Maybe the Mermaids,” was first printed in Creative Loafing as the 2015 Fiction Contest winner and was reprinted in the 2016 Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual (United Kingdom).
On the cloudy morning I take my husband on his last slow walk around the neighborhood, fog droplets hang in the muggy air. I hold Len’s left hand. With his right, Len swats at the droplets like they’re mosquitoes.
“Where are we going?” Len asks.
“Around the block,” I say.
We pass the end of our lawn.
A moment later Len asks again, “Where are we going?”
I could repeat around the block. But I point to the yard next door. “Look at that beautiful hibiscus.”
“High biscuits?” Len asks.
I know where this is going: low biscuits? no biscuits?
“When are we going for a walk?” Len asks.
“We’re on a walk now?”
“Around the block,” I repeat.
“Can we go home?”
“Not just yet.”
Len looks longingly over his shoulder. “Maybe the mermaids will come back.”
“Anything’s possible,” I assure him.
* * *
The Mediterranean house two doors down from ours is immaculate. The stucco is freshly painted. The driveway, pressure-washed. The lawn, stiff and dense as carpet. Len tells the mailbox good morning. But he glares at the Pennysavers piled up in the driveway. Growls at the ceramic rooster on the front porch.
Then he leans over to examine the bright blue Bud Light can lying on the curb that some teenager probably tossed out of his Mustang on his drive home last night.
“There oughta be a. . . oughta be a. . . ”
“Law?” I suggest.
“Oughta be a slaw. Oughta be a slaw against that.”
Len reaches into the pocket of his windbreaker and pulls out a battered prescription pad and a green half-pencil he swiped from Pirate’s Cove Mini Golf. He makes a crooked slash below the name at the top of the pad: LEONARD ALLEN, M.D.
* * *
Once Len wore a white coat. He strode in and out of hospital rooms, scribbling the names of drugs and procedures on his RX pad. He delivered good–but mostly bad–news to his patients. He bossed around nurses. Terrified residents. Gave orders.
Now he asks questions. Lots of questions. Most of them over and over. Who reads these books? Do we like this music? Where is the red stuff? Is it time for our walk? Why does the phone keep hiding?
The phone I’ve been hiding from Len is a Fisher-Price Chatterbox our kids used to drag through the house. When Len picks up the receiver, the happy-face on the phone makes gurgling sounds, like munchkins chortling beneath a lily pad, and the phone’s eyes roll up and down as if it were going into a full-blown epileptic fit.
* * *
Last week I drove Len to Memory Garden and parked him on a folding chair in Community Room A, where a musical therapist in Heidi-the-goat-girl braids was vainly trying to get a semi-circle of semi-comatose patients to clap their hands in rhythm to “Frère Jacques.”
Then I parked myself on a hard folding chair in Community Room B in a semi-circle of caregivers. All women. Our group facilitator wore her hair in a bun rather than braids and–thankfully–did not ask us to clap along as she merrily sang ding dang dong! ding dang dong!
Instead, she suggested we go around the circle and share our stories about how we first discovered something wasn’t quite right with our spouses.
“My husband put the mayonnaise in the oven instead of the refrigerator,” one woman said.
“My husband left the kettle on the stove and started a fire,” said the next.
“My husband started calling me his first wife’s name,” said another.
When it was my turn, I said, “I came back from the grocery store and found two black bikes parked in our driveway.”
The group facilitator nodded encouragingly. “And–?”
And: I left the groceries in the car and hurried into the house. Len gestured to the two boys in white shirts and black ties who sat on the couch. “These nice young men were telling me about an angel.” He pointed to the tall boy. “This is Joseph and this is–” He pointed to the short boy. “What’d you say your name was? Smith?”
* * *
I went to see a neurologist. Behind Len’s back.
“My husband let Mormons in the house.”
The doctor looked at me like I was the crazy. “So?”
“So he called them Joseph and Smith! And in the car, the ice cream was melting–”
“Would you say you’re under stress, ma’am?”
“–and after the Mormons left, he called them the mermaids. And this morning he asked me, Are the mermaids coming back?”
The neurologist paused, then shrugged. “I can’t do anything unless you bring him in for tests.”
I knew the results of those tests before they even got performed. I knew exactly what the doctor would say as he clipped the grainy black-and-white image of Len’s brain onto the light box: I am sorry to tell you. . . .
Yes: I am sorry to tell you that although the outer folds of your husband’s brain resemble a windswept sand dune, the interior soon will be nothing more than shredded cabbage.
* * *
We turn the corner. Len gives the McMahons a black mark on his prescription pad because their Subaru is partially blocking the sidewalk. He gives them another demerit because their cocker spaniel has left a steaming pile of turds on the grass.
Len swats at a fog droplet. “Where’s the sun?”
“It hasn’t come out yet.”
“When are we going home?”
“Is the zoo still there?”
“If you want it to be.”
Yesterday when Len was searching for the Chatterbox phone, I brought out a bright red tub of Duplos marked A VISIT TO THE ZOO (oodles of fun for ages 4-6) to distract him. When I dumped the Duplos on the table Len pushed aside the red and green and yellow blocks and plucked out the plastic zookeeper who held a shit shovel in his hand. Then Len lined up on the table the gray elephant and golden lion and grinning chimpanzee. Finally he picked up and turned over and over in his fingers the tiny plastic figures of a boy and a girl.
“Who are these?” he asked.
“The kids who’ve come to visit the zoo.”
“Why don’t they visit us?”
“You mean, our kids?”
“These are ours?” Len held the boy in his right hand and the girl in his left. “We have children?”
“Why don’t they visit us?”
“They just left.”
“Why did they leave us?”
Because you kept asking for the phone. And talking about the mermaids. And singing ding dang dong! so loud and so long that your throat grew hoarse and the kids told me, “Either you put Dad full-time in Memory Garden, Mom, or we’ll come back next weekend and lock him up ourselves.”
* * *
A speedboat named Harmony II is parked in the corner driveway. Len holds out his hand and touches the motor.
“Do we know how to swim?” he asks.
“Are we afraid of whales?”
“Where’s the shore?”
“We’re closing in on it,” I say.
When we turn the corner, the white van is parked in our driveway. I knew the only way I could let Len go for good would be to lead him down the sidewalk and deliver him like a postage-prepaid package to the orderlies.
Two guys in turquoise scrubs get out of the van.
Len turns to me. “Are those the mermaids?”
“Could be,” I say.
“Then we’ll make it to shore?”
“Of course. But first they’re going to take you to the Garden.”
For months, Len has said only we. Never I.
Now he asks, “Why am I going to this garden?”
“You have early onset.”
Len looks down at his hands. I can see him turning the word around and around in his fingers as if it were a puzzle he needed to solve.
“Oughta be a slaw,” he finally says. “Oughta be a slaw against it.”
“Yes.” I draw in my breath. “But there isn’t.”
Rita Ciresi is author of the novels Bring Back My Body to Me, Pink Slip, Blue Italian, and Remind Me Again Why I Married You, and two award-winning story collections, Sometimes I Dream in Italian and Mother Rocket. She is professor of English at the University of South Florida, a faculty mentor for the Bay Path University MFA program in creative nonfiction, and fiction editor of 2 Bridges Review.