MORE

Signal Hill

Illustration by Tra Selhtrow

Back in the ’80s, when life was going well enough, Richard Leviton almost fell in love on account of a woman’s laugh, and also her tan, both of which, looking back, contained hints she might be crazy. She was a bright divorced mother from Wisconsin with a high, desperate laugh, the kind that actresses in melodramas used to have just seconds before it gave way to sobbing. The tan was an L.A. newcomer’s magnum opus. It had no lines at all, years before tanning beds, the insensate red-brown of a naturist or a girl from a Deadhead gathering.

He saw her whole tan one night after a fund-raiser lunch that she had helped publicize for the presidential campaign of Jerry Brown. The Brown organization in Los Angeles was chaotic enough to involve someone like Jaimie Gorski in a position of serious responsibility. Leviton had been a depressed reporter with an idea of being a fashionable underachiever. These were his 20s, when he felt thrown into the professional world with all the seams of his middle-class upbringing on view. He had been compensating for his insecurity by drinking, and with a juvenile approach to picking up women at parties that suggested they had stolen a car together and driven it across five states.

He watched Gorski revel in the camaraderie of the luncheon, sprinting from one best friend to another in the crowded dining hall. A record heat wave didn’t slow her down, and in the days before the fund-raiser, when it was clear that there was something unspokenly damaged in common about the two of them, she walked Leviton around Koreatown during lunch breaks, stopping to drink Gatorade with vodka under a tree outside an acupuncturist’s bungalow, happily answering the questions Leviton should have been putting to the candidate. Her skirt looked thin across her knees, and her anxious laugh made its impression, something like a premonition of Gorski unprotected, or trying too late to hide a hand of cards. On this scent of feminine jeopardy, Leviton was so aroused that any flattery from his lips would temporarily have been true. He could have proposed to her there on the lawn. Instead he just told her to kiss him (it came out halfway like a question), and she did — first gathered herself up to this new turn of events, then closed her eyes and gave him her whole open mouth, as if she were both disappointed and utterly used to this.

After an obscene kissing spell in the parking lot at the fund-raiser, Leviton followed Gorski to her Topanga Canyon guesthouse. Her son, a kindergartner, was still in Madison then; she had moved in bringing only her clothes. Husklike leaves littered the side streets in early-evening sunlight so flagrant that Leviton could count acorns along the sidewalks and gutters. Some surfers and a general-store disability crowd at the corner tiptoed through bottle glass. Behind the clapboard main house was the courtyard garden, laboratory of her tan. There was a splintered gazebo and a gourd of vodka by a lawn chair on a towel caked with dirt. The scene was as primitive and fresh with her absence as a shirt hung on a nail. This was her fuck-you to Wisconsin.

In the middle of the night Leviton lowered himself onto the lawn chair, no longer in love. Gorski lay hot as a sauna rock indoors, all the windows open and a bottle of aspirin in her fist. He’d had to hear about her childhood. She told him she’d played Queen Esther in a Bible musical, dressed in veils, turquoise baubles and a floral tiara, and that afterward a relative molested her. Literally hissing the details, she used Leviton’s hand to re-enact the event. Leviton grew shy. Not that her confession was so threatening per se, or even so novel to him in the psychic unveiling room of sex. But she was cathartic about it, getting nervier and more talkative as Leviton shrank. Her husband was the last man before Leviton, and he had broken her jaw.

Leviton’s unease with Jaimie Gorski helped him justify giving up the Jerry Brown assignment, and he never wrote to her or phoned her back. Yet when she dropped him a line, he felt an egotistical lift, and he hoped that she would flatter him for a while, keep on writing, until she understood that the interest was one-sided.

 

Leviton was big, and he could be generous, especially on his own turf, never prouder than when counseling someone else, squeezing a pal’s shoulder like he’d seen his father do. He toted a beer bottle and grinned like the young Charlton Heston. He counseled and grinned and all of a sudden it would seem to him that he’d been ridiculously out of line. Then he’d grill everyone who’d listen: Was I — you know — butting in? He’d married young and divorced by 23, assuring his partner that their problems had not been her fault. But his humility was as convenient as his generosity. Suddenly single, he threw a summer-solstice party, hiked to the Griffith Observatory every day, and got drunk at lots of Dodgers games, leaning over the left-field rail to scoop a fistful of the red-clay warning track. He ate beans and rice at about a thousand music benefits, where he would be carried away by the miracle of belonging: to L.A., his times and his friends. Love letters were instant souvenirs from what Leviton already regarded as the legend of his 20s.

Gorski sent him three letters that summer. The first one drew him erotically into the violence of her divorce. “I pretend you were there, washing my bruises with whiskey and rags with your lips almost touching my lips . . .”

In her second letter, Gorski said she regretted that she had never showed him her bathroom. “It’s the quirky feature of the house from when it was a canyon clinic,” she wrote, “with a window slot for pee samples but no lab on the other side. Whatever used to be the lab was removed. (Or slid away?) Is all of California like this?”

That was the letter he might have been tempted to answer, but her next one scared him out of it. “Here is a secret, but it’s a bad secret. You’re going to turn on me when you hear it.” Childhood treasures, she wrote, had been turning up in the dirt outside her house: “My necklace from 1969, and this toy holster with rubies on it (my mom once told me the scabs on my shins were rubies, and I believed her — and then my brother tore them off, and I still believed her), and a rose-petal lollipop of a kind you used to see everywhere. You can suppose these things were from whoever lived here before (and I live atop a mass grave for all you know), but I know Harlan. Either God wants to set me over the edge or Harlan does, and I’m not going over any edges anyway, hear? . . .

“This is your last free letter. I could hurt you but I won’t. You tried to look so macho with your cigarette in the morning when the whole reason I opened up to you in the first place was that you were shy. And you have a ridiculous face. A long droopy Jewish face. The Brown workers made fun of you every day. You make love like a girl, and that’s if I get you going enough to make you feel equal. But I was an injured birdie, wasn’t I? You were what I needed, the next best thing to a man. Want to hit me? I’ll still always know. Cheers — Jaimie.”

The marvel was how Leviton inventoried the memory of Jaimie Gorski. He wasn’t wounded by her ridicule — if anything it moved him that she had been so provoked — but he was appropriately repelled, an instinct that enabled him to keep the thought of their sexual drama at a remove from which it could thrill but not threaten him. It had the integrity of an adventure whose ending has been foreseen, like the reminiscence of a spouse who has died, and Leviton continued to think of Gorski on and off, right through middle age, always at moments of stress. He thought of her when his mother died in Granada Hills, outliving by two years an oncologist’s prognosis and her own goodbyes until she gave up trying to die, shoved past her live-in nurse and dropped dead by the door to her carport. It wasn’t known where she’d intended to go.

When he got the news, Leviton walked straight to a liquor store and smoked his first and only cigarette in a decade. One for the ’90s. But at the point of inhale came the memory of Jaimie Gorski’s lower back — an oven to the touch, an image that pacified him for days. Maybe all the sadness of modern life could be dissolved by something that brutally carnal.

He mixed her up with places and feelings. Pain was a reliable trigger. A toothache or a muscle pull would seem to invert to another reality altogether, a universe he understood to be home to Gorski’s injured jaw — primitive, antediluvian, the turquoise Pacific materializing with the tide of his breath. At those moments Leviton took Gorski to be a vaguely romantic, if dark, angel of recuperation — the goddess of the coast and the germ of a bag lady — knowing full well that the actual Gorski was trouble, someone to be avoided.

 

Then everything started to go south. He had a golden beard and a kindly gaze by middle age that was not a bad shortcut for the most part to feeling kindly, although it backfired on all three women he’d married, each accusing him of smugness just when he felt he had triumphed over selfishness the most. He had been an occasional actor (several small theater productions, one lucrative airline commercial) and, wading beyond his depth, a correspondent for a local public-radio newsmagazine. He had an eclecticism rooted in compassion, his journalism tapping a closet boyhood empathy for scapegoats and playground pariahs, for Richard Nixon trying to rap with protesters on the White House lawn. He meant to peel the covers off hypocrisy. He began a story about feminist reporters intimidating the newsroom (“anti-woman,” they’d branded one of Leviton’s commentaries, a good one, folksy and skeptical with lots of male bafflement in his inflection), taping a station manager’s protests to use as quotes. Editors begged off: “Richard, how can we use this?”

He knew, that is, that he was drifting. But he maintained the deliberate fantasy of melting all opposition by being so truly himself. Instead there came his veering-off years, the Los Angeles of youthful inspiration disappearing in a rearview mirror, its druggy starlets, all the ghost-filled canyons and groves. It was a credit to Leviton or his fear of free-falling that he hung on for years where he fell. He landed (by marriage) in Lakewood, a suburb near Long Beach, fathered and divorced, resented his unromantic neighbors — who did not recognize his sensitivity, or even much notice him really — and sold plant stands made from barstools, downsizing his dreams.

He spent lunch hours at the gym, Long Beach women everywhere, and his own image interposed in a wall-length mirror. Leviton and every kind of girl, a sort of musical burlesque. His favorite, a striking young Armenian with a trace of pudge about her middle, struggled up the StairMaster every weekday, lighting up the room like a visitor among the inmates. Sundays, there was Kids’ Klub (calisthenics optional), where Leviton’s 5-year-old son, Zachary, lay reading on his back, leg crossed over bent knee like Groucho Marx. Leviton and the last wife had succeeded this much in the incubation of self-esteem, the world was the child’s Barcalounger. Eventually he’d get beaten up at school for sheer arrogance.

“Are prayers answered?” Zachary once asked him tearfully, and then prayed never to die of thirst. One night after his boy went to sleep, Leviton prayed, like a child himself, to be rescued from drudgery — to be blindfolded in his track suit, spun, and pointed in a providential direction, a prayer he’d reasoned could not go unanswered. What kind of God would brush off such simple consent? Discerning no definite reply, he tried to assume he’d been led to where he was, a Lakewood tract.

 

Leviton remembered his mother’s funeral service as a series of agonizing visuals. From an ancient Dodge Colt the rabbi emerged in pinstripes, laborious and hunched, as though he were being ordered indoors by someone taller. He withdrew a folder of notes from what looked like an old physician’s bag and posed stock-still, awaiting the wonder of speech. The moment lingered, and lingered — was he drunk? — and Leviton thought he saw the lectern tipping forward, à la Chevy Chase’s old pratfall as President Ford. It was a false alarm, the 23rd Psalm. The eulogy talked about the prodigal son, dwelling disastrously upon the word inheritance — “accepting the inheritance that is yours,” the rabbi clarified, but mouths had already begun to drop. He then swept his arm across the room, a gesture meant to encompass the miracle of the universe, and Leviton’s eye followed outside to a parking lot that was hot, cropping with dead weeds, and almost lurid with motorcycle exhaust — a scene of pure unfiltered fallibility. A couple from another funeral was doing a turnabout in a green sport utility vehicle, and right then Leviton decided to spend half his inheritance on a green sport utility vehicle. It was hard to define why, or why now. He had seen green sport utilities before, he had seen happy couples driving them, but he had never entertained the notion that by buying the same car, he might impersonate their lives.

On Friday Leviton drove to Signal Hill Motors. Raising dust before the rows of unibody cars, his small camper-shell truck, which he’d liked just fine up until now, brought an atmosphere of time travel. A salesman, pomaded and buffed, swept at his face with a handkerchief in the spring heat. The ceremony looked soulful, the grief of the California breadwinner. “Rodney Dangerfield,” Leviton said out loud.

To one side he had already glimpsed the SUV, forest green, an almost criminal heartbeat passing. He disguised the feeling, lingering instead at the sticker on a sport wagon.

“This has a thousand-dollar rebate,” the salesman said. “Do you camp?”

“I chauffeur a few kids sometimes.”

The interior was in a nylon-and-neon motif, with the word Sport painted here and there in a jetting sort of hand. Some moldings and rises and visual confetti reminded Leviton of a woman’s running shoe. He climbed in, stepped on the clutch and pushed the shifter around — supple, a tumble of rubber mallets — wondering just how long it would take him to make an invention of such newness feel worn out. Everything that fascinated Leviton about the armor of possession also shamed him, things he couldn’t even mention without sounding like a desperado: the hiss of climate control, the whir of economy.

Even more so with the SUV, when he drove it — its command, its muscular poise, like the leaders and realtors who populated Leviton’s town. He imagined vacationing with a new girlfriend, a dental hygienist or a supermarket checker, unhooking her bra in the vanity of a motel. They would make a random turnabout in the driveway of a mortuary, skis strapped to the roof, as the sales brochure depicted it, and the back would be filled with his plant stands, along with an array of pristine, never-used sand toys. He argued a thousand dollars off the price — an advantage the salesman theatrically conceded, then nullified by writing up the contract as rebate-included.

While his electronic keys were being programmed, Leviton took a flight of stairs to the customer lounge. A showroom window extended to the second floor, from where he could see the flashing air-control beacon at the top of Signal Hill. A teenage boy was squatting before the view and talking to somebody Leviton could not see. “I don’t get the light. It’s not like there’s any buildings to protect.” From behind a desk labeled MARKETING, a woman’s voice said: “Yeah, just waste those airplanes, then.” Leviton thought he recognized the laugh.

Inside he saw Jaimie Gorski’s nameplate and then her face, involuntarily hopped and almost said “Yikes!”

“You know, I recognized you on the lot,” Gorski smiled, shaking his hand up and down once like a cartoon pal.

She was a little less tan now but still reminded Leviton of an oddball — something disturbing about her sundress, as though it might be secondhand. Her squint was deeper and her mouth sagged like a small water bomb. In an oxidized mirror, she might have looked regal. “I was going to come looking for you. We were just having a deep discussion about air traffic. Peter has just said something timelessly stupid. Just to show no acorn falls far from the tree.”

Her son gave an art-student kind of handshake and returned to squatting by a shelf of CDs. He was slender but almost bell-shaped in the middle, as if six months ago he might have been fat. He had a receded chin on which he was stroking a revolutionary’s patch of goatee.

“You both — live here too?” Leviton asked.

“Here’s the truth, Richard,” she said. “In 15 years, anybody can wind up anywhere. What was it you told me about San Diego, Peter? My geology scholar. In a million years, San Diego will have dropped off the coast of Alaska. Why shouldn’t the world be a little — unhitched? I was going to say unscrewed. Screwed is not a reversible condition. That is another world you can’t escape.”

“That’s interesting,” Leviton said. “Because I just bought a car I never imagined myself buying.”

“He knew you would.”

“Who, the salesman?”

“He’s very good.”

“I guess he is, if you’re not kidding.”

“It’s all over the office,” said Gorski. “Do you have any clue how much money you lost not bumping into me first?”

The boy tossed a series of paper wads at a wastebasket and then walked to retrieve the misses — an unfluid, lopsided walk, as if he were pulling a rickshaw. “He has an SUV?” he said suddenly.

“Oh, Christ, don’t, Peter. Can’t Daryn’s stepdad help you?”

“He’s got a load of bricks in the truck bed. And also he believes it’s illegal. It’s just a five-minute drive.”

“They’re scavenging tiles and wood for an art project,” Gorski told Leviton. “You could eat with us if you’re staying around. Zankou chicken.”

Leviton checked his watch pointlessly.

“C’mon, man,” Peter Gorski smiled as if it were a comedian’s trademark line, or the name of a game show, which an audience would shout in unison. “Are you in — or not?”

“Not?” Leviton joked, but with a shrug started downstairs after the boy, who had committed himself to walking as if on his own ludicrous dare. He was snapping fingers at both hips.

Leviton beheld, as if from the wrong side of a tectonic event, this process of events as it detached him from his better sense. Yet as soon as the paralysis began, it felt familiar — a childlike urge to be swept up and conveyed by forces beyond himself. All at once the three were outside, with a PA system squawking overhead.

“Peter will point you to the house. You’re a good sport, Richard.”

Leviton turned the key. The spring air was beginning to cool just slightly and a dolphin logo on the dealership sign porpoised against a chalky sky. The San Gabriel Mountains were visible to the north across a quarry pit of towns.

“The things I wrote about you were so true,” Jaimie Gorski said to Leviton’s amazement as he was pulling the new car away.

Excerpted from the novella “Signal Hill” in Signal Hill: Stories by

Alan Rifkin, published this month by City Lights Books. Rifkin will read from the book at Skylight Books in Los Feliz on Sunday, October 26, at 5 p.m.