"ZIP Code and Momentum"
from Underwater, a Novel in Progress
by Dawn Bonker
At the rate Linda was going, all the parking would be taken at Trabuco Heights High School’s Freshman Parent Night.
She’d end up standing in the back of the theater and the handouts printed on the light blue paper explaining the one true path to a first-tier university, and thus a life of guaranteed prosperity, power and success for Zach, would be long gone. Only the yellow handouts with the state university requirements would remain.
But she couldn't bear to part with her sunset view from the shoulder of Oak Trail, a little-used access road that snaked around the hill overlooking the high school. From there she could see the ocean horizon in the distance. An orange sherbet sky sat on the Pacific’s pencil thin line of indigo blue. Despite its distance some miles away, even Catalina Island was visible thanks to this meteorological meetup of smog, quivering heat and imminent Santa Ana winds that produced a sharp, angular light and pulled everything into focus. Shore breezes retreated, but the winds that would ravage sinuses and set firefighters on edge dawdled. Leaves hung motionless. Birds fell silent. The sky held its breath.
It was a lull that begged attention. So Linda leaned against her SUV, its bulk hiding her from the puzzled eyes of anyone who might drive this way. Not that many did. The road, named Oak Trail as if it were the re-embodiment of an ancient indigenous track, had been constructed by city requirement to serve the planned hillside
developments. But for some reason, only a few had been built so far. To the left Linda could see the rooftops of Vista View Estates, which were now nearing completion.
She and Steven were among the first buyers into Vista View Estates. Most would hire landscapers soon and Steven, of course, had big plans for that. No pool, since the community swim center was posh enough. But he’d added a lush koi pond to the backyard plan after he’d been smitten by exhibition ponds at a construction industry show he’d attended. Before she’d left for Freshman Parent Night, they’d bickered over the plan as he studied a brochure chock full of photographs of something called “rockscape.” It involved the arrangement of faux granite boulders to look like they had just tumbled down from the Sierra and arranged themselves around a backyard pond stocked with golden fish, a handful of which would cost hundreds of dollars.
“I know rocks,” Linda had said, peering over Steven’s shoulder. “Those look like dinosaur turds.” An exaggeration, she knew, but this idea of fake rocks from the man who had once mocked her family’s affinity for creating rock gardens in their desert-rat yard in the outskirts of Kern County pissed her off all over again.
Steven was in one of his determined moods. “I know you know rocks,” he said with an eyeroll. “The photos don’t do them justice. They look real in real life. I already told Dave that he can go up to the lot and write up an estimate.”
She turned to open the patio slider to let the whining dog outside and slammed the slider closed.
“It’s always just an estimate. Every time you go to one of those industry shows or networking things you come home sold on something someone else is selling.”
“I’m not canceling. It’s bad for business.”
Not that anything was good for business lately. Steven’s construction scaffolding company was slow lately. Economists were starting to murmur about a slowdown, like they saw something coming, but most people still doubted that.
So she held her tongue. Sort of.
“I don’t know why you even get an estimate when you know we can’t afford that kind of thing.” He flipped the brochure over to learn how the faux rocks were manufactured. “Things will turn around soon.”
Linda shrugged and abandoned the conversation like a crossword puzzle that had grown too hard, grabbed her car keys and hurried toward the garage door like she was late, calling out a hasty goodbye over her shoulder.
But she actually had plenty of time, which is how she now found herself alongside Oak Trail, dawdling. The road felt like a fresh passage into a forgotten place. Of course, it wasn’t. You name it, they’d been there. Native people, wandering padres, old ranchers, even mountain lions, and generations of Orange County kids who were gutsy enough to sneak past the no trespassing signs to see if the stories of ghosts haunting the long-gone ranchos or tales of the crazy man in the canyon were true.
She glanced down at the high school parking lot, where everyone circled like a school of Lexus-driving mackerel. Fretting, but ready. In ten minutes the annual Freshman Parent Back-to-School Night would begin, officially launching hundreds of otherwise rational people into a hand-wringing dither for the next four years. Parents would be hell-bent on producing kids with killer grades, stellar SAT scores – or for the math phobic, ACTs – and resumes dripping with awards, community service, sports achievements and leadership experiences.
Linda had gained a glimpse of the routine from a fitness boot camp pal with older kids who had seen it all and shared tales from numerous Parent Nights, College Nights, and some rather disturbing Drug Awareness Nights where police officers detailed high-achieving students’ hunger for Adderall and football players’ love of steroids. Whatever became of feeling scandalously flush with a six-pack eked out among three friends? Did these kids ever have any fun?
She figured she had another ten minutes before joining the whole damn shebang. Besides, it was a million-dollar view from her roadside perch. Literally. The houses planned for this ridge would start at $1.2 million and within a few years the property values would surge, not to mention the property owners’ egos that would puff up like peacocks ready to strut and rut and play the I-got-mine-game.
It didn’t matter that the new homes would just be just dolled-up tract houses. They had ZIP code and momentum on their side. September 11 was already fading into memory. Two wars were underway, and sometimes it felt like there was progress, but it was hard to know just how things were going. Likewise, no one quite grasped why real estate was so “robust,” as the economic forecasters liked to say. It felt like the whole country was afraid to ask too many questions, lest the spell break and everyone turn into pumpkins with adjustable rate loans they couldn’t pay and wars they couldn’t end.
The mood was ripe for easy answers. Realtors certainly seemed to understand the lure of that.
“It’s just like Mark Twain said. ‘Buy land. They aren’t making any more of it,’” said Duke Tarrington, a craft beer clamped in his hand, as he pontificated to a group of Little League parents at the end-of-season barbeque. They nodded silently as the town’s favorite realtor worked the BBQ grill. But then they would have agreed with anything that day. It had been the kind of season parents euphemistically called “a great learning experience.”
At first, Linda questioned Duke’s confidence. “You really think these houses are worth that much? They’re nice enough,” she said, offering generous inclusion of everyone’s piece of ranch house cul-de-sac pie into the conversation with a languorous tequila-induced sweep of her arm. And they were. One could do worse than a split-level ranch with big windows and a flagstone fireplace hearth. Sexy? No. Plain-Jane pleasant? Yes. And except for one or two couples from the Midwest – eager escapees of snow and ice who nevertheless waxed nostalgic about finished basements – everyone there was living in a house bigger than the one in which they’d been raised.
“They’re just tract houses,” Linda said. “Those values? Numbers on paper. Who’s going to pay that for tract houses?”
Duke snorted as he worked the sizzling grill. “Lots of people. Everyone wants their kids to go to Trabuco Heights High School. That US News & World Report list is money in the bank.”
The huddlers nodded like doves that bob and coo under bird feeders, too fat to fly very fast or far. The U.S. News list of best high schools had been the event of the year. It included a select listing of high- performing, curve-breaking public schools that hummed along like factories and gave the private academies a run for their trust fund money. They were called the “public privates.” Make that list and the real estate heavens opened and home equity saints be praised, property values turned golden. Or even more golden, because these schools weren’t exactly in the country’s humdrum zip codes.
Trabuco Heights had made the list. At first, everyone snickered like twelve-year-olds because it was so damn funny to say public private out loud, but home values ticked up within the week. Lots of people were interested. Unspoken, but understood, was that lots of those people were Asian and East Indian. Not that anyone had a problem with that, as they quickly pointed out. Quite the contrary. Based on reality or not, nothing boosted a school district’s reputation like the admiration of affluent immigrant parents who could have planted themselves anywhere.
Duke was a real estate animal who wasn’t shy about dissecting whatever factors played into home values, be it quartz countertops in the kitchen or families named Choi in the neighborhood.
“Prices will go higher. Those families love it here. Especially Koreans,” he said at that evening barbeque. “Be glad you bought in when you did.”
Linda winced at his boorishness, but his admonition stuck in her mind.
Be glad. Stay put. She wished she could sell Steven on the idea. Maybe they could wait at least until the kids finished high school. Just a few years. What could happen in that amount of time? They could get Duke to sell the house then. He would know how to move it at just the right price at just the right moment. Everyone said so.
Turning to the BBQ, she watched Duke wield his grill tools. He was careful to keep the Steinmanns’ kosher dogs separate from the baby back ribs –-- the Steinmanns being only slightly observant –-- and the Patels’ vegan dogs wrapped in foil, far from the beef and onion kabobs the Mohammadis added to the spread. As she studied him working the grill, Linda accepted a serving of ribs, and realized his knack for real estate success was not so different from his BBQ finesse. Everyone thought he had some secret-sauce salesman knack, but Linda thought otherwise. She suspected that his magic was just knowing how to pay attention.
And wasn’t that the trick? She wished she could do that. Be a big picture person who could study the present and know what to do about the future. Instead, she shilly-shallied over everything. Procrastinating in the name of caution until other people made choices and then she followed along, convincing herself it was what she would have chosen anyway.
Or she ran off and sat on dusty roads contemplating leaves, birds and wind like an old hippie avoiding a measly little Freshman Parent Night. Honestly, get moving already.
As if in agreement, a clutch of coastal sagebrush to her left, stirred. The sage was heavy with summer growth, so it was impossible to see what lurked behind it. She held her breath, tilted her head just enough to see what might emerge. This was how she usually caught a glimpse of wildlife. She held “still as dirt” as her dad liked to say and more often than not something ran, flew or slithered by. The bushes fell silent. Nothing. Probably just a bird scratching up a bug.
Then in a blink and a sigh a rangy, brownish-gray coyote slunk out, a rabbit dangling from its mouth. The coyote turned and its yellow eyes focused on Linda. It allowed a flickering moment of assessment. Linda held her breath. Then as quickly as it appeared, the animal trotted down the hill and slipped into another crop of bushes, disappearing as they always eventually do.
She exhaled. Coyotes were ordinary and plentiful. They scuttled up and down Trabuco’s greenbelts like freeway commuters, usually satisfied with rodents and rabbits, but not opposed to popping into the neighborhoods for a cat left out too late. Still, there was something fascinating about seeing one up close. Anyone who ever thought they were “kind of like dogs” never thought that again after they encountered one up close. The watchful eyes, the swiftness of the skinny body. The hunger.
Linda took a deep breath and stretched like a cat. Flicking a bit of dust from her slacks, she slid into her car and drove down the hill, her eyes divided between the road and the scrub brush where the coyote had silently vanished.
On parent nights, school administrators hurried and scurried around like they were preparing for the opening of the biggest show in town. Microphone checks. A call on the walkie-talkie to security to open up the back parking lot. A dash to the back of the theater to ensure that the handing out of flyers was under control.
The PTA president did her part, too. The tightly-wound woman thumped around in lipstick red platform sandals, her ponytail swaying as she marshaled the volunteers enlisted to blanket the audience with PTA membership forms. Just watching her made everyone feel guilty about not doing their part and soon they were filling out forms right there, right then, several even adding the optional $500 for platinum level memberships.
Linda found plenty of room in a back row of the theater – all the power parents had helicoptered down to the front rows, just in case they could get an A+ in parent night attendance – and was filling out her membership card when she heard a familiar voice.
“Hey. Join you?”
Anne, wearing an oversized t-shirt, pointed at the seat next to Linda. Linda nodded, and leaned forward to read the lettering stretched across Anne’s ample bosom. So many books, so little time. A watercolor image of a Victorian-era woman with a book in hand adorned the t-shirt.
“I know. So original,” Anne said, tugging the shirt hem around her curvy hips. “I won it in a raffle at a librarian conference. It was the only clean thing I could dig up tonight.”
Anne’s floppy presence relaxed Linda. Maybe she could talk her into going out for a glass of wine afterward.
Linda studied the program agenda. It might as well have screamed “Gird Your Loins!” Over the next 90 minutes they would learn what parents needed to do to help their children develop a high school career, handle peer pressure, balance extracurricular activities, find their passion and navigate toward graduation. Navigate a high school career? Had high school been such a trial a generation ago?
Anne’s thoughts must have been roaming down a similar road.
“My parents would never have sat through anything like this. It probably would have meant missing the season opener of Columbo, God forbid. And who’s got the exclamation point infatuation?” she whispered, tapping the stack of handouts with her index finger.
To be sure, someone with the spunky gene had been on the Freshman Night Parent Committee because the information packet was stuffed with handouts headlined Dates to Remember! Volunteer! and Gearing Up for Parent-Teacher Conferences!
Within minutes, the remaining seats around them filled with other latecomers and everyone dutifully settled in for what was starting to feel like their last restful moments for the next four years. The chatter quieted when the principal approached the podium and launched into her opening remarks and a rambling talk pocked with multiple references to excellence, quality, and distinction. In short, with minor variations, it was the same principal speech they’d been getting since Kindergarten Readiness Night.
“There is one change in our program’s speakers, though,” the principal announced. “Our student speaker will not be here tonight. She had to be in New Jersey for an event this week.”
Heads perked up, a murmur pulsed through the auditorium. New Jersey. It meant only one thing to a Trabuco Heights parent and it wasn’t a trip to the shore. It meant Princeton had come calling, sniffing out the best and brightest high school seniors for a fall visit. Only the highest achievers could eke out a couple days of classes to engage in such courtships.
So everyone leaned forward just a bit, newly aware that there might be something here worth learning. They sat politely through the Cal State and community college representatives’ “save-your- money and join-us” advice. Every parent assumed the talk about how “UCLA is not for everyone” was intended for everyone but their kid.
Finally, it was question time. The power parents leapt to the front of the microphone line with Duke Tarrington, of all people, bringing up the rear. Linda thought that a bit curious since the Tarringtons were more often seen at Booster Club Parent Nights, knee-deep in fundraisers and golf tournaments to help reseed the baseball field. Or refinish the gym floor. Or the latest – a campaign to sell Christmas trees so they could fence the baseball field to keep out the Sunday afternoon cricket players who made a hot mess out of the infield with all that strange back and forth running.
Duke stepped to the microphone, adjusted it to his height and angled himself so he was half-way facing the audience and slid his hands into his jeans pockets in that lanky way some people have when they’re about to start a conversation with a touch of country dumb -- I’m no expert, but ... .
“Now I know this might not be the place to ask this question.” He paused. The principal’s lips parted, like she wanted to stop him quickly, like she wished the evening was over.
Duke rushed on. “But I’m wondering what you can tell us about the school district’s plan to redraw the attendance areas and return all the housing tracts south of the boulevard to Village High School, a move that would deeply affect kids going to elementary and middle school now and might even influence people’s decisions to buy or sell their homes.”
Tired parents across the theater who had just started wondering if they had remembered to TiVo Law & Order, sat a little straighter.
“What the hell?” Linda muttered under her breath.
Anne whispered. “When did Duke start speaking like those people who always write letters to the editor?”
Linda noticed that the principal looked relieved. Possibly because she had feared Duke was going to ask about last year’s cheating scandal.
“You’ll have to take that up with the district.There’s a standing committee that studies attendance boundary issues.” the principal said.
“So it is in committee?”
The principal bit her lip. “No. Well, yes, there’s always a standing committee always reviewing attendance boundaries. I’m not sure what it’s considering at the moment.”
“So maybe if anyone’s looking at the boulevard as the new dividing line, it would be them?”
“It’s a district issue, not a campus decision. I mean, if there is to be any decision. She shuffled her papers on the podium. “It’s totally unrelated to tonight’s agenda, anyway.”
“Thank you. You’re right. I should contact the district.” Then he smiled and tucked his head in a
thank-you-ma'am kind of way and loped back up the aisle, and slipped out the door. His work was done.
The evening ended quickly after that. The topics had been exhausted and everyone fluttered over
the redistricting news. Half the audience enjoyed a boost of validation, confident that their homes were on the right side of this boundary business. The half that lived south of the boulevard felt abit like a downgraded stock at the close of Wall Street trading. Maybe the morning would bring a turnaround, but the day ended in uncertainty as the stock analysts would say.
“What do you think?” Linda asked Anne as they tucked all the handouts, paperwork and fliers into their bags, chattering parents all around them wondering what was up with the boundary changes. “Heard any of this boundary talk at the library?”
Anne shook her head. “It could just stay the same once they’re done counting heads.”
“But we want to sell soon and now we won’t be able to say with certainty that the house is in the
Trabuco Heights attendance area. That’s a huge ding on the asking price.”
Anne was briefly silent. She was doing the math, too. She and Carlton were set on that Seattle move and the housing there was climbing. They needed primo equity, too.
“It couldn’t make that much difference. The public private thing isn’t that big a deal. Both schools are great. The resale on these houses will take you wherever you want.” Anne was starting to sound like a civic booster. “Don’t worry so much.”
Linda flung her purse over her shoulder, muttered something about wanting to get ahead of the parking lot crush and hurried away. Anne could be so glib. Her carefree approach to everything made the stuff other people cared about seem silly. Hell, yes, Linda would like a day without worry, too. But that didn’t seem to be on the calendar. In 20 seconds Duke Tarrington had tipped her plans off balance, not that they had been all too stable to begin with.
The move-up algorithm was like a little house of cards. If they didn’t get their asking price on the old house, they wouldn’t get a good loan on the new house, and if they didn’t get a good loan, then they’d have to cobble together some creative financing and talk of creative financing put her on edge, which she couldn’t quite explain, which then pissed off Steven and then everyone was on edge. Because as far as Steven was concerned they weren’t done with their real estate ascent and staying put in their Trabuco Knolls ranch house would be like leaving money on the table.
“We’ll make money,” Steven promised. Hadn’t they always before, riding their equity from house to house over the last twenty years?
Linda slipped out of the theater by a side door to escape the obligatory smiling and small talk: “Well, that was interesting, wasn’t it?” and “Your guy going out for the water polo team this year?”
When she reached the parking lot a piece of paper waved from the windshield of every car. The fluttering papers resembled small whitecaps that stir up before a storm.
Someone had been busy. Probably one of the tutoring companies like Ivy Prep or Achieve Academy, blanketing an audience willing to dig deep for the autumn special test prep package now that they understood the race for college admissions.
But when Linda pulled the paper out from under her windshield wiper, she saw there was a whole different marketing campaign afoot. Three words stood out in bold, uppercase: ATTENDANCE BOUNDARY SHIFT? They were followed by two simple lines summarizing what Duke Tarrington had said in the meeting, the school district’s website, and the phone numbers of all the school board members.
There was no name on the paper, but Linda and every other person filtering into the parking lot and tugging the fliers off their windshield sure as hell knew who put them there. The paper flapped in Linda’s hand, catching the first blitz of the hot winds to come. As the opening gusts quickened, a few of the fliers tore away from the cars and skittered through the parking lot. That sort of thing was bound to happen. The weather could change so quickly in these hills.
Dawn Bonker was born and raised in Orange County-adjacent Whittier and studied journalism at California State University, Fullerton. She wrote for the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times, and had other work included in the humor anthology Sand in my Bra: Funny Women Write from the Road (Travelers’ Tales, Inc.) and short fiction in Wild Edges: Poetry and Prose of the Mother Lode and Sierra (Manzanita Press). Newly retired from Chapman University’s marketing department, she is returning to the novel in the drawer and watching for those coyotes who also like early morning walks along suburban greenbelts.