by Diane Lefer
publication date: 2007/04/01
trim: 9 x 6
price (paper): $15.95
ISBN (paper): 0
ISBN 13 (paper): 978-1-932511-47-5
At the Site Where Vision is Most Perfect
David calls the police to report Cliff missing, but for them it's too early for it to matter.
The doorbell rings, startling them as though it promises bad news but it's just the next-door neighbor. "I notice you don't put up lights," she says, "but I do hope you'll join our effort"—a petition against white Christmas lights and in favor of bringing back traditional colors. "For next year," she says. "To preserve the neighborhood's character."
They get to laugh a moment when she's gone. The neighborhood's character: a Valley suburb on the way down, for people on the way up. A place the Pearlsteins can afford and convenient via the 405 to their jobs at UCLA. The local schools? Matt's the kind of kid who'll always do well in school and be dissatisfied with any.
David tries calling INS but of course the office is closed.
The house in Van Nuys looks so modest on its modest little street. Nothing to attract a break-in, but Clifford had her way with the backyard and the inside. Skylights and terraces and a glass atrium with cacti and indoor trees. (No Christmas tree, a small consolation to David's mother, who doesn't know Matt gets presents, Mexican-style, on January 6.) In the back, the obligatory pool, and lemon trees and guava. This is where Cliff got to be an architect. She gave up private clients, too much money and too little taste, she always said, and instead she chose to work at the Virtual Cities Project. To Cliff, architecture is as much a way of thinking as of building.
("CONstruct," she used to say to Matt, "conSTRUCT"—as if the words were visual, flipping back and forth between figure and ground.) Cliff spends her days with a parallel L.A., in cyberspace, created out of satellite images and constant input from street-level videocams, a city that can be constructed and reconstructed and deconstructed, experimented with to see what if?—fire, riot, earthquake, slum clearance, freeway widening, what if? Click: two men husking coconuts with machetes at the corner of Beverly and Alvarado. Click: Pico and Hill where a dozen naked mannequins show their buttocks in the window and two Latino men squat on their heels in front of the store, looking out into the street. Click: A woman studies a battered mailbox at 8th and Olive and finally decides to walk on without depositing her letter. Click: A traffic jam in front of Cedars Sinai where a little girl loses her knot of helium balloons to a gust of wind and the camera picks up the get well message on the ribbon.
And with all those videocams and all that data, with the city under constant surveillance, Cliff Pearlstein has disappeared when no one was watching. Monday morning, a live human being answers the phone at INS, but key employees have called in sick—David did too, he's not going to work until he finds his wife-and no one can help him.
Clifford Pearlstein? They don't believe Clifford is a woman, surely not a Mexican woman. (Her parents, headed for the U.S. when she was born, gave her a good English name, not knowing it was a boy's name.)
"Is this a marriage," says the bureaucrat, "or a domestic partnership?"
It's not till Tuesday that David and Matt know for sure the Immigration and Naturalization Service has her.
It's not till Thursday that Cliff's office calls. When she didn't come in, they thought at first she was working from home and David's been too confused to call them.
The cameras, of course, are rolling. A gray minivan emerges from an alley. Click. The videocams record the TV cameras filming a front yard in Downey with prize-winning Christmas decorations: animated reindeer, a neon Santa plunging down a chimney, and thousands of white lights, an electric bill that could put a kid through college. Click. The flash of a welder's torch on the 3500 block of 7th.
Cliff's car is located, it's been towed, and David goes to get it. At the sound of the familiar motor, Desirée bounds to the door, then backs away slowly, fur fluffed out, when she sees that it's just David.
Now David's holding the phone, on hold. Matt sits at the kitchen table, his left leg jiggling, while he flips through the exterminator's calendar. January shows a snowcapped mountain and a quote from Psalms: Thou hast seen, for Thou dost take note of trouble and grief. The words jog David's memory. He replies, Be gracious to me, O Lord, see what I suffer from those who hate me, and Matt feels all his muscles clench. He's always worried a lot about whether people like him, but this is new to him: he's never felt hated.
Someone answers at the other end. David says, "My wife."
You can't see her, they tell him. She's not yet officially in any place. We can't talk to you until you have her A#. Until they have her processed, no phone calls, no letters, no lawyers, they sort of have her but she sort of isn't really there.
Winner of the 2005 Mary McCarthy Prize in Fiction
Diane Lefer is one of the most gifted and witty writers around and in California Transit she has used her remarkable talents and quite wonderful sense of humor to produce a most entertaining and interesting book. California Transit contains such a wide range of quirky events and rich characterizations that it is as memorable and satisfying as any fiction. In other words, grab this book—you will not be disappointed, for each of her stories is a well-told and compelling gem.