Categories
2019 Fiction

Sarah E. Ruhlen

OPEN WATER

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.

“Your 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.

“Huh?” said Maxine.

“Your 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 spot.

“I don’t do the chlorine,” said Maxine. The mermaid looked bored.

“Are you one of Grandma’s friends?”

“I doubt it. Who’s your grandma?”

“Debbie Schneider. Grandpa is Chuck Schneider?”

“Never heard of ‘em.”

“Well you’re in their pool.”

The mermaid finished her cigarette and flicked the butt into the water.

“Hey I just cleaned that!”

The mermaid rolled her eyes, flipped her tail, and shot through the water like a speed boat. She hove up before Maxine, who scootched back, fast.

“Here’s 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.

“Name’s Trixie,” she rasped. “What’s yours, grandkid of Debbie and Chuck?”

“Maxine 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?”

“Hitched a ride on an alligator. How come you’re not at the beach?”

“I can’t go until Grandma gets home.”

Trixie 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.

“Can’t you swim?”

“A little.”

“Scared of sharks?”

“A little.”

The 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?”

“It’s just DiDi. Are you hungry?”

“Yes. 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.

“What’s it like?”

“What?”

“Being a mermaid.”

“Can’t 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.

“Not really. Seems kind of soggy.”

Trixie’s 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.

Grandma came to the patio door and hollered, “Maxine? DiDi! Chuck! Lunch time!”

DiDi snapped awake and yapped back to the house. Maxine followed.

“There’s a mermaid in the pool.” Maxine tried to say this around a half-chewed wad of baloney and white bread and mayo.

“Don’t be silly. Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

Maxine made an effort and swallowed. “She says the chlorine is low and you should shock it.”

“She’s probably right,” said Grandpa behind his paper. He was allowed to be silly.

“Betty 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.

Trixie 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’ that thing…”

“You better make yourself scarce,” said Maxine, “Grandpa’s about to come dump in a bunch of chlorine.”

“It’s all right. He’ll be a while. Dishwasher hose sprung a leak.”

“How do you know?”

Trixie jerked her chin toward the patio.

Maxine 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 asked Grandma.

“Hose is leaking.”

Maxine hurried back out to the pool.

“That’ll hold him an hour or two,” said Trixie. “Nice do.” She pointed with her augur shell at Maxine’s hair.

“Grandma says it makes me look Mexican.”

“Maybe….You know what you look like. You look just like a sweet little Carib I used to know, brown as butter….”

“Are you hungry?”

“It’s 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.

“We?” said Maxine.

“Oh, 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.”

“I mean, are there other mermaids around?”

“Not in my territory there better not be.” Trixie’s eyes fired up green and Maxine backed up a pace.

“How big is your territory?”

“Can’t complain. Plenty big accounts. Working on a big lead right now.” Trixie yawned and flipped her tail. “Better go, Gramps wants you.”

Carl 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.

Thus, 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.

“Look 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.

“Have 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….”

At 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.

This 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.

“Oh!”

“’smatter?”

“So 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.

“You should buy it.”

“Can’t. I already spent all my money.”

Maxine put the lovely thing down. Claudia picked it up. Maxine found she did not like to see Claudia’s clammy fingers on it.

The bell on the shop door rang behind them. Fast as a cat, Claudia shoved the koi bead into Maxine’s pocket.

“Hey!”

“Shut up dumbass. If you say anything I’ll deny it.”

“Miss?”

Maxine nearly wet her pants.

“Miss, 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.

“Thank—too—” 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.

“C’mon retard. We’ll be late for the trolley.” Claudia shoved Maxine out the door. The bell jangled like a fire alarm.

All evening the little jade fish rolled around in Maxine’s pocket. She tried to feel guilty about it. Failed. Its mouth formed a perfect fish-kiss “O.”

In 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 needed.

“That 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?”

“But I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“You still got the hot fish, don’t you?”

Maxine touched the lump between her nubbins.

“You know they don’t switch those tapes until Wednesday,” said Trixie.

Sometimes Trixie was just as bad as Grandma.

“What’s 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….”

Maxine felt that she did not want to go to juvvie.

“Yeah 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 up.

“How did you get there?”

“Where?”

“To the bead store?”

“Oh well you know, I can always make it work when I gotta friend who’s in trouble.”

“But how did you get legs?”

“You 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.”

It was 92° in Jacksonville that morning, and muggy A.F. Maxine’s arms broke out in goosebumps.

“Why…” Maxine found her voice wasn’t working properly.

“I need a favor.”

“You…you hungry?”

“Yeah. I’m hungry. I need a favor.”

“What favor?”

“Let DiDi out of the house after dark.”

“Are you kidding? He’ll get et up by an alligator!”

“Possibly.” 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.”

Maxine backed away.

“Used 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.”

That 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?”

“You got a new boyfriend, Mom?”

“Hanh?”

“Why can’t I stay with Dad?”

“Maxine!” 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.

“Mom what’s juvvie?”

“Hanh?”

“Who’s been talking to you about juvvie, child?” said Grandma.

“Um, Claudia.”

“Claudia would,” snorted Grandma “I don’t think that child is very nice.”

“Juffie?” said Irene. “It’s like jail for kids. You goin to juffie? Whadya do, try to sell some oregano?”

“Irene!”

“Hanh?”

In 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.

Maxine 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.