from Signal Hill: Stories
The Honor System
WHERE CATHERINE AND I FIRST BUMPED INTO EACH other—where she backed into me—was on a shadowless expanse of desert floor in Death Valley National Monument, probably sixty miles’ clearance in any direction. Friends consider this a new standard of clumsiness. They ask if it was tourist season, try to form pictures of foot traffic. It wasn’t tourist season. This was at Badwater (Lowest Point in the Western Hemisphere), a crusty green pool that shrinks optically by fantastic degrees the closer you approach from the hills. It disappointed waves of nineteenth-century prospectors making the tearful, weaving descent to what had promised to be a stupendous reservoir of blue.
Today a highway stretches by the site to the turnout where Catherine’s sport wagon from Don Garp Studio City sat cooling its engine noisily, a crystal pot under the hood. In front of the car, a wooden information post in the style of a birdhouse offered Department of the Interior historical pamphlets for 50 cents on the honor system. That proposition had Catherine literally swaying. She had only a five-dollar bill; she wanted a pamphlet very much. You wondered if similar ethical questions had given her trouble in Studio City. You wondered things like that in Death Valley, because there was time to imagine the stories behind people. The truth was, Catherine had left Studio City in a divorcee trance—grabbing on to the first inspiration that came, which was that manners were going to exempt her from the ambiguities of life and distance would keep her out of “situations” somehow. She’d ironed all her dresses in a single evening and for two days had been touring Death Valley in a variety of them, smoothing creases. Finally, she made it to Badwarer and got herself hypnotized by this 50¢ Donation sign, which is where I found her when I arrived, second in line. It sounds ridiculous, but that is how we were: Catherine behind dark glasses, breathing these high, swaying breaths, and me waiting my turn, dismally. Until at some point she wasn’t swaying so much as backpedaling; I had to say “Whoa,” as a warning, and our feet got tangled up.
Saying “Whoa” instead of “I’m sorry” is something my Westwood therapist would call growth. I’m more skeptical about it. I felt sorry the way men habitually feel sorry, part of a consciousness of being clumsy around facts of suffering; learning a new noise to make before falling down doesn’t seem like big growth to me. How funny the fall must have looked—two people basically sitting down with a backward running start, Catherine throwing her handbag up in the air like a pizza—occurred to me belatedly. Nowadays I can laugh picturing it. I can divide it into its phases. It seems to me every fall has one truly great moment, a kind of awakening: you hit dirt and lie there a second, and the planetary silliness of everything comes up through the ground. That was when Catherine pushed her sunglasses back and blinked up at me like a screen star, for laughs, playing a scene about someone falling into someone’s arms; I flashed back to a childhood game, the one where you fall down on purpose (could you play London Bridge in the desert?), and I wanted to fall again. But I didn’t say so, and in the next interval I couldn’t have known how to; we remembered we were strangers. You could see this realization come over Catherine, too. She stopped fluttering her eyes, because the screen- star bit hadn’t gotten a laugh. She then hid her face in her hands and pretended to gag. She was on her elbows, next to me. This all happened in a second or two.
“No,” I said. “It was very funny.”
“What?” She looked at me. “Oh.”
I wasn’t sure we’d even understood each other. I looked away, feeling foolish.
“Oh, God,” she said suddenly. Her eye picked out a loose thread on her dress and she broke it off, starred smoothing some creases, and gave up. Then she slid herself back to a position against the base of the information post, with her head propped back, mock-seductively. She was acting again, playing someone whose bell had really been rung. She took an elaborate, heartsick breath and smiled. “Well—good-bye.”
What was I supposed to say? It was one routine after another. My father views that sort of person as a “type”—the “type who’s afraid you’ll leave before they think of what they wanted to say” is how he puts it. At which I roll my eyes, if only by habit; I want that sort of insight to come from someone I have more in common with, like my sister, the screenwriter. But conversations with my sister only turn out wishful: we fantasize people into the mysteries we want them to be, fearless and unknowable, parentless. It frightens me to admit that my father’s is the more loving view of human nature; I have no idea how he came to it. I took a pamphlet and walked past Catherine, to the edge of the pond, pretending to Study the insect life under the surface. (“The wigglers are the larvae of the Soldier Fly.”) Sunset was crossing the valley a hue at a time, and I stood there until I heard Catherine drive away. . . .
Five stories track boys and men as they navigate among the ghosts and mirages of greater Los Angeles in Alan Rifkin’s collection Signal Hill. 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.
Alan Rifkin is a writer for Los Angeles Magazine. He lives in Long Beach, CA.