I started Thursday the way I started most Thursdays, picking up my Uncle Theo in Glendale and driving up the coast to Rio Pescado, the state mental hospital that my brother, P.B., called home. “Breakfast with the troops,” Uncle Theo called it, referring to the fact that while we were technically visiting P.B., in fact we were joined by several more patients desperate for visitors of their own. The faces changed regularly and so did the mental disorders, which made for a lively ninety minutes. P.B., with adult-onset paranoid schizophrenia, was one of the longest-term residents because of his participation in UCLA-sponsored drug trials. The drug trials were coming to an end, though, and he was scheduled to graduate soon to an outpatient program, a halfway house in Santa Barbara his doctor had pulled strings to get him into. Even with the added expenses, I was excited by the prospect. P.B., however, was anxious.
“What about the trees?” he said, staring skyward, squinting. We were finishing breakfast at a picnic table, enjoying the sunny November morning. A couple of birds had their eyes on our trays. I was trying not to think about Annika. Or Rico Rodriguez, for whom I’d left several messages.
“They have trees in Santa Barbara,” I said, nibbling on a piece of toast.
“Fifty-foot Quercus agrifolia? I’m worried about these. They’re not well.”
“Change is good, P.B.,” I said. “I know you’ll miss people here, but everyone moves on eventually. It’s a hospital; that’s the nature of it. And now it’s your turn. Do you know how much better you are? I almost never worry about you anymore.” I reached over and pulled a leaf from his hair. We had the same hair, blond and fine. I was rarely happy with my own, but for some reason I loved it on my little brother.
P.B. continued squinting skyward. “I was of no use to these trees,” he said.
Uncle Theo said, “When I’m concerned about you or Wollie, I take comfort in the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. If the act of observation changes that which is observed, then witnessing itself has value. You’ve participated in the life of these trees.”
P.B. shook his head. “Except it’s the particle interaction, not the conscious observer that matters.”
I listened to my brother and uncle discuss concepts completely foreign to me, wondering what it meant that I was the odd duck in a family like ours. A patient at a nearby table, disturbed by a squirrel she found threatening, let out a scream, stopping all conversation. By the time a psych tech led her indoors, trees were forgotten, visiting hours were up, and good-byes were said.
“It’s a longer drive to Santa Barbara,” I said to Uncle Theo, on the ride home, “but it’s beautiful. Dr. Charlie showed me photos of the halfway house, and it’s nicer than my apartment. Any of my apartments.”
“I shall miss Rio Pescado,” Uncle Theo said. He plucked something from his hand-knit cardigan, a garment he’d worn since the sixties. He unrolled the passenger side window and flapped his hand in the wind. “Good-bye, little bug. Safe home.”
This was where Rico Rodriguez found me, via cell phone, on the 101 South, approaching Oxnard. He apologized for taking so long to return my call. “Roommates,” he said. “Not great at messages. Totally lame, in fact.”
No problem, I said, and explained why I wanted to see him.
“I’m off campus today,” he said. “My campus, anyway. I’m in Santa Monica now, but if you want to do Malibu, I’ll be at Murph’s in an hour. I could give you fifteen minutes there. Otherwise, I’m booked through the weekend.”
Booked. That sounded more like a caterer than a student. I glanced at my uncle in the passenger seat, singing, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” I couldn’t drop him in Glendale and make it to Malibu in an hour, so he’d have to come with me.
“We’ll be there,” I said to Rico. “What and where is Murph’s?”
Murph’s was on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway, just off Cross Creek Road. It was small, smelled of frying bacon and brewing coffee, and was packed, a hangout for the Pepperdine crowd. Uncle Theo and I grabbed a newly vacated table and settled in. We didn’t have long to wait.
I could tell by the way Rico Rodriguez entered the room that it was him. He paused in the doorway, stopped by the crush of bodies. Easy to see why he was loved by two German girls, and probably hundreds of American ones. He was over six feet, slim and muscular, with a swimmer’s body, in black denim jeans and black T-shirt. To me, he looked a little like Doc. A taller, younger, handsomer version, but to me, all sexy men looked a little like Doc.
He spotted us and approached like someone confident of his welcome. He shook hands, then conferred with the waitress who’d materialized, sucked into his magnetic field. Uncle Theo asked for hot water and produced from his cardigan a crumpled tea bag. We’d had the car windows open since Oxnard, and his white hair stuck straight out in every direction, producing a halolike effect. For an instant I was back in high school, suffering from the strain of trying to appear hip for some boy while simultaneously being related to Uncle Theo.
Rico took a cell phone from his jeans pocket, placed it on the table, and leaned back. “So, okay,” he said. “Annika. Yeah, she hasn’t been around. What’s up with her?”
“I was hoping you could tell me,” I said.
“Why would you think that?”
“Well, I was under the impression-aren’t you her boyfriend?”
He gave a rueful smile, one corner of his mouth turned up. “That depends on who you’re asking.”
“Let’s say I’m asking you.”
“Look. Annie’s great. Got a lot going for her. We hooked up. Fun girl. But if she told you it was, like, serious-” Our waitress set down an ice tea and tried to weave around a cluster of bodies. A man entered the restaurant carrying a baby in a car seat. The car seat got caught in the screen door, requiring people near the door to move and, in a domino effect, the rest of us move accordingly, chairs scooting toward tables.
“Actually,” I said, “she didn’t talk about you at all. When did you last see her?”
He shrugged. “Week or so ago. We’d hook up after my chem class, that’s Tuesdays, so… Tuesday. Last week.”
“Not this week?”
“No. I kind of expected her to call, but…” He stirred his ice tea, then looked up through long black lashes. Another half smile. “She didn’t talk about me at all?”
I smiled back. “Not to me. But to other people, her friend Britta-”
“Britta.” His smile expanded. “Now there’s a-”
The baby in the car seat screeched, awakened by a collision with the waitress. I half-stood, propelled by something other than my conscious mind, then sat again. The man put the car seat on the floor and crouched down to unbuckle the screaming baby. I turned to Rico. “So you weren’t serious about Annika?”
“I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but we weren’t getting married or anything. Come on, I’m twenty-one. Who needs that?” He laughed. “I’d like to catch my dad’s face, seeing her at the dinner table. Yeah, Dad, she’s a professional babysitter. Doesn’t go to college. Oh, and by the way, she’s German. Yeah, like that’s gonna go over.”
He looked a little less attractive to me. “Did Annika know you didn’t consider her… relationship material?”
“I guess. I mean, her visa’s up next month, what’s she expect?” His eyes dropped. “I try not to lead them on, but girls seem to… I don’t know…”
The baby continued to cry, sounding like a cat. “Rico,” I said, “was Annika into drugs?”
He looked at me quickly, then away. “No. Not Annie.”
“Sex?” The word just popped out of me.
He looked at me again, and smiled. “You mean did she like it? Uh, yeah. As far as I could tell.” There was a moment of actual heat between us. Good heavens.
“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t mean to get personal, I’m just trying to figure out what happened to her. Actually, I’m trying to figure out who she was. I get a different picture from everyone I talk to.” Math whiz, gunrunner, drug user, sex fiend. Babysitter.
He chugged his ice tea, then set down the empty glass. “It’s the accent. I thought it was hot at first, but my roommate says accents are totally Third World.”
“It seems to me,” Uncle Theo said, “that the more foreign the person, the easier it is to project onto them our fantasies and prejudices, the most extreme example being extraterrestrials. Rico, I’m admiring your earring. Is it a sociopolitical statement?”
Rico looked surprised. His hand went to his ear, to the small gold stud embedded with a red gem. “No, just something a bunch of us did in high school, my buddies. The earring was my mom’s. She lost the other one. I think it’s a ruby.”
Ruby. The word gave me a pang, reminding me of my almost-stepdaughter. I mentally shook myself. “Do you remember a specific piece of jewelry Annika wore? Or did she have any distinguishing features?”
“You mean, like a scar or something?” He looked down at his hands. “She had really smooth skin. That’s the main thing I remember.”
“And didn’t she wear a watch?”
“Yeah, a Fossil. I gave her a hard time about it, because it was like, cheap, but she never took it off. Well, except in the shower.”
Rico’s head turned with a snap. He held up his index finger, signaling to two college-age guys in Murph’s doorway. He stood, took out his wallet, slapped a ten-dollar bill on the table, refused change, and apologized for having to leave abruptly.
I followed him toward the door. “One more thing,” I said. “Did she ever mention a Richard Feynman?”
He turned, frowning. “I think I know the name. Maybe not.”
“Did you know she wanted a gun?”
Rico froze. His hand, in the act of returning his wallet to his back pocket, stopped in midair. “Annika? No, I… Jesus. You serious?”
If I’d wanted a show of concern, I was getting it now. His friends called to him again, but Rico kept staring at me. Then he mumbled a good-bye and turned to go, so distracted he bumped into people on his way out. I returned to the table.
Murph’s was quieter with the lunch rush over. Uncle Theo and I went to the counter to pay the check and got into conversation with the father of the baby.
The baby’s name was Annabelle. I got to hold her while the father went to the men’s room. She spit up all over the front of my white shirt, then rewarded me with a big gummy smile. For some reason, this made me want to cry.