Chapter 8. How To Get Rid of Henrik

veronica.jpgPhoto by Heather D'Augustine

How to get rid of Henrik? Caleb drove down to Mikowsky Boulevard, toward Sunset, the cityscape blending with the question. It was not the first drive that had been filled with resolutions regarding the slave, silent speeches he made to Ayla, that evaporated and turned into dust on the dashboard.

Ninety-some days earlier, Henrik had been delivered by the two deputies to Ayla's house at six in the morning. Caleb was asleep when the doorbell chimed. Ayla had been in the shower. Just a year before, the county had made unpaid credit card debt over $5,000 a class-one offense, and under the new codes it had become much more common to have remandations, like Henrik. Ayla hadn't had the guts, or the consideration, to tell him about the slave until she'd already signed the final paperwork and the arrival date was set. During the week before the Sheriff's bus arrived to deliver their hostage, Ayla and Caleb had the two raging arguments, Ayla pleading that they were helping a person who otherwise would go to a private prison in Arizona.

"But he works for free. And he has to do what you tell him. It's slavery. We can't be part of it. It's like if someone is boycotting" - he looked down at the bowl of fruit on the counter - "pears. You don't eat them, even if they've already been picked." Caleb stood on one side of the kitchen counter, Ayla on the other.

"If a pear has been picked, I eat it."

"That's crossing a picket line."

"Are you going to close your bank accounts? Because the big banks and the association of credit unions are big supporters of the debtor-release approach to reducing the prison population."

"Ayla! That "program" is not about making prison more humane! It's profits for the banks."

"Are you going to go off-grid?"

He wasn't sure if she was trying to taunt him, or if she were hungry for a piece of fruit, but Ayla leaned over the kitchen counter and took a brown bosc pear out of the fruit bowl.

Caleb left her for three weeks. He hauled a duffel bag full of clothes to a friend's (he'd come back for the rest after he found his own apartment), first vowing it was over with Ayla, then waiting for Ayla to call him with news she'd canceled her slave contract. He knew she loved him, though he didn't look great on paper. Perhaps especially because he didn't look good on paper: His most tangible achievement was a coffee table book by Abrams of his photographs from the north of Chile. Still, Ayla didn't cancel the contract, she didn't apologize, and during the days he was gone she didn't try to find him.
It was Caleb who called, returning unconditionally, Ayla crying as he held her in the driveway of Ayla's house. The same house in which she had been raised from infancy to the age of nine (her father's house, which she inherited). The slave was already installed, and seemed part of the place, building raised vegetable beds at a steady, if slow, pace, digging holes for some reason Ayla didn't explain.

Henrik was a tallish blond guy from Minnesota. (Caleb had assumed the slave would be Latino or black.) He slept in the garage. He maintained the grounds and kept a quarter-acre vegetable garden and the chicken coop.

Now Caleb pulled up at a stoplight at San Javier and Berry Street in Ashton Park. It was just on the other side of the old Deco bridge, which dated from the 1940s; most of the traffic had to wait on the bridge for the light to change. His mind strayed, and Caleb was afraid his sugar might be going down. In every moment, it was headed up or down; he always trying to figure which way. And he was always running after the information. His mind was the dupe of his body; but his body depended on the workings of his mind. It was an absurd situation. He had an irrational, visual memory of the number 106. It was after breakfast that he'd tested, just before he left on his errand. One thing about Ayla: She could tell by looking at him whether his levels were rising or falling. And she could guess within ten points what his reading would be. She was almost as good as his test-kit. It was uncanny, actually. Caleb's own mother, who'd never let down her guard since he was diagnosed at the age of ten, could never guess his sugar readings the way Ayla could.

He was thinking back to what he had eaten when, suddenly, a maleleuca in a 15-gallon plastic pot flew off a truck, soared through the air and landed on the street in front of car, like an insult. Dirt sprayed onto the asphalt, decorating the crosswalk. The truck had continued across the street and now turned down a narrow alley-like passage.
Caleb backed up and drove around the maleleuca. At the following street, another maleleuca. This was the fifth tree since he left home, not counting the one he saw falling from a helicopter into Ashton Park Lake, where the splash had been accompanied by the panic of ducks, geese, and American coots. Caleb accelerated and ran over a sapling that lay in Sunset Boulevard. A young man in the truck pointed at Caleb with his finger and thumb and pulled the trigger, made a falling-back motion, then laughed.

At Echelon Street, Caleb made a U and returned to the sapling, just a baby, which lay on its side, dirt spilled out of its container like crumbling chunks of blood. Lifting the root ball and gently shoving it back into its pot, with as much dirt as he could scoop up with his hands, he vowed to see this one planted and cared for. One of the orphans. He put it on the passenger seat, tilting so its leaves blue-gray leaves splayed across the back window. He started down Sunset again, and as the shops blinked in and out of his side view, Caleb told the tree he was sorry he had run it over:

"I will never use you or your plight as a cheap metaphor about transplantation or reaping what you sow or love. I will respect your core dignity as a living entity. I know just the place for you. Perfect place. Next to an olive tree. The only things you have to fear are fire, too much or too little water, the wind, and the tides of human imagination. And root rot."

A streetlight turned red in front of them, and Caleb hit the brakes. Dirt flew.

The car was a mess. He had spilled dirt into his shoes and on the shaggy carpet floor of his car. The slave pulled Caleb's chain by constantly washing the car's exterior, but he never cleaned out the inside. Perhaps, Caleb considered, he should order him to do so. Then he turned his mind down a pretty side street that was thoughts of planting the sapling he'd just rescued.

His mind began to quiet. His breath slowed, though he did not notice. Misgivings about the project; misgivings about the slave; even the tree that sat beside him, all of these things stole away from his mind discreetly, like sober guests at a party where the host has passed out.

He pulled the car over, took out his test kit. Fifty-seven. Time for some M&Ms, then a stop at Cookbook Cafe; they knew what to make him there: some oatmeal with fruit. Then: to the acreage to take pictures. Ayla was already at her drafting table; she said the photography he'd done so far was not enough.

Caleb's hands were dusty. A morning glory sprout was just starting in the soil near the clutch. And then it came to him: how to get rid of Henrik.

Read "Veronica Street" from the beginning

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