Martin and I lived in Silver Lake, in a house on a hillside, a hillside with a staircase, a staircase of 200 steps or so. If you climbed the staircase, south to north, bottom to top, starting at the bus stop on the corner of Clayton and Sunset, you'd get a view of downtown, then Century City, and ultimately, Catalina Island. If really fit, you could jog the entire vertical exercise, rising from relative poverty to absolute luxury in about half an hour.
Our rental sunk a shaky foundation around step 14. Our closest neighbor, a family from Guatemala, made do with a cottage and camper shell near step 8. The Drinkwaters owned the house somewhere close to step 20.
The Drinkwaters were a middle aged-bordering-on-elderly British couple. They tried, no, they went out of their way, to avoid all neighbors, including Martin, me, and the Guatemalans. Ironically, for Martin, me, and the Guatemalans, the Drinkwaters themselves were unavoidable.
For one thing, they sang opera arias morning and evening, windows open, weekends included. I'm not sure exactly which arias were their favorites, everything they sang sounded eerily the same -- eight long screams capped by a death rattle, the final note an excruciating punctuation, as though throats had been slit, side-to-side, with a dull bread knife.
When not practicing their craft, Mr. and Mrs. Drinkwater argued with each other, enthusiastically. Martin and I tried to eavesdrop, but the most we ever caught was some string beginning with You can't, You didn't, You haven't, or You never will.
When not singing or fighting, the Drinkwaters spent the balance of the day calling for their cat, Sebastian.
Often, when I was in the backyard, Maria would whisper over the fence, "You think someone is hurt this time?" And we'd both listen for a beat. "No," I'd say, "they're singing." or "Sounds like Sebastian took a powder." I think the papers at step #8 weren't entirely in order, but that didn't stop the owners, Maria and Paco, from caring. Caring about neighbors who never had and never would profer a single Hello.
The first time I actually met Mrs. Drinkwater was at 2 a.m. on a New Year's Day. The doorbell rang. Martin answered the door. He woke me up. "Ding-dong," he said. "Lady MacBeth calling," then fell face down on the bed. It had been a long night.
She was wearing a bathrobe, her hair in an untidy gray braid. I remember those details, now, but they didn't register at the time. Because all I saw was the bloody arm she waved in my general direction.
It took awhile, but eventually I understood that the blood was hers, and the perp was Sebastian. But Sebastian was also the victim of some sort of dog attack.
I told her to take the cat to the Eagle Rock emergency clinic, and to this day can't understand how I ended up as their chauffeur.
When we arrived at the Eagle Rock clinic, my passengers were in a more positive frame of mine. Mrs. Drinkwater, because she and Sebastian had stopped bleeding, and Sebastian because Mrs. Drinkwater had tucked him in with the wool scarf she found in my backseat.
"You don't mind, do you." It wasn't a question. "After all, Sebastian is in shock, we have to keep him warm."
Mind? I thought. Mind that you destroyed a scarf, a scarf I received from the most beautiful man I ever met, one weekend in Scotland, when we did what we did and will never do again.
"No," I said, "no, I don't mind."
As I provided information at the reception desk, Mrs. Drinkwater, feeling better and better, whipped herself into a New Year's Day party mood. She chatted up the others in the waiting room. "Well, now," she said, cozying up to a sobbing woman who held a dying dachshund on her lap. "Aren't you the cutest little wiener dog? -- Woochie, woochie, woochie."
As the hours wore on, Mrs. Drinkwater continued to work the room while I leaned my forehead on my hand in a desperate attempt to keep the skull and neck attached.
Hours, I don't know, maybe years, decades later, the vet decided to keep Sebastian for observation, overnight. Driving home, I said, "Mrs. Drinkwater, you'll have to handle the pick-up by yourself. Where is you husband?"
"He's not." she said.
"He's not what? At home?"
"He's not my husband," she answered. "We live in sin."
I could see she wanted to talk about this, so I turned on the radio, really really loud.
I never met up with the Drinkwaters again, though she did leave my scarf, dry-cleaned but torn stem to stern, on our doorstep. With a Thank-You note and what I can only assume is some cello-wrapped British version of the Twinkie.
For a few months, everything stayed pretty much the same, though the voices calling for Sebastian from step 20 grew in frequency and urgency. I'd see Sebastian jump from El Norte to our yard and then make another daring leap to the south.
Eventually, Martin and I decided to move, plaster ourselves against another hillside, but this time in Glendale. The day we left, I stopped by to say farewell to Maria. And I saw a familiar face, peering from the camper shell window.
"Yes, he moved in some weeks ago and won't leave. The children love him, they call him Mijo.
She winked, "Mijo likes carnitas."
She handed me a present. I peeked; inside were a dozen tamales.
"We'll meet again," I said, feeling sad, knowing we wouldn't.