by Ralph Avseev
The winter his father died, the winter he came out to the Coast, it rained for six weeks. In Topanga three dozen horses perished when a ten foot wall of water raced down the canyon. Out in Riverside County Lake Elsinore rose sixteen feet in eight days and crested six feet above flood stage, inundating two hundred forty-three not so mobile homes of Happy Village Estates. At Malibu a fifteen year old boy washed out to sea while attempting the rescue of a Saint Bernard adrift in Malibu Creek. Dog was not seen again. Boy, who as luck would have it was clad in a wetsuit, survived by clinging to a log until morning, when a Coast Guard patrol hauled him to safety. Every day, in the foothills of the mountains surrounding the city, more homes slipped away to oblivion like matchsticks in a flume.
Brilstein watched the drama unfold on the six o’clock news. Live action cameras trailed breathless reporters through the deluge, bearing electronic witness to watery chaos.
Item: An industrialist’s mansion lies in splinters at the bottom of Mandeville Canyon. Through the downpour the lady of the house composes herself, wiping away tears for the camera.
Item: A nine year old is swept into the torrents of Rio Hondo. Then, in a rescue worthy of the silver screen, firemen from Downey snatch her from the surging waters at the last possible moment. Their rugged and weary looking battalion commander is seen on the tube commending the girl’s father, who had the presence of mind to telephone for help before racing after his daughter.
Item: Flash floods rupture the main sewage line in the Malibu Hills, releasing hundreds of gallons of raw sewage into the never pristine waters of Santa Monica Bay. This noxious event turns out to be only the preamble to the ultimate Southern California catastrophe, as swimming is banned from Palos Verdes to Point Dume.
It was an endless tale of catch basins filled beyond capacity, boy scouts hefting sandbags on twisting canyon streets, bulldozers pushing mud from major intersections, crucial dams threatened, entire hillsides disintegrating. Each day brought more destruction, additional tragedies, fresh evidence of civilization’s fragility in the face of nature gone berserk. The weather man spoke of strange wiggles in the jet stream, perpetual low pressure in the arctic, and a strange current off Chile called El Nino. He pointed with evident excitement to satellite photos where troughs, fronts and comma clouds could be seen in ominous bands, stretching across the North Pacific all the way to Nome. Night after stormy night he concluded with the same message: No end in sight.
The bitching began with the rain. People who never complained about the smog once in an entire year grasped at the tiniest excuse to moan about this innocent water falling from the sky: the cancelled tennis game, the ruined day at the beach, the mud-splattered car. It seemed that nothing got them angrier than this lousy weather. They had no perspective. They bitched about everything with equal zeal. A fading tan was as threatening as mud on the freeway. A missed afternoon of golf caused as much grief as the Mercedes lost to the floods in some god-forsaken arroyo. By the third week a kind of panic set in, the sheer terror that it might never stop. By the third week the bitching had become a steady whine, a metropolitan chorus wheedling for an end, pleading for the weather bureau, the government, somebody to please do something about this crazy weather.
Brilstein didn’t care. He had not come for the weather. He did not crave endless days of sunshine. He did not play tennis. He had neither illusions nor dreams. He had his own reasons, and the rain suited his mood.
After the evening news he turned off the lights and sat on the porch of the house in Altadena. Sitting in the darkness he felt the presence of the San Gabriels, an immense weight looming above the city. The air was clean, traffic sparse. It soothed him to sit listening to the rain. When the showers let up another sound emerged, water rushing down the slope. It flowed in deep gutters, weird moats peculiar to California hillside streets. When the water filled the moats to capacity then floating debris, brush and palm fronds knocked down by the storm, would lodge beneath the concrete ramp that spanned the gutter, connecting the driveway and the road. This caused the water to back up and roll into the middle of the street.
Alerted to the blockage by an abrupt silence, he made it a point to remove the debris. Kneeling on the concrete, soaked by the splash, he remembered childhood streets flooded by summer cloudbursts, wild rivers flowing for precious minutes in the heart of another city. He rose from his work wet and smiling, pleased to hear the water flowing free again from the mountains to the sea.
By the fourth week, bored with the second hand thrills of the televised disaster, he set out to observe the situation on his own. He avoided freeways. Aquaplaning was a phenomenon with which people out here were not familiar. In the rain they drove like Italians, impatient and oblivious to danger. He kept to the surface streets in search of mudslides, floods and washouts. He wanted to see a house fall. He wanted to feel the gentle bite of rain on his cheeks and watch with his own eyes as someone’s precarious palace came down. To assuage the guilt which this desire provoked he made a promise: If he saw just one slip away he would go home and stay there until the sun came out.
A week passed, a week in which he saw rivers of muck, gardens filled with boulders, cars immersed in water up to their state-of-the-art sound systems. He did not see a single falling house. The police, who always seemed to know which neighborhood was next, set up roadblocks through which only residents and the press could pass. The quest was not easy.
Still, there were hundreds of likely prospects teetering on the slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains all along the coast. They would not be easy to reach. The Pacific Coast Highway was closed all the way to Oxnard, a victim of slow strangulation. First it had been a slide at Big Rock, then six feet of mud that slithered out of Rustic Canyon early one morning, finally the collapse of the Palisades at the California Street Incline.
He was determined. On a Saturday he drove to Santa Monica, parked near the pier and headed up the beach on foot. He was prepared to walk all afternoon or even all night. At Topanga two dozen surfers sat on their boards out where the waves were breaking, ignoring the rain that fell in intermittent squalls. Black and shiny in their wetsuits they scanned the swells that pushed in with the storms. They were waiting for big ones.
Suddenly there was a commotion, a flurry of pointing. A boy paddled furiously for shore. He pulled his board from the water and came up the beach, dripping. “There’s a body” he shouted to no one in particular as he ran towards the highway.
Brilstein squinted, saw nothing unusual. Minutes passed. A trio of surfers ventured out for a closer look, then quickly turned back. One by one the wetsuits came ashore. County sheriffs arrived in a dune buggy. A pasty, amorphous shape loomed into view. It floated slowly towards shore, passing the line where the swells became breakers. Now it was close and obviously a corpse. Waterlogged limbs flailed as the body rolled in the surf. A deputy wielding a hook grappled with it. He approached. The body was bloated and grotesque, of indeterminate sex. The face was decomposing, loose flesh flapping. Brilstein felt a wave of nausea. He turned towards Santa Monica and ran.
Saturday night Brilstein dreamed about his dead father, who called him from the bathroom of the old house. The light was on and his father was alive. His heart filled with joy as he entered the bathroom. When he approached the tub there was a gurgling noise. Something was wrong. His father turned to face him, his eyes purely white, focused on nothing. He was bloated, his face decomposing, loose flesh flapping.
Brilstein sat up in bed, drenched in the horrible reality of death, uncertain that he himself had escaped it. He lay in mute terror until first light. Then, reassured that life went on, he slept. When he woke again it was afternoon and there was the sound of pounding rain. He stayed inside. He did not watch the evening news. He did not sit on the porch. He did not drive wet streets. He wanted the sun.
Copyright © 2005 by Ralph Avseev
The author survived several Los Angeles rainy seasons.
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