As soon as I turned up Larrabee, I became aware of him, the sound of his shoes on the sidewalk. The back of my neck tingled. My shoulders tensed. I speeded up. This made my own footsteps louder, so I focused on walking softly. Yes, there they were. Shoes. Hard soles on concrete.
I dropped my backpack, then crouched to pick it up.
His footsteps stopped. I turned.
He was ten yards behind me.
What to do? My apartment was blocks away. My fingers unfroze, working the clasp on my backpack, searching for keys, feeling for the roundish one that unlocked the building-
Don’t go home. Then he’ll know where you live.
Ruta’s voice. It was the kind of thing she would think of, having spent World War II in Poland, hiding. Okay, Ruta, so what should I do?
Be still, like a little mouse.
I felt like a mouse, crouched on the sidewalk. Breathing fast, panting, trying to be still. What did he imagine I was doing, crouched like this? Could he tell I was watching, or was it too dark? Maybe he thought I was tying my shoe.
Why didn’t he approach me?
Was it the man from Hot Aloo? The blue-eyed man?
Or one of the men from Westside Pavilion? No, I didn’t want it to be them. And how many stalkers does one person need, anyway?
But was he stalking? He could be some guy with a perfectly good reason for lurking on Larrabee, wondering why a woman was crouched like a mouse on the sidewalk ahead.
Maybe the thing to do was walk over and say, “Hello, can I help you?” Joey would do that. Fredreeq would stand up and yell, “What the hell are you looking at, freak?” and have the whole neighborhood waiting for the answer.
I tried a whisper, to see if I could pull it off. “Hello.” It was a tiny, wispy sound. I cleared my throat and tried again. “Hello.” Not much better.
He was looking at me. My eyes were adjusting to the dark. He wore a hat.
To confront, or not to confront? What were the guidelines? You didn’t confront an alpha male gorilla. Same with grizzly bears. I knew from experience not to confront a mentally disturbed person, or a violent drunk, usually. But with thieves, certain rapists, and serial killers, I’d read, you stand tall, look aggressive, and at the slightest provocation scream, “I have Mace!”
But he wasn’t provoking. He was standing, and if I screamed, “I have Mace!” I risked death by embarrassment. How could fear of making a scene rival fear of being murdered?
We were close to Santa Monica Boulevard, enough that people would hear if we struggled. But would they rescue me? And that meant going toward him. Sunset was where I wanted to go, the other way, north. But Sunset was far. I was in okay shape, but running is not my gait of choice, especially with a backpack and a portfolio. Unless he was elderly, he’d catch me. Or would he? Do stalkers catch, or just stalk? I looked north. Darkness. Why was Larrabee so dark, and why hadn’t I ever noticed this? What had possessed me to move here, anyway? Free rent. You get what you pay for.
A couple emerged from the darkness, probably from Betty Way. I’d always liked Betty Way.
I stood. I walked toward them. Their faces registered suspicion. They were women, each nearly a foot shorter than me. “Can I walk with you guys?” I said. “There’s a man following me.”
Suspicion disappeared. With words of reassurance, each woman took an arm, and we set off, toward Santa Monica Boulevard.
Something flashed as we passed. A gun, a knife, catching the light?
He called to me. A single word. It was just about the last word I wanted to hear from a stranger in the dark, and I kept walking, even when he said it again.
Book ’Em, D’Agneau was what its owner, Lucien D’Agneau, subtitled “A Literary Emporium” on the sign. Like many of the neighboring establishments, it kept odd hours. My rescuers left me at the door, inviting me to join them at Girl Bar should I need an escort home.
I found Lucien in a corner of the store, advising a customer on contemporary lesbian poets. Lucien was a burly man in drawstring pants and Birkenstocks. His brick-walled room was stocked with avante-garde books, magazine, CDs, and greeting cards. There was a small bar in the back, but it had an exclusionary feel; no one worked it, and I’d never ask Lucien to pour me a drink unless I were a personal friend or making a hefty purchase, Lucien being a known despot.
“You,” he rasped, turning on me. “Yes?”
“I’m looking for a German-English dictionary. And anything you have on frogs.” When he beckoned me to follow, I added, “I’m Wollie Shelley. You carry my greeting cards, the-”
He turned. “The Good Golly Miss Wollies. You dropped by in September, didn’t you? With your uncle. When you moved to the neighborhood.”
“Yes. I’m actually seeking asylum tonight.” I told him about the stalker. “I mean, I do need a dictionary, but if I could also hang out awhile…”
An hour later we were still talking. Customers came and went and Lucien waited on them as if it were a big favor. They seemed to like this. Lucien, in turn, seemed to like me. He brewed me decaf and brought out liqueurs. We sat on vinyl-covered bar stools in the back of the shop, where I was able to see the door while staying hidden by a display rack.
“Your cop friend is correct,” Lucien said. “People disappear all the time. But you are also correct-the compulsion to look for our fellow man is primal. Those lost to us call with a mythic power. Think of Anastasia Romanov. Whatever happened to Sean Flynn?”
“Who’s Sean Flynn?”
“Sean ‘son of Errol’ Flynn, when I was young, was on the inside of cheap matchbook covers. You’d go for a match and read, ‘Whatever Happened to Sean Flynn?’ He was a photojournalist working for Time in Vietnam. The last we know is that he made his way from Phnom Penh into the Cambodian countryside. He and a friend rode motorcycles to a roadblock and vanished.”
“What do you mean, vanished?”
“Taken prisoner by the Vietcong. And, later, the Khmer Rouge, who presumably executed them. At the time, I knew none of this. Only his picture, black and white in those matchbooks. Gorgeous man. Well, consider his father. Also died too young, and what a waste, both of them. Sean was a Gemini, born on Memorial Day. Beautiful people, Geminis.”
“What did the matchbooks want you to do?” I asked. “Look for him?”
“I don’t recall. But people do look for him. Still. Sean Flynn was more famous in his absence than if he’d come home and carried on another fifty years. Now he lives on, eternally twenty-nine, a symbol of possibility.”
“Except to his mother. I expect she’d prefer fifty years of her actual son to a symbol.”
“I expect. In my fantasy he returned and fell for me.” Lucian sighed. “But realistically, he would then contract AIDS, another dead boyfriend to bury. Which raises another possibility. In my world, people disappear to die alone, spare their loved ones the hell of terminal illness. Could this apply to your little Teutonic friend?”
“Illness? I can’t imagine why she’d keep that a secret.”
“Pregnancy?” Lucien lumbered over to the front door and turned the Open/Closed sign over, so that Open faced us.
“Same story. We’d all have helped her, whatever it was. Why would she run?”
“My dear, what are you doing right now?” Lucien returned to toss off his Sambuca, the liqueur glass tiny in his giant hand. He disappeared through a door to a back room, still talking. “Running from some nameless person, who may not even wish you ill, but who nevertheless has the power to keep you away from your home and bed. In your imagination, a monster. And so you seek refuge with a stranger.” He returned with a coat, turning off lights. “Who shall now walk you home. You’ll wear my coat and we’ll find you a scarf and I’ll have my police flashlight and we shall encounter no one more startling than a cat.”
I stood, staring out the picture window. It was late. My mind was fuzzy with Sambuca.
“Children at play, birds of prey,” Lucien said, closing out his register, “and dogs may chase anything that moves. But in general, we are not pursued because we run; we run because we are pursued. Someone wanted something from this girl-love, money, her body, her mind. Find out what pursued your friend, and you find your friend.”
I couldn’t sleep. I was no longer scared of the stalker-in a building full of people I felt safe, however illogically-but sleep eluded me, as it had done every night for the past week. I got out of bed and turned on the TV and bumped into the drafting table crowding the bedroom. I opened my portfolio and pulled out the sketch I’d been doing earlier. The karaoke frog.
I didn’t know yet where the greeting card was going-sometimes the caption comes first, sometimes the image-but I thought of Annika as I sketched. She’d loved looking at my frog books. It was she who’d pointed out that the male of the species is the one with the voice. Girl frogs don’t sing at all, at least at mating time. My karaoke frog should be male, then. What species?
The TV distracted me with a documentary on liposuction. I watched in mild horror until I realized that if I was going to watch bad TV, it should be my own bad TV. I popped in one of the Biological Clock tapes Fredreeq had given me with instructions to study the competition the way professional boxers do.
The tape wasn’t rewound, so I watched the closing sequence, a couple in silhouette on a beach at sunset. There was the same pulsing disco music the opening credits used, but with an announcer’s voice saying at auctioneer speed that no contestants would be forced to have sex or procreate as a result of participation in the show, that no opinions expressed or services described were endorsed by ZPX network or Bad Seed Productions, and that the voting process would occur on the Biological Clock Web site at the conclusion of the series.
I rewound to mid-show and watched Henry Fisher talk about his belief in the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. I rewound further and saw the episode’s expert, an adoption attorney, in conversation with Savannah Brook, the radiant redhead.
What, I wondered, was I supposed to gain by watching an inexpressibly lovely and effortlessly charming woman be lovely and charming? “I really want to adopt,” Savannah was saying, with just a hint of a southern accent, “particularly a special-needs child. But I also want to experience the miracle of pregnancy and childbirth. No matter what you accomplish professionally, for a woman, is there any force stronger than a baby?”
I shook my head. I couldn’t speak for other women, but I was right there with Savannah. The longing for a child was an ache in my stomach, a pain that woke me in the middle of the night and terrorized me, like sudden knowledge of my own mortality. I didn’t require a biological baby; Doc’s daughter, Ruby, would have done just fine. But Ruby had never been mine, as I was now finding out, which left me feeling fractured and empty.
No more dating men with children. No more near-stepchildren velcroed to my heart.
The phone rang. I stared, frightened. I didn’t want to answer, but I thought of P.B., Annika, even Ruby-anyone who might need me in the wee hours of the morning. I went to the nightstand.
“Hello,” I said. Click. A hang-up.
Heart beating faster, I replaced the receiver. After staring blankly at the TV, I went back to my greeting card. And discovered I’d abandoned the karaoke frog.
Looking up from my sketchbook was Annika’s face.