Sherman Oaks is an appealing ’hood, not as buff as Encino to the west, but a whole mountain range away from Westside Pavilion. An hour after my mall adventure, this mattered.
My friend Rex Stetson had bought a lot, gutted the tired two-bedroom occupying it, and put up a stark five-bedroom, eight-bathroom structure Joey and Fredreeq called the Mansion. I believed it would warm up when furnished, but right now the Mansion’s sole link to humanity was a pizza box left behind by the paint crew. Its link to the greater animal kingdom was all over the kitchen walls. Rex, honeymooning in Maui, had hired me to paint a mural as a surprise for his bride, Tricia. A frog mural. Tricia was mad for frogs. All kinds of frogs.
I’m not a trained muralist. Many children feel a compulsion to draw on walls, and I just never outgrew mine. My mother had turned a tolerant eye to my creations, and no subsequent landlord had cared what I did as long as I repainted before moving on, but the Mansion was my first commissioned work. I’d taken it on with trepidation.
The problem was not the work, which I loved, nor the money, which was generous. It was not the subject; to my surprise, within days of my starting, frogs and toads had seduced me with their habits, their lore, their protruding eyes. My previous relationship to amphibians had been marked by indifference, but for three weeks now they’d hopped their way into my dreams, daydreams, and greeting cards. The problem was, mansions are not greeting cards. If you don’t like a greeting card, you don’t buy it. A wall is different. I’d never met Tricia, but the Tricia in my head was assuming popelike proportions, her kitchen turning into the Sistine Chapel, which made me the Michelangelo of Sherman Oaks. It was no use telling myself she could paint over what she didn’t like, because now her frogs were my frogs. I had a personal as well as professional stake in them.
I unlocked the Mansion, happy to return after a five-day break. In the kitchen I turned on the boom box I’d brought from home with a croaking-frog CD Annika had given me. The kitchen, Fredreeq estimated, had set Rex back nearly two hundred grand, with stainless steel backsplashes, black granite countertops, and flush-mounted telescopic vent systems. Nothing in the room suggested a family breaking bread together. Performing autopsies, maybe. But right in the midst of all this high-rent austerity, shoulder-high on one Blush White wall, gazing glumly down the hallway, was the West African goliath frog, Conraua (Gigantorana) goliath.
I gazed back into his lovely red golfball-sized eyes, then turned my attention to his buddies on the adjoining wall-Darwin’s frog, Smith frog, pickerel frog, pig frog. The spring peeper. There was a spot near the Gaggenau cooktop where I was putting a neotropical Surinam toad, Pipa pipa. I’d just started painting when my brother called.
“I can’t leave the hospital,” P.B. said. “I can’t live in Santa Barbara.”
“Why, what did you do?” My stomach tightened in alarm. There were countless ways my brother could get in trouble, and I saw the coveted halfway house sprout wings and fly off.
“It’s Christmas next month.”
“Yes. So? Santa Barbara has Christmas.”
“Do you know this personally? Have you been there during Christmas?”
“No,” I said. “But I think we’d have heard something if they weren’t-”
“I have heard something.” P.B.’s voice dropped. “Ramon says it’s a town ordinance.”
I didn’t address Ramon or town ordinances. My brother, even at his most lucid, operates from a belief system independent of logic, conventional wisdom, or even empirical knowledge. Direct argument is futile. “Is Christmas that important to you?” I asked, trying to recall if he’d ever given me a present.
“It’s not for me, it’s for…”
“People are listening. You’ll have to guess.”
I groaned. Making phone calls in the common room of a mental hospital, with all your friends and enemies eavesdropping, can’t be easy. But I didn’t want to play the game of going through the alphabet to guess the name of a person I’d never heard of for whom Christmas was important. “Can this wait till Thursday, P.B.? Because I’m having a frog issue.”
“In Germany, people used to put frogs in jars with little ladders and if the frog climbed the ladder to the top of the jar, they thought the weather would change.”
“Really?” I said, interested. Nearly everyone had a frog story, I’d discovered.
“But weather changes. Frogs want to get out of jars. No correlation. Didn’t anyone notice this? Tell me your issue.”
I put down my paintbrush. It’s rare for my brother to ask about my problems. Not that he doesn’t care; it just doesn’t occur to him. So I explained how my West African goliath started as a Fowler’s toad that I couldn’t get right, how the more I “corrected” him, the bigger he got, until I had the inspiration to turn him into a South African pyxie. It felt like cheating, like Monet using Wite-Out, but what are you going to do? People make mistakes. But when I kept on making them, the South African pyxie became a West African goliath, which was his final incarnation, as there is no known frog larger than Conraua (Gigantorana) goliath. And still, he kept growing. I’d fix one part of him, and then the proportion would be off somewhere else, and I’d enlarge that. Annika had used him to illustrate the concept of transcendental numbers, going on and on.
“Aren’t you using a grid?” P.B. asked. “Drawing it first, then enlarging it for the wall?”
I sighed. He wasn’t the first to ask me this question. “No. I’m doing it freehand. It takes math skills to use a grid. I’m just… making it up as I go along. It’s more organic anyway.”
“Okay, then. The frog’s big because he has to be. In order for you to hear.”
“What he’s saying. Most people are visual-they don’t hear what they can’t see. Not blind people, but most other people. Someone here has to use the phone. Good-bye.”
I stood for a moment, phone to my ear, staring down the hallway into the Mansion’s whiteness. I hadn’t solved P.B.’s Christmas problem, and he hadn’t solved my frog problem, but he’d said something important. People don’t hear what they can’t see. I dialed Maizie Quinn, and after work I headed to Encino.
The electric gate leading to the Quinn house was closed. The whole street was less appealing in the dark, and I was glad to be in my car. I reached for the gate’s call box, pressed a button, and talked to an electronically filtered voice. The gate opened. I drove through.
Emma, the two-and-three-quarters-year-old, stood on the porch, holding the hand of a short woman. I parked in the driveway and walked up the flagstone path toward them.
“Lupe,” Emma said, pointing to me, “is that cousin Mandy?”
“No, I’m Wollie,” I said. “I met you a few days ago. Where’s your goose?”
Thank God. I introduced myself to Lupe, the housekeeper. Mr. Snuggles raced down the hall to protest my entry. Lupe picked him up and shushed him with a treat pulled from an apron pocket.
“Do you want to play alla myna engine?” Emma said.
“She does not know, m’hija,” Lupe said, bending down to kiss the top of her head. “Only Annika play this game, porque it’s German. That’s the reason.”
Emma, suddenly shy, stuck her hand in her mouth, all four fingers up to the first knuckle. Lupe reached down and pulled the hand back out, murmuring in Spanish. Emma turned and raced down the hallway, Mr. Snuggles close behind. Lupe followed him. I followed her.
We passed two darkened rooms and a third lit with a crackling fire and the flashing images of a wide-screen TV. Emma shouted “Hello, Grammy Quinn!” without breaking stride and was hailed in return, and then the smell of firewood gave way to an odor of baking bread and we were in the kitchen.
It was huge, bigger even than Rex and Tricia’s, a kitchen worthy of a castle. Overhead lights hit every work surface. Strains of Chopin were piped in from somewhere. Maizie stood behind a butcher block, oven-mitted hands on hips as she consulted a cookbook.
Emma ran to the butcher block and climbed onto a stool. Maizie looked up at me.
“Hi, there,” she said, with a smile. “Give me a second. This bread is baking too slowly, and I’m trying to figure out what I did wrong. It better not be my oven.” Behind her was the biggest gas range I’d ever seen outside a restaurant, black enamel with red trim. She turned to it and lifted the lid on a saucepan. Steam rose in a cloud around her.
“It smells great in here,” I said. It actually smelled like Williams-Sonoma.
“Cranberry-ginger chutney. Thanksgiving advance work.”
“Yes. Corn bread and sourdough.” She wiped flour from her chin with her oven mitt. Her cheeks were flushed, as if she’d been physically exerting herself. “I’m trying two new stuffings this year. You have to let the bread go stale before it’s cubed.”
Cubed. I grew disoriented, hearing in my head, “Cubed: raised to the third power.” Annika’s voice. But Maizie was talking baking, not algebra. The idea that people make bread from scratch only to let it go stale amazed me.
“I may do two birds, a smoked and a classic. I haven’t decided yet. Lupe-” Maizie spoke briefly in Spanish, which jogged my memory.
“Maizie, I found Annika’s boyfriend,” I said. “Rico Rodriguez.”
“Rodriguez. Of course. How’d I manage to forget that? And how’d you find him?”
“Circuitously, and he wasn’t much help, but he remembered Annika’s watch. A Fossil.”
“Annika have a watch,” Emma said. “Mommy have a watch. Grammy Quinn have a watch. Daddy have a watch. Lupe no have a watch. Emma no have a watch. Mr. Snuggles-”
Maizie plucked her daughter from the bar stool, interrupting the inventory. “That’s right, a Fossil. Wollie, it’s so kind of you to do this. I can’t understand why the agency isn’t-. Okay, don’t get me started on them. Emma, let’s show our guest the photo album.”
Emma took my hand. It surprised me, the tiny fingers, unexpectedly cold, finding their way into my palm. With her mother following, she led me back down the hallway, to the room we’d passed. On a far wall was a built-in TV screen, but the rest of the room was devoted to books on floor-to-ceiling shelves. Hardcover. Lower shelves held children’s books, oversized and skinny, alive with color. A miniature wooden rocking chair stood by, occupied by a large plush bear. The fire glowed in a stone fireplace, heavy scarlet drapes shrouded the windows, and a Persian rug covered the floor.
A woman at the far end of the room turned, then rose from a sofa, a soft afghan falling to the floor as she did. The TV screen went dark. Emma let go of my hand to run over and wrap herself around her grandmother’s thigh. Thus hampered, the woman advanced with a smile and a limp. “Hello. I’m Grammy Quinn. Sometimes known as Polly.”
Maizie introduced me and continued to call the woman Grammy Quinn, which amused me, as Grammy’s body, in a bright red jogging suit, gave no indication of advanced age. Her hair was gray but cut short and shaggy, and she wore makeup and some serious-looking jewelry. A very hip Grammy. Emma was persuaded to release her leg only when Maizie repeated the magic words “photo album,” at which point we adjourned to an enormous coffee table surrounded by overstuffed chairs. Emma then climbed onto her grandmother’s lap in a chair alongside Maizie’s. I sat opposite.
Maizie flipped through the pages of a large leather album. Emma pointed at pictures, shouting out names, until Maizie found what she was looking for. She turned the book around to face me.
The photos showed an expedition to the Santa Monica Pier, a Ferris wheel visible in the background. There was Emma, Emma and Grammy Quinn, and Annika holding Emma. Maizie indicated a close-up of Annika alone. “I thought this would be good,” she said. It was a clear shot, but uncharacteristically solemn. I imagined it stapled to a missing person’s report.
I pointed to the one next to it. “This one’s better. It’s more like her.” Grammy Quinn nodded. Maizie liberated the photograph from its plastic sleeve and handed it to me.
Annika was looking into the camera. She had on her brown leather jacket, with a white T-shirt. Her apple-cheeked face was creased in a smile; her hair, brown and straight, was blown back by a breeze. Her lipstick was bright. She exuded affection. She was not quite beautiful, but she was pretty and happy and so animated you couldn’t look at the picture without recalling her laugh and hearing her voice, her English fearless and charming.
“That’s Annika,” Emma said, leaning forward. “Mommy, where is Annika?”
“Bunny, we talked about this, remember? Annika went home to her own house.”
“Annika go home to Annika’s own house,” Emma said to me.
Grammy Quinn gave her daughter-in-law a quizzical look, but Maizie shook her head at her, reaching over to stroke Emma’s hair. She encountered a tangle in the blond locks and attempted to unknot it.
The girl wiggled out of her mother’s reach with a laugh. Then she grew serious. “But Annika forgot to give Emma kiss good-bye.”