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By Wendy Hornsby
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Wendy Hornsby
All rights reserved.
Under a full moon and sodium-vapor streetlights, the girl was all silver: her pale cropped hair, her face with its heavy trowelling of matte makeup. The parts below her face, small, pushed-up bosom, narrow hips, muscled, serviceable legs, were banded in stretch jersey and black mesh and could have belonged to any undernourished, overused hooker between puberty and menopause.
At first, I had no attitude about her. Through the viewfinder of my videocamera, she was no more than a photogenic image, good filmic contrast to the fat toddlers I had spent the day recording in Encino.
Guilt, or maybe the impulse of universal motherhood, I don't know what, took over when I learned the girl was only six months older than my own daughter, Casey. That made her fourteen and a half.
My documentary project was nearly in the can, until I met her. Over-budget and overdue as always, but under control. Until I met her.
"I'll do women," she said, trying to keep her face away from my camera. "There's no extra charge."
"What's your name?" I asked.
"You can call me Pisces."
"Where do you live, Pisces?"
"Here," she said, vaguely indicating MacArthur Park with her cigarette as a pointer. "I don't like having my picture taken. Not for free."
"How long have you been on the streets?"
She shrugged, glanced back at the red Corvette that had been following us along the curb as we walked. I couldn't see the driver; he could have been a potential date, her pimp, or her dealer. Or an undercover cop doing his job. Whatever he was, when I turned the camera on him, he sped off.
I knew better than to get involved with the girl, just as I had known better than to finish off the bottle of wine the previous night before driving home, or to put myself into debt well into the next millennium to buy a house directly atop the San Andreas Fault. Wisdom and action don't necessarily intersect on the same plane.
The street around us was a midnight carnival. Derelicts, hypes, a broad assortment of the ambulatory insane, spilled out of MacArthur Park like leakage from Pandora's box, to panhandle or rage against internal demons, to look for another fix. Among them, skittery but tolerant, were little family groups of refugees to El Norte, whose lighted food wagons sold the same spicy meat pies I had bought once in San Salvador, Coca-Cola bottled in Mexico, and dysentery on a stick—crushed fresh fruit frozen in someone's home kitchen.
It was April in L.A. The day had been warm, the usual monotonous seventy-six degrees, but the night had turned cold. My partner, Guido Patrini, had walked down to the corner to buy hot coffee from a torta vendor. I could see him leaning against the cart, practicing his Spanish while the coffee cooled. I felt impatient, not because I wanted the coffee, but because the neighborhood scared me shitless.
The girl, Pisces, wanted my attention again. Dramatically, she pulled out a dark lipstick and redid her full lips. "We can go in an alley, or there's a motel on the corner if you want to get a room."
"All I want is your face in my film," I said, dropping the camera from my shoulder. "Pisces, are you okay out here?"
"You mean, do I have a man?"
"I mean, are you okay? Does your family know where you are?"
The way she shrugged reminded me of my daughter, Casey, who, if things were going according to plan, was at home tucked in her bed under the watchful care of our housemate, Lyle. In our house that lies over the San Andreas Fault.
The same red Corvette passed us again, tight by the curb and moving slowly. Pisces moved to put me between her and the street.
"I know a shelter just off Hollywood Boulevard," I said to her. "It doesn't cost anything to stay there and they won't ask questions. If you want to get off the street tonight, I'll drive you over."
"And what do you get?" she smirked. "A free piece on the way?"
"All I get is peace of mind. I have a daughter your age. I wouldn't want her to be out here unprotected, either."
"Oh, a mother," she taunted, but she didn't walk away. "I remember mothers. They want you to wash behind your ears and eat your peas and carrots before they fuck you over."
I hefted the camera back to my shoulder. "Tell me about home, Pisces."
"I get paid by the half hour," she said. "Even if all you want is talk."
Four gunshots exploded into the night nearby—bam-bam, bam-bam, two pairs. I ducked. Everyone on the street ducked. And Pisces slipped into my arms.
Three punks in gang-banger uniform—black jeans and Raiders T-shirts—crashed through the shrubs around the park and scattered out toward the street, two of them dodging cars while the third lagged to fumble with something caught in his jacket. The police were right behind them, two sleek officers in pressed uniforms. They caught the laggard with a flying tackle and slammed his face to the sidewalk at the feet of a drunk, who didn't even notice when the batons came out to beat the kid to quiescence.
The entire show took less than two minutes. When it was over, the police raised their handcuffed quarry by the elbows and quickstepped him down the block to the police substation in the park. One of the officers held a semiautomatic pistol he hadn't had when he breached the shrubbery.
I have seen, through the lens of my camera, the conditions at home the Salvadorans fled from: chaos, hunger, war. As I looked around this carnival, I couldn't see the improvement.
Guido walked up just then with two plastic cups of coffee. I traded him the camera for one of the cups.
"Took you long enough," I said sharply, relieved to see him intact. "Did you have to harvest the coffee beans on the way?"
"I was trying to explain to this guy why he should start using paper cups." He didn't mention the shooting. "Shit, Maggie, don't they know that plastic is killing us?"
"Maybe you should start bringing your own cup, Guido," I said, blowing on my coffee, blowing off steam. "I'll get you one you can hook to your belt loops. Better yet, I'll get you a little solar-powered coffee maker you can carry around with you. You know, make your own, drink it right out of the pot. No, forget that. Just carry a bottle of water with you and some No Doz. Your body won't know the difference. I read in Geographic how they're burning the rain forests to plant coffee."
"Always the smart-ass, Maggie," Guido said.
"And you love it."
He raised his cup to cover his grin.
Guido isn't a very big man, about my height, five-seven or five-eight. He weighs maybe 130 pounds after a big lunch. He has that tight-wired intensity that little men often have; borderline hyper. I love having him work on film projects with me because of the energy he injects. Guido's biggest professional problem is that while he's a gifted filmmaker, he isn't much of a salesman. You have to be both if you want to get funding to do independent investigative film projects. And that is my livelihood.
So Guido found himself a decent alternative: he teaches at the UCLA film school. It's a good job, and he has made a name for himself. But he misses being out in the trenches so much that I have found him to be a bit of a slut—he never turns down my invitations to work.
I tasted the coffee, strong and bitter, and took back the camera from him. Pisces was still standing close beside me. The fireworks across the street were over. It should have been apparent I wasn't going to hire her services. So I had expected her to walk away. It surprised me when she didn't. She just stood there, eavesdropping, watching me fuss one-handed with the camera's battery pack, spilling some coffee as I fussed.
"Guido," I said, glancing up, "meet Pisces."
He nodded to her. "How's it going?"
"Well enough," she said. She had her eyes on my coffee cup, or the steam rising from it. I was cold in jeans and a wool jacket. Her exposed arms were all goose bumps. I held out my cup to her.
"Would you like some?" I asked.
"Cream and sugar?" she asked.
"Cream, no sugar."
She shrugged, condescending, but she took the offered cup. Sugar wouldn't have hurt her figure. She was skinny, but very muscular. When she moved her body had the assertive thrust of an athlete.
"So, Pisces," I said. "It's late and there doesn't seem to be much business out here. Can I give you a lift to that shelter I mentioned?"
"I don't know. It is pretty cold tonight, but I hate going to those places. Do you live around here?"
"No. I live in San Francisco. I'm only in L.A. working for a few days."
"You have a hotel?"
"I'm staying at Guido's."
She looked at Guido and waited for him to say something. He turned on me.
"Why do you always do this to me, Maggie?"
"Do what?" I asked with faux innocence.
"We were going to Langer's to get some pastrami," he groused. "We saw her on the way, so we detoured to get her on film. That's great. But do we have to do a Mother Theresa shtick, too?"
"I love it when you're forceful," I said, patting his cheek. "Pisces, you want to get something to eat with us?"
"That would be fine," she said, and smiled wryly at Guido. "Nice of you to ask."
We walked the half block to Langer's Deli like a little family group out for the evening: Mom, Dad, and baby hooker.
The restaurant is a New York–style neighborhood eatery, 1950s linoleum and glass meat cases, an institution left behind when the old neighbors moved out of MacArthur Park and El Salvador moved in. Guido claims it has the best pastrami in the world.
As soon as we got inside, Pisces excused herself to go to the rest room. Guido and I found a booth in the middle where she could find us when she was finished.
Guido pried a half-sour pickle out of the pot on the table, and took a bite. He smiled at me while he chewed.
"What?" I said.
"I was just thinking," he said. "There any kids hooking on the street in San Francisco?"
"And chubby little bambinos up there in model day-care palaces?"
"What's your question?"
"Just curious why you had to come to L.A. to film."
"The child psychologist who is consulting on the script agrees with me that we want to depict a broad range of child-raising experiences. You're always so cautious, Guido. I want to take the lid off on this one. I want to include some kids most people never see."
"So go to Natchitoches, Louisiana, or Bismarck, North Dakota," he said. "You didn't have to come to L.A. to film a face in the dark, or kids on a slide. You could have taken care of that shit in your own neighborhood."
"You sound like the grant coordinator. Are you asking me to defend the project?"
"Nope." He leaned forward and used the pickle as a pointer aimed at my nose. "Have you called Mike Flint?"
"Hadn't occurred to me to do so," I said, defensive. Another thing that makes Guido such a good filmmaker is his unerring insight. Sometimes I just hate him.
Guido reached into his pocket, fiddled through some change, and slid two dimes across the table toward me.
"Should I know what the dimes are for?" I asked, knowing full well.
"Make the call."
I thought about it. I had been thinking about it for six months. Mike Flint and I had started something about a year earlier that had never been resolved. As hard as I had fallen for Flint, from the beginning I knew that anything beyond carpe diem was hopeless. He was a detective with twenty-two years on the LAPD. A big-city dick, with a full share of the reactionary attitudes that implies. Beyond that, he was a true and loyal friend, a man with deep compassion, great thighs. He made me laugh.
I could live with his opinions—I love a good argument and he always offered plenty to argue about. The sticking point was that until he had put in his twenty-five years on the force he was stuck in L.A. And after that, he envisioned himself retiring to a cabin so deep in the woods that the sound of drive-by gunfire could only be heard on the six-o'clock news. He longed for quietude.
Simply put, Mike and I had incompatible geography. I hate L.A., but I'm not big on flannel shirts and bear meat. As I said, it was hopeless. I had had six months to get used to that reality. What I could not understand was why I kept having this running conversation with Mike Flint in my head. Why my eyes began to roll back every time I thought about the texture of the soft hair at the back of his neck.
Pisces came back from the rest room. I slid deeper into the booth to make room for her beside me. Once she sat down, I couldn't get out to use the telephone. I pushed the dimes back to Guido.
"Guido says the pastrami here is worth risking your life for," I said to Pisces. "How do you feel about pastrami?"
"It's all right," she said. "May I have some salad with it?"
"Anything you want," I said, glaring at the tooth-sucking expression on Guido's chiseled face.
"Thank you," Pisces said. "I'm really hungry now that I smell food."
Guido turned his attention to the girl, studied her with his quick intensity. In the rest room she had brushed her hair back from her face, wiped off most of the makeup, and pulled up the top of her skimpy dress to cover her shoulders. Without all the goo she was a pretty little girl with wide, dark brown eyes and good skin. She seemed to have transformed her streetwise attitude as well as her appearance.
"You have nice manners for a lady of the evening," Guido said as she spread a paper napkin on her lap. "Where you from, kid?"
"Here," she said, shrugging.
"Here, like L.A.?"
"Southern California, anyway, right? You sound like a local."
She giggled a little. "You can't tell that. Everyone knows there is no California accent."
"Wrong," he corrected. "It's Brooklyn that has no accent. Unless you're from Chicago."
She laughed politely. She picked up a pickle, bit off the end of it, and screwed up her face at the sourness.
If I had felt at all protective of her before, I felt doubly so as I watched her. This was not a child raised in the streets. Guido had been correct about her manners. There was a sophistication about her, a social easiness, that comes with a certain careful upbringing. She did not appear to be on drugs. This kid was somebody's baby girl. The question that began to eat away at me was: Who had lost her?
A senior-citizen waitress came and rested her soft hip against the end of the table. She gave us a long, nosy inspection. "Have you decided?"
Guido looked at Pisces and me. "Can I order for everyone? There's an art to eating pastrami. It has to be done just right to get the full effect."
"We're in your hands," I said, and Pisces giggled again.
Guido faced the waitress. "We'll have three pastramis on rye, with yellow mustard—none of that gray poop. Three cream sodas, and one dinner salad, not slaw, on the side. And that's all."
"A man who knows his mind," the waitress said. "Be right back with the salad."
She was true to her word; the salad came immediately. While Pisces ate, Guido and I talked about the footage we had shot in Encino at a model day-care center. I couldn't get very excited about it. I knew the real story about children was sitting on the banquette next to me.
"What's the schedule tomorrow, Maggie?" Guido asked.
"The Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers in the morning, then Pop Warner cheerleader practice out in Orange County in the afternoon. Think you can get us to Yorba Linda?"
He curled his lip. "I'd rather go to Natchitoches."
"Maybe next time," I said.
The waitress set pastrami sandwiches in front of us that were at least five inches high, no exaggeration. As she set a squeeze bottle of yellow mustard in the middle of the table, she smiled maternally. "Can I get you anything else?"
"Yes, please," Pisces said with a smile. "A doggie bag."
The waitress drew back, disapproving. "You haven't eaten anything yet, honey. You pile into that sandwich, and when you're finished we'll talk about a doggie bag."
I started to laugh at the nerviness of the waitress, but stopped when I saw that Pisces was not amused. I guessed she might have later plans for her meal. The way she had devoured her salad, I knew she was hungry. In her position I would have mouthed off to the waitress. But Pisces docilely followed instructions and began to eat. At first, she only nibbled at the edges of the sandwich. In the end, there was nothing on her plate except a few strips of gristle. I couldn't even finish half of my serving, and neither could Guido.
When the waitress came back with the check, she picked up Pisces' plate first. I could have smacked the smug look off her powdered face. She said, "Well, young lady, I guess you were hungry after all."
Excerpted from Midnight Baby by Wendy Hornsby. Copyright © 1993 Wendy Hornsby. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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