Los Angeles is divided by a row of low steep hills covered with oaks and sage, grass that glows brilliantly for a few weeks in spring and then turns pale brown, and the houses of the well-off. The houses slouch on the hillsides like overfed cats, shaded by trees that have never belonged in the desert air. The trees are kept alive by applications of expensive water, and the water comes, unwillingly, from the northern half of the state. The northerners protest against this diversion of their own birthright, but no one ever really listens. Everyone nods and says that the situation is terrible, but the water flows, the trees drink it up, the houses purr in the shade, and rivers and creeks run feebly or not at all below the rumbling pumps of the waterworks. Carl and Cathy understood this as they sat in their car in the snake's nest of traffic in Westwood, and Cathy even brought it up in idle talk as they inched towards the freeway, ensconced in a temporary canyon shaped by a towering city bus on either side of them and one in front. When Cathy glanced to one side, she saw a passenger above her, looking ghostly behind the tinted window of the bus, reading a well-known book on the ecology of the region. Her remark hung in the air; Carl ignored it. Finally she said, "Can we turn on the radio now?"
Carl nodded. "I guess we'll be late. Do you mind calling them up and telling them we're stuck in traffic?"
"It's okay to be late to this sort of thing. I've told you a thousand times. You thought we'd be late to their housewarming last year, but his own brother arrived after we did."
"Still, we ought to let them know."
Cathy turned on the radio but left the phone in the depths of her purse. They worked their way past the bus, and now she could see the crests of the hills, silhouetted by the last light of the day behind them, looming beyond the gleaming metal of traffic and the gray horizon made by the elevated freeway a short distance before them. Dark scabs of desert flora on the upper hills, and the first lighted windows in houses on the slopes below. The freeway was less than half a mile ahead. It took them twenty minutes to reach it. The homeless folks parading by on the sidewalks were moving faster than the traffic. They passed the VA cemetery with its heroic statue on the corner, its green lawns spotted by the white of crosses and headstones beyond it. Something played on the car radio: a young man whining about love over dejected guitar chords. Cathy turned it off as Carl gunned the car onto the freeway onramp, only to be stopped by congestion after a hundred yards of hurry. "We'll never get there on time," he said.
"But neither will anyone else. Don't worry about it. They know what the freeway's like. No one will be on time."
Carl didn't answer. They merged into the quivering rows of cars, red taillights filling their vision, the yellow glints of the overhead lamps making bright streaks on the sheet metal of the cars head of them. Their offramp was near the crest of the Sepulveda Pass, where half the traffic of the city funneled over the hills to the Valley beyond. "Don't worry," she repeated. "No one will be on time." Carl said nothing.
The house was on a cul-de-sac just below an empty ridge. They drove to the end then circled around and parked in front of Damian and Judy's house. One story, like most of them, but not a ranch house. An architect house, full of angles and corners, bent in the middle to match the contour of the lot. Banana trees and bird-of-paradise plants, and a compact mass of flowers by the curb. There was no sidewalk. The sprinklers hissed softly as they walked to the door, which was shadowed by a concrete slab. "I'll bet we're the first ones here," Cathy said. "It was too easy to park."
Carl pressed the doorbell button, and they heard soft chiming from inside. The door opened to Damian, tall and lanky in a loose linen shirt, pushing a grin through his salt-and-pepper goatee. The usual effusive greetings followed, and their host led them to the kitchen, a wide, bright room with granite countertops and a free-standing stove in the center, under a metal hood where a fan hummed softly. Judy broke away from a gleaming steel cooking pot and rushed to grant hugs and air kisses and exchange calibrated squeals of delight with Cathy. Wine glasses appeared, and Damian led them out of the kitchen to a sunken living room, where a gas fire played around the concrete logs in the hearth. Half-life-sized African-inspired statues guarded the four corners of the room, while enlargements of photos Damian had taken on their exotic vacations lined the walls. There was another couple waiting there, sunken into deep cushions: an older man with wire-rimmed glasses and his compact, elegant wife. Damian introduced them around, and then rushed off to answer the door again. The next half hour was a series of introductions followed by the chiming of the door and Damian's hurry to answer it. At one point, Cathy muttered to Carl, "He should just leave the door open; there are no gangs of wild kids roaming around up here to barge in."
"It's not how things are done, is it?" Carl said.
"The way things are done," Cathy said, "doesn’t always make sense. My grandpa just used to leave the door open when he was expecting folk. Not the screen door, of course; it was bug country."
"It was country country; he probably knew everyone for ten miles around. I'll bet Damian doesn't even know who lives across the street."
"No. But we don't always make sense either."
Judy's voice cut through the buzz of talk and called everyone to table. The meal was properly exquisite. As the dishes progressed, a plump brown woman who never spoke took them away, and clanks and splashes followed from the kitchen. Afterwards, Damian led everyone to the back yard for more drinks.
The back yard was narrow, and a long narrow pool filled most of it. The pool glowed a bright transparent blue, its surface barely moving in the vestiges of breeze that found their way into the yard. A jungle of tropical plants loomed over everything: more banana trees, bordered with lilies of various sorts along a little wall. Some guests sat on the wall; others found their way to the round ironwork table with its cluster of candles and bottles. Most just stood around, holding drinks and breathing the desert air. Low-wattage lamps glowed modestly around the perimeter, at knee level. "It's so peaceful here," Cathy told Judy.
"Yes, especially at night," Judy said. "In the daytime the light's too bright. I love it here at night." The languid tremble of the pool sent reflections to caress their faces.
There was no music playing, and murmurs of conversation drifted back and forth. In a far corner, two men were speaking vigorously but holding their voices down. A bright half moon presided overhead. Cathy said: "Do you ever swim in the pool? That must be wonderful."
"Not really," Judy said. "It's too narrow for swimming. But if it's warm we lounge in it sometimes. I wish there was a jacuzzi. But the pool was here when we bought the house, of course. It's mostly to look at. We always have to warn kids not to dive; it's all shallow end."
"The blue glow is wonderful. It's worth it just for that."
"I know. But it attracts raccoons. They throw fruit from the trees around, everywhere. I had to call the pool man for an extra visit to make it pretty for tonight. It isn't easy getting folks up here to work. The traffic and all that, you know."
There was a collective gasp from the guests, and Judy looked over anxiously. "An owl," someone said. He spoke with a quiver in his voice. "A big white owl just flew over!"
"Are you sure, Robert?" a woman's voice said.
"What else could it have been? And where I grew up there were owls."
The general murmur increased then died down.
Cathy said, "Raccoons and owls. Have you seen anything else up here?"
"Damian claims he saw a bobcat. I think it was just a big housecat, but I'll never convince him. And I've heard coyotes, but never seen one."
Cathy became conscious of the unbuilt crests of the hills she had been looking at as they drove up the winding road to the house. The wild world living what life it could in the diminished spaces left to it. The lifestyle section of the newspaper mentioned rumors of a cougar in these very hills. The article was only three paragraphs and dismissive of the idea. Damian walked up to them. "I heard your comment about my bobcat. But why not? We've both seen deer."
"Deer?" Cathy said. "That must have been delightful!"
"Just one deer," Judy said. "And it would have been more delightful if it hadn't been eating my hibiscus! Damian shooed it away."
Damian laughed. "Yes, I am a fearful predator. The damned thing didn't even run. Took one look at me and strolled next door to sample the geraniums. I got a picture of it—here." He fumbled with his phone for a few moments, then showed off a tilted, blurry snap of what was certainly a deer. "Lousy shot, I know, but maybe I'll get some practice in wildlife photography living up here in the boonies."
"It is kind of the boonies, isn't it?" Carl said. He had wandered over from the drinks table, and handed Cathy a glass of white wine. "So how long does it take you to get anyplace from here? You know, grocery store, pharmacy, whatever…."
Damian rolled his eyes. "Twenty-five minutes, when there's no traffic."
"And when is there no traffic on the pass?"
Damian laughed. "Three a.m.? I made a run for cough syrup once when Judy was sick. Otherwise it's forty-five minutes each way. No fun."
"Actually, it's a major pain in the ass," Judy said. "I've nearly given up tennis. There's no club up here, of course. The only thing nearby is a church that isn't ours, even if we went to church. And there's no view. Except of the sky. You have to drive half a mile for a view. There's a turnout where you can see the lights of the Valley at night. You must have noticed it."
Carl said, "I used to ride my motorcycle up here just to stop at that turnout. But there was less traffic those days, and I was young and goofy and didn't care anyway."
"The motorcycle guys go crazy up here nowadays. They scare the crap out of me," Judy said. "Not right on our street, of course, but on the ridge road."
"Well, I was like that, back then. It's another way to experience the hills. Couldn't put up with the noise and the frenzy these days."
"Or the broken bones?" Damian said.
"I got hurt a couple of times, but I never broke a bone. Dumb luck, no doubt. And not being as brave as the young and dumb usually are. I'd seen too much in Afghanistan."
"That'll do it," Damian said. "From what I've heard."
"You heard right."
A tense, wild wail filled the air, and everyone stopped talking. Then a woman's voice said," Oh, my god, what was that?"
It sounded again, seeming to come from everywhere around them. "It sounds angry, whatever it is," someone said.
"I'm going out front," Damian said. "Carl, come with me."
They stepped gingerly out the front door. Carl motioned Damian to let him go first. He looked both ways, then stepped quickly out the door and crouched by the banana tree. The cul-de-sac was empty of everything but cars and the yellow haze of the streetlamp. They stepped carefully out into the street. The wail sounded once more, a shriek like sheet metal being torn. Then again. It was impossible to tell where it came from. Carl began to laugh. Doors opened in other houses on the cul-de-sac, and neighbors stepped out cautiously. Eventually everyone gathered in the middle of the street. "Why were you laughing?" a stout older man asked.
Carl ignored him. "Damian, I think you were right. Bobcats, I'll bet. I guess it's mating season." Guests filtered out from Judy and Damian's house. Carl saw the owl man and called him over. "What do you think, buddy? Bobcats getting it on?"
The man looked around. "Sounds like. Could be any sort of cat that's bigger than a housecat. Back home we had bobcats too. Could be a cougar though. I've never heard one of those, but they're cats all the same. This sounds big. It's been so long I didn't recognize the sound at first."
The scream sounded again. It seemed to come from every direction at once, a long, ragged wail that faded into a swallowed wah-wah sound. Cathy felt the hairs rise on her neck, and the people around her became round-eyed and hunched. Several heads turned to stare at the shadowy bulk of the slope above the cul-de-sac. The old man from across the street suddenly grabbed his wife's arm and herded her inside. The owl man, who was himself visibly nervous, said, "Nothing to worry about in any case. They've got their minds on something other than lunch."
"They?" someone said.
"Well, they don't mate alone. We're hearing the gal, but the big guy's out there somewhere."
These interesting statements did not provide the comfort the owl man may have intended. The people filtered back into their various houses. The party reassembled around the glowing pool.
"I read in the paper," a short bald man said," that someone found a mother puma and three half-grown cubs drinking from their pool one morning. I don't know where."
A woman whose hobby was African safaris told stories of kills she had witnessed, including one of a leopard that fell silently from a tree into a herd of antelopes. "You would never have known it was up there!" she brayed. A younger woman, with sleek brown hair and dangling earrings, told of seeing her placid old housecat dismember a large lizard and swallow it down still twitching. The bottles on the drinks table diminished more rapidly than before. Several of the men kept scanning the perimeter of rooftops around the back yard. It was half an hour before the talk turned to other matters, business deals and how the kids were doing in college. The screams did not sound again. When Cathy noted their absence, Carl said, "At least someone's having a good evening, I guess. He got what he wanted."
The owl man butted in. "You mean, 'She got what she wanted.' In cats, the female always initiates it."
Cathy laughed. "If only it were like that with us, life would be better, wouldn't it?"
Carl and Cathy left the party before ten, winding down the road to the freeway. En route they passed the famous overlook with the city lights spread out for miles below them. It was fifteen minutes to the freeway, which was flowing smoothly though not all that fast at that hour. They slotted the car into the rush of traffic and descended the pass towards home. They could be in bed in half an hour if they were lucky. "Just yesterday," Cathy said, "I read that a mountain lion was killed trying to cross this freeway. Made it almost all the way too. One of the ones that have those radio collar thingies. It was his second crossing."
Carl grunted. "At least out here we're still the apex predators."
"Sure. As long as we stay in our tin box. And then we kill each other in road wrecks. We might be better off facing lions."
"Guess we made that choice a hundred thousand years ago. 'Cause here we are, aren't we?"
"Yes, here we are."
The traffic thickened ahead of them, well before their exit. Carl groaned, Cathy sighed. The humped roofs of cars crowded around them as they crawled along. "At least all those bright taillights make it pretty," Cathy said.
"Yeah, pretty. All this horsepower around us, and I could go faster on my bicycle. Turn on the radio, will you?"
Cathy reached for the knob. They usually listened to a station that played hits from the Sixties, before they were born. "Ooh, I love this song. The old stuff's better, don’t you think?"
"Yeah," Carl said. "The old stuff's better. Turn it up." The music jangled as the traffic inched along. A cop passed them on his motorcycle, code lights flashing as he slipped between the lanes of traffic. They would be a long time getting home.
Richard Risemberg was born into a Jewish-Italian household in Argentina, and brought to Los Angeles to escape the fascist regime of his homeland. He has lived there since, except for a digression to Paris in the turbulent Eighties. He attended Pepperdine University on a scholarship won in a writing competition, but left in his last year to work in jobs from gritty to glitzy, starting at a motorcycle shop and progressing through offices, retail, an independent design and manufacturing business, and most recently a stint managing an adult literacy program at a library branch in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. All has become source material for his writing.
He has pursued journalism, photography, and editorial writing, which, combined with his years in motorcycle culture, introduced him to the darker side of the dream. His fiction concentrates on working-class life, homelessness, and cultures of violence, and the indifference of the Dominant Paradigm to it all.
He also has three novels under contract with Basil E. Bacorn Publishing.