". . . and he who listens will go away not only charmed, but wiser, for we know all the ills. . . ."
I'd been battling Dracula, Whitewater, and the Twilight Zone all morning, with hi-scores on each. The heat, fryer grease, and cocoa-buttered throngs along the boardwalk were another world. My good ear rang from the pinball sounds, children arguing over tokens, and Dracula's laughter, while the other was the usual fuzzy wash of nothingness and low buzzing. Desert tan fading, with my left eardrum shattered by a rocket propelled grenade and a few dollars and disability checks on the way, I'd taken a room above the Ocean City boardwalk the week before. From my window, I could see neon carnival rides at one end of the beach, condos like a mirage at the other. I stowed my safe guy discharge outfit -- khaki pants and short-sleeved shirts -- and switched from New Balance back to my fetid desert boots. I wore flimsy horror-show T-shirts from a stand along the walk and cutoff olive drab shorts, and read Homer at night to keep myself occupied. Halfway home from the war but unable to take another step closer, I'd stomp through the sands at dusk, imagining I was Odysseus. Not the clever hero at the gates of Troy, but the wrecked Odysseus, the one trapped in strange places as he forgot his own name. I played pinball in the Game Grotto, losing my old life. I signed my hi-scores RPG, after the weapon that wounded me. It was in the Grotto that I first saw the woman with the mermaid tattoo under the flashing red lights.
Caught between the Cirqus Voltaire and Addams Family machines, she stared into the grainy darkness of the arcade, the tattoo on her shoulder luminescent in the black lights. All in blue and white ink, the mermaid lay stranded upon a rock, lips pursed as if singing, one long arm waving towards a ship passing in the distance, the other hand lifting a bare breast in enticement. The woman herself was so pale she also seemed to glow. With stringy, sun-bleached hair, all of her was sharp: sharp features, sharp arms, sharp nipples beneath a black tank top. She reminded me of one of those beauties who sometimes emerge from hard country clapboards or trash-strewn double-wides. She reminded me of home, of Ithaca. I stared at her, the ringing bumpers forgotten as my last ball went down the drain of the Devil's Dare. We were the only ones along the back wall pinball alley. Up front, the token changer ushered children in from the sun, patting them on their baseball caps as they handed over lotion-smeared dollars.
She motioned up front, towards the token changer. He leered, winking like a Cyclops as he handed over a couple bucks' worth, flipping through the money roll as though it was his own. She ignored his come-ons and turned towards the Addams Family. With bony fingers, she dropped the token and let the plunger fly, then stood motionless as the silver ball ricocheted off the upper bumpers and raced straight down Fester's mouth. She never once lifted a hand to the flippers. Again, she pulled the plunger back, and again stood motionless, grinning as the ball went out of play. I watched in shock as she continued like this down the whole alley: Bride of Pinbot, The Hurricane, Lady Diamond, Mars God of War, each taken in turn with a light cackle of happiness as the games went down the drain. Zero score every time.
Finally, the Devil's Dare was next. She stared at the machine and me, smiling. Her eyes were liquid green, her lips thin. The mermaid beckoned from her shoulder. I could hardly move, and the swirling in my ear seemed to swell with far-off bells. I waved my hand towards the alley and stuttered, "But why. . ."
She grinned, lifted an eyebrow, and said, "I get off on destiny."
Her name was Slavenka. Wherever she'd been, after that she stayed with me. She carried a switchblade in her bag, which she carried all the time. Every morning at first light, she carefully sliced a single obituary from the newspaper. She ate nothing but cereal, fruit, and seafood. She had a hellcat ass. At night, she put together ships in bottles from kits. We'd take a ship and an obit each morning and go down to the beach, laminated tide chart in my pocket. Then, with the slip of a stranger's obit folded carefully inside the bottle, we'd wait for the outgoing waters and set the ship adrift.
I talked about the war, about how my ear was mostly blown out, about the bodies mostly blown out, about how the world ever since had a sucking sound, an oceanic hue of concussion. She talked about her mixed family from a country famous for ethnocide, that she'd lived for a while along the Black Sea, but grew up mostly in Dalmatia. I asked if that made her a Dalmatian, she lifted the eyebrow, and of course we did it like dogs.
Sometimes we went down to the Game Grotto. She'd watch me play, one bony hand gently rubbing the shrapnel scars on my neck as I piled up hi-score after hi-score. The Time Warp, Riverboat Gambler, Baywatch, all had what passed for my flashing initials: RPG RPG RPG in red across the back wall. She didn't play, said it was more fun that way. Her favorite part was leaving the Grotto, into the instant scorch of the boardwalk. She'd pause as if caught for a moment by the entrance kiddy games. Then, with her eyes closed and face turned up, she'd step out onto the boardwalk, the white light for a moment so blinding that it enclosed her whole figure. I'd follow, head down but smiling, past the token creep glowering at me, my girl, and our escape from his cave.
Sometimes we just stayed in the room listening to reggae, Sitting in Limbo, Pressure Drop. Enchanted, we'd open the window and stare at the green lights of the Ferris wheel as they reflected off the surf, the rotted beach smell mingling with the reggae's lilt and shuffle. When drunks brawling out in the dunes got too loud -- seamen up from Norfolk, cadets over from Annapolis -- it reminded me of the occupation. She said it was like everywhere she'd ever been: sailors cursing in the wastes. I read Homer aloud; she giggled at the dragging of Hector's corpse, got moody whenever the gods spoke. After the Cyclops's cave, she danced around the room, a strange sinuous dance as she mouthed over and over, "I am Nobody, I am Nobody." And straddling me, hellcat ass plunging, she kept mouthing, "I am Nobody," through each of her tremors.
Other times, on days when the check arrived, I put on my safe guy outfit and she'd go down to the boardwalk to buy herself a cheap, slightly sleazy sundress. Then we'd go for dinner, strolling past the surf shops, pizza joints, and kite stores to the all-you-can-eat seafood place where the air conditioning was so cold she once pretended to warm her hands over a fresh platter of shrimp and scallops.
Sometimes on those nights, as if our own good behavior had been too much, we'd stop at the Grotto on the way home. I'd deliberately holler and bang at the machines while she shimmied and fingered her nipple studs each time a bumper clanged. One time the token guy told her to cut it out. I stepped up, the left side of my head exploding all over again, but she just showed her tiny white teeth and pulled me along laughing, the explosions receding into bells again. She told me she'd seen a whole lot tougher along the piers of the Black Sea.
I only spoke to the token goon once, not long after I first got into Ocean City. It was early, just some seniors in their oversized hats and sunglasses and me along the walk. He was leaning against a stool inside the Grotto, licking his finger as he counted the bills in the wad. The metal grate was only partway up. I knocked and he gave a glance, one eye closed in a squint.
"Don't open till 10."
"It's about that now," I said. I wanted out of the sun.
"Hey, you're from New York." His accent was thick Queens.
"Well, no shit. Me too." Then in a friendly snarl, "Welcome to O.C.," and he lifted the grate enough for me to scuttle under.
Inside, the darkness and quiet made the carpet stink more noticeable. Around the Grotto, strange squiggles and bleeps emanated from the unused machines while my other ear seemed to pull in the echo and silence. It was disconcerting, and I jumped when I heard him crank the grate back down again.
"Easy there, killer," he grinned. He kept moving back and forth from machine to machine, opening them and collecting tokens, and the words moved in and out as well. Then he held out a hand.
He gave a strange smirk, showing his rotten, chipped teeth. Then he nodded and knelt by a racing game.
"Yeah, it's Polly. So, how'd you wash up in O.C.?"
I shrugged. "Just out of the service."
He grunted. "Where you from in upstate New York?" He said upstate like a dirty word.
I didn't want to get into it. I wanted to play pinball. I could smell smoke from the grills outside, the first sausage-and-peppers of the day being laid out.
He stood suddenly, eyeing the grate where a few peppery tendrils drifted in. "Shit, making me hungry. Ithaca, huh? Never been there. Hear they got a lot of crafts, though. Farmers, crafts, weaving. You know, shit like that. Lot of pussy too."
The racing game, belly emptied, seemed to hit the throttle, roaring for tokens. I could barely hear anything. The reek from the cigarette-burnt carpet was making me sick. He started humming "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" and jotting with a stubby pencil in a stained little notepad from his shirt pocket.
"Yeah, the farmer's market." Then, bored with it, I baited. "You know a lot about Ithaca. Seeing as you've never been there."
He stopped dead, fat lips turning downward, giving me that cold, one-eyed squint. Putting the notepad back in his pocket, he came over. I made sure to turn my right side towards him. He saw me tense, gave a funny jerk of the huge head, then spat fuckit and slunk past the racing game. The engine revved.
"What'd you say?"
He leered, fished in his token belt, came over, and spoke into my good ear. Bastard. "I said, Polly been a lot of places. Now he's in O.C. Just like you, Mr. RPG. Now get in back before the kids see you. It still ain't opening time yet."
And the way he sneered Polly I realized it was actually Paulie, through a thick Queens accent. I took the tokens and started back, and even in the echoing buzz, I swore I heard him lick his lips at the grate and hiss, "Shit, that's making me hungry."
She always slept on my left side. As I drifted off, she'd trace secret, Dalmatian words across my stomach with the handle of the switchblade. And she'd sing into my deaf ear. Though I couldn't hear, I imagined the songs with seashell beats, sometimes low and soothing, sometimes ribald and briny, mingling with the blown-out wash already there. And while I slept, I dreamt of being cradled upon a raft, carried home upon white waves towards black rocks, grey cliffs, and safe caves.
It was during the freezing, all-you-can-eat dinners that she opened the nets of her past. I asked about Dalmatia as she cracked crab legs, humming, always humming. Sometimes it was more vibration than sound, a swelling purr.
"It is stormy. Rocky, windy, bare. The Turks cut down all the forests. The peasants used to collect dirt at the bottom of the cliffs and build terraces for food. Everyone used to starve. It was, is, wild, with islands and pirates. Islands called Krk, Rab. Mostly I lived in Split, though."
I chewed spicy fries and thought about it. Pirates. Islands. Krk, Rab, Split. The mermaid's tail swished as Slavenka broke open another leg and pulled the meat out with her teeth.
"Were you a pirate?"
She gave a wide smile. "Of course. How do you think I came to America?"
"How did you?"
She stopped smiling, stopped purring, green eyes going a little hard.
"I came to America on a yacht, ninety feet long, captained by a Russian, full of heroin, cell phones, and laptop computers. How did you come to America?"
I nodded, point taken.
She softened, fingers lightly grazing my wrist. "I had to leave."
"No," she grinned again. "Miami. The Russian. Even the laptops. No more email for me. So sad."
I laughed, always strange to feel in the blown-out ear. "Was your Russian furious?"
She cracked the last leg, looked around for the waiter for more all-you-can-eat. "He is at the bottom of the sea. A reef, in the Caribbean. Maybe he will call on a cell phone, offer us a deal?" She held a broken leg to her ear. "Hello, hello?"
Sometimes in the dreams, I crashed on the rocks, and would tumble into suddenly dark waves, the left side of my head silent and singed despite the depths, the calypso shellsong turning to bones, clacking. Black water would rise in my lungs, flooding me from the inside out, till I awoke gasping for breath against the darkness crouched in my throat, repeating, "I am Nobody, I am Nobody," until I could breathe again. Then I'd see her, hunched over the dinette in the orange dawn, slowly pulling the string to raise the bottled sails before slipping the obit inside, heavy cork sealing all with a hollow thump.
She never spoke much about the Black Sea. When she did, it wasn't for long.
It was raining, cold, the boardwalk emptied and glum. Below the window, the taffy machine spun, the tangerine candy shining in the puddles. I was kissing her mermaid, Slavenka was tracing foreign letters across my stomach, reggae was playing like always. The singer was singing about Limbo.
"I used to listen to this. By the Black Sea."
I half rose to hear better. "What was it like?"
She shivered, clutched herself, covered the mermaid. "It was terrible. Thieves. Pimps, gangsters, terrible. And the oil. You could light the ground on fire, so much oil. The water . . ."
I thought of the occupation, the huts blown out, the people blown out, the hills themselves blown out, burning. "I can imagine," I said.
"That's when I got this. Why." And she uncovered the mermaid, the fish woman's breasts and silent voice outstretched in enticement. She pulled herself against me, nipple studs poking my ribs. Her eyes were huge. "And your home, how do you, I do not know the right words, how do you call out?"
I understood. I raised a hand, drew the initials RPG into the air, and she nodded.
She began humming again. We watched the flame-colored taffy spin in the dark puddles.
Sometimes I even dreamt of home. That I was back in Ithaca, on the bridge above the gorge. I could see water snakes rippling in the creek below, snakes that became flames. Even though I couldn't see anyone, I'd think, I have to get down there and help those people. Then I'd jump. When I hit the water, nothing hurt, but the snakes were everywhere, setting the whole gorge on fire. I'd stomp on the snakes to douse them, thinking over and over again, I've got to find those people, but I couldn't see them, they were invisible. Then I'd think, Those people never got out.
One morning I found a notepad filled with unreadable Dalmatian words. Half the page was sliced off, though, with words removed by her switchblade one at a time. I sat on the bed and stared at the pad, wondering. Slavenka caught me looking at it. I hadn't heard the shower turn off. She gave a sad shrug.
"Memories," she said, pulling the thin beach towel tighter and sitting next to me. "Things, a few people." She pointed at a word on the page. "Tea kettle. And there, means 'carpet.' You know, the Turkish kind." Then she let the towel drop and pointed to another word on the page. "Means 'sleep,'" she whispered as she pushed me back on the bed.
"And this?" I asked, pointing to a scrawl as she unzipped my shorts.
"Oil," as she nipped at my thighs with her teeth.
"Salt. Rocks. Waves. Sleep. Everything."
The sun through the window warmed my stomach as she kept kissing and saying names. I turned my good ear down into the coverlet, not wanting to hear anymore.
I had the hi-score on Revenge from Mars, two replays in reserve, and was still going. Slavenka was running her nails along the scars on my neck, whispering warm-tongued encouragement into my deaf ear. Then, just as a captured ball dropped, her hand stiffened and I turned, wondering. With one ear full of shrieks, beeps, and buzzers, the other all fuzz, I saw the token creep looming, saying something to her. His pallid head was half obscured by her hair, and all I could see was the one eye, glaring at me over her sharp nose. Her face seemed to set and collapse at the same time. The mermaid's pursed lips sang with the goon's unheard words. I swung around fast, to get between them. All I caught was him hissing, "I know what you are, and he ain't gonna listen to your bullshit for long."
He backed away, suddenly flipping through the money roll, then pointed a grimy finger at me. "You take care now. Send me a card when you get back to Ithaca, hear? Tell me all about them upstate crafts, all that homecooked pussy." Then he was surrounded by children screaming for tokens.
I looked at Slavenka. She seemed frozen, and I had to physically turn her shoulders to face me. The switchblade was out, gleaming under the black lights an inch from my stomach. Holding the mermaid shoulder tightly, I took her shaking fist and carefully closed the blade. Then I started towards the token creep, still in the shadows, barking and herding kids into the Grotto. I wanted to drive him out, across the sands, into the ocean as I choked him, but Slavenka stopped me, thin fingers gripping my belt. Seeming to rouse herself, she gave a truculent grimace and nodded towards the Revenge from Mars. Reaching around me, she pulled back on the plunger and methodically sent the last replays up into the board and down the drain untouched. Game over. I left the space for my initials blank.
We were almost out of the Grotto, hand in hand tightly, when I saw the creep. He raised his puffy lip.
"Sayonara, Mr. RPG."
Just then, the kids came back, bleating for the beach. As he cursed, trying to push them out of the way, I shot forward, jabbing two fingers hard into his throat. He staggered backwards, choking. I said, "That ain't my name," and like that we were out, onto the gritty boardwalk scorch.
I led her to the rail along the beach, telling her to stay, please just stay. Then I went around the corner and bought a kite. A dragon, like a sea monster, cellophane, at least five different colors. Fifteen feet long. Pushing my way through the cocoa-buttered tides, I took her bony hand and led her off the boardwalk. Our boots clumped and swished through the hot sand as we headed towards the surf. The waves cooled our feet as I unfurled the dragon. Then I ran, splashing, the blue and purple beast, flame-tailed and yellow-eyed, unwilling at first, then catching and lifting. I leapt over an unfinished sand castle, the kids saying, "Hey!" and following as I raced past.
The monster dipped and spun in the high breezes. I could hear the children calling out, pointing, I could hear nothing. I touched the deaf ear to my shoulder, closed my eyes, filled myself with the sound of the true surf, the wind, the hip-hop radio stations, the salt, the dragon biting at the wind. I opened my eyes.
She was out past the breakers. Arms held up, hands reaching towards the sea monster in the sky. Eyes closed, she was smiling, tiny white teeth bared. The mermaid beckoned. Above the waves, she mouthed, "I am Nobody, I am Nobody." And as far out as she was, I could see the eyebrow lift in invitation when I brought the beast crashing down into the waves, rainbow tail rippling across the soft, undulating depths. I started into the wind-blown chop, boots filling. With the waves at my chest, I plunged under.
I could see sand rushing outwards, sucked by the tide. I could see a few stones, and floating clouds of salt wavering between shore and sea. I heard the beating whoosh of the waves in one ear, the whoosh of the RPG in the other. My boots were heavy. I swam under the waves, then I saw her legs, kicking, treading, pale and sharp, barely keeping her aloft. I reached back, all of my head exploding, yanked the laces, kept yanking.
I surfaced, spraying water, gulping. The good ear drained, the sun suddenly so solid and warm. She was staring, green eyes liquid, pouring. Pulling a boot out of the waves, I dumped the water and held it to my deaf ear.
In a rush, she was on me, laughing, laughing, pale legs wrapped around my waist. I treaded, she held on, we watched the dragon slowly ripple towards the open sea.
After that, I changed positions. Now she sleeps on my right side, singing into my good ear. Everything becomes her voice, waves and whiteness. And as I drift off, I reply in my mind, putting my initials against the sky in secret Dalmatian writing. They clang off seashell stars and bumpers, a pinball calypso. Each morning we send out our ships, with the little souls carefully clipped and corked for the journey. Wherever they wash up, drawn to stones, breakers, or pale, strange beaches, is fine. Even if shipwrecked and shattered on a lonesome shore, still, it will be a homecoming.
Copyright © 2003 Tobias Seamon
Illustration Copyright © 2003 Chris Whitlow
Nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize in 2002, Tobias Seamon's work has appeared at such journals as The Mississippi Review, The Pedestal Magazine, and Unlikely Stories. He lives in Albany, New York, and co-edits Whalelane, an online journal of the arts. For more on his work, see his website. To contact him, send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.