by Kevin Brennan
THE FIRST ONE was easy. The hole had been pre-dug on the front lawn of a dental mall, presumably to probe for the water or gas line from the street. It was early in the morning, and Dave happened to have an ailing Japanese maple in the back of his truck. The lawn was perfect—partial sun, southeast exposure.
He parked, got out of the truck, removed the sapling, and planted it in the hole, filled the hole with the dirt piled conveniently beside the hole, patted and tamped, watered the tree in its new home with his own watering jug, and drove away.
You never forget your first.
He started raiding nurseries and retail garden centers for trees that needed major TLC or they’d get themselves chipped into mulch. Rescue trees. They were always on sale. He must have looked like such a chump grabbing up six or eight of them at a pop. Wan birches, sycamores, pines. Sad little fruit trees. Anorexic trunks with one leaf hanging on for dear life.
And he planted them in unlikely public places, like the dental mall. He’d spot a good location in front of a post office or a burger drive-thru, and he did his work mainly at night when confrontations with the law or angry business owners probably wouldn’t flare up.
And he wrote down where each of his babies was planted.
Soon he had a network of trees he had to see to. And at first he was shocked to see that, apparently, most of the landowners hadn’t even noticed them. They struggled. Dave had to hand-water them, carting around three five-gallon cans in his truck and doing his best to keep each of his foster trees alive. He fertilized them and tied them to support poles, when needed.
He had just planted a moribund olive tree in the grassy median of a boulevard when a police car pulled up beside him.
—What are you doing to that tree? the cop asked.
—Trying to keep it alive.
—This is a public tree. You shouldn’t be dealing with a public tree.
Dave thought this was a terrific opportunity and told the cop he’d be happy to deal with all the public trees if that’d help keep them alive.
—Because you can see, he said to the cop, the city hasn’t done a very good job keeping this one alive. Has it?
—Looks pretty bad. What are those shriveled little black things?
—Those are olives, Dave said.
—Oh yeah. Absolutely.
—Give me your information and I’ll see what I can do. This tree’s gonna die.
It was about a week later that he received a phone call from the cop, who’s name turned out to be Officer Oakley. What are the odds? And officer Oakley said that Dave was now free to wander around taking care of public trees on a freelance, unpaid basis, and that a laminated certificate to that effect would be coming in the mail. He could show it to anyone who gave him any trouble. He could be the Florence Nightingale of public trees.
Armed with his laminated certificate, Dave now felt bolder about planting and maintaining his deconstructed urban forest, and in the process—as his spreadsheet of all the trees and their locations grew—he ran into people who were so impressed with him and his laminated certificate from the city that they offered to help him maintain the trees. In a way, he had guilted them into caring for these living things, and don’t all living things deserve to be cared for?
A dentist from the dental mall even said to him, I’ll take it from here, Dave. This baby has really added some charm to the place. People are less afraid of their dental work when they see a healthy Japanese maple out front.
Dave didn’t know about that, but he did know that, more and more, he was finding that his trees were now being cared for by the tenants and owners of the buildings he’d picked for the plantings, so he had more time on his hands to plant even more needy trees.
The olive tree in the median had even garnered a few Christmas ornaments put there by passersby. Pretty little thing. Dave thought it would likely produce a nice olive crop next year.
Then one day he came home from all his tree husbandry to find a young llama tied to the paper birch in his own front yard. It had a laminated note around its neck, saying MR. TREE MAN, WILL YOU PLEASE TAKE CARE OF ME?
Someone was guilting him into caring for a llama.
And Dave thought, I guess it’s the least I can do, right?
Kevin Brennan is the author of six novels, including Parts Unknown (William Morrow/ HarperCollins), Yesterday Road, and, most recently, Eternity Began Tomorrow. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Berkeley Fiction Review, Mid-American Review, Sledgehammer, Atlas and Alice, LEON Literary Review, MoonPark Review, Atticus Review, and others. A Best Microfiction 2022 nominee, he’s also the editor of The Disappointed Housewife, a literary magazine for writers of offbeat and idiosyncratic fiction, poetry, and essays. Kevin lives with his wife in California’s Sierra foothills.
Check out Kevin’s novels here. Connect at Twitter @kevinbrennan520 and @offbeatlit.