As in her debut flash fiction chapbook, The Whack–Job Girls, the characters in Bonnie ZoBell's new collection of short stories, What Happened Here, are all quirky, likable, and a little sad. What Happened Here consists of eleven different stories, each focusing on a different set of protagonists. Half of the stories are told in the first person, half in the third, most in the present tense, some in the past. All of the characters have some association with the North Park neighborhood of San Diego, California, and appear throughout the stories. Like a patchwork quilt, all of these pieces mesh together to make one consistent whole, giving this collection of stories something of the effect of a novel.
North Park has been described by Forbes Magazine as one of America's best hipster neighborhoods, culturally diverse, "home to Craftsman cottages, cafes and diners, coffee shops, several microbreweries, boutiques and the North Park Farmers Market." The characters in ZoBell's stories fit right in. As Wally tells Heather in "People Scream," "People get weird as they get older. It's too much work to keep trying to be normal, and you can't help being weird after all you've been through. It's better to accept it and move on."
A 1978 airplane tragedy in North Park hovers over the whole book, haunting, foreboding, portentous. On September 25, 1978, a Pacific Southwest Airlines Boeing 727 collided with a Cessna over the North Park neighborhood, killing 144 people. As Lenore, the narrator of the title novella describes it:
"The explosion was instantaneous — an enormous fireball whooshed into the sky, a mushroom of smoke and debris. Scraps of clothing leaped onto telephone poles, body parts fell on roofs, tray tables scattered across driveways. Airplanes seats landed on front lawns, arms and legs descended onto patios, and a torso fell through the windshield of a moving vehicle."
A thirtieth anniversary commemoration is at the center of the title novella, which focuses on Lenore's relationship with her husband, John, who suffers from bipolar disorder. Without actually drawing a causal connection, ZoBell seems to attribute John's crippling mood swings to the ghosts of the crash victims. Indeed, at the end of the story John and their neighbor Archie perform a sort of Native American rite of exorcism, burning sage to appease the restless spirits of PSA Flight 182 — after having a fistfight.
Potential violence throughout these stories keeps the narrative crackling with tension. A Vietnam vet who cares for feral neighborhood cats still lives with the threat of the Viet Cong in "Movement in the Wire." He is attacked by thoughtless teenagers in a car as he goes about his mission of feeding the cats. An encounter with a chupacabra, a possibly mythical vampiric creature,in the remote wilds of Baja California, in "A Black Sea" has a transformative effect on Alexa and Eduardo's relationship, the artist and the architect–cum–businessman. And throughout the stories spouse abuse, violence against women, violence of fathers against children, is a potent recurring theme.
We encounter Wes and his wife Lauren at the thirtieth anniversary party, only to bring them front and center six stories later in "Nimbus Cumulus." Wes, a trombone player, is depressed for failing his audition with the San Diego Symphony year after year, and occasionally he takes his frustration out on Lauren, hitting her, or kicking their dog, Nimbus Cumulous. Yet their introduction is subtly important:
Archie called for the next toast. "To North Park!" he shouted, and again we all thrust our glasses to the middle.
"To praying there's never another crash," said Wes' wife Lauren.
Of course we raised our glasses, but distress filled the room.
Lauren and Wes usually lived across the street, but left for long periods of time, renting their place out. Nobody knew where they went. Was Wes playing his trombone in another town? Was one of them in rehab? A sick relative?
She said, "If someone in your family was on the plane, how would you ever get over it? I'd want to hide for the rest of my life." Wes put his arm around her.
"But if you don't deal with it a little, how can you ever go on?" someone said.
Whenever Wes fails his audition, he and Lauren cool out in a trailer park in Hemet, in the San Jacinto Valley, where Wes sulks and broods and occasionally acts out. Hence, their absences.
One of the odder minor characters, though he has a whole story named for him, is Uncle Rempt. He moves to North Park from Washington state to open a little shop selling crystals — healing stones — New Age magic. He brings his niece Susan who is fleeing an abusive father and constrictive boyfriend. In "Rocks," we encounter Lolly who has fled from North Park to Sedona, Arizona, with her two sons, to escape her abusive husband Roy, after he bashed one of their son's head into a wall. Emilio, Lucinda's dead husband in "Lucinda's Song," is likewise remembered for his violence, hitting his wife in front of their son, Miguel, who seems to have inherited Emilio's tendency toward violence.
But indeed, novel–like, the conflict does have a sort of resolution in the final story, when octogenarian Lucinda finds love, for the first time in her life, with Ramón, whom she meets at Sunday bingo sponsored by the Sisters of the Precious Blood. Ramón brings Lucinda back to North Park from the retirement community in which her son Miguel has ensconced her. Originally from North Park herself, the first time Lucinda sees Ramón's North Park digs is on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary party for the PSA 182 crash at Archie's.
If I have any reservations about this enchanting collection of stories, it's that I found it difficult at times keeping the characters straight, not sure who was who, necessarily, confusing Lenore and Lauren and Lucinda and Annie, say, so many of them thrown at you during the course of the stories. This may just be another way of saying What Happened Here contains a very rich cast of characters, from Heather, the young woman who is trying to find herself, to decide what she wants to do with her life, and whom she wants to be with (she discards a couple of boyfriends), to Willy and Annie, the sad couple who get rooked on a deal for a trailer by Willy's father's friend; Willy is slowly dying from AIDS. The reader will encounter several others memorable characters — the Chief, Chelsea, Stu, Cissy, Wally, Willie, Kyle, Sean, Susan, etc., etc. — over the course of these stories. A delight to read, for sure.