The Invisibles

A Mexican-born maid takes two O.C. boys on a wild ride through downtown L.A. in this excerpt from Héctor Tobar’s new novel, The Barbarian Nurseries
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The Laguna Niguel train station was a typical example of the soulless functionality of late-20th-century American public architecture, and as such it deeply disappointed Brandon, who expected the “station” to be an actual building, with schedules posted on the wall and long wooden benches inside a high-walled waiting room. When Araceli had told them they would take a train, it had conjured images in Brandon’s head of locomotives spitting steam and passengers and baggage handlers scrambling on covered platforms underneath vaulted glass ceilings. Instead the station consisted of two bare concrete runways, a short metal awning where six or seven people might squeeze together to find shelter from the rain, and four refrigerator-size ticket machines. Brandon thought of train stations as theatrical stages where people acted out momentous shifts in their lives, an idea shaped by a trilogy of novels he had read in the fifth grade, a series in which each book’s final scene unfolded inside the Gare du Nord in Paris. His only previous train ride had come some years back on the Travel Town kiddie train at Griffith Park, and there, too, the station consisted of a kid-size replica of an actual building, complete with a ticket booth and a swinging Los Angeles sign. The small steel rectangle that announced Laguna Niguel in the spare sans serif font of the Metrolink commuter rail network didn’t rise to the occasion, and Brandon frowned at the recognition that actual life did not always match the drama and sweep of literature or film. Nor were there the large crowds of people one associated with trains in the movies. In fact, Brandon, his brother, and Araceli were the only people on either side of the platform.

As the boys projected hopeful eyes at the rusty sinews of the tracks that stretched away from the station, Araceli scanned the space that immediately surrounded them. Until she got them to their grandfather, these were her boys. It was one thing to be in charge of children inside the shelter of a home, protected by locked doors, or in the fenced boundaries of a park—it was quite another to be herding them about a city. She wanted to cover them with sheets of protective steel. The thought that an accident of man or machine might hurt them filtered into her consciousness and caused brief and irrational pangs of loss, followed by the manic darting of her eyes at each of their stops on the journey from the gate of the Laguna Rancho Estates to the empty platform and the stairways leading to the street and the bus stop and parking structures beyond.

“Hey, here it comes.”

A double-decked white commuter train with periwinkle stripes moved toward them as a snake would, the locomotive yawing back and forth on uneven tracks.

Atrás,” Araceli commanded. “Back until the train stops.”

The boys opened their mouths as the cars rolled slowly before them, their massive weight causing the ground beneath them to shift and rise.

“Tight!”

“Awesome!”

¡Cuidado!

The train stopped, and two sliding doors opened before them, the boys entering ahead of Araceli, rolling their suitcases straight into the car, whose floor was conveniently level with the platform. With a quick turn of their heads the boys found the stairway leading to the upper deck and began to climb, Araceli scrambling after them, muttering “¡Esperen!” at the backs of their feet. They found two pairs of empty seats arranged before a table.

“Hey, we’re moving.”

The train began its advance away from the station, and Brandon and Keenan were briefly mesmerized by the illusion of flight that came from looking through the railcar’s large windows and watching their enclosed space move against the low skyline of the transit center’s false downtown, a Potemkin village of parking garages masquerading as office buildings. As the train rolled away from the station, past gates with flashing red lights and waiting cars with daydreaming drivers, Araceli threw herself back into her seat and let out a sigh. Halfway there, more or less. The train itself was a clean comfort, with its white walls and stainless steel poles and vinyl seats with aerodynamic shaping and the plaque by the door that proclaimed its provenance: bombardier, montreal. After dropping off the boys and the briefest of stays at the old man’s house, she would set off south again for Marisela’s and await news of Scott and Maureen. She imagined different outcomes for their family debacle, including a divorce that ended with an empty house and Araceli vacuuming after the movers had left, or a tearful family reunion and ample thanks from Scott and Maureen to Araceli for seeing their boys through the crisis.

Through the window the boys saw a landscape of shrinking backyards shuffle past: The repetition of laundry lines and old furniture did not hold Brandon’s attention for long, and he finally looked across at Araceli and asked, “Can you draw me a picture? Here in my notebook? Like the dragon you drew for Keenan. That was cool.”

“Yeah, it was tight,” Keenan said.

“I didn’t know you could draw,” Brandon said.

¿Qué quieres? What do you want I draw for you?”

“How about a soldier?”

“¿Un soldado? Fácil.”

She took his lined notebook and pencil and looked for a blank page, glancing quickly at his crude war scenes, little stick figure Brueghels in which one army of stick men set off cannons and laid siege to rectangular forts and pummeled enemies who raised up stick hands and ran from scribbled explosions. This boy is very smart, but he does not know art. Brandon watched intently as she traced some initial lines, and a man in uniform with a weapon held across his chest took form on paper. It was a musket like the ones in his book American Revolution, and Araceli drew it from memory, though she gave her soldier a modern uniform with a row of medals and a steel helmet. Then she worked on the face, choosing features that were deeply familiar to her, and made it stare straight back at the viewer.

“Wow,” Brandon said when she finished. “That guy’s face—he looks really tough.”

“Really mean,” Keenan added.

The face belonged to Araceli’s mother.

Her art session was interrupted suddenly by the jolt of the train’s arrival in Fullerton, the last station before Los Angeles. Four people waiting on the platform quickly stepped on board, and the train lurched forward anew. Soon the train was entering the industrial districts southeast of Los Angeles, one windowless warehouse followed by another as the train accelerated and began to vibrate slightly. The buildings began to age, the neutered, primary-colored plaster of the late 20th century giving way to the earth-toned constructions of brick and cement of earlier eons. Suddenly the warehouses had windows, many dark and frosted over with dust and cobwebs so that they resembled thousands of cataract-infested eyes. The train went faster still and vibrated violently, causing Keenan to squeeze Araceli’s hand. Brandon held on to the armrest and felt his head strike the window and wondered if the train might disintegrate, or if the forces of acceleration might transform this rolling steel box into a time machine that would transport them from the archaic era of brick, now visible outside the window, to even simpler ages of wood, smoke, and stone.

The train slowed suddenly as it entered a switching yard with at least 20 parallel tracks. They rolled slowly past rusting hopper cars that had made hundreds of journeys from Kansas with wheat and corn, past tank cars oozing black tar, and container cars with German and Chinese names and bar codes stamped incongruously on their sides. The train made a long, sweeping turn under a freeway bridge, and Araceli watched the haphazard cables and wires that followed the tracks moving like a black horizontal rain. She noted, too, the random dispersal of trash on the embankment, the plastic bags and food containers sprinkled over the track gravel, the rusting iron overpasses, the graffiti-covered switching boxes, and a lone, stubby brick control tower with wooden doors chained shut. There was a spare beauty to all this decay; it was the empty and harsh landscape of an unsettling dream. These were spaces you were not meant to see, like the hidden air ducts and trash chutes of a glittering mansion, where cobwebs and dust and rat droppings collected freely and concerned no one. Her aesthetic lived in barren places like this, and she missed them. Here the wind, rain, and sun are free to shape and cook the steel and cement into sculptures that celebrate forgetfulness. She took a small notebook from her backpack and tried to quickly capture the manic, twisted essence of electrical lines, the bounce of the trash in the wind, the fluid shape of the rust patterns, until Keenan proclaimed, “Everything is really dirty here,” and her reverie and her concentration were broken.

The train slowed to a walking pace, and a valley of smooth concrete walls suddenly opened alongside the tracks, stretching more than a mile in the distance, with several bridges vaulting over it. “What’s that?” Keenan asked.

“It’s the river,” Araceli said.

“That’s a river?” Brandon said, perplexed, until he noticed the bottom of the chasm held a narrow channel of flowing water with perfectly straight edges. “What’s it called? Why is it made out of cement? It hasn’t rained, so where does the water come from?”

“Too many questions,” Araceli said.

“Too many?” No one had ever told Brandon such a thing.

“Yes.”

Brandon looked at the river and saw that a giant with a paint can had covered the top of the valley with a mosaic of sparkling elephant-size letters, spelling words in mongrel greens and tainted yellows that pulsated inside a pool of gray-blue swirls. Or at least it seemed a giant had painted them. He wondered if he should ask Araceli, then decided against it. Probably it was a giant.

“Hey, look, there’s people down there,” Keenan shouted, loud enough to get the attention of the four or five other adults in the car, who looked up from their newspapers and laptops just long enough to glance at and quickly forget the familiar sight of the soiled caste who lived by this stretch of track.

Los homeless,” Araceli said.

Brandon pressed his nose against the glass and looked downward, spotting a line of shelters between the train tracks and the river, teetering house-tents of oil-stained plywood, sun-bleached blue tarpaulin, frayed nylon rope, and aluminum foil. They looked like ground-hugging tree houses, improvised assemblages built by children and taken over by tubercular adults. A few humans sat on chairs in between their creations in this village as it followed the curve in the tracks, their roofs a quilt of tarpaulin and wood forming a long crescent dotted with the occasional column of smoke. Brandon searched for the sources of these fires and spotted a gangly man in aviator glasses tending to a kettle on a grill. The train rolled slowly toward the man, and for a few seconds Brandon was directly above him. He bore a long scar on his cheek oozing red and black liquids. A battle wound? Brandon wondered. A cut inflicted by a knife or a sword? A month earlier Brandon had finished the last volume in a four-book series of novels, The Saga of the Fire-Swallowers, and as he sat in the train with his nose pressed to the glass, the violent and disturbing denouement of that epic narrative seemed the only plausible explanation for the existence of this village of suffering passing below him. These people are refugees, they are the defeated soldiers and the displaced citizens of the City of Vadur. The novels were a fantasy tale for young-adult readers set in a world of preindustrial stone villages. His father had bought the entire set and read them some years earlier, leaving them forgotten on a shelf for his oldest son to discover, Brandon’s fascination growing with each chapter he spent in the company of its villains, a cult of rugged men and boys who engaged in the ritual eating of flames before and after battle. There was something about this homeless camp that seemed to belong to the ancient times described in those books, a way of life untroubled by electricity, or modernity in general. In truth, Brandon never should have been allowed to read the Fire-Swallower books, given their graphic descriptions of scorched-earth warfare, including the slaughter of entire villages and their children with blades forged from various metals, real and fanciful, and the antagonists who filled their speeches with fascistic rationalizations about “the weak,” “the strong,” and “the pure.” It was all meant to be an allegory about the cruelty and demagoguery of the modern age, and its imagery drew heavily from the outrages of the 20th century, so much so, and so realistically, that the sharp-eyed Brandon had long ago concluded that the story was not entirely the product of a writer’s imagination. Long before this train journey Brandon had begun to warm to the idea that the Fire-Swallowers saga was, in fact, a thinly veiled, detailed account of a real but primitive corner of the actual world. Entire cities emptied of good people, civilians tortured, their homes and their books set to the torch. How could such injustice exist, how could humanity live with it? He knew he should speak of what he read to his mother, who obviously had no idea about the taboos being broken in the works of literature he carried about the house: “You’re such a good little reader,” was all she said. It was stunning to be confronted with such adult naïveté, though it was undeniably cool to possess knowledge forbidden to 11-year-olds who were not as precocious readers as he. Still, the stories told in the saga caused him to lose sleep some nights, until he finally convinced himself that what he was reading was indeed fantasy. And now this, a wounded man, an actual victim of the Fire- Swallowers’ wrath, driven to seek shelter by the concrete river with his fellow Vardurians.

“Those flame-swallowing bastards!” Brandon cried out in imitation of the hero of the saga, the noble Prince Goo-han.

¿Qué dices?” Araceli said. “¿Bastardos?” Suddenly the 11-year-old was saying swear words. He’s only been out of the house and into the world a few hours, and already he’s being corrupted.

“It’s the Fire-Swallowers,” Brandon said in a tone of patient explanation, having realized quickly that Araceli had never read those books: They were in English, after all. “The Fire-Swallowers made these people refugees. They destroyed their towns and houses. They fled, and they’ve come to live here by the river. I read about it in Revenge of the River-Walkers. The Fire-Swallowers burned down their village, Vardur, because they wouldn’t swear loyalty to the evil king. So they had to seek shelter on the riverbanks, but I never thought…”

Estás loco,” Araceli said. “You read too much.” 

© 2011 by Héctor Tobar. All rights reserved. Excerpted from The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar, to be published on September 27, 2011, by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

 Illustration by Jillian Tamaki 

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