MOTEL MERMAIDS

ANNE BALDO

Liss said, we are motel mermaids, we are made of magic. Which sounded better than it actually was, how we were housekeeping for the Blue Haven Motel on an island in the middle of Lake Erie. During the day we drank gin together and did what Liss called keeping up appearances, which meant we went to work on any obvious dirt and left the rest. The worst was when we found bloodstains, because then you had to change the sheets. Or sand, that got everywhere. Liss said if you didn’t want any sand, you wouldn’t come to the beach, so it was okay if we didn’t get all of it. It was part of the experience. The same way it was alright if we couldn’t get the lake smell out of the rooms or the dampness from the bedding. People came here because they loved nature, Liss said. But we still got some complaints. It bothered me, but it didn’t bother Liss. It bothered Sal, though, and he let us know, tensely, whenever complaints arose. He didn’t call them complaints, though, he called them concerns. Liss would laugh, and tell him to relax; she could get away with that, because he was her boyfriend. 

‘We’re dating brothers, so that makes us like sisters,’ Liss said. I wanted to believe it. She was sitting on the unmade bed, flipping through a magazine that had been left behind, Ladies Home Journal. People left a lot of things behind in motel rooms. She was reading excerpts from Can This Marriage Be Saved? 

‘‘I feel so terrible for what Janie’s going through, but I don’t actually like, want to stop fucking around on her or anything.’’

‘It doesn’t say that.’

Liss winked at me. She had wide dark eyes accentuated by the fake lashes she glued on every day, and the extravagant facial expressions of a silent movie star, her eyebrows acting as punctuation, like she’d just slunk off the silver screen in a gold sequinned gown. She wore off-the-shoulder tops and these mirrored aviator shades and always smelled like coconut milk. When she talked she put her hands all over you. You’d jump a bit, like a little shock, a spark. It was incredible. I knew why Sal loved her, and why Mickey loved her, too.

*

Sal was growing a moustache that summer, which Liss hated.

‘It makes you look like a sleaze,’ she said.

‘Maybe I am a sleaze,’ he said.

‘You obviously are,’ Liss said. ‘But you don’t have to advertise it.’

They were always going back and forth at it. That evening, before the moustache, Lisa went to the liquor store and bought beer in bottles. 

‘I told you to get the cans,’ Sal said. ‘Someone always breaks a bottle, and then I’ve got to clean up the mess.’

Liss didn’t look up from the sofa where she was painting her toenails with peach glitter polish. ‘Well, then, you go, next time.’

‘I would have gone tonight, but someone has to wash the dishes.’ 

Liss flicked the little brush at the lip of the bottle. ‘I’ll wash them.’

‘No, you don’t wash the dishes right.’

‘Clean is clean.’ Liss shrugged her bare shoulders. Her toenails gleamed in the bleary light from the kitchen, a lone bulb burning out beneath a leaded glass lampshade.

‘The problem is you don’t take any pride in your work.’

Liss didn’t look up from the second coat she was slowly applying. ‘It must be nice, knowing what everyone else’s problems are. Maybe you should take a look at your own problems sometime.’

‘I think I’m looking at the source of all my problems right now.’

It made Mickey crazy. He would shut himself up in our bedroom while they argued all over the cottage. When I went in that night he was lying in bed, watching an episode of Wheel of Fortune. We had a television the size of a toaster on top of the dresser that only seemed to ever show game shows, and Mickey was addicted to them. He had a very addictive personality. 

‘I knew we shouldn’t have come here,’ he said as I closed the door. 

I wanted to ask then why did we, but didn’t. Money, I guessed. Or to prove something to Sal: that Liss was powerless to affect him. But I knew the truth. He was still stuck in symbiosis but she had moved on. Heinrich Anton de Bary defines symbiosis as the living together of unlike objects. I remembered that from high school biology. Fungi and beetles. Sharks and remora. The little red-billed birds perched on the backs of rhinoceroses, picking them clean.

I sat down at the edge of the bed. It must have been an old episode, because Vanna had this frosted lavender eyeshadow, her blonde hair all feathery, and she was tan in a very eighties way, like she was on the cover of Vanna Speaks, which my mother borrowed from the library to read by the pool while we swam in the afternoons when we were kids. Vanna was looking extremely glamorous and smiling a lot as she revealed the letters one by one. I lay down and thought maybe Mickey would put an arm around me, at least, but he was pretty into the show. The category was Husband & Wife. I could tell it was Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, but I didn’t say anything.  When I was younger, my mom had told me they ended up divorced in real life and I was still kind of sad about it. I used to watch I Love Lucy and had always liked the way Lucy and Ricky bickered a bit and teased each other and said things like ever since we said “I do”, there have been so many things that we don’t; they gave each other a hard time, but you could feel that at the end of the day, they really loved each other, and that when Ricky called out Lucy, I’m home, that they were actually happy about it. Or that’s what I had believed, before my mother told me. It was a letdown that stayed with me even now, at twenty; it was the first time I ever doubted true love. 

Everything on our television looked murky and blue, like the set of Wheel of Fortune was underwater. Vanna glided across the screen like a mermaid in her silver sequins. I could smell the warm cherry scorch of cough syrup on Mickey’s breath. ‘Do you want to do something?’

‘Like what?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe we could go for a walk?’

 ‘I’m pretty fucked up right now, Miri.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, sitting up again. ‘That’s cool. No problem. Well, maybe I’ll just go outside for a bit, you know. Get some fresh air.’

‘Have fun,’ Mickey mumbled, or I thought that was what he said. It was hard to tell when he was numbed down to his tongue.

The rest of the cottage was dark. The windows were open, and there was a breeze coming in from the lake. I liked how you could hear it at night, the low steady ebb and the flow. It was like a lullaby, water on stone. 

Liss was gone. She had probably left for the bar with the American girls we’d met earlier, tidying up their motel room. Empty bottles glittered on the kitchen table. The dishes Sal had washed shone, drying in the rack. 

When I stepped outside I was surprised to see Sal, sitting there in one of the plastic chairs in the gravel by our front door. We were staying in a low, squarish white cottage on the edge of the motel property. He was drinking a beer and looking up at the stars. I never really saw stars till I came out here. The sky over the city was murky, smirched with fluorescence. The night sky here was the real night sky.  

‘Miri.’ 

‘Hey, Sal.’ 

‘Looks like me and you got the same problem.’ He was still looking up at the stars. It reminded me of something Liss had said to me, once. How she’d been walking to meet Sal and she had seen, for the first time, a shooting star. And she knew that it was a sign. A sign of what, I asked, and she grabbed my hand, held it to her chest. I felt her heart beating there, hard against my palm, the force of her blood. She wore a set of thin gold stacking rings on her trigger finger and they cut into my knuckle with the pressure. That we were meant to be, she said, her hand still on mine. That we were not a mistake.

By the water, it was cooler at night. The lake was sighing over the stony beach across the dirt road. The sky looked like a kindergarten art project, blue indigo paint, silver glitter everywhere. Behind us in the field, the long grass crackling with insects. Down the road you could hear the music from the bar, too. Liss was probably there, dancing. ‘What is that?’ I asked. ‘Our problem.’

‘We fall in love too easy,’ he said.

*

Love is a stimulant at first, a sedative later. But I only think like that now. When I was twenty, I was constantly in love. Despite knowing how Ricky and Lucy had ended up, I still believed, or wanted to believe, in a love something like salvation, everlasting. 

I met Mickey on the city bus. Coming home from my classes at the university, eastbound on the 1C. At first I didn’t really notice him. I had my backpack on my lap and was reading Paradise and trying to take notes with a pen that was bleeding ink all over my paper, all over my hands when I heard his voice.

‘Excuse me?’ 

Almost like a question. I looked up, across the aisle, and saw Mickey for the first time. He was sitting with his legs apart, hunched over with his elbows on his knees, his jeans frayed at the knees and the hems. A pair of red Converse high-tops and black knit hat pulled low over dark curls. 

‘I’m trying to get to Pillette Road,’ he said. ‘When do I get off?’

I glanced out the window. ‘That was a while back, I’m sorry – we’re almost in Forest Glade.’

‘I think I’m lost,’ he said, sliding one hand half under his hat, rubbing his disorderly curls. ‘If I get off now, can I walk there?’

‘It’ll take awhile.’

‘That’s alright.’ He had this tilting smile, crooked teeth and a fat lower lip. ‘I don’t have nothing else to do.’

We got off at the next stop together, by Tecumseh Mall. Mickey asked for directions. He was staying with his cousins for awhile, he said, and he wasn’t used to the city. He’d lived all his life by the lake. 

Then he said, ‘hey, well – if you have a little time. Maybe I can buy you a coffee or something. Like a thank you. For helping me.’

‘You don’t have to thank me.’

 ‘Then maybe you just wanna have a drink with me,’ he said. ‘Now, or sometime later…’

‘Now is good,’ I said. Waited for that crooked smile to hit me in the stomach, sucker punch.

*

May was the month of emeralds, of lily of the valley, the twin month. It was also the month of Mary, Liss told me when I met her. Mother most pure, pray for us. Liss was Catholic, she went to mass each Sunday at Our Lady, Star of the Sea. A gold cross glittered around her neck. She said I could come with her to mass, if I wanted, in the little white church on the island’s southern side. 

Liss was waiting for us when we got off the ferry Monday evening, in the middle of a wreck of gulls. She was wearing an olive green dress tied around the waist, and around the wrists in two tight bows. A pair of gold-strapped wedge heels on, aviator shades pushed back atop her dark hair. She came to me and Mickey first, squeezing our hands. ‘I’m so glad you came,’ she said, looking at us. Mickey said nothing, but loosened his hand from hers with a snap of his wrist, giving it a reflexive rub against his jeans, like someone trying to dull the sting of an insect bite.  

Back on the ferry, Mickey had slumped at a cafeteria table, drinking pop mixed with whisky till he fell asleep. ‘Come with me,’ Sal said, ‘let’s go up on deck.’ So we did. I stood beside him, watching the grey-green waves. He was wearing grey linen shorts and a white crew neck shirt and these expensive looking sunglasses. I’d never known any guy our age to dress as nice as Sal did. I wondered if he was actually a lot older than us. When I thought he wasn’t looking I tried to study his face, but I could never tell. ‘It’s a good thing Mickey decided to come here,’ Sal said, one hand on the railing, squinting in the sunlight. ‘He needs something to do.’

‘Yeah,’ I said. I liked the way Sal talked, so confidently. Like maybe he would know how to help Mickey, because I was at a loss. 

Now we were here, and here was Liss. Something about her like the promise of summer in late spring, that hopefulness. Any day now. Sunlight, a coppery shimmer to her already, like she’d spent days at the beach. O rose of May! Dear maid, kind sister. The gulls screamed and circled around us, a flock of mouthy angels. She was still holding my hand. 

‘Come on,’ she said. ‘You can come with me, Miri. I’ll show you around. Sal and Mickey have a lot of catching up to do.’ So I followed her across the dirt road, leaving Sal and Mickey behind. When I looked back, I could see Sal was talking to him, a hand on his shoulder; but Mickey was looking towards the lake, the direction we’d come from, as if searching for the unseen shore.

Liss opened the cottage door and flicked on the lights. There was one main room, a kitchen in one corner, a pair of slumping sofas in another, the floor a waxy, once-gold linoleum. Then a tenebrous little hallway, where the washroom was, and also our bedrooms, directly across from each other. 

‘This is your room.’ Liss held out her hand, palm up, led the way inside. 

Our bedroom smelled like mildew and stale cigarettes. It had a twin bed with sheets from the sixties, mod floral print, matching curtains in the window. There was a dresser with a mirror gone cloudy from years of lakeside humidity, and a single folding chair in the corner, leaning up against the wall. 

Liss glanced around the room, briefly. ‘We should have a drink together.’ 

‘Okay,’ I said.

She left and came back with a bottle of white wine and no glasses. I sat down on the bed with her, passing the bottle back and forth. Our coming here, she said, was the answer to her prayers.

‘I’ve been so lonely,’ she said, wiping her lips with the back of her hand, her dark eyes shining.  ‘Do you think some people are just prone to loneliness? Somehow more susceptible, like they lack the immunity for it.’

It surprised me a little. ‘Isn’t Sal staying here with you?’

‘It’s not the same.’ Liss was used to living with her mother and sisters, she said, to being around her friends – and now here, on the island, at the motel, she felt herself drifting. The cruellest thing you could do to a girl, she said, was deprive her of the company of other women. ‘But now you’re here with me.’ Smiling, one hand on mine. ‘I can already tell that we’re going to be good for each other, that we could really be friends. Just don’t let it be weird, between us.’

And I promised that it wouldn’t be. 

*

But what bothered me sometimes was how Liss, usually after she was burning up from drinking whisky with Sal, would pull me aside, into her little bedroom, across the hall from ours. Their room, almost identical to ours, down to the bedding – blowsy flowers from the seventies, mustard yellow and earthy shades of brown, hazy light from a single, peeled bulb. Except their bed was made, every corner tucked in firm and neat, and ours was a heap of blankets and sheets, and there was no dirty laundry on the damp carpet.  

Brittle flicker of her dark lashes, mouth full of concern. ‘How is Mickey?’

‘He’s fine,’ I’d say, avoiding her gaze. They had a dresser, too, the twin image of ours, minus the television set on top playing game shows on loop. Four copper chevron handles on the drawers, mid-century modern style. Sal said the cottage was full of little touches like that, retro details that we could really appreciate, if we only knew where to look. 

Sometimes, relief would wash over her; waves sluicing the sand smooth at the edge of the beach. Other days, I know she didn’t believe me. ‘Are you helping him?’

When he asked for another beer, I went to get him one. Or how when he said Miri, get on my level, I drank to catch up. ‘I’m trying,’ I’d say, and Liss would sigh. 

‘I know,’ she said. ‘I know, Miri. You’ll be good for him, I can feel it.’

*

On the weekend, Liss’s sisters arrived on the two o’clock ferry. Tash, May, Liss said, squeezing my arm, this is Miri. Mickey’s girlfriend. And now I could hear them in the kitchen, drinking gin and lemonade, singing Video Killed the Radio Star.

‘Miri, come join us!’

They were playing dirty Scrabble, their own perverse version of the game, but I knew I couldn’t compete with them. They were inventive, and endlessly obscene. 

‘Miri!’ Liss called again.

I was lying in bed. Even with the door closed, I could hear them. Structurally, the cottage seemed thin, insubstantial, constructed of paper and sticks. 

Tash, her voice the loudest. My mother would call her a pistol. A tawny, nervy girl. ‘Where’s Sal going to sleep tonight, if we’re staying in your room?’

‘He can sleep on the sofa.’

‘Mr. Right,’ May said.

‘Mr. Right Now,’ Liss said.

Listen, Mickey, I’m here to help you. The night Sal showed up at the cousins’ little yellow house on Pillette Road. Mickey had a futon in the damp basement, where we watched Atom Age Vampire and drank red wine from milk glass mugs with Beautiful Ontario/Canada on the side. 

‘I guess there’s a first time for everything,’ Mickey said. He hadn’t let his brother turn on the lights in the basement, and so we all sat in the dark. Sal’s face lit ghoulishly by the light of the television screen, the movie still playing. You are nothing if not mine, the scientist said. 

What Sal wanted was for Mickey to come and work with him. He had heard from the cousins that Mickey had recently quit his last job, working for a graffiti removal company, power washing obscenities off concrete and brick. 

‘Work with you,’ Mickey scoffed. Sal had recently become the manager of a motel. He said he had jobs for both of us, if we wanted. ‘The Blue Haven. That place is a dump.’

‘We’ve been fixing it up.’

‘I have other career options.’

‘Oh, yeah?’

‘Sure. I was thinking of getting my real estate license.’

Sal leaned back and laughed. ‘Yeah? You think it’s just that easy. And who’s gonna want to buy a house from someone like you? You look like a suspect in a police sketch. Come on, Mickey. What have you got to lose?’ And at this Sal waved a hand around the damp basement. ‘All this you got here, yeah. I know. How could you leave all this?’

The drooping futon, the leaking ceiling and the spiders, the drippy-eyed paintings of clowns on black velvet. I felt myself included in the dismissive sweep of Sal’s hand. 

‘Is this about Liss?’

‘That girl is dead to me.’

Sal folded his hands together, kept them there as if he were praying. ‘Perfect. So you have no reason not to. Meet me in Leamington at the dock, Monday at noon. Bring your girlfriend.’

Now here we were. Mickey gone somewhere without telling me, he never did say where he was going, or when he would come back. I ventured into the kitchen. Liss and her sisters were sitting on the kitchen counters. Liss slid to the side, tapped the place beside her, then poured me a drink. I climbed up. Tash had done everyone’s makeup. Her eyelids glittered with rose gold, May shone with silver eyeliner. Liss wearing matte lipstick, the dark pinkish colour of butcher paper. 

‘Who won Scrabble?’ I asked.

‘Liss,’ May said. ‘By like a hundred points.’

Tash said, ‘she has a very good vocabulary.’

Liss got the bottle of gin and the yellow plastic pitcher full of lemonade and mixed us all more drinks, in white Pyrex coffee cups, green daisies all around the rim. 

‘How do you want me to do your eye makeup?’ Tash asked her.

‘Purple,’ she said, licking the knife she used to stir the drinks. ‘Like a smoky-eyed look.’

Tash opened her makeup bag, removed compacts of pressed powder, lavender, lilac, eyeliner, mascara, a yellow cream she called primer, which she daubed on her sister’s eyelids to start with. The lemonade was from a powder mix, and when I finished my drink there was a sugary grit at the bottom of my cup.

‘Do you want me to do your makeup, too?’ Tash asked. 

The name is misleading, there are no vampires in Atom Age Vampire. Instead it is about a starlet, Jeanette, disfigured by a car wreck, and a scientist who will do anything to save her. 

‘Alright,’ I said. ‘Sure. Thank you.’

‘What do you want?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Do a cat’s eye,’ Liss said. ‘Here.’ She took a stick of eyeliner, warmed the tip between her lips before passing it to Tash. ‘Now it’ll go on more smoothly.’

No, not to save her, Liss said, one time, she had seen the movie too, blonde Jeanette in a fur coat drawn up over her mouth, hiding bruises behind sunglasses, aftermath of her car crash. The scientist blaming Jeanette for all his crimes, how she made him a monster. (You can never understand what it has cost me.) Just restore her beauty. He thinks that’s saving her.

*

At the Blue Haven, Mickey did maintenance and grounds keeping, which meant he spent a lot of time in the field behind the motel getting high. Sal wouldn’t let him work at the desk, or handle any customer service directly. ‘First of all, you’re fucked up all the time,’ he said, ‘and even if you were sober, you’re too twitchy and weird. You’d give people this Norman Bates vibe.’

Liss agreed. ‘You’ve got this dark energy now,’ she murmured, touching her hand to his cheek. He swatted her away.

‘Don’t touch me.’

Another time I heard them talking outside our bedroom window, Liss’ voice first rising above the insect drone of the field. ‘How are you today?’

‘Leave me alone.’

‘Mickey, it doesn’t have to be this way – ’

The screen door smacked shut. Mickey appeared in our bedroom, his curls even darker with sweat. ‘I knew this was a mistake.’ He worked his way out of his damp Nirvana t-shirt, his body thin and pale as the milkweed in the ditches along the road. 

‘So why don’t we go?’ Mickey lay down on the bed beside me, smell of hard liquor sweating out. His blue eyes were bloodshot. I put a hesitant hand on his shoulder. 

‘Go where?’ Mickey said. ‘And do what?’

‘I thought you said you were thinking of a real estate license.’ For a moment I could even imagine that, Mickey in a nice button-up shirt, with business cards and everything. 

‘I just said that so Sal would knock it off,’ he said. ‘And anyway, he was right. I could never do that. Like you’d have to know about property law and mortgages and shit.’

‘I bet you could learn.’

‘No,’ he said, staring at the peeling wallpaper. ‘I can’t.’ 

‘I’d help you study.’

‘Miri,’ he said, ‘that’s really nice of you. But it’s not going to happen.’ He rolled away from me, buried his face in his pillow. ‘I think I need to go to sleep for awhile.’

*

Sal had said to Liss, I can give you anything you want. I couldn’t imagine saying that to someone. I couldn’t imagine believing in the ability – to give it, or receive it. Anything you want was a trap. You were supposed to know this, from fairytales. No wish is granted without a secret catch.

We wore white starched aprons tied around our waists. There were seven rooms at the motel altogether. We were supposed to dust everything, the lampshades and picture frames, but Liss said we didn’t have to bother. The light was usually so dim in the rooms, who could ever tell anyway? The mirrors in the rooms were all shrouded with clouds. At first I tried to scrub them clean, but Liss said there wasn’t any point. The silver backing was tarnished, the summers were too humid here. 

In the last room that morning, we found a little row of shells and stones left on the window-sill. Liss turned them over, one by one. She held a grey oval stone up. ‘It’s a fossil,’ she said. ‘You should bring this to Mickey.’

‘Yeah?’

She nodded. ‘He used to be really into this kind of stuff. Fossils, dinosaurs. When we were kids he wanted to be a paleontologist. We used to watch The Land Before Time like, every day. I remember one morning he told me he’d found bones – he dug for hours. They were just the roots of trees. But he really believed it.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘He never told me.’

‘Really? Well. It was years ago, I guess.’

‘He never told me about you, either.’ It was a mean thing to say, but Liss only shrugged, dreamy and serene. 

‘What we had was kind of intense,’ she said. ‘It would’ve been a lot to explain to a girl he just met. Really heavy.’ She passed me the stone. ‘It looks like teeth – maybe part of a jawbone. He’ll be so excited.’

‘Alright.’ I dropped the stone in the pocket of my apron. I hadn’t seen Mickey even mildly excited about anything since we’d come here, or maybe even a long time before that. 

The room done, we walked out into the sunlight. The stone smacked against my thigh. A little flock of mourning doves watched us from the telephone wire, cooing gloomily. ‘Liss!’ a woman wearing mushroom-coloured khaki and a pair of binoculars called out. Liss was not the most dutiful maid, but the guests loved her, and she loved them too. I left her by the picnic table, listening to a pair of birdwatchers tell her about the sandhill crane they’d seen at Lighthouse Point.

I found Mickey sitting on a bleached piece of driftwood, under the hoptrees. The beach across the road from the motel was just a skinny strip of stony sand. I slid my fingers over the stone in my apron and sat down beside him.

His eyes were closed. The sun was on his face. I knew he was supposed to be mowing the lawn that morning. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Just waiting for everything to kick in.’

I nodded. The lake sloshed up over the stones. If you crushed the hoptree leaves between your fingers, they left a citrus smell.  

‘You should come with me, sometime,’ he said.

‘Where?’  I asked, hopeful for a moment. He slid a Pez dispenser from the pocket of his jeans, an old Santa Claus one, the dry rattle of pills. 

‘Maybe another time,’ I said. I knew I couldn’t, I would like it too much. I would never come back. In the pocket of my apron the stone was weighing me down. 

‘Alright,’ Mickey said. He stood up, brushing sand from his jeans. ‘I’m gonna go lay down.’

Leave me alone, Mickey still said when Liss tried to talk to him, but now he said please. My hands smelled like bleach. Please leave me alone. Maybe love was never symbiotic, like I’d believed. Maybe it was always a form of parasitism. A few feet away, a yellow perch lay on the beach, scales flaking off, glistening with insects. The hoptree leaves flickered with sunlight. The lake cloudy as the motel mirrors. If you looked in them quickly, it was like seeing ghosts. I drew the stone from my apron, held the smooth grey oval in the palm of my hand, weighing it. There was a piece of fossilized sea coral on our dresser the other day. Mickey must have brought it in from the beach. Or maybe Liss had left it there, a subsidy of guilt, a gift. I threw the stone into the lake. It sank glumly. Sunlight like sequins on the water. We were mermaids, Liss said. But what people always forgot was that mermaids were monsters.

ANNE BALDO lives in Windsor, Ontario. Previously she has published short fiction in Qwerty, SubTerrain, Broken Pencil, The Humber Literary Review, and online in The Apeiron Review, and made the 2019 CBC Longlist for Nonfiction.

TINY SPILLS
  • If you had to brag about yourself:
    I’ve done a lot of Bigfoot research.

  • Your writer crush:
    Dawn Dumont, Caroline Adderson, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood.

  • Sweetest thing:
    The art my son used to bring home from kindergarten. His backpack was full of paper every day. I think I kept all of it. I hope I did.