Henri-Cartier Bresson

Casa de Serenidad

I bristle, I cringe at Amelia's Arkansas whine, the dredging of her vowels, a drawl she resurrects when she wants her way and isn't getting it. But she is not a frivolous cry. Suffering keeps her up at night, injustice. Toss, turn. I worry she's not callous enough for California. Because to prosper in Faron Jct., you must keep your guard up and never let it fall.

The town is situated well below sea level. On its outskirts, a spread of vineyards, date trees. Acres of alfalfa. The closed-down migrant camp. Furious white windmills. For a few miles the aqueduct, rising with snowmelt, runs parallel to the Interstate. Downtown is a postcard of industry and well-groomed medians, a floristry and two cafes to speak of, the Verb and the Read. The girls behind the counters talk endlessly, in exclamations. The coffee is weak, lukewarm. My mind is miles away.

What I put down in ballpoint, I put down in silence. Words I cannot say but should. A cowhide daybook in which I keep a record of our quarrels, the hours we share, the coupons and pictures I would otherwise place on our refrigerator door.

They asked me to write this, the city founders, to lure you here, or people like you, luckless, forlorn by the forty-a-week. It is, they tell me, an amiable vacation spot, choice for retirement and rest. Polo grounds. Mineral baths. The Napa of the southwest. Myself, I'm only here until the money runs out, hosing down the patio, her cigarettes hanging from my lips. There's all of July, August to get through, time to examine the course of my life intently -- yet I suspect I'll never discern the haze from the gloaming, the opacity that obscures my valley's floor and the purpose of this prodding-on.

I'm at the behest of a beautiful dame, a girl whose heart I warm my hands by. Amelia's a medical student, consoling, literate in films. Hers is a gritty, tenacious brilliance. Six months ago, on holiday in New York, the airfare and lodging her parents' gift ... gossiping in taxi-cabs, talking in whispers, in asides. Laps around Columbus Circle. On Crosby Street I go to my knees and propose. The cobblestones are uneven. In my palm is a band of white gold, my grandmother's. I gesture, I phrase it perfectly. Nearly pleading. And she just laughs it off.

"Get up Leslie," she says. "You're embarrassing me."

Winter. I want to throw up my hands. It's midnight, and except for the Esperanto most of the city is closed.

"I look across at you," I say. "I look up to you, even. But you look down on me, don't you. Tell me I'm wrong."

"You're not wrong. But you put yourself out there. You're the supplicant, the desirer." She tears a saccharine packet. "Sweetener in yours? This coffee tastes like chalk."

I can't hold it against her. I wouldn't marry me either, vague lineage, no wealth to speak of. I rent a small bungalow with chipped adobe walls. "Casa de Serenidad". In the kitchen is a Wedgewood stove, a dishwasher I never use. I scramble for my rent, odd maintenance jobs, freelancing. The plates are piling up, the contents of my life.

On starry nights we go on long, aimless drives, past the grid of "avenidas" and markers of civilization, on roads that until recently were just corduroyed dirt paths. She brings along a jacket to stick her arms through. The passenger seat reclines. We talk of work and the world, what it holds for us. What it seems to hold against us.

It's a Tuesday, the first of summer. The solstice is upon us. I'm shaving, for once. It's no longer manageable. I turn to her, lathering my neck. She's studying the futures page.

"You're doing it wrong," she says, without lifting her head. "Go with the grain."

The vertical blinds are clattering, the spigot still hot from our long shower. I can barely make myself out in the mirror. She looks pale and weary, overworked at the hospital. In her heels she is taller than me. We dine on a felt-topped, collapsible poker table, close to where the television trays are stacked. Carefully she halves a melon. I watch her eat, ravenously. She likes raisins in her cereal, strawberries. Already there's a streak of white in her hair, which she wears in a bob.

"What are the plans tonight," I ask.

She flips to the local section. " ' The Entertainer ' is opening at the Footlighters."

We go, of course, to make a cameo. The canvas backdrop is offset and poorly lit. Even the handbills look hastily made. By intermission we can't stand it anymore. It's like dragging one's self through the snow.

Across from the playhouse is the "birreria". Large bowls of goat stew -- it's their specialty. She deliberates over the menu. The waiter is a little brusque. I can hear an accordion in the street, laborers who are drunk and singing. Swell time. The stuffing is coming out of our chairs. I look at her, across the cilantro and spilled beer.

"What is it," I ask.

"I have to tell you what happened today. I was on the way to work. You know how it opens up near the migrant camp. It's all straightaway there for a while. There's no reception, either. Not for the phones or radio.

"I'm going along at a good clip and I see this guy waving me down, a hobo I figure. A hitcher. I don't know why I stopped, I never do. A woman alone in a car, you know. It's senseless. But I could tell he was distressed, I mean sincerely in trouble, and he kept jabbering, pointing to the camp. I know so little Spanish, all I could make out was, 'Sick. She's sick.' The hospital's miles away. There's no clinic out there, nothing. Just a stretch of old buildings. Some tarpaulins for shade. Shanties.

"He walked me to the camp, through a hole in the fence. You've seen it, all those one-room bungalows. What, ninety of them, a hundred? The water's shut off, the power. The door was off its hinges and -- it was filthy inside, it was -- dusty, flies everywhere.

"I'm guessing it was his wife, she was on a blanket on the floor. She had gone into labor during the night. It was a girl. They had wrapped it in, sort of swaddled it in -- a cloth or whatever was around. The guy was bleary eyed. The hood of his car was still open, parts strewn everywhere. On the side of the highway the whole night and no one stopped. He was waving, he was frantic. No one stopped."

She fixes her gaze on me.

"We didn't stop for him," she says.

"How were we to know," I say. "We couldn't have known. It was night, it was dark. There's no moon out, no lights.

"No pay phones," I add. "Could you have saved the child anyway?"

"What I want to know is," as her voice strains, "what would you have done if that was us, if we had to bathe in irrigation canals, if that was our kid and I was bleeding onto patchwork. Would you at least of held my hand, or made sure the fucking car was working?"

I say nothing. Outside, the theatre is letting out, a parade of brakelights crowding the intersection.

"The play's done with," she says.

By then she had decided. She sat me down some weeks later with the news. Of course I implored her to reconsider me. Think of the plays we sat and suffered through, I said, the nights on the patio, her Christmas cologne, the bland meals and mornings -- not to mention, I was still on her

She's finishing school at Vanderbilt now, among her own. She has a flat close to the college. She midwifes.

What the city founders -- what Mayor Ballard wants me to say is, we'll look after you, your kin, your hours in Bajas and hot-air balloons, and please snap away at the scenery, take rolls and rolls of it, but keep to the boulevards, so you don't see how we treat our own. Like lepers.

Zachary Amendt is 23 & new to Brooklyn, a native of Southern California. After college (University of California, Davis), he worked as a bureau chief for City News Service, Inc., the nation's largest regional news wire service. Last year he authored a short novel, Onset of Trembling, which is awaiting publication in the bottom shelf of his writing desk.

2007 Underground Voices