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The Burning Tree

Burning palm trees are spectacular, especially the ones with the absurdly tall, lean trunks that taper near the top into a mop of rustling fronds. When I see them now, these ubiquitous symbols of paradise, of Southern California, I imagine them on fire. I understand how their rustling dried fronds ignite like flammable skirts, how their crowns flame like the pompoms of an arsonist cheerleader.

On the evening of April 29, 1992, I approach a young man carrying a bright-red plastic fuel can, the kind you buy at gas stations for cheap when your car conks out. He is carefully pouring gasoline around the trunk of a chubby palm tree in downtown L.A. The fuel soaks into the trunk as if the tree is thirsty, and as I watch its callused bark grows dark. The young man is concentrating, applying the gasoline almost lovingly, and the round cheeks of his face are shiny as if he had anointed himself with oil before embarking on his task. But I know it‘s sweat. My own face is slick too. We are a block or two from Parker Center, LAPD headquarters. It is about 7:30 p.m. The sun is setting. Over half a day has passed since a Simi Valley jury acquitted four police officers charged with beating Rodney King.

Now I can see the clouds of the new night sky are illuminated not by the residue of a setting sun, but by faraway and nearby fires. The young man in front of me wedges newspaper into the cut fronds of the palm tree that form part of its trunk. He reaches for matches.

”Don’t,“ I ask him. ”Please.“ My voice sounds funny, small, cracked.

He looks at me as if I am crazy. ”Why not?“ he asks.

”It‘s a tree,“ I say. ”It didn’t do anything. It‘s just a tree.“ I feel foolish, ashamed for worrying about a palm tree.

”Listen, lady,“ he says, leaning close. ”It’s not a real tree. It‘s a fake one. They’re all fake.“ He swings his arms toward the city trees that stand at attention in their little plots of dirt. ”They shouldn‘t be here. I’m taking this one out. Don‘t worry. It’ll be all right.“

He lights his newspaper and fire flames up the trunk like the backyard barbecues that, as a child, I drenched in lighter fluid. The tree will burn for a good long time. I move away but out of habit, I put my hands palms up, toward the fire, as if to gather the heat in, as if it is a campfire and not a burning palm tree.

”See,“ the young man tells me as he caps his gas can, ”I told you it wasn‘t real. If it was real, it wouldn’t burn. What‘s real doesn’t burn.“ His logic seems to please him. He flashes me a smile and I realize just how young he is. I‘m 31. He’s young. Sixteen. Fifteen. He‘s a kid.