When they drove up and climbed out of the tank, the wife watched undaunted from the front window, bent sensually over the couch like a girl in a cheap hotel expecting quick work, and trying not to be spotted at the barely parted curtains. She had never seen a live merman. All she knew of mermen was what she had read in the tabloids, picked up from comic books, or had lazily watched late night on the natural history channel when nothing desperate was on elsewhere. Add what she had heard as rumors and fears and prejudices and wishes.
We could not pronounce their names. We do not have the necessary organs.
Pleasantries went quickly. It was obvious they had come to eat. From first wallowing in at the front door, they had their eyes fixed on the dining room table. They declined to sit in the living room chairs, conveniently explaining that they did not want to stain the furniture, and that their tails were much more manageable in something hard-backed and flat. Their eyes darted always to the table, and I think they made great show that dry gravity was an imposition for them, their hunger a compensation.
In our house, you can see through from the foyer to the dining room and on to the pass-through with the kitchen. I never wondered, before then, whether that design could be disadvantageous. In one unadulterated view you have a man’s downstairs life accounted for.
We had hardly sat down to the table before they began ferociously on the shrimp. Bare handed. The wife and I struggled with our utensils while they pulled and sucked and consumed some items gloriously whole. Their long fingers worked as though they were playing multi-stringed instruments, and their elbows flared warlike and recklessly. The shrimp tussled and cracked and popped and snaked and inedible pieces fell where un-buoyed gravity called them. My wife excused herself and brought back a large bowl to hold the leavings: what few leavings there were, what fewer there might be.
The talk was of shrimp: river mouth shrimp versus ocean shrimp versus gulf shrimp versus varieties of shrimp we land creatures do not yet have names for. And there were some references to crawfish. Size and texture and how to lie in wait for shrimp, how to call them by their uncommon names during wrinkles in the filtering moonlight at the indulgence of the shallows.
I knew early on that this had been a bad idea. There are some species that are simply incompatible, no matter how personable individual members might be. You imagine what conspiratorial collaboration could evolve; you see the mental picture of brotherhood, of being linked if not yoked to common goals; but the physics and chemistry do not exist to get you there. Science crosses its legs, looks you in the eye, and tells you that you are an idiot. But you wish it were different, and you wish simply for the nobility of wishing it were different. And science, after all, is a recent invention.
I saw in my wife’s face that she was meeting her tolerances. The color seemed to waffle along her cheeks, and her spine was bent far too aggressively, her feet flat and together at the heels. She could, at times like these, form herself into a pencil, command the world to be her paper. The shrimp shredded, lull lasting no time at all, the merman teetering nearest the wife reached across the table to grab whole one of the drearily reddened lobsters. He bent awash against our table in full ownership, drafted with the anticipation of the other mermen, the expectation of gain. It was then my wife leaned forward, and, as best she could with her thin and angular features, made what she surely imagined was the best, most dryly outlandish fish face she could net. Pursed lips, eyes wide, cheeks sunken, the sound of bubbles laced in her outgoing breath.
I braced. The mermen stopped in their assault on our table and its exhausting spread. The wife leaned even more forward, rising inches from her chair, her supporting arms ribbons of intent, pushing her faux fish face out over the littered and silent table. I was quickly thinking survival, running through equations of conviviality: I can make this a joke, I was thinking; I can push this desperation into humor, into slapstick, into a story of family history.
The mermen put down their food. They settled back in their chairs, more cautious with their frictions and weight than ever before this. And they smiled. They smiled, showing the jagged tips of their front rows of teeth, and flared their gills and cocked their heads and their tails whipped forward, riling and dimpling the well-worn carpet.
My wife leaned ever recklessly more forward and began to pulse her lips, to work her shoulders, to sculpt her back: and the mermen smiled with their eyes, with the curve of their water weary bodies. Their scales shimmered a bit at their waists and the stalks just over their ears went fully, gleefully erect. One began, low in his throat, to teasingly vibrate: the leathery skin rolling across the glimmering recessed organs of his self-expression.
When what seemed like the eldest merman slipped to the edge of his chair and asked my wife if she would like to see their tank, I thought: I had merely gone fishing; I had been bored with the lack of a catch; I had conversed casually of fish habits, pier pylons, where in depth the most desirable fish imbibe. I was the good neighbor. I had done my part for species understanding and mutual discovery. Had I done too much? Were we two masters of our domains simply too different?
But when my wife pushed back her chair and said yes, I felt that rudder of burden lift. And, as the four of them slithered ever so seductively out of the front door, no doubt to brine and froth in the subdued tank parked under wide public scrutiny in my driveway, I thought at least the ice cream with sea urchin hearts we had saved for last would be all mine.