Veronica Street is a new novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman. It will be serialized here weekly.
I. TUESDAY. IN THE MONTH OF TREES
At 1:47 p.m. on a cloudy day in March, the month of trees, Ayla and Caleb bought fifteen acres of tax-abandoned property. They had agreed to split the price a lopsided-perfect fifty-one percent to forty-nine. Caleb was to be the silent partner. Ayla, who had taught herself architecture - and built two houses, thirteen garages, and a streamline moderne chicken coop - before Architecture school, would manage the project.
"Sold!" The clerk's husky voice cried out, overlapping the sound of a little "ring for service" bell.
To Caleb it sounded like the man had yelled "Gone!"
Though what was gone - his money or something bigger he wasn't sure. Had he just, in some way, married Ayla, his girlfriend of a year and a half? Was this what she had meant the night before when, postcoital and unable to sleep, she'd started talking about the difference between destiny and destination?
Marriage aside, with good fortune, today's risk would pay off. Without, he'd be the owner of fifteen sharp, hilly acres he couldn't unload because of access, or lack of it. None of the lots' previous owners, at least the recent ones, had succeeded in building on the site.
He began to feel giddy. Like the string that held him upright had snapped, underscored by the taut snapping of Ayla's shoes on the linoleum, the snap of the bluish lights, which gave the hall of records its own time zone.
"Are you okay?"
"It's going to be okay."
"Except we paid too much."
"A price tag is nothing more than a test, darling."
"That is not a good joke."
She turned to look at him closely. He was supposed to be the cool one, the one who was a bit disengaged, even if he was always dropping things, spilling, bleeding. But that simple word, sold! And their roles had flipped.
"You look pale. Are you sure you're okay? Do you need something to eat?"
He tucked a loose strand of curly hair behind his ear. He needed to eat. He had forgotten the tablets. And neither of them had any candy or juice.
Veronica was a paper street. It was a scrap of ribbon, named in 1875, and it existed on the city maps, but pavement was never put down. It was real, but never realized. The man who named Veronica Street, Edward Jaspers, died in prison--that was 1908. A hundred-some years later, Veronica Street was a wooded, rolling drapery of hills speckled with bullet casings, weathered glass and aluminum cans, mustard, pepper trees and walnuts, live oaks, sycamores, trees protected by law and outlaw trees as well. Buried staircases made out of cement rubble. In the middle of the hill is a four hundred and fifty-some year live oak. Around the tree's rooty base, the ashes of at least four young men and one woman have been scattered. Something about an old tree predating the dead makes it seem a suitable burial place.
It took the city officials some time to understand the following: As conceived, Veronica went straight over a cliff and up the side of a forty-degree slope - it is no longer accepted practice - or even legal -- to run a street at a grade so steep, but in the 1910s they made it happen - straight up and down.
"Actually, I think I might be going down," Caleb said, as they emerged onto the center courtyard, which was a kind of park, with lawns and palm trees, water fountains. The building they exited was the Hahn Building of Administration. Half the people were here to have some change in status conferred on them, or taken away; the other half were working daily jobs.
"Let's get something decent. We have enough time."
Caleb nodded. Sold-sold, sold-sold, he heard a nice a-b rhythm in their footsteps. Part of him wanted to shake it out, turn it into a go-go beat, irregular, profitable.
The couple crossed 1st Street in the open light, on their way to the parking structure. Low, dark clouds hung low above them. Just as they reached the curb a van squealed to a stop at the corner. Its back doors flew open, and three trees, their root balls wrapped in burlap, were hurled onto the sidewalk. One of the burlap sacks broke, and dirt spilled, exposing a set of stringy roots.
"It looks like an olive tree," Ayla said, as they got closer.
"The price is right."
"But this one won't make it. Not unless it gets planted right away." She nudged the burlap with her foot and then started to walk away.
"Let's take it. The slave can dig a hole."
"Could you please not call him that? He is a WRDI. We don't need this tree, anyway. There's two maleleucas at the foot of the driveway. Didn't you see them when we left?"
The olive as well as the maleleucas, which had been tossed the night before, were a flowering of Joe Betschart's promise to deliver six million free trees to the citizens of Los Angeles whom he claimed to represent as their "natural" (as in "self-appointed") mayor. The elected mayor - Donovan - had of course instituted a trees program, but half the money for it was stalled in committee; the distribution centers were hard to find, and the trees came with all kinds of conditions, so for every tree claimed two languished and died. After a month of Donovan's program, Betschart made a video in which he promised to deliver his four million by midnight the last day of the month. "Put them in the God blessed ground!" He shouted at the camera. "Make them grow! Together we will give new air, new life, to Los Angeles!"
Now it was Tuesday, a week before Betschart's deadline, and bag-wrapped young trees were everywhere. They had been dropped from helicopters, tossed out of vans, off of flatbeds, each tree a separate challenge. Some landed on rooftops, but mostly they littered streets and sidewalks and front and back yards, though many lay atop the roofs of cars, as if an entire mountain had sneezed its trees onto the city.
"I like this little sapling," Caleb said. "It will be the first on our new property. We can plant it on the very edge, the far one at the top of the hill."
Ayla knew the spot. She had memorized the topography, remembered which trees were protected, which slopes were least stable, where the paper street cut through--in her opinion. She took from her satchel their sale documents. She used them to scoop dirt back toward the roots, pleased that Caleb was already thinking of the property in terms of possession.
"Our tree," she said. But Caleb hadn't heard her. He'd stepped into lanes on 1st Street, into the path of an LAPD black-and-white.