The girl was paid to be a mermaid. Every evening she fought her way into a mermaid’s tail made of cheap nylon and sequins. The sequins scratched her bare thighs and left behind a purplish rash that wouldn’t heal. Her hair grew coarse and sticky with salt. When she got back to her apartment, usually just as the sun was rising, she curled up in a narrow bed and dreamed of far-off beaches with sand as white as diamonds, and heard the distant roar and slap of the sea.
She didn’t mind. She needed the money. Every evening she sat in a bathtub, naked save for the tail that she wore, and brushed her hair with a fine-toothed crystal comb. The sign next to her was written in a language that she couldn’t read. Often customers threw coins into the green water, which struck her on her legs and arms and back. When she sat on them they left behind imprints of themselves, kings’ faces and queens’ faces stamped in red on her skin.
“You should sing more,” the manager told her. “They pay extra when you sing.” So she sang. Old sea shanties, hymns, songs from her native tongue. He was right, they did pay more. She sang “Black-Eyed Susan” and “Molly Malone”, and tried not to notice the men who leered and pointed at her breasts.
“You’re a sensation!” said the manager. “How would you feel about working days as well as nights? Not every day, of course, but maybe four a week. Maybe five. Wouldn’t want to wear you out, would we? Could you do that?”
She said yes. She needed the money. They only wanted her to sing in the evenings; her voice was a valuable resource, they said, they couldn’t risk her drying up. “Try to lose the accent,” the manager advised her. “People can’t understand what you’re saying.”
When the session was over, she’d scoop the coins up and pour them from one hand into the other. They made the sound that ice cubes make in a tall drink of lemonade. Her feet were sore from sitting for so long in such a cramped and uncomfortable position. When she took the tail off, it felt as though she was walking on knives.
by Lis Skinner