Chapter 7. Wednesday. Henrik Washes the Old Mercedes

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

I.

In the morning, it was rained. It came down hard. And there were radio reports of flooding in some of the canyons. As usual, the WRDI arose before anyone else. He had made a point of being out of bed at 5 ever since being remanded to the supervision of one Ayla Davis. Never mind that before his arrest he typically slept until late morning, though seldom later than noon. This bit of rule making, plus the extra chores he assigned himself was one of the ways he lent himself dignity--parceling it out to himself in little bits--and kept his head clear.

He looked at the rain coming down and thought wryly that it would be a good day to wash Caleb's car. He'd wait for a break in the rain, if possible, and then get started before Caleb could object. Goading Ayla's boyfriend was one of the limited pleasures of his situation--such as it was. The County of Los Angeles Department of Debt Delinquency for Non-Violent Offenders was holding his driver's license. Prison was the alternative. Every day, Henrik considered walking away, gouging out the chip they'd planted in his hip, removing his ankle bracelet, and simply vanishing. But he had no money with which to buy a new identity. New names were expensive. His friends had left him holding the bag. Meaning all of the debt they built for the making of their film--which for Henrik had been nothing more than a lark--was in his name; most of the debt was on credit cards, which explained the vigorousness of the prosecution. He'd been living in Ayla's garage for three months now. She had offered him a room in the back house, but he had grunted and threw his chin in the direction of the garage: here.

This is the way the WRDI arrangement worked: Ayla did a ten-hour training session and was paid a small fee for supervising her criminal ward. Then the County expected Henrik to earn enough in wages to "pay" back the fee. (Most convicts in the WRDI system were said to be housed in dormitories at worksites, but a small percentage were drafted into household service.)

Henrik was liable for a certain number of hours' work each week. At County rates, he was required to work 55 hours a week. After 55 hours, the hourly rate dropped by half--the reverse of overtime. So there was no real way to speed the clock through effort. If only he could get a ticket back home. His family, of course, was no help. His father had told him, in so many words: you crawled yourself into this pile of dung. Now squirm yourself out.

At the jail in downtown Los Angeles, he had been handed papers to peruse before signing onto the program--they had offered him five minutes to make up his mind.
Now he went into the house, which at this hour was quiet, all the lights out except in the long hallway, which was half-lit by sconces, giving the space a hostile, expensive look. The chandelier in the front area probably cost more than the accumulated total of his debt, the debt that put him in service for the next four years and seven months and twenty-six days.

They never even lighted that chandelier, the heiress and Caleb. He'd heard Ayla say maybe she should sell it, though it had been made for the house.

In the utility room off the kitchen, he filled a bucket with water and found some cloth rags. He headed for the backdoor, which he had left open, then changed his mind and walked down the hall, slopping a little water here and there on the stone flooring, till the front door where he disarmed the alarm and let himself out.


II.

The rain let up for a while, and then at 7 a.m. or so Caleb came out, heading for his car, dropping things as he went. His iPhone tumbled onto the cobblestones of the driveway, a paper fluttered out of the pile of books and notebooks he balanced on one forearm. He trailed seeds from the bottoms of his boots. He even left behind a few memories. These consisted of feelings both of autonomy and inclusion.

The WRDI was washing the old Mercedes again. When Caleb saw this, he dropped the pile of notebooks and papers onto the ground, some of them fell on the cobblestones, but some crushed a few rain-battered California poppies that had sprouted and bloomed between the cracks.

"What the fuck, Henrik?!" he shouted. "I told you, man--" He leaned down and started collecting the notebooks. A breeze came and scattered a few sheets of white paper, with drawings on them. A photograph fell the to the wet ground. The WRDI kept washing, leisurely, taking the towel and dipping it into his bucket, slopping the cloth onto the hood of Caleb's car.

Caleb gave up on the papers - one of them stuck now on a manzanita bush, another flying over the wall into the neighboring property. The wind died suddenly, and some of Caleb's papers settled onto the driveway, getting soaked.

"The car does not need to be washed, Henrik." He pointed at the sky. "It's raining. Why don't you do something useful? Sing to the chickens."

The slave continued washing the car. He started shining the driver's-side window and mirror.

Caleb tossed into the backseat everything he held in his arms. Then he opened the driver's door, shoving it at the slave but missing. He got into the car and started the noisy old engine. The WRDI moved his lean body and began work on the rear of the car. He was still working the towel in circles as Caleb drove away, the car dribbling water as it rolled down the driveway, a towel on the trunk hood.

"That dude has got to go," Caleb said aloud, as he put the old Mercedes in neutral, letting it roll down Las Flores Drive. He'd been on Caleb's side at first. When Ayla told him she had signed up for the WRDI program several months before she met Caleb, and that all this time later they were sending a referral her way--read, Henrik--his jaw had dropped.

"One of those debtor-workers is coming here?"

She nodded.

"You're joking right? You're not really participating in that program."

She had laid out the arguments and the rationalizations, the win-win scenario, the better use of human capital, the advantages to her "worker" in avoiding being incarcerated in one of the county hellholes, an honor rancho or worse, the advantages to herself of having an employee who could do work around her house and, ultimately, at the building site. Really it was nothing more than a work-release program for nonviolent offenders, she said.

"It's slavery."

She stood still and looked in his eyes. "Caleb, you want to know about slavery? Then look into how young girls are kidnapped off the streets of almost every nation and raped and sold. They get murdered. In some countries their families won't even take them back, if they survive. Or look at the clothes you're wearing. The cotton may have been picked by slaves in Uzbekistan. Or maybe it was sewed by Thai slaves in Los Angeles. There was a slave operation just a couple of miles from here, where the women slept ten in a room and worked every day of the week. There were guards so they couldn't get out. The slept on the floor, they couldn't contact their relatives. The neighbors never asked why there was circular barbed wire around the apartment complex. Or why the windows were blacked out. It went on for years. Do you see barbed wire here? Did Henrik have a choice? He could have gone to the honor rancho. But he chose to come here."

"You bought him, Ayla."

"No, I am paid to keep him."

"In this case, it's the same thing. He was charged with a bogus crime. He's making money for the county, and you are collaborating."

"I didn't write the laws of this county. Do you think I'm that powerful?"

It had gone on like that. Ayla with her justifications, Caleb with his hope that she would convince him she was right. Or be convinced she'd made a mistake.

Yes, he'd been on Henrik's side in this. Caleb left Ayla for three weeks after their big blow-out over the issue, the day after Henrik was delivered to the front door by two WRDI deputies. He'd said it's me or him. But then he crawled back. He stopped the car at the five way intersection and had to remind himself which way he was going. No, he thought, he hadn't crawled back. He had gone home.


More by Jenny Burman:
Chapter 7. Wednesday. Henrik Washes the Old Mercedes
Chapter 6. Into His Arms
Chapter 5. Frank
Chapter 4. The News
Chapter 3. Marisol
Previous Native Intelligence story: Where does a scythed chariot park? Wherever it wants

Next Native Intelligence story: Fin Fest

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