This novel excerpt was written by Kelly Anne Bonner in Lynn Steger Strong’s 12-Month Novel Generator.
Regrettably living again in her hometown of Eden, California, struggling journalist June Whitfield secures an interview with reclusive musician Max Baker of The New Creatures, a local band that made it big. Soon enough Max and June discover they have one thing in common: That the promise they each held as journalist and musician respectively did not pan out how they expected, while it did for their best friends Arnie Aguilar and Edith Cohen—whose stars rose while they were left behind. Through conversations, they attempt to unpack how the hell they ended up back where they started.
I sat on the trunk of my car, playing the waiting game. I’d laid my palms flat and hoisted my weight up onto the slippery metal of the rental, the stinging on the backs of my thighs fading the longer I sat. Hooding my forehead with my palm, I scanned to my right along the cars gleaming in rows in the sunlight, my eyes landing on a silver sedan about a hundred feet away. I knew it was his car because I’d followed him here.
I couldn’t believe I was back in Torbell Ranch Plaza—and in June, no less, just as the long spells of heat started to cast themselves down, the temperature creeping up all season until it peaked in the three digits. Smells of hot tar and gasoline ascended from the asphalt, dripping out of exhaust pipes into glossy pools under cars. From above, direct sunlight was just intense enough that it itched your scalp, which it was doing to me now. I waved a clawed set of fingers through my hair to reset it.
I knew he was inside Rodger’s grocery, which sat to my left. The store was nestled in the middle of the plaza, which was angled like a tetris piece: a single long, horizontal bar that made sharp right corners into shorter pieces at the ends. The entire complex was washed in a sandy beige color, brick-colored slats blanketing the long, uninterrupted roof, neatly aligned like rectangular fish scales. Only the small signs above doors indicated the different businesses within it: a taqueria, a frozen yogurt shop, Starbucks, California sushi and teriyaki, Nails & Spa, a karate studio.
I watched the sliding doors of the grocery as figures emerged pushing squeaky carts. A man making his way through the parking lot pulled the hand of a child straggling behind, intent on stopping to inspect the license plates of each car they passed. The scene above the plaza was ringed by looming mountains that permeated through the haze, a permanent backdrop against which the town buzzed below. Damn—that haze, which I was remembering again, which you didn’t notice or realize you were breathing in, until you peeked above the crestline and a brown dust-tinted layer came into view, resting over the valley, like you were looking at it through a 1970s photo filter. Tall skinny palm trunks topped with shaggy bushes, like fuzzy-ended pens, dotted the panorama. Such were the surroundings in Eden, California, named for the waves of citrus trees that had carpeted the valley in the 1920s, leading a poet to declare it a “fine slice of Paradise.” I’d learned that while writing a school paper about this in the third grade. There wasn’t any citrus here anymore, except for a few trees reserved on a small historical site for posterity, or, if you counted it—older women on a few corners in town, sitting on folding chairs, selling boxes of oranges and roses wrapped in cheap, crinkly plastic.
Then, the doors to Rodger’s slid apart, and there he was: Max Baker. He emerged in aviator lenses carrying a single brown paper grocery bag in one hand. He was tall—six foot five, according to Wikipedia—and, while not terribly athletic-looking, his flesh settled around his frame nicely enough that he appeared in decent shape. But the gut that had been kept in check by youth now made a small impression through his white t-shirt, which hung loosely above black jeans. He looked vaguely Nordic: a scraggle of dark blonde hair, square-ish jaw, bulbous nose, straight across eyebrows that settled into light curves down the sides of his temples. The outline of his face was soft, formed more loosely, like a background character in an oil painting. These details were ones I wanted to conjure, to visually sketch in my mind for when I jotted them down later, weaving them into my story.
I popped off the trunk onto my sandaled feet, which flapped with purpose in his direction. He leisurely made his way down the row of cars toward his own. I slid between the cars near his, until I met him as he held his hand to the handle on the trunk, popping it with a soft click.
“Hi,” I said, suddenly out of breath, though I hadn’t walked far.
“Uh. Hey,” he said, uncertain, holding the grocery bag motionless against his chest as the hatch levitated up.
A nervous thrill sprouted up my ribcage, kicking my heart into a hummingbird flutter. I had prepared for this moment, knew exactly what I would say, reminded myself to not make this a big deal—but my body had other ideas.
“I’m a—a reporter, and I wanted to get in touch with you, but I’ve been having trouble getting a hold of your PR team. I’m not even sure you have one at this point? Anyway, um—I actually almost interviewed you years ago, for the Hamilton High School paper, and I was interested in talking to you for a story on The New Creatures, if you’d be open to it.”
Sunlight pricked my shoulders as I fingered the back pocket of my jeans, reaching for the card I planned to give him, which I’d made specifically in preparation for this interaction, to make me look more legitimate. I’d received them at the counter at the copy store on Rancho Boulevard, dark green embossed letters highlighting my stats: JUNE WHITFIELD. FREELANCE REPORTER. JWHITFIELD@GMAIL.COM. I’d also scrawled the URL of a YouTube link for him below the typeface.
He put his bag down onto the bed of the car, crossed his arms.
“Who are you?”
“Oh, right. I’m June. I, uh, write for—wrote for—Culture Shock, you know, the website? I’m interested in doing a profile on you. On more of a freelance basis, though, kind of getting into what happened with you and Arnie and everything.”
He was a marble statue: lips slightly parted, neutral, expressionless. Before he could respond, I slipped the card from my pocket and held it out to him.
“Here. Think about it. I know a lot of people are curious to know what’s going on with you, especially after Arnie, you know—”
I reflexively pulled back from touching the potential trauma, like a hand from the surprise prick of a thorn in a wildflower.
“Uh—yeah, so. Feel free to email me if you’re interested. I actually live over on Avalon, so I’m close by,” I said, pointing in the general direction of the street where my mom’s house was located.
He squinted at the card he’d taken from me.
“You went to Hamilton High?”
“Yep. Yeah. Class of ‘06.”
He gave a small nod, extending a long arm upward to close the trunk.
“Well, see you.”
“Cool,” I said. “Great. Really looking forward to hearing from you!”
I stepped back as he got into the car, the engine quietly humming into drive. I stood awkwardly as he pulled away, my left thumb hooked on my jean belt loop, my right giving a small wave. I took my phone out of my back pocket reflexively, not knowing what to do with myself once his car exited the lot and faded from view down San Vincente. Just as reflexively I tapped open my Gmail app, flicking downward to refresh my inbox to check on job applications. Nothing new, except a couple of marketing emails from Amazon asking me to rate my delivery experience, and a nudge to get in summer catering orders from a thin crust pizza spot that was two blocks from my recently emptied New York apartment, which I had somehow ended up on the mailing list for.
I suddenly felt fatigued in the heat. The adrenaline that had animated my hands minutes prior completely cooled off, leaving me a tired shell. I walked back to my car, the waiting game resetting itself like winding back a scratchy timer dial. I was getting used to it, but not any better at it.
I’d had the chance to meet Max Baker once before, years ago, but he ended up bailing on the interview we’d set up with him and his bandmate, Arnie Aguilar, at the last minute. Something about a funeral in Bakersfield. When Edith and I found this out, we’d stayed up late the night before in the journalism lab, gulping Diet Cokes that sizzled our tongues, editing our questions together and tapping at them with our fingers on the screen of the single computer monitor we shared, asking each other if that was really the right direction for this or that.
We did end up talking to Arnie, though. At the time The New Creatures were just a local band, though there were whispers among Eden residents in the scene that they had the potential to “make it.” This was compelling in our seemingly unexceptional town, where residents were nice and worked long days at St. Mary’s hospital on Camaro Road or on the university campus a few miles off the 124 highway north, but very few attempted to, let alone actually made, art with a capital A. Eden’s proximity to Los Angeles—a forty-five-minute drive on a good day, two hours in heavy traffic—made it so that a number of bands came here to play at the Panorama, an old converted movie theater on the downtown strip with retro details intact: a burnt orange facade, a faded horizontal marquee that no longer turned on. Back in the ’40s it was used as a movie-previewing location by Hollywood strategists at major studios to see how middle-class audiences would respond to certain pictures, as Eden embodied this exact demographic.
The small shows at the Panorama exposed Edith and I to the sliver of art we knew existed outside our small town bubble, but it was rare that the action was reciprocated and went the other way. A few homegrown musical acts—punky groups, folk-y singer-songwriters—built small but devoted followings, with eager crowds coming to see their shows while chilling with dewy glasses of beers in the back. These musicians were not bad, and some were even pretty good, but they were never good enough to hold potential beyond devoted fans of Eden. The New Creatures were the exception. There’s a photo of them in our article from the school paper I still have, folded neatly in my old yearbook in my childhood bedroom closet, which I gingerly took out a few days ago—the thin, delicate paper threatening to rip if I unfolded too quickly. A flash of a phone camera from behind stage had gone off right before we’d captured the shot, casting the two into silhouette: a Dutch oil painting of Arnie on guitar at the front, Max sitting in the back on drums, the pitch dark scene set off by a sliver of stage lights.
Kelly Anne Bonner is a writer living in San Francisco. Her journalism has appeared in VICE, Jezebel, Refinery29, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on her first novel.