Bonnie ZoBell‘s new linked collection, What Happened Here, a novella and stories is available from Press 53 or here. Her fiction chapbook, The Whack-Job Girls, was published in 2013. She has won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction, the Capricorn Novel Award, a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, and others. Visit her at www.bonniezobell.com.
What Happened Here delivers a wildly different cast of characters living on the same block in North Park, San Diego, site of the PSA Flight 182 crash in 1978. The crash is history, but its legacy seeps into the stories of the neighborhood’s inhabitants, bringing grief, anxiety, and rebellion to the surface and eventually assists in burning clean the lives of those who live in the shadow of disaster. Amidst the pathos of contemporary life, humor flits through these stories like the macaws that have taken to the trees of North Park. The birds ensure that there’s never a dull moment in the neighborhood, and their outrageous colors and noisome squawks serve as constant reminders of regrowth.
Excerpted from What Happened Here
© Bonnie ZoBell 2014
A piercing sound travels down the long, waxed corridor at the Center for Life, where behind every door an Anonymous or Anon meeting is in session. Heather holds herself still at her receptionist desk when she hears it. Even though it’s not the first time, she stops breathing, like maybe she can see or feel where the unsettling cry is coming from. For this one minute, listening, she is alone. Afterward, she’ll tally tonight’s donations on the computer even faster than usual so she can get out of here, but still she feels panicky.
Who would make such a noise at the Center? Is the person okay? She’s not sure where it’s coming from. Alcoholics Anonymous? Gamblers, Overeaters, Sexaholics, Narcotics, or Rageaholics Anonymous? Did his wife leave him because he couldn’t stay out of Vegas? Is he fat, in debt, horny, a wino?
She can’t quite get comfortable in her mini and her new red espadrilles that tie around her ankles, so she keeps crossing her legs and recrossing them. Members walk by, eyeing her nose ring and the tats on her arms, but she tries not to care. After all, these people are old, in their thirties, some even in their forties. And they have problems, something Heather hopes she herself will never have. For now she just can’t wait to go clubbing with Raymond after work.
“Did you hear that sound?” she asks a woman hurrying past. She asks because sometimes she feels like there’s a moat between her and the rest of the world, and she wants to make sure somebody else heard the scream too.
But the woman just smiles a fakey smile, shrugs, keeps moving.
Tonight has been like most Wednesday nights at the Center for Life. She passed out envelopes for donations. The regulars filed through, and she gave them guarded smiles. She wishes she were home in her apartment. From her vantage upstairs, she has a view over the whole neighborhood and feels like she knows those people, especially after going to the party for the anniversary of the plane crash.
At the Center, the one she thinks of as Rug Man winked and jerked his head as he went by, making her wonder why the rug didn’t come flying off. Why he didn’t just shave his head like everyone else these days she doesn’t know. Then came the one always carrying a briefcase and wearing white, who she thinks of as the Efficiency Expert. He walked by her desk three times, dragging his finger over the fake wood, thinking she didn’t notice, then, as usual, stopped to ask the question: “Can I get a receipt?”
“After the meeting,” she always tells him.
“You look stunning this evening.”
He’s so lame. He says that every Wednesday night.
Even Wally from Poway north of San Diego showed up, wearing his United Parcel uniform, rolling his eyes and saying he’d come to put in his two hours.
But by the time she hears the shriek on this Wednesday, it’s 7:30 p.m., and everyone is inside the rooms, and the hallway is all but deserted.
Heather took the receptionist job at the Center because she thought she’d meet more interesting people—well, men—than she did at City College. More mature, more worldly. But sometimes she thinks that on Wednesday nights the place should be called Center for the Dead, what with the way people walk around licking their wounds, glassy-eyed, on the brink of falling apart. Besides, now she’s met Raymond, and she’s about to change her major to art. She’ll fit in better in art. And Raymond likes the sound of it.
She steps outside to smoke a cigarette so she won’t have to listen anymore. She supposes she probably does look pretty good tonight because she’s just had her hair shaved from the level of her ears on down and dyed the tips of the rest of it mauve in anticipation of switching to the art department. And she’s wearing a new pleather jacket, violet, that looks like leather but isn’t from dead animals. Raymond thinks it’s cool.
As soon as she steps back inside, she hears the shriek again. It feels like a scream she’s always wanted to scream but has never been allowed herself. The sound is clear, but tonight it’s bottomless, a moan from the depths of the belly, and it goes on for longer than seems possible, eventually fading out into a dry whimper. It sounds like a dog throwing his head back and yowling at the moon, a train flying through the mountains and riding the horn, a baby desperate to be held.
She doesn’t want to think about either the sound or what’s causing it.
She swims to the other side of her moat, sorts her receipts by room number, stamps personal checks with the Center’s stamp. Most of the groups send in a check or two, except for the debtors’ group. Their envelope contains only cash.
Heather’s tats and her hair, which she messed around with before leaving the Center, don’t seem quite so unusual later at Myth, a rave club in an abandoned warehouse in the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego. In order to find where Myth moves every week, you have to be cool enough to have the phone number. Even that changes occasionally.
She’s glad Raymond came and picked her up from work because something foul-smelling is going on inside her own vehicle that she can’t figure out—a rotten piece of fruit under one of the seats? A moldy sandwich?
“So how was work today?” she shouts over Narcoleptic Youth’s song, “I Can Be a Bitch If I Want to Be a Bitch,” mainly because she wants him to ask her. Raymond especially likes the band because they skateboard on stage.
They’re leaning against a waist-high, two-person table. They met two weeks ago at a party, and she’s learned that Raymond helps train dogs, takes them to local convalescent homes where he lets them shake hands and be petted, have their ears and chests scratched, which for some reason cheers people up. He takes a class once in a while and says he wants to have his own business, though Heather doubts it will ever happen.
She thinks of one of the many times during the sixteen years she lived at home when her father said he was going to open his own garage. Humming an old Beatles’ song one morning, he toasted himself an English muffin, checking the liquor cabinet to see whether he’d have to go out that day while Heather read the back of a cereal box.
“Yup, hon,” he said, “a few more years of this nine-to-five shit, and I’m on my own.”
Heather nodded, only briefly glancing up from the box.
When he wasn’t talking, he hummed “I Am the Walrus.”
“No more dirty fingernails for the old man . . . know what I mean?”
He knocked the cereal box away so she couldn’t help seeing the oil stains on his hands.
Raymond waves his hand to get the cocktail waitress’s attention. At first Heather thought his impatience meant he was a born leader. Lately she’s had trouble resurrecting this fantasy.
Heather shouts, “The screamer screamed again tonight. It’s so loud. I can’t figure out who’s doing it.”
“Some poor bastard.” Raymond makes a clicking noise with his mouth. “Hey, you want me to go have a talk with somebody or something?”
“Raymond—somebody’s just unhappy.”
She sighs and goes back to watching people dance. She’s learned in the short time she’s known him that he’s from a family of men who drink too many beers. When they play horseshoes, they burp and then say things like, “S’cuse me—must’ve been someone I ate.”
It’s 1:30 a.m., and Raymond and Heather have arrived at Denny’s earlier than the others. Two young girls, maybe seventeen or eighteen, have scooched onto the orange vinyl the next booth over. Both have blond hair. Both are slender. They glance over at the mauve on Heather’s tips and quickly look away. They’re with a man who’s about forty.
Heather wishes she could hear their conversation better. The blond girls seem so normal. Maybe she’d get the answers to some of her own family questions. Maybe she’ll bleach her hair blond. The three are fairly animated: first laughing, then shaking their heads, then making vehement assertions they all seem to agree on. The latter is what makes Heather doubt the man’s their father. Why would they tell him about something that really matters? She hears a lot of loud whispering, something involving a friend they haven’t seen. One girl starts crying.
Heather stops herself. Of course the man could be their father. Girls like this—soft brown eyes, barrettes in their neatly parted hair, cardigan sweaters—have fathers they can confide in.
“We were at Myth,” says Raymond. “But the woman wasn’t having a good time, so we dogged it.”
Rose the waitress has stalked by several times scowling, on the verge of telling them, as she always does, that they can’t have a booth unless each of them orders. Rose, so old she has to be eighty-seven, must have started in her tan Denny’s uniform before any of them were born. Heather can hardly stand to look at her, Rose, whose life seems so squelched that she cares more about the number of Splenda packets people use than anything else. Heather imagines her going home to a studio apartment above a bar, where a neon light flashes blue into her living room and the closet contains nothing but Denny’s uniforms.
“Raymond, Rose is on her way over again,” Heather whispers, wondering why she has never before seen how juvenile he is.
“Relax, babe. You’re giving me the creeps,” Raymond tells her.
Heather scoots out of the booth. In the parking lot she sniffs back tears.
Then she notices Wally from Poway pushing his way through Denny’s revolving glass door, alone. He isn’t wearing his United Parcel uniform she saw him in earlier, and she thinks he looks okay. Of course he isn’t her type. Though who is her type escapes her at the moment. She pretends to be looking something up in the Yellow Pages of a phone booth, watches Wally take a seat at the counter.
When she was nine years old, she used to sit at the Denny’s counter with her dad and order waffles. Just the two of them. He didn’t turn poisonous until later. By the time she was seventeen, she hardly heard anything he said. She went underwater. The words he sent her way turned into sound waves, diluted by the time they reached her. She moored her deepest thoughts and dreams, rarely letting them drift to the surface, only vaguely into the real word. When anybody spoke to her, unless she really concentrated, she only caught about half what they said. People were always asking where she was, what continent, what planet, what universe.
The moat worked for a long time, but lately it seems to be drying up. She can’t get away from the world, the part of her that matters seems unguarded. There’s all that screaming.
“Heather!” Raymond shouts. “C’mon.”
Under “exterminators” in the yellow pages, Heather sees Lloyd’s Pest Control, Pied Piper Termite and Pest, The Terminator. Suddenly getting rid of Raymond becomes all important. “Leave,” she whispers.
She should have driven her own car, but then remembers her car has that smell of rotten oranges, day-old garbage that has turned up out of nowhere and won’t go away.
“Fine,” Raymond says, his face bright red. Before she knows it, he and his friends peel out, trailing smoke in Denny’s parking lot. Even though she told him to go, she never expected to be standing here alone.
Through the glass of Denny’s, Wally is engrossed in his newspaper, enjoying a burger and fries. She guesses he must not be in Overeaters Anonymous. Unless this is a binge.
“Hey, Wally,” she says, standing beside him now.
Wally jumps, folds his newspaper, wipes his mouth with a napkin though it isn’t even dirty. She guesses he’s uncomfortable around women, that it’s not a Sexaholic meeting he attends at the Center.