The day was already 85° and muggy A.F. Later in the day it would be 107° and muggy A.F. but Maxine would be down at the beach, disporting herself in the waves like a dead fish. But that would be later, after Grandma Schneider got home from her walk around the high school track with her friend Betty Mosher. Right now Maxine was already sweating in a pink jumpsuit that Grandma Schneider said made her look “like a peach.” Because Maxine was round. Grandma said it was baby fat, but Maxine was 12 and the fat was still there. The jumpsuit rode up Maxine’s behind whenever she stooped to drag the skimmer across the surface of the pool. Her chore. That plus walking the stupid lapdog, and dusting Grandma’s knickknacks, were Maxine’s chores. And also helping Grandma and Grandpa facetime with Maxine’s mom.
Every Tuesday night was supposed to be facetime, with greater or lesser success depending on how late in the evening it was. The later it got, the more often Irene Price, née Schneider, said “hanh?” as if whatever was in her glass made her deaf. The reason Maxine had to stay with Grandma and Grandpa in Jacksonville every summer instead of with her mom in Indiana had something to do, she was told, with Irene’s job, and the school schedule, and Irene’s schedule, but Maxine’s friends all had single moms and they didn’t get shipped off to Jacksonville every summer.
Maxine shook the bugs and leaves out of the skimmer into the trashcan and then took the yardstick to the edge of the pool. Grandpa liked the water level to be exactly 6.5 inches below the pool ledge, a depth he had determined was optimal for the pool machinery. Rather than marring the tiles with a mark, he liked to have the pool measured every day, and for the measurement to be recorded in a little log book that he kept next to the skimmer, where he also recorded the ph and chlorine levels. Maxine sprawled on her belly next to the pool and held the yardstick against the side. 7.25 inches. Maxine did not immediately rise to record the insufficient water level in the log book but stirred the yard stick around in the pool.
chlorine is low,” said a cigarette-and-whiskey voice.
Maxine, who had assumed she was alone and was lost in a daydream about a cute surfer, jumped and dropped the yardstick into the water. She rolled up to sit tailor-wise, a move which drove the pink wedgy even deeper. She lolled over like a pink balloon and straightened out the offending fabric, then sat with her legs straight out in front of her and peered over to the shallow end, where floated a mermaid.
chlorine. You better shock it or you’re gonna have trouble.”
The mermaid took a drag off a Virginia Slim and hooked a finger under
the strap of her sea-shell bra, pulling it to a more comfortable
don’t do the chlorine,” said Maxine. The mermaid looked bored.
you one of Grandma’s friends?”
doubt it. Who’s your grandma?”
Schneider. Grandpa is Chuck Schneider?”
heard of ‘em.”
you’re in their pool.”
mermaid finished her cigarette and flicked the butt into the water.
I just cleaned that!”
mermaid rolled her eyes, flipped her tail, and shot through the water
like a speed boat. She hove up before Maxine, who scootched back,
your butt. And your stick.” The mermaid laid both on the edge of
the pool and rested her arms in the little tray that ran around the
edge, just below the water level. Her skin sagged at the edges of
her mouth and there were wrinkles between her breasts. Her hair,
twined about with pearls and sea foam, was more salt than pepper.
Trixie,” she rasped. “What’s yours, grandkid of Debbie and
Price.” Maxine picked up the cigarette butt and put it into the
pocket that pooched out over the already poochy stomach of her
jumpsuit. “How come you’re not in the ocean?”
a ride on an alligator. How come you’re not at the beach?”
can’t go until Grandma gets home.”
did a little flip and floated on her back. Her tummy was very
muscular but it flabbed out at the edges. “Elevator papa, elevator
papa, seems like you always wanna go down…” she sang. She did a
back flip and zipped up in front of Maxine again, alarmingly.
lap dog came yapping out from the kitchen. Grandma must be home.
The creature tore up to Maxine, sighted Trixie, backed. Growled.
Trixie fixed the dog with a long stare. “What is that?”
just DiDi. Are you hungry?”
DiDi dee dee deeee deeeeee deeeeeeeeeeeee,” sang Trixie. Still
staring at the dog. DiDi’s eyes lowered, sagged, closed. He fell
over in a snooze.
complain. Hours aren’t bad. Good commissions, all the rum you can
drink. Why, you wanna be one?” Trixie’s seaweed eyes snapped
from the somnolent DiDi to Maxine, with the same stare.
really. Seems kind of soggy.”
face sagged back to normal. She unclipped a turquoise and silver
case from her bikini strap, pulled out a Virginia Slim. From the
messy, tendrilly pile of hair on top of her head she fished out a
turquoise and silver lighter. “You’re not wrong,” she said.
“Your grandma wants you.” She jabbed with the cigarette in the
direction of the patio. Then, holding the cigarette in the air, she
swam under water back to the shallow end.
came to the patio door and hollered, “Maxine? DiDi! Chuck! Lunch
snapped awake and yapped back to the house. Maxine followed.
a mermaid in the pool.” Maxine tried to say this around a
half-chewed wad of baloney and white bread and mayo.
be silly. Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
made an effort and swallowed. “She says the chlorine is low and
you should shock it.”
probably right,” said Grandpa behind his paper. He was allowed to
and Carl Mosher want us to look in tomorrow for dinner,” said
Grandma. “Their granddaughter is down for a visit. She’s about
your age, Maxine.”
“About your age Maxine” meant anything from six to 24 years old, so Maxine didn’t hold out much hope for tomorrow evening.
“That’ll be nice,” said Grandpa.
“Drink your soda and go get on your swimsuit, Maxine,” said Grandma.
Early next morning Maxine was at the pool but Trixie wasn’t there. There were, however, a couple of cigarette butts floating in the water, which Maxine scooped out before Grandpa saw them. Also, the water smelled kind of fishy, but that was Grandpa’s problem. Maxine lolled by the pool and sang “Elevator papa, elevator papa….” The sun filtered through the Florida haze, already sticky. Maxine did not retreat into the air conditioning, which Grandpa kept at 70° because that was comfortable for him. She lolled on a deck chair reading Treasure Island until Grandma called her in for breakfast.
“Go change into that nice sundress I bought you the other day.” Grandma didn’t like Maxine’s favorite outfit, which was cut-offs and a T-shirt, which made Maxine feel cool and grown-up. In her room, Maxine pulled on the sundress, which was printed all over in tropical flowers and made her look like Scooby-Doo’s mystery van. Her hair was hot on the back of her neck so she pulled it up to a messy, tendrilly pile on top of her head. It didn’t look bad. She draped some plastic bead necklaces around the curls and, in lieu of a lighter, stowed a Star Wars figure—Luke Skywalker, in fact—in the center of the mass.
“My, you do look pretty.”
“Do hush, Chuck. She looks like a gypsy. Honey that’s fine to wear for play but you’ll have to take all that out of your hair when we go out. You don’t want people thinking you’re a Mexican.”
Maxine poked around at her scrambled eggs. Grandma hated it when she looked like a Mexican.
DiDi went off like a car alarm at the patio door. Once DiDi got going he wouldn’t shut up until you paid attention, so Maxine got up from the table and scooped him up. Through the sliding door she could just see something green and scaly slipping into the corner of the pool. She put DiDi into his crate, where he continued yipping until she stared into his eyes and sang, “DiDi dee dee deeee deeeeee deeeeeeeeeeeee.” The dog rested his face on his paw, and sighed a surprisingly deep sigh for such an insignificant creature.
Maxine returned to the table and gobbled down the rest of her eggs. Grandpa folded up his paper. “Time to shock the pool.” He took a long pull of coffee.
Maxine whisked her plate to the sink and rinsed it off. “I better skim it first.” She hurried out to the pool.
was lounging in the shallow end, filing her nails on an augur shell
of unusual length. “I had a little dog,” she sang, “his name
was Jack. He got his little tail caught in a crack, all from shakin’
better make yourself scarce,” said Maxine, “Grandpa’s about to
come dump in a bunch of chlorine.”
all right. He’ll be a while. Dishwasher hose sprung a leak.”
do you know?”
jerked her chin toward the patio.
went back to the sliding door and saw Grandma and Grandpa stooping
sternly over the dishwasher. Grandma noticed Maxine through the
glass and pointed at DiDi’s crate, so Maxine went in and let DiDi
out onto the patio. “What’s wrong with the dishwasher?” she
hurried back out to the pool.
hold him an hour or two,” said Trixie. “Nice do.” She pointed
with her augur shell at Maxine’s hair.
says it makes me look Mexican.”
know what you look like. You look just like a sweet little Carib I
used to know, brown as butter….”
ok. Some idiot dropped a container of shortbread at the docks last
night and we’ve been stuffing ourselves silly.” She stowed the
shell in her hair and yawned.
everyone. Manatees, shad, wahoo…everyone likes it when they slip
up at the docks. Those longshoremen ain’t what they used to be
though. All machinery these days. Used to be you could just flash
your tits at ‘em and they’d drop their own mother. These days
they can’t even see you through all that equipment. Might as well
be in Kansas.”
mean, are there other mermaids around?”
in my territory there better not be.” Trixie’s eyes fired up
green and Maxine backed up a pace.
big is your territory?”
complain. Plenty big accounts. Working on a big lead right now.”
Trixie yawned and flipped her tail. “Better go, Gramps wants you.”
and Betty Mosher’s granddaughter was 13, skinny, crooked teeth.
She had some kind of sinus issue that made her snort constantly. She
spent most of the evening on Snapchat with some equally miserable
friends, but she let Maxine flip through her copies of Seventeen
magazine, for which Betty Mosher, not realizing that girls don’t
look at magazines anymore, had bought a subscription. Every once in
a while Claudia would look over Maxine’s shoulder and say, “Ohhh,
I love that shirt,” or “that makes her look like a
prosssstitute.” Claudia’s mouth lingered over any unsavory word,
such as prosssstitute, gonorrheeeeeea, mensssssstrual cramps, and
penissssss. But she was someone to talk to. Not unfriendly. When
Claudia suggested they try to talk their grandmas in to taking them
shopping, Maxine agreed.
Monday found Maxine and Claudia boarding the Five Points trolley,
leaving their grandmothers in the Avalon district and promising to be
back precisely at 3pm.
at that tan guy,” hissed Claudia, pointing out the trolley window
at a man who had apparently last peeked into a fashion magazine in
1982. “I bet he’s a molessssssster.” Maxine looked carefully
to see what a molester looked like.
to be careful, Jacksonville is full of molesssssssters. I thought
your Grandpa was a molessssssster at first but it was just because
his socks were loose. Mr. Brummer? This biology teacher at my
school? He’s the worst molessssssster in the world but no one will
fire him because he’s got dirt on everyone on the school board. He
molessssssted this girl, Amber Barnes, but she’s such a ssssslut no
one will believe her. She’s got titsssss out to here and she wears
these teeny tiny shorts with her assssss hanging out but she puts on
leggings underneath so she’s not breaking the dress code….”
Five Points, disgorged from the trolley, the girls played with
rainsticks in a head shop. Then they laughed at the vintage vinyl
covers in a used record store. Then they ordered complicated, sugary
lattes at the coffee shop. Then they wandered into a bead store.
enchanting enterprise absorbed them for quite a while. Even Claudia
forgot to talk about molesssssters as she tried to decide between a
long string of sparkly seed beads and a shorter option involving
green and white, her school colors. Maxine designed a strand of
black and red beads to give to Trixie. While she waited for the
sales lady to affix the clasp she wandered over to Claudia, who was
sifting through some carved beads of inordinate beauty and expense.
Maxine rummaged through the trays.
pretty!” Maxine held up a tiny jade koi fish of breathtaking
delicacy and beauty. She turned it in her fingers. The light
glinted off its exquisite carved scales and fins.
should buy it.”
I already spent all my money.”
put the lovely thing down. Claudia picked it up. Maxine found she
did not like to see Claudia’s clammy fingers on it.
bell on the shop door rang behind them. Fast as a cat, Claudia shoved
the koi bead into Maxine’s pocket.
up dumbass. If you say anything I’ll deny it.”
nearly wet her pants.
your bracelet is ready.” The clerk held out the package. Maxine
tried not to let her hands shake as she took it. “Have a nice
day,” said the clerk.
Claudia hustled her toward the door. They brushed by a tallish
woman, the person who had just entered, with hungry green eyes and a
mass of salt and pepper hair piled on top of her head, with an augur
shell of unusual length stuck in the middle. She winked at Maxine.
retard. We’ll be late for the trolley.” Claudia shoved Maxine
out the door. The bell jangled like a fire alarm.
evening the little jade fish rolled around in Maxine’s pocket. She
tried to feel guilty about it. Failed. Its mouth formed a perfect
the night she got out of bed and snuck down the hall to Grandma’s
sewing room. Rummaged until she found a strand of black ribbon.
This she threaded through the jade koi and tied around her neck, so
that the fish rested on her breastbone. Maxine noticed that her
nipples appeared to be pooching out a bit. Tits. That’s all she
Claudia sure is a poisonous little eel. Dumb, too. There was a
security camera right on top of you two the whole time.” Trixie
finished winding the black and red beads into her hair, dove down
into the pool, and came up with an antique hand mirror of exactly the
type one would expect a mermaid to have. She studied the effect of
the beads. “Not bad. Kinda hotch-tcha-tcha, you know? But you,”
she left off, dumping the mirror in the water and letting it sink,
“you know it only takes one phone call to get you into juvvie. Do
you realize the position you’re in?”
I didn’t do anything wrong!”
still got the hot fish, don’t you?”
touched the lump between her nubbins.
know they don’t switch those tapes until Wednesday,” said Trixie.
Trixie was just as bad as Grandma.
wrong, don’t want to go to juvvie?” Trixie flipped onto her back
and did a couple laps around the pool, singing “I had a little dog,
his name was Jack….”
felt that she did not want to go to juvvie.
you’ll never survive there. You’re too much of a girl scout.
Too bad someone can’t do something about that….” Trixie lit a
Virginia Slim. She made the frown that smokers make when they light
did you get there?”
the bead store?”
well you know, I can always make it work when I gotta friend who’s
how did you get legs?”
know I’m very generous when I have a true friend. I’ve gotten
people off of worse raps than shoplifting. You know I could sense
that you were in a spot yesterday…” Trixie shoved off the side of
the pool and did some kind of twirl in the water, holding the
cigarette out of the water the whole time. Maxine found that she
couldn’t remember. Had Trixie entered the store before or after
Claudia stuck the bead in her pocket? Again Trixie was in front of
Maxine. Her algae eyes burning. “I can sense you’re in quite a
spot today,” she hissed. “One phone call. From someone who
knows. They get a phone call, they review the tape, and Maxine Price
is on the hook for shoplifting.”
was 92° in Jacksonville that morning, and muggy A.F. Maxine’s
arms broke out in goosebumps.
Maxine found her voice wasn’t working properly.
need a favor.”
I’m hungry. I need a favor.”
DiDi out of the house after dark.”
you kidding? He’ll get et up by an alligator!”
Trixie’s eyes half lidded. She rubbed her fingers across her
lips. “He might possibly get et. He might get gobbled down like a
sweet little suckling pig.”
to be a lot easier, you know. Every whaling ship and merchant
clipper had a goat or some chickens but these days it’s all
prepackaged, frozen patties and canned soup. You ever tried to eat
canned soup when you’re swimming in open water? It’s a hungry
life out there, krill krill and more krill, lucky if someone drops a
saltine overboard…” Trixie was talking to herself by this point
because Maxine had backed to the patio and was still backing. Just
before Maxine backed around the corner to the sliding door, Trixie
refocused her green gaze. “One phone call!” she growled.
“You’re goddamn right I’m hungry. I’m hungry A.F.”
night was Tuesday. Irene Price seemed more than usually hard of
hearing. “Don’sha like it in Florda?” she kept saying. “Mebby
like to shtay wishyer Gramma n Granpa?”
got a new boyfriend, Mom?”
can’t I stay with Dad?”
rebuked Grandma. In Grandma’s opinion, the only thing worse than
looking Mexican was asking to stay with Maxine’s dad, whose
ancestors had lived in Texas before the advent of the conquistadores.
Maxine didn’t know him that well but he seemed nice enough.
Better than old people with a mermaid in their pool.
been talking to you about juvvie, child?” said Grandma.
would,” snorted Grandma “I don’t think that child is very
said Irene. “It’s like jail for kids. You goin to juffie?
Whadya do, try to sell some oregano?”
the night Maxine snuck out of bed to the crate where DiDi slept.
DiDi woke and snuffled at her, but Maxine sang “DiDi dee dee deeee
deeeeee deeeeeeeeeeeee” and he shut up. He was a revolting little
creature, smelly, loud, with a brain too little to do anything but
vibrate. He trusted her.
made herself stop thinking about DiDi trusting her. She eased the
crate open and went to the patio door. The moon shone on the
sparkles in the concrete. Out of the corner of her eye she saw
something that might be a splash at the corner of the pool. Maxine
unbolted the patio door. Lifted up as she slid open the glass, to
keep it from squeaking. DiDi stood at the screen door, silent. Not
yapping at all. She opened the screen. Closed her eyes.
Sarah E. Ruhlen’s poetry has appeared in Slipstream, RHINO, I-70 Review, Coal City Review, Skidrow Penthouse, and the Kansas City Star, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her creative nonfiction recently appeared in Hobart and Essay Daily’s June 21, 2018 project. She lives and writes in Camillus, NY.