduced the majestic giant down from a beneficial shade tree, oxygen producer, bird habitat, healer, and visual mood lifter to a pedestal for a Harley. Surely the biker looked upon the stump like a hunter would his stuffed trophy. Ike sees a remnant of a life cut short, a memorial site for a eucalyptus that once lived and which was there long before the thoughtless tree killer was born.

 

"They aren't vigils," Ike mumbles to himself. "They're blessing ceremonies."

 

He uses essential oils—eucalyptus, specifically—and burns incense and performs a reading to the sky. It's not like he comes around every day with flowers and teddy bears.  In his late teens, he was once arrested for burning a cross on the lawn of a newly felled hundred-foot-tall coastal redwood. He's mellowed out now ten years later; he's learned behavior therapy and meditation.   

 

Ike inherited his house from his grandparents, who had chosen this neighborhood for its tree-lined streets and mature landscaping. Then, as if by his horticulture degree he became cursed, he watched helplessly as his neighbors began cutting down the trees. The recession sent many of his former neighbors packing, resettling wherever there was work. Cheap housing and foreclosures brought in new elements: retirees and first-time homebuyers; the former too old for yard work and the latter too lazy. There's also a new breed of homeowner that Ike's more compatible with: drug dealers. They need the trees for privacy.

 

Ike tries to educate his neighbors about a few unscrupulous gardeners who get more money in cutting and stump removal than in trimming. He warns that they'll concoct reasons for cutting, citing a tree's incurable disease or threats of future cracked foundations or some other disaster that can be dodged by destroying the perpetrator. If they still look unconvinced, he'll offer his arborist services for free. But most have already judged him the neighborhood lunatic. Some are polite to him, especially the seniors who call him a young whippersnapper, a hippie, or tree hugger. The young families, with their monster trucks, Raider flags, beer fests and barbeques, call him a freak and run him off their lawns. The bikers just like to mess with him.

 

The distant chainsaw racket has Ike pumping his crystal like a stress ball. He wants to turn around and go home to his flowers and trees and organic garden. He could relax there, pretend he lived somewhere else than here in the concrete jungles of Fresno. If he could afford it (if he didn't give away his services), he'd move back to Berkeley among his own kind.

 

He can't walk home just yet. He has obligations to the Australian Tree Fern down the street. Its homeowners walked away from their mortgage, the foreclosure sign went up, and the yard grew unkempt. Now as summer is here, Ike waters the tree fern. It's too delicate to withstand one day in Fresno's triple digits without water. The grass has already died and turned the color of wheat. Rose bushes are singed and beyond resurrection. The mature trees are sturdy and should persevere but the tree fern, so tropical and lush, lives only due to Ike's daily care.

 

Water service is still on at the house, but the electricity is not, which meant the automatic sprinkler system was disabled. Ike had put the hose on a slow drip so he wouldn't be seen loitering around the house every day, but someone always comes in behind him and turns it off. So now he risks trespassing to hand water it daily.

 

Approaching the house, Ike notices how much the tree fern looks out of place, healthy and green among the backdrop of dead brush. He strides over, feet crunching the dry grass, and maneuvers behind bush carcasses to the hose under the picture window. He bends to turn the water on and as his hand turns the spigot, he catches a glimpse, a movement from behind the glass. Mid-morning glare mirrors his own image and that from behind him presenting a challenge to peep in a casual manner. Hands cupping his eyes, nose to the pane, he surveys the living room and notices a scattering of debris on the floor. A sleeping bag rolled in the corner, a pizza carton on the floor used as a table for Styrofoam cups and a pack of cigarettes and something else.

 

He pulls away from the window and uses his t-shirt sleeve to wipe off his breath's steam then returns position for a better look at the object of scrutiny. It's missing. He scans the carton and the area around it and then it occurs to him what it was he had seen. A jacket-hooded figure steps into view holding it. Ike straightens and raises his hands in a freeze position. The clumsiness of his gesture combined with sweat and fear, causes him to release his energy guardian. His reflexes, trumping his good sense, prompts spastic hand swipes in the air to retrieve it as it drops. A shot is fired. The window shatters.

 

Ike lies on the grass, the noise of sirens replace the chainsaw. He opens his eyes to the biker, who, for once, has a serious expression. Other neighbors stand over him as well. They are all talking at once but his ears are ringing, he can't hear anything but the newly arrived ambulance, police, fire and trash truck, and in that order.

 

Ike wonders the extent of his wound, or if he's even alive. The police question his shooter, waving a pen light in his eyes, the fire crew question the trash man—the trash man shrugs—and the medical technician is checking Ike's vitals. The police arrest his shooter. Several more EMTs tend to Ike whose hearing starts working again. The EMTs are smiling. One of them holds out his crystal. A bullet lodged in it like a fly in amber.

 

Everyone applauds.

 

An EMT helps Ike to his feet. Now that he knows he's alive, he walks over and turns off the water to the tree fern before it floods.