Dad and I didn’t talk a lot, even on our boat, The Mermaid. I’d learned most of the work he let me do by the time I was ten, so usually he left me alone. I really didn’t mind it going out, even if it meant I couldn’t spend much time hanging out with my best friend, Luis, and had to deal with the stink and all the fish eyes looking at me like a bunch of shiny marbles. I liked losing myself in the fog that hung like a gray curtain around us and in the slap of water on the hull of the boat.
The gulls flew in and out of the fog curtain, white-feathered rats looking for easy pickings. Sometimes with a good haul we let them have a few fish. Every few minutes, there was the low bellow of the lighthouse, and there was the constant clink of the chains, plus the softer staccato of the radio from Dad’s “office.”
The name of our boat was The Mermaid, though there was nothing feminine about it. When I was at school, Aunt Mae worked on it with Dad. She had an affinity for flannel shirts and overalls and was proud of the two gold teeth in her mouth. She was ten years older than Dad, never married, and took care of him ever since their mother died, so long ago I don’t even know when it was. Long before my mother arrived on the scene.
That’s what Aunt Mae told me more than once when Dad wasn’t around. “When your mother arrived on the scene, Charlie went nuts for a few years.” One day Luis said that by “nuts” Aunt Mae means Dad fell in love and that my mother was so beautiful that Aunt Mae resented her. He said my mother was probably too high-strung to be around beer drinking, fish hauling folks like my family.
“But what about me?” I asked. We were sitting on the porch swing drinking Cokes. Our freshman year was about to start, and the day was one of the rare hot ones we had in the summer.
Luis didn’t answer me. Instead, he started talking about film school, three more years of living in Garcia Point and then he’d be out of here. When I got the chance, I turned back to my question because I’d been asking it myself too many times. “Why didn’t she take me with her, Luis?”
He stretched, considering his answer, looking out at the weeds in my yard as we swung back and forth a few more times.
“She was an artist. Or a poet. She was incredibly sensitive and her soul was dying because she couldn’t do what she needed in Garcia Point.”
“You’re describing the mother you want to have,” I told him.
Camille, Luis’ mom, was one of the two English teachers at school. Her grandparents settled in Garcia Point in 1917, three years after they left Mexico because of the revolution down there. Aunt Mae, of course, humphs at the notion they’re now an “old” family. Our family’s been here practically since the Russians built Fort Ross, according to her. Luis was frustrated because Camille did leave town once and was gone for five or six years. After college, she’d done a little TV work in L.A., but said she missed her life here too much.
“What she really missed was my father,” Luis told me. “She got pregnant the first month she was back.”
“She’s never said that she regrets coming home,” I reminded him.
“She doesn’t have to say it, Marisa. After the great Juan Diaz drowned, she didn’t have any reason to stay. She says she did because of me, but I wish she’d just taken me back to L.A. I hate this town, all the rednecks in it, and you know what? She does, too. I hear her talking to my father about it.”
I had trouble believing this. Camille was one of the kindest people I’d ever met, though she was a strict teacher. Most of the kids pretended to hate her. I’d never heard her put down Garcia Point even once.
Luis was on a roll, though, and wouldn’t stop talking. “I hate the taste of fish and the mildew in my closet and I hate the Pacific Ocean.” We rocked for about a half a minute, and then he added, almost under his breath. “Maybe if Juan hadn’t drowned the two of them would have gotten me out of here.”
Camille did the sensible thing. She got a job teaching and married the football coach. They had two daughters, and Luis told me that when he was little they were happy enough.
“But then Mom started to see the merman.”
I stopped rocking and the swing stopped with a jolt. “What?”
“She swears she sees my real dad, and he’s part fish.”
There had been friction between Camille and Frank ever since I could remember, but I’d known Luis how many years? He never said anything about this before. I only knew that once or twice a year his parents had these huge fights that exploded like they had tripped land minds under their carpet, but I never knew exactly what they fought about.
“She goes out on those walks of hers along the beach. Every so often she comes back to the house upset,” Luis said. “She says she sees my real dad, out there on the waves, a friggin’ merman. He just floats along and never talks to her.”
I knew Luis wouldn’t lie to me, but I just couldn’t think of Camille who stood in her sensible shoes in front of the room and talked about John Milton as being crazy, even a little bit.
“My dad’s so jealous,” Luis said. He was talking about Frank, now, the man he knew as his father. “He tells her that she’s never let go of Juan, and that he was her second choice for a husband. Then she says it’s not like this at all, that she really doesn’t want to be seeing mermen, and that she wishes that both of them would just leave her alone. Then he asks her why she goes out to the beach if she isn’t looking for her long-lost love. By this time, the fight’s gotten really ugly, and both of my sisters are crying in their rooms.”
I never asked Luis what ugly looks like in his home, though I’d been there one morning after one of these fights. The backside of ugly was very, very quiet.
Listening to Luis, I realized the one reason he’d never considered. If his mother had stayed and became an artist in Laguna Beach, or a poet in San Francisco, or had gone Hollywood, or whatever Luis wishes she’d done, he wouldn’t have been born. And the thing Aunt Mae never thought of when she talked about my mother? If Dad had never set eyes on her, I wouldn’t have been born either. The two of us became the destination from what screwed up in our parents’ lives.