Excerpt: Signal Hill by Alan Rifkin

from Signal Hill

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 LA. 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 fundraiser 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 under-achiever. These were his twenties, 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 guest house. 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. . . .

This month on the blog, in addition to our regular excerpts from recently released City Lights titles, we’re featuring excerpts from our backlist that orbit (near or far) around this theme of “journey,” observations from/about whatever worlds our authors have visited.

Signal Hill: Stories is five stories that track boys and men as they navigate among the ghosts and mirages of greater Los Angeles. Rifkin’s male protagonists are part fuck-up, part primal force, and full of longing-for fathers, for mothers, for sex, for faith, for just getting it right.

A one-time actor staggers toward his demise and clings to a ledge of -possibly lunatic belief; a young boy is haunted by cosmic loneliness in the form of a medical encyclopedia; the heir to an absent father’s wealth can’t quite bring himself to claim his portion.

The ordinary becomes epic in the contested terrain between faith and doubt, love and sex, spirit and flesh, reality and illusion.

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