Symphony 51

He shouldn’t have run. Until then, he had been clean in conscience and in action. Running had weakened his position; worse, it had shown a weakness within him that he had not known was there. In the six months since the incident, he had faced that weakness, and had grown because of it.

Still . . .  If he had stayed, he would never have met these children. They were so fresh, so new, so open and unafraid of the world around them. They were like Neil had been before Alice Hamilton. Their Alice Hamiltons were all still ahead of them.

He loved them. There was no lesser word to describe the warmth he felt whenever they flowed into his room like a river of life. It didn’t matter that some of them were rowdy, that some of them were incorrigible, that some of them were — be honest; use the right word — stupid. None of that could stand up for a moment against the sheer elemental liveliness of them. Little Randi Nguyen, face shining, skinny legs sticking down from her shorts, standing her ground to correct him when he made a misstatement. Oscar, so cool, so self-contained, but containing what? What mysteries made him turn against his intellect and act out a dumb-Mexican stereotype? All of them, even Tony Caraveli and Jesse Herrera, were precious to him, each in his or her own way.

Carmen broke his reverie with an unpleasant, “Ugh!”, and he smelled the sugar processing plant at Manteca. It fouled the air for miles around. And with that honest stench in his nostrils he admitted that, for all his other feelings, he could kill Jesse Herrera sometimes.

Apparently the silence had become uncomfortable for Carmen. She said, “How are things going for you after two months?”

Her question fell false on his ear. He said, “Fine,” and let the silence put its pressure on Carmen again. Whatever was wrong between them, was her problem. He could do nothing about it until she gave him some clue what it was all about.

Two miles slid away beneath them. She was concentrating on her driving now as the oncoming cars had the rising sun full in their faces, and were two-thirds blinded. Finally, the road widened to four lanes again, and she visibly relaxed.

“Tough driving,” he commiserated.

“I hate it. I would rather drive through the heart of L.A. than through that stretch of highway.”

She was quite a good driver, but he couldn’t say so. The compliment would sound false. Neil looked out the window to hide his irritation. It looked like it would be a long day.

The coast range rose up before them, low, golden-brown, and rounded like breasts in repose. Now, in late October, the grass was grazed to the ground and they were empty of animal life. Someone — Tom Wright — had told him that they were as green as the hills of Ireland in the springtime, and that for a few months they were covered with fattening cattle. It was hard to believe.

“I’ll have to come this way in the spring.” Neil said. “Tom said these hills are beautiful then.”

“They are,” Carmen responded. “If you really want to see something beautiful, though, go eastward into the foothills. They are similar to these, but with scattered live oaks, and they are covered with California poppies in the spring. These hills are pretty enough, but they are so overgrazed that the wildflowers really don’t have a chance.”

That, Neil thought, is what I’ve been wanting. An ordinary conversation without all those overtones of hostility. more Monday

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