The Last Mermaid in Marineland, page 1
The Last Mermaid
LOIS LEE GATES
Felipe snatched a glass from the counter and wiped it with terry cloth. He jerked the cloth around the rim, jabbing at the inside of the glass with a short, rough motion before slapping it down on the bar. The hot afternoon irritated him and he had five more hours to spend behind the bar before his shift ended.
After work, he could join his friends on Dallenera Beach. They would sit around a bonfire as the light from the flames flickered on the marsh. He would raise a cerveza with the other young men, and a girl with dark hair would throw her head back with laughter. The firelight would make her teeth shine, and she would draw closer to him to keep warm, even though the night was clear and balmy.
For now, he was in Manny’s Bar on Stewart Road. He turned on the lights, set the glasses on the counter, and waited for the regulars to come in.
Manny’s Bar didn’t face the ocean. It faced a busy road from the second floor of a shopping mall, a concrete building home to pawn shop, international grocers, and twenty-four-hour dentistries. No business stayed for long. After a year or two, the renters either moved on or went under. Only the Silver Dollar Gift Shop, a purveyor of dried starfish, key chains with common first names, boats made of shells, t-shirts with crude slogans, and armadillos clutching beer cans, had stubbornly occupied its space on the bottom floor for as long as fifteen years. The storefront next to Manny’s was open for lease again.
A casual tourist would never notice Manny’s by day. Only a group of loyal locals arrived before dark. Under faded red letters, with the apostrophe now broken for over three months, a selection of humble devotees shuffled in beneath the afternoon sun to find their seats as the neon signs hummed on the wood-panel walls and the out-of-date arcade cabinets beeped. The stale odor of beer and apathy hung in the air.
Felipe prepared a whiskey sour for the old man who sat at the table in the back every evening until nine o’clock when he would rise, stretch his aching back, leave a fifty-five cent tip, and amble away. Abbott and Tony, who never bet on sports, had their paperwork, covered in figures, calculations, and formulas, spread across the bar.
The bell on the door jangled. Tonya Peebles hustled in and bypassed the bar to examine the jukebox. No one looked up to greet her. She dropped four coins in a slot and the jukebox roared to life. A Kenny Chesney song played and Tonya swayed to the music, eyes closed. She dipped her shoulders and twisted her hips with sharp thrusts that threatened to tear the buttons off her stone-washed, high-waisted jeans.
Felipe and the regulars reserved the third bar stool for Richard White from five o’clock to ten. He arrived with his customary silence and pulled himself onto his seat, wincing with the effort. As a younger man, he taught high school English. He was a Lord of Literature, a Despot of Keats, and a Term Paper Tyrant, until he retired, to the relief of his trembling subjects. He lived in a rented room on the beach and spent his early mornings scouring for artifacts left by the benevolent tide. Once, he found a doubloon, but most of the time, he pocketed sand dollars, or shells with twisting, violet spires. On unlucky days, he went home with empty pockets. Though his hobby was fickle by nature, he rose at dawn and searched every morning, returning to Manny’s Bar in the afternoon. He left for home at ten o’clock, on the dot.
Should any curious onlooker at Manny’s ask him what he was looking for in the tide pools and coves, Richard would say, “I’m searching for a mermaid, and if I ever find her, you can bet I won’t be wasting my time in this place anymore.”
The men at the bar would hear Richard’s answer, chuckle, and make jokes. Privately, they felt relieved, as this meant he would always be there, sitting in the same bar, at the same stool, and that consistency comforted them.
Alvie, a construction man, out of work as often as he was in it, never let his financial problems prevent him from doing what suited him. Today, it suited him to spend his afternoon at Manny’s Bar. Felipe’s mood darkened when he saw Alvie, as everything about the greasy contractor provoked him. Perhaps it was because Alvie has no qualities to be proud of, but he was pleased with himself all the same.
“Housing prices are falling again, no joke,” said Alvie, slapping a newspaper on the counter.
“What do you care?” snapped Felipe. He didn’t look up from the register as he counted change. “You live with tu madre”
Alvie winked at Richard. “I care for everyone. I’m a citizen of the Earth, and I feel the burdens of the human race. It’s a terrible cross to bear.”
Felipe sniffed. Alvie nudged Richard’s shoulder with his, and Richard withdrew from the touch. Alive flipped to the second page of the newspaper. “Crime is up. Gang violence, they tell us. Just the other day, at Marineland—”
“Marineland?” Tanya interrupted. She put down her gin and tonic. “The amusement park?
“They tore that place down,” said Felipe.
“Oh, no, they did not.” Alvie shook his head. “They left the stands and the stalls. They sacrificed the parking lot to weeds and dust. They let the sands of the Pharaohs entomb the dolphin tank and permitted the bleachers to crumble. Ceramic ashtrays and snow globes lie under the ashes of their new Pompeii. The marine habitats are buried under their Troy.
“It stands in ruins like columns of the Parthenon—a Coliseum of abandoned amusements. It is Atlantis, emerged from the depths, drained, smelling of salt and the carcasses of sea monsters. Oh, no,” said Alvie, “they did not tear it down.”
“Stupid,” said Felipe, “to compare rotten amusement parks with such things.”
Behind Alvie, Tonya’s eyes shined like a delighted child. Her face looked soft and youthful. “Marineland! I went there when I was a little girl. There were whales, seals, penguins—a mermaid show!”
The men ignored her. Alvie folded his newspaper and shrugged. “A ruin is a ruin.”
Tonya was dying to say, “I was there! I saw trainers toss fish across the pool as trained porpoises arched through candy-cane hoops. I wandered through gift shops that sold glittery, iron-on t-shirts, cheap sunglasses, ashtrays, and resin flamingos with Cheshire Cat grins. I can still feel the burning heat from the aluminum bleachers and taste the popcorn, and I was young!” but the words were lost in her throat and the clamor of a growing evening crowd.
The sun set over the beach. Night blanketed Galveston Island, the ocean, the busy street, and the strip mall. Manny’s bar filled with patrons as one football game ended and another replaced it.
Tonya left the bar an hour after midnight. She drove home in her rusted Chevy pickup truck on a lonely highway along the beach. She’d had a few drinks, and though she felt no groggier than any other night at Manny’s, something compelled her to pull over.
She sat in her truck, turned off her headlights, and squinted into the black landscape. She’d parked just before an unmarked turnoff she hadn’t noticed in years. Perhaps the talk at the bar had stirred a memory, and instinct had led her there. No sign hinted at what waited for her at the end of the road, but she turned on the engine and drove into the darkness.
Clouds drifted away from the moon and revealed palm trees that lined the road at regular intervals. Their spacing was unnatural and planned. The road opened to a circular plaza, and the Chevy’s headlights illuminated a white, cement fountain at the center, dry for years. Beyond it, the road continued, its entrance marked by a giant seahorse, a sculpted Colossus perched on a rusted pole.
Tonya parked her truck, and with nervous hands, searched the passenger-side for her flashlight. She pushed aside wires, cables, cups, and crumpled paper until she uncovered it and turned it on. She rolled down her window and cast it
Time and weather wore away its pink and purple paint, leaving only traces in the crevices of its massive, curling body. The beam fell across its face, and its great, bulbous eye rotated its pupil to observe her.
“I know who you are,” Tonya whispered.
The seahorse blinked. She had its attention.
“I know who you are,” said Tonya, louder this time. “You’re hot chocolate with marshmallows by the fire, when the snow falls and covers footprints in the field. You’re a stream, where cold water runs under a wooden bridge, and the stones are smooth, and pretty enough to collect in corduroy pockets.
“You’re the cacophony of the schoolyard, the scrape of tin slides, the icy touch of lead bars, and the smell of cedar chips. You’re the topsy-turvy feeling when the swing drops. You’re the sugar-thrill of cotton candy, a circus clown, a Saturday morning cartoon character, a fireman, a pen pal. You’re what was precious, now gone, gone, gone, and your name is Childhood.”
The seahorse coiled and bounced with pleasure.
Tonya laughed. She sobered as the creature’s eye revolved its gaze to the dark road beyond. Tonya rolled up her window and started her truck. She followed the road until the shadow of the whimsical sea creature lay far behind. The seahorse watched her truck recede.
She arrived at a parking lot, cracked, and overrun with weeds. It stretched wide like a stagnant lake, cold, and still as the surface of the moon. The painted lines had nearly worn away, but Tonya chose an empty space and maneuvered into it carefully. She left her keys in the ignition.
Crossing the lot was like traveling through an alien landscape when the only sound that broke the silence of space was the shifting rocks under her feet. Moonlight lit a black shape n the other side, a crumbling building, with gaping holes instead of windows, sunken into the bone-plaster walls. The wind blew through them and called her name.
Standing in front of the derelict marina, Tonya felt timid. Foolishness had brought her this far, but going further was an outrage no one would forgive.
“Come inside,” the wind whispered, and she did.
Little remained on the other side of the threshold, like walking through a movie set facade. A ruined expanse yawned, an Atlantis after the flood water rolled away. A forgotten city, still as a graveyard, strewn with hunks of wood and shattered glass. Tonya followed the path to the stadium, its aluminum bleachers still in place, and at the base, a labyrinth of drained water tanks.
Tonya paused at an overturned, cherry-red vendor cart on the overlook. The present melted away, and the car stood upright under the hot, Texas sun. A man with a brown mustache, sweltering in his pinstriped, collared shirt, handed her an ice cream. She was a child again, small, careless, and rich with possibility.
“You’re a summer day by the lake,” she told the cart. “A warm driveway under whistling branches, the end of a funny joke, a salsa, a carnival!” She skipped around the abandoned cart, and the fresh scent of popcorn lingered.
She glided down the concrete steps in her half-dream and heard the muffled hum of an afternoon crowd. It began as a murmur on the salty breeze, easily mistaken for palm fronds rustling, then grew until a loud chatter. The crowd exploded with applause. Tonya tugged at her aunt’s hand, telling her to hurry, hurry, hurry, they were missing it! The afternoon show would go by without them, the dolphins would retreat to their private tanks, the trainers would step behind the scenes and leave nothing but crystal-blue waves slapping against the glass. The cycle would start again, but it wouldn’t be this show, this moment, this glorious instant that thrilled the audience without her.
The cheers subsided when she reached the bottom, and that show, and every show after it, had long since passed. Tonya was alone at the entrance of the water tank.
She ran her hand along the wall as she moved on, with no aim or direction, turning in the maze by instinct. Graffiti covered the tanks, as vivid and indecipherable as ancient Hieroglyphics. On the side of a poorly-lit warehouse on any other night, they might have seemed threatening. Tonya passed them like billboards on the highway, seen, but given no significance.
The passage ended in a great, blank expanse that swallowed the moonlight. A man-made lake, a black, rippling, basin, once home to creatures of the deep, now a shelter for unknown terrors. Above it, a mist.
Tonya watched, helpless, as it altered its shape and color, pulsating yellow, ivory, green, then blue. It grew, drawing closer, consuming the night. It engulfed the sky, spilled on the ground, and stirred the dust. The light turned into a waterless ocean, and at its center, a dark mass gathered form. It molded, shaped itself, solidified. Sleek, rubbery skin hardened on its bulky body. Its nose split into a cavernous mouth lined with rows of sharp, glinting, white teeth.
The whale made of shadow, sand, and dreams loomed over Tonya and she was made smaller by comparison; she was minute, an insect, a speck, a mite. She was exposed beneath a phantom beast, surrounded in sparkling blue waves, in the salty, Galveston night air at the bottom of the sea.
Tonya fell to her knees. “I know you, too,” she moaned. “I know you best of all.”
“You’re a half-drunk gin bottle under a naked light bulb when evening has turned into the early morning, when the sound of a car pulling into the driveway never came. You’re a stolen cigarette smoked against a cinder-block wall, tossed into the bushes.
“You’re a trailer under a street lamp at the edge of town, a motel room with a single bed by the side of a deserted highway. You’re a bar on a hot, stale afternoon.
“You linger in dance halls after the last song has played and the band is packing to leave. You lurk in diners during the dead hours before dawn. You wander the beaches in winter and blow cold wind through boarded houses.
“I’ve met you on the street outside the last open restaurant on the Strand. I’ve spelled your name with cereal spoons, drawn your face with lip liner, and drowned you in Dulce Vida. You’re a single glass of wine, the echo in an empty house, the crackle of a gravel road under a truck searching for youth long gone. Oh, I know you,” she croaked.
“You’re Loneliness, and Regret, and I wish I’d never found you here in the belly of the earth, too far away from a drink to wash you away.”
The night exhaled, the blue light faded, and the monstrous whale scattered to dust. The hypnotic state that led Tonya into the wasteland dissipated, and she could see the night clearly under the moon. There was only reeds, sand, the black lake, and a ruin. Behind her, she could hear the distant ocean and the rush of traffic on the highway.
Nothing here, she thought. Only cracked sidewalks and busted steel—a dying playground for children. She was trespassing and probably looked foolish on some hidden security camera, stepping all over private property like she owned the place.
They would ask her why she was out there, and what would she say? I was drunk, she thought, that’s what I’ll say.
She must have been drunk, to go looking for ghosts in a place that should have been torn down years ago. Perhaps no one saw? If she went home now, it never happened. If she bypassed the tanks, gave the old stadium a wide berth, returned to the Chevy, and drove away, the episode was over. She would go home and forget all about it.
She should call Will… It was a stupid argument to begin with. Silly, to stop speaking to a man over petty squabbles. Why do we spend years alone over things that don’t matter?
All she had to do was take one step. First one foot, then the other. Just one.
Tonya didn’t move. Her heart beat in her chest as she listened. The breeze stirred the dirt. Somewhere in the dark, a stranger’s footstep tapped on broken pavement.
It was five-thirty in the afternoon at Manny’s Bar and Richard White was not sitting in his usual place. The jukebox sat silent, and even though Felipe would never admit he was looking for Richard, the absence made him uneasy. He sighed with exasperation when Alvie appeared.
The contractor slapped a folded newspaper on the counter. “Richard wi
That announcement caught the attention of a handful of nearby regulars. It infuriated Felipe, who considered it a personal affront, somehow. “Why won’t he? This bar is no good for him anymore, I see.”
“Richard was at the police station all morning,” said Alvie, scratching the stubble on his chin.
“What’s that?” asked the old man at the back table. “He get arrested?”
“He did not. Richard White goes to the beach every morning when the sun rises, this we all know. What does he find? Stones, shells, rotted wood. This morning, he found a woman.
“A woman, lying in the reeds, eyes wide, staring at the sky, but not seeing. Her lips parted, but nothing to say. Tonya Peebles, lying dead.”
Abbott and Tony put down their figures. The men at the bar let their eyes drift to the jukebox. Felipe picked up a glass and wiped with quick, furious strokes.
“She must have been so composed,” Alvie mused. “Resplendent. I can imagine what she looked like. The lines around her mouth would have been smoothed away. Her arms would have been lying back, her white hands open, palms up, like so.” He demonstrated.
“With her hair streaming around her face, mingled with the seafoam, she must have been like a siren washed to shore, or a sea captain’s daughter still tied to the mast after the ship broke to pieces against the rocks.
“Why,” he paused, licking his lips, “it must have been like finding a mer—”
“Don’t say it!” Felipe hissed.
Alvie shut his mouth and bowed his head. The other men returned to their drinks, and there was no conversation in the bar until the sun went down over the ocean. The night crowd filtered in, laughing, joking, whooping, until the afternoon’s startling news drowned beneath the babble of customers who hadn’t heard and wouldn’t understand. Just after ten o’clock, the jukebox clicked on.
Richard White’s stool remained empty.
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