The Strange Tale of Dr. Max Zoelegger

Stories from La Mirada

Max Zoelegger       I arrived in La Mirada on a gray November evening. Rain was forecast on and off throughout the week. It was not the sunny Southern California I always envisioned while sweating out long Rocky Mountain winters.
      I walked up the cracked and uneven cement path leading from the sidewalk to my new front porch. I fished the key from the top of the dark porch light. It fit both the deadbolt and the lock to the brass door handle.
      I found the house on Craigslist and managed to rent the place without meeting my new landlord. I browsed a dozen pictures of the house’s interior online and spent another hour cruising the neighborhood via Google maps. The landlord emailed me the lease agreement. I signed it and sent it back.
      Three steps through the front door and I was in the middle of the living room. The orange glow of the streetlights filtered through the old-fashioned windows on the front of the house, lighting up pockets of the living room. The pale orange rectangles fell on bare carpet that I assume was a forest green, dyed a deeper, dirtier color by years of foot traffic.
      To my left was a dining room. It was the same room as the living room without any division between the two rooms except for a shift from green carpet to linoleum. The twelve-inch vinyl squares at one time were white with a brown design pattern. Now most of the brown design was worn off and blended with ground dirt and scuffs.
      I entered a doorway off the dining room and found myself in the kitchen. It was long and narrow, a three-foot-wide floor between whitewashed cabinets and glossy yellow tile counters. I turned through a door out the back end of the kitchen and entered a bedroom with wood paneled walls. It was an odd size, maybe nine foot by ten. The bedroom had another door opposite the kitchen door leading to a short hallway with a bathroom and a second bedroom off it. The hallway ended back in the living room and the entrance to a third and final bedroom.
      I had some luggage and a few boxes of stuff, plus an air mattress and some blankets. I picked a bedroom and set myself up. The phone and electric companies were coming tomorrow between the hours of seven and six to turn on the power and setup the internet. After that, I planned to check out the local bus system and start scouring thrift stores for furniture and dishes and stuff. I planned to set myself up to live here, but I had no illusions that it would be short term. Eventually I would have to run.

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      “Bah,” I said, pushing the button on my remote more forcefully than before. “I’ve seen all these episodes.” I looked around at the empty room expecting to see someone else. I rubbed my face. “I’m losing my mind.”
      I stood up and walked over to the window. It was raining outside. According to the news it had been a really wet winter, and it was not over yet. This was winter in Southern California: cool but not cold, jacket weather, but not coat weather. Drizzly every single day for months. Actually, it only rained once or twice a week, but it looked like it was raining every single day. The sky and the pavement and the houses and cars and lawns and even the air filling all the space in between was gray.
      I was tired of watching television and movies. I had seen just about everything I could ever want to see. And I was depressed. I knew I was depressed, so I guess that’s something. I think most people that are depressed just wander around wondering why they feel so funky. I knew why.
      My life was over. The life I had spent many years building. All that education, all those degrees. I was going to do great things. Win the Nobel Prize, my name known and respected in academic circles. Right books explaining the world of science at a level accessible by the general public. When I got older, get a wheelchair and a voice synthesizer.
      “Fuck,” I said. I tried to slam the curtain down over the window, but curtains cannot be slammed. I closed my eyes and took a couple deep breaths. “Relax, Max,” I said to myself. I smiled because ‘Relax, Max’ rhymed. I really was losing it.
      Tomorrow I would go out. I needed groceries from the convenience store on the corner. The guy that always worked there was strange. He was always trying to talk to me. I guess that could be a good thing; having friends might just be enough to pull me out of this depression. Although I seriously doubted it. My life was over.
      I wandered into the narrow kitchen and took out half a jar of generic salsa, then dug out my last bag of tortilla chips out of the cupboard. I left the lid of the salsa jar on the yellow tile counter. It looked especially glossy and somehow especially hard in the artificial overhead light and gray air.
      I went back and flopped down in my living room chair, sighing loud enough for the neighbors to hear. I was the smartest guy I knew, yet somehow managed to become a fugitive. I had no hope of professional success without trading it for whatever hell the agency director had in mind.
      I was in the middle of one of the largest urban centers in the world. Twenty million people lived within a hundred mile radius of where I sat and I couldn’t name a single friend in the world.
      I started eating chips, not caring if the salsa dripped down my shirt. I scooped up the big globs with my fingers and sucked on them. I found the remote and started scrolling through the lists of shows and movies I had seen too many times. Something seemed wrong with second-hand television set; the color was bleeding out of the screen, leaving vivid shades of gray.

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      As spring set in, I started a new tradition. Short daily walks; a stroll about town as a man about town. Initially I intended my walks to be a sort of reconnaissance mission. I learned about the neighborhood, paying attention to the people and cars and houses and street corners; which fences housed dogs and whose children played in the streets. I figured it was an important line of defense against Them; if They ever looked for me in La-La-Land, I would see Them coming.
      But I found I actually enjoyed the fresh air. And the exercise, which is saying a lot coming from someone who spends ten hours a day re-watching science fiction movies I’ve seen a hundred times, or re-reading the same books about aliens or superheroes or dwarfs with great big axes. And I loved the weather as my first soggy Southern California winter morphed into a bone-dry, warm spring.
      Every day at four, I put on the tan windbreaker I bought and pulled a ball cap down tight. Southern Californians tend to call every long sleeve garment with a zipper a jacket. There actually are many varying weights I see on passersby, but everything here is a jacket. As far as I can tell, no one even owns a coat.
      As I said, I would leave the house at four and take a couple deep breaths of fresh air, Los Angeles style. Typically, the air was so thick I could almost chew it, despite the humidity hovering somewhere just south of zero. At the end of the broken cement path leading to my front door, I would turn left. Sometimes I turned right. Usually I let my feet do the deciding. Sometimes I would go right, left, left. Other times left, right, and then left. When I was tired and it was time to go back home, my internal compass guided me back without too much trouble.
      Last week, my feet led me to an electronic reading device with a shattered screen, sitting in all its glory on a deserted bus bench. It was an old gadget; not an all-in-one device to check your email, update your relationship status for the world to see, crush candy, walk your dog and wash your car. It was a gadget built only for reading. I stood still for a few minutes, looking left and right and up and down the street. I was concerned that as soon as I picked it up a car full of gang bangers would squeal around the corner and open fire. I scooped up the gadget and tucked it into the waistband of my slacks, tugged my jacket down and headed home.
      I stayed up half the night, disassembling the reader far past the point necessary to replace the broken screen. I reassembled it a couple of days later with a new screen off of Amazon, plus some tweaks to the circuit board, improving routing efficiency, storage, and performance speed.
      I allowed my feet to guide me back to the same deserted bus stop. Again, I scanned the terrain for hostile locals before pulling the device from my waistband and setting it down. The reader winked at me in the evening sun, slung low in the sky. I turned and walked home without a second glance.
      My walks allowed me to slowly get to know my neighbors. I stopped once a week at the convenience store a block away and bought my eight-dollar gallon of milk. The chatty Latino clerk always had a lot to say about the weather, or traffic, or the people in the neighborhood. I offered to rewire the store’s internal security cameras for an ample amount of store credit. The clerk wasted little time accepting my offer.
      It took a couple of weeks to wrap up the convenient store job. The work was easy; I appreciated how chatty Ernie the clerk was after so many months with no one to talk to.
      The day after I finished, a kid knocked my front door.
      “Hey doc, I got a broken disk-man. Can you fix it?” The young man held the device up in both hands to keep the plastic casing and wiring from falling between his fingers.
      “What did you do to it?”
      “Nothing. I found it in the alley behind the pharmacy like this.”
      “I see,” I said. “Bring it inside and I’ll take a look at it.”
      After that, it only took a couple of weeks for my kitchen table to become a workbench, strewn with wires and switches and contraptions of all shapes and sizes. I ordered a rudimentary set of tools: soldering equipment, duct tape, oddly shaped screwdrivers.
      The young man who first brought me the busted disk-man became a regular fixture at my front door. I think the young entrepreneur scoured alleys and trashcans for broken electronics, asked me to fix them, then sold them to his friends and neighbors.
      “Thanks, doc. When should I come back for it?”
      He always thanked me for agreeing to fix the devices, then again when he picked them up.
      “Stop by the day after tomorrow. I promised to rebuild a set of radio-controlled cars for the boys next door first.”
      He examined the milk crate in the corner piled high with miniature car parts. “Jeez, what did they do to their cars?”
      “They were racing down the sidewalk when the littlest boy, the one still wearing his Batman costume from Halloween, crashed his car into the other two. All three went rolling into the street and underneath the street sweeper.”
      Whenever possible, I never turned the kids away. I saw no need to say no; I enjoyed the work, and I enjoyed feeling useful.

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