By Richard Risemberg

I think of it as the day it almost snowed. It really did snow, leaving traces for an hour or so here and there in the hills, even on the beach. Snow is rare in Los Angeles; it hadn’t happened for over fifty years, but it fell, however lightly, that day. It just didn’t snow where I was, so to me it was an “almost” day. The closest I came to it was in the pizza joint where our little landscaping crew broke for lunch, as tables around us laughed in amazement over images of snow that friends had sent to their smartphones. I didn’t bother checking mine; someone else’s snow was not so interesting. We had had rain instead, and not much of that: fat cold drops that freckled the sidewalk, while I crouched under a cactus pulling weeds from decorative gravel.

The owner of said cactus, an upscale realtor in a newish two-story near the sea, stood talking with our boss under the porch while Henry and I worked. The boss was an eccentric Dutch lady who, true to her heritage, liked things tidy; she had taught me a lot about plants and pleasing customers. I worked for her when money was tight, which was usually. The realtor, a short stocky woman who collected art, had been at an exhibit that included several of my paintings a few weeks before. I recognized her, but she didn’t even see me as I crouched in her yard; I was just the help. I liked the work, though. My paintings focused on lost corners of everyday life that we generally ignore, the places where the real world lives on without much notice from ourselves. My cat’s-eye view of fancy gardens might make a nice series some day. And I needed income: of course my paintings rarely sold, despite enough good reviews.

When the rain began the boss called for a lunch break. We always called off the job in rainy weather. The day was cold, the clouds steely-gray and smooth, dragging dark skirts of rain, or maybe snow, below them over the brown hills to the north. A day off from work meant a day off from pay as well. Our clients, who lived on residuals from the movie business or commissions from selling property, had the leisure to sit and enjoy their gardens from above; I had rent to pay every month, and so had to grub in the dirt beneath, shaping the gesso that gave texture to an artful ambience that they could show off to their friends. I had no illusions about my place in the world: when I did sell a painting (hallelujah!), it was generally to hang in some pretentious bedroom, a piece of décor to most, meaningful only to a perhaps cynical handful. I joked with friends that I worked in aesthetic engineering, sometimes with rocks on the ground, sometimes with ground rocks in oil, which makes paint. It shaped a clever symmetry, though of course it meant that, barring a big break, I was a failure by American standards.

Big sparse drops of cold rain continued to thwack onto the street and sidewalk. We packed our tools into the battered old truck we used—”We mustn’t look too prosperous, or they will say I am overcharging them, which of course I am”—then crowded onto the bench seat to drive to lunch. There were only three of us that day, the day it almost snowed. Henry maneuvered the rattling old beast back towards the commercial area, where we settled on pizza, if only for the warmth that radiated from the big ovens behind the counter. We ordered our slices and sat by a tall picture window, with our eyes on the sky. The gray of the clouds deepened to charcoal, the plate glass trembled to the gusts of wind. It was a beautiful day, or would have been if the rent weren’t late again. I reached for the sketch pad in my satchel and drew a few quick outlines of an idea I’d had while squatting under my cactus: the spiny, wrinkled arm of the plant itself, two women talking in the distance, a bit of house wall. I showed it to Henry and Lida; they nodded approval of a sort, and then their eyes brightened as the server strode over with a tray of pies. Outside, the people walking by hunched in their heavy coats, one hand grasping the collar shut. No one looked happy except for a young girl in a raincoat, who danced along as her mother dragged her by the hand, her other hand held out flat to catch the raindrops.

The pizza was hot and good, and a big mug of milky coffee didn’t hurt either. But the rain became heavier as we ate; gusts drummed big drops against the windowpane, where I watched them run in frantic crooked lines. Lida stared out the glass and sighed. “I suppose that’s all for today, boys. Very sorry. Lunch is on me, at least.” We lingered over coffee; there was no need to hurry any more.

I went with them back to Lida’s apartment building to unload the truck. The rain tapered off as we drove, but didn’t really stop. When we got there, a crew was still working on a broken wall; a drunk had veered off the street in the wee hours and taken out twelve feet of cinderblock, and the management had brought in three stocky fellows from the eastside to repair it. They spoke to each other in laconic Spanish from under their broad-brimmed hats, ignoring us as they smeared mortar on thick gray blocks. When Henry, Lida, and I shook hands all around and parted, the crew was still at it, hunched over buckets in the gusting rain. They didn’t look happy, but they didn’t look unhappy either. I suppose it was vain of me, but I envied them as I headed on home in the wind.

About the Author:

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 Culture to it all.