You are reading an archived issue of Sleet Magazine. To return to the current issue, click here.

Volume 12 • Number 2 • Fall - Winter 2020

Richard Risemberg

Legacy of Ashes

It wasn't till I started dating Aviva that our group's feelings changed about Lost Canyon. Of course we eventually took her there, and she was the one who told us about the blood and the Nazis. Until then, it was just another good place to hike, enhanced with its peculiar ruins. The ruins, and the proximity, had made it our place for a long time. Only Lost Canyon offered us the ruins.

There was a melted house. There was the field of chimneys. There were three cramped underground chambers near the stream, painted a dirty white and scrawled with poetry. Most of all there was the dynamo house, a concrete shell that had once housed electrical generators, now half-open to the sky, filled with a rubble of roof tiles and decorated with graffiti. All of this nestled into a steep desert canyon in the heart of Los Angeles. A stream ran through it, shallow and sparkling, babbling the idiot song that water makes as it stumbles over rocks and branches. People went there, all right, but never many: it was a long walk from the nearest road, and the nearest road was nothing more than a spur from a hillside neighborhood that became a dirt track that became nothing after a while. Except for the airplanes passing over you would think you were a thousand miles from civilization. And you were: it was a place of ghosts and stories, and you never knew what was true down there. It had a name, but the name told you nothing about it; it wasn't even the only "Lost Canyon" in the county. We would just say, "Let's go to the dynamo house."

There was something there that we couldn't quite understand, and we weren't sure we wanted to. We went because we were young and chased after sensation the way you do when you're young. We went because of the light inside, which was always entirely different from the light outside. We went because of the way our voices echoed in the concrete shell, returning to us in words we'd never said. We went there because we felt comfortable being uncomfortable in our skins down in that ruined canyon.

It had been a writers' colony supporting the movie industry in the old days, when you could drive to it. But in 1977 it burned in a forest fire. The metal house, while fireproof, was not heatproof, and it melted into a perfect illustration of hubris; we had walked through its ruins, even, young fools that we were, ventured up the rusted stairs to the second story, where charred scraps of furniture still lay on the remains of the floor, and a bathroom hung suspended in the open air. We posed for snapshots in the field of chimneys, all that remained of a cluster of wooden cabins. We read the poetry written in the whitewashed bunkers, which we guessed had held electrical equipment. We walked the narrow trail by the stream, stopping to watch the dull-witted orange newts that appeared in the springtime and mated passionlessly beneath the muddy banks. We thought of it as our secret place; we felt that the four of us held a deed to its secrets, and no others, not even girlfriends, could be brought down there without a unanimous vote of the team. The birdwatchers who tromped through, other hikers, the mountain bikers, were tolerated with a helpless magnanimity, because they weren't really there. Only to us was it a church, a temple. That was how we felt about it. The rest were only tourists; the reality of the place was ours alone.

Of course it wasn't. The dynamo house itself was layered with graffiti, which included swastikas and SS lightning bolts, and we occasionally found syringes in the rubble; the poetry in the underground chambers had been carefully written in red paint, the lines straight and level, every comma in place. Most of it was not original; we recognized lines from Auden, Eliot, Plath, and there was a curatorial flow to it from wall to wall, from chamber to chamber.

And the canyon itself was an animal neighborhood: to find the trail that led us to the dynamo house, we turned left at the beehives, which were neatly stacked on a sunny knoll by the road; sometimes the beekeeper himself was there, in his hat with the netted veil, cautioning us that "the bees are nervous today, so don't pass close." We often veered around rattlesnakes coiled by the trail, their blank eyes watching us as we walked, and the snips and chirps of desert birds punctuated the emptiness of the pale blue sky. Once in a while we would startle a deer, or even three or four of them, who would then crash nervously into the heavy brush. And we knew that there were bobcats and occasionally a puma in the canyon, though we were happy enough not to see them. Nevertheless, we kept up our pretense of holy ownership.

If Aviva had not been Jewish and a nurse, our attitude might never have developed. We were in our twenties, felt immortal, reveled in the self-satisfaction of having our own opinions at last, after years of parents and professors; the world was a sort of beloved toy for us. Only one of us had been in the military, and Tony had finished out his two years clerking in khaki in some barracks-room office in the Mojave. I had put in hospital time after a motorcycle crash, but I was fine now, the leg worked, I was a strong hiker, and the stories I told of that time centered more on flirtatious nurses than on traction and exercises, or the curious brief sensation of flying that I could still remember all too vividly.

It was not then, in the hospital, that I encountered Aviva, but much later; in fact, I didn't know she was a nurse at first. We met in a very ordinary way, when I asked if I could share her table at a crowded coffeehouse, and the title of a paperback I had brought with me intrigued her. We were both big readers, we both loved dark novels by tormented Russian authors; that was all it took. She got along well with all of us, and after a few months was voted in to the group. There was only one other girlfriend attached to us at the time, and she was afraid of snakes, so never came to the dynamo house.

The dynamo house was our main attraction, and so of course we showed it to her in the fatuous way you'd show off your church to an atheist. It was nearly three stories tall inside, with a vaulted ceiling, where there was any ceiling left, a platform at one end that resembled a stage, and a metal ladder leading to a catwalk made of rusted grating. There were no windows, only the large entry in front and a smaller back door opening to a tangle of brush on the rising hillside, impenetrable to humans. The effect was cathedral-like, especially when the sun struck through the broken ceiling at an angle, making one wall glow while the shadows deepened in the rest of the room. The floor was a jumble of broken tiles, bits of concrete, and rusted hunks of machinery, but you could move around in it if you were careful. In one corner was a sort of well with a stairway descending to a basement, but the ceiling down there was so low, the rubble so deep, and the light so feeble that even in our bolder moments we would never venture too far into it. And graffiti was everywhere: names, personal insults, racial slurs, and the Nazi markings.

The Nazi markings: Aviva tensed up and murmured, "Oh, my God," the instant she saw those. If we had not been so self-involved we might have anticipated her reaction; I know I didn't. None of us had seen her angry before, and it was as if she had suddenly turned into a hawk as we watched. Tony tried to soothe her by saying it was only the bravado of fools, but she countered that we didn't know anything, that she had read an article about this place, that it had a history, and didn't we care about what had happened right in our own city?

Tony said, "Come on, now, LA isn't Munich," to which she sneered and said, "You really don't know? This place," she said, "this Lost Canyon of yours, and this 'dynamo house' in particular…there was a Nazi cell planted here before World War Two. The generators were supposed to power a radio station, propaganda, you know. To start a fascist uprising here. Here in Los Angeles, in America." She stood tall and angry in a shaft of light as she lectured us, her eyes darting from face to face under the wild mop of her hair. "The FBI knew about them and raided the place after Pearl Harbor. But this canyon is cursed. You can see the signs right on these walls."

Marcus, our stodgy rationalist, put a professorial squint on his plump face and said, "Don't be romantic. There's no such thing as curses."

Aviva swung her arm out and pointed at the scarred walls: "You call that romantic? My family was there…these people left me a legacy of ashes!" She was silent for a moment, gathering tension as she stared us down. Then: "Curses don't come from God. They come from our neighbors." She stalked out, shoving past Marcus with a sneer. The four of us stood absolutely frozen in the sudden silence.

Marcus moaned, "Did I say the wrong thing?"

Tony said only: "Shit."

I left. I figure she couldn't go too far; it wasn't easy to find the way back if you hadn't been there before, and even if she did, she would be on foot in a standoffish neighborhood miles from a main road. She was no fool; she'd be somewhere nearby.

I walked along the obvious trails, up and down the stream, but I didn't call her name; it would have felt too dramatic. When I came back to the dynamo house, my three buddies were standing in a sheepish huddle in front. Josh, who would have been our leader if we had a leader, asked me, "Did you find her?"

"Not yet. I went from the melted house to the old dam so far. She'll be around."

"Touchy, isn't she?"

"Wouldn't you be if it was your family?"

Her voice came to us out of nowhere: "Why does it matter only if it's your own family? That's how they think. Everyone else is nothing to pigs like them." She sauntered out of a tangle of trees by the stream.

I said: "You were right there all along?"

"I was in one of those bunkers. The one with the poems written in blood."

Marcus again: "Oh, come on now, it's not—"

"Shut up! I am a nurse. And I was an army nurse when I lived in Israel. Maybe it's not human blood, but it's blood. This is a place for crazy people; why do you come down here? It is full of hate and death."

I looked around at the tops of the trees, slowly dancing in a silent breeze; I could hear the bubbling of water, the rustle of leaves. The smell of sage from the hillside. All the sensations that bring calm to the soul. Then I turned and looked at the dynamo house, with an SS blaze sprayed in clumsy angles over the door: as if someone wanted to revive the lost hopes of the Reich. A butterfly stumbled mindlessly through the air between us, a bird chirped somewhere in the foliage over our heads, something moved in the shrubbery nearby but nobody paid attention. I looked at Josh, who turned his face away. Aviva spoke again, calmer: "Darling, take me home. This is not a good place for me. They can stay if they want."

"We all came in one car."

"I'll walk to Sunset with you, and we can take a bus." She straightened up. "Or you show me the trail so I can go by myself. I am not helpless."

"I'll go with you," I said. "I never thought about…."

"The world always forgets, and…it…starts again." She turned and began walking, and I followed her. I heard footsteps in the dust; when I glanced back the other three were trudging along in a line behind us. Josh's expression might have been a little angry, but Tony and Marcus looked blank. We walked on without speaking. The whole world was silent, or so it felt. The trail rose into the fierce California light, a light that illuminated nothing about us but our skins.

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.