Despair could never touch a morning like this.
The air was cool, and smelled of sage. It had the clarity that comes to southern California only after a Santa Ana wind has blown all haze and history out to sea—air like telescopic glass, so that the snowtopped San Gabriels seemed near enough to touch, though they were forty miles away. The flanks of the blue foothills revealed the etching of every ravine, and beneath the foothills, stretching to the sea, the broad coastal plain seemed nothing but treetops: groves of orange, avocado, lemon, olive; windbreaks of eucalyptus and palm; ornamentals of a thousand different varieties, both natural and genetically engineered. It was as if the whole plain were a garden run riot, with the dawn sun flushing the landscape every shade of green.
Overlooking all this was a man, walking down a hillside trail, stopping occasionally to take in the view. He had a loose gangly walk, and often skipped from one step to the next, as if playing a game. He was thirty-two but he looked like a boy, let loose in the hills with an eternal day before him.
He wore khaki work pants, a tank-top shirt, and filthy tennis shoes. His hands were large, scabbed and scarred; his arms were long. From time to time he interrupted his ramble to grasp an invisible baseball bat and swing it before him in a sharp half swing, crying, "Boom!" Doves still involved in their dawn courtship scattered before these homers, and the man laughed and skipped down the trail. His neck was red, his skin freckled, his eyes sleepy, his hair straw-colored and poking out everywhere. He had a long face with high pronounced cheekbones, and pale blue eyes. Trying to walk and look at Catalina at the same time, he tripped and had to make a quick downhill run to recover his balance. "Whoah!" he said. "Man! What a day!"
* * *
He dropped down the hillside into El Modena. His friends trickled out of the hills in ones and twos, on foot or bicycle, to converge at a torn-up intersection. They took up pick or shovel, jumped into the rough holes and went to work. Dirt flew into hoppers, picks hit stones with a clink clink clink, voices chattered with the week's gossip.
They were tearing out the street. It had been a large intersection: four-lane asphalt streets, white concrete curbs, big asphalt parking lots and gas stations on the corners, shopping centers behind. Now the buildings were gone and most of the asphalt too, hauled away to refineries in Long Beach; and they dug deeper.
His friends greeted him.
"Hey, Kevin, look what I found."
"Hi, Doris. Looks like a traffic light box."
"We already found one of those."
Kevin squatted by the box, checked it out. "Now we've got two. They probably left it down here when they installed a new one."
"What a waste."
From another crater Gabriela groaned. "No! No! Telephone lines, power cables, gas mains, PVC tubing, the traffic light network—and now another gas station tank!"
"Look, here's a buncha crushed beer cans," Hank said. "At least they did some things right."
* * *
As they dug they teased Kevin about that night's town council meeting, Kevin's first as a council member. "I still don't know how you let yourself get talked into it," Gabriela said. She worked construction with Kevin and Hank; young, tough and wild, she had a mouth, and often gave Kevin a hard time.
"They told me it would be fun."
"They told him it would be fun! Here's a man who's been to hundreds of council meetings, but when Jean Aureliano tells him they're fun, Kevin Claiborne says, ‘Oh, yeah, I guess they are!'"
"Well, maybe they will be."
They laughed again. Kevin just kept wielding his pick, grinning an embarrassed grin.
"They won't be," Doris said. She was the other Green on the council. Having served two terms she would be something like Kevin's advisor, a task she didn't appear to relish. They were housemates, and old friends, so she knew what she was getting into. She said to Gabriela, "Jean chose Kevin because she wanted somebody popular."
"That doesn't explain Kevin agreeing to it!"
Hank said, "The tree growing fastest is the one they cut first."
Gabriela laughed. "Try making sense, Hank, okay?"
* * *
The air warmed as the morning passed. They ran into a third traffic light box, and Doris scowled. "People were so wasteful."
Hank said, "Every culture is as wasteful as it can afford to be."
"Nah. It's just lousy values."
"What about the Scots?" Kevin asked. "People say they were really thrifty."
"But they were poor," Hank said. "They couldn't afford not to be thrifty. It proves my point."
Doris threw dirt into a hopper. "Thrift is a value independent of circumstances."
"You can see why they might leave stuff down here," Kevin
said, tapping at the traffic boxes. "It's a bitch to tear up these streets, and with all the cars."
Doris shook her short black hair. "You're getting it backwards, Kev, just like Hank. It's the values you have that drive your actions, and not the reverse. If they had cared enough they would have cleared all this shit out of here and used it, just like us."
"It's like pedaling a bike. Values are the downstroke, actions are the upstroke. And it's the downstroke that moves things along."
"Well," Kevin said, wiping sweat from his brow and thinking
about it. "If you've got toeclips on, you can get quite a bit of power on your upstroke. At least I do."
Gabriela glanced quickly at Hank. "Power on your upstroke, Kev? Really?"
"Yeah, you pull up on the toeclips. Don't you get some thrust that way?"
"Shit yeah, Kev, I get a lot of power on my upstroke."
"About how much would you say you get?" Hank asked.
Kevin said, "Well, when I'm clipped in tight I think I must get twenty percent or so."
Gabriela broke into wild cackles. "Ah, ha ha HA! This, ha!—this is the mind about to join the town council! I can't wait! I can't wait to see him get into some heavy debate with Alfredo! Fucking toeclips—he'll be talking TOECLIPS!"
"Well," Kevin said stubbornly, "don't you get power on your upstroke?"
"But twenty percent?" Hank asked, interested now. "Is that all the time, or just when you're resting your quads?"
Doris and Gabriela groaned. The two men fell into a technical discussion of the issue.
Gabriela said, "Kevin gets into it with Alfredo, he'll say toeclips! He'll say, ‘Watch out, Fredo, or I'll poison your blood!'"
Doris chuckled, and from the depths of his discourse Kevin frowned.
* * *
Gabriela was referring to an incident from Kevin's grade school days, when he had been assigned with some others to debate the proposition, "The pen is mightier than the sword." Kevin had had to start the debate by arguing in favor of the proposition, and he had stood at the head of the class, blushing hot red, twisting his hands, rocking back and forth, biting his lips, blowing out every circuit—until finally he said, blinking doubtfully, "Well—if you had just the pen—and if you stuck someone—they might get blood poisoning from the ink!"
Heads to the desks, minutes of helpless howling, Mr. Freeman wiping the tears from his eyes—people falling out of their chairs! No one had ever forgotten it. In fact it sometimes seemed to Kevin that everyone he had ever known had been in that classroom that day, even people like Hank, who was ten years older than him, or Gabriela, who was ten years younger. Everybody! But it was just a story people told.
* * *
They dug deeper, ran into rounded sandstone boulders. Over the eons Santiago Creek had wandered over the alluvial slopes tailing out of the Santa Ana Mountains, and it seemed all of El Modena had been the streambed at one time or another, because they found these stones everywhere. The pace was casual; this was town work, and so was best regarded as a party, to avoid irritation at the inefficiency. In El Modena they were required to do ten hours a week of town work, and so there were opportunities for vast amounts of irritation. They had gotten good at taking it less than seriously.
Kevin said, "Hey, where's Ramona?"
Doris looked up. "Didn't you hear?"
"She and Alfredo broke up."
This got the attention of everyone in earshot. Some stopped and came over to get the story. "He's moved out of the house, on to Redhill with his partners."
"No. I guess they've been fighting a lot more lately. That's what everyone at their house says. Anyway, Ramona went for a walk this morning."
"But the game!" Kevin said.
Doris jabbed her shovel into dirt an inch from his toe. "Kevin, did it ever occur to you that there are more important things than softball?"
"Well sure," he said, looking dubious at the proposition.
"She said she'd be back in time for the game."
"Good," Kevin said, then saw her expression and added quickly, "Too bad, though. Really too bad. Quite a surprise, too."
He thought about Ramona Sanchez. Single for the first time since ninth grade, in fact.
Doris saw the look on his face and turned her back on him. Her stocky brown legs were dusty below green nylon shorts; her sleeveless tan shirt was sweaty and smudged. Straight black hair swung from side to side as she attacked the ground. "Help me with this rock," she said to Kevin sharply, back still to him. Uncertainly he helped her move yet another water-rounded blob of sandstone.
* * *
"Well, if it isn't the new council at work," said an amused baritone voice above them.
Kevin and Doris looked up to see Alfredo Blair himself, seated on his mountain bike. The bright titanium frame flashed in the sun. Without thinking Kevin said, "Speak of the devil."
"Well," Doris said, with a quick warning glance at Kevin, "if it isn't the new mayor at leisure."
Alfredo grinned rakishly. He was a big handsome man, black-haired, moustached, clear clean lines to his jaw, nose, forehead. It was hard to imagine that just the day before he had moved out of a fifteen-year relationship.
"Good luck in your game today," he said, in a tone that implied they would need it, even though they were only playing the lowly Oranges. Alfredo's team the Vanguards and their team the Lobos were perpetual rivals; before today this had always been a source of jokes, as Ramona was on the Lobos. Now Kevin wasn't sure what it was. Alfredo went on: "I'm looking forward to when we get to play you."
"We've got work to do, Alfredo," Doris said.
"Don't let me stop you. Town work benefits everyone." He laughed, biked off. "See you at the council meeting!" he yelled over his shoulder.
They went back to work.
"I hope when we play them we beat the shit out of them," Kevin said.
"You always hope that."
Kevin and Alfredo had grown up on the same street, and had shared many classes in school, including the class assigned to debate the proposition. So they were old friends, and Kevin had had many opportunities to watch Alfredo operate in the world, and he knew well that his old friend was a very admirable person—smart, friendly, popular, energetic, successful. Good at everything; everything came easily to him and everyone liked him.
But it was too nice a day to let the thought of Alfredo wreck it.
Besides, Alfredo and Ramona had broken up. Obscurely cheered by the thought, Kevin hauled a boulder up into a hopper.
When they stopped for lunch they were about eye-level with the old surface of the intersection, which was now a chaotic field of craters, pocked by trenches and treadmarks, with wheelbarrows and dumpsters all over. Kevin squinted at the sight and grinned.
"This is gonna make one hell of a softball diamond."
* * *
After lunch the spring softball season began. Players biked into Santiago Park from all directions, bats over handlebars, and they fell collectively into time-honored patterns; for softball is a ritual activity, and the approach to ritual is also ritualized. Feet were shoved into stiff cleats, gloves were slipped on, and they walked out onto the green grass field and played catch in groups of two and three, the big balls floating back and forth, making a dreamy knitwork of white lines in the air.
The umpires were running their chalk wheelbarrows up the foul lines when Ramona Sanchez coasted to the third base side and dumped her bike. Long legs, wide shoulders, Hispanic coloring, black hair.…The rest of the Lobos greeted her happily, relieved to see her, and she smiled and said, "Hi, guys," in almost her usual way; but everyone could see she wasn't herself.
Ramona was one of those people who always have a bright smile and a cheery tone of voice. Doris for one found it exasperating. "She's a biological optimist," Doris would grouse, "it isn't even up to her. It's something in her blood chemistry."
"Wait a second," Hank would object, "you're the one always talking about values—shouldn't optimism be the result of will? I mean, blood chemistry?"
And Doris would reply that optimism might indeed be an act of will, but that good looks, intelligence and great athletic skill no doubt helped to make it a rather small one; and these qualities were all biological, even if they weren't blood chemistry.
Anyway, the sight of Ramona on this day was a disturbing thing: an unhappy optimist. Even Kevin, who started to play catch with her with the full intention of behaving normally, thus giving her a break from unwanted sympathy, was unnerved by how subdued she seemed. He felt foolish trying to pretend all was well, and since she ignored his pretense he just caught and threw, warming her up.
Judging by the hard flat trajectory of her throws, she was considerably warm already. Ramona Sanchez had a good arm; in fact, she was a gun. Once Kevin had seen one of her rare wild throws knock a spoke cleanly out of the wheel of a parked bike, without moving the rest of the bike an inch. She regularly broke the leather ties in first basemen's gloves, and once or twice had broken fingers as well. Kevin had to pay close attention to avoid a similar fate, because the ball jumped across the space between them almost instantaneously. A real gun. And not in a good mood.
So they threw in silence, except for the leather smack of the glove. There was a certain companionableness about it, Kevin felt—a sort of solidarity expressed. Or so he hoped, since he couldn't think of anything to say. Then the umpires called for the start of the game, and he walked over and stood beside her as she sat and jammed on her cleats. She did it with such violence that it seemed artificial not to notice, so Kevin said, hesitantly, "I heard about you and Alfredo."
"Uh huh," she said, not impressed.
Briefly she twisted her mouth down. That's how unhappy I would be if I let myself go, the look said. Then the stoic look returned and she shrugged, stood, bent over to stretch her legs. The backs of her thighs banded, muscles clearly visible under smooth brown skin.
They walked back to the bench, where their teammates were swinging bats. The team captains gave line-up cards to the scorer. All activity began to spiral down toward the ritual; more and more that was not part of it fell away and disappeared, until when one team took the field—first basemen rolling grounders to the infielders, pitcher taking practice tosses, outfielders throwing fly balls around—everything extraneous to the ritual was gone. Kevin, the first batter of the new year, walked up to the plate, adrenaline spiking through him. Players called out something encouraging to him or the pitcher, and the umpire cried "Play ball!"
And the batter stepped into the box, and the first pitch of the season rose into the air, and the shouts ("Get a hit!" "Start it off right!" "Hey batter, hey batter!") grew distant, faded until no one heard them, not even those who spoke. Time dilated and the big fat shiny new white ball hung up there at the top of its arc, became the center of all their worlds, the focus—until it crossed the plate, the batter swung, and the game began.
* * *
It was a great game as far as Kevin was concerned: the Lobos kept the lead throughout, but not by much. And Kevin was four for four, which would always be enough to make him happy.
In the field he settled down at third base to sharp attention on every pitch. Third base like a razor's edge, third base like a mongoose among snakes: this was how the announcer in his head had always put it, ever since childhood. Occasionally there was a sudden chance to act, but mostly it was settling down, paying attention, the same phrases said over and over. Playing as a kind of praying.
So he was lulled a bit, deep in the rhythms of what was essentially a very ordinary game, when suddenly things picked up. The Oranges scored four runs in their final at-bat, and now with two outs Santos Perez was coming to bat. Santos was a strong pull hitter, and as Donna prepared to pitch, Kevin settled into his cleat-scored position off third base, extra alert.
A short pitch dropped and Santos smashed a hot grounder to Kevin's left. Kevin dove instantly but the ball bounced past his glove, missing it by an inch. He hit the dirt cursing, and as he slid forward on chest and elbows he looked back, just in time to see the sprinting Ramona lunge out and snag the ball.
It was a tremendous backhand catch, but she had almost overbalanced to make it, and now she was running directly away from first base, very deep in the hole. There was no time to stop and set, and so she leaped in the air, spun to give the sidearm throw some momentum, and let it fly with a vicious flick of the wrist. The ball looped across the diamond and Jody caught it neatly on one hop at first base, just ahead of the racing Santos. Third out. Game over.
"Yeah!" Kevin cried, pushing up to his knees. "Wow!" Everyone was cheering. Kevin looked back at Ramona. She had tumbled to the ground after the throw, and now she was sitting on the outfield grass, long, graceful, splay-legged, grinning, black hair in her eyes. And Kevin fell in love.
* * *
Of course that isn't exactly how it happened. That isn't the whole story. Kevin was a straightforward kind of guy, and crazy about Softball, but still, he was not the kind of person who would fall in love on the strength of a good play at shortstop. No, this was something else, something that had been developing for years and years.
He had known Ramona Sanchez since she first arrived in El Modena, when they were both in third grade. They had been in the same classes in grade school—including, yes, the class with the famous debate—and had shared a lot of classes in junior high. And Kevin had always liked her. One day in sixth grade she had told him she was Roman Catholic, and he had told her that there were Greek Catholics too. She had denied it disdainfully, and so they had gone to look it up in the encyclopedia. They had failed to find a listing for "Greek Catholic," which Kevin could not understand, as his grandfather Tom had certainly mentioned such a church. But having been proved right Ramona became sympathetic, and even scanned the index and found a listing for "Greek Orthodox Church," which seemed to explain things. After that they sat before the screen and read the entry, and scanned through other articles, talking about Greece, the travels they had made (Ramona had been to Mexico, Kevin had been to Death Valley), the possibilities of buying a Greek island and living on it, and so on.
After that Kevin had had a crush on Ramona, one that he never told anyone about—certainly not her. He was a shy boy, that's all there was to it. But the feeling persisted, and in junior high when it became the thing to have romantic friends, life was a dizzying polymorphous swirl of crushes and relationships, and everyone was absorbed in it. So over the course of junior high's three years, shy Kevin gradually and with difficulty worked himself up to the point of asking Ramona out to a school dance—to Homecoming, in fact, the big dance of the year. When he asked her, stammering with fright, she made him feel like she thought it was an excellent idea; but said she had already accepted an invitation, from Alfredo Blair.
The rest was history. Ramona and Alfredo had been a couple, aside from the brief breaks that stormy high school romances often have, from that Homecoming to the present day.
In later years, however, as El Modena High School's biology teacher, Ramona had developed the habit of taking her classes out to Kevin's construction sites, to learn some applied ecology—also carpentry, and a bit of architecture—all while helping him out a little. Kevin liked that, even though the students were only marginally more help than hassle. It was a friendly thing, something he and Ramona did to spend time together.
Still, she and Alfredo were partners. They never married, but always lived together. So Kevin had gotten used to thinking of Ramona as a friend only. A good friend, sort of like his sister Jill—only not like a sister, because there had always been an extra attraction. A shared attraction, it seemed. It wasn't all that important, but it gave their friendship a kind of thrill, a nice fullness—a kind of latent potential, perhaps, destined never to be fulfilled. Which made it romantic.
A lifelong thing, then. And before the Softball game, while warming Ramona up, he had been conscious of seeing her in a way that he hadn't for years—seeing the perfect proportions of her back and legs, shoulders and bottom—the dramatic Hispanic coloring, the fine features that made her one of the town beauties—the grace of her strong overhand throw—her careless unselfconsciousness. Deep inside him memories had stirred, memories of feelings he would have said were long forgotten, for he never thought of his past much, and if asked would have assumed it had all slipped away. And yet there it was, stirring inside him, ready at a moment's notice to leap back out and take over his life.
* * *
So when he turned to look at her after her spectacular play, and saw her sprawled on the grass, long brown legs akimbo so that he was looking at the green crotch of her gym shorts, at a white strip of their underlining on the inside of one thigh—her weight on one straightened arm, white T-shirt molded against her almost flat chest—brushing hair out of black eyes, smiling for the first time that afternoon—it was as if all Kevin's life had been a wind-up, and this the throw. As if he had stepped into a dream in which all emotions were intensified. Whoosh! went the air out of his lungs. His heart thudded, the skin of his face flushed and tingled with the impact of it, with the recognition of it, and yes—it was love. No doubt about it.
* * *
To feel was to act for Kevin, and so as soon as they were done packing up equipment and changing shoes, he looked for Ramona. She had become unusually silent again, after the rush of congratulations for her game ender, and now she was biking off by herself. Kevin caught up with her on his little mountain bike, then matched her speed. "Are you going to the council meeting tonight?"
"I don't think so."
Not going to see Alfredo sworn in as mayor. It was definitely true, then. "Wow," he said.
"Well, you know—I just don't feel like being there and having lots of people assume we're still together, for photos maybe even. It would be awkward as hell."
"I can see that. So…What're you gonna do this afternoon?"
She hesitated. "I was thinking of going flying, actually. Work some of this out of my system."
She looked over at him. "Want to join me?"
Kevin's heart tocked at the back of his throat. His inclination was to say "Sure!" and he always followed his inclinations; thus it was a measure of his interest that he managed to say, "If you really feel like company? I know that sometimes I just like to get off by myself.…"
"Ah, well. I wouldn't mind the company. Might help."
"Usually does," Kevin said automatically, not paying attention to what he was saying, or how it failed to match with what he had just said before. He could feel his heart. He grinned. "Hey, that was a hell of a play you made there."
* * *
At a glider port on Fairhaven they untied the Sanchezs' two-person flyer, a Northrop Condor, and after hooking it to the take-off sling they strapped themselves in and clipped their feet into the pedals. Ramona freed the craft and with a jerk they were off, pedaling like mad. Ramona pulled back on the flaps, the sling uncoupled, they shot up like a pebble from a slingshot; then caught the breeze and rushed higher, like a kite pulled into the wind by an enthusiastic runner.
"You!" Kevin cried, and Ramona said, "Pedal harder!" and they both pumped away, leaning back and pushing the little plane up with every stroke. The huge prop whirred before them, but two-seaters were not quite as efficient as one-seaters; the extra muscle did not quite make up for the extra weight, and they had to grind at the tandem pedals as if racing to get the craft up to two hundred feet, where the afternoon sea breeze lifted them dizzily. Even a two-seater weighed less than thirty pounds, and gusts of the wind could toss them like a shuttlecock.
Ramona turned them into this breeze with a gull's swoop. The feel of it, the feel of flying! They relaxed the pace, settled into a long distance rhythm, swooped around the sky over Orange County. Hard work; it was one of the weird glories of their time, that the highest technologies were producing artifacts that demanded more intense physical labor than ever before-as in the case of human-powered flight, which required extreme effort from even the best endurance athletes. But once possible, who could resist it?
Not Ramona Sanchez; she pedaled along, smiling with contentment. She flew a lot. Often while working on roofs, absorbed in the labor, imagining the shape of the finished home and the lives it would contain, Kevin would hear a voice from above, and looking up he would see her in her little Hughes Dragonfly, making a cyclist's whirr and waving down like a sweaty air spirit. Now she said, "Let's go to Newport and take a look at the waves."
And so they soared and dipped in the onshore wind, like their condor namesake. From time to time Kevin glanced at Ramona's legs, working in tandem next to his. Her thighs were longer than his, her quads bigger and better defined: two hard muscles atop each leg, barely coming together in time to fit under the kneecap. They made her thighs look squared-off on top, an effect nicely balanced by long rounded curves beneath. And calf muscles out of an anatomical chart. The texture of her skin was very smooth, barely dusted by fine silky hair.…
Kevin shook his head, surprised by the dreamlike intensity of his vision, by how well he could see her. He glanced down at the Newport Freeway, crowded as usual. From above, the bike lanes were a motley collection of helmets, backs, and pumping legs, over spidery lines of metal and rubber. The cars' tracks gleamed like bands of silver embedded in the concrete, and cars hummed along them, blue roof red roof blue roof.
As they cut curves in the air Kevin saw buildings he had worked on at one time or another: a house reflecting sunlight from canopies of cloudgel and thermocrete; a garage renovated to a cottage; warehouses, offices, a bell tower, a pond house.…His work, tucked here and there in the trees. It was fun to see it, to point it out, to remember the challenge of the task met and dealt with, for better or worse.
Ramona laughed. "It must be nice to see your whole resumé like this."
"Yeah," he said, suddenly embarrassed. He had been rattling on.
She was looking at him.
Tall eucalyptus windbreaks cut the land into giant rectangles, as if the basin were a quilt of homes, orchards, green and yellow crops. Kevin's lungs filled with wind, he was buoyant at the sight of so much land, and all of it so familiar to him. The onshore breeze grew stronger over Costa Mesa, and they lofted toward the Irvine Hills. The big interchange of the San Diego and Newport freeways looked like a concrete pretzel. Beyond it there was a lot of water, reflecting the sunlight like scraps of mirror thrown on the land: streams, fish ponds, reservoirs, the marsh of Upper Newport Bay. It was low tide, and a lot of gray tidal flats were revealed, surrounded by reeds and clumps of trees. They could smell the salt stink of them on the wind, even up where they were. Thousands of ducks and geese bobbed on the water, making a beautiful speckled pattern.
"Migration again," Ramona said pensively. "Time for change."
"The clouds are coming in faster than I thought they would." She pointed toward Newport Beach. The afternoon onshore wind was bringing in low ocean clouds, as often happened in spring. The Torrey pines loved it, but it was no fun to fly in.
"Well, what with the council meeting it won't do me any harm to get back a little early," Kevin said.
Ramona shifted the controls and they made a wide turn over Irvine. The mirrored glass boxes in the industrial parks glinted in the sun like children's blocks, green and blue and copper. Kevin glanced at Ramona and saw she was blinking rapidly. Crying? Ah—he'd mentioned the council meeting. Damn! And they'd been having such fun! He was an idiot. Impulsively he touched the back of her hand, where it rested on the control stick. "Sorry," he said. "I forgot."
"Oh," she said, voice unsteady. "I know."
"So…" Kevin wanted to ask what had happened.
She grimaced at him, intending it to be a comic expression. "It's been pretty upsetting."
"I can imagine. You were together a long time."
"Fifteen years!" she said. "Nearly half my life!" She struck the stick angrily, and the Condor dipped left. Kevin winced.
"Maybe it was too long," she said. "I mean too long with nothing happening. And neither of us had any other partners before we got together."
Kevin almost brought up their talk over the encyclopedia in sixth grade, but decided not to. Perhaps as an example of a previous relationship it was not particularly robust.
"High school sweethearts," Ramona exclaimed. "It is a bad idea, just like everyone says. You have a lot of history together, sure, but you don't really know if the other person is the best partner you could have. And then one of you gets interested in finding out!" She slammed the frame above the controls, making Kevin and the plane jump.
"Uh huh," he said. She was angry about it, that was clear. And it was great that she was letting it out like this, telling Kevin what she felt. If only she wouldn't emphasize her points with those hard blows to the frame, so close to the controls.
Also there was hardly any resistance in his pedals. They were turning the same chain together, and she was pumping away furiously, more than enough for both of them. And they were shuddering through little sideslips every time she pounded a point home.
Kevin swallowed, determined not to interrupt her thoughts with mundane worries.
"I mean you can't help but wonder!" she was saying, waving a hand. "I know Alfredo did. I'm not all that interesting, I suppose—"
"Well, there's only a few things I really care about. And Alfredo is interested in everything." Bang. Right above the flaps. "There's so many things he's into that you can't even believe it." Bang! "And he was always so God-damned busy!" BANG BANG BANG!
"You have to be, to be a hundred," Kevin said, watching her hands and cringing. With the slips they were losing altitude, he noted. Even pumping as hard as she was.
"Yeah, sure you do. And he could be two hundreds! He could
be a millionaire if they still had them, he really could! He's got
just what it takes."
"Must take a lot of time, huh?"
"It takes your whole life!" WHAM.
Kevin pedaled hard, but he was just spinning around, as if his pedals weren't connected to a chain at all.
"At least that's what it felt like. And there we were not going anywhere, high school sweethearts at thirty-two. I don't care that much about marriage myself, but my parents and grandparents are Catholic, and so are Alfredo's, and you know how that is. Besides I was getting ready to have a family, you know every day I'm helping out with the kids in our house, and I thought why shouldn't one of these be ours?" Bang! "But Alfredo was not into it, oh no. I don't have time! he'd say. I'm not ready yet! And by the time he's ready, it'll be too late for me!" BANG! BANG! BANG!
"Uck," Kevin said, looking down at the treetops apprehensively. "It, uh, it wouldn't take that much time, would it? Not in your house."
"You'd be surprised. A lot of people are there to help, but still, you always end up with them. And Alfredo…well, we talked about it for years. But nothing ever changed, damn it! So I got pretty bitchy, I guess, and Alfredo spent more and more time away, you know.…" She began to blink rapidly, voice wobbling.
"Feedback loop," Kevin said, trying to stick to analysis. A relationship had feedback loops, like any other ecology—that's what Hank used to say. A movement in one direction or another could quickly spiral out of control. Kind of like a tailspin, now that Kevin thought about it. Harder than hell to re-stabilize after you fell into one of those. In fact people were killed all the time in crashes caused by them. Uncontrolled feedback loop. He tried to remember the few flying lessons he had taken. Mostly he was a grinder when he went flying.…
But it could work both ways, he thought as some resistance returned to his pedals. Upward spiral, a great flourishing of the spirit, everything feeding into it—
"A very bad feedback loop," Ramona said.
They pedaled on. Kevin pumped hard, kept his eye on the controls, on Ramona's vehement right fist. He found her story rather amazing in some respects. He didn't understand Alfredo. Imagine the chance to make love with this beautiful animal pumping away beside him, to, watch her get fat with a child that was the combination of him and her.…He breathed erratically at the thought, suddenly aware of his own body, of his balls between his legs—
He banished the thought, looked down at Tustin. Close. "So," he said, thinking to go right at it. "You broke up."
"Yeah. I don't know, I was getting really angry, but I probably would have stuck it out. I never really thought about anything else. But Alfredo, he got mad at me too, and…and—"
She started to cry.
"Ah, Ramona," Kevin said. Wrong tack to take, there. The direct approach not always the best way. He pedaled hard, suddenly doing the work for both of them. Enormous resistance, she didn't seem to be pedaling at all now. Not a good moment to bother her, though. He gritted his teeth and began to pedal like a fiend. Their flyer dropped anyway, sideslipping a bit. Incredible resistance in the pedals. They were dropping toward the hills behind Tustin. Directly at them, in fact. Ramona's eyes were squeezed shut; she was too upset to notice anything. Kevin found his concern distracted. Fatal accidents in these things were not all that infrequent.
"I'm sorry," he panted, pumping violently. "But…uh…" He took a hand from the frame to pat her shoulder, briefly. "Maybe…um…"
"It's okay," she said, hands over her face, rubbing hard. "Sometimes I can't help it."
She looked up. "Shit, we're about to run into Redhill!"
"Why didn't you say something!"
She laughed, sniffed, reached over to peck his cheek. Then she started to pedal again, and turned them towards home.
Kevin's heart filled—with relief, certainly—but also with affection for her. It was a shame she had been hurt like that. Although he had no desire to see her and Alfredo achieve a reconciliation. None at all. He said, very cautiously, "Maybe it's better it happened now, if it was going to."
She nodded briefly.
They circled back in toward El Modena's little gliderport. A Dragonfly ahead of them dropped onto it, heavy as a bee in cold weather. Skillfully Ramona guided them in. The afternoon sun lit the treetops. Their shadow preceded them toward the grassy runway. They dropped to an elevation where the whole plain seemed nothing but treetops—all the streets and freeways obscured, most of the buildings screened. "I fly at this altitude a lot," Ramona said, "just to make it look like this."
"Good idea." Her small smile, the trees everywhere—Kevin felt like the breeze was cutting right through his chest. To think that Ramona Sanchez was a free woman! And sitting here beside him.
He couldn't look at her. She brought them down to the runway in a graceful swoop, and they pedaled hard as they landed, as gently as sitting on a couch. Quick roll to a stop. They unstrapped, stood unsteadily, flexed tired legs, walked the plane off the strip toward its berth.
"Whew," she said. "Estoy cansada."
Kevin nodded. "Great flight, Ramona."
"Yeah?" And as they stored the plane in the gloomy hangar, she hugged him briefly and said, "You're a good friend, Kevin."
Which might have been a warning, but Kevin wasn't listening. He still felt the touch. "I want to be," he said, feeling his voice quiver. He didn't think it could be heard. "I want to be."
* * *
El Modena's town council had its chambers in the area's oldest building, the church on Chapman Avenue. Over the years this structure had reflected the town's fortunes like a totem. It had been built by Quakers in 1886, soon after they settled the area and cultivated it in raisin grapes. One Friend donated a big bell, which they put in a tower at the church's front end; but the bell's weight was too much for the framing, and in the first strong Santa Ana wind the whole building fell down, boom! In similar fashion grape blight destroyed the economy, so that the new town was virtually abandoned. So much for El Modena One. But they changed crops, and then rebuilt the church, in the first of a long sequence of resurrections; through the barrio and its hidden poverty (church closed), through suburbia and its erasure of history (church a restaurant)—through to the re-emergence of El Modena as a town with a destiny of its own, when the council bought the restaurant and converted it into a cramped and weird-looking city hall, suitable for renting on any party occasion. Thus it finally became the center of the community that its Quaker builders had hoped it would be nearly two centuries before.
Now the white courtyard walls were wrapped with colored streamers, and Japanese paper lanterns were hung in the courtyard's three big willows. The McElroy Mariachi Men strolled about playing their loose sweet music, and a long table was crowded with bottles of Al Shroeder's atrocious champagne.
Uneasily Kevin pedaled into the parking lot. As a contractor he had appeared before the council countless times, but walking into the yard as one of the council members was different. How in the hell had he got himself into it? Well, he was a Green, always had been. Renovate that sleazy old condo of a world! And this year they had needed to fill one of their two spots on the council, but most of the prominent party members were busy, or had served before, or were otherwise prevented from running. Suddenly—and Kevin didn't really know who had decided this, or how—they were all encouraging him to do it. He was well-known and well-liked, they told him, and he had done a lot of visible work in the community. Very visible, he said—I build houses. But in the end he was won over. Green council members voted all important issues as an expression of the group, so there wasn't that much to it. If there were things he didn't know, he could learn on the job. It wasn't that hard. Everyone should take their turn. It would be fun! He could consult when he needed to.
But (it occurred to him) he would most need to consult when he was actually up there behind the table—just when consulting was impossible! He brushed his hair with his fingers. Just like him, he thought morosely, to think of that only now. It was too late; the job was his. Time to learn.
Doris biked in with an older woman. "Kevin, this is Nadezhda Katayev, a friend of mine from Moscow. She was my boss when I did the exchange at their superconductor institute, and she's over here for a visit. She'll be staying with us."
Kevin shook hands with her, and they joined the crowd. Most of the people there were friends or acquaintances. People kidded him as usual; no one was taking the evening very seriously. He was handed a cup of champagne, and a group from the Lobos gathered to toast the day's game, and the political stardom of their teammates. Several cups of champagne later he felt better about everything.
Then Alfredo Blair entered the courtyard, in a swirl of friends and supporters and family. The McElroys tooted the opening bars of "Hail to the Chief," and Alfredo laughed, clearly having a fine time. Still, it was odd to see him at such an event without Ramona there, serving as the other pole of a powerful eye magnet. A sudden vision, of long legs pumping beside his, of her broad expressive face tearful with rage, pounding the ultralite's frame—
The party got louder, charged along. "There's a madman here," Doris observed, pointing to a stranger. They watched him: a huge man in a floppy black coat, who sidled from group to group with a strange rhinocerine grace, disrupting conversation after conversation. He spoke, people looked confused or shocked; he departed and barged in elsewhere, hair flying, champagne splashing out of his cup.
The mystery was solved when Alfredo introduced him. "Hey Oscar, come over here! Folks, this is our new town attorney, Oscar Baldarramma. You may have seen him in the interview process."
Kevin had not. Oscar Baldarramma approached. He was huge—taller than Kevin, and fat, and his bulk rode everywhere on him: his face was moonlike, his neck a tree trunk, and an immense barrel chest was more than matched by a round middle. His curly black hair was even more unruly than Kevin's, and he wore a dark suit some fifty years out of date. He himself looked to be around forty.
Now he nodded, creasing a multiple chin, and pursed thick, mobile lips. "Nice to meet the other rookie on the team," he said in a scratchy flat voice, as if making fun of the phrase.
Kevin nodded, at a loss for words. He had heard that the new town attorney was a hotshot from the Midwest, with several years of work for Chicago under his belt. And they needed a good lawyer, because El Modena like most towns was always getting sued. The old council had taken most of six months to replace the previous attorney. But then to choose this guy!
Oscar stepped toward Kevin, lowered his head, waggled his eyebrows portentiously. A bad mime couldn't have been more blatant: Secrecy. Confidential Matter. "I'm told you renovate old houses?"
"That's my job."
Oscar glanced around in spy movie style. "I've been permitted to lease an elderly house near the gliderport, and I wondered if you might be interested in rebuilding it for me."
Oh. "Well, I'd need to take a look at it first. But assuming we agree on everything, I could put you on our waiting list. It's short right now."
"I would be willing to wait."
It seemed a sign of good judgment to Kevin. "I'll drop by and look the place over, and give you an estimate."
"Of course," the big man whispered.
A tray was passed around and they all took paper cups of champagne. Oscar stared thoughtfully into his. "A local champagne, I take it."
"Yeah," Kevin said, "Al Shroeder makes it. He's got a big vineyard up on Cowan Heights."
Doris said sharply, "Just because it isn't from Napa or Sonoma doesn't mean it's terrible! I think it's pretty good!"
Oscar gazed at her. "And what is your profession, may I ask?"
"I'm a materials scientist."
"Then I defer to your judgment."
Kevin couldn't help laughing at the expression on Doris's face. "Al's champagne sucks," he said. "But he's got a good zinfandel—a lot better than this."
Oscar went slightly cross-eyed. "I will seek it out. A recommendation like that demands action!"
Kevin snorted, and Nadezhda grinned. But Doris looked more annoyed than ever, and she was about to let Oscar know it, Kevin could tell, when Jean Aureliano called for silence.
* * *
Time for business. Alfredo, who had already spent six years on the council, was sworn in as the new mayor, and Kevin was sworn in as new council member. Kevin had forgotten about that part, and he stumbled on his way to the circle of officials. "What a start!" someone yelled. Hot-faced, he put his hand on a Bible, repeated something the judge said.
And yet in the midst of the blur, a sudden sensation—he was part of government now. Just like sixth grade civics class said he would be.
They moved into the council chambers, and Alfredo sat at the centerpoint of the council's curved table. As mayor he was no more than first among equals, a council member from the town's most numerous party. He ran their meetings, but had one vote like the others.
On one side of him sat Kevin, Doris, and Matt Chung. On the other side were Hiroko Washington, Susan Mayer, and Jerry Geiger. Oscar and the town planner, Mary Davenport, sat at a table of their own, off to the side. Kevin could clearly see the faces of all the other members, and as Alfredo urged the spectators to get seated, he looked them over.
Kevin and Doris were Greens, Alfredo and Matt were Feds.
The New Federalists had just outpolled the Greens as the town's most numerous party, for the first time in some years; so they had a bit of a new edge. Hiroko, Susan and Jerry represented smaller local parties, and functioned as a kind of fluctuating middle, with Hiroko and Susan true moderates, and Jerry a kind of loose cannon, his voting record a model of inexplicable inconsistency. This made him quite popular with some Modeños, who had joined the Geiger Party to keep him on the council.
Alfredo smacked his palm against the table. "If we don't start soon we'll be up all night! Welcome to new member Kevin Claiborne. Let's get him right into it with the first item on the agenda—ah—the second. Welcoming him was the first. Okay, number two. Re-examining order to cut down the trees bordering Peters Canyon Reservoir. An injunction against complying with the order was issued, pending review by this council. And here we are. The request for the injunction was made by El Modena's Wilderness Party, represented tonight by Hu-nang Chu. Are you here, Hu-nang?"
An intense-looking woman stepped up to the witness's lectern. She told them forcefully that the trees around the reservoir were old and sacred, and that cutting them down was a wanton act of destruction. When she began to repeat herself Alfredo skillfully cut her off. "Mary, the order originated from your people—you want to comment first on this?"
The town planner cleared her throat. "The trees around the reservoir are cottonwoods and willows, both extremely hydrophilic species. Naturally their water comes out of the reservoir, and the plain fact is we can't afford it—we're losing approximately an acre foot a month. Council resolution two oh two two dash three instructs us to do everything possible to decrease dependency on OC Water District and the Municipal Water District. Expanding the reservoir helped, and, we tried to clear the area of hydrophilic trees at the time of expansion, but the cottonwoods are especially quick to grow back. Willows, by the way, are not even native to the area. We propose to cut the trees down and replace them with scrub oaks and adapted desert grasses. We also plan to leave one big willow standing, near the dam."
"Comments?" Alfredo said.
Everyone on the council who cared to comment approved Mary's plan. Jerry remarked it was nice to see El Modena cut down some trees for once. Alfredo asked for comments from the audience, and a few people came to the lectern to make a point, usually repeating an earlier statement, sometimes in an inebriated version. Alfredo cut those off and put it to a vote. The order to cut down the trees passed seven to zero.
"Unanimity!" Alfredo said cheerily. "A very nice omen for the future of this council. Sorry, Hu-nang, but the trees have a drinking problem. On to item number three: proposal to tighten the noise ordinance around the high school stadium, ha! Who's the courageous soul advocating this?"
* * *
And so the meeting rolled on, filling Wednesday night as so many meetings had before. A building permit battle that became a protest against town ownership of the land, a zoning boundary dispute, an ordinance banning skateboards on bike trails, a proposal to alter the investment patterns of the town funds…all the business of running a small town, churned out point by point in a public gathering. The work of running the world, repeated thousands of times all over the globe; you could say that this was where the real power lay.
But it didn't feel like that, this particular night in El Modena—not to Kevin. For him it was just work, and dull work at that. He felt like a judge with no precedent to guide him. Even when he did know of precedents, he discovered that they were seldom a close enough fit to the current situation to really provide much help. An important legal principle, he thought fuzzily, trying to shake off the effects of Al's champagne: precedent is useless. Often he decided to vote with Doris and figure out the whys and wherefores later. Happily there was no mechanism for asking them to justify their votes.
At about the fifth of these votes, he felt a strong sinking sensation—he was going to have to spend every Wednesday night for the next two years, doing just this! Listening very closely to a lot of matters that didn't interest him in the slightest! How in the hell had he gotten himself into it?
Out in the audience people were getting up and leaving. Doris's old boss Nadezhda stayed, watching curiously. Oscar and the council secretary took a lot of notes. The meeting droned on.
Kevin's concentration began to waver. The long day, the champagne.…It was nice and warm, and the voices were all so calm, so soothing.…
Very, very sleepy.
And yet intensely drowsy. Completely drowsy. At his first
council meeting. But it was so nice and warm.…
Don't fall asleep! Oh my God.
He pinched himself desperately. Could people see it when you clamped down on a yawn? He had never been sure.
What were they talking about? He wasn't even sure which item on the agenda they were discussing. With an immense effort he tried to focus.
"Item twenty-seven," Alfredo said, and for a second Kevin feared Alfredo was going to look over at him with his raffish grin. But he only read on. A bunch of water bureaucracy details, including nominations by the city planning office of two new members for the watermaster. Kevin had never heard of either of them. Still befuddled, he shook his head. Watermaster. When he was a child he had been fascinated by the name. It had been disappointing to learn that it was not a single person, with magical powers at his command, but merely a name for a board, another agency in an endless system of agencies. In some basins they merely recorded, in others they set groundwater policy. Kevin wasn't sure what they did in their district. But something, he felt, was strange. Perhaps that he had not recognized the names. And then, over at the side table, Oscar had tilted his head slightly. He was still watching them with a poker face, but there was something different in his demeanor. It was as if a statue of the sleeping Buddha had barely cracked open an eye, and glanced out curiously.
"Who are they?" Kevin croaked. "I mean, who are these nominees?"
Alfredo handled the interruption like Ramona fielding a bad hop, graceful and smooth as ever. He described the two candidates. One was an associate of Mart's. The other was a member of the OC Water District's engineering board.
Kevin listened uncertainly. "What's their political affiliation?"
Alfredo shrugged. "I think they're Feds, but what's the big deal? It's not a political appointment."
"You must be kidding," Kevin said. Water, not political? Drowsiness gone, he glanced through the rest of the text of Item 27. Lots of detail. Ignoring Alfredo's request to explain himself, he read on. Approval of water production statements from the wells in the district, approval of annual report on groundwater conditions (good). Letter of thanks to OCWD for Crawford Canyon land donated to the town last year. Letter of inquiry sent by town planning board to get further information on the Metropolitan Water District's offer to supply client towns with more water—
Doris elbowed him in the ribs.
"What do you mean?" Alfredo repeated for the third time.
"Water is always political," Kevin said absently. "Tell me, do you always put so many things into one item on the agenda?"
"Sure," Alfredo said. "We group by topic."
But Oscar's head shifted a sixteenth of an inch to the left, a sixteenth of an inch to the right. Just like a Buddha statue coming alive.
If only he knew more about all this.…He chose at random. "What's this offer from MWD?"
Alfredo looked over the agenda. "Ah. That was something a few sessions ago. MWD has gotten their Colorado River allotment upped by court decision, and they'd like to sell that water before the Columbia River pipe is finished. The planning office has determined that if we do take more from MWD, we can avoid the penalties from OC Water District for overdrafting groundwater, and in the end it'll save us money. And MWD is desperate—when the Columbia pipe's done it'll be a real buyer's market. So in essence it's a buyer's market already."
"But we don't pump that much out of the groundwater here."
"No, but the pump taxes for overdrafting are severe. With the water from MWD we could replenish any overdraft ourselves, and avoid the tax."
Kevin shook his head, confused. "But extra MWD water would mean we would never overdraft."
"Exactly. That's the point. Anyway, it's just an inquiry letter for more information."
Kevin thought it over. In his work he had had to get water permits often, so he knew a little about it. Like many of the towns in southern California, they bought the bulk of their water from Los Angeles's Metropolitan Water District, which pumped it in from the Colorado River. But much more than that he didn't know, and this.…
"What information do we have now? Do they have a minimum sale figure?"
Alfredo asked Mary to read them the original letter from MWD, and she located it and read. Fifty acre feet a year minimum. Kevin said, "That's a lot more water than we need. What do you plan to do with it?"
"Well," Alfredo replied, "if there's any excess at first, we can sell it to the District watermaster."
If, Kevin thought. At first. Something strange here.…
Doris leaned forward in her seat. "So now we're going into the water business? What happened to the resolution to reduce dependency on MWD?"
"It's just a letter asking for more information," Alfredo said, almost irritably. "Water is a complex issue, and getting more expensive all the time. It's our job to try and get it as cheaply as we can." He glanced at Matt Chung, then down at his notes.
Kevin's fist clenched. They were up to something. He didn't know what it was, but suddenly he was sure of it. They had been trying to slip this by him, in his first council meeting, when he was disoriented, tired, a little drunk.
Alfredo was saying something about drought. "Don't you need an environmental impact statement for this kind of thing?" Kevin asked, cutting him off.
"For an inquiry letter?" Alfredo said, almost sarcastically.
"Okay, okay. But I've stood before this council trying to get permission to couple a greenhouse and a chicken coop, and I've had to make an EIS—so somewhere along the line we'd surely have to have one for a change like this!" Sudden spurt of anger, remembering the frustration of those many meetings.
Alfredo said, "It's just water."
"Fuck, you must be kidding!" Kevin said.
Doris jabbed him with an elbow, and he remembered where he was. Oops. He looked down at the table, blushing. There was some tittering out in the audience. Got to watch it here, not just a private citizen anymore.
Well. That had put a pause in the conversation. Kevin glanced at the other council members. Matt was frowning. The moderates looked concerned, confused. "Look," Kevin said. "I don't know who these nominees are, and I don't know any of the details about this offer from MWD. I can't approve item twenty-seven in such a state, and I'd like to move we postpone discussing it until next time."
"I second the motion," Doris said.
Alfredo looked like he was going to make some objection. But he only said, "In favor?"
Doris and Kevin raised their hands. Then Hiroko and Jerry did the same.
"Okay," Alfredo said, and shrugged. "That's it for tonight, then."
He closed the session without fuss, looked at Matt briefly as they stood.
They had hoped to slip something by, Kevin thought. But what? Anger flushed through him again: Alfredo was tricky. And all the more so because no one but Kevin seemed to recognize that in him.
Their new town attorney bulked before him. Buddha standing. "You'll come by to see my house?"
"Oh yeah," Kevin said, distracted.
Oscar gave him the address. "Perhaps you and Ms. Nakayama could come by for breakfast. You can see the house, and I might also be able to illuminate some aspects of tonight's agenda."
Kevin looked at him quickly. The man's big face was utterly blank; then his eyes fluttered up and down, wild as crows' wings. Significance. The moonlike face blanked out again.
"Okay," Kevin said. "We'll come by."
"I shall expect you promptly at your leisure."
* * *
Biking home in the night, the long meeting over. Kevin had had to take some tools over to Hank's, and Doris and Nadezhda had gone directly home, so now he was alone.
The cool rush of air, the bouncing headlamp, the occasional whirr of chain in derailleur. The smell everywhere of orange blossoms, cut with eucalyptus, underlaid by sage: the braided smell of El Modena. Funny that two of the three smells were immigrants, like all the rest of them. Together, the way they could fill him up.…
Freed of the night's responsibilities, and still a little drunk, Kevin felt the scent of the land fill him. Light as a balloon. Sudden joy in the cool spring night. God existed in every atom, as Hank was always saying, in every molecule, in every particulate jot of the material world, so that he was breathing God deep into himself with every fragrant breath. And sometimes it really felt that way, hammering nails into new framing, soaring in the sky, biking through night air, the black hills bulking around him.…He knew the configuration of every dark tree he passed, every turn in the path, and for a long moment rushing along he felt spread out in it all, interpenetrated, the smell of the plants part of him, his body a piece of the hills, and all of it cool with a holy tingling.
* * *
Kevin's thighs had stiffened up from the afternoon's flight, and feeling them, he saw Ramona's legs. Long muscles, smooth brown skin, the swirl of fine silky hair on inner thigh. Wham, wham, the frame of the ultralite shuddering under all that anger and pain. Still wrapped up with Alfredo, no doubt of that. Hmmm.
Long day. Four for four, boom, boom! His wrists remembered the hits, the solid vibrationless smack of a line drive. Thoughtlessly around the roundabout, up Chapman. Overlying the physical memories of the day, the meeting. Oh, man—stuck on that damned council for two whole years! Anger coursed through him again, at Alfredo's subterfuge, his smoothness. Buddha standing, the weird mime faces of their new town attorney. Something going on. It was funny; he had caught that from right as near sleep as he could have been. He knew he was slow, his friends made fun of him about it; but he wasn't stupid, he wasn't. Look at his houses and see. Would he have noticed that crammed item on the agenda if he had been fully awake? Hard to say. Didn't matter. Pattern recognition. A kind of subconscious resistance. Intelligence as a sort of stubbornness, a refusal to be fooled. No more classrooms falling off their chairs,
He took the left to home, pumped up the little road. He lived in a big old converted apartment block, built originally in a horseshoe around a pool. He had done the conversion himself, and still liked it about the best of any of his work; big tented thing bursting with light, home to a whole clan. His housemates, the neighbors inside, the real family.
Last painful push on the thighs, short coast to the bike rack at the open end of the horseshoe. Upstairs Tomas's window was lit as always, he would be up there before his computer screen, working away. Figures crossed before the big kitchen windows, Donna and Cindy no doubt, talking and pounding the cervecas, watching the kids wash dishes.
The building sat in an avocado grove at the foot of Rattlesnake Hill, one of the last knobs of the Santa Ana Mountains before the long flat stretch to the sea. Dark bulk of the hill above, furry with scrub oak and sage. His home under the hill. His hill, the center of his life, his own great mound of sandstone and sage.
He slipped the front tire of his mountain bike into the rack. Turning toward the house he saw something and stopped. A motion.
Something out there in the grove. He squinted against the two big squares of kitchen light. Clatter of pots and voices. There it was; black shape, between trees, about mid-grove. It too was still, and he had the sudden feeling it was looking back at him. Tall and man-shaped, sort of. Too dark to really see it.
It moved. Shift to the side, then gone, off into the trees. No sound at all.
Kevin let out a breath. Little tingle up his spine, around the hair on the back of his neck. What the…?
Long day. Nothing out there but night. He shook his head, went inside.
Copyright © 1988 by Kim Stanley Robinson