By Laura Cella
New York has some pretty big rats. (I mean the ones waddling along the stone walls of the Park at night, not the ones showing up on the front page of the Post.) When my husband took a job running a Hollywood film production facility I presumed we had left New York’s rats, pigeons, cockroaches, waterbugs, and the rest of the gritty zoologica behind; we were going to live in ocean-fresh Santa Monica with California brown pelicans and Pacific spinner dolphins just outside our door. It never occurred to me that rats would also share our So Cal paradise until our neighbor, Debbie, told me how relieved she was that Jean Pierre, another neighbor, was having his twenty-foot tall Washingtonia filifera palms pruned. Not understanding, I asked why. “Ask the tree guy when he gets here” she replied knowingly.
Later that day I had a long discussion with the man pruning; he told me that rats like to live in untidy palms, the ones with the dead fronds hanging down; they enjoy the protection from the elements and the close food source that unwary humans provide. To forestall this, the trees must be pruned twice yearly. Chilled, I spent the rest of the day grateful for Jean Pierre’s garden diligence.
That night sitting at an outside table at The Blue Plate Oysterette, watching the sun slip behind the forty-foot King Palms lining Ocean Avenue, I idly relayed the conversation to my husband, Jamie, as he perused financial statements from the studio. The idea so captured his imagination that for the entire time we lived there – literally, until we returned to the East Coast – every time we passed a palm tree he’d grab my arm and yell “rat!” At first it creeped me out, but since I never saw one, eventually I concluded that there couldn’t possibly be rats in every tree. Nevertheless, those invisible rodents remained secreted inside a small, dark sliver of my mind and I cut all palm trees a wide berth.
Still rat-less, weeks later, in mid-July we were lying on our bed watching the 11 o’clock news when I heard a loud thwack. I turned to Jamie. “Did you hear that?”
“A smacking noise outside, like a bird hit the window.”
“So maybe a bird hit the window.”
“Jame, it’s . . . what, 11:20; what bird flies at that time of night?”
“Maybe it’s a bat.”
“Oooooh, do we have bats here?”
“Maybe it’s a rat jumping out of Jean Pierre’s palm tree. Remember what the tree guy said.”
“He’s coming to get you!” Jamie grabbed my arm. This time I did shriek. What if the much anticipated, palm-tree-rodent had finally arrived? He laughed. “If you really want to know, look out the window.”
Ours is a small house, a landmarked turn-of-the-twentieth-century beach cottage, barely ten feet away from an identical landmarked house, across the paved walkstreet that forms the center spine of the historic bungalow colony. If that long-expected rat had appeared, he was sprawled on the porch roof, really close, maybe four feet away from the mattress. I slid Spencer, our marmalade tabby, off my lap and faced the windows; approaching warily, I poked one finger tentatively through the blinds.
Peering through the slats, I saw that something sat in the center of the pitched porch roof; it was sleek-looking with a long slender growth from one end, too sleek-looking to be a rat, even one in overly groomed LA. And while it was kind of rodenty in color, it appeared to have a red stomach. Was it a bloody rat?
Grabbing a long plastic back scratcher I yanked at the blind cord, then slid up the window sash and leaned out. I poked at the object with the scratcher. With a clunking noise, it rolled over and displayed more of its red stomach. Feeling somewhat safer – rats don’t generally clunk and roll – I leaned out farther and tried to drag it toward me with the curled end of the scratcher. It turned and clunked again, this time toward the edge. Leaning out so far I feared tumbling out to join it on the small rooftop, I swatted again. This time it caught. I reeled it in. It was a brown alligator Christian Louboutain stiletto.
Once I had the window closed, I sat on the rug examining my catch as it dangled expensively from the scratcher’s curved end. It caught the light dully on its sable matte finish. I lifted it gently and placed it beside me on the pale carpet. It gleamed; it was a left pump, its sole smooth and crimson, not yet scratched from use.
I knew this shoe. I had wanted a pair like this but saleswomen in every shoe department from Barney’s to Saks had sighed unctuously and inquired why I had not visited them sooner. After all, it was the most important shoe of the collection and my size, six, was the most common in all of LA. Covetously, I slid my bare foot inside the foundling’s cool newness. I hobbled around to Jamie’s side of the bed. “Look at this.”
Intrigued by the news broadcast, he ignored me. I removed the shoe from my foot and waved it in front of his face. “Jame, look at this. It wasn’t a rat; it was a shoe on the roof, a brand-new Louboutain.”
He glanced up distractedly and nodded.
Perching on the edge of the mattress I twirled the shoe by its five-inch spike heel. “How would this get here?” I mused. “It’s expensive. It’s alone and they come in pairs. It’s big, too, look . . . size . . . oooh, eleven. Wow. And, anyway, they can’t fly, so how . . .” My voice trailed off.
Jamie looked up from the Marie Callendar commercial and jerked his head to the right. “Her,” he said.
He looked at me intently and spoke slowly, punctuating his words with a pointing index finger. “Her – across the walkstreet.” Then, just before he returned his face to the TV screen, he added, “And they can fly, by the way.”
Her Across the Walkstreet was an Oscar-winning actress known to the tabloids as America’s Sweetheart, a Chiclet-toothed girl-next-door, who earned tens of millions of dollars for every movie she made. None of the neighbors knew her any better than the average reader of Star or People because, while she and her manager-husband owned the bungalow opposite ours, they rarely stayed there, since they also had an estate in Malibu and another in the Palisades.
After waiting for the next commercial to begin, I asked, “What are you talking about? What does she have to do with a size eleven flying Louboutain?”
“It’s her shoe.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I have met some of its relatives.”
“You can’t have; it’s here alone.”
Jamie shook his head, amazed by my naïveté. “More distant relatives, then – a red Jimmy Choo, a black Givenchy, and . . . I am pretty sure the first one was a crème Manolo. And they all knew how to fly, although some didn’t land too well; I thought the last one was gonna break the living room window.”
My lips formed a little “o”. He tapped my chin and grinned. “Close your mouth or you may catch the next one.”
It transpired that our neighbor – America’s Sweetheart – possessed the interpersonal communication skills of a thirteenth century Mongol. Whenever she didn’t get her way she threw a screaming tantrum. “Threw” appeared to be the operative word, too, because a shoe often accompanied the shriek; she wound back and hurled, although with less precision than enthusiasm, apparently, since no one had admitted to seeing her husband with a black eye. And as our house sat immediately opposite theirs on the narrow walkstreet, the shoes landed most often on our porch.
I was amazed at Jamie’s story. “When does this happen? Where have I been?”
“I don’t know where you are. It happens at all different times.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
He shrugged. “I didn’t really think about it.”
“Where are they?”
Jamie swigged his Diet Coke. “I gave ‘em back; what do you think, I kept ‘em?”
“How?” I envisioned his knocking on the door and bowing, ‘Your shoe, madam’ like some Post-Modern Hollywood Sir Walter Raleigh.
“Usually I leave them on their front steps on my way to work in the morning.”
He stared. “What else could I do with them?”
I considered. Fill them with lemonade and freeze them, making shoe-shaped granitas. Plant them with dill and tarragon for a fashionista herb garden. Amusing, yes, but highly impractical, and nothing that my husband would have thought of.
“I don’t know. I just . . . wondered.”
“Yeah, well, toss it down by the front door and I’ll drop it off on my way out tomorrow.”
“Okay. I guess.” Somehow it seemed wrong to throw it again, so I carried the shoe to the narrow staircase and descended into the inky darkness. I wasn’t sure I wanted to return the shoe, although I certainly couldn’t formulate a reason for keeping it. It was . . . associated glory, of sorts, like bidding on a star’s detritus at those Hollywood auctions Julien’s in Beverly Hills was always promoting. This shoe was my own little brush with celebrity, except in this case the celebrity’s Us Magazine life had been found wanting. Stars! They’re just like us! They feed their kids and phone their therapists and argue with their spouses, but their anonymous neighbors have to help them find their matching shoes after they have pitched them across courtyards.
A tiny part of me wanted to feel morally superior and be sorry for America’s Sweetheart, as though my life was somehow more meaningful than hers – after all, I didn’t throw shoes – but I couldn’t quite manage that level of hypocritical envy. Regardless, for the first time I considered that beneath the great clothes and red-carpet events it must be pretty weird to be her. She may well do all those real-people things but she does them with an aging Sober Life Coach rolling along behind her and guiding her hand while a phalanx of photographers angles to capture every misstep for posterity.
No, she is nothing like me. I teach high school English and worry about rats in palm trees, not rats clutching cameras waiting patiently for the unflattering money shot to define me to all of America.
I sat in the darkened living room thinking until the entire colony was silent, then gently opened the door. I tiptoed across the paving stones and lay the shoe on the doormat. Treading softly down the wooden steps I gazed up at Jean Pierre’s palms wondering how many eyes were observing me as I completed my stealthy mission. However many there were, it was fewer than the number that watched my neighbor park her Prius in the Whole Foods parking lot. Maybe all the rats in LA didn’t live in the trees.