Claire did not believe in the evil of the world, and so when it touched her, at first she did not recognize it for what it was. No pointing red tails and pitchforks as in the movies, not even malice in the heart. Evil as simple as an accident, as boring as the aftermath it brings. Forster saying death would have been easier than enduring what followed. A small, domestic evil as random as lightning, as devastating to those touched by it.
* * *
She had longed for home—a place of connection and belonging and family—for so long it was hard to believe that her struggle to attain it was about to be consummated. Eighteen years since she first came to the ranch. Her only regret that Hanni, her mother-in-law, wasn’t there to share the moment she finally got it back for the family, because what was the worth of something unless it lasted through one’s desire for it, a whole lifetime if need be, or beyond it, into one’s children’s lives also? She couldn’t imagine anything better than Josh or one of the girls taking over when the time came. She looked around at all that was hers: the blush of sunset on her blossoming citrus trees; Forster, coming down the steps from the porch two at a time, wrapping his arms around her. Hers—his love—also.
“Hurry, the girls have a surprise for you. Pretend you don’t know.”
Forster was throwing a party, a Claire-will-live-forever party, since she hated birthdays and their reminder of time passing. Yes, about to have everything, but time itself had escaped her, moved on, made her a little more leathery, a little more tired than she wanted to be. At last she had time to spend with the children, just as they were growing up and going away.
Everyone had been invited, everyone came, barbecue for over two hundred, pushing at the seams of the farmhouse, spilling over onto the lawn, eddying around the rose gardens, the shadowy edges of the stalwart orchards. Her mother and father had driven down from Santa Monica—witnesses to her hard-won good fortune. She took a long look around as if she were about to depart on a journey and would need this memory: the citrus fruit hanging heavy with juice; the leaves on the trees turned ever so slightly toward the last rays of sunshine, showing their faintly silvered backsides.
* * *
In the kitchen, the caterer was scolding a newly hired waiter who’d come in late and ungroomed. In her room, Gwen, sixteen, put on lipstick and mascara for the first time. The guests walked along admiring the healthy rows of trees, the food-laden tables, as Lucy led the younger children in a game of hide-and-seek. People ate as much as they could bear and drank more. Unnoticed, Joshua snuck out from the bar with a bottle of vodka hidden away in a newspaper. Everyone was giddy with the rare sense of work put aside in favor of pleasure.
* * *
As Claire stood admiring the paper lanterns strung across the lawn, her lawn, rocking in the faint breeze, the banker Relicer sidled up to her with a plate stacked high with ribs. Even under the magic golden pink of sunset, time had not been kind during the last ten years she had been in business with him. He looked as severe and expiring as in his mahogany-lined office—aged, pale skin and caved-in cheeks that spoke of a life of frugality.
“It’s a beauty,” he said. “What you’ve accomplished with our money.”
“Money didn’t accomplish this,” Claire said, feeling smug with the last check to him in her pocket. She would put it in the mail after he left. “It just kept developers away long enough for it to provide.” Impossible to explain that the land was alive and fertile. It just needed coaxing along.
Relicer gnawed at the rib beyond simply getting the meat off, intending to suck the very marrow out. A tardy waiter came by and in offering a napkin almost flipped the paper plate on the banker’s shirt. Claire frowned, noticed the waiter’s greasy blond hair, his unkempt nails. She would complain to the caterer. The young man apologized, but the expression on his face, small eyes and large nose crowded together, wasn’t the least sorry.
“The money wasn’t exactly a gift.” Claire looked down at her feet. The moment of sweetest revenge. They would no longer be needing his services; the trees were bowing under the weight of their record harvest; prices were up and the loan would be paid off and the Baumsarg ranch would never be beholden again. A happy birthday indeed. Forster had been right that the place never felt as much theirs since the debt, but Claire knew that sometimes necessity made one temporarily do the wrong thing.
The most devastating revenge: the thin envelope with its single stamp, a check for the full amount, and a simple note requesting the closing of the credit line. Gwen made her way over to the rescue. “Come on, Mom. Cake time.”
Claire looked back at Relicer, happy to be abandoning him. “It’s a hard job living here, not a vacation.”
As she walked with her daughter, she noticed the girl’s first attempt at makeup. “I wish you’d wash that off. It makes you look too old.” When Gwen frowned, Claire relented, putting her arms around her shoulders. “And too beautiful. What happened to my little girl?”
A mountainous tower of frosting masquerading as a cake was wheeled out on a cart, and by it stood Lucy and Gwen, unhappy that Josh was as usual nowhere in sight to sing his part. Raisi, Claire’s mother, offered to go looking for him, but Octavio took charge. The girls sang “How Sweet It Is” in harmony, one part missing, and it sounded strangely romantic and dreamy coming from their mouths instead of the usual James Taylor version that Forster loved to play. Did the girls mistakenly think that Forster’s favorite song was hers also? The girls didn’t know differently because Claire had no time to listen to music, much less have favorites, so on Saturday nights, exhausted from a long day doing errands that had been put off during the week, she deferred to Forster’s taste.
“Where’s Josh for the picture?” Claire asked. He had hit a new stage of rebelliousness that was unfathomable after the docile joys of raising daughters.
After a half hour’s search, Octavio found him drinking vodka with older boys in an irrigation ditch.
“There are going to be consequences to this,” Claire said when she found out. “This is not acceptable. Those are teenagers. Not ten-year-olds.”
Josh looked at Octavio, betrayed. “But they said—”
“You missed cutting my cake. Singing the song your sisters prepared. You weren’t in the family picture. Things are going to change.”
A charmer, Josh held out an orange as a peace offering. It used to be a joke between them when he got in trouble. The most precious thing for the family and the most common.
“Not going to get you off the hook this time, mister.”
“We can always take another picture.” Forster held the camera, not paying mind to his son’s ruffled hair, his crooked smile, his fingers making rabbit ears behind Lucy’s head, and at the time Claire was angry that the pictures were too silly to use for the Christmas card. “Behave!” she said. Forster was distracted after overhearing Claire’s conversation with the banker, a double impotence—the farm’s loan and this man’s presence lording the fact over them. Forster remained sullen until she reminded him that this would be the last time they would have to entertain the man. “You can give him the check yourself.”
Claire handed him the envelope, then gave him a thumbs-up. “We need you in the picture—”
“Let me take it,” Raisi said, stepping out of the line.
“You have to stand by Dad,” Claire said.
“Allow me.” Relicer had appeared from nowhere and offered to take the family snapshot. A bad omen. Forster reluctantly handed over the camera. But the old man fumbled with the buttons until the dirty-haired waiter reappeared. He put his hand on the banker’s shoulder. “I’ll take over, Pops.”
Claire again noticed the dirty fingernails, and Raisi noticed, too, her eyes clouding. Octavio started toward the waiter, sensing the women’s discomfort, but Sofia called him. “Go,” Claire said. She would handle this herself. The caterer would get an earful soon. Forster escorted Relicer to the car, handed him the envelope, and watched him drive away.
* * *
The night after her birthday party, Forster was late coming home from a machinery exposition out in Pomona. Her parents had left that morning to return home. A night of hot moonlight and citrus perfuming the air. Claire had worked late in the fields with Octavio. Listless from the heat, the kids begged to eat a dinner of party leftovers out on a blanket on the lawn.
After the meal, they played cards while she went to the barn to recover a wrap she had left from dancing the night before. Late into the night, Forster and she had danced in celebration of ending the Relicer part of their life. The caterer had bawled a waiter out, demanding to look in his bag before he left. When the silver globe was found in it, she came to the barn to inform them she was calling the police. Never seeing the man in question, Claire had stopped her, telling her to escort the man off their property with a warning not to show up again. A blemish on an otherwise perfect night. They kept dancing. Now ribbon and confetti lodged in the gravel like stars, flashed through the grass like comets, turning the world topsy-turvy.
* * *
From the dark surrounding groves, three men appeared, as if they had metamorphosed from the very trees—two Hispanics and one masked by a baseball cap and a bandana from the eyes down. They mumbled about looking for work while the bandanaed one squinted through the darkness at the house, farther up the drive.
Impossible that a house brimming with hundreds of people the day before could be empty and helpless tonight.
“My foreman, Octavio, is here. He will take care of you.”
But the bandana man seemed hostile to what he sensed was a lie. One of the Hispanic men, wearing a dirty, reeking T-shirt, had a stagger that she thought was a deformity until she noticed the same heaviness in the stride of the other. Drunk. She pictured the loaded rifle safely on the top shelf of the closet in the entry hallway. How perfectly, uselessly far away it was. Even if she reached it, the child-lock would take extra precious seconds to unfasten.
Out of the corner of her eye, Claire saw Gwen walking down the drive looking for her. A cold sweat formed under her arms at the sparkle of a moonlit blade in the hand of the bandana man. She bluffed, “Octavio, where are you?” until he hushed her with a shave of metal. They must smell fear on her like dogs.
“He’s gone home,” Gwen yelled back.
The bandana one touched her arm with the cold flat of the blade as he stood partially behind her. His breath was hot and sour; she could smell his unwashed skin as Gwen came up to the group.
“Quélinda. Bonito pelo,” said the staggering one as he reached to touch Gwen’s hair. Quickly she stepped back, eyes widening as she registered that none of these were their usual workers. Far away, Lucy could be heard arguing with Joshua. Claire saw it, too, for the first time, her daughter’s new curves, now a young woman rather than an awkward teenager, and it put a vise on her heart.
“Go back to the house, Gwen.”
“No!” the bandana one said. “Keep her.” He signaled to the other, who locked his arms around Gwen’s narrow shoulders in a bear hug. When she struggled in a spasm of panic, he shook her like a rag until her body went quiet. He held her with one arm and punched her on the side of the head with his other hand. She yelped in pain.
“Let her go back.” Claire put herself between the men and her daughter, her body forming a protective shield.
Raspy laughter from the other two, and the bandana one nodded. “Let’s all go see what’s in the house.”
Her thoughts stopped, sputtered, jumped, grabbing. “Money,” she said, the suggestion of what they might otherwise do intolerable.
“Not here. It’s at the bank. Tomorrow.”
The bandana one laughed, and she knew this was what got him off, the humiliation. He clapped his hands, an understanding between them. “We’ll need a hostage. Otherwise you’ll tell the cops.”
“Touch her and the deal’s off.”
“How do you figure you’re calling the shots?” He stopped, contemplating. “Okay, let the girl go. Keep quiet, cutie, or Mama isn’t coming back.”
A car motor broke the silence, headlights sweeping the trees just short of them as a pickup went up the drive to the house. Octavio returned or Forster come back early? The men ran, pulling Claire with them to the deepest part of the black-bitter orchard. Afraid for herself, more afraid for her children, she let out a cry. A mistake. They shoved her on the ground, a boot kicked her side. “Shut up!” They would kill her. Kill them. Mouth gagged with thick fingers and dirty cloth.
“How does the rich puta feel now? Want to order me around now?” he said, as a fist crushed bone.
Rage, hatred, welled through muscles that should have had the strength of new steel. Unacceptable to her that she could be pinned down so easily, that she could not fight back. That she had ignored Forster’s warnings of keeping a gun close by. Like a dog, she bit an ear and was punched. Kneed a groin and was cut. Would gladly have died fighting back, except the maternal kept her from sacrificing herself.
A small voice, not Forster’s, not Octavio’s, broke through. The worst pain yet—Josh had somehow found them. “Mom?”
She screamed and grabbed hair. A hard knock to her head. As she lost consciousness, she heard a scurrying and then one of the men winded, butted in the stomach. “Grab the little fuck!”
* * *
Recalling those next hours, so frightening, consciousness intermittent, all thought evaporated. She was on the same plane of existence as an animal being led to the stockyard, pure physical dread, and afterward, months later, she understood her mother’s terror escaping across the border, how for so many years she was unable to talk of it. Terror was intimate, entwined in the moment, not translatable.
Afterward, her mouth filled with salt from blood and sweet from blood. Seeded in the dirt, her fingers plowed earth she loved but was now separated from. Divorced, dismissed, expelled from. Was this the feeling of being thrown out of that first, perfect garden? Her farm, her trees, and yet she had been rendered helpless.
She woke from unconsciousness to the comfort of a warm rain that turned out to be piss. All bets off because she had fought, and they had gorged on their power over her. She would never forget the spiked hatred in their laughter. Their carelessness.Their lack of fear in repercussion. She lay on the ground, unable to move. Broken arm, torn life. Later (how long? time untethered), alone, she melted into the ground, a superficial burial. Until she remembered Josh.
The Forgetting Tree