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Henry has relocated to Los Angeles, where he now lives with Josh, who has been diagnosed HIV-positive. The mystery involves Henry’s defense of a child molester accused of murdering a child pornographer. It is in Howtown that the series becomes deeply entrenched in the cultural and social conflicts of Los Angeles, and the relationship between Henry and Josh faces wrenching developments.
This novel traces what happens when a gay Hispanic Los Angeles lawyer tries to clear a client falsely accused of the murder of a child pornographer.
Earlier, coming off the Bay bridge I'd taken a wrong turn and found myself in a neighborhood of small pastel houses. Grafitti-gashed walls and a preternatural calm marked it as gang turf. The papers had been full of gang killings that month. When I drove past, a child walking by herself flinched, ready to take cover. None of that was visible from these heights.
This was like living in a garden, I thought, and other associations came to mind: Eden, paradise, a line from "Sunday Morning" that I murmured aloud: "Is there no change in paradise?" I couldn't remember the rest. Elena would know. And she would appreciate the irony. She and I had grown up in a neighborhood called Paradise Slough in a town called Los Robles about an hour's drive from here.
There had been little about our childhood that could be described as paradisiacal. Our alcoholic father was either brutal or sullenly withdrawn. Our mother retaliated with religious fanaticism. As she knelt before plaster images of saints, in the flicker of votive candles, her furious mutter was more like invective than prayer. Their manias kept my parents quite busy, and Elena and I were more or less left to raise ourselves.
This should have made us allies, but it had the opposite effect. We lived in adjoining bedrooms and occasionally as I lay awake listening to one of my father's drunken rampages, and the wail of my mother's prayers, I was aware of Elena next door, also awake, also listening. It never occurred to me to seek shelter with her, though she was five years older and so, by my lights, almost an adult. What she made of all this, I had no idea, as we never discussed what went on in our house. Elena and I were united only in our unspoken determination to show nothing of what we felt about this embarrassment of a life that our parents had visited upon us. In this we succeeded. To the outside world we were simply quiet children, good at school, not very social, a little high-strung.
Consequently her friends and teachers were completely unprepared for her decision to enter a teaching order of nuns after she graduated from high school. I, on the other hand, understood perfectly. She didn't have a vocation. Our mother had ruined us both for religion. What had happened was that our father forced her to refuse admission to Berkeley on the grounds that she had had enough education for a woman. The Church offered her the one way she could defy him. After he died, Elena left her order, got her master's in American literature and took a job at St. Winifred's College, a girls' school where she had now taught for nearly twenty years. She never again referred to the four years she lived as Sister Magdalan, her bride-of-Christ moniker, and since it had all been faintly embarrassing to me-"my sister, the Sister," I called her, never to her face-I didn't raise the subject.
As long as my mother was alive, we maintained the fiction of being a family and I would see Elena once or twice a year. And then, ten years ago, Mother died, and we returned to Los Robles for the funeral. I was startled by how old Elena appeared; the five years she had on me looked more like twenty. If her appearance was due to grief over our mother's passing, it seemed excessive. My mother died of stomach cancer, and her last days on earth were ghastly.
So I could not understand why Elena seemed insensible with pain. On the way back from the cemetery, trying to do my brotherly duty, I took her hand and muttered consoling platitudes. She pulled her hand away, lit a cigarette and told me not to be a fool. We closed up the house and I went back to finish law school.
A few months later I called her on her birthday. The phone was answered by a woman who identified herself as Elena's roommate. When I asked Elena about her, she was evasive and then peremptory, but it was clear that her mood had lightened considerably since the funeral. In later phone calls, the roommate went unmentioned but every now and then Elena would slip pronouns from "I" to "we," and at some point it occurred to me that this woman was her lover.
I wouldn't have assumed this so quickly had I not been in the process of finally accepting my own homosexuality. By turns terrified and euphoric at the discovery that I wasn't crazy but only queer, I couldn't keep my mouth shut about it. I thought it would be wonderful if Elena was also gay, a final joke on our parents. When I told her about myself there was an appalled silence at her end of the line and then a sputtered, vehement lecture, complete with biblical citations, on the evils of homosexuality. Furious, I accused her of hypocrisy, spelling out exactly what I meant. She hung up on me. I did not talk to her again for a year and a half, until we ran into each other in San Francisco.
After that we had fashioned a kind of truce, careful to call each other just often enough so that nothing too dire could be read into periods between. For many years we'd lived within thirty miles of each other, she in Oakland and I on the peninsula. Our calls would terminate in a vapor of promises to meet for lunch or dinner, but we never did. Since moving to Los Angeles a year earlier, I'd not heard from her at all outside of a Christmas card and a note on my birthday. And then there'd been her urgent call two days earlier, the very day that I was leaving for San Francisco to attend a wedding.
I slowed down, searching for an address by which to orient myself. An old-fashioned mailbox on the side of the road bore the name of her street, and its number indicated I was approaching her house. An even clearer sign was the tumble of sensation in my stomach. Although I was acutely attuned to the emotions of those around me, this was merely a skill I'd developed as a defense against being lied to by my clients: very few people evoked my own feelings. Elena was one of them. Toward her I felt-what?-regret? No, nothing quite as settled as that. The truth was, I didn't know what I felt but it was strong enough to bring me here on a mysterious summons against every inclination.
I had never been to her house. I drove across a little wooden bridge that forded a stream, past a windbreak of pine, and came to a stop in front of a brick and redwood split-level perched on the side of a hill. As I got out of the car, it occurred to me just how much time had passed since that summer afternoon in San Francisco when I'd last seen her. She would be 42 now, and I, whom she'd last seen as a stripling of 28, a freshly minted lawyer, was now 37 and had been in some bad neighborhoods since then, and it showed.
I pushed the doorbell. Melodious chimes sounded from within the house. I found myself face to face with my sister. We looked at each other and for a moment it seemed as if we might embrace, but the moment passed.
"Hello, Henry. Come in."
I stepped into the cool hall. On a small wooden table was an earthenware pot filled with daisies, and above it a mirror in which I saw the back of her tidy head and my own expressionless face.
She shut the door behind me and said, "You look well, Henry."
She smiled briskly. "I don't change, I just get older."
We started down the hall. I said, "It has been a while. We look more alike than ever."
She nodded. "Yes, I noticed that, too."
As children there'd been a sort of generic resemblance between us; we shared our father's dark coloring, his black hair, teary brown eyes, and we each had the same high rounded cheekbones that had led to our grade school nickname, "los chinitos." We no longer looked Chinese. There was a truer, more exact resemblance in the way our faces had thinned out with age, revealing the basic structure.
"I can offer you coffee, or would you like a drink?" Elena asked, leading me into a sparsely furnished room that looked out upon a patio and, beyond that, the bay. "Which?"
"Coffee is fine."
I hadn't told her I no longer drank, because I was unwilling to make the admission of weakness that that would imply to her.
While she made coffee in the kitchen I walked to the window. A regatta of sailboats drifted across the water like a cloud. Looking around the room, I observed the clean, hard Nordic surfaces of Elena's surroundings. Even here, in her own home, she worked hard at revealing nothing about herself beyond conventional good taste, but there were dues about her past. A crucifix. A wave-shaped chunk of glass that, on closer inspection, was a stylized Madonna.
An oil painting of a nude above the fireplace showed a desiccated woman with a flat Indian face, standing with her hands at her breasts, as if to protect herself. There was nothing soft about her nudity; its graphic, painful clarity denied any sensuality-she was a Madonna for whom giving birth had been an act of self-obliteration. I wondered if this represented our mother to Elena.
Behind me, glass chinked against glass and I turned to find Elena setting cups and saucers, sugar bowl, creamer and spoons on the coffee table.
"Joanne's work?" I asked, indicating the painting. One of the few things I knew about Elena's roommate was that she taught art at St. Winifred's.
"Yes, that's right." Her tone warned me off that conversational trail. "You take your coffee black?"
"That's fine." I lowered myself into a chrome and leather contraption and watched her measure out a teaspoon of cream into her own cup, like Prufrock, measuring out his life with coffee spoons.
I was reminded of the poem I thought of driving up. "It's so beautiful up here," I said, "I was thinking of that Stevens poem, 'Sunday Morning.' What's the line after, 'Is there no change in paradise?'"
"You're misquoting, Henry." She got up and walked to the bookshelves at the far end of the room, returning with a volume that she flipped through knowingly. In a clear, low voice she read, "'Is there no change of death in paradise? Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs hang always heavy in that perfect sky ..." Shutting the book, she looked up at me. "He makes it sound so dull."
"Don't you think it would be? Everyone sitting around gazing at God for eternity like reporters at a presidential press conference. Even Dante couldn't work up much enthusiasm for paradise."
"You're as cynical as my students, Henry. But they at least have the excuse of being young."
The coffee smelled of hazelnut. I sipped it. "Nice," I said. "You've become quite elegant, Elena."
"And you've been a lawyer too long. Everything you say sounds like innuendo." She reached into a silver case on the table and extracted a long brown cigarette. Putting it to her lips, she asked, "What is this wedding you're here for?"
I lit her cigarette with a crystal lighter. "Two friends," I replied, "a cop and a criminal defense lawyer. It's a little like a gathering of the Hatfields and the McCoys."
"Is he with the San Francisco police?"
"She," I replied, "is an assistant chief. He's the lawyer. I introduced them."
She drew lazily at her cigarette. "Are they marrying in a church?"
I shook my head. "A civil ceremony. They've rented out a bed-and-breakfast place on Alamo Square. Josh and I are staying there."
At the mention of my lover's name, she gazed down at the milky surface of her coffee. "Will you be staying long?"
"Until Monday," I said, adding deliberately, "Josh has to get back to school. He's at UCLA."
Brushing the tip of her cigarette against the edge of an ashtray, she said, "Yes, I think you mentioned that once." As if to forestall further discussion of Josh, she asked, "Do you like Los Angeles?"
"Most of the time. Our house is on a hill, too, like yours. I can see the Hollywood sign from the kitchen window. The other day Josh spotted a pair of deer in the underbrush. It's not at all what I expected."
"Deer," she repeated. "That's interesting."
"Do you ever get down to LA?" I asked.
"No," she replied. "I have no reason to."
I thought about that for a moment and let it pass. Tactless remarks were part of the price we paid for remaining strangers. That, and a finite store of small talk. I'd exhausted mine.
"You said you wanted to see me on a professional matter. Something going on?"
She set her cigarette down. "Not with me," she replied. "Do you remember Sara Bancroft? We grew up together."
A dim image formed in my head of a tall, blonde, unlikable girl. "Vaguely."
"She married Paul Windsor. I think you knew his brother Mark."
I remembered Mark Windsor well, his younger brother Paul less well. The Windsors were local gentry in Los Robles. Mark and I had run track in high school. Miler, we called him, after his event. I had been infatuated with him. Paul had just been someone who got in the way when I was trying to be alone with Mark, little good that that did.
"I remember them."
"Paul's been arrested for murder."
This got a startled "Really?" out of me.
"Apparently he needs a lawyer," she said, without a trace of irony. "I told her I'd talk to you."
"Do they still live in Los Robles?"
"There isn't a town in California that's too small not to have too many lawyers," I said, "including Los Robles. I suggest they start there."
Elena stroked her throat, a nervous gesture that went far back into our childhood. "Sara insisted on you."
She put out her cigarette decisively and said, "I don't know very much about it, Henry. Sara was upset, and she'd been drinking when she called me. The man Paul's supposed to have killed was involved in child pornography. The police are saying it was because he was blackmailing Paul. Sara denied it. She-"
"Wait," I said. "Back up. What's the connection between Paul Windsor and child pornography?"
Her fingers tugged her throat. "A few years ago Paul was arrested for-I don't know what it's called-child molesting?" She forced her hand down. "The girl was fifteen, I think, but it had been going on for some time."
"Are you telling me that Paul Windsor is a pedophile?"
"I don't know what that word means."
I had heard her use that tone before. It implied that her ignorance was grounded in superior morality.
"It's a technical term," I replied, "denoting someone who is sexually attracted to children. The street term is 'baby fucker.'
Excerpted from HOW TOWN by MICHAEL NAVA Copyright © 1990 by Michael Nava. Excerpted by permission.
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