The nameless narrator spends a late afternoon and night in the early summer drifting around the Los Angeles area. He is writing a film script without enthusiasm when he would rather be working “on the novel I am hoping to write and pretend is already under way.” He leaves his office and wanders through the decaying sets on the back lot, then drives his battered 1947 Chevrolet to the ocean while meditating on the bizarre essence of Los Angeles: “not a city, but a series of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes.” At the Pacific Palisades, he notices the omnipresent, ominous warning signs: DRIVE CAREFULLY; SLIDE AREA; BEWARE OF ROCKS. He watches as three elderly picnickers are rescued, apparently uninjured, from a huge pile of mud and stones.
In a Santa Monica bar, the narrator meets his friend Zeena Nelson, who is drunk and distraught because her sister, Henrietta, nicknamed “Hank,” has been shot and the nuns at St. Judith’s Hospital will not tell her about the woman’s condition. He calls the hospital, and Sister Hertha informs him that Henrietta Nelson is dead. He leaves Zeena roaming the beach in a daze. Sister Hertha later telephones to ask him to come there to take away Zeena, who refuses to leave the hospital. The nun explains that Hank was shot in the head by an unidentified man whom she brought home.
The narrator remembers how he met Zeena and Hank at their secondhand furniture store and occasionally ran into them thereafter in bars or on the beach: “This is how everybody met them. This is how I am with Zeena today, by accident.” He retrieves Zeena from the hospital and drives to her house in a seedy Venice neighborhood.