Driving through suburban Orlando, kids in back, windows rolled down in the unairconditioned Pontiac, all Shabina could think was: Depressing. But it wasn’t the heat that made her depressed. It was the cloudlessness. No afternoon summer rain to release her from full engagement with Mom duties. Possibly no naptime. Today was all murderous blue. No tucking in with a drink, the kids taking a nap.
She was at the drive through at the ice cream shop. Later she would merge back onto the four lane road to go home. At least she could punch the engine and speed just a little to the red light, she thought, amused. So reliable and powerful, her big purple beast. It had been a gift from her grandfather, willed to her.
The summer of contagion and death had her on the tiniest, invisible emotional edge, like something pressing on her brain but not yet manifest – a tumor, a clot, a stroke of the nerve. Every day, she trained herself to think of something small. Today, it was ramping her kids up for “national ice cream month” and a trip to an ice cream shop offering treats decorated like mythical creatures.
The night before, the children had decided what treats they would order. Citrine would order the mermaid. Darby the cyclops.
In the bath, Citrine had reminded her she was a mermaid. She had dipped under the bubbles. When she came back up again she said, “I can breath underwater.”
Shabina vacillated between indulging the habits of cutesy popular girl culture and trying to keep things at the level of reality, disputing with the child nonsense imaginings. When she was depressed and irritated it was hard to tolerate the cutesy.
She reached for her cool high ball on the bathroom tile floor, but she dropped it and it shattered.
Shabina mused that when The Little Mermaid was given legs so she could be a human and be with her prince, she walked as if on glass. Her feet bled. Well at least in the unDisneyfied version, the version her Granny read to her when her Mama was out with all her men. Not only that, The Little Mermaid’s legs were a trade for her voice. Her desire to be with the prince came with the terrible price of making her mute. Can relate, thought Shabina, fetching the broom.
She dressed both the kids for bed, turned on the box fan in the living room, put Little Mermaid into the VHS. Like clockwork, the two of them sat transfixed as if under the spell of the sea witch herself.
Shabina slipped outside to the back porch with a glass and a bottle of Jack. She sat like she always did, propped back in her chair, feet up, until the darkness settled her. Then she saw things, heard them. There was the moon silvering the lake, a snake easing itself from the base of the house to the earth. There were ridges of an alligator spine in the water. A desperate cry of a screech owl. She sat on the porch and drank and drifted while her children watched a screen. She hadn’t planned to go this far into her drinking. But the day’s tensions somehow justified the numbing.
Next day saw her hung over at the drive through line at the ice cream shop not far from the road where young women sold their bodies, not far from where Shabina and her kids lived in her Mama’s old house. She put her elbow on the burning metal of the car’s window frame and pressed down. It felt good to burn it, burn it hard. Old cars burned you when you touched them.
Once she had ordered, she set her kids at a table next to the parking lot to eat their cups of melting cream – Citrine her mermaid, Darby his cyclops.
“This is not a real mermaid,” said Citrine, looking disapprovingly at the candy colored liquid with a soggy cookie fish tale swimming in it.. She was only ten years younger than Shabina was when her mother told her not to come back to the house until she’d made money to buy groceries. Narrow hips, walking on glass, losing her voice down the road where girls sold themselves, Shabina learned a certain kind of commerce in a city that pedaled in princess dreams.
“Why don’t you like your mermaid ice cream, honey?” said Shabina, trying for sweetness, choking back the temptation to lose it. The older she became, the more Shabina sympathized with the sea witch.
“Mermaids aren’t pink, Mommy.”
“But that’s cotton candy ice cream, like the drive thru lady said, the kind that goes with Ariel.”
“I don’t like it.”
Shabina picked it up and dunked it in a trashcan not far away. A small, irrational thrill ran through her.
“That was mean, Mommy.” Citrine merely glowered, her arms crossed like a school marm.
“You’re mean,” Shabina retorted, knowing herself to be ridiculous in the face of a child. She had said that kind of loud. Then hoped no one was watching.
Naptime was good that afternoon. Something had broken in the air and she could try again with them when they were were awake, when she was watching them splash in the plastic pool out back.
Dylan wouldn’t be back to see her for a while. He had said kids turned him off. Why did she still love him? He wasn’t even their father.
When the cicadas come out at twilight there is a bath of sound. Like the humid air, it surrounds you and you are suspended as in a sea. She has never broken from this sea, nor had her mother or her mother’s mother. They were cursed with what they had, with what they knew, with choices they were offered, and with consequences meted out to them. It was how things were.
Even with the sound of the Amtrack in the distance, Shabina sat on her porch, her mother’s porch, night after night, mute, feet bleeding.