Noise was everywhere. To avoid it, Tina figured you had to die.
When she and Harry lived in Manhattan, the nerve-scraping clangor of garbage trucks and delivery vans had served as early-morning alarm clocks. Waking up to the din was jarring and souring for Tina but useful for Harry because he slept like a drunk and had to be on the subway by seven.
Here in L.A., nestled in the alleged luxe of upper Bel Air, mornings were quiet. Until they weren’t: the house groaning and creaking randomly, scolding reminders that they’d traded New York bedrock for the traitorous sand of earthquake country.
Of course, Harry barely noticed. The jolts to Tina’s nervous system made her feel like shedding her skin.
L.A. evenings were “left-coast mellow” for him, crushingly still for her. She yearned for the rumble of a late-night bus, the drone of human voices rendered unintelligible at the seventeenth floor, the farting aggression of taxi-horns.
Anything to remind her that other people existed beyond the confines of her personal space. After two months of living on a ridge of soft dirt straddling L.A. the thick, almost slimy stillness was threatening to smother her.
When the creaks and groans weren’t freaking her out.
Officially, neighbors existed. The place Harry’s firm had leased for them (“midcentury delight,” in reality a bland ranch house) was bordered by similar structures. But each was vacant due to traveling owners: a wire service editor currently working in Greece, a merry widow enjoying a round-the-world cruise.
Tina knew those details because the rental agent had informed her how lucky she was to have peace and quiet.
Quiet could only be peaceful if it wasn’t polluted by loneliness and unpredictability.
Evenings when Harry worked late proved unnerving.
Even when he was home for dinner, there was bedtime to deal with, the dreaded moment when bedroom lamps were switched off and Harry was snoozing within seconds. Leaving Tina flat on her back, wondering if tonight she’d finally be able to get some rest.
It wasn’t only the groans and creaks. There was the matter of the animals.
If she didn’t set her white noise machine loud enough, scurries and rustles from the vest-pocket backyard dried her mouth, chilled her skin, and revved up her heart.
If she set the machine whooshing too fiercely, she veered into migraine territory.
Harry, sprawled across the mattress and sawing wood, remained oblivious to her stress. Tina figured he could snore through Armageddon.
Mr. Mellow and High-Strung Babe.
He called her that, good-naturedly. Insisted her overactive nervous system made her hot in bed. Tina had her doubts about that but why argue? She knew she was high-maintenance, it was all a matter of wiring.
More than once, startled awake by what had to be a wild beast or a serial killer out in the garden, she’d elbowed the poor guy awake and insisted he check. Drowsy but chuckling, he always complied, finding nothing. One night, especially weary, he said maybe she should try meditation. Or medication. Tina’s reaction to that wisdom disabused him of further advice.
Then came that night, when even Harry’s eyes widened as he heard the chittering. Parting the bedroom drapes, he watched, astonished, as a family of raccoons enjoyed the lap pool.
Mommy, Daddy, and three babies. Diving in gleefully, scampering out to shake off their fur, hurrying back for repeat plunges.
Five of them! Polluting the water with rabies germs and God knew what.
Harry had been fascinated by the spectacle; grinning, he watched. Tina, repelled, had insisted he pound the glass until the intruders fled. Which took a while; the raccoons, cheeky bastards, showed no fear, only sullen resentment.
The following morning Tina phoned Animal Control and received a lecture about human invasion of habitat; apparently raccoons had inalienable rights, too.
So four nights later when she heard sounds from the garden, she gritted her teeth and let Harry sleep through it. But after he left for work, she checked and found trampled vegetation and a pile of grape-sized pellets, a production she Internet-identified as deer scat.
She supposed Bambi foraging out back wasn’t terrible . . . but what if a mountain lion or a coyote had a yen for venison and came back to . . . OMG, who knew Bel Air meant Wild Kingdom?
From that point on, Tina began using earplugs in addition to the white noise machine and though they caused her to wake up with a sore jaw, she figured she’d finally happened upon an optimal solution.
This was a new level of noise, way louder and weirder than the raccoons. An agitated creature? Or worse: angry.
Definitely something out there, thrashing. Now moaning. Now what sounded like the impact of a paw or a claw on hardscape. An animal tantrum, loud enough to pierce the machine and the plugs. How could Harry sleep through it?
Tina wished she had the courage to have a look herself. Inform him, over breakfast, that she’d made a breakthrough, no need to baby her anymore, she was adapting.
Maybe she’d even start looking for a job soon.
But not tonight, this—horrid symphony—and there it was again, the bumping.
Something injured? Or out to injure? Did coyotes sound like this? She had no idea . . . she nudged Harry with her little toe. He gulped air, turned over, yanked the covers over his head.
To hell with it, she would see for herself.
Bump. Wail. Now a high-pitched cry. Heart racing, chest hurting, but feeling oddly purposeful, Tina bounded out of bed, not even trying to be subtle or quiet because down deep she hoped Harry would wake up and come to her rescue.
But he just rolled over again, snored louder.
Not loud enough to blot out the terrible noise outside.
Scratch scratch scratch. What sounded like slithering. Then a . . . whimper? Two creatures? A victim and a predator?
Dreading what she’d see, Tina forced herself to fold back the drapes and squint.
No need to focus, there it was, obvious and horrifying, crouched in the left-hand corner of the garden.
Head down, gasping and crying out as it pawed soil, spewing clumps and leaves and dust.
No way it could’ve spotted Tina but suddenly its head rose and it locked eyes with her.
A glint of madness—a terrible meld of terror and rage.
A duet; Tina was screaming, too.
Psychologists and psychiatrists often rely on voicemail for receiving messages. I use an answering service because if anyone should be offering a live human voice to someone in need, it’s a therapist.
On a cloudy morning at ten a.m., I got a call from one of the service operators, a new one named Bradley.
“Dr. Delaware, I’ve got Doyle Maslow on the line.”
“Don’t know him.”
“Her, sir, and sounds as if she knows you. She said it’s a mental health crisis type of thing.”
“Is she the one in crisis?”
“She didn’t say, Doctor.”
“Put her on.”
A husky young female voice said, “Dr. Alexander Delaware? This is Kristin Doyle-Maslow, mental health specialist with the Los Angeles County Behavioral and Affective Re-Integration and Services Project.”
New one on me but the county sprouts programs like a hydra grows heads.
I said, “I’m not familiar—”
“You wouldn’t be. We’re funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, learn about us on our website. LACBAR-I-SP.net. I’m calling about a patient of yours. Zelda Chase.”
“She’s not my patient.”
“Five years ago she was, according to the records, Dr. Delaware.”
“Five years ago I evaluated her son—”
“Ovid Chase. There is no record of official termination.”
“I consulted at the request of Ms. Chase’s psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Sherman—”
“Who is deceased.”
“I’m aware of that—”
“Sherman released the file to Ravenswood University Hospital twenty-seven months ago. You are named in that document as therapist of record.”
“She was treated at Ravenswood?”
“Not at that time, but all this is irrelevant, Doctor. The important fact is Sherman did terminate and you didn’t.”
Two years and some months ago, Lou had died of cancer, lending cruelty to her wording.
I said, “What exactly would you like me to do?”
“See your patient, Doctor. Who did end up at Ravenswood, a couple of days ago, on a 5150 but has been transferred to us.”
Seventy-two-hour involuntary hold.
“What got her committed?”
“She was arrested for trespassing in someone’s backyard.”
“Bel Air. Why would that matter?”
“Trespassing earned her a 5150?”
“She had an overt psychotic episode and was judged threatening to the safety of others.”
Why explain when you can redefine? I said, “Sorry to hear that, but I treat children.”
“Dr. Delaware,” said Kristin Doyle-Maslow, as if my name were a diagnosis. “The patient has requested you. Would you prefer I tell her you’re not the least bit interested in her?”
“Are you a psychotherapist?”
I repeated the question. She huffed. “Why is that relevant?”
Because you sure as hell don’t have people skills. I said, “What kind of care will Ms. Chase be receiving from your agency?”
“We’re not an agency, we’re an exploratory program mandated to evaluate and fact-find. That includes the authorization to carry out 5150s because 5150s are evaluative.”
“All right, then, Dr. Delaware, I’ll tell her you have no desire to—”
“Where are you located?”
“Wilshire near Western. I suggest you come sooner rather than later. She is not a happy camper.”
Thumb through a five-year-old trash-magazine and you might come across a photo of Zelda Chase in a sexy outfit, a member of a rarefied species: Actressa gorgeousa.
Leggy, shapely, blond, perfectly styled and buffed, camera-ready as she flashed a smile ripe with genetic privilege.
Spend some time with Zelda Chase and all that flecked away like emotional dandruff.
Add a vulnerable child and it got complicated.
I’d done custody consults for years and lots of judges trusted me, but this referral came from Zelda Chase’s psychiatrist.
Lou Sherman and I had cross-referred for years—parents sent to him, offspring to me. When he called me one evening in June, I was expecting more of the same. He said, “This is a little different, Alex.”
“It’s involved. Can we have lunch?”
Lou’s office was in Encino but he invited me to Musso & Frank on Hollywood Boulevard, a shopworn ode to Hollywood glamour fighting to assert itself amid the tackiness, dinge, and danger of what used to be Cinema City.
I arrived on time as I always do, found Lou in a corner booth at the north end of the big, mural-lined dining room, well into an example of the best Martini in L.A.
A small man, he’d enlarged himself in customary fashion: sitting up expressionless and ramrod-straight, head fixed in a slight upward tilt. Maybe a souvenir of years spent in the military. Maybe he just got tired of being pushed around on the schoolyard.
His cinnamon-brown face was round and seamed, assembled around a serious nose. His sunbaked skull was crowned by a few remaining wisps of white hair.
New Mexico–born, half Jewish, half Acoma Indian, Lou was the first in his family to go to college. After three stints in the marines, he’d entered Columbia at thirty-five, stayed for medical school, completed a neurology-psychiatry residency at Langley Porter in San Francisco. I interned there and we attended the same seminars, saw each other at social events and traded jokes. Years later, we found ourselves at the venerable med school crosstown where Lou was already tenured and I was a young assistant prof. There, the rapport between us deepened as we came to respect each other’s clinical skills.
Lou had always come across imperturbable and quietly confident—what you want in a psychiatrist. But the day he told me about Zelda Chase, he seemed edgy. I ordered a Chivas and waited for him to tell me why.
That was delayed until his second Martini arrived with my scotch, followed by Caesar salads delivered ceremoniously by one of Musso’s cranky geriatric waiters.
Finally, crunching a crouton to dust and dabbing his mouth, Lou said, “Five-year-old boy for you, psychotic mother for me. I say you get the better deal.”
He seemed to be contemplating a third cocktail but pushed away his glass.
“Making matters worse,” he said, “she’s an actress. I don’t mean because that makes her histrionic, which it probably would if she wasn’t well past that psychologically. I mean literally, she’s currently working on a TV series and the studio’s concerned. So a lot is at stake.”
I said, “Psychotic but employable. She keeps it under control?”
“Like I said, Alex, it’s complicated. But yeah, so far she has maintained. And who knows, maybe in that business a little looseness is an asset. Zelda Chase. Heard of her?”
I shook my head.
He said, “I figured you weren’t much for sitcoms. Hers is called SubUrban. Two complete seasons shot with a third planned, meaning halfway to syndication and the potential for big bucks. In the interest of clinical dedication, I endured one episode, here’s the gist: Hollywood’s notion of comedic family life, meaning a tossed salad of borderlines, narcissists, and undiagnosables living together for no apparent reason. Along with perverse, poorly trained pets and a laugh-track for moral support.”
“Sounds like the makings of a classic.”
“Shakespeare’s writhing in envy.” Lou twirled the stem of his glass. “You treat a lot of showbiz people, Alex? Or in your case, their kids?”
“I’ve had my share.”
“Care to generalize?”
He said, “Admirable restraint, young Alexander, but I’ll dive right in because I’ve seen lots of them—have insurance contracts with the studios, the reimbursement’s excellent—and the patterns are undeniable. New patient comes in and tells me they write comedy or do stand-up, I can put money on their being profoundly depressed. Sometimes there’s a bipolar element, but it’s always the depressive side that predominates in clowns. With that, of course, comes the self-medication and the addiction and all the shit that brings. The so-called dramatic performers are just that: immature, insecure, look-at-me-Mommy types with blurry identity boundaries. A more mixed bag diagnostically, but if you have to wager, go for Axis 2 issues, I’m talking deeply rooted personality disorders.”
That sounded uncharacteristically pat and cruel for Lou and I wondered if he realized it because he frowned and looked into his glass.
“Maybe I’ve been at it too long, Alex . . . anyway, Ms. Zelda’s a little more interesting. Signs of mood and thinking issues. But despite that, she’s maintained for forty-plus episodes.”
“Something changed to bring her to you.”
“Her agent called me,” he said. “Don’t ask for a name or what the connection is, it’s sensitive. The presenting problem is a few nights ago Zelda ended up at the door of an old boyfriend, making a holy ruckus and terrorizing his family. He hadn’t seen her in years, is happily married with kids.”
“Also an actor?”
“Nope, a cameraman she dated back when she was doing bit parts. You treat any kids of ancillaries—grips, stuntmen, lens guys?”