VALUE
Ken Poyner

 

At one time, they were so rare that only the richest of collectors could afford them. Each specimen would be regally displayed in huge, ornate tanks, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in sculpture professionally arrayed in the constantly cleaned water; and around the tank would be meticulous window dressing and billowing grand gestures of opulence. People would come to gawk, just so they could say they had been invited to gawk. Just so they could say they had been invited. Just so they could say.

At secret parties, where the invitations were no more than ripples in salt air, clandestine guests would be served small filets of the catch on crackers or toast or a bed of caviar. No one would admit they had eaten such rare flesh, except to those who might nod in knowledge of the gossamer honey dissipation that would roll down the epicurean’s throat and lie sensuously in the stomach, and cause a man to unconsciously draw up his scrotum, and a woman to flash moist fire along the insides of her thighs and re-cock subtly the arid thunder of her hips.

Fleets would go out dreaming of a catch of three; practically do their accounts on the thought of landing one; and usually come in, after weeks of yearning and rituals and prayers and shouting encouragement to deaf waters, with nothing. Sailors would come off their boats with brave thoughts of luck and destiny and go to their favorite bars where in time they would curse their captains and the lead lines on their nets. They would squeeze the nearest waitress around the waist and look longingly down at her sturdy working woman’s legs, at her proudly shod feet, and sometimes rock her from one side of a balance to another, as though to instill in her the sea, as though to imagine her as having been born within the kelp.

I, like many, bought mine when the price went down. I put a week’s profits into the tank, cleared out four tables. By then, the fishermen had learned how to recognize the track on sonar, how to disguise the net, what it had been about their earlier techniques which had spooked the catch and sent it scattering into varied depths and hidden lightless safety. By the time the fleets were coming back with five or six, after but a week of beating the oceans, small business men like me could imagine owning their own sample: with the money required in the purchase enough of a sum to cherish, but also so little that it could be calculated as a passable investment and not just social whimsy.

After mine was delivered, I changed the name of my steerage class sailors’ bar. From “The Captain’s Carriage” my necessary institution was altered to “The Mermaid.” The floor space out in front of the bar was brazenly dominated by the tank; which, while too small for my imagined showmanship, still had cost me a lot of alcohol selling space. But I was the first to feature a mermaid, and men came in to watch her flick her tail and dart from side to side of the tank and drag her cold breasts across the flat of the glass. I had new customers. I had customers who stayed longer, drank more. I lamented the lost tables, but I imagined that the extra attention made up for, and even exceeded, the exchange.

It actually was quite wonderful for a while. Men flipped coins into the tank and every night I fished them out. No one can imagine how much a coin or three or five flipped by dozens of drunks, each passing through their time in front of the tank, can add up to by night’s end. Tally that with the extra drinking, and the calculus of lost tables versus what I have in their place made for a seaworthy equation. I was early on the course to breaking even, turning out of the headwinds, and picking up the gale of profit behind me.

But the fleets steadily came back with ever more. They once had to rush mermaids under guard into waiting trucks and race in convoys off to buyers already identified: hungry men who had wired cash in advance, when the fleet earlier radioed them about a catch, on an encrypted channel. In those days, buyers wore suits and represented clients who did not need to wear suits. Now, the trawlers bring them in grouped in sacks by size, and drop them as though they were shallow water fish on the dock. You can buy them for cash in hand, and you have to buy them quickly before they dry out. They are that plentiful. They are that easily snared. Some are left too long, and now and again – after the potential buyers have wondered off to other competing commercial or entertainment opportunities – they wiggle themselves back to the water, to drop uncontested from the pier and noisily into the oily, spittable waters that curl and churn about an industrial landing.

The fashionable have cleaned out their displays, moved on to the next thing. Mermaids do not rise in upper class conversation. Mermaids no longer swim along the edges where propriety meets impropriety. They drift now along the doldrums of the passé. It is rumored the taste of the meat now is gamey, or has a slight oil of oysters’ feet. It can be chewy, and the stomach does not always take well to digestion. It is not served in secret; and, if served at all, it is served without notice to those who take no interest.

With business off, and the earlier attraction seeming now perhaps an investment mistake, and, yes, perhaps even an exercise in marketing buffoonery, I am considering claiming my table space again. I cannot make up the initial cost, but I am still paying the electricity on the pumps and lights, and I am still bringing in feed fish and tossing them over the side. Men no longer sit raptured around the tank, dragging the flat of their hands across the smudge of the commonly held exterior of the aquarium when she draws her chest along her side of the glass. They do not tap irregular code on the face of the tank, hoping to elicit some understanding. They do not imagine how it would be to swim in the tank. They glance over their shoulders. I have to keep bottle caps off the table to keep them from tossing those in. Now and then there are comments about her hair, her breasts, her fluke: nothing is properly aligned, or of the right size, or properly ported to men’s magic.

My worry is Harry. Harry is in each week until the allowance his children give him is all used up. He sits at the short end of the rectangular tank, his well worn face sadly swinging to try to keep eye lock with the half-fish as she idles herself in the newly minted lack of attention. He taps on the glass, like everyone else once did; but he seems to think she recognizes his tapping, understands the fatherly devotion reeking from his twice folded skin. His mouth falls open as she swims near, and while he is mapping her motions he nurses his drinks longer than ever he did before I stupidly installed her.

I would not tell him that her reaction to his tapping is no different than her reaction when a stray boy, let into the bar before the serious drinking hours begin, taps amazed and besotted with her human nipples on the glass; or when I – peering into the cold water as sternly as I can, my forehead tight and my brow drawn back – try to drum Morse code, or algebraic intelligence, or simple repeating cyphers, hoping she will recognize, hoping that her eyes will respond with a companion staccato. But they do not.

Harry bends towards his own awkward feet, angles his chair to catch the best of the light flickering anonymously through her bowl, and screws on that smile of belief that only the hopeless can muster. It is a powerful shot of purpose to his failing backbone. His hands lay palm down, unconscious, as he dreams his small irregular dreams of having a kindred spirit, of meeting a soul as battered as his; that, if he could but understand the sequences, he might merge, her half and his half, making one that would be what he thought he always might have been, but never was.

I would not have Harry know, but after I have locked up some nights, put out all but the lights thrown like spilt beer on the room’s center display, I have edged out of my barman’s pickled clothes and dipped into the tank, the chilled water causing my skin to glow slightly a questioning blue, and my flesh to quickening quiver. I have swum with her, curled in her impoverished bubbles, luxuriated in the eddies the force of her fluke would around me make. I have stroked the scratch of her scales, and rearranged her senseless breasts with both of my rational hands. And I have looked into her eyes as I did all this, and I did not see what she knew, what she felt, where the sensation was seeking to pool. I could not tell what was sending fire through her brain and what was not. I could not see me. I could not see another seeing me, recognizing me as something that might be taken to drown. I could see nothing. I was the lobster too large.

I will wait until Harry is broke for the rest of a week, and the county jail allows him to bunk, free of charge, two nights in their fine establishment. When he gets out, when he gets his next weekly allowance, and comes tilted to one side or the other happily in, we will be “The Captain’s Carriage” again. The tank, not worth salvaging, will be off to the dump, and the pumps and lights nestled in the for-sale ads. She herself will be happily off to the fish market, a line of protein that now only large families on a budget seek out: the man of the house saying no, not that cut, not that species, no, cheaper; and planning meals on the so-many-cents by plate method across the delightful keys of his pocket calculator. I do not mean to be a hard man; but if Harry asks, I will tell him that, were he to hurry to the fish market like a man chased through a season of open water by the cold glory of sharks, he might still see her there.

 

Ken Poyner has lately been seen in Analog, Café Irreal, Cream City Review, The Journal of Microliterature, and many wonderful places. His latest book of bizarre short fiction, “Constant Animals’, is available from his website and from Amazon. He is married to Karen Poyner, one of the world’s premier power lifters, and holder of more than a dozen current world power lifting records. They are the parents of four rescue cats, and two energetic fish.