Nancy K. Dobson
Brandi hummed along to the Steve Miller Band on the radio while her boss, Kiki, opened new merchandise. Despite its island theme, The Paradise Lagoon’s daily soundtrack was classic rock. Brandi didn’t mind; in fact, she preferred the music from her parents’ generation to lame boy band pop. The Lagoon’s gift shop was already cluttered with an array of ocean-themed knickknacks and mermaid paraphernalia like sequined bikini tops and prosthetic fins. Brandi had never tried one on, but she secretly hoped to be promoted to mermaid someday. It had been a slow day with few customers. Just like yesterday and the day before, which worried Brandi. If the Lagoon folded, that would be the end of her dream.
A thundering clatter jolted Brandi to attention; an acrylic display littered with shot glasses and fin-shaped bottle openers had crashed to the floor.
“Damn it all to hell,” Kiki squealed as she threw up her hands.
Brandi rushed over with the dustpan and broom, nearly tripping over a cardboard box full of fish magnets. She was relieved to see that some items had survived among the colored shards at Kiki’s feet, but the shot glasses were toast. Brandi gasped when she saw another casualty, a snow globe that had replaced the typical snowman and swirling white flakes with a swimming mermaid and yellow glitter representing sand. It had always been her favorite item in the shop. The wreckage of the globe felt ominous, like it was a loss Brandi wasn’t sure the Lagoon could stand.
Kiki took the broom. “My fault, so I’ll clean it up.” She gave Brandi a sad smile that contrasted with her glittering purple eyeshadow. Around her neck she wore a faux abalone shell on a hemp rope. Brandi thought Kiki was pretty for an older woman, despite the heavy foundation that had settled into her frown lines. She exuded an earthy quality that reminded Brandi of Annette Kellerman. More importantly, Kiki had never spoken harshly to her, even the time Brandi accidentally returned five dollars too much change for a purple sun visor that read, “Be a mermaid and make waves.”
Kiki knelt and began picking out salvageable items which she set off to one side. She shook her red wig from her shoulders. “Bring me the garbage can, Brandi. Oh, and my Advil. I’ve got a raging migraine.”
When Kiki set the medicine bottle back on the counter, a slight shake, like salt, caught Brandi’s ear. It hadn’t come from the pills. She waited until Kiki’s attention was diverted, then quickly snagged the bottle and unscrewed the lid, holding the container below the counter’s edge. Brandi peered in, and to her delight saw a PillowPak, the slim white packet containing “a harmless absorbent for humidity and odor.” She was excited to add another one to her collection at home. She fished it out with her slim fingers and tucked it into the palm of her hand.
Across the room, Kiki snapped her fingers. “Hon, tell the girls they can wrap up. Clearly the fates want me to go home and drown my sorrows in Chardonnay.”
Brandi’s flip flops squeaked down the concrete hallway toward the hulking domed tank where Kiki’s mermaids swam. There were large plexiglass windows for tourists to peer in. The walls of the cinder block hallway were decorated with large clam shells and round-bottomed mermaids in faded pastels. They had been painted years ago by one of Kiki’s ex-husbands. Kiki wanted to redo the hallway but had yet to find an artist as cheap as her ex. Still, Kiki prided herself on operating the only independent mermaid attraction in the tri-counties area.
“What we lack in glitz,” she liked to quip, “we make up for with heart.”
As she walked, Brandi shook the PillowPak next to her ear. She found it comforting, like the sound of the water lapping against the tank’s windows. Seeing the painted mermaids had reminded her of her own disappointing figure. Nearly twenty, she was as slight as a seventh grader and could barely wear an “A” cup, a fact she counted as a personal failure. Her mother had told her biology was like the lottery and “nature didn’t play favorites,” but Brandi never bought that line. Look at Annette Kellerman with her doe eyes, flowing locks, and full hips. If nature had ever favored someone, it was certainly her.
Kellerman, a silent-era film star and Brandi’s idol, had built her career as a real-life mermaid, performing a variety of her own stunts, from diving ninety feet into the sea to swimming with crocodiles. She’d been photographed nude several times and was a scandalous legend in her own time. Though it was a hundred years ago, Brandi thought Annette’s beauty far surpassed any celebrity alive now, even Cindy Crawford.
The Paradise Lagoon might not have the best mermaid attraction in Florida, but Kiki’s swimmers sure were pretty. As she approached the observation windows, Brandi heard their muffled laughter, followed by a large splash. They both waved as she passed the window, smiling in that way that made holding their breath look effortless, as if they really were equipped with gills and could glide underwater for hours without a care.
Brandi pointed up and went to the end of the hallway. She opened a door and climbed a narrow flight of metal stairs to the “dock” in the upper part of the dome.
Shenise’s hair flipped back as she popped up from the water, her dark skin glistening as if it were infused with diamond dust. Michelle, blond and dimpled, perched on the pool’s narrow edge, dipping her blue prosthetic fin in the chlorinated water. In the tank’s garish, fluorescent lighting, both girls looked slightly green, like water nymphs.
“Hiya, Sprite,” Michelle said cheerily, her voice echoing off the walls of the dome. Kiki and the girls’ nickname for Brandi was meant to be affectionate, but below their kindhearted teasing lay a hard truth. No tourist paid to see a skinny girl flounder in a pool. It was the curvy and graceful women they wanted to ogle.
“Kiki said you can call it a day,” Brandi told her as Shenise hauled herself out of the water in one swift motion. Her iridescent fin, which looked as if it were glued to her body, made a sucking sound as she plopped onto the deck.
Michelle shrugged at the news. “Okay. We want to get our nails done anyway. Wanna come?”
Brandi appreciated the invite, but she had never been to a nail salon. The thought of a stranger touching her hands made her shudder. She shook her head shyly. “No thanks, but can you give me a ride home?”
The day still smoldered with sunshine, so it surprised Brandi to see her father’s McMann’s Electric truck in the driveway. She could hear him shouting from the backyard. Uh oh. That could only mean one thing: Scotty was up to no good.
She wondered what happened, but first she ran into the house to see if there were sausage patties in the fridge. Her mother waited tables at Perko’s and there was usually an ample supply of breakfast food on hand. Diner sausage patties were Scotty’s favorite. Brandi found the to-go container and slid a patty onto a plate then punched in thirty seconds on the microwave.
About two hundred feet behind their modest, weather-beaten home was a chain-link fenced enclosure with a shaggy cypress and a large, faded doughboy pool sunk into the ground and full of scummy green water. Brandi saw her father, Brian, leaning over the fence, pointing at a ten-foot alligator. He was saying, “No, I told you Scotty, that is not okay.”
“What’s he done this time?” Brandi asked as she moved toward the fence and under Brian’s arm. She’d always liked tucking her head into his armpit. She held the sausage but didn’t throw it in. She knew it depended on whether Brian thought Scotty deserved a treat.
“Hey, Okeechobee.” Brian’s nickname for her had always been a mystery. She’d never even been to Lake Okeechobee. He looked down at her and grinned. “How was work?”
Brandi shrugged. “Slow.”
“Yeah me too,” Brian said. He scratched his head angrily. Once a sandy blond like his daughter, his hair had now dulled to a bland shade, like congealed oatmeal. He was only thirty-eight but looked much older with the erratic patches of hair that sprouted above his ears and neckline.
Brandi wagged the cooling patty, and Scotty lifted his massive black snout and growled. She looked at the gator’s protruding teeth and shrank back from the fence. At least he wasn’t swishing his tail.
Brian looked at the sausage, at Scotty, then at Brandi, and grinned.
“He’s a bugger but go ahead. He’ll just pout if he doesn’t get it.”
Brandi flipped the microwaved meat over the fence and Scotty’s mouth flew open, the round snack slapping onto his wide tongue just as his jaws clamped shut with a moist snap. Brandi shuddered. She thought of the many warnings she had heard about alligators. Their teeth were strong enough to rip off your arms and legs, but they were also full of bacteria from eating rotted animals, and if they sunk into your flesh even an inch, you could die of some hideous disease.
“That’s my boy,” Brian said proudly, as if Scotty had scored a touchdown. As she watched Scotty slither back into his pool, Brandi supposed an alligator could serve as a surrogate son, but Scotty was still a predator. His jaws would break her neck in a second and he wouldn’t think twice. Living with an alligator was one more reason she revered Annette Kellerman. The woman could mingle with such a creature, in the water where it was most agile, and not bat an eyelash at the danger.
In their kitchen with its mauve 80’s decor, Brandi watched as Reggie McMann leaned against the counter and kicked off her dirty Keds. She’d just worked a double and muttered an occasional “Uh-huh” or “Sure” as Brandi retrieved ketchup from the fridge and chattered on about Annette Kellerman and the importance of her extensive film legacy, even if the bulk of it had been destroyed in a fire.
“Do you mean the Mouseketeer? The Beach Blanket girl?” Reggie asked as she chucked her sneakers into the entryway. Brandi frowned. She had just straightened out the McMann shoe pile yesterday.
Reggie sank into a kitchen chair. “I always thought what happened to her was so sad.” Brandi set the ketchup on the table and put her hands on her narrow hips. It was not Annette Funicello, not even close. But it was no use arguing with Reggie. She was drained, Brandi could see, as Reggie slowly threaded her bra from underneath her polyester shirt and down one arm. She predicted her mother would be sacked out on the couch by eight.
“Where’s your dad?” Reggie asked as the microwave dinged.
“Out back with Scotty.”
Reggie nodded. “Hopefully he doesn’t get out again and eat more of Mrs. Jenkins’ chickens. You know how pissed she was last time.”
It was an odd comment considering their property backed up to the canal. Scotty could, and did, swim away from time to time. He never seemed to bother anyone, with the exception of Mrs. Jenkins’ chickens. He’d long ago gored a sizeable opening to reach the water, but though he freely came and went, Scotty always came home, much to Brian’s relief.
They were nearly done with dinner when the phone rang. Brandi jumped up to answer it. She leaned against the kitchen doorway. “McMann residence.”
Behind her, Reggie and Brian discussed a robbery at the local Rip ‘n Stop that Reggie had heard about from a customer. They paid no attention to Brandi.
She was surprised to hear Kiki’s voice. It was quiet and slurred, as if Kiki were steeped in Chardonnay.
“Sprite, I’m sorry to break it to you, but I’m closing the Lagoon.”
Brandi sucked in her breath and gripped the phone cord.
“It’s a bummer, I know. Breaks my heart to let you girls go. I might be able to reopen next year. If fuckin’ Tony ever pays me for that trailer. Bastard.”
Brandi knew all about Tony. She had heard Kiki call her most recent ex an impressive list of insults.
“Are you gonna be okay?” Kiki asked her.
“Yeah,” Brandi heard herself lie. “I will be.” She paused for a moment. “What will you do?” It was hard to imagine Kiki without her wig, working a normal job.
Kiki chuckled but there was a sour note in her voice. “I can always pull my massage table out of storage. My carpal tunnel will flare, but what’s a girl gonna do?”
After saying goodbye, Brandi felt sad for Kiki. She wasn’t sure what was worse, to never achieve your dream or to have it taken away. She hoped to never find out.
Behind her, Reggie laughed. Brandi turned to see her tousle Brian’s hair as she said, “Cowboy, what am I supposed to do with you?”
Brian grinned back at Reggie and neither of them noticed Brandi, so she turned and slunk down the hallway to her room.
Later that evening, Brandi rifled through her collection of clippings on Annette Kellerman. Looking at them always improved her mood. Brandi had discovered Kellerman at her Grandma Linda’s house one summer, in a box of magazines Linda had been meaning to throw out. While her grandmother smoked Virginia Slims and watched Phil Donahue, Brandi sat at Linda’s feet, sipped Diet Coke, and became absorbed in a glamorous world that didn’t exist anymore. In a June 1963 issue of Life magazine, Brandi found a mini bio of Kellerman and promptly fell in love, beginning her never-ending quest to find every image of Annette she could get her hands on.
Brandi handled the pages carefully, letting herself get sucked into the mythology of Annette Kellerman. Hours passed as she scoured the same articles she’d read so many times, the words as familiar to her as the scent from her own pillow.
Around midnight, too keyed up to sleep, Brandi paced her bedroom floor, moving her arms, imagining herself slipping past the Lagoon’s observation windows. She tried to be fluid. To move and sway like a mermaid. But it was hopeless. She could mimic Shenise and Michelle, but her body was all lines and sharp angles where they had sensuous curves. Brandi thought of Annette Kellerman posing nude, her cascading hair flowing over her full breasts and the private realm between her legs. Brandi looked in the mirror at her own hair that hung on her shoulders like limp, soggy noodles. Pitiful.
One of the magazines still lay open on the floor. Brandi looked down to see Annette Kellerman captured by a photographer in the middle of a dive, her body frozen in the air in a long, elegant arc. In the picture, the shoreline was dotted with spectators, some shielding their eyes. She always had a crowd at her heels, anxious to see what the mermaid might do.
Brandi thought of Scotty. Could she be like Annette Kellerman and swim with an alligator? Her mind shuddered at the possibilities of what could go wrong. She’d plied Scotty with sausage patties but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t also see her as food. Without the Lagoon, though, Brandi needed a backup plan. Annette Kellerman had overcome weak legs, bolstering them with steel braces, to become a champion swimmer. If Brandi could outstroke one measly alligator, she might be able to make a name for herself in the mermaid world.
As she slid her shorts back on, she felt in her pocket for the PillowPak. She watched herself in the mirror as she cupped it to her ear and gave it a few quick shakes. In Venus of the South Seas, Annette Kellerman held a raw pearl to her lips for luck, and though Brandi’s good luck charm wasn’t as glamorous, at least it reminded her of the sea. A tiny maraca that plinked like sand in a bottle.
There was only half a moon, so the backyard was shadowy and black. A mourning dove called from a nearby tree as Brandi crept toward the gate that separated Scotty’s domain from his family’s. As her eyes adjusted, she caught a whiff of what smelled like old fish rotting inside of a shoe. God only knew what he dragged back after his late-night hunting sprees. She squinted but could not see the reptile. She wondered what it would be like to swim in the canal. The water was probably not cold, but would it be slimy? Would Scotty follow her in? Would he chase her? The thought terrified her but also made her skin tingle, as if she had stuck a fork in the toaster.
A blast of hot air on her toes made her look down and she recoiled, hopping back from the fence. Right on the other side of the rusting chain links was Scotty’s cup-size nostril. An even larger stark yellow eye with its black slivered pupil bore into her. Below that, the side of Scotty’s mouth seemed to curl upward in a snarling grin. Her breath shallowed; she had never been this close to him before. His tail thumped against the fence, rattling it. Then again, harder this time. The old metal of the fence seemed to scream in protest, as if one more blow would bring it down. And that was when she noticed an entire section of the fence was missing. Three feet to her right and to Scotty’s left was a hole large enough for Scotty’s seven-hundred-pound body to scamper through. It wasn’t like that this afternoon. A cold chill tickled Brandi’s scalp and tip-toed down her spine.
Before she could regret it, Brandi turned and bolted for the house. Locking the back door behind her, she yanked the curtain from the window to see if Scotty had followed her. But there was no alligator climbing the back steps. Still, she dashed to her bedroom and dove into her bed, pulling the comforter over her head. After a while she calmed down but could not sleep. She got out of bed to retrieve the PillowPak from her jean shorts, then crawled back under her comforter. On her bedside table were three more. She palmed the little white packages and shook them next to her ear. Together, they created a slight, but soothing, rhythm. A small sound just for her, a private celebration. She had outrun an alligator, she decided, whether Scotty gave chase or not. Even with no crowd to cheer her on, she would remember this moment.
She thought of waves crashing on a shoreline so pristine it might have been plastic. The sand was golden and soft, but cool under her feet, and dotted with the occasional pink shell. Eyes closed, Brandi imagined waves in icy shades of blue and green sparkling in the sunlight. Like a snow globe scene, this ocean was protected. No predators roamed here. All it needed was a water nymph, who would have to be petite, who didn’t mind swimming alone. And though she had just a small area to dive and flip her ruby-red tail, this mermaid would always be free.