Fiction

It Came From the Sea of Cortez

By: Elaine Lennon

He drove until he ran out of road. It had taken almost twenty-four hours. He only stopped for gas. Twice.  Now he was here.

The tip of the peninsula was fringed with dried out palms and jacarandas. The beach was bleached bone-white by the scorching sun. He touched his neck muscles, sore from being hunched for so long.  He breathed the salt air.

The heat haze shimmered in a warped arc. The surface of the water was smooth as glass. Combers were breaking a couple of hundred yards out. Foam glistened like phosphorous lit from beneath the cobalt sea.  The late afternoon breeze and a cloying smell of cooked fish blowing from restaurant kitchens released him and made him feel hungry. Alive.

He checked into a ramshackle motel just off the beach front. It was decorated with driftwood and there was Mexican muzak pouring from the radio at the front desk. Juan gave him his key and said there were fresh towels and just phone zero if he needed anything. There was a restaurant down the street and a drug store on the corner.

His room was basic but the squeaky clean bathroom (pink, with turquoise accents) had a working shower. There was even a table that could fit his typewriter. The room was neat. Neat in the true sense, not in the stupid way assigned it by hippies. He was sick of hippies but supposed he was one of them. He sighed. He hadn’t thought of the things that Guinevere would have remembered to soften the room – a cushion, a comforter, a pot plant. She was always making places feel lived in, a cool Mary Poppins with a permanently fixed sardonic grin and a world of wonder hidden in the trunk of the car. He shivered suddenly. She wasn’t here.  He had forgotten what it was that made him happy.

He nodded off on the bed and dreamed he was flying over the Oxnard Plains, drifting over fields of strawberries and cut flowers, the abandoned Missile Bar rising out of Point Mugu, erect and impotent. He could feel his fingertips reaching for clouds between the 101 on one side, the Pacific waves rolling and crashing endlessly beyond.  He woke with a start, sweat pooling at the small of his back and dripping from his face and neck. His fingers gripped the sides of the narrow bed. He took a shower.

After a tuna dinner at the restaurant down the street, he walked to the shore and stripped off to swim out to the buoy line. The water was still warm and slightly murky in places.  He blinked as a pair of seals surfaced beside him, barely acknowledging his presence. He dunked his head underwater and relished the overwhelming sensation of being afloat when he emerged. He found himself struggling to escape from a necklace of seaweed that seemed to expand as his breathing contracted in shock at this natural noose. He finally threw off the last loop and got cold. The sun was going down.  He made deep strokes to propel him to the beach where he shook off the briny water from his tangled hair. He hadn’t taken a towel.

At the drug store he was picking up supplies when he was accosted by his wife’s name on a paperback carousel. There she goes, he thought, the Queen of Gothic Romance. She could just churn them out without a thought whereas all he had produced since his wunderkind novel was an essay for The New Yorker that had taken him two years to complete. And that was in 1968. People bought her books like they bought gum. Because they were there. You couldn’t go to a Walgreens without seeing her work in its multi-coloured array. Not that anyone knew who she really was. And there were more and more of them, written under so many different pseudonyms. How could he have been married to a woman with such a fearful view of men? She hadn’t always been like that. Had she? Perhaps he shouldn’t dwell too long on that dark thought. Was it all an act? What she had written? Or their life? He thought of how much he had put of his twenty-two year old self into his singular novel. He found it hard to believe that in some unacknowledged part of her Guinevere had had those thoughts about him and sublimated her fears in those wacked-out Jane Eyre knockoffs. That she was afraid of him. But then darkness had taken her, not him.

If you were to place him in the hierarchy of writers, if there were such a thing as a classification system (and there probably was, he considered) where would he fit now?  In 1965 it was Most Promising Young AuthorBestselling First-time Novelist. Where was he now on the phylogenetic tree? Failure. Unpublished. Blocked. Hopeless case. His dead wife was outselling him at a rate of three thousand to one.

Right now he needed to sleep. He switched on the television set. The atmospherics were bad around here, Juan had warned him. Channel Seven came and went with a lot of interference. There was a new show, MacMillan and Wife, with Rock Hudson, but he couldn’t make sense of the story.

He sat on the porch. The night was navy and the sky was pinpricked with stars. Out to the west he saw a crescent of lights shifting slowly, crablike. Red, yellow, green, gleaming, inviting. He was gripped and tantalised. He licked his lips unconsciously.

He became convinced there was a droning sound but looked around as though seeking confirmation from people who weren’t there. It filled his brain and his head and the reflections dazzled him. All at once, the image was gone.

The ghostly cabaret of couples walking on the distant seafront in a slow dance of foreplay depressed him. Had they seen them? Had they seen the lights? He smoked his last joint and retreated to his room, which he now fancied resembled Thoreau’s cabin. If Thoreau had been near Cabo. He had smiled when he found out that Walden was a couple of miles from a store. Turns out nobody really wanted to suffer for their art. Did any writer ever tell the truth?The atmospherics were still playing havoc with the television so he turned down the volume and became mesmerised by the white noise.

            In the morning he wandered to the beach and laid himself out ceremonially on an old striped bath towel. The sunshine made fractals behind his closed eyelids. 

His skull was cracked open and maggots were milling in his brain, curdling its contents. He woke with a start and his skin was peeling from sunburn. He had forgotten to use sunscreen.

There was excitement a couple of hundred yards down the shore. He noticed Juan gesticulating in the middle of a small crowd, a real commotion developing. What had he missed? He struggled up from his lounging position and cursed the pain his skin caused him, red as broiled lobster.

            “What is it, Juan?” he asked, squinting behind his shades.

            “Oh, sure. They think it’s manatees. Just dead a long time and in the wrong place.”

            “They picked a strange shore to wash up,” he agreed. There were scores of the poor creatures, hollowed out and strange.

He looked out at the water and up at the blisteringly hot sun. He might snorkel later, when their corpses were gone. It was a distressing sight. People murmured the words it’s not natural as he passed them. There was talk of a marine biology team coming down to look at the phenomenon and a TV crew – here, in the Gulf of California!

            The only reason he had a decent income – or a small bit of capital to be precise – was because of another woman. Victoria had met him in that bookstore on Sunset where he used to check out the copies of his book, now a cult item. She spotted him moving the novel to the top of a pile on a table. She told him over coffee that she was script supervisor on a science fiction movie that needed a rewrite man. Victoria was sweet. A Stanford grad who wanted to produce films. They dated for a while but it wasn’t his thing and she was probably too smart and ambitious.

            The studio was close to the beach. It was a sterile peach hangar with no frills, no commissary, just harried crew running around trying to make giant wasps look real.

He had dreamed of those lights in their home, in the bed where he and Guinevere had spent those years sleeping together. It had seemed to him in that three A.M. twilight world that he could reach out and touch that elliptical shape with its primary colours blinking and winking at him in some grim teasing synchrony as it emerged from the Pacific. Then there was a woman in black leather, black Wayfarers and glossy black hair. And the sound of insects. Then he woke up. He was on his own. In an empty house. Turtle had left. Even the dog couldn’t cope with Guinevere gone. Were the lights following him now? Here?

He sighed. For every cloud there had been The Actress in the silver lining. Until everything had gone so hopelessly bad that night.

The phone had jingled but he didn’t reach it on time. He was coming in the door from a screening of the movie at Glendale and she’d not been there. She had fled to some therapist. It was a humiliating experience, that preview he needed to attend so as to secure his next hack job. It wasn’t even a B-movie, it was a Z-movie. He could hear the message as he struggled with his key in the lock, slightly the worse for some very stiff drinks to deal with the shock of how badly it had turned out.

“Are you there? Pick up! It’s Mimi! I’m at the Esalen Institute and I really need to get out but nobody wants me to leave. Can you collect me? Please! I don’t know who else to call! Um, you know it, right? Big Sur? I know it’s a lot to ask but I think that you of all people would understand what I got into here…” Her voice was very small and far away. She hesitated. “These people are crazy! I feel very alone right now.”

He rushed to pick up the receiver but something made him pause and she continued speaking. “I think we have a real connection. I know you’re not into all my shit and all that stuff you have to deal with is a lot but I feel I could ask you to do this and you wouldn’t mind. We’ve had all those conversations and I think we made a real connection.”

He lifted the phone cautiously. “Mimi? Are you alright?”

“Cyrus? You’re there!”

“I was at the screening,” he offered.

“Help me. You’re my only hope,” she whined. “I’m in way too deep here. You know?”

What was it about women? He drove like a bat out of hell up the Pacific Coast Highway, drunk as a lord, sobering up with the windows down, moved to recall those last days of his marriage.

Guinevere was the East coast college sweetheart who had supported him while he wrote and then after his success she took over everything:  she somehow had it all at her fingertips. A talent for living that was beyond him. Looks, charm, empathy, warmth. Household, clothes, pets – she had found Turtle, their wire-hair terrier and he became part of their home. Humour (nobody was wittier or laughed longer), ability (her intellect was phenomenal and her reading was wide-ranging and difficult) and when she started writing those books she just couldn’t stop. They poured out of her.

It was he who had noticed the smell first. Guinevere was oblivious. She thought it was because she hadn’t showered for a couple of days when she was finishing up her latest romance on paper. She was on deadline. She’d come back from the doctor looking deathly pale.

“This is what happens to women who have sex,” she sighed. Then she fell across the kitchen table in a tear-stained heap. Now it’s my fault, he thought. Nobody talked about cancer. It wasn’t the quotidian exchange they preferred. She would die quickly and painfully, she had been assured. That was when she had left California. To go home to die.

“Like a dog,” she wept.

The yellow VW Bug had left the beach house with Guinevere’s belongings tied to the roof. “My little ray of sunshine,” she used to call it. She wanted to drive. She wanted to feel every pebble on the road to know she was still alive, be it ever so little. It had taken her weeks and when she had reached Philly she was too frail to continue alone and her brother had taken over the last few hundred miles. That must have killed her, he thought. She hated her brother.

There were more books published, more and more, a backlog of her industry, under all those different names, until they were being published posthumously. It was a Gothic dream of death that pervaded his every waking thought, his every visit to drugstores and supermarkets. Guinevere. How he had loved her. And now this. The movie had been her revenge. He had stung her through sex and now he had achieved near infamy – the former novelist who wound up making a movie about wasp women who stung men to death at the point of coitus. He wanted to laugh but found it impossible.

When he had reached Big Sur the sun was coming up and it was breakfast time and they were chanting Om on the cliff side and the drama was over. There was an air of eerie calm that didn’t seem entirely real. Mimi pretended she didn’t know why he was there and said everything was “just wonderful – I’m really getting to know myself, you know?” and he left too tired to be properly angry.  He drove back slowly, picking his way home, stuck halfway between dejection and acceptance. The film was over. He was the rewrite man. Did he really think she was interested in him? She was out of her mind and she’d almost driven him out of his. Actresses. They were all the same.

He hadn’t written anything of substance in all those years. He had started to be embarrassed for himself. He was in a funk and he couldn’t see his way out of it.  Even his agent had given up calling.

He arrived home to Manhattan Beach hours later, exhausted and hungover, eyes circled black, determined to get away. From all of it.

He hadn’t had the brains to write Attack of the Bug Women (also known as The Hive, which he preferred, obviously) under a cover name – a rookie mistake that Guinevere would never have made. How ironic that his fast-fading reputation should now be sullied by a chance encounter with a dream of a UFO that drove him to that most malign of movie genres – bad science fiction.

That was how the boy had found him. He just turned up at the house one afternoon and introduced himself.  “I’m your biggest fan,” he said shyly. His fall of blond hair draped over his left eye lending him a peculiar focus. His trunk was sturdy, solid even, although his legs weren’t heavy. He had hitch hiked from Arizona to find him. He wanted to surf. He had stayed for a few days but Cyrus tired of his company. He really didn’t want to discuss his six-year old novel anymore.

So he slung his typewriter on the back seat along with his box of books and an old suitcase holding some shirts and shorts. The box was wooden, a trunk really, one that he’d had at college. He secured it with a belt. It was filled with his writing notebooks. The most recent one had a date on the inside page, March 1st 1971. And an inscription:  In the hopes that this will be the one. On the next page were the words, Problem:  can’t write.  And beneath, Solution:  write. The rest of the book was blank.

That was when he drove directly south, closer to the centre of things, or so it felt. Through sun-drenched desert basins washed by winds from the ocean on one side, the Gulf on the other. The world changed. There were groves of eucalyptus, husks of flora, occasional ceiba and rimon trees. It felt alien. He might have been in an episode of Star Trek.

            He now questioned every move he made. He was swamped by the past. He wondered was everything he did connected with a tide of memory. He had needed to change direction. So he had looked up from where he stood. Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck. That was a line with which he now fundamentally disagreed. Where was it from? Guinevere would have known. He watched the skies.

He loaded the car again and checked out at the desk and nodded when Juan asked him, “Did you have a pleasant stay?”

“No more manatees,” said Juan and shrugged as Cyrus left in silence.

The tyres kicked up and spun in the dirt, wheeling dust in the air. He drummed his fingers, humming to the fuzz-interrupted music from faraway Radio Cabo. He turned off the static and jammed a tape in the deck.  The moon was low in the sky. He was following the light or whatever damn sign that sighting was. In his mind he was a navigator, a starsailor. He would follow it, wherever it was taking him.

He had heard about land art being constructed up north, in Nevada, Arizona, Utah. Ancient shapes newly carved from the earth, just like the geoglyphs that had been discovered in South America, an homage by seekers fleeing westward. He was convinced that everything was joined together in some way, that somehow, somewhere, things made sense.  Maybe that’s what this was all about, bringing together past and present. Somehow everything would converge. When he got to wherever it was he was headed he would figure it out. Then he would decide what to do with the boy in the trunk. He gunned the engine.  He didn’t look back.

Categories: Fiction

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