College entrance exams revealed Karl to have the highest I.Q. ever recorded at UNC. Yet, despite his recent honors, Wagner felt himself a failure. He had sold only one short story since Darkness Weaves, a ghost story set near Gatlinburg called "In the Pines," to Fantasy and Science Fiction. He resigned himself to making the best of a medical career. But the rebellious streak he had held in check so much more successfully than I at Central now began to get the better of him. In fairness, though, he now had more important things to rebel against. He had always regarded himself as a flint-hearted pragmatist with no time for sentiment, but medical school revealed a social conscience.
He told of a class where a helpless-looking, half-naked patient in a wheel chair was displayed before them like a lab specimen. "Class, we're very fortunate to have with us today" (the doctor turned the patient so they could observe the pattern of inflamed nerves on his back) "a case of North American Blastomycosis. The inflammation you see here makes the patient very sensitive to touch." A finger darted down and the patient, responding to this stimulus, said, "Aaaaiieeee!"
And then there was the similarly afflicted patient on a gurney who could not bear even the weight of the sheet. Inch by painful inch she would work it off her, only to have the next passing intern pull it back up for the sake of propriety. Wagner said you could determine by ear when you were in the indigent ward: That's where the screams were loudest. Painkillers were expensive.
Wagner was also disgusted by most animal experiments, which he regarded as sadism in the guise of science. Most experiments were only the clumsy repetition by students of experiments described in textbooks. Wagner was perfectly willing to accept the word of the authors as to the predicted outcome rather than subject inoffensive beasts to the tortures of the damned. At the start of vacations, most experimental animals were summarily killed. It was cheaper to replace them to feed and care for them over the break.
When local pets began to disappear, Wagner suspected UNC of dealing with Burke and Hare style animal-nappers. I happened to be visiting him in Chapel Hill one weekend when his huge cat Lucifer Sam went missing.
Karl and I broke into the animal labs and conducted a cage-to-cage search. I discovered science with an inhuman face. Some animals were bandaged, others had open wounds stitched with inept, Frankenstein stitches. Cats clawed at me as I came near, vowing not to be taken alive. I didn't enter the room with the "DangerRadiation" sign, but peering through the window in the door I could see what had once been an Irish Setter feebly scratching at his scaly hide with a rubbery paw.
We didn't find Lucifer Sam, but when we returned to Wagner's home and told of our outing, his housemate asked cryptically, "Oh, Wags! Did you set your people free again?" I was never able to elicit details from either of them about Karl's earlier excursion.
Wagner presented a dilemma to UNC. On the one hand, his grasp of medical principals was phenomenal. More than once he was asked to take over the classes he was enrolled in while the instructor attended to other matters. His grades were excellent. On the other hand, he openly espoused socialized medicine. He lacked humility. One time, he felt one of his instructors had insulted him and he barred him from leaving the room until the doctor had apologized. And he rode a motorcycle and dressed like an outlaw biker with long red hair, full beard, and denim "colors." (He referred to his home as The Valley Park Clinic and Cycle Shop.)
Surgeons, in particular, hated Karl. He refused to accept the traditional hazing of students. If surgeons demanded, as they did, that med students walk up to the eighth floor while they rode the elevator, Wagner would simply shove in beside them. "They don't just want you to eat shit," Wagner told his wife, "they want you to say, 'My! This is really good shit! Might I have some more?'"
The last straw, for both Wagner and UNC, happened one day when he was on rotation with an instructor and another student. They were examining an elderly black man dying of tuberculosis and too far gone to be helped. But this was, after all, a teaching hospital. The other student was ordered to give some sort of injection. For several minutes he probed futilely with the needle in search of the patient's shriveled veins. The old black man endured the ordeal without complaint, saying only, and repeatedly, "Listen, I 'preciate what you boys are tryin' to do for me, but ain't no use. I jes' wanna go home and die amongst m' people." The instructor ignored him. Sweat began to bead on the old man's brow, and he began to hiss through clinched teeth in an effort to keep from crying out as the puncturing continued. At last it was obvious that no simple injection was going to be possible. A new learning experience was in order.
"Mr. Wagner, cut this man down and expose a vein, please."
"There's no point in subjecting him to more pain," Wagner whispered. "Nothing we do is going to change his prognosis."
"Mr. Wagner, I am the doctor here!" the instructor sputtered. "You are the student! Never! Never! contradict me in front of a patient. Cut down that man's arm!"
"I'm not going to be a party to this."
"Very well! Steve, please cut Mr. Anderson and give him his injection. Mr. Wagner, observe this procedure carefully. You will be here at 2 a.m. to give Mr. Anderson his next injection."
"No, I won't."
At about 2:30 the next morning, Karl's phone began to ring. He placed his pillow over his head. After a long time, the phone quit ringing.
Wagner, of course, was called on the carpet. The deans confessed he presented a problem they had never before had to face. He had the highest rotation grades in the school. His other grades were likewise excellent. But his attitude deplorable! How could such a dilemma be resolved? Not so difficult, it turned out. He would have to repeat third year.
Wagner was outraged. How could they flunk someone with an A average? He dropped out of medical school and contemplated a lawsuit against UNC. But, for now, he had plenty of time to devote to his writing. And it paid off. At last he sold a book, Death Angel's Shadow, to a real publishing house, Warner Paperback. Once again he persuaded his editor to let me do the interior illustrations. I was to share art credits on this book with Frank Frazetta, the best-known artist in the field then. It looked as if, at last, we were both headed for the big time. "Getting kicked out of med school is the best thing that ever happened to me," Wagner reflected.
Karl Wagner's worst year was my best. I had met Barbara Mott in a campus coffee house run by her sister Marjorie Mott formerly of the Knoxville Junior Academy of Science. I had never met anyone so vivacious as Barbara, so full of enthusiasm. She seemed the very soul of youth while I had been born old. She sang along joyously with all the folk songs that I, until that very evening, had thought were tripe. She grabbed my hand and forced me to join in little impromptu dances. As Oscar Wilde observed, "A bad man admires innocence." And Jean Baudrillard said, "There is no aphrodisiac like innocence." She came with me that first night back to Toad Hall. She inspired in me an emotion I had never known: happiness. She had a special talent for making people feel good about themselves. She told her folks she was going to start staying with friends on campus and, essentially moved in with me. For one who had in high school literally provoked squeals of terror from the opposite sex, this was a season of epiphany.
She had not met Karl. During his undergraduate days he had managed to visit Toad Hall every couple of weeks, but medical school demanded more of him and he had barely found time even to visit his parents. We communicated mostly by post. But Barbara became fascinated with the illustrations I was working on for his book. I had done a small pen and ink portrait of him, and she said she'd like to meet the man who had such dreamy eyes. If only I had read, "Face on the Barroom Floor."
After she and Karl were married, he and I had a falling out that lasted quite a while, though I'm not sure he ever had much choice about the whole thing.
* * *
Gradually, I got over my grudge. Karl had, after all, given his freedom to save mine. Still, we were no longer so close. For one thing, we no longer shared the same concerns. He was a married man with a mortgage, car payments, insurance. He and Barbara seemed an unlikely pair to their Knoxville friends. He was the Appolonian, she the Dionysian. She was the pretty, bubbly, fresh-scrubbed Teen Board debutante, he the brooding Byronic figure. With his long red-blond hair and beard, he had a definite leonine aspect. He very much resembled, in fact, Cocteau's Beast. Barbara and Karl, Beauty and the Beast.
Then, too, Wagner had less time for socializing. Death Angel's Shadow had, at last, established Wagner as an important writer of horror and epic fantasy. (He hated the phrase "swords and sorcery.") It was nominated for the August Derleth Award in England for the Year's Best Fantasy Novel in spite of the fact that it was not a novel. And he had steeled himself and returned to medical school where he did, indeed, repeat third year and graduated with honors.
Once out of school, Wagner began to visit Knoxville more frequently. After calling on his parents, he and Barbara would come around Toad Hall to drink and enjoy a toke or two. Once our appetites had been stimulated we'd head down to Brother Jack's for the food of the gods.
Brother Jack's was a barbecue joint operated, with his wife Thelma, by Tip Jackson, the son of the original Brother Jack. It was located in a black neighborhood and a rough one, though the only trouble we ever had there was with slumming rednecks. There was a great deal of drug use and violence in the neighborhood, a fact that added a special zest to the barbecued ribs when we made it back home alive with them. One night, a young black man was at Brother Jack's showing around his X-ray as though it were a snapshot of his child. He had been shot in a drive-by (though that word was not yet hyphenated) while standing in front of the ice plant a few feet from Brother Jack's screen door. Wagner examined the X-ray and told him he was lucky to be alive. Wagner occasionally referred to Brother Jack's in his stories.
We often armed ourselves before venturing to Brother Jack's. Once we encountered two young white men who seemed to be toying with the idea of robbing the seemingly vulnerable little shop. "What would you do if somebody tried to rob you and your customers?" one of them asked Tip casually. Tip pulled out a .38 revolver.
"I'd shoot 'em with this gun," he responded blandly.
"Nice gun. How's about lemme take a look at it?"
Tip slid it across the huge old stump that served as chopping block. One of the white men picked it up and pointed it at him. The other seemed to be groping in his pocket.
"And what would you if somebody robbed you with your own gun," he asked, grinning. There was a chorus of clicks and snicks and the two were ringed by a circle of pistols and knives in the hands of Tip's regulars. Tip himself produced a Magnum. "I'd shoot him with this other gun."
Another night at Brother Jacks, four or five of us encountered a band of armed and obnoxious rednecks. Most of us weren't heeled. Hotter heads prevailed, and we went back to the Toad Hall armory for more weapons. As we left the van headed for the showdown, Big Joe (whom we all regarded as slow-witted, though he later became a TVA engineer) elected to wait in the van with the shotgun. "You get 'em on the run' and I'll shoot the first one out the door," he called after us. When we entered, the rednecks had gone. It was then that Joe's parting comment registered on us.
"Did he say he was going to shoot the first one out the door?" Wagner asked.
"We better tell him everything's cool!"
"Right. Who's going to go tell him?"