Sea Breeze Manor
by Rhoda Huffey
“I can’t find my novel.” Aimee, named for the great philanderer or else saint, Aimee Semple McPherson, threw all five sweaters on the floor out of the third dresser drawer. She threw things out over her head and sideways. The low-life cottage that she lived in had cockroaches, so she picked the sweaters up, immediately, and shook them. A writer, she lived in this slum to learn about the underbelly of society without leaving the neat, well-lit streets of Costa Mesa, Doers of evil love darkness, or else Lovers of darkness do evil, said a verse somewhere in Scripture. She shoved the sweaters back, but the drawer closed and stuck. Outside Sea Breeze Manor, across the concrete bumper that divided tiny slum from Costa Mesa—most small businesses per capita of any town in the U.S.—was the Alpha Beta grocery store parking lot, enormous enough to park anyone for any reason. Her 1967 VW, the last year with spider fenders, was parked there, ten years old, but she had a good mechanic. Her novel had to be somewhere. Paper couldn’t get up and walk away. She had no nom de plume, but you could make one up the second you got published. The second. She threw out the t-shirts in the third drawer down. She looked in the fourth drawer but when it was only jeans, her foreboding deepened. Her novel! Gone! The air was full of things you couldn’t see at any given time, Shakespeare knew it. She was starting to believe the damn demons took it—she wasn’t religious—when she found the pages nestled in the top drawer under her underwear for special occasions. She pulled its precious bulk out, all three hundred sixty-five pages of it, and held it to her bosom.
Her raison d’être under her arm, a red rubber band around it, she flung open the front door and squinted at the gravel driveway. Was she soon to be famous? Built on a cliff, Costa Mesa had an ocean breeze and had once been called Goat Hill. She loved each street. At this moment, the ocean breeze lifted the hairs off her forehead and acted as an air conditioner. She took one step further forward into life, stepping carefully along the porch, which might collapse at any moment.
She did a one-armed jumping jack.
Out ahead and to her left stretched the other seven apartments, all connected, each one peeling paint. Hers stood alone, in back, and faced the others from its pedestal of three stairs and an unsafe porch. She had never met her neighbors. All the window coverings were different: some had newspaper or cardboard, some had dirty sheets. All were blackout. Today, Sea Breeze Manor looked like a ghost town, and all was quiet.
The rent was due in fourteen days.
In front, beyond a weed patch, sat the landlord’s mansion, which had once been elegant. It had real curtains. Behind it ran the cars on Old Newport Boulevard, normal people driving. On the first of every month, Aimee wrote a check and carried it down past the seven funny curtains--you could get evicted for not paying—her feet crunching on the gravel. In order to pay the rent you had to pass the mailbox, cross the weed patch, mount the steps, and knock, politely, and wait for the cats to answer.
Each month, on the first, she knocked on the screen door.
Meow, said the landlord.
She knocked harder.
When she heard the scratching inside, she held out her rent check, a useless gesture. It said Bank of America, her signature, the amount and date perfect.
Meow? snarled the other one.
“I’d like to pay my rent.”
Each month the inside door opened, and the first cat/landlord retreated, a signal to come in. Aimee pulled the screen door and stepped forward, continuing through a small foyer into a living room where the lady cat/landlord motioned her to sit down on the couch. The couple had once been handsome: the woman with her talons, the man with tendrils of hair that fell from the bottom of his skull down to his shoulders. You never saw them in the grocery store. The two had not spoken a word to her except meow since the day she signed her contract.
Because the cats could be impatient. Sometimes, the tall cat put on a fedora, then bowed slightly. The couch was to her right and she sat down on it, always at the far end, and the cats stood in the open space that had no furniture. Did the other Sea Breeze Manor tenants have to do this? Aimee kept her feet crossed and her hands in her lap. She kept her face alert and interested. The same exact cat fight took place every month. First, the she-cat’s long unpainted fingernails clawed the air. Both cats hissed. They scratched the air too close to each others’ faces. They always snarled. When the fight looked most dire, it came to light the cats were flirting. The show took about a half-hour from start to finish. Where were the other tenants? After they fought, a vicious pantomime, the woman folded her front claws over her chest and made new sounds: a purr but not a purr. She folded her head into the male cat’s shoulder. He clawed the air once or twice: an obligatory action.
Aimee held her check out and they took it.
From her porch, Aimee surveyed her kingdom and watched the cars whiz by on Old Newport Boulevard. The sky was blue. She hugged her pages, loathe to let them go lest they disappear of their own agency, or by some malevolent force. She had an hour before she waitressed. She stepped down the first of three loose porch stairs, deathless prose in her left armpit. She had no other copy of her novel; yet something in her liked the danger. She pointed one toe like a ballerina.
She descended one more step and slipped on thin thin air.
Help! yelled Aimee.
Like that, she was flying through the air. Untitled flew out of her arms, the rubber band a piece of shit. Her body landed on the gravel on her side and rear end, not one page remaining, and while still lying on her side she reached out to grab two sheets. Goat hill! The breeze! Her future! She lumbered to her feet and grabbed a clump of her opus, Untitled, where it had lodged behind two beer cans and a rock in a small garden plot where nothing grew but cactus. She hated cactus! Page 91 flew by and all ten fingers grabbed it. One page flew toward Old Newport Boulevard, and other pages flew toward Alpha Beta. Immortal words! She caught. She jumped. She pulled a small stack where it had lodged behind the left front tire of her VW. Blue Jumping Light can sometimes she read through incidental tire tracks.
A madness wound through her.
Once, as a writing exercise, a book had recommended it, she had typed out three pages of a great work of art on her typewriter to see what great writing felt like in your fingers. A book had recommended it. She took care, two typos but with those she used whiteout. Task proved simpler, the great author had typed on his machine. The pages sat in her desk drawer for two years, under an Aquarobics Calendar, and then one day she found them. What is this? she asked the walls. It was clearly her typewriter, the sketchy “f,” and the inky capital “D.” She was the author!
When did she write it?
As she read it, her excitement mounted. She existed. She was a writer. Her sentences were plain, no falling buildings, but powered by something underneath that drove you inexorably forward. It was with horrid thump she encountered the word Lolita on the last of the four pages.
She kept on writing, and now she had a novel even if it was untitled. If it’s three hundred pages, is it a novel? Because it might or might not be. She occasionally worried.
She caught two pages, one with each hand.
She started to count the total, but then she saw a page ahead, secured by nothing, so she walked and counted, and that is what she was doing when a second demonic force reached out and tripped her.
“I rebuke you!” she shouted.
On her stomach this time, she looked up to see two work boots, Levis, and a man on top. A hand gave her page 14 and she took it.
“Many thanks,” she said.
He said nothing.
When she stood up, no help, he had a big nose and one vertical line bisecting each cheek, a perfect set. He must have lived the outdoor life, not skiing or tennis. A bear wouldn’t be a total surprise behind his shoulder. He looked wildly displaced in Costa Mesa, California.
“My name is Harry Springfield,” said the gentleman.
“Ah,” said Aimee.
He didn’t put out his hand, and she didn’t take it.
“We’re surveying this parking lot up to the little rise there by the light post.”
One hand held a tripod, three legs out, a battered yellow. He held it like an animated object, as if it were his wife or best friend. His almost white extremely pale neon blue eyes were all perception.
“Where are you from?” said Aimee.
Harry Springfield turned his back—the serious boots turned him—and walked away with a slow stride that looked wily, like a coyote. He had folded up the three legs of his tripod while she wasn’t watching. It occurred to Aimee that if he kept walking, her life would go in one direction. His arms looked unnatural.
“Wait!” she said.
He turned, deliberate. Low on his hips he wore a leather belt she hadn’t noticed, and it had pockets.
“My name is Aimee. That was my novel.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Harry Springfield said.
“I don’t know what a plot is,” Aimee told the stranger.
“You’ll find out,” said Harry Springfield. “I see that.”
A roll of orange tape stuck out of his work belt just before he turned away. She hated orange.
The man loped off to a distant white truck where two more surveyors leaned against the edge and smoked. She found page 17. She smashed what she had to her chest and looked around for lost pages. One was out by Newport Boulevard, and she would find it. It could be key. She took the masterpiece inside, to put in a secure location, the refrigerator freezer next to the frozen fish sticks she liked for dinner, with salt and pepper. Her stomach growled. She was hungry! She ignored that and scurried out to Old Newport Boulevard to look for what was missing before she had to put on her apron for her waitress shift at Charlie’s Chili.
Title Photo: Sea Breeze Manor website
Rhoda Huffey is the author of the novels 31 Paradiso and The Hallelujah Side. Her fiction has appeared in the Santa Monica Review, ZYZZYVA, and Tin House. She lives in Venice Beach with her husband and their animals. She holds an MFA from the Programs in Writing at the University of California at Irvine. 31 Paradiso is partly set in Orange County.