Ava slithered up on shore the last day of March and collapsed under the boardwalk. She slept through the painful process of shedding her scales and growing legs. When she woke, she was ravenous and bewildered. She scraped a meal of minnows marooned in tidal pools, then followed strange, feathered creatures along the shoreline to a nest of hermit crabs. She feasted. Sandpipers, she would later learn to call them. Over the next few weeks, as her strength grew, she fought gulls over meaty sea snails.
It was Monday morning, one week before Memorial Day, when pale crowds were due to storm Wildwood, a sliver of barrier island near the southern tip of the New Jersey Shore. The land breeze carried the scent of bubbling molasses and Ava sat up salivating. Once summer arrived her sandy bed under the boardwalk would be raided by teenagers smoking weed under the pier. She had to find work and a room to rent. Burnt sugar tickling her nostrils was a new sensation, and it beckoned her to the front door of Laura’s Salt Water Taffy Shoppe. The fright of boiling copper cauldrons stopped her from entering. She peered through the store window, puzzled, as men wrenched taffy into shape. “Would you like to try divinity fudge”? a salesgirl offered, standing in front of the store with a tray of creamy candy cubes. Ava leaned down and sucked the sample from the waxed paper and let it dissolve in her mouth, all the way back to her boardwalk shelter, wondering how to find work…
This was Ava’s fifth spring coming ashore. The first two years Nano, her grandmother, escorted her to the surface, first to the Gulf of Cap Breton, off Biarritz, and then to the Indian Ocean, by Zanzibar. On her third venture she almost drowned reaching the Skeleton Coast of Namibia and the fourth time she wriggled up on a stretch of black sand along the Ivory Coast. She had picked up a little English, enough to get by, which she spoke with a hard-to-place accent. Ava always returned home to the sea when the air temperature dipped below fifty degrees, but this year she was older, and it would be different. She pushed the thought from her mind.
Ava had inherited this ability to transform into human shape from her great-grandmother Rosamond, but her grandmother hadn’t received this gift. That’s how Nano saw it: it was a gift, a biological blessing. Held to an aquatic destiny herself, Nano had swelled her granddaughter’s fascination with all things earthly since she was a minnow. “You have the recessive gene to freedom”! She would trill. The old mermatron’s eyes would float in her head, as she would scoop the tadpole in her arms: “Sometimes it skips a generation, sometimes two, who can tell”? She would blubber, up-ending the giggling child and holding her out like a prize trout: “But you, you have the split tail, and you can walk the Earth someday”! Late at night, two generations tucked side by side under a quilt of sea anemones, Nano would tell tales of forked maids on horseback, thundering over emerald hills, chasing four-legged creatures with fangs sharp as the white shark’s teeth. She would troll the surface daily for magazines that had slipped off deck from passing cruise ships. Towards evening, she would spiral down to ocean bottom excitedly, and grandmother and granddaughter would turn the fragile, waterlogged pages of Life, and Harper’s Bazaar with extreme care.
One September morning when Ava was twelve, they ventured to the surface for luscious, late-summer seaweed. As they treaded water and guzzled kelp, a fishing boat knifed the tangled water towards them. Ava gawked at the sailors, coconut muscles straining as they cast wide nets. Suddenly Nano was wrenched up out of the sea. Ava grabbed her shark tooth dagger, hanging from a piece of sinew looped around her middle, where the scales blended seamlessly with the plump flesh just below her navel. She hacked at the teeming net and, in one briny burst; Nano and schools of grateful tuna narrowly escaped the cannery.
Ava saw disappointment in her grandmother’s eyes, as the old mermaid watched the wake of the hulk widen to the horizon. Someday, Ava vowed, she would follow that wake beyond the horizon to lands unknown.
At fourteen, Ava trembled towards her parents with a request to visit Earth’s great continents. Nano swam to her side. “Do you want your daughter to remain a benighted bottom-dweller”? she spouted. “Ava will be out of her league on land, at first, so what? Spending time in their world will introduce her to art, music, architecture, ice cream”! grandmother bubbled. “Should your child grow old never having smelled a rose”? Ava’s parents acquiesced and for four summers the mer family sat around the coral hearth after supper, as grandmother read out loud Ava’s letters sent home via messenger eel. Soon however, she would turn eighteen. A blue freckle would darken the nape of Ava’s neck, marking the end of adolescence, and she would have to choose where to live out her adulthood: on land or at sea.
Ava tiptoed into Larkin’s at eleven o’clock in the morning, barefoot, squeezed into a pair of clam diggers stolen from a Good Will drop-off box. Pat Larkin, a fast-talking Irishman with white hair, a tomato complexion and small blue eyes, sized her up silently, then poured her a mug of coffee. “Watch out, it’s hot! Piping hot! Here’s cream, want cream”? He nudged a bowl of half ‘n’halfs towards her. She remembered the bitter brown liquid of Biarritz and the French crushing spoonfuls of sugar into tiny cups. Unaccustomed to stimulants, she preferred this weaker brew to espresso. She sipped cautiously, cooling her cup with plastic thimbles of cream.
“What’s your name doll”? Pat barked. She hesitated. She knew he wouldn’t be able to hear the frequency. Nano had always told her she looked like Elizabeth Taylor, but she liked the high cheekbones and pout of Ava Gardner better. “Ava Gardner”, she stuttered.
He grinned, and his cheeks rolled up, pushing his small eyes back into his head. “Ha! Ava Gardner. The Barefoot Contessa. Dark hair, sad eyes. Helluva body. Okay Ava Gardner, ever waitress before”? He loaded a stack of plates in her arms: “How many can you hold”? She trembled under the weight. “Relax kid, now walk”. He poked her between the shoulder blades with pudgy fingers. She made it from the counter to the first booth and dropped the plates.
“Easy on the china Countess”! He erupted in a merry fit of laughter. “You can trail Mary Jane. She’s been here forty summers. Can you start in the morning”?
Ava rented a wood-paneled room with no windows at The Caribbean, a 1950s motel, one block from the ocean. The tanned manager with wavy hair unlocked the door and apologized: “It used to be a sauna, but what a headache”, he sighed through his long Calabrese nose. “Then it was a broom closet”. A cigarillo bobbed between his lips and threatened to drop its ash on his white V-neck sweater. Ava thought he looked like Rudolf Valentino, Nano’s favorite. “Now I rent it out to sad cases like you”. He slid the key to her and smiled, lifting up the corners of her mouth with his.
From the balcony, Ava sat and watched the tide roll in and daylight fade. The Astroturf scratched beneath her feet. She gulped in the sea breeze, which tickled the scars where her gills had been. As dusk fell, lights clicked on in the crescent-shaped pool and the water became a glittering sapphire. The artificial palms lost their stiffness and swayed, life-like, in the evening air. Dean Martin, piped through outdoor speakers, roused her from her reverie. She was hungry.
Ava stepped carefully down the balcony staircase, confetti-colored lights guiding her way. There were vending machines on every corner in Wildwood. She stared at the shiny packaging behind glass and watched a boy drop in dimes and pull out a bag of potato chips. She followed his example and made herself a supper on the beach of peanut butter cracker sandwiches and a Baby Ruth bar. As the moon rose over the sea she tugged off her clothing, raced for the water and dove in, eyes open, letting the cold saltwater flood every pore.
The damage wasn’t bad. Frankie had seen worse. Two cabs needed new doors, the tracks for the swinging cabs needed grease, and the whole wheel could use a paint job. But overall, the Morey’s Landing Ferris Wheel had survived another winter. He would get started on the repairs in the morning.
Frankie took a last swallow from his beer and tossed the bottle in a clown-faced trashcan. He hated his name. He tried to get folks to call him Frank for a while, and then gave up. His mother had worshiped Frankie Avalon, but he didn’t look a bit like his Beach Blanket Bingo namesake. He was tall and gangly, with delicate bone structure; he was also white as a Styrofoam cup. His personality couldn’t be farther from beach party either. He wouldn’t be caught dead gyrating around a campfire.
Frankie was disappointed with the past season’s short lines, mostly old folks with their grandkids, or lovers who wanted privacy, 158 feet above ground. Everyone else went for the roller coasters and log flumes. From July Fourth to Labor Day, the line for the new wooden rollercoaster snaked out of the amusement park. Funny how they were building with wood again, Frankie contemplated, even though metal coasters give a smoother ride. Some genius figured out that wood rattled more, which was scarier. And that’s what people wanted, to be scared.
He remembered a trip to Coney as a kid. He didn’t want to go on the Cyclone, but his father tugged hard at his sunburned arm, sticky from a Sno-cone. His dad, standing on line, a gaunt figure of fatherhood, pointed through the chain-link fence to weak spots where the tracks had cracked and splintered off. “The salt air just licks at the timbers season after season” he rasped through emphysema-weakened lungs as he pressed Frankie’s tender face against the fence. When they reached the ticket booth, he hissed: “Stand up straight cowboy” and Frankie passed the height line by a cowlick. He kept his eyes closed the whole time except for a split second, when he opened them to throw up. The last thing he saw, as the coaster climbed the first and highest peak, was his father salute the American flag, then raise his arms in surrender as the car plunged into hell. Frankie could smell his father’s beer breath and hear the timbers crack as the car roared, ready to fly off the track at any moment and plunge into the dirty waves.
Frankie cracked another beer. That’s what people wanted, thrills, but not him. He wanted peace. He grabbed the rest of his six-pack and walked to the end of the pier. In the moonlight he thought he saw something—or someone— rising from the snowcaps about 200 feet offshore. Ava turned her face towards the moon and shook a wet curl from her eyes. Black satin ribbons of hair clung to her phosphorescent skin, glowing like certain jellyfish. Light seemed to emanate from beneath her skin. Frankie inhaled to shout, but she was gone. The cry stuck in his chest.
At 5:00am Ava was awakened by sharp sounds which rattled her skull.She peered out the bathroom window and spied the feathered culprits, lined up along a rooftop wire. She stepped out of the bathtub and slipped, still wet, into her white uniform, piped in green. She coiled her untamed tresses into a bun, and secured this sleeping squid with bobby pins. She didn’t know the trick of opening bobby pins with her teeth, so she jabbed them in like toothpicks. A wave of claustrophobia struck her; she always wore her hair loose. It rippled in the currents and helped her balance and sense of direction. She placed the silly cap on top of her tangled crown and stuck a bobby pin through the front to hold it in place.
“You can’t work with a hole in your head”, scolded Mary Jane. She placed a fresh cap on Ava, split a hairpin with her front tooth, and anchored the hat from the back. “There. It sits flat on your head now and you can’t see the pin. It better look just like that tomorrow”. Mary Jane held out a pair of Keds and a packet of new shoelaces. Ava puzzled over the veteran waitresses’ laced oxfords, with the even bows, as they marched out of the kitchen. “Come out to the register when you’re done”. Ava slipped her feet into the sneakers and laced the Keds as best she could, careful to hide the webbing between her toes from the bus boys. Maybe this webbing, which was so helpful in paddling through water, would eventually callous and slough away; a thought that both excited and scared her.
Like Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce Ava learned to take an order and call it out to the kitchen. “Short stack, hold the pig”! she shouted in her hard-to-place accent. At three o’clock sharp, Pat Larkin pushed aside the lace curtain in the front window and flipped the Open sign over to read Gone Crabbing. Mary Jane showed Ava how to sponge down the tables, pile sugar packets into teacups, and marry ketchup bottles end to end. Scrubbing at menus with freckled fingers she asked “So how do you like it here”? Ava held a pencil point to her temple and picked at some hairs, pulled painfully taut. “It’ll get easier”, Mary Jane said, unclipping the lunch specials from each menu. “I know…”, Ava eyes wandered to a bad seascape above the counter. Sunset on a Rocky New England Coast, laid down in thick pastel brushstrokes, with a lighthouse in the distance. “You still get off in time to go to the beach. A slice of heaven on Earth we’ve got here in Wildwood…” Mary Jane sighed, “You got a swimsuit honey ”?
Frankie opened and closed the cab door a few times. It worked fine. It was Thursday and he was pleased with his week’s work. He’d lubed the tracks and touched up the stationary cars with blue and yellow paint. He would give all the swinging cars a fresh coat of red in the morning. He dropped his brush on a can of Dutch Boy and reached for a Pabst’s Blue Ribbon. He cracked the can and foam gurgled up. Frankie had walked out to the end of the pier every night since Monday and had imagined her face in every white cap. He tipped the beer back. “Maybe I’ll take the boat out tonight”, he mused, directing his words to a laughing gull, perched on a post. “Craw, cra-craw, cra-craaaw” the gull laughed back at him.
Piping plovers danced in the unbroken garland of sea foam, formed at the water’s edge. Two screeching gulls swooped down from the periwinkle sky and claimed opposite ends of a jimmy crab. Ava shooed them away and sucked the sweet jelly out of the shell herself. A toddler, rolling over a sandcastle, sat up and blinked. Ava smiled. He looked like the lunch special: breaded pork cutlet with mashed potatoes—spiced apple ring for garnish. Ava tossed the shell into the waves, curled up in the castle’s moat, and fell asleep.
The incoming tide woke her at nine o’clock. A string of carnival lights twinkled for the first time in the summer season. Something sharp was digging into her side. She stood up in pain, spilling out of an antique bathing torture with boning, buttons and zippers. “I won the Miss Avalon pageant in this”! The old waitress had boasted, as she unrolled the lilac-scented paper and presented the bathing suit to her. Ava yanked down the bodice and rolled off the girdle. She tossed the suit into the first wave, dove neatly under it, and swam beneath the surface for several hundred feet. Her back shone in the dark sea like a pearl in a yielding oyster.
Frankie cut the motor. He dipped the oars overboard and pulled; a mermaid on his left tricep swished her tail with each pull. It was his idea to have her wiggle like that. The tattoo artist was pleased, took a Polaroid, and taped it to the wall. Frankie had reached the coordinates where he saw her Monday—two hundred feet offshore and another two hundred feet south of the pier. He pulled one oar through the oarlock and parked it. With the other he rowed in a circle, trying not to drift from the spot. With his free hand, he reached for his six-pack. On his fourth beer, he saw the surface break. “Just a school of bottlenose”, he thought. Then he saw her face—perfectly oval, with full, shining lips, like the lady painted on the old carousel, only fifteen feet away.
Ava wasn’t scared, treading water, studying him. She had become curious about the shadow pacing the pier every night. She glided over and pulled herself up onto the stern. “Help me in”, she said, as naturally as a fish swims. In a daze, Frankie dropped his Pabst, reached his sinewy arms overboard, and pulled her into the boat. Beads of water rolled off her nakedness. Awestruck and embarrassed, he turned away, tore off his Irish fisherman’s sweater, and tossed it back to her. He stared at a rivet in the boat’s hull until he felt it was safe to look up. She was still there; curled up in the bow, head resting on a Mae West. “Do you always swim at night”? He stammered. “Yes of course”, she replied. This was an odd question. “Don’t you think it’s dangerous”? He continued. “No, why”? “Well, you might drown”, he answered. She laughed, for the first time since coming ashore. Then they both fell silent. A bottle rocking against the hull was the only sound in the breezeless night as Frankie pulled silently to shore.
The Greeks were still open on the boardwalk. Itchy in Frankie’s pullover, grazing her knees, Ava gorged on steamed mussels and raw clams—no tartar, no lemon. Frankie ate nothing but had another beer, and watched her through vapor slithering up from her plate. Gorgeous. Like the wooden lady cut into the arm of the sleigh driven by the ponies on the merry-go-round. If he had known something about art, he would have thought of Botticelli. The Birth of Venus. He would have pictured her riding that wave to shore on a clamshell. Yes, this girl gnawing the beard from a mussel, a Florentine angel. Unlike other girls, there was something lonely about her too, like the lady in the sleigh, who never left the ground, while all the other ponies went up and down. She was like him, Frankie thought, alone. Ava wiped her mouth on the sweater’s cuff, then he leaned over with a napkin and wiped the spot she missed. “You look like Mr. Harvey Oswald”, she whispered, shaking salt into a glass of water. He laughed. “Lee Harvey Oswald? Thanks a lot”. She liked the warmth of his hand, as he’d brushed the bit of clam off her lower lip.
He took Ava up on his wheel in a stationary car and they went around and around, without talking. The steady cars without runners were on the outside; they had a better view, better for romance. Ava had never ventured above sea level and the Atlantic, from above, seemed strange in the moonlight. “The beach here in Wildwood is really wide…” Frankie made clumsy conversation. “Sand’s been drifting down from Stone Harbor for years. Soon you’ll need a taxi to get to the water.” He wasn’t clever with words. She didn’t mind. When he reached his arm around her, Ava felt as if she had just swum into a warm current. They stayed there a long time, at the top of the wheel, rocking silently in the salt breeze. He wanted to kiss her. He didn’t. Not yet. He wanted it to be right. She remembered her Nano and grandfather, when he was still alive. Old merfolk, rocking like this. Only not above, but below, in the deepest currents at ocean’s bottom, swaying, tails coiled together, around a branch of Stag horn coral.
The sky lightened from black to cobalt blue, then royal, as they watched a thin red line widen at the horizon. Frankie hooked Ava’s chin with his forefinger and kissed her. She inhaled his tongue and he coughed. The memory of her parents’ tails entwined, strolling through algae forests, washed over her. It was a shame he didn’t have a tail. He recovered and whispered: “Like this” he whispered, and he closed his eyes, grasped the hair at her nape and drew her to him. Watching him, Ava squeezed her eyes shut too, but they popped open. Merfolk never shut their eyes, not even to sleep. Frankie fluttered his lids open and met Ava’s stare. He scowled. “Close your eyes. Your eyes should be closed.” “Why”? She asked. He didn’t have an answer.
They walked down Ocean Drive to The Caribbean as the arms of dawn yawned and stretched upwards. Frankie worked different angles in his head. He could ask to use her phone, or her bathroom, or he could suggest they watch the sunrise from her balcony. What was the point of lying? Finally he just blurted: “Can I come up?” Ava bristled. She had gleaned a little about human lovemaking from the swollen pages of an adolescent magazine. Sex between humans seemed awkward to her, but maybe not with him? With Frankie, she could imagine two forms clasped in fluid movement.
Suddenly, a hummingbird arriving at a feeder filled with ruby syrup broke her indecision. Ava ran upstairs, alone. Frankie took out his last cigarette, crushed the pack and threw it at the bird feeder. He stood there, smoking by the crescent-shaped pool. Ava remembered the cable knit covering her nakedness, leaned over the balcony and cried: “your sweater”! He didn’t know what to make of her. He blew a smoke ring and her eyes widened in horror. He laughed. She was a fish out of water. “That’s okay, you can bring it by later. I’ll be working ‘til midnight. It’s opening night”. He turned and walked south to The Tempo motel.
Ava was locked out. She remembered that she’d tied the room key to her swimsuit, which by now had floated down to Delaware. She sat on the balcony, waiting for the office to open, and watched the quivering orange globe come up over the water. “It looks like the egg I served up this morning,” she thought, “sunny side up”.
At closing time on Friday, Pat passed out trowels and the staff planted red geraniums in the storefront window boxes. The summer crowd would be boisterous and hungry the next morning, eager for Larkin’s fluffy blueberry flapjacks. Customers had smelled these pancakes all winter, while sensibly spooning up their bowls of farina. At five, with her first weeks wages in hand, Ava walked into Fox Brothers’ thrift store and bought a sundress for a song. She admired her small waist in the cracked mirror, and her lips lifted in a siren’s smile.
Ava wandered to Sunset Lake. She perched at the end of the pier, with her legs curled under her, posing the way she remembered the bronze statue of the Little Mermaid, on a rock in Copenhagen’s harbor. Against her parents wishes, Ava’s grandmother had insisted on a pilgrimage to the land of Hans Christian Andersen, author of the timeless tale of love and sacrifice. She watched the sun slip from sight and recalled similar evenings swimming to the surface with Nano to watch day surrender to night. Nano would cry, as she held her dripping hands up to the sinking orb: “Someday you will be in a gondola on the grand canal, lying in the arms of a Venetian count, and you will gaze at this very same sun...” Or she might say: “You will be locked in the embrace of a silver knight, gazing out from a stone turret at the northern sunset,” or even “Imagine yourself on the back of a mustang, arms tight around your cowboy, watching the desert sun drop behind red rock ledges”. Ava’s mind drifted to Frankie, and she fell asleep in her second-hand dress, soil from planting flowers, still under her fingernails.”
Ava ran to the Ferris wheel, her dress ballooning around her in a northeasterly gust. It was after ten o’clock. “Your sweater!” she gasped, handing it to him. She was out of breath, a sensation new to her, and she marveled at her heaving chest. Frankie shrugged and went back to taking tickets from teenagers, but Ava could tell he was pleased to see her. She giggled. “What’s so funny?” he asked, as he locked a couple into a cab. “Nothing.” She looked away from his newly cropped hair, bristling like the spines on a blowfish. She thought of her proud uncles, preening their manes with combs they’d fashioned themselves from barracuda teeth. He followed her eyes to the top of his head and rubbed his scalp, “New season, new haircut. Every year.” She liked his confidence. He lifted her onto a barstool and made her put his sweater on again. It was still May. Frankie led more teens to cabs, the girls’ heads epoxied to their boyfriends’ shoulders, never shifting, as they boarded and disembarked. Ava watched Frankie’s lean muscles flex as he pulled levers, which sent the cars into the air.
At five minutes before twelve he cordoned off the gate and hooked the Closed sign over it. Not that it mattered; he hadn’t had any customers for over an hour. He shook kibble into bowls, then opened a car and let the German Shepherds out. They went at it like it was prime rib.
“They’ve been up there, going around and around like that, this whole time?” Ava asked. “They don’t mind”, Frankie answered, “of course they only go in the stationary cars. Come July, when we’re sweating like pigs down here, they’re up there wagging’ their tongues in the cool salt breeze. And at night they get the run of the place”.
It was an awkward hour for a date. The only sound was the padding of Ava’s bare feet on the boardwalk as they walked to Frankie’s pick-up. Apart from work, she went barefoot. “No Bare Feet” was carved into a piece of driftwood hanging over the bar at Thunderbird Lodge. The hostess slipped Ava a pair of flip-flops. Skipper Jones, a one-man keyboard act, crooned Beyond the Sea. Frankie pulled Ava onto an island of linoleum in a blue shag sea. She tried to follow his sure lead but stumbled, until he lifted her, then let her down gently, resting her feet on top of his boots. They danced like that ‘til Skipper packed it up, then they split a steak at the bar. Ava ate most of it. Frankie watched with fascination, when she snapped the T-bone and sucked the marrow, blood dripping down her delicately pointed chin. Mermaids were unremorseful carnivores.
They closed the bar at 2:00 and Frankie drove slowly south along Atlantic Avenue to Buttercup Road, the radio tuned to the oldies station. The arching, neon script announcing The Caribbean was off. So were the colored lights lining the balcony, but the pool glowed from lights embedded somewhere underwater. Frankie parked and watched the wavy light on Ava’s face.
Three coins in a fountain… floated over the dashboard. Through the ripples how they shine… Just one wish will be granted; one heart will wear the valentine… Make it mine… Uncharacteristically, Frankie joined in: Make it mine… Make it mine…! Then he tugged Ava across the bank seat and kissed her cool mouth. She heard the faint buzz of an electric eel, and realized it was her zipper coming undone. Startled and scared, she slapped him across the face with the back of her hand. She’d seen Monica Vitta take a swing at some Casanova in Cinecitta, the Italian film magazine. Frankie flushed. Her fear drained away and was replaced by amusement at his reddening face. Shocking. Skin tone remained constant among mervisages. His neck reminded her of the half-empty ketchup bottles she married end to end, at the end of every shift. He leaned towards her again, but she hopped out of the car, ran upstairs and was out of sight, her laughter stinging the air.
Frankie fired the ignition and screeched north up Atlantic Avenue to The Hurricane, a topless bar on the seedy side of Wildwood. Frankie felt no pleasure in the female figure that night, his eyes drifting instead to a weathered old man, sitting close to the stage, dried up, like a peach forgotten in a window sill. He headed for the beach, collapsed in the sand and started to sob. He wanted her. He hated to want anything so bad. By age 16, he’d learned not to expect anything from his father, not a hug, not even a clap on the back. Then his mom died. Lung cancer. Virginia Slims, by the carton.
Frankie crawled up to The Tempo as nightingales argued in the moments before dawn. He fumbled for his key, the stench of the dumpster parked in the alley, nauseating him. He flung himself on the bed and tried to bring into focus the stalagmites on the stucco ceiling. Musical notes swirled on the walls in silent symphony. When he awoke he saw things differently. He filled his bucket at the ice machine and lay in bed sucking ice cubes. There wasn’t a phony bone in Ava’s gorgeous body, he comforted himself. She was not a tease. What should I expect from a girl who doesn’t wear shoes? He smiled. His anger had melted away, leaving only a lumpy core of longing.
“Watch the tramcar… Watch the tramcar…” crackled over the loudspeakers of an open-sided, hop-on, hop-off trolley. The boardwalk was packed with sunburned teenagers who parted, like the Red Sea, as the tramcar passed. Frankie ducked out of the sun into Douglass’ Fudge. A bell tinkled as he entered. He’d only ever bought candy for his mother. A blonde in a Scotch plaid apron rolled caramel apples in peanuts. “Can I help you”? She trilled. Another Irish girl working the summer on the Jersey Shore, Frankie assumed. Busloads of them headed down the shore from New York, working ten-hour days, six days a week, in taffy shops, ice-cream parlors, and souvenir stands. On the seventh day, they made memories of the mid-Atlantic sunshine to take home. “Thanks...Mary”? He replied, trying to read the name, embroidered over her right breast. “It’s pronounced May-Vuh” she lilted, pressing a red-tipped finger to her nametag. Frankie poked at the display case and Maeve gathered an assortment of filled chocolates. He moved to the fudge bar. Maeve followed and plucked sugary bricks: chocolate marshmallow, maple nut, molasses, and arranged them in a plaid box. “She’s got a sweet tooth, your girl”? Maeve pried, tying it all up with a red bow. “It’s for my mother”, Frankie lied.
The girl smiled with one half of her face. He didn’t like that. Why did she care who the candy was for? He didn’t like nosy people. That was one of the things he liked about Ava. She minded her own business, and she smiled with her whole face.
Frankie was playing with the petals on a geranium, when she came out of Larkin’s at three, a knob of dark hair hanging over her left ear, damp tendrils grazing her shoulders. He was paralyzed by her beauty, the candy forgotten in the flowerbox. Ava picked up the box and tore off the lid. The confections lay burrowed in corrugated nests, like mollusks in the sand. She sniffed at a chocolate-covered cherry, nipped the bottom of it, then sucked out the filling, like a whelk from its shell. She sat on Frankie’s fender and sucked out all the fillings, one after another, returning the chocolate shells to the box intact. There was nothing in the aquatic world that resembled fudge, neither in shape nor consistency. She didn’t touch it.
Frankie’s shift started at four. He wanted Ava to come by the wheel again that night. He was starting to want to see her all the time. He fought his growing obsession and grumbled, “You off Tuesday”? “Yes” she replied, twisting his side view mirror to pick taffy between her front teeth. Frankie sprung into the driver’s seat and shut the door. “I’ll come by then”, and he sped off, straightening his mirror at a stop sign. Tuesday was three days away. It gave Ava some time to think. She trailed her toes through the gravel driveway behind the motel office and climbed the stairs to her windowless room. Burrowed under the covers and using the Gideon Bible for support, she scratched a long letter home on motel stationary.
Ava swam out a long way, loaded her lungs with air and plunged downwards, emitting a high frequency into the inky water. Soon an eel slithered up and she looped the letter around his middle. He darted downwards into invisibility. Ava drifted back to shore, letting the tide carry her. She drew an icy cold bath, adding a champagne bottle of bubbles she’d picked up at a tag sale. She imagined herself in the frothy Atlantic before a storm and sunk beneath the foam, eyes and mouth open to absorb the brine, but the taste of perfumed soap ruined the illusion.
The Memorial Day crowds descended upon the shore town. Ava left work Sunday and Monday with swollen feet, smelling of sausage. Tuesday afternoon she awoke to wailing. It sounded to her like a hungry sea cow. She’d fallen asleep in the bathtub again. She hopped into a pair of clam diggers, pulled her damp hair into a ponytail and tied it with the red ribbon from Frankie’s gift.
“Ee-Uh, Ee-Uh, Ee-Uh”, Ava stepped onto the balcony and saw Frankie straddling a bicycle built for two, honking the rubber horn. It didn’t take Ava long to get the hang of it. “This is much harder on the person in front,” Frankie teased, raising himself on the pedals and straining against the handlebars. They peddled south through Wildwood Crest, winding up and down the sandy streets, past The Waikiki, The Royal Hawaiian, The Nomad, The Astronaut, The Swan, and The Kona Kai. Frankie pointed out mid-century architectural motifs: hexagonal lobbies, amoeboid pools, and ornamental bridges to nowhere. They rested on a bench in front of The Surfside coffee shop, a giant cupcake with chandeliers like shooting stars. Like Larkin’s, The Surfside closed after lunch service. It was 3 o’clock. “Are you hungry”? He asked. “I’d like to make you the Frankie Special”.
The Frankie Special was a can of baked beans, with frankfurters, sliced thin like pennies, and heated through on a hot plate. Frankie warmed rolls in a toaster oven and they ate silently, in a lozenge of light, cast by a globe swinging from a gold link chain. He washed his meal down with a quart of Budweiser and after supper, washed dishes with the efficiency of a seasoned bachelor, though he was barely twenty-two. Ava was 435 in human years, only 19 in mer years, and naive in both worlds. “How long have you lived here”? Ava asked, tapping salt from a shaker over a glass of water.
“Two years here at The Tempo. Before that I was at the Tally Ho! And before that, The Suitcase. My folks had the May Rose apartments, until they split up.” “Split up”? Ava stirred the cloudy liquid. “Mom couldn’t take the winters anymore”, said Frankie. He pulled his Winston’s from his shirt pocket, tapped a cigarette straight from the pack to his lips, avoiding his wet fingers, and lit up. Ava watched the burning match with wonder. He smiled. She was adorable. “The winters”? Ava asked, tasting her glass, and adding more salt. “It’s different here in winter. It’s a ghost town. Everything boarded up. Nothing’s open but the WaWa. Forty percent of the population goes on welfare. The vein’s dried up and the gold-diggers have moved on... The gold rush is over. It’s depressing”. “Where did your mother go”? Ava probed. “Atlantic City. She dealt blackjack at The Claridge. She wore these tight sweaters with shiny things hanging off them,” he continued. “Knit them herself. Made a killing.” Frankie chuckled. “She got herself a room with an ocean view and a fancy little dog with his face kicked in. A Pekinese.” Frankie looked sharply toward Ava. “I’m talking too much”. “Is she still in that room”? Ava wanted to know. “No. She died a few years back, on Mother’s Day.” “Oh,” Ava replied, “How nice”. That sounded right to Ava; a mother should die on Mother’s Day. Frankie laughed. “Where’s your father”? Ava continued. “He’s dead too”, Frankie replied. “What about your grandmother”? “My grandmother”? “Yes. Is your grandmother alive”? “My dad’s mother is. She’s in Cape May painting clamshells. Gotta hand it to her, she pays her rent selling ashtrays on the boardwalk”. They fell silent. Frankie dried the last plate and walked over to Ava. “C’mon, let’s go watch the sunset”.
The marina on Sunset Lake was a blue collar Riviera of motorboats and jet-skis. Frankie took Ava out to the middle of the lake in his souped-up rowboat, cut the motor, wobbled towards the bow and lowered himself beside her. The weekenders were gone and they were alone. Frankie was hoping for a good sunset, one with crazy colors, like the sunset on a sympathy card. But Mother Nature wouldn’t cooperate. Clouds snuck in and drizzled on their romantic moment. Frankie pecked Ava on the nose where a raindrop rested. When another fell on her cheek, he kissed it away. With his finger, he connected two droplets on her chin. Ava felt snug, at home wrapped in Frankie’s arms, rocking in the skiff, listing under the weight of the outboard motor. The way he held her, enveloping her in strength yet softness, reminded her of how Nano protected her, when they were once caught up in an earthquake at the ocean’s floor.
They returned to his room and made love for the first time, as Ava had imagined, two forms clasped in fluid movement among the swirling, silent symphony of musical notes along the motel room walls.
Her letters home thinned to a trickle. Ava and Frankie met every day to share a late lunch in that one-hour window—from three to four—when they both didn’t work. They’d go to the Greeks, or Mack’s Pizza, or Rick’s Clam Bar. Sometimes Ava would bring club sandwiches from Larkin’s and they’d have a picnic in Columbus Park. Then Frankie would turn the wheel ‘til midnight and Ava would go for a long swim in the ocean. Sometimes she’d visit him at work. They wouldn’t talk much. He’d look over to her, swiveling on the stool, shaking salt over her soft-serve ice cream. On hot nights she’d ride in the cage with the shepherds and let them finish her cone. They’d go round and round, panting and licking at the cool custard.
Ava learned how to tie shoelaces and how to dial a payphone. She learned how to cook on a hot plate. They ate a lot of fish together. She’d fry Frankie’s fillet to a crisp brown-gold, but push hers to the side of the pan, so it wouldn’t cook through. On Mondays, their day off, they took day trips to Ocean City or Asbury Park. Frankie liked to check out other wheels. In late August they visited his grandmother in Cape May. Mama Lucy lived in a sun-bleached shotgun bungalow with Frankie’s maiden aunt Peg. There wasn’t a free spot to rest your beer. Countertops, the TV set, even arms of chairs were covered with tiny villages of sea animals. It was a hot day with no breeze and Mama Lucy was working outside—a tin can of glue, dime store oil paints and a tray of plastic eyes bobbling in her lap. She was cursing the heat when they drove up.
Frankie! Who is this? She asked. “Mama Lucy: this is Ava”. He waved his long fingers from his grandmother to Ava. Mama Lucy shook off her glasses, which fell on a chain to her chest. She’s a knockout Frankie. Better marry her quick”, and she slid her glasses back up her wrinkled nose and returned to work. “Peg, come out here and look at this!” Mama Lucy shouted through the screen door. Frankie crouched down to see the imaginary world in his grandmother’s apron. “What are you making”? He asked? “You like it”? Mama Lucy smiled, her teeth showing the neglect of years of poor health care. “Show Ava. It’s the wedding of Poseidon’s daughter”. A bi-valve with a cotton ball beard was driving a chariot of genuine, dried seahorses. A jingle shell mermaid, with a tin foil veil, leaned on her razor-clam shell groom. “I’m gonna start the wedding chapel tomorrow. She pointed to a bucket. I’ve got the sand dollars in bleach water now”.
After eating fried clam sandwiches on their laps with Mama Lucy and Peg, Frankie and Ava walked, hand in hand, along the beach by the Cape May Lighthouse. Ava had learned to like the damp warmth created between two palms touching. Frankie reached down in the surf and came up with a clear stone, which he presented to her. “For you, a Cape May diamond”. “It’s beautiful”, bubbled Ava, caressing it in her palm. “Actually, it’s only a rock” he added. “It’s beautiful…”, Ava repeated. Frankie’s dishwater eyes sparkled for the first time in forever, since Santa left a Schwinn bicycle with angel handlebars and a banana seat under the artificial fir when he was ten.
On Labor Day, at midnight, at the top of the wheel, Frankie proposed. He’d spied the depression-era wedding band, embedded with tiny diamond chips, in the dingy storefront window of an Atlantic City pawn shop. The pawnbroker explained that a widow, married fifty years, turned compulsive gambler upon her husband’s death, and traded her ring for a few more rounds at the slots. Frankie and Ava agreed on a small service by a justice of the peace. “Can we have punch and wedding cake like Lana Turner”? ventured Ava. Ava knew all about old Hollywood’s lightning marriages from Nano’s stash of Photoplay and Screen magazines. Frankie had no idea who Lana Turner was, but he laughed and kissed her on the cheek.
The next morning, as Ava combed her hair, she noticed a mark on her neck, the size and shade of a blueberry. This was it. She had to choose. She wanted to tell Frankie her fantastic history, but she was afraid. How could he understand? By the end of the week the blueberry had grown into a plum. Ava spent a lot of time thinking about her choice. She loved his long fingers, his brooding eyes, and the way he walked on the outside of her, along the curb. He said it was an old custom for the man to shield the lady from mud splattering up from the street and soiling her petticoat. Neither of them knew what a petticoat was.
Friday night, three days before their wedding, Ava slipped a note under Frankie’s door and ran straight to the sea. She swam north, against the current, to the Anglesea Inlet. As she treaded water in the calm surf of the bay, she thought about her letter, and the language she’d lifted from her favorite romance novel, Night Tide: “Try to understand. Saltwater courses through my veins. The tides pull at my soul. I will return soon, and then we shall be together, forever. But first the moon, dancing on the waves, beckons me home one last time...” She inhaled the balmy air deeply, several times, watching the chaser lights along the spokes of the Ferris wheel. Her older body was resisting the transformation of prior years. Finally, she felt her dormant gills revive. The mark on her neck throbbed. It was time. She plunged.
The next morning, Frankie sprung out of his motel bed early, wondering why Ava hadn’t shown up at the wheel the night before. He didn’t have time to dwell on it. He had to pick up the wedding bands. He brewed coffee in the wall-mounted coffeemaker above his toilet. After two cups he saw the note.
Frankie ran out the front door, tripped over the thresh hold and fell hard against the balcony railing, accented by a score of cast-iron musical notes. “Ava”! He cried out. Squinting in the sharp September sunshine, he saw nothing but drained pools and empty parking lots. Frankie swung by Larkin’s during the breakfast crunch—which wasn’t really a crunch anymore, since Labor Day had passed—only two or three locals at the counter, sipping coffee and smoking Vantage cigarettes.
Ava surprised her parents at breakfast, slurping their big bowls of man-o’-war jellyfish porridge. They looked up, brimming with joy, the tentacles of home drawing their daughter close. Nano, weakened by pneumonia, was in bed. Ava carried a bowl of gruel to her, propped high on sea anemone pillows. The sight of Nano’s wasted body, dwarfed by the Elkhorn coral headboard, shocked her. Granddaughter ladled broth gingerly to grandmother’s ancient lips. Finally Nano ventured, “Why did you come”? Ava wanted to squeeze her hand but was afraid of breaking it. “Your letters from their world were just like your great-grandmother Rosamond’s so many years ago…” the old mermaid sighed, pulled out a letter from under the seaweed bed sheet, and whispered: Oh Nano, he loves to watch the birds of the air! There are so many sea birds just along the water’s edge. Today he pointed out a tern, with its pointed wings and strange, darting movements. He made me look through a magical tube, which made things faraway seem near. I saw two brown birds with pouches under their necks, flying low,“like bombers” Frankie said. He called them pelicans. “Just like Rosamond! The passion was building there, he was starting to consume your soul…” but when you stopped writing, then I knew you were really smitten”. Nano stroked the pulsing omen on her granddaughter’s neck. “Of course you must return to him right away. It may be too late already…” Then the old mermaid succumbed to the fever.
That night the water was choppy but Frankie took the boat out anyway. “Ava!!” his voice was all but gone. He circled the spot where he first saw her, but because of the riptide, his circles drifted south, leaving a wake like the icing on a Hostess cupcake. He groped for a beer, and an oar slipped through the oarlock and away. “Miller High Life: the Champagne of Beers” he chuckled hoarsely. The Ferris wheel, getting smaller and smaller, glittered like a cheap bangle.
He was drifting swiftly now. Frankie rested his head on the life preserver and gazed out. The ocean looked like a lemon meringue pie in the harvest moonlight. Ava would surely rise from the whitecaps any moment and hook onto the stern, points of foam dripping from her dainty elbows. He would row back to shore, her head in his lap. Maybe they’d even catch the Greeks before closing. Hot fried clams, wouldn’t that be nice about now? Frankie mused. “Frankie…” a voice like distant church bells rang out. He shot up, rocking the boat violently. “Frankie… Frankie…” A flash ripped through the midnight sky, chased by a wail of thunder, and he was thrown overboard. The outboard motor swung round and knocked him squarely. Frankie could see his blood, black in the moonlight, as he slipped from consciousness.
The next morning they buried Nano, to her specifications, in the captain’s cabin of a sunken luxury liner. As they locked the rusty portholes Ava slipped away from the scene of mourning unnoticed. When she reached the surface at nightfall, the Ferris wheel was dark and the hounds were howling. She plunged again.
Ava scanned the ocean floor for hours—her excellent vision penetrating the murky waters. She found Frankie at dawn, at the tip of the New Jersey shore, his broken body sparkling among Cape May diamonds. Her torso was powerful now and, with gills fully restored, she swam swiftly into the depths, dragging him deeper with each whip of her tail. She went to the shipwreck yard, where an albino catfish traded her a steamer trunk for her engagement ring. She folded Frankie gently into the chest and dragged him to a graveyard of similar trunks, jokingly referred to in the mer world as “Davy Jones Locker”.
In six months Ava delivered. The pup had colorless eyes and prickly white hair that refused to grow into luxurious locks. The mer community felt sorry for mother and child, but fear of the baby’s strange looks kept them at a distance. “The little blowfish”, mer children would snicker, and they’d puff up their cheeks and pull their hair straight. “Ungrateful spawns!” mothers would scold them, and box their ear holes: “You should thank Poseidon for your perfect health”. Then the mermatrons would whisk their schools by, their manes undulating behind them.
When her daughter turned four, Ava brought the pup to the surface to watch a passing cruise ship, and many times after, to gather seaweed. Every time the young mermaid whined, “Can we go back to the bottom, mama? I don’t like the sunlight”. Little Rosamond had no interest in soggy magazines or stories of the Orient. Her tail was smooth as a flounder’s, with no deep notch, no promise of transformation. Like Nano had said, Ava recalled, “Sometimes it skips a generation, sometimes two, who can tell”?