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This novel exposes the obsession that draws climbers away from civilization to test themselves against the most intimidating and inaccessible mountains in the world.
They were at work on the roof of the church. All day from above, from a sea of light where two white crosses crowned twin domes, voices came floating down as well as occasional pieces of wood, nails, and once in the dreamlike air a coin that seemed to flash, disappear and then shine again for an endless time before it met the ground. Beneath the eucalyptus branches a signboard covered with glass announced the Sunday sermon: Sexuality and God.
The sun was straight overhead, pouring down on palm trees, cheap apartments and boulevards along the sea. Sparrows hopped aimlessly between the bumpers of cars. Inland, dazzling and white, Los Angeles lay in haze.
The workmen were naked to the waist and flecked with black. One of them was wearing a handkerchief, its corners knotted, on his head. He was dipping his broom in tar and coating the shingles. He talked continuously.
"All religion has something to do with the heat," he said. "They all started in the desert." He had the kind of immature beard that seems like dark splinters beneath the skin. "On the other hand, if you examine it, philosophy comes from temperate regions. Intellect from the north, emotion from the south ..."
"You're splashing that stuff, Gary."
"In California there are no ideas. On the other hand, we may see God. This is madness, working up here. I'm dying of thirst," he said. "Did you ever see Four Feathers? The original one—Ralph Richardson loses his helmet and it's like he's been hit with a sledgehammer. Bang! he goes blind." He held out his hands for a moment, as if searching, and then lapsed into the climax from something else, "Shoot-a me! Keel-a me!" In his blackened face, teeth appeared like a sandwich unwrapped from dirty paper.
He stood and watched his companion work, steady, unhurried. The roof was shimmering, hidden in light. Far below were the doors through which women, spied on from above, had gone in and out all day. A sale was being held in the basement. On the next level, aisles and benches—he had never actually been in a church, he tried to imagine what was said there, how one behaved. Above it, he and Rand. It was all one great angelic order. Flesh, spirit, gods. Wages, three dollars an hour.
The steepness slowly reached up to him as he stood, his feet sideways on the narrow cleats. It rose in waves, he could feel it begin to enfold him. The scaffolding seemed a long way down, the ground farther. He thought of falling, not from here—he pressed with his feet, the cleats were firm—but from some unknown spire, suddenly borne by nothing, free, drifting past windows in one long instant, the shadow glimpsed incredibly from within. He stood there, staring down.
He wanted to be talked to. The work was numbing. He was bored.
"Take a break," Rand said.
A breed of aimless wanderers can be found in California, working as mason's helpers, carpenters, parking cars. They somehow keep a certain dignity, they are surprisingly unashamed. It's one thing to know their faces will become lined, their plain talk stupid, that they will be crushed in the end by those who stayed in school, bought land, practiced law. Still, they have an infuriating power, that of condemned men. They can talk to anybody, they can speak the truth.
Rand was twenty-five or -six. He lived with a Mexican girl, or so they said, a tall girl whose arms were covered with fine black hair. Where had he met her, Gary wondered, what had he said to her at first? It was a summer job, Gary was merely gliding through it, he would never know. For a long time afterward, though, whenever he was in the valley and saw the dust following a lone pickup on a road through the fields, the memory would come to him, an image of a yellow Mustang, the top half-gone, the driver familiar, shirtless, wind blowing his hair.
It was a world he scorned and at the same time envied, men whose friend he would like to be, stories he would like to know.
One thing he imagined again and again was meeting ten years from now—where, he was not sure, in the northern part of the state perhaps, up in the grasslands, the bypassed towns. He could see Rand clearly, faded, older. What he could not see was whether he had changed.
"How've you been?"
"Hi, Gary." A shrug. "Not bad. How about you? You look like you're doing all right."
"Ever get down to L.A.?"
"Oh, once in a while."
"Look me up," Gary said. "I'm just off Wilshire, here's my card ..." And he began to describe his life, not the way he wanted to but foolishly, disliking himself as he did, talking faster, throwing one thing on top of another, like giving money to someone who stood there saying nothing, merely waiting for more. There was no way to turn from him, there must be some amount that would put gratitude in his face, that would make him murmur, thanks. Here, Gary was saying, take this and this, this, too, all of it. He was disgracing himself. He could not stop. The day was hot there in Ceres or Modesto. The rivers were stagnant, the creeks dry. Beyond the town in open meadows sheep were bleating. Rand had turned and was walking off. Despite himself, he called,
What he wanted to say was, Look at me, don't you think I'm different? Can you believe I'm the same guy?
All this in the glittering light above the church, marooned like sailors on its black dorsal. He began to work again, balancing himself between the highest cleat and a gutter at the base of the dome. From there he reached up. His broom nearly touched the peak but not quite.
"You'd better put in another cleat."
"I'm all right," he said.
He stretched a little more. Holding the tip of the handle, balancing it, he could barely reach the top. He felt a sudden triumph. He was weightless, a lizard. He existed in a kind of joy. At that moment his whole life gave way—his foot slipped off the cleat. Instantly he was falling. He tried to hold on to the shingles. The broom clattered down the roof. He could not even cry out.
Something hit his arm. A hand. It slid to his wrist.
He would have clutched anything, a leaf, a branch, the handle of a pail. He held tightly to Rand's hand, his feet still kicking in air.
"Don't pull," he heard. "Don't pull, I won't be able to hold you." An inch at first and then an inch more, the pact they had managed to make was breaking. "Try not to slip!"
"I can't!" Terror was choking him.
"Get your fingers under a shingle." Rand was beginning to be pulled off himself. He dared not say this.
"Get hold of something."
At last he was able to. Almost by his nails he held to a shingle.
"Can you stay there?"
Gary did not answer. He was clinging to a monster by a single scale. Rand had already started to descend. He ran along the scaffold beneath, and hurriedly began to hammer in a cleat. A final cry came down,
"My hands are slipping!"
"It's all right. You've got a cleat. Turn face up, so you can see where you're going."
Beneath them the minister, staring upward, was holding the fallen broom.
"Is everything all right?" he called. He was a modern figure who disdained holy appearance; he drove a Porsche and mingled passages from various best-sellers with prayers for the dead. "You must have dropped this."
Gary stood on the scaffolding. He was shaking, he felt helpless.
"Thanks," was all he could say. Even later, having coffee at the food truck near the yard, he could not speak of it. He was still in a kind of daze.
"That was a close one," Rand said.
Girls from the laundry were wandering across the street in white smocks, laughing, talking. Gary felt weak, ashamed. "The scaffolding would have stopped me," he said.
"You'd have shot right past it."
"I don't think so."
"Like a bird," Rand said.CHAPTER 2
Above Los Angeles the faint sound of traffic hung like haze. The air had a coolness, an early clarity. The wind was coming from the sea which as much as anything gives the city its aura. A benign light flooded down, onto the shops, the awnings, the leaves of every tree. It fell on lavish homes and driveways and into the faded back streets where houses with five-digit numbers languished beneath great names: Harlow Avenue, Ince Way. There are two Los Angeleses, they like to say, sometimes more, but in fact there is only one, six lanes wide with distant palms and one end vanishing in the sea. There are mythic island names of small apartments—Nalani, Kona Kai—dentists, Mexican restaurants, and women sitting on benches with undertaker's advertisements on the back. The cars shoot past like projectiles. Against the mountains tall buildings mirror the sun.
There are certain sections, out of the way, neglected, like bits of debris in the wave. One of these is Palms. Backyards with wire fences. For Rent signs. Dusty screens.
Beneath a jacaranda tree shedding its leaves on the roof stood an unpainted house such as one might find in the country. There were four white posts along the porch. The yard was overgrown and filled with junk. In the back, a weedy garden. In one window, a decal of the flag. Above, an empty sky of precipitous blue. A gray cat, tail pointing straight up, was carefully making its way through the grass. Two doves clattered upward. The cat, one paw raised, watched them. In the driveway, chalky from exposure, a Mustang was parked.
The house belonged to a young woman from Santa Barbara. She was tall, white- skinned. It was difficult to imagine anyone describing her as Mexican. Her hair was black. Her mother was a socialite who shot herself in the leg attempting suicide. Her father taught modern languages. Her name was Louise Rate, "R-A-T-E," she added, especially on the phone.
Rand had been living there for a year, not really in the house since his room, which he rented, was the toolshed, but he was not a tenant either. At their first interview a nervous silence fell between them, a silence during which, he later found out, she was telling herself not to speak. She opened the door to the shed and preceded him in. It was a long, narrow structure built on the back of the house. There was a bed, a dresser, shelves of old books.
"You can move these around if you like."
He gazed about. The ceiling was painted alternately white and the green of boat hulls. There were boxes of empty bottles. In the house the radio was playing; the sound came through the wall. She seemed abrupt, disinterested. That night she wrote about him in her diary.
She was a moon-child with small teeth, pale gums, awkward polished limbs. She called him by his last name. At first it seemed with scorn. It was her style.
She was working in a urologist's office. The hours suited her and also the pleasure of reading the files. She was living in exile, she liked to say.
"It's sort of a mess. I haven't had time to straighten it up. It's a nice street, though. It's very quiet. What sort of work do you do?"
He told her.
"I see," she said. She folded and unfolded her arms. She couldn't decide what to say. The sun was pouring down in the warm afternoon, traffic was going everywhere. Through the windows could be seen neighboring houses where the shades were always drawn as if for an illness within. And there was an illness, of lives that were spent.
"Well ...," she said helplessly. The stirrings of a well-being close at hand, even of a possible happiness, were confusing her. "I suppose you can have it. What's your name?"
He hardly saw her the first few days. Then, briefly appearing in the doorway, she invited him to dinner.
"It's not a party or anything," she explained.
The candles were dripping on the tablecloth. The cat walked among dishes on the sink. Louise drank wine and stole glances at him. She had never really seen his face. He was from Indianapolis, he told her. His family had moved to California when he was twelve. He had quit college after a year.
"I didn't like the cafeteria," he said. "I couldn't stand the food or the people who ate there."
He had been in the army.
"The army?" she said. "What were you doing in the army?"
"I was drafted."
"Didn't you hate it?"
He didn't reply. He was sitting with his arm curved around the plate, eating slowly, like a prisoner or a man who has been in mission houses. Suddenly she understood. "Oh!" she almost said. She could see it: he was a deserter. At that moment he looked up. Don't worry, she tried to tell him silently. She admired him, she trusted him completely. He had hair that had gone too long without being cut, fine nostrils, long legs. He was filled with a kind of freedom that was almost visible. She saw where he had been. He had crossed the country, slept in barns and fields, dry riverbeds.
"I know ...," she said.
"You know what?"
"You wouldn't have recognized me," he said. "I was so gung ho, you wouldn't believe it. We had a captain, Mills was his name. He used to tell about the chorus of soldiers that gathered outside when General Marshall was dying. They stood in the dusk and sang his favorite songs. It was just the idea of it. The other guys, what did they care? But I wasn't like them. I believed. I was really a soldier, I was going to officer candidate school and become a lieutenant, I was going to be the best lieutenant in the whole damned army. It was all because of that captain. Wherever he went, I wanted to go. If he died, I wanted to die."
"Is this true?"
"I used to copy the way he dressed, the way he walked. The army is like a reform school. Everyone lies, fakes. I hated that. I didn't talk to anyone, I didn't have any friends, I didn't want to be soiled. You're probably not interested in this. I don't know why I'm telling you."
"I am interested."
He paused, thinking back to a period of faith.
"We had a first sergeant, an old-timer, he could hardly write his name. We called him Bobo. I knew he liked me, I didn't know how much. One night at a beer party I went up to him to ask about my chances for promotion. I'll never forget it. He looked at me, he kind of nodded. He said, 'Rand, I been in the army a long time, you know?' In 'knee arm forces,' is what he actually said. 'My old man was a marine, I tell you that? A China Marine. You probably never heard of the China Marines. They were the worst soldiers in the world. They had houseboys cleaned their rifles for them and shined their shoes. They had White Russian girl friends. Why, they didn't even know how to roll a pack. I was a kid there; I remember all that. Tell you something, I was in Korea—a long time ago—that was rough. I was in Saigon. I've soldiered everywhere, you name it. I've jumped in snowstorms, we couldn't even get a squad assembled till two days later. I've jumped at night. I've jumped into rivers—by mistake, that was. I've known guys from all over, and let me tell you something: you are one of the best soldiers I ever seen!'"
"Did he mean it?"
"He was drunk."
"I never even made corporal."
The immense southern night had fallen. It glittered everywhere, in houses along the beach, supermarkets open late, the white marquees of theaters.
"Here," she said, "have some wine."
"I could have been a captain, I could have worn bars."
His blue shirt was faded, his face strangely calm. He looked like a cashiered officer, like a man whose destiny has been denied him.
"I thought you were a deserter," she confessed.
"An apostate," she heard him say.
That night he slept in her bed. They would have been enemies otherwise. She knew she was hasty and nervous. Perhaps he wouldn't notice. The bed was very wide, her marriage bed. The sheets had scalloped edges. It was the first time since her divorce, she confided.
"My God," she moaned, "can you believe that?" And a while later, "Was that story you told me true?"
"Sure it was."
"About the marines?"
In the morning she followed him to work.
Women look like one thing when you don't know them and another when you do. It was not that he didn't like her. He would watch as she sat, dressing for the evening, before a folding mirror. In the circle of light her mysterious reflection did not even acknowledge him but watched self-absorbed as she applied the black around her eyes. Her necklaces hung from a deer antler. There were pictures cut from magazines tacked to the wall.
"Who is this?" he said.
"Is this your father?"
A brief glance.
"That's D. H. Lawrence," she murmured.
A young man with a mustache and fine brown hair.
Excerpted from Solo Faces by James Salter. Copyright © 1979 James Salter. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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