by Eva Sandoval
Davey was on the beach checking his Uncle Chet’s crab trap the first time he saw the mermaid. She was pale and thin, with seaweed-colored hair that clung to her body and long fins that stood up out of the water where she hunched by the rocks. Her small white hands pawed in the surf. She was strangling a long silver fish.
The mermaid’s head jerked; she saw Davey watching her and the fish flopped limply in her hands, like a deadening heartbeat. Then the mermaid’s mouth twisted, and she retreated into the Gulf with an aggressive splash. Her tail was long and gray, slimy with scales, and crusted with barnacles like the bottom of Uncle Chet’s boat.
Davey walked across the rocks, crab trap in hand, back to his uncle’s trailer. The trailer was Davey’s home–at least until school started. It was a strange place to live: a tin can with accordion-like sides, crammed with tatty furniture and dog-eared girlie magazines. Davey had been there three weeks and still wasn’t used to the flimsy plastic door, which shook when he slammed it behind him. Uncle Chet was in his arm chair. His red limbs sprawled out from its duct-taped sides. He looked up from the TV–flickering staticky and gray.
“Get any crabs?” he asked.
“Some,” said Davey.
“That all? Shoot. You’re useless, son. A girl coulda caught more.”
“Yes, sir,” Davey said. He watched his uncle dip his hand into the cooler next to his chair and scavenge the ice for a fresh can of Coors. The hand came up empty, slick and red. Davey dug the edge of his flip-flop into the wall.
“Anything else?” said Uncle Chet.
“I saw a mermaid,” said Davey.
“Yeah?” said Uncle Chet. “Where was she at?”
“Near the rocks.”
“What’d she look like?”
“I don’t know,” Davey said. “I could see her ribs. She had a gray tail. But I didn’t see her face. She moved too fast.”
“She weren’t just a scuba diver now–or one of them girls up at the mermaid show on Highway 19?”
“It wasn’t a costume,” said Davey. “And when she saw me, she swam away.”
“All right. So long as you ain’t foolin’,” said Uncle Chet. “What was she doing anyhow?”
“Killing a fish,” Davey admitted.
“Well, what all’d you expect her to do, son?” said Uncle Chet. “Mermaids kill things. She’d-a said, ‘Hey, sailor,’ you’d-a been done for.”
“I thought all mermaids did was sing and rescue people,” said Davey.
“Now where’d you get that–fairy tales?” said Uncle Chet. “Only faggy little princesses read fairy tales.”
“I’m not a faggy little princess, Uncle Chet.”
“Good. Now get me another beer.”
“Yes, sir.” As Davey opened the refrigerator, he heard Uncle Chet mutter: “Mermaids.”
It was another few weeks before Davey saw the mermaid again. This time, she was sunning herself on a rock. He could see her face clearly now; her mouth dripped red. Did anyone else see her? Davey glanced at a little girl fishing with her father, a group of teenagers on the shore. Were they sunstruck, drunk on sea salt–how could they miss the mermaid? Then again, Davey was just a city boy from Richmond–what did he know? Crystal River was a town where people caught their own crabs and everyone had their own boat. Maybe mermaids swam around all the time.
He climbed up on a rock, putting himself in the mermaid’s sight. He’d been in Florida for five weeks now and had yet to make any friends his age–not that he’d had any back home ever since Mark had punched him that day in the pool. Forget Mark–he wouldn’t know a real friend if one bit him. That said, Davey was lonely. He didn’t believe Uncle Chet; mermaids didn’t kill people. Sure, she was funny-looking but maybe they could be friends.
“Hey,” he said. “Psst.” The mermaid flipped over on her stomach, hugging the rock. He could see her better now that she was out of the water. The daintiness of her arms. The miracle of her tail–lithe and plump and coursing with twitchy muscles. It shimmered less now that it was dry, and Davey saw that every few minutes, the mermaid dipped her hand beneath the waves to snorkle water into her nose.
Davey picked up a shell and skipped it towards her. This time, she locked eyes with him. Davey was suddenly as afraid as he’d been when she’d popped the head off the fish, but he made himself wave. The mermaid twisted her glistening mouth into a leer and dived below the surface.
Davey ran back to the trailer.
“Uncle Chet,” Davey said. “I saw her again!”
His uncle’s eyes didn’t move from the sports section “Get to the point, son. ‘Dya see her tits?”
“Why, no!” said Davey. “No, Uncle Chet. Gosh.”
“Then what’re you telling me about her for?” he snapped his paper and laid it down on the table–Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy face-up.
“Because!” said Davey. “It was a mermaid.” His voice rose, shrilling in his ears. He couldn’t help it. That happened when he was upset.
“Now you listen here,” said Uncle Chet, rising on his elbows and planting his bare feet on the floor. “Do not get hysterical. None of that voice, y’hear me?”
Davey squeezed his lips shut. He clenched his teeth.
“Say sorry,” said Chet. “Go on, jackass. Don’t make me whup you, ‘cause I will. Now go on. Say sorry.”
“Good,” said Uncle Chet, sliding back into his chair. “Now go call your momma–she phoned while you were out horsing around.”
Davey crept to the phone and called his mother. The line rang three times before she picked up. It was past five now; he guessed she would have just gotten home from the animal shelter. He wondered, as always, how many animals she’d had to put down that day. But she sounded cheerful enough: Hi, sweetheart. I’ve missed you.
“I miss you, too,” he said. He missed everything about home–his room, the glittering city lights, even the clatter of construction. His mom’s decision to ship him down here for the summer had been so sudden, so strange. They’d never had much contact with her family Down South.
Davey was sleeping on the couch when he was woken by a savage bang. The lights in the trailer flashed on and then off again. Davey blinked through the dark and saw that it was Uncle Chet, that he had a woman with him. She was tall and thin and had puffed hair. She was on the kitchen counter and squealing, her legs around Uncle Chet’s waist. Uncle Chet had his tank top pulled up over his belly, his shorts down over his hips, working the woman from the front, grunting like a hog. Davey yanked his covers over his head, knocking Uncle Chet’s copy of Hustler off the card table with a thud.
“Someone’s here,” said the woman. “You didn’t tell me someone was here.”
“It’s just my jackass nephew,” said Uncle Chet. “You wanna watch, pecker? Learn you a thing or two.”
No, Davey did not want to watch. He jumped up, wearing only his shorts, and ran to the trailer’s front door.
“You best not be fixin’ to leave,” said Uncle Chet. “Get back in here.”
But Davey tumbled out of the trailer, into the dark, and shuffled up the gritty lime rock road. When he looked back at the trailer, the metal shone in the moonlight and he could see it quake. He huddled near a street sign–Ozello Trail–until the woman slipped out the front door and drove away in her rattly truck. He waited until the trailer was dark and quiet, then he tiptoed back inside to the warm couch. He shuddered himself to sleep.
The next morning, as soon as the light cracked through the curtains, Uncle Chet hovered over the couch. He punched Davey hard in the shoulder.
“Jackass,” he said. “Don’t you ever run away when I’m tryin’a learn you something.”
They went to church every week. Davey never went with his mom in Richmond but each Sunday morning, Uncle Chet scrubbed off seven days’ worth of sweat and thrust his limbs into sleeves, pant legs, and shoes–awkward and wrong, like a monkey in a tuxedo.
The church was a great stone building. Palm trees shot up around the plot and out in back were peacocks. They sang songs Davey didn’t know and said prayers Davey had never heard of. He mumbled along and, bit by bit, he learned to follow the show: you got to sit while the guy talked, then people went up to the stage, and then you had to hold hands.
“You wait here while I talk to my friends,” his uncle always said after church. “Don’t stand there like a jackass. Talk to the girls.” But the girls stayed in their silent covens, looking at the other boys. Tall boys. Thick boys. Boys teasing the peacocks and kicking the tires of their fathers’ sedans. Davey stayed lonely. Invisible. Just like back home. But one Sunday, someone looked at him. He was about Davey’s age, with strands of dark hair cascading down his neck. He was by the chain-link fence with his hands in his pockets. Davey looked at him, too, but then Chet had him by the arm.
“Move,” said Uncle Chet.
Neither of them spoke in the truck, and Uncle Chet shucked off his shoes as soon as they got inside the trailer.
“Get your church clothes off and get in the boat,” he said. “We’re going fishing.”
“No, thank you, sir,” said Davey.
“What d’you mean, ‘No, thank you, sir’?” said Uncle Chet. “And what’d I tell you before? Now get your pecker in the goddamn boat.”
Davey took off his slacks, tugged on shorts, and got in the boat. Uncle Chet gunned the engine and Davey watched the shore shrink until it was just a dirt-colored speck.
Uncle Chet thrust a fishing line at Davey. “Do what I do,” he said. “You watchin’, son? Get the bait.”
Davey drew in his breath when he opened the cooler to find dozens of live shrimp, gray and writhing on ice.
“Now,” said Uncle Chet. “You take this little sumbitch and stick him with the hook, right below his pecker.”
Davey shivered and fixed his eyes on the distance. To his delight, there was the mermaid, swimming fast past the boat. Her long hair whipped through the water, and he could see her face, clenched against the waves.
“Look!” Davey cried.
“The mermaid!” Davey shouted.
Uncle Chet put down his reel and stared out into the water. Davey clenched his fists.
“I don’t see anything,” Uncle Chet said at last. “You sure you saw her?”
“Yes, yes!” said Davey. “I saw her!”
“Now don’t,” said Uncle Chet. “Don’t you go and get hysterical on me. Don’t think I won’t push you over the side, son. Be a man.”
Davey sat quietly, his hands in his lap.
“Listen,” said Uncle Chet. “D’you see her tits?”
“No,” said Davey.
“Why the hell not?” said Uncle Chet. “You’re not a faggy little princess, are you?”
“I’m not a faggy little princess, Uncle Chet.”
“Good. ‘Cause faggy little princesses don’t get to go bowling at the Manatee Lanes.”
Davey and Uncle Chet had driven by the Manatee Lanes last Friday night. Thrumming disco music. Hoots and hollers. Neon lights. Kicked-open doors pulsing with teenagers from the high school. Davey often went bowling with his mother back home. He was good at it. He’d watched the Crystal River teenagers all summer long – the girls in their Daisy Dukes and the boys showing off tanned skin. Sometimes the boys wore cowboy hats with their swim trunks and tough leather cords strung with shells or alligator teeth around their thick necks. Nobody dressed like that back home.
Davey turned fifteen at the end of July, but he didn’t look any different to himself in the mirror. He was tall but not muscular–not like Jordan Massey and Brian Naylor. All last year he had watched them in P.E., how their muscles popped out from their necks when they did reps in the weight room. That had been his birthday wish: muscles like theirs. Maybe next year. He comforted himself with his mother’s package–his favorite candy and a new shirt with a wide collar.
Uncle Chet took him to dinner at a fish house–there, Davey had one of the best meals of his life. They sat at a wooden table on a deck overlooking the highway. Uncle Chet greeted friends from church or high school. The night air was thick with gnats and country music. Uncle Chet rattled off an order to the waitress–a shrimpy woman with lots of navy blue eyeliner, hair like Farrah, and skin thick as a hippo’s.
They started off with mudbugs and gator tail. “Mudbugs” were what Floridians called crawfish, and the gator tail was remarkable: hunks of chewy flesh fried in crisp batter. Next came bowls of clam chowder–the creamy kind for Uncle Chet and the red spicy kind for himself. Chet showed him how to crunch the oyster crackers into his bowl–“This way; like a man,”–and then out came the two heaping pounds of garlic blue crabs. Uncle Chet taught him to pull off their breast plate first and then scoop out the steaming white flesh inside. Then you could crack the claws. They were slippery in Davey’s fingers when he held them between his nutcracker. Sometimes, the claws spit hot water at him when he cracked them carelessly but once he got the hang of it their flesh was hot and tender, delicately perfumed by garlic.
Uncle Chet had a bottle of Coors and let Davey have a taste.
“Fifteen years old,” he said. “Almost like a man. Not big enough for your own bottle yet, though.”
Davey got pretty tired of Uncle Chet’s bull sometimes. He thought of nighttime, when his cock swelled up against his pajama bottoms and left him sticky the next morning. He sure felt like a man at times like that, no matter what Uncle Chet thought. But Uncle Chet was still talking.
“Pure as a babe,” he said, cracking a fresh crab claw. “I don’t know what’s wrong with boys these days. Shoot, son. By the time I was fifteen, I’d seen twenty pairs of tits.”
There were ten days left in Crystal River when Davey saw the mermaid again. He was in the Gulf, the soupy gray water up to his waist, when her head–small and round like a seal’s–broke through the surface. Davey checked behind him to see if anyone else noticed her and, again, the other beachgoers rifled through their picnic lunches, or rolled over on their leather-tanned stomachs. When he turned back to look at the mermaid, she was gone. Always gone. She came, she went, trying to make him break. Well, Davey wasn’t one of her weak sailors and, above all, Davey wasn’t crazy.
He woke early the next morning and had breakfast with Uncle Chet. Grits, splashed with Tabasco and sprinkled with pepper. Toast. A glass of Tang, tasting of sugary metal in his mouth. He stood; stretched his legs and scraped his chair back.
“Where d’you think you’re going?” asked Uncle Chet.
“May I be excused?”
“Why? Where do you have to be?”
“What for? What’s that?” Uncle Chet asked, pointing at Davey’s chest.
“My camera,” said Davey. “I’m going to get a Polaroid of that mermaid, Uncle Chet.”
“Now we’re talking,” said Uncle Chet. “Ha cha cha, right, son? Show your buddies back home some mermaid titties.”
Davey stopped just short of the door.
“Go on,” said Uncle Chet. “Do your momma proud.”
“My mom?” Davey was appalled. “Why–” the words came before he could stop them–“just why do you care about her tits?”
“Now, you just watch your tone,” said Uncle Chet.
“I’m sorry,” said Davey. “But I don’t get it.”
Uncle Chet stood up from the table.
“Why?” he said. “Because, son. No normal American boy sees a mermaid and don’t look at her tits. That’s why.”
“Well, sorry,” said Davey. “But I just don’t give a damn.”
“I know you don’t,” said Uncle Chet. “Maybe that’s the way with all bastards. Your momma knows you don’t care, either. Why d’you think she sent you down here? Making you care is my job.”
“My mom’s nothing like you rednecks down here,” said Davey. “But I’ve had it, Uncle Chet. I’m sick of your… crap. Just… just shut up and leave me alone.”
“Why, you little shit,” said Uncle Chet.
Davey lunged against the door handle, but Uncle Chet grabbed him first. Davey had only been hit one time in his life, by Mark that day at the pool, and he’d forgotten how much it hurt. When he screamed, Uncle Chet brought his foot down on him.
“Fight back,” said Uncle Chet. “Be a man.”
But Davey couldn’t fight. He wasn’t strong and he wasn’t brave. It was why he couldn’t do anything when his friend had punched him in the face. He couldn’t even say, It was an accident. Please don’t stop being my friend.
Uncle Chet kicked him, sending him cracking against the trailer door. Vomit dribbled from his mouth, and so did blood.
“Boy,” said Uncle Chet. “You break your momma’s heart.”
Davey coughed and wheezed, crying onto the plastic floor. But Davey could feel Uncle Chet ripping open the trailer door and thumping down the front steps, out to the truck. The engine roared. The lime rock crunched angrily as he pealed out of the driveway.
Davey could stand. He had to hold on to the table to prop himself up, but he could do it. He tried the door handle again; this time it clicked open easily and Davey stumbled down the trailer steps, out onto the road.
It was hot on the beach, even past sunset. The water had stung his wounds at first but then, bit by bit, they felt better. Davey stayed in the shallow water until he stopped crying. He would go home next week covered in bruises and his mother would know. She’d know it’d been Uncle Chet because that’s what she’d hoped he’d do. Sweetheart. I miss you. Davey stopped crying and punched the waves with a ferocious splash. He punched them again, harder, and let the sound of crashing water fill his ears. He stopped when– suddenly, so faint it was almost in his mind–he heard it: the mermaid’s song.
There she was–perched on a rock so close to him he could almost reach out and touch her. Her skin was slick and gray in the yellow moonlight. Her mouth was black and her teeth shone. Her song was thin and silvery and beautiful. She held out a ropy arm to him. Her fingertips brushed his cheek. He could see that they were rounded at the top, like frogs’ fingers. Then the mermaid drew her head back like a snake. With a savage hiss, she lunged for him and knocked him into the Gulf.
She was shrieking in his ears, gripping him around the neck. Her tail squeezed around his legs. But he was bigger than her. He had never noticed how small she was; barely the size of a middle-schooler. Her kelp-like hair, swirling around them in a mass, choked him. He gasped for breath, fighting the screams that gurgled up in his throat. She screeched in his face. Davey slapped her, shocked when she went limp just long enough for him to get his arms around her and pin hers to her body. She shrieked so powerfully that it blew the hair back off of his ears and he smelled rotting fish. She was angry, murderously angry, and Davey realized it was because she knew he had her.
With her arms pinned, she was easy to lift and he dragged her out of the water, clutching her to his chest. His feet beat down on the sand, then the limerock, but he didn’t fall. The mermaid screamed in his ear again as he opened the trailer door and hauled her inside, his fingers knotted deep in her slithery hair.
“Uncle Chet!” shouted Davey. “Uncle Chet!” But the trailer was black and empty. The mermaid wriggled from his grasp, but out of the water she was powerless and he picked her up again by the scalp; flopped her onto the kitchen counter. She was writhing, and the trailer shook beneath them but he didn’t let go. She hissed again and as she did, her hair fell away from her torso. There, at last, were her breasts. They were large and white, capped by nipples the same dusky gray as her tail. She was foaming at the mouth now. Her teeth were jagged and sharp, like a pike’s. Her eyes were black, without irises. He stared at her, searching for one sign of beauty.
He wondered what it would have been like if she’d been beautiful and good. If she’d had long, golden hair and eyes as blue as the waves. If she’d become his friend, taken him to a grotto of underwater delights. If he’d been able to want her.
Davey began to touch her breasts. They were firm in his hand, like softballs, with skin just as tough. He rubbed her breasts harder and realized she was now wheezing. Her bone dry tail flopped and her face changed from icy gray to blue. As she coughed, her black eyes bulged. He squeezed her breasts harder and slipped his hand into his shorts to grip his penis; limp in his fingers. He started to cry again. The mermaid’s face changed from spasms of rage to peace and–somehow, finally–beauty as he held her down on the table, forcing her to gulp in the toxic air until she drowned.