Photo by Heather D'Augustine
Read earlier chapters of "Veronica Street"
While Rosalyn checked fares...
Caleb arrived at the base of the hill to find the cracked cement steps freshly tagged. It was the fifth time he had been up here. There'd been three visits before the auction, yesterday's visit after they bought the place. And now. He carried the maleleuca.
He began climbing the stairs, mustard greens towering over his head, gray skies and the smell of wet sandstone in the air. Perhaps it was the stress of buying property: his levels had been all over the place the last few days.
He stopped to catch his breath. Once again, he checked the soles of his shoes for seeds.
At the third landing, the steps turned, and off to the side old path of desire began. He thought this place is beginning to make sense.
Still, it didn't matter how many times you had climbed. Each time you went up the Veronica Street stairs you were a different person at the top than when you started. You were not always better for it. There were thoughts lost on the way up. Purposefulness of a certain kind often blew away at about stair fifty. At the second landing, some people had a momentary psychosis, which they may or may not have noticed - part of the continuum of normal consciousness, a hallucination that sometimes blended so perfectly into the landscape of your consciousness it belonged there, like a go-go beat, like a profit, like dust.
Caleb arrived at the top of the stairs, panting in the sharp winds that followed the rain, and worried that his blood-sugar level was now rising, into the range where organ damage threatens--the kidneys, the eyes. He was losing conviction. The thought that he intended to take pictures, in order to better understand this landscape, in order to remake it, seemed to belong to someone else. It was ludicrous, in fact. The camera he had shouldered up here, almost to the top of the hill, was ludicrous, too. He sat down on the final landing and looked down at the bowl--a small canyon--below him. A hawk, with a ratty brown string tied to its leg, flew above him, navigating the wind, then circled downward--Caleb look down at the bird's great back, until it flew behind some eucalyptus farther down the hill. He was looking at a landscape shaped by the "neglect" (as Ayla would call it) of the last forty-nine years.
As he sat, one of the slave's morning glory seeds that had been stuck to the tread of his shoe, fell into earth and immediately started moving to its next logical stage, cracking its casing on an accelerated schedule, taking root in the damp, sandy soil. Another blew halfway down the hill before its flight was halted by a boulder. Caleb pulled out his syringe and prepared his shot. He preferred to manage his insulin the old-fashioned way, injecting himself, rather than allow the machine to handle it. Then he ate the pear, hardboiled egg and yogurt Ayla packed for him. The sapling, its roots wrapped in a plastic grocery bag--the kind that stores weren't supposed to give anymore--lay on the landing next to him.
Ceci Lockwood looked out of her north facing kitchen window, and there he was, like Jim Dandy to the Rescue. Trespasser. Man with a camera.
He had his back to her, facing the bowl of the neighborhood, he himself framed by the fanning pepper tree branches and one of the smaller of the old oaks up here at the ridgeline. He had pointy elbows, baggy brown pants, and hair that stuck out from his head in all directions. He was hunching oddly, taking his pictures.
"Can I help you?" Ceci called through the open window.
He turned quickly toward her. As if he had purloined his field of vision, and she had grabbed it back.
"Thank you. I don't need help."
She went to the back door.
"Just browsing?" she shouted.
"Excuse me?" He began to walk toward her.
Ceci toed the gravel at her feet, wet sand underneath. It had been quite a chore to get the gravel up the hill.
"I'm just taking a few pictures."
"And I'd prefer that you leave."
"I'm not in your yard, if that's what you're wondering," Jim Dandy called, surprising her with his petulance. Her first impression was that he could be run off with a scowl. "Your property line ends in the middle of the lawn here."
It wasn't a grass lawn. Just a flat area covered with weeds that she mowed.
"And how would you know that?"
He stepped closer a few feet.
"The parcel map says...."
"Are you saying half this yard is stolen?" She pointed with her eyes at the hedge of bougainvillea, which created the natural boundary.
He narrowed his eyes at her, as though he were trying to identify some kind of migrant bird. Then he adjusted his camera strap and took another few steps in her direction, stopping as he reached into his back pocket. He had reached a new landing in a staircase neither of them could see. He raised a small white rectangle in the air and came closer.
"Maybe we should start over. My name is Caleb, and I don't have any secrets. Can I give you my card?"
Now Ceci could see that he was young, younger than she was, most likely. He was pretty, with delicate features, black eyebrows and brown eyes. He looked nervous, walking with his hand thrust in front of him, holding out the little piece of paper as though it would protect him from whatever harm she might be prepared to deliver.
Ceci waited for him to get to the door. She stepped onto the entry-patio sandstone in her bare feet and took the card, though she didn't read it.
"What kind of pictures are you taking?"
"Large format, color--"
"For what purpose is what I meant. Your project?"
"This?" He looked around the yard. He took in the overgrown terraces, the places where the retaining wall was crumbling, the gravel shot through with wild geranium and cotton weeds. "Actually, right now, I am trying to document the demarcations of Veronica Street."
"There is no street up here." She looked around her.
"It's on the map. We may not know where it is, but it does exist."
"Veronica Street does not exist. Not here. ... You work for a developer."
He hesitated. "An architect."
"What's he planning to do?"
"She. And I would rather not say," he said, though he was dying to tell her all about it--she could see that.
"And you don't care."
"In fact, I do care. She has some really out-of-this-world ideas, the kind that will change our lives. Eco-friendly, self-sustaining houses. New ways of living together, which means new relationships. It's a big project. She wants to put up these houses made out of recycled airplane parts and other salvage. But make them affordable, not boutique owner-designed kind of stuff."
He'd only been here three minutes, and already he had told her way too much. He was a spiller. He talked when he should be silent, he dropped things. He was well-coordinated, but clumsy. He was always bleeding onto tables. Dropping apples. Keys and dollar bills fell out of his pockets. Even his winter coat was always shedding feathers. He left a trail of feathers. And now he'd tipped off this young woman, who was probably going to be on the phone to her councilwoman's office the minute after he headed downhill. He should have stayed off her property - as he'd been instructed.
Ceci read all of this in his face. Ceci was a good reader of faces, especially easy ones like this -- though when it came to predicting what actually would happen, she never failed to be wrong. She began to realize, she climbed a crazy staircase to the conclusion, that Jim Dandy now owned the property that surrounded her house and yard. The Cossack must have sold it. Goddamn it! He sold it! She'd said "please please please, if you're ever going to sell, come to me first. Let me buy just the one lot next to my house. This is my home." And he had owed her - he owed her that consideration at the very least. She was the one who got him a lawyer when he was arrested--twice. He'd gone to her, not to his relatives, not to his friends, assuming he had any. And he had beaten the rap. The Cossack owed his freedom to Ceci. At least, he'd owed it to her the day he walked out of the courthouse, in debt to the county for nothing more than an afternoon in an orange vest, some fire road maintenance.
That's what Ceci was thinking. But in front of her Jim Dandy couldn't stop talking. She put his card in her pocket. When he left she would start looking into the sale. She thought of her ex-boyfriend, placed him, visually, in the scene here. For a moment, it seemed he was really right there, eyebrow cocked at this dude in her yard. And then Buddy took his body and vanished.
"Do you climb these steps every day?" Caleb was saying. "You must be in great shape. You know, they never built the street, even though they mapped it. It looks like the hill was probably just too steep." He pointed farther uphill in the direction of Gables Street. "But, you know, I'm just doing this for information -- to see what it looks like up here," he said. Chasing words with words. It was like trying to climb a wall of crumbling rock. The wall kept moving. He had no footing, kept sliding downhill.
"You're talking about building houses right here?"
"What she's really doing is building a new way of life."
"Then I'm sure you need to get going."
"I can see why you would say that. But you know, I just saw this hawk. He flew over my head, and I could see a string was tied to his foot. It looked frayed like it was an old string. Then he flew lower, into some trees down that way. He pointed downhill.
"Right here in the middle of the city," he continued. "All of these acres. I mean I know there are hundreds of properties like this on this side of town - it's a young city. In a hundred years, people will look at 'old' photographs of these hills and they won't recognize them. That hawk, he's been to the other side."
Ceci knew that hawk. Everyone on this side of the hill recognized that bird and liked him because he ate gophers. In fact, the Cossack had been the one to tie him, in the hope he could keep him in his mother's vegetable garden. It took the hawk less than a day to get free. He stayed away from the Cossack's mother's yard after his escape. And none of the owls, hawks, or falcons would land anywhere near the Cossack's mother's vegetable beds. The news had traveled.
"I guess I should go, you're right. Okay, Cecilia."
"You already knew my name."
"It's public information. When you buy a property, or it gets transferred and you own this part of the hill..." He looked at her house.
"What natural right do you have to know my name? Tell your buddy this did not go well," she said.
And he headed for the stairs.
Ceci watched him descend the first ten steps, to the point where she couldn't see him. But, about a minute after his head bobbed out of view, she had an inexplicable impulse. She wanted to run after him, she wanted to return his business card and make him listen to the story of the old woman who had sold her the house. She stayed in place, barefoot on the gravel, her mistake confirming itself.
Ceci walked over lumpy, sharp stones to the edge of the patio. She waited to see the stranger on one of the lower flights of steps. It was in this spot where nights, Ceci listened to the mocking birds and the distant roar of the city's ever-quieter engine - the cars - and she hoped to hear the soprano who sang somewhere in the canyon below her.