Thursday night on the set of Biological Clock I talked about Annika with Henry Fisher, my date and fellow contestant of the evening.
“Yeah, she brought her boyfriend around a couple times.” Henry Fisher scratched his beard. “He’s got no idea where she is?”
“No,” I said. “And there’s a guy named Feynman-did she ever mention him to you?”
“No, we mostly talked the Bible. Football. Guns.” Henry pulled at his collar. Tonight’s location was Hot Aloo, an Indian restaurant in west L.A., small, redolent of body heat and curry, doing a brisk business. Henry was built for a Barcalounger, not Hot Aloo’s flimsy furniture. And beer. Hot Aloo didn’t have a liquor license, so the ubiquitous Takei Sake bottle would hold water. Henry was now drinking nimbu ka pani, a sort of lemonade. He was as handsome as Carlito, in a very different style, with lots of facial hair, a respectable amount of head hair, and a predilection for jeans and flannel shirts. A guy you’d want if you went white-water rafting and ran into bad rapids. Not that that happens a lot in L.A. “I did tell Annika to go to a gun show,” he said. “You heard that right.”
“What kind of fool thing is that to tell a teenage girl?” Fredreeq said, approaching with a compact of translucent face powder.
“She’s here to see America,” Henry said. “What’s more American than gun shows?”
“Jell-O. Pez. The Brady Bunch.” Fredreeq brushed flecks of powder from his beard.
“Henry, did you tell Annika to buy a gun?” I asked.
“Nope. Told her to educate herself. Talk to people. Find a class. Gun safety. Practice regime. No point owning a piece of equipment you can’t use. Too many ignorant people think buying a gun makes them safe. It doesn’t.”
“Did she mention wanting one right away?”
“Yup. Wanted to know if I had one I could lend her. Told her that’s not how we do things. Regardless of what they say about us over in Europe. Or what Bing Wooster says.”
“Bing?” I looked through the plate-glass window at our director, pacing outside the restaurant, cell phone to his ear. I was about to ask what Bing had had to say about guns when Isaac, the sound guy, approached. He handed me a small bullet-shaped thing attached to a wire and pointed to my cleavage.
“Body mike. Ambient noise,” he said. I told him this meant nothing to me. With a sigh, he reached inside my silk blouse and attached the bullet thing near a buttonhole with a piece of electrician’s tape. I have large breasts, so we couldn’t avoid physical contact, but I feel safe in saying it was not an erotic experience for either of us.
I now had a microphone between my breasts and a wire running down my rib cage and circling my waist, ending in a black box the size of a deck of cards that Isaac stuck in the pocket of my linen pants. As he went to work on Henry, I imagined us plugged into an electrical outlet and lit up like Christmas trees. The image began to turn into a greeting card, but it was a little suggestive of electrocution, not a very Christmassy concept, so I let it go.
Bing came into the restaurant and picked up the Betacam. Fredreeq retreated. I joined Henry on his side of the table. Paul set up a cheap light on a tripod, augmenting Hot Aloo’s votive candles. A burst of laughter across the room punctuated a foreign-language discussion.
“Paul, what’s with the crowd?” Bing asked. “You said the place was empty when you did the scout.”
“That was lunchtime,” Paul said.
“It’s Ramadan. They have a big Muslim clientele.”
“So? Okay, whatever. Wollie,” Bing said. “Same drill as the other night. Ask Henry what he does for a living. Action!”
It always startled me, Bing yelling “Action!,” since he seemed to do it only when everyone was within whispering distance. Joey said it was also inappropriate to a videotape format, but this was a distinction only she and Isaac would understand.
“Henry,” I said, trying to sound spontaneous, “what do you do for a living?”
Henry was a Christmas-tree farmer, something we all knew. “Monterey pines,” he said, warming to his subject. “A long-needle tree. Not as classy as your noble; more like a good Douglas fir. Your four-year-olds will run eight to ten feet. I do a four-year rotation on fifty acres, fifteen hundred trees per acre, one-fifth lying dormant.”
Bing, his camera running, waved his free hand at me in a “Go on, keep talking” gesture.
“What else?” I said. This was not inspired repartee, but all those numbers had frozen my thinking process.
“Lot of farmers do seventeen hundred per acre, but I don’t like to squeeze my trees.”
“Okay. Good,” I said.
Henry perked up suddenly. “Funny thing. I get thirty-five, forty bucks per tree, cut and carry. Little Annika, I tell her this, she calculates on the spot how much I lose annually doing fifteen hundred instead of seventeen, then compounds the interest-”
“Cut,” Bing yelled. “Hey, guy, none of our viewers knows who Annika is. And nobody cares. So don’t talk about her.”
“Oh. Okay.” Henry deflated a little. The camera started rolling and I quickly asked him what he did when it wasn’t Christmas-tree season.
“Pull stumps,” he said. “Plant. Irrigate. Irrigate more. Prune, spray for mites and pine-tip moths, weed control. You can’t slack off, you start right in after Christmas. Santa Ana winds come before the baby trees have time to manufacture root hairs, you’re sunk.”
I loved that he called them baby trees. I hoped that moment would make it onto the TV screen, because I thought it showed Henry in his best light, strong yet vulnerable. I was fond of Henry. I was fond of Carlito too, but Henry Fisher didn’t have a self-promoting bone in his body, and that was an endearing quality.
Then it was my turn. Bing had me describe my home, something Savannah and Kimberly, the other female contestants, would also be discussing. This was a bad moment. A one-bedroom sublet in West Hollywood, a.k.a. Boystown, does not suggest a woman ready to mother a child, but I told myself it was better than being homeless, which was what I’d be soon unless I mustered energy for apartment hunting. After that we took a bathroom break.
Two women in saris came out of the ladies’ room as I went in. I wondered what to do about the sound system I was wearing. Would Isaac listen to me pee? No, Isaac was a professional. He could’ve listened to bodily functions of people far more famous than I, if he were so inclined. Nevertheless, I covered the microphone between my breasts in toilet paper and squeezed my fist over it. It was so tiny, a microphone for a mouse. Or a frog. This brought on a greeting card idea, karaoke for frogs. I began to develop it as I exited the ladies’ room.
Isaac, in headphones, came out of the men’s room at the same time. He avoided me.
Henry sat at the table reading a magazine while Paul sat opposite, working on a laptop. I squeezed in next to Paul and glanced at the folded-over page Henry held in front of him, an opinion piece. “If our allies harbor drug lords like Joseph Juarez and Vladimir Tcheiko,” it read, “are they deserving of the term ‘ally’? Why not make trade agreements contingent upon extradition treaties-” The rest of the sentence was hidden beneath Henry’s index finger.
Vladimir Tcheiko. I’d heard of him, but I couldn’t recall the context. He sounded less like a drug lord than a drug count, I decided. Count Tcheiko. A vampire. I tried that on, seeing if there was a greeting card in it, a vampire awaiting extradition. As with frog karaoke, no occasion immediately presented itself. Some images you have to live with for a while.
“Hey, Henry,” I said. “You think Annika ever did drugs?”
He lowered the magazine, shocked. “That little girl? Not likely.”
Paul looked up from his computer and stared at me.
“What, Paul?” I said.
He looked over his shoulder, then leaned in. “This one time, she asks me, ‘Paul, where does one buy drugs? At university?’ which was so funny, how she’d talk formal sometimes, not like, ‘Where do I score some blow,’ or whatever. Like some English teacher probably told her, ‘When you go to America, here is how to ask for ketchup-’ ”
“Paul!” Bing yelled, gesturing with his cell phone. “The chick can’t find a parking place. Go out there, drive her car around, and send her in. Let’s go.”
“What chick?” Paul asked.
“Whatsername. The expert.”
Paul nodded, closed his laptop, and took off. Henry and I looked at each other. What did it mean, what Paul had just said? Henry frowned and returned to his paper.
I checked my watch. In Germany, it was Friday, and Mrs. Gl"uck would be waking up. She’d left another message on my machine, begging me to call before she left for work. Maizie Quinn had called too, wondering what I’d found out and how Mrs. Gl"uck was doing. I pulled out my cell phone and turned it on. Could I possibly discuss drugs with Annika’s mother? Maybe. The signal was lousy, though, so I left Henry to his reading and went outside.
Hot Aloo was on the upper level of a minimall. I found I got a good signal by hanging over the balcony. Traffic sounds from Wilshire Boulevard wafted up, and from somewhere, the smell of a cigarette. The November night air was a welcome change from the stifling restaurant, even for me, who cranks up the heat when the temperature drops below seventy. Sweater Girl, Doc used to call me. I smiled, remembering, then felt my smile deflate. How long until I could think of him without melancholy, without wondering what my life would’ve been had he stuck around? How long until I’d look at a man without measuring him against Doc?
My call to Germany didn’t go through. The computer operator suggested I check the number and try the call again. I did this.
The minimall was deserted, its only movement an up escalator, a waste of electricity, since Hot Aloo had closed its kitchen to the general public. The shops were dark. I thought about when I’d managed a minimall shop and had come close to owning it. I missed my shop. I missed my ex-fianc'e. I missed his daughter. I missed Annika.
A lone figure stepped onto the escalator. I watched the escalator rise as my call went through and Mrs. Gl"uck answered. She and I struggled through pleasantries, then I explained I was working and couldn’t talk long.
“Ja,” she said. “You have find host family?”
“The Quinns. Yes.” The person on the escalator was quite tall. Male. Not, then, our evening’s expert, the “chick.” I asked Mrs. Gl"uck if the agency had called her.
“Au Pairs par Excellence.” No response. The escalator man reached the second level. “The agency,” I repeated. “In San Pedro. Marty, uh-Otis. Marty Otis?”
“Ah, ja, ja, San Pedro. Au pair.”
“Have they called you?” I asked. The tall man was coming toward Hot Aloo. Beautiful gait: long stride, hands in pockets, relaxed. Funny thing to notice, a gait.
“He didn’t call? No one’s called you?”
Here we go again, I thought. No wonder Maizie had opted out of calling Mrs. Gl"uck. “Okay,” I said. “I met Mrs. Quinn. She’s nice, she’s worried about Annika, but thinks she’s safe.” It would’ve been more accurate to say that Maizie thought Annika had run off with Rico, the Goat Boy, or was holed up somewhere doing drugs, but I didn’t have the heart for that.
“Nein, you to me must to listen,” Mrs. Gl"uck said. “Sie is brav, meine Annika. Brav.”
“Brav. Brav. Verantwortlich!”
Her English deteriorated as her anxiety level rose. I revised my plan to question her about guns or drugs. “Listen, did she talk to you about Richard Feynman-”
“Nein, you must to listen. Sie is not safe, or sie must to call me.”
He was very close now. Four feet away. Well within my personal space. How odd. He leaned on the railing, the same way I leaned on it, and looked down over the minimall.
“Yes,” I said. “I agree it’s strange, but what can we do?”
Mrs. Gl"uck had apparently given this some thought, but only in German. Annika did the same when excited, abandoning English. As the language of Goethe and Rilke sounded in my ear, I stared at the tall man. He had a tough profile. Hard angles. There was a bump on the bridge of his nose, as if it had been broken. Not a face you’d want to meet in a dark alley. Or even a dimly lit minimall.
I reminded myself that twenty feet away was a restaurant full of people.
Mrs. Gl"uck abruptly returned to English. “-peoples to look for her? California? Marty Otis, the family Kvin?”
Lying is so hard for me, I couldn’t say yes. But I knew a little of what this woman was going through, knew what she was doing up at six A.M., talking to me, a stranger. What I said would matter, so I couldn’t tell her that in fact, no, not one of these people was looking for her daughter. “I wish I had something concrete-”
“Bitte, bitte, du bist die einzigste-you must to versprechen-promise to me. Promise to me, you. They must her look. They must her find.”
I looked at the man again. He wore a suit. A beautiful one. I had a bizarre urge to touch it, to see what the fabric felt like. What a strange place the world was, people standing within touching distance of each other, not relating. “You know what?” I said. “I am looking. I’ll keep looking. I won’t give up.”
Mrs. Gl"uck thanked me and blessed me in two languages, then hung up.
I was about to go back into the restaurant, but I’d just made a promise and it could be hours before the next break. I punched in Maizie Quinn’s number. It was easy to remember, only one digit different from Annika’s. I got the machine. “Hi, Maizie,” I said, self-conscious now because of the man next to me, but too stubborn to walk away. I’d gotten here first. “It’s Wollie. Calling about the-au pair situation. I went to the agency. You have my numbers.” I ended the call, wondering why I was hesitant to say Annika’s name aloud.
The man turned to me. His eyes were blue. It must have been a trick of the moonlight, because they looked transparent. This intrigued me. “Something I can help you with?” I said.
I expected him to elaborate, but he didn’t. He seemed to be studying me, and I felt myself blush. I turned to go. Again.
“Wait,” he said. “Do me a favor. Walk away from this.”
“Well, which is it?” I said. “Wait or walk away?”
“I think you understand me.”
Perhaps he was mentally ill. I often attract mentally ill people, feel an affinity for them, probably from years of dealing with my brother’s schizophrenia. Also, the mentally ill can have the most beautiful eyes; why is that?
“This thing you’re walking into,” he continued. “Get out.”
I said the first thing that occurred to me. “Get out of-Biological Clock?”
“I think you understand me,” I said. Two could play this enigmatic game.
“You think you can’t get hurt?”
What a strange thing to say. I’d been hurt quite a lot, I could’ve told him. Who in life had not? But his face was so hard, except for those eyes, that I was not tempted to bare my soul to it.
He’d been leaning on the railing, but now he straightened up and I was aware of how very tall he was. And I’m six feet myself. He looked down at me. “Think you’re that pretty?”
I stared at him. If only I had a clue what he was talking about.
He leaned in close. He smelled clean. “You are that pretty. But you’ll go down, just the same.”
The words paralyzed me. Then Bing’s voice broke the spell. “Our expert’s coming,” he yelled from the doorway of Hot Aloo. “Let’s go, folks.”
The tall man walked away. He didn’t look back, just headed for the stairs, not even acknowledging he’d heard me when I called after him, “But what is it I’ve done?”
I didn’t know how I would concentrate on anything after that, but then I met Dr. Theodora Zagan.
Dr. Theodora Zagan looked about eighteen; apparently she’d begun her postgraduate work at puberty. She asked the waiter for the beef vindaloo Henry was eating, but spicier. She asked Fredreeq for a mirror, checked her lip line and fluffed her bangs, then told Bing to start rolling tape anytime. At his “Action!” she turned to me.
“Are you ready,” she said, “for the financial burden you assume with your first child? The answer,” she said, as I opened my mouth, “is no. Because you have no idea what that burden is.” She took a sip of water and turned to Henry. “Statistically, you will spend more time with your child than your father spent with you. But you’ll put in nowhere near the eighty-hour week this woman will, between her job and her mothering. You’ll pick up a fraction of the child-care duties, regardless of which of you is the household’s primary breadwinner.”
“Henry and I don’t live together,” I said.
“Then the gap widens. Child support won’t begin to address the cost of parenting. Unless you, sir, are extremely wealthy and, more to the point, generous. Oil magnate, record-industry executive?”
“Christmas-tree farmer,” Henry said.
Theodora turned back to me. “In lost wages alone, from the overtime hours you will refuse, the minimal maternity leave you will take, the absentee days you will accrue in order to tend to your child when he or she is ill, and, most debilitatingly, the promotions you will not obtain or even seek due to the fact that work is no longer your life, as it is to your male or childless female colleagues-this will add up to an average of one million dollars in the course of your lifetime. This does not include the actual cost of raising the child, the food, clothing, shelter, medical, education, and miscellaneous costs.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Did you say one million dollars?”
“Per child. More if you’re a trained professional. Less if you’re an unskilled laborer.”
“I don’t have a college degree.”
“Then you’ll be at the lower end of the scale,” Theodora said.
Thank God. I couldn’t afford a million dollars. “Do you have children?” I asked.
“No, I’m the childless colleague I just referred to, the one angling for the promotion. But I’m quite young. I have a rigorous investment program, in case I fall prey to the biological imperative you’re experiencing.”
I managed a vague smile. “So I’m-doomed? To penury?”
“Poverty.” Theodora nodded. “The single biggest predictor of a woman growing old in poverty is having children. In America. Most developed countries subsidize the caregivers of their future taxpayers. Here we recognize human capital as our most valuable resource and the early years as the most developmentally crucial, yet the lion’s share of investment in this resource comes from family, not government-”
“Says who?” Henry asked.
“Gary Becker, Nobel Prize, 1992. If children were acres of corn, we’d subsidize them. They’re not. We don’t. A day-care worker makes peanuts, but she does accrue social security; take care of your own kids and you’re a fiscal deadbeat. You’re better off as a single parent, forced to work outside the home. A stay-at-home mom falls off the map entirely. Disappears.”
Disappears. Funny to hear the word used in that context. Maybe that’s what happened to Annika: she became a stay-at-home mom.
“Are you a feminist?” Henry asked.
“God no. I’m an economist,” Theodora said.
I raised my hand. “I’m a feminist.” No one paid any attention.
“My politics are irrelevant, in any case,” Theodora said. “There’s no lobbying group for caregivers as there is for senior citizens, for instance, even though as a group, caregivers-mothers, let’s be frank-outnumber every other demographic you can think of.”
“I plan to help out,” Henry said.
“Good.” Theodora turned to me. “Get it in writing.”
“Cut!” Bing cried. “Print! Perfect!”
Our food came. Our expert dug in, Henry sniffed everything with an air of suspicion, and I just nibbled on naan, wondering if I should start my life over as Theodora Zagan.
We progressed to on-camera dessert and discussions of living trusts for the baby that none of us had. The one I’d neglected to save up for. It was a long night, and I had a headache at the end. The only bright spot was Paul telling me he left messages every day on Annika’s machine, with the shooting schedule. Just in case. It made me feel less alone.
It was long after midnight before I walked down Wilshire with Joey and Fredreeq to our cars. My friends were discussing whether my longed-for college diploma would be worth the paper it would be printed on, given what Dr. Theodora Zagan had just told us. Joey said it wouldn’t. Fredreeq vehemently disagreed, quoting wage-earning statistics for holders of bachelor degrees. That’s when I told them about my encounter with the man outside Hot Aloo. I did not mention his eyes.
My friends came to a dead halt on the sidewalk, staring at me.
“Now, that is creepy,” Fredreeq said. “So, along with everything else, I got your physical safety to worry about now.”
“I’ll follow you home,” Joey said. “And I’ll keep my phone on.”
“I hate to say this,” Fredreeq said, “but I wish Doc was here. He was short, but he was scrappy. How am I gonna be able to sleep nights, knowing about this?”
Doc. How extraordinary. I hadn’t thought about Doc for hours.