It begins with the babies on the walls. Noelle is taking out the garbage when she spots the first one: a silhouette of a round, bald child stenciled in black spray paint. Just there, Buddha-like, above the dumpster, which reeks of late afternoon. She registers it, although it's not the first graffiti to sprawl across the bright yellow stucco of the caf -- , then goes back inside, where she mentally fires Freddy for the third time that day.
She sees the second one on the side of the Japanese market at the corner of her street in West L.A. Which means the baby has made it across town, all the way from Silverlake. These mysterious icons are usually confined to a small geographic area, the stomping ground of a gang or some art school kid, she supposes.
She points the market baby out to Katie, who says, "I wonder if it's a call for -- better day care or something." Katie is cute when she's literal. She always thinks of people first, which makes Noelle with her love of places feel vaguely heartless.
Soon they seem to be everywhere that isn't especially wealthy or polished, or maybe they're there too and it's just Noelle who is not. The babies wave with mitten hands from unimportant corners of gas stations, crouch in the smooth concavity of tunnels, bump the alley-sides of trendy La Brea shops. It occurs to Noelle that they could be a movie promotion. Enough hip hop children have grown up and gotten marketing jobs that such campaigns are starting to appear. But there's not so much as a web site stamped on a baby's limb telling her where to go to find out what she should buy. After careful analysis, she chalks them up to genuine mystery.
Noelle visits her mother in Culver City. She thinks it's appropriate that the city is its own incorporated entity, because it feels so different, though some of that is memory working its worminess. Her mother has ordered pizza for their Saturday afternoon lunch. Gretchen Viveros only cooks when something is wrong, so Noelle prepares herself for leisurely chat.
"Your dad got another stop sign put in over on Braddock. Near the elementary school so, that's big."
"I thought he already got one on Braddock."
"He did, near the projects back in, oh let's see, '97. But this one is near the school."
Noelle's brother Oscar died nine years ago when his motorcycle barreled down a residential hill. The front tire caught in a drainage gutter and sent him flying in a grand arc before the momentum flattened him against the asphalt almost thirty feet away. Noelle has sewn this sequence out of police photos, blown up big as school portraits, which she looked at voluntarily. At the time, she was afraid she would regret it if she didn't, that it would make her a coward. She doesn't know how she would feel now had she not looked. Since Oscar's death, Gretchen and Oscar Sr. have made a second career out of petitioning the city to put up a stop sign at the slightest suggestion of danger: a less-than-gently angled curve, an area populated by school children at certain times of day. Usually, they get their way. Council members don't have many defenses against frozen pictures of Oscar in his cap and gown. Noelle imagines her brother balking at the amount of stopping his hometown would now demand of him. Oscar was the type to sail through stop signs.
"Don't they have a crossing guard?" Noelle asks. "They did when we were kids." The "we" is never not strange.
"Now they have two crossing guards at two crosswalks," her mother says, both hands folded around her coffee mug. "This whole week, your dad slept better than he had in months."
"I'm glad he slept well," Noelle says. The kitchen is small and sunny. When Noelle was five and Oscar was six, he would construct a barricade of cereal boxes so he wouldn't have to look at her while he ate his corn pops. Now on the table there is a bouquet of silk flowers in an ornate vase, one of her mother's garage sale finds. Her mother never grows tired of other people's old stuff. Sometimes it's amazing how resistant her parents have been to L.A. The house is blocks away from the slick corridor of studios and studio accessory businesses that cuts through Culver City, but there is something stubbornly Midwestern about the Viveros' home. "Have you thought about what you might like to do for your half birthday?" Another Viveros tradition.
"No theme restaurants this year. Other than that, I'm easy," Noelle says.
"Your dad loved the jousting."
"Then we can go there for his half birthday."
"You'll be 30 and a half."
"Yeah, thanks Mom, I actually did the math, counting from my 30th birthday."
"Have you thought about having a baby?"
Well. There's that. Right there plain as pepperoni. Her mother is not that type of mother, the nagger, the why-aren't-you-liker. Noelle made her sexual orientation known two months after Oscar's death, in this kitchen. She edged into the spotlight apologetically, since her parents hadn't even figured out what to do with all of Oscar's things. But it was bad enough that Oscar had died with a half-picture of his sister, and Noelle didn't want to waste any more time. Her mother didn't curse the heavens or demand to know where she'd gone wrong. She set it aside as something to be dealt with later. When she began including Katie's name on gift tags, Noelle thought it was a good thing. Now she is not so sure.
"Um," she says, "only in the most abstract sense."
"There's the science for it, you might as well. You could pick out some sperm with really good genes."
Noelle does not recount the conversation to Katie. Their apartment is maybe a mile and a half from Noelle's parents' house, but the neighborhood is as different from that of the little yellow house as the yellow house is from the studios. Noelle's friend Zrinka calls this neighborhood Microscopic Tokyo, as in even smaller than Little Tokyo. Sawtelle is a string of ramen houses and karaoke dens. The south end of the area is bright tea shops and teenagers sucking tapioca balls through fat straws. The north end is dirtier and more troubling than most people's mental picture of West L.A. On multiple occasions, Noelle has heard strange noises coming from the bushes outside the convenience store on Santa Monica Boulevard and looked over to find a crumpled man drinking from a brown paper bag. The rent is not cheap, but it is controlled, which means it's now cheaper to live here than it would be to move to Hollywood or Silverlake. Besides, Katie's job is a series of unpredictable commutes. Her office is a spider web of freeways leading to client homes and community centers; she will always be far away from somewhere she needs to be.
Noelle tells Katie about the stop signs. That's all. If Katie were to have a child, she would want to adopt. She's a social worker and helps place foster children. Noelle has heard stories (fires lit, children lit) that make her afraid of other people's children, but Katie would want to do the noble thing.
People always find it slightly odd that Noelle and Katie are a couple. People's faces say it. Noelle comes home smelling like garlic from the bagels, Katie like poverty -- not smelling, per se, but it's in her eyes and the folds of her denim dresses. She has so many denim dresses. They seem to be the right thing to wear when rescuing small children. Katie is what people tend to refer to as a big girl, if they think about it. Frequently they don't, as she travels in circles where no one much expects or demands stylishness, but when forced to describe her, they say, "Well, she has blonde hair...she's a big girl..." She has blonde hair but she is not a blonde. It parts in the middle no matter what and usually gets pushed behind her ears. Because she is not outspoken, jolly or shy, no one grows annoyed at her plumpness, the way some people see extra pounds as a personal affront.
Noelle is the hipster in her dark glitter jeans, her tank tops. Her hair is short, scrunched into a trendy kind of bed head, currently its natural coffee brown, although since she was 16 it has been red, black, blue-black, platinum, purple, auburn, black, fire engine red, red-tipped, black and an unfortunate shade of orange that forced her to swear off dye for a while.
Women look at Noelle, and men, if they are rock and roll types. It's good for business. Get your cappuccino at indie little Soleil Caf -- , and know you're not selling out because, look, the owner's a chick and has a zebra print belt. Noelle tries to book struggling girl folk singers for the Wednesday and Thursday night shows, the kind who came of age on the Indigo Girls and have voices like rain. The kind who won't get signed easily. She likes to watch them pick at the strings of their guitars, heads bent, hair falling forward like Katie's does. Noelle tells herself this is her social contribution -- in the name of Art, Bohemia, Struggling. She is a Patron. Then she tells herself no, there are people starving just blocks away from where the caf -- teeters in its little converted house on its rocky foundation.
She's still slightly terrified that Katie will find out how much better she, Katie, can do. There are women in the world who lead marches. Who don't eat things that have been treated cruelly. Who douse fires and run for office.
On Sunday, there is another baby. Further down Sunset, by the pink flower mural where she parks her car. There is plenty of parking. That's how you tell the quality of a neighborhood; she can always find a space in front of her apartment building as well. Noelle parks two blocks away because she likes the walk. It situates her, reminds her that the things that happen, happen in context. Duncan, the employee she hasn't mentally fired even once, always tells her she shouldn't walk back alone, but she doesn't see why not. She only sees the murals and the ivy that cascades down the retaining wall.
This baby is perched above a pink petal, a dark little nymph in a garden. She glares at it. Is this where progress has progressed? Now mothers feel comfortable telling their lesbian daughters to visit a sperm bank? She knows she's making a big deal out of it.
Freddy is late. He will be ten or fifteen minutes late today, then come in on time for a week. He never does anything quite bad enough to warrant actual firing; that's his strategy. Duncan is there, arranging the muffins. So is Janice, from the lesbian book group Noelle has been starting for almost five months now. It is so hard to get women out of their houses. She wants to believe women crave darkness and hard drinks and the hum of street life, but even though the group meets at the tale end of the afternoon shift, there are never more than five or six takers. Twice there have been none. Janice is early by a few hours. She's a sporadic attendee, but when she comes, she comes for half a day. Noelle envies whatever it is she does for a living. She's 40ish, but dresses younger, and perfectly. As if each outfit were created for her, for that day and time and place. Today she's wearing a short sleeved shirt (silk? Noelle is a horrible judge of these things), pale green with pearly snaps, dark flared jeans and leather sandals with straps that crisscross her maroon-toenailed feet. Her light brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail. The look is slightly Hollywood -- a polish Noelle is wary of -- but Janice is friendly and self-deprecating. She's hunched over the book as if it is hard for her.
"What do you think?"
"Oh!" Janice looks up. "Hi Noelle. How are you?"
"Not bad. What did you think of Ms. Brown?"
"I have a few more pages, as you can tell. God, you'd think I'd get over that, wouldn't you? Not doing my homework. I haven't improved a bit since high school. I like it though." She gives the paperback a little wave. "I wish I could be as gutsy as Molly Bolt. Sometimes I think I have it in me and then -- I don't know, the phone rings or my, my girlfriend has plans for us. My sister in Michigan taught this book to her undergrad women's studies class. She said it was -- 'unrealistically heroic and very second wave, but nevertheless culturally significant.'" She shrugs. "I liked it."
Noelle picks at a bit of hardened cream cheese on the countertop with her thumbnail. "I've gotta admit, I agree with your sister now, but when I was twenty-one, I loved it. Too bad I didn't have her as a professor. Maybe I would have stayed in school instead of dropping out and trying to be my own little Molly Bolt."
Janice laughs. "I don't know, my sister can be a little -- disheartening. I see myself getting a B- in her class. Wow, I can't believe you dropped out. You seem so smart."
"It's all a front." Noelle leaves Janice to her reading.
It's a slow afternoon. There's no way to predict when it will be slow, when it will be busy. There's a bit of a morning caffeine rush, but beyond that crowds of eaters and drinkers operate on inexplicable tides. They have transcended mealtimes, they go to work on weekends and not on weekdays, they work from home and from laptops plugged into outlets in the caf -- 's night-blue walls.
A cop comes in, a rarity. Soleil's hand-painted sign (the "o" an orange-tendriled sun) lures a certain crowd. Cops are more likely to congregate at the gloomy but reassuring sports bar just over the hill. What if I had a child and he grew up to be a cop? Noelle wonders. She tries to imagine her belly big, spitting out a boy. She doesn't think her body could produce a boy. Then she reminds herself, I could have a child and she could grow up to be a cop. She has a healthy distrust -- who doesn't? She looks around to see if she has accidentally prompted something illicit in her midst. The refrigerator is supposed to be further from the cash register, but that's a health department thing, she's pretty sure. These ridiculous inspectors with their clipboards and their absurd, irrational laws, the ones only the chains can meet easily. She finds herself glaring at the cop for this, as if he put the blue B in the corner of her window and made people crave frappuccinos.
Just in case, Noelle decides to help him herself. Freddy, who has arrived now but has forgotten his black waist-apron, just screams pothead. The cop is not much taller than she is; he must have really stretched at the physical exam. She thinks she remembers him coming in before. He has pink cheeks and brown eyes with long eyelashes. He is probably the cop they send to kindergarten classes to talk about wearing a helmet when you ride your two-wheeler. He's carrying his hat under his arm. It looks heavy. It's late July, the time when summer is finally starting to feel like summer, or how she imagines summer in other parts of the country. Wearing serious fabric must be torture. There's no sea breeze in Silverlake.
"I'll take a medium iced latte," the cop says. His badge says Officer Rainey. There is no doubt in his voice, the way some people run their eyeballs over the menu and their tongues over their teeth long after they've reached the front of the line.
"Comin' up." Noelle punches it into the cash register. "That's $2.74."
"It's nice that you have small, medium and large," Officer Rainey says, "instead of all that venti, grande stuff."
"Thanks," says Noelle. "We try to keep it simple. Is this for here?"
Sweating drink in hand, he sits down at a table by the window and reads the newspaper. So cops read newspapers -- the species foreign but the motions familiar. Except he is mostly just looking out the window.
The apronless Freddy emerges, drinking a smoothie. "Shit, the fuzz is here?"
"Be quiet, he'll hear you. What's your problem?"
"Maybe I should, like, talk to him. I'm thinking of writing a screenplay about corrupt cops."
"Wait 'til your shift is over, please."
The book group has a reasonably large turnout. Janice, Bev, two new women who seem to be a couple, and Zrinka, who is not a lesbian but likes to sample alternative syllabi. Janice and Zrinka devote the first fifteen minutes to exchanging shopping tips. "It's all about the garment district," Zrinka says. "I go there for fabric a lot," says Janice, "but I'm a mall junkie for pre-made clothes." They are such girls. Even one of the new women throws in a store suggestion. Noelle fidgets in her chair.
Janice can't contain her awe for Molly Bolt. Noelle is a little in awe of Janice. She seems to have Molly Bolt's extroversion. Noelle envies that ability to talk just to talk. Both she and Katie always have to mean something. It's tiring sometimes, but she knows she would grow weary of Janice's delight as well. Janice has long dimples at the corners of her mouth that Noelle would not grow tired of, however. She wonders if this is a gay thing, having these half-dramas and knowing their exact limits. The precise but shifting proportions of admiration, attraction and condemnation. No, it's probably an everyone thing -- she's always looking for distinguishing factors, but more and more they seem to be undermined. She half longs for an imagined old-days of entire identities being drawn up for a night out.
Despite the reasonably large turnout, Noelle feels dissatisfied with the book and the night. This was supposed to be it -- her coffee shop, her book group, her people, her impact. And it consisted of halfway-to-stale croissants and conversation about shopping. There is a Stephen Sondheim song, "Children and Art" (Katie is a fan, makes her listen to songs with no bass line). As in, that's what you have to offer and to leave behind, children and art. Noelle is not an artist.
Katie has Monday off; she just spent a week sitting in the courthouse waiting room getting dismissed from potential jury after potential jury for being too familiar with the loophole shame of laws. She's decided to fudge one more day of duty, and Noelle delights in her deviance, both for the time and for the proof of Katie's social imperfection. When Noelle opens her eyes to Katie, a graceful tangle of sheet beside her, she hopes for a domestic gem, a found morning. She's on afternoon shift again. When she comes back from the market with two plastic tubs of soba noodles, the TV is on and Katie is reading their monthly free copy of the hipster magazine Zrinka works for.
"I thought you hated the local news." The sprayed-on faces of Erich Lynskey and Delia Montoya are chattering away.
"When I veg, I veg," Katie says. "I'm not going to do one thing today that's good for anybody."
"Whoever you are, I'll keep you."
Noelle settles into the curve of Katie on the couch. Then she sees the face, inset into a square over Erich Lynskey's right shoulder. A hard jaw and eyes peering out from beneath the shadow of the blue cap, unhealthy looking skin -- a criminal in the language of TV mugs. The reporter on the scene (cut to a blazered black woman in front of yellow tape bordering a Valley-looking house) says, "Officer Clifford Rainey allegedly turned on his wife of five years, also a police officer, Maureen Reynolds Rainey, after what neighbors are describing as a loud argument. He shot her three times, including a fatal wound in the head. The wife died this morning at a North Hollywood hospital. Rainey has been arrested and charged with murder. Their three-year-old son is in protective custody."
"Poor kid," Katie says, her voice full of coulda-called-it.
"I know that guy," Noelle says.
"Who, the neighbor?"
"No, the cop. Officer Rainey." She realizes she has never said his name out loud before, only read it on his badge. How could she never have addressed him by name? "He seemed okay, you know, for a cop."
"'Okay for a cop.'"
"Just that I never would have known he was -- a murderer. I wish I'd seen something about him. Did he say to himself, 'I'm going to have a latte, then go home and kill my wife.'? I shouldn't have given Freddy a hard time for being alarmed when he came in."
"No," Katie says. She is pouring soy sauce on her noodles, which seems vaguely obscene in this context. "Freddy jumped to conclusions because Freddy lives in a bad movie." She pauses. "It's self-hatred."
She continues, "They're called when people are at their worst, even worse than when we step in." Meaning social workers. "So nobody likes to see them. They remind them of their most embarrassing, black days.... Sometimes I'll listen to one of the other social workers talking about a case and I'll think, 'Stupid white, middle-class bitch. What does she know about these problems?' All the stuff people say about us, but coming from my head. I've seen the way they look at us so much that I can replicate it without even trying."
Noelle is not equipped to enter a discussion about civil servitude. The pictures are still forming in her mind. What happened between the latte and the gun? What was written in his face that she didn't bother to decode? She, who had been caught in the flare of Janice's jeans. She had gotten it wrong, daydreamed her shift in the wrong direction.
The news program has moved on to a report on cellulite cream, which is cut short by footage of a high speed chase on the 5. By the time Noelle has scraped her noodles into the trash, that chase has been interrupted by another chase, this one on the 10 and starring a small hatchback. The 5 chase (on the left hand side of the screen) peters out in a suburban neighborhood deep in the Valley. The 10 chase (on the right) ends when police shatter the windshield with bullets, a spray of white on the screen.
"The criminals always get more air time," Katie says.
"Which ones?" Noelle says, feeling bratty.
She gets a call from her mother: a stop sign on Madison, which cuts right through Culver Boulevard.
"Has anyone been hurt there?"
"It's preventative. For goodness sakes, Noelle, that's the whole idea. Stop accidents before they happen. It's so important for Oscar."
"For your brother. You find that thing," she says abstractly, "that symbol that keeps you going."
Sometimes it seems as if it has not been nine years. Noelle did everything backward, even then. When her parents were at home dragging heavy feet through another day, Noelle was dancing at Girl Bar with her first real girlfriend. Those hard fuchsia kisses in the middle of the dance floor, tasting of lime. She felt Oscar in the buzz of the music and hated her parents for their sad distraction. Then, long after her parents began their stop sign campaign, giving interviews to local papers about turning grief into a mission, Noelle sat for hours at a stretch looking at the veins in her hand. Useless.
Her mother says there is a children's book about a little girl with two mommies. She promises to send a copy. It is not lost on Noelle that Gretchen missed her first chance at grandchildren.
Noelle searches the corners of her brain all the way down Sunset. His shoulders slumped a little, she thinks as she passes the deep-yarded mansions. Like he was feeling defeated. He said please, she thinks as a 50-foot-tall woman winks dewy lids from a multistory ad for bottled water. Like he was trying to cover something up. He took off his hat, she thinks as she curves past the bright red Vista Theater. Like he was stripping away his vows to the force. She thinks about how men explode and women crumble inward. Well, that's a generalization -- but Maureen Reynolds Rainey had to see it, didn't she? Even if Noelle didn't, Maureen Reynolds Rainey had to hear her husband ticking.
She's reaching for it by the time she gets to work, but hindsight is a comforting kind of eeriness -- it's all there if you look for it. And she decides her mother is at least right about needing symbols.
As Freddy (on time) divides a large tub of cream cheese into many small tubs, Noelle locates the number for the Police Department. She's surprised how hard it is to find in the thin pages of the phone book -- maybe no one calls if it's not a 911 moment. Many connections later, the woman at the Police Widows and Orphans Fund sounds surprised by Noelle's desire to raise money -- pleased, but surprised in a way that implies Noelle must be slightly odd. Noelle doesn't usually care much about what strangers think, but she finds herself wanting to explain, then unsure of what exactly that would entail.
"I wish I had a picture of the son," Noelle says to Freddy after she hangs up. "I don't even know the kid's name. They don't release that kind of thing, do they?"
"No," Freddy says authoritatively. "Dude, don't you think that's a little much? What, are you just going to put a box next to the tip jar with a sign that says, 'Help put the kid of some customer who shot his wife through college'?"
"Yes. Not that exact wording, obviously."
"Great, now tipping will be an even lower priority for people."
"Consider those three bucks your sacrifice for not noticing anything suspicious about him in time," Noelle says. She uncaps a sharpie and ponders the appropriate wording.
"You can't be serious," says Freddy.
"It's not like I'm beating myself up, it's just -- well, I don't know. He ordered a large latte. A large. Maybe it was some kind of power thing."
"He ordered a medium." Freddy, for all his downfalls, is good at remembering details about customers. If he says medium, it was probably a medium. "And espresso is a power drink, not an iced latte."
"What if the caffeine had a bad reaction with something else he ingested that day?"
"God, I knew you were a control freak, but this is bad even for you."
In a week, the empty cream cheese bucket she drafts for the job gathers $6.42, a biscotti wrapper and a patina of cocoa powder. Every time someone doesn't add to it, Noelle tells herself that she would raise a child who would grow up to put money in jars for good causes. An hour before the next book group meeting, she dismantles it. She puts the $6.42 in an envelope. It would be embarrassing to send it in. Maybe she can write a check herself for a respectable amount and factor this in. She puts the cash in her pocket.
Janice is back, second week in a row. So is one half of the couple, a woman named Sophie. She got her degree in English, moved here last month for her girlfriend's job. She hasn't found one of her own yet, she says. "This is so great," she says. "They said in Berkeley that L.A. would just be shallow, self-absorbed people, but it's not that bad. I like this." Sophie gestures to the coffeehouse, with its blue walls and teen angst oil paintings and not-bright-enough-to-read-by lights and bussed-in muffins.
Noelle, Janice and Sophie discuss the book of the week for a little while, Sophie and Janice falling at opposite extremes of the literary knowledge spectrum. Conversation moves to the city, jobs, Sophie's dog, Janice's Ohio childhood, Noelle's brother. She speaks of him in the past tense, but doesn't say that he died. The conversation is nice and she doesn't want to bring it down. No one talks about shopping. That's good enough.
It strikes Noelle, on the way back to her car, that she will not have a child. There's another baby stamped above a curb number on Sunset. It's someone else's baby, she thinks, someone else's symbol. The night is hot to the point of ominousness, the kind of weather that hints at earthquakes to come. There's a woman asking for money on the corner of Sunset and Silverlake Boulevard, to feed her children, according to a hand-lettered sign. There are no kids with her, but Noelle gives her the $6.42 because you can never know for sure, and grownups need money too. Katie would be annoyed -- it just keeps them out of shelters and from getting real help, she always says. Noelle is still trying to figure out what real help is. Does it lie somewhere between grief and stop signs? Grief is not regret. Legislation is not peace. Beyond that... Her car is waiting for her beneath the pink flower mural. The blossoms are slowly being smothered by a collage of graffiti, so that they now grow in a garden with gang tags and spray paint babies and Anna + Calvin '98 and some sort of neo-Kilroy. She likes the combination better than any one by itself.