Locust House Variations, A Weekly Fiction Column by Adam Gnade

Who Are the Mystery Girls?

A Short Novel in Serial Form

Chapter 1 of 13, Friends from House Parties

By Adam Gnade

October 31th, 2002

Agnes called at noon on Halloween to tell me Gabby Martinez had been kidnapped. I’d kept the apartment dark all morning because of the godawful hangover I had, but outside the sun shone bright and clear, a glorious San Diego day, not a breath of wind bothering the leaves of the Valencia orange tree in the courtyard or the row of tall, stately palms that lined the cement path down to the sidewalk.

All week a work crew had been gutting the laundry room of the apartment complex to the east of us. You heard cumbia or oompahing ranchero music from their radio, and sometimes voices—the workers or the radio station DJs—then the metal-on-metal shriek of a circular saw. It came in cycles like that. Music. Low voices speaking Spanish. Laughter. Then the saw. I could concentrate on nothing else—the repetition of saw and music, voices, saw, music… annoying at first, I’d begun to like it.

The phone startled me because no one called back then; they simply showed up on your front stoop and were let in and sometimes they were drunk or high, and sometimes sober, but there was often a jug of cheap burgundy (or a case of stolen Trader Joe’s wine) and because of that sobriety was rare and visits to say hello or let’s listen to this new record I just got at Lou’s or what’re you working on? became a day—a day lost or a day well spent, depending upon one’s perspective.

So, when the phone broke me out of my half-awake saw-music-saw daydream, I sat bolt upright on the green tweed sofa in the front room like someone lying on a hospital table shocked back to life and made an awkward dash for the phone on the end-table.

The phone felt like a wet bar of soap in my hand, a bar of soap connected to a foot of corkscrewing plastic cord and tethered to its adjacent answering machine. Because of a few knots, the cord held no more than half its intended reach, so you were forced to belly up on the armrest of the couch and rest your face nearly on top of the answering machine to talk. A second option was to walk through the house, phone pressed to your face with the answering machine dangling at chest level, and a thin grey cord (this one oddly long) connecting you to the wall but allowing you to walk at least the length of the living room, often into the kitchen if there were no obstructions. I did the first, and then, as Agnes talked—or shouted, yelled—I did the second—pacing, nauseous, head throbbing, and in a general gut-sick daze.

Agnes McCanty was a new friend, and before that a friend of a friend—or, rather, a friend of many friends. We’d first talked because I’d recognized her from an eviction party, a house show we’d both been at a few months prior. I introduced myself at another party because I’d seen her at the house show—upstairs while the band played and Agnes swinging and kicking in the pit, then elbowed hard in the mouth.

Agnes impressed me in the casual way she’d weathered the blow, then had, in turn, taken advantage of the situation to spit a mouthful of blood—a fountain, or a whale’s spout, it seemed in the half-light of the room—spraying it straight up at the ceiling in perfect time with the music—just as the band lurched to a stop then jumped back into the song—a beautiful thing to experience in your young 20s, when spitting blood at a party felt, in a way, heroic.

Agnes, at the time of the phone call that Halloween day, was 22 and seven months pregnant. She’d broken up with her terrible boyfriend Steven Boone (whose family owned a chain of Halloween stores) and planned to raise the child on her own with the insurance money left over from the recent death of her guardian—her father’s uncle, an Irish expat she’d grown up calling Michael the Bear.

Agnes cut a comical figure as seen about the neighborhood—five foot one, rail thin and staggeringly pregnant, a frizzy spray of dark blonde curls exploding from her head on the days she didn’t straighten it—always on some sort of mission, forever heading down Broadway or C Street or up 25th to stop at so and so’s apartment to ask a favor or gather a bit of gossip at the taco shop by the laundromat or borrow something in order to snoop into someone’s private affairs. She wore black denim short-shorts and ancient red Converse sneakers, a striped white and red tank top and rarely deviated from the costume. It gave you the impression that each time you saw her served as an extension of the last, as if she were forever patrolling the same streets, always out for some piece of information or to borrow a pack of batteries or a roll of masking tape (often as a ploy to get in the door and appease some secret purpose or agenda).

Though typically calm, patient, and often unnervingly quiet, on the phone that day she spoke a mile a minute.

“Dude, James, Gabby’s been kidnapped! She’s been fucking kidnapped! Somebody from the graveyard saw two guys dressed in executioner costumes pull her into a van outside Off the Record!”

It seemed like a Halloween prank. The graveyard? Executioner costumes? I began to ask if she were actually serious, but at the end of “Are you actually—” Agnes anticipated the question and shouted: “Am I serious?! Yeah, dude, fuck you! YES, I’m fucking serious! Why would I joke about something so jacked-up?! It’s fucking GABBY we’re talking about you piece of shit! I’m sorry I called you a piece of shit. You’re not a piece of shit. But FUCK!”

Gabby Martinez and Agnes grew up together, neighbors in elementary school and best friends ever since. One of the wilder kids in our social group, Gabby had taken to carrying a replica pirate sword she’d sharpened to a deadly edge on the rocks at Sunset Cliffs over the course of a three-day weekend she’d spent dropping acid, swimming in the sea, and sleeping in an old bootlegger’s cave once connected by tunnels to the mansions on the cliff above.

Gabby drank wine out of an old Boy Scout canteen with the name “Tim” stenciled on the side, held dual Mexican/US citizenship, and dressed like some kind of 18th century sea captain turned goth sci-fi android with neon Siouxsie Sioux raccoon eye makeup, businessman neckties, tacky leather mini-skirts, and an endless array of shoplifted mayoral sashes pinned with band buttons and old lady brooches lined-up like military medals—her style resting somewhere between Napoleon and Karen O.

I’d first met Gabby at a party in Sherman Heights (Gabby, Agnes, and I lived a neighborhood away in Golden Hill a few blocks from each other; me with Frankie, Gabby and Agnes alone in separate studio apartments, which in hindsight seems like a beautiful and impossible dream of youth—to live in the same neighborhood as your friends. I’ve not been so lucky since).

Walking into the party through the back porch door, which led to a packed, humid, smoky kitchen, I saw Gabby framed in the light of the living room doorway beating the hell out of his awful kid we all knew called Damien Bixby. Horrid Damien Bixby, who’d smashed a window at the Crypt in Hillcrest the week before in a thwarted late-night robbery and often stole from our friends’ purses and backpacks at parties even though his family had money (real estate money, a small and growing empire).

Gabby had Damien pinned to the ground, straddling his chest, hitting him, left fist then right in what seemed at the time to be an endless sequence of blows that would continue (if no one stopped her) until Damien’s terrible beetle-browed head burst in like a melon and left a shock of red and black on the beige carpet.

Pulled off Damien by a couple of the bigger guys at the party, then released with pats on the back and an ignored high-five, Gabby wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand, drew her pirate sword from the leather scabbard she wore strapped to her back with a crisscross of multiple glittery plastic neon belts (shoplifted from Claire’s), and stood over him, calm and composed as he stared up at her, wild-eyed, bleeding from the nose and mouth.

The party stopped as if in suspended animation and the room fell to a hush.

Pushing through the crowded kitchen, I saw Gabby standing over Damien, sword arm outstretched, sword point pressed to his chest. She said one word, loudly and affected only partially by a slight drunken slur in her voice paired with a lifelong lisp made worse by drinking. She said this word confidently, theatrically, and full of angry pride: “Vanquished.”

We were 21 at the time (Gabby and I shared a birthday) and the moment struck me as momentous and important (and hopefully telling of what our social group might go on to do). It made me feel as if we were “on the right track,” though I wasn’t sure what I meant by either “right” or “track.” Regardless, it seemed like a promising omen, a foretelling.

On the phone Agnes told me about the kidnapping—or what she knew. A kid called Allen Kale who’d been deeply in love with Agnes (unrequited since 11th grade) ran into her on C Street and told her that Eddie Ramos‘ little sister Marigold had eavesdropped on a couple sitting under a tree at the graveyard in Mission Hills talking about a kidnapped girl. Gabby.

Marigold, taking notes in her pocketsize journal while pretending to be Harriet the Spy, heard them say the name Gabby Martinez, then “in front of Off the Record” and “grabbed by a couple guys in a van dressed as executioners” and “the cops were an hour too late.” Marigold, only ten at the time, didn’t know Gabby and thought nothing of it until back home eating a Miracle Whip on white bread sandwich at the kitchen counter, and she told her brother, who knew Gabby well. (They’d met in Arlene Wolinski’s Egyptology class at Mesa College and dated for a month until Gabby left him for her current boyfriend Tavis Gregory, though they were still close friends.) Eddie tried to call Agnes at her apartment to tell her about Gabby, but Agnes had been away since morning looking for a Halloween costume at thrift stores in Downtown and didn’t believe in using answering machines. The phone rang two dozen times then Eddie hung up.

Needless to say, this took place before everyone carried a phone, and if you didn’t catch your target at home, you’d need to run into them somewhere around town. Friends often “disappeared” for days only to be found staying at someone’s house on a coke binge or returning from a trip up to LA or San Francisco or a weekend in jail.

After Eddie talked to Marigold, he borrowed his aunt Nena’s car (a white 1982 Toyota Corolla-Tercel two-door that Nena called “the Swan”) and he and Marigold (who insisted on coming along as Eddie’s “sidekick but the real brains of our team, also a spy, veterinarian, and a vampire”) went looking for Agnes or someone who knew where Agnes might be. Marigold wore her trick-or-treat costume, which looked like a baggy orange hairdresser’s smock with a high green collar until she raised her arms to shoulder height to extend the costume’s sides and reveal the grinning jack-o’-lantern face.

Allen Kale (spotted from the passenger window by Marigold while riding his skateboard down Broadway on a trip back from 7-Eleven carrying a plastic tub of chili cheese nachos he held in one hand, eating from it with the other as he rode) said, when questioned by Eddie, that he could “totally find Agnes and tell her about Gabby. No worries at all!” and did in fact find her an hour later sitting on the curb stop parking barrier outside Panchita’s Bakery on C Street finishing her lunch, a brown paper bag of pink and blue conchas.

After that, Agnes called me from the payphone at the laundromat because I was her “most dependable, reputable friend, James, I swear I don’t know who else to talk to!” and gave me the news, then asked to borrow my car, which was unfortunately dead on the curb with a blown head gasket, and had been all week.

The next day, the first of November, I ran into Agnes a block down the street from Pokez in Downtown and she caught me up on the story.

(Continued next week)