Richard Risemberg was dragged to Los Angeles as a child, and has been working there in a number of vernacular occupations since his teens while writing poetry, articles, essays, and fiction, editing online 'zines, sneaking around with a camera trying to steal people's souls, and making a general nuisance of himself, which is his forte. He's survived long enough to become either a respected elder or a tedious old fart, depending on your point of view, and is still at it. It hasn't been easy for any of us.
THAT ELECTRIFYING SENSATION
It was another bright sunny summer morning of the sort LA is famous for, so I put on my bathing suit and sneakers and went out behind the garage. Our neighborhood was an older one near but not in Hollywood, and pools were rare, but one house on the back half of our block had one. This was a tall shingle-sided house, two stories of dark wood-paneled rooms occupied by a rough-voiced older couple who were lifelong smokers and alcoholics. I knew about the smoking, of course, but at thirteen I had not yet guessed, or been told about, their drinking. I just knew that they said peculiar things now and then. Bill's voice was a sort of harsh, shouted whisper, and he was a big, bluff, beefy guy with bristling eyebrows—a cowboy type, though without the accent. Lorna had what I now recognize as the ruined face of the alcoholic, and the burnt, sagging skin of a lifelong tennis player who had come of age when tans were fashionable. I never heard a negative statement from either of them, and knew no kinder people during my tumultuous childhood. They are both dead now.
The lot their house was on touched the lot we lived on at the southwest corner, behind the garage, where there was also a telephone pole. In those days there was always a little space behind the garage, where you would find a small incinerator for garbage, a tapered concrete box with a chimney. It looked somewhat like a primitive temple. I suppose it was, in a way, a ritual space where Americans worshipped the throwaway culture of the day, but by the time we had moved in it was illegal to use them because of smog. My father had ours removed and put a vegetable patch in the little space it had presided over, working on his hands and knees with his eyes earnest behind his hornrimmed glasses. I was always careful not to step on the vegetables on my way to the telephone pole. If I climbed the low chainlink fence that separated our yard from the one directly behind it, which belonged to people whose names we did not know, I could reach the iron rungs that the line workers used to climb the telephone pole. Once at the top of the cinderblock wall that confined Bill and Lorna's back yard, I would climb down a small tree that grew there and go to the pool. This was Bill's suggestion: a shortcut that saved me from having to walk all the way around the block.
Once in their yard I was in a different world: there was no grass, only a concrete apron around the kidney-shaped pool, and the shimmering, ever-moving turquoise of the pool water sent sunglints onto the wall of the garage on one side, and along the cluster of banana trees that hung their heavy bright leaves along the back of the yard. There was a cornice of red terra-cotta edging the pool, with a frieze of blue and yellow tiles below it. At the deep end of the pool, near the back wall, was a low, stubby diving board made of white fiberglass. By the back door of the house was a round metal table, dull with rust flecks, attended by equally dull chairs, while a pair of lounges, made of rubber tubes stretched on an aluminum frame, flanked the diving board. A wooden fence crossed the space from the garage to the house itself, interrupted by a gate. The house loomed tall at the west end and provided shade on hot afternoons. Exactly over the back door of the house, on the second floor, was a tiny square room where Bill spent most of his time when he was at home. He kept a ham radio set there, and listened in on conversations from all over the world. In those days you had to learn Morse code before you could get a license to transmit, and Bill had never been able to master it, so he only eavesdropped.
It was a clever little nest, with a comfortable office chair and the consoles of his various radios arrayed on a small desk, along with reference books and pictures of sailboats. There was also a large and intimidating .50 caliber machine gun round sitting on the windowsill, a souvenir he had brought back from his service in World War Two. This always made me nervous, but I couldn't help picking it up and marveling at its weight and danger. I was a city kid and the son of an engineer, and had never touched a real gun in my life.
I spent as much time in the radio room as in the pool. The idea fascinated me: conversations bounced off the ionosphere to us from the dark side of the planet. Of course many of them were in languages we did not know, and some were garbled in transmission. We never heard anything outrageous—people using radios knew that anyone with a good antenna could hear them—but we felt that we were part of a secret society, even if only a passive part. Not full members, which we would never be.
The view of roofs and back windows from the radio room also fascinated me. I would peer into neighbors' yards, but of course our staid old block nurtured no strange practices, and the numerous trees, including several towering eucalyptuses, gave our fellow denizens a modicum of privacy. The eucalyptuses were later all cut down as windstorm hazards, and I mourned them; they were part of the background of my life, and mapped the corners of my little world. I can still see the view: the windows on three sides, like on a ship's bridge; the pool below; the fences and shrubs that marked our platted domains; then trees here and there, followed by back walls under gray or red shingled roofs. Close at hand, the metal boxes covered with dials and knobs of Bill's radios, and all the masculine debris of the desk, including the famous machine gun bullet and the inevitable glass with its level of whiskey. Bill and Lorna were of a era when people drank openly in front of kids. Survivors of a cocktail-party youth.
One day the main radio was being cranky, and Bill was trying to diagnose the cause. He turned dials, pushed buttons, and consulted pages of fine print. Finally he turned his whispered roar on me and said, "Petey! Do me a favor! Run downstairs with this screwdriver and disconnect the ground cable. I think that might be the problem. It's attached to the faucet by the door!" I was always glad to feel competent, a sensation that was rare to me back then, and I nodded and hurried down the dark wood-paneled stairway. Once outside, I found the backyard faucet where the grounding wire was clamped on. The wire traced its way up the wall of the house and into the window of the radio room.
I don't remember much of what happened next, except that I felt as though every square inch of my body was being pounded by heavy rubber mallets. I know I jumped back, quite involuntarily, though given the choice I would have done it anyway. Then I sat down on the concrete pool deck. I have no idea where the screwdriver went, or whether it was ever found. I didn’t care much either, and still don't. It dawned on me that I had just been electrocuted, though not fatally. Bill leaned his big craggy head out of one of the side windows of the radio room and roared his hoarse whisper down at me. "Why you sitting down? Something wrong?"
My mind was clearing now, and I could speak. I was proud to remember what little electrical talk I knew. "I think it's shorting through the ground cable. I just got a shock."
"Oh, hell," Bill said. His head disappeared. I got up just as he came out the back door. "Petey! You all right?"
"Yeah. All things considered." I shook myself, and he laughed.
"Let's get back upstairs. I unplugged the god damned thing." I could hear the relief in his ruined voice.
I suppose it wasn't much of a shock, as I recovered quickly and ran up the stairs ahead of Bill—showing off a bit, maybe. Once back in the radio room, we stared at the receiver, whose dials and panels were now dark. Bill sat himself in the swiveling office chair. There was, of course, nothing to do there with the radio dead. Bill stared out the window towards my own house beyond the fences. "There's that beautiful mother of yours out in the back yard." I looked and saw my mother walking towards the back of the garage, where she found my father. My father had come out to work in his vegetable patch. He stood up to talk with her. We could barely hear their voices up in the radio room, even with the side window open, but the rhythm didn't sound happy. Their words were lost in the murmur of traffic that we couldn't see, and the lisping call of a bird somewhere up on Bill's roof sounded much more pertinent at the moment.
Seeing her from far away, where she didn't really look like my mother, I could tell that she was in fact quite beautiful. I later realized that she resembled a movie star of the time, one who had been more famous in Bill and Lorna's younger days. But I think that no kid ever sees his parents as men and women, or even human; you understand them as categories. Bill said in a less-roaring whisper than usual, "Maybe you'd better not tell her what happened. She might get mad at me." He didn't mention my father, who rarely visited.
"It wasn't your fault," I said. When I looked at him and saw his profile, staring at my mother as she stood behind the garage, gesticulating vigorously now, I began to feel a little funny. But it wasn’t till years later that I remembered that day and realized Bill was in love with her. At the time I just wondered why he stared at her that way, from his tiny room in the sky, when she was only my mother.
After she went back into the house, vanishing as the back door clacked shut behind her, Bill set me to helping him disconnect the cables from the dead receiver. I carried it down the stairs for him, struggling a bit—Bill was far stronger then than I would ever become and was just being kind to me. We put it in his car for him to take to the shop. He drove off, and I left too. I didn't climb the fence that day to go back, but walked the long way home around the block. I knew how things would be at the house when I got there, and didn't need to hurry. There was just no place else to go right then, and I had to go somewhere.