In addition to writing short stories, CHRISTINE FOSTER is an award winning playwright and has collaborated on book and lyrics for five original musicals. Her extensive radio and television credits range from the CBC to CBS, and from The Family Channel to The History Channel. Currently working on a novel, she lives in San Miguel de
Allende, Mexico.
Mermaids

by Christine Foster


Now that I think about it, we had no business even being on the beach that day.  Clouds were whipping past with the force and gusto of sport socks being yanked off a clothesline, and you had to angle your child with considerable ingenuity or every shovel of sand she dug up would be peppered back into some other kid's hair or face.    

     The radio had suggested at least the possibility of basking temperatures yet there we were after an hour and a half still lumbering around pursuing brief patches of sunlight like a pair of disgruntled iguanas dragging coolers.  We'd wrestle with our flapping towels, hover a few desperate inches above them until, with a well-timed collapse, we finally pinned them into place.   Even once we were settled there was no solace.  Trying to gaze peacefully across to the far shoreline you could hardly miss the mandarin orange leaves sprouting in the tops of the maples and here it was barely August.  We only hung on, Joanne and I, because we'd promised the kids a ride on the boat- a lake tour of the little islands- and that didn't leave the dock until one.

 
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     In fact, if you had to give the day credit for anything, it was its consistent opposition to anything like relaxed conviviality.  Joanne's daughter, Kathy, was complaining there was more sand than salt on her potato chips, and my own child, Meredith, had just emptied a second drinking box of apple juice into her castle moat only to watch it disappear into the sticky trench with baffled resentment.

     We settled on making them into mermaids. Piling the sand over their legs seemed to help them stop shivering at least.  And it was while Joanne and I were sculpting their fins that we first became aware of her. We hadn't seen her arrive.  She was somehow just there, a human boulder, another bulky feature on the breakwater. Installed.

     At a guess she was no more than seventeen.  Certainly no less than a hundred and eighty pounds. She sat with her back against the rocks and her legs crooked, making it hard to see where her thighs ended and her torso began, especially with all the overstuffed carrier bags she had settled around her lap. Her jeans were so tight they rippled the flesh beneath into wide undulations giving her the hip-heavy profile of one of those ancient fertility goddess statues you see in National Geographic.  In contrast, her shoulders seemed unnaturally narrow beneath her tent-like T-shirt with its logo of a local water park.

     Then something, somewhere in the recesses of her department store of a lap set up a cry. The child must have been very new, very tiny indeed, because you couldn't see anything moving anywhere.  The young mother fumbled past one of several intertwined duffle bag straps and produced a plastic bottle with some pale brown liquid inside.

     "Oh my lord, what is she giving that baby?" croaked Joanne.

     "Maybe the bottle is just stained," I replied.  "You know how a dishwasher discolors plastics."

     "I doubt she has a dishwasher."

     "Her mother may.  She may live at home. Or with her boyfriend."

     "Boyfriend?  She'd be lucky.  Born to be dumped, I'd say."

     I looked over at the blank face. The blank face looked past me, past the dock, over the wind-whipped water to some other shore.

     At about the same time Kathy began methodically poking Meredith in the back causing Meredith to squirm so vigorously that she was starting to crack her nearly completed tail.  So I began to tickle Kathy a little under the arms.  "You better leave that other mermaid alone, 'cos there's a big shark sitting right here protecting her!"

     Now I know Kathy fairly well, but for reasons of her own she burst into furious tears and promptly developed a nosebleed.

     I sat back on my heels, discouraged, while her mother dug her out and staunched the trickle of blood. Having a child yourself does not mean you know anything about handling kids, of course.  You know something about handling your own kid, sure, but usually only at the age she happens to be at the moment. By the time Meredith was four I had already forgotten the wiles and strategies for entertaining her in the car (or keeping her quiet while I was on the phone) that I had invented when she was two. The child pushes, you pull. It's a dance at best--at worst a bargain.  But the game can only be played between individuals. Kathy clearly thought me presumptuous. We didn't have the history, you see.

     Once she had Kathy cleaned up, Joanne's attention was free to drift back to the young mother. "Obviously on welfare."

     "Why couldn't she live with her mother?"

     "A real mother would have organized her better. Not let her overdo everything like that.  That girl is a card carrying member of the 'the more stuff I have the better mother I am' school of baby tending." Joanne was on a roll, " and just look what she buys.  Pampers.  Not even No Name diapers.  And look...look...!"

     I looked.

     The girl/woman was currently laboring to puncture a small can with an opener on her key ring.

     "See that formula? Can you believe it? Premixed. The most

expensive way you can buy it. You're even paying for the water for Pete's sake."

     The young woman began refilling the baby bottle, spilling a bit as if to reinforce the very profligacy of her choice.  In any event the finished product looked just as brown as the first portion had. I had been right about the bottle being stained, but I didn't say anything.  Joanne seemed to be enjoying herself. This was the most animated she had been all day.

     "Pity she's not nursing," I ventured instead. "She'd save over twenty dollars a week right there.  Of course I hear a lot of young women think breast feeding is animalistic.  You know, gross somehow."

     "Then we're the ones paying for her to be squeamish," Joanne sniffed. "It really galls me, you know. We're shelling out for a kid she can't afford, but is she helping to pay for ours?"

     "Perhaps she will in later years.  She's really young.  These things tend to even themselves out."

     "You think so? Look at her attitude right now when her habits are being formed!  Is she counting pennies? Comparison shopping? Denying herself anything?" Joanne's voice was rising a bit, not with emotion, to be fair, only against the wind, but even then I never wondered if our words were being snatched skyward or in some less sociable direction. "That blue Snuggly is brand new or I'm a Methodist.  She doesn't think twice about buying new baby clothes with the taxpayer's dollar, and with all good second-hand stores there are now!"

     Sometime during our deliberations the mother had pulled herself up (at this point I was only watching out of the corner of my eye) to reach for a can of Coke. First she put the baby down on a blanket, then, as she was struggling to free one can from the tight plastic six-pack ring (while Joanne was shooting me a please-also-notice this-unnecessarily-expensive-way-of-buying-soft drinks sort of look) a pink plastic tote bag slipped from her slender shoulder and plummeted straight down on top of the sleeping child's head.

     I'm pretty sure, in retrospect, that Joanne's spontaneous outburst of alarm could not have been completely drowned out by the baby's cries. "It was just a bag of diapers, it's soft, it couldn't hurt," I told our own staring children as the mother began to collect all her baggage and at the same time attempt to soothe the gasping infant. She started to sing. Her voice was well pitched, low and clear. I could even pick out a few of the words.  And that should have been a clue right there that she could hear us, too, but I just didn't think about it. Not at the time.

     Joanne was happily snorting, "Next thing she'll drop the baby, you'll see."

     The girl stopped singing then.  But that seemed to be because the baby had stopped crying, and the pontoon boat was now sliding into position, tying up at the dock.

     I looked at my watch.  "Well, just time to get to the washroom before we have to get on board.  Kathy, do you want to come?  I'm taking Meredith."

     Kathy gave me a look which clearly rated a trip to the Ladies Room with me as an event lower in desirability than being asked to clean up catsick.

     So I just took Meredith.  While she gleefully subjected the entire upper half of her body to the desert blast of the wall-mounted sanitary hand dryer, I gave myself a routine  (and routinely less than hopeful) glance in the mirror. Even not expecting very much I was still disappointed.  And still caught off guard. I was sans makeup, not because I'd been coming to the beach, but because makeup rarely improved the situation these days. It had taken me nearly a year to acknowledge that a good night's sleep or a bit of sun would no longer set all to rights. Now it was only a question of whether the dominant theme on a given day was to be significant puffiness, dark circles, piggy eyes, or a more pronounced sag in the hammock of grainy skin beneath the chin.

     It was a challenge all right. How gracefully I wondered, could I slip from the role of eligible female with an amiable glow and a good haircut to that of tousled mum insisting on natural fibers and nothing tight about her waist? Of course it was not in the body's nature to remain frozen at any stage for longer than a few breaths. I knew that. Time couldn't dawdle over Meredith's preschool faerie winsomeness any more than it could conveniently stall for me.

     I even knew an abrupt release from public scrutiny was supposed to be my big chance for inner growth, but to tell the truth I'd been counting on being blissfully shallow a bit longer. I wasn't ready. My social radar warned me this was going to be a far more precipitous and drastic change of life than menopause, and cruelly earlier. There ought to be a rack of pamphlets in your doctor's office: "Losing Your Looks: an opportunity to concentrate on intuitive skills, and the development of a new, jolly and empathetic persona."

     "Bee, Mummy!  It's a bee!" yelped Meredith, dodging behind my beach bag.

     "No, sweetie, it's just a fly. Are you ready to go?"

     She nodded her belief in me, still clutching my bag, eyes still squeezed shut.

      Then we were back on the beach, where Meredith, her intuition as fresh as mine was shriveled, immediately began to cry.  She'd caught and absorbed the whiff of urgency and grief before I could make any sense of the scene, of the disturbing shouts in the wind, of the water around the pontoon boat broken and coldly churning as fully dressed men leaped in and thrashed about.

     The captain and mate were diving under and around the boat itself, one with a gaff hook, the other with a life ring.

     "Joanne!? What's happened? Has someone fallen in?"

     We reached them at the water's edge, both solemn and white-lipped, Kathy clutching her mother by the neck, Joanne peering into the dismal lake, quivering.

     "That girl. That young mother. It looked like she was going to line up, I swear, she stood right by the side of the boat, then instead of stepping on board, she let go," her voice dropped to a whisper, "of the baby."

     "What? Into the water?!"

     "Right over the side. It sank like a stone. It's been five minutes. Now the bottom mud's so churned up, they can't even see."

     I couldn't think of anything to say.  I wasn't breathing much either. It was too late; it was already too late. It must be.

     Police sirens could be heard, bearing down on the beach.

     "I wanna go home!" moaned Kathy, a dark red clot already splitting open in the other nostril.  Meredith sobbed hard against my shoulder.

     "But where did she go, the mother? Where is she now?"

     "Everyone was so stunned, nobody stopped her!  She just took off! I knew she had no business with a baby! Didn't I say? What did I say?"

     And I think that was really the first time it occurred to me that the girl had overheard us. That we might be involved, however unintentionally, in a case of infanticide.  Would she repeat it all to the social workers (and legal aid) how we had, well, not exactly mocked, but certainly dissected her desperation? Would they tell the judge - who would in turn instruct the jury - that where one heart was merely chafed by criticism another might be crushed?  Should we come forward now, admit to the scathing subtitles we had laid over her efforts? Or wait until someone asked us? I really needed to discuss it with Joanne.

     Then, suddenly, there was a barometric drop in the cries and calls flying back and forth, and a hush fell as a weed smothered, powder blue Snuggly was hauled, dripping, from the bottom, and then nudged up and over the side of the floating dock where it was laid flat and clumsily, frantically, unzipped.

     There was no baby inside. It was weighted down, instead, with five full cans of Coke.

     The next we heard the girl/mother and child were located alive and well at home in the basement apartment they shared with another single mother.  She wasn't hard to find.  It's a small town and there are only a few teenage mothers on public assistance.  (Luckily Joanne was right and she was on welfare, or they might not have found her so quickly.)

     It turned out she was only charged with public mischief, and even then got off with a suspended sentence.  Which was fair enough.  At least, I thought it was.  Joanne thought she should have been slapped with a stiff fine, or even prison time. Those boat guys could have caught pneumonia.

     Anyway we never did go to the police or give a statement. They never called us, and we didn't see the point of bothering them in the end.  It wasn't as if anyone was hurt or there was a criminal record at stake.  And, as Joanne said, people like her have a way of putting up barricades that make it very hard to help them even when you'd like to.  And we would have, under different circumstances. Well, I would have. Absolutely.