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CALIFORNIA STORY [Short Fiction]

Science of Navigation

April 16, 2006|Kate Braverman | Kate Braverman is the author, most recently, of "Frantic Transmissions to and From Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir."

Michael and Sherry Kaufman drive me through Los Angeles where it's never supposed to rain and it's raining. The sky is a breeding ground for harvest fields and plateaus of clouds above patches of derelict palms. Stretches of freeways look abandoned, curving slabs of concrete simply stop as if contaminated.

"They call this the new tropics," Sherry Kaufman says. She sounds enthusiastic.

Mrs. Kaufman doesn't have any more eggs. She's too old to bear children. She told the social worker she liked my photograph. My face resonated and seemed familiar. And my IQ test scores impressed her. My grades are dismal. But that can be explained by circumstances.

I don't say anything. I only see the tops of trees as the car speeds, and frontiers of cloud above wind-washed, sunburned beige, straightjacketed streets.

I know the drill. I'm an officially troubled adolescent. I used to be a problem child, but I've been elevated by age. At 16, I was automatically upgraded. Now I'm supposed to behave appropriately and not appear frightened, confused or displaced. That disturbs prospective foster parents. Michael and Sherry Kaufman are taking me on probation, trying me out like a car, making sure I have the necessary acceleration and steering before they sign the contract.

Words stay shut in my mouth. I'm attempting to decipher landscapes hurtled through and flown over, trying to reconstruct history through branches, through attics and spires and chimney smoke and who knows why they lit this fire, who sits there to take tea? I'm passing wires, peaks of buildings and trees in pieces so high they might be severed and floating.

"They call California the Golden State," Michael Kaufman offers, like he's planning to open a treasure chest when we get to their house.

He's going to give me a gold necklace, earrings and a few 14-karat amulets, just to give me that welcoming feeling.

"They call every state something." I keep my voice soft and words evenly spaced.

Now we're going to San Diego County. It's for six months. If Michael and Sherry Kaufman decide I perform to specifications, and am not irreparably damaged, they can renew their contract. But it's just another sentence. Six months here, two years in Las Vegas, two years in Denver, a year in Cleveland, three in Buffalo and four in Atlanta. I'm in an experimental placement program, based on my religious affiliation and verbal test scores. They call it special status. In truth, my life is like a prison term for a minor offense, something I did without a gun and got assigned a lawyer on drugs who didn't do the right paperwork.

"What do you think?" Mrs. Kaufman asks.

I say, "Great." I'm practicing my monosyllables.

I'm really thinking that the sentences of my life accumulate and define me. The Silbersteins in Ohio, and the problem with their son. Las Vegas with Dr. Green, who retired early, and Mrs. Green, who was lonely. Then Mrs. Green started taking hormones and Prozac and playing golf. They decided a child wasn't necessary after all. One desk became another, and it was three years in a blizzard zone where I didn't get adopted either. They detected personality problems that made them uncomfortable with the legal commitment. Then four years outside Atlanta and the unfortunate situation with the Kaplans. They got divorced.

Now these sleek block cities that might have been constructed overnight, assembled by malevolent children. There's nothing playful in this composition of steel and glass. Such rooms could shatter and sever their limbs in an earthquake. People must work with their lives in danger, in mines, in labs with chemicals, on freeways with drive-by shootings. Before, the baron just put an arrow through your chest if he didn't like your appearance or demeanor.

The California clusters offer miniature skylines like rows of broken teeth beside the coast, near flat spaces that once contained cows and orange groves. Perhaps they're still growing and grazing beneath the overpasses, under the clouds and networks of communications designed for somebody else.

I'll be expected to do more than school in the Kaufmans' house. Perhaps piano classes. Or aerobics. Yoga. Sherry Kaufman has mentioned this, twice. And tennis.

"It's not just physical discipline," Mr. Kaufman says. He's talking about tennis.

"It's social, too," Mrs. Kaufman adds. "A tool to meet the right people."

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