This story is here as a sample from a collection of short stories called The Heart Ages, But It Doesn't Grow Old, just published by Outskirts Press, Inc.
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The Mermaid and the Madman

Steven C. Scheer

“She sells seashells by the seashore.” Melvin Broker had no idea why that silly tongue twister just popped into his head. All he knew was that when he was a child, and in the fourth grade, he read “The Little Mermaid” with such pleasure that magic seems to have had him in thrall. He read the story on the sly in biology class. And he was so engrossed by the tale’s enchantment that he did not notice that the biology teacher, a fat old man with reading glasses hanging from his red and bulky nose, was about to pounce on his treasure and confiscate it. It probably wasn’t the first time that Hans Christian Andersen became contraband in a biology class, but it was the first time Melvin was going to be deprived of finishing a wondrous read. It’s one thing to put off getting to the happy ending when you choose to, quite another to be officially barred from doing so. He knew that it was just a matter of time, but he also knew that his mother would have to intervene at the next PTA meeting. A bummer, he thought.

All this was more than 50 years ago. He was merely 9 years old at the time. By the way, the version of the story he read in his childhood was the real thing, with its utterly and heartbreakingly sad ending. Not only did the mermaid not get to marry her prince – who could never hear her lovely voice, which she had to sacrifice in order to get legs and to be physically near him – but in the end she became foam on the sea – with the possibility of gaining an immortal soul in 300 years, after having performed good deeds in the company of the “daughters of the air.”

At 59 Melvin was still not over that ending, it still bothered him a lot. He was now walking on the sandy beach and he noticed the foam on top of the gently cresting waves. It was twilight and the lifeguard sitting atop his post in the distance looked bored. There were few swimmers in the shallows by now, and most sunbathers had already rolled up their beach towels and drove off – almost all in their convertibles. Melvin still enjoyed girl-watching, and – surprise – every time he saw a girl that he thought was incredibly beautiful, he thought, without realizing that he was actually doing this, of the little mermaid he was then in love with unbeknownst to himself – perhaps still hopelessly in love with even in his old age. She was, by the way, the spitting image of Rachael Ray in his imagination (not initially, of course), a chef on the famed Food Network on Cable TV. Melvin had such a tremendous crush on this woman that her image was by now permanently fused in his mind with that of his remembrance of the little mermaid. What he wished was that Walt Disney had never gotten into the act.

Melvin lived fairly close to the ocean. He wished he could have afforded one of those beach houses, set back just far enough from the sea to avoid getting overrun by the tide. Were all those people unbelievably rich? How does one become that? Melvin wished he knew. He was a poet and a professor, part time. He inherited some money when his mother died just a few months before his 55th birthday, but that was four years ago, and he was already on the verge of being broke again, as if his last name (Broker) had been utterly and incredibly prophetic, though he was also cognizant of the fact that his name yielded more possible puns and meanings than that.

All his life he wished that mermaids really existed. And unicorns, too. Why was it that these creatures were merely mythical? Of course, he read somewhere a fairly long time ago that myths were not necessarily untrue. It’s just that they were true in unconventional ways, in ways most people didn’t realize. Even Pontius Pilate didn’t know what truth was when he washed his hands of the whole Christ affair. As a poet, Melvin felt that the truth (The Truth) was not only elusive but also very problematic. Certain words seemed to capture it, but only in unreliable ways. You could never absolutely count on them. Some were just too ambiguous for words, and not just double entendres. Even the same words can mean different things in different contexts. “Hold it!” for example, could mean that the addressee should stop doing something. It could even mean that he or she should keep holding something in his or her hands. But it could mean other things as well, like “Don’t say anything just yet.” Which doesn’t mean that things are hopeless when it comes to words. It’s just that there is usually more to them than meets the eye (or ear – which is shaped like a question mark – rather, it’s probably the question mark that imitates the ear).

Melvin was thus lost in thought when he found himself – quite suddenly – face to face with what he could later only call a vision or apparition. She was a beautiful woman of at least 40, perhaps a few years more, the spitting image of Rachael Ray (who was younger than that, of course). She took his breath away, and since breath is the etymological meaning of spirit, he found himself in a state not unlike the state of death, if only for a split second. By the way, he didn’t like “spitting image.” It struck him as an undeserving expression, an expression not worthy of either its meaning or significance.

But that was the least of Melvin’s troubles just then. The big problem was that this vision, this apparition, came from the opposite direction, and before Melvin could say “Jack Robinson,” she was gone, was behind his back and was moving away, into the ever-darkening night. By then the beach was deserted. It seemed that only Melvin and this wondrous woman were there, were alive in a world now gone completely dead. Melvin was no solipsist so he didn’t quite believe that, but the suggestion – which made itself as a result of his previous thinking about the mermaid and the foam on the sea – seemed inevitable nonetheless.

Some sure instinct told him that he should turn around and run after her and engage her in conversation. Any words would do, he thought. Like “What’s a beautiful woman like you doing on a beach like this?” By the time he did turn around, though, she was nowhere to be seen. She seemed to have simply vanished. This puzzled Melvin a great deal. And his heart began to ache. Yes, literally. Where could she have gone? Surely she didn’t – just because he didn’t love and marry her on the spot – surely she didn’t become foam on the sea? Such things could only happen in fairy tales, which usually don’t have sad endings. Then, quite without being conscious of the fact, he began to sing, out loud, the famous old song:

Fairy tales can come true,
It can happen to you
If you are young at heart.
For it’s hard, you will find,
To be narrow of mind
If you are young at heart.

And Melvin was, to be sure, still very young at heart, even though he was pushing 60. The heart ages, he used to think, but it doesn’t grow old.

When he got home – if you can call the furnished rooms he rented in a somewhat run-down building a few blocks from the beach home – he sat in the dark thinking about the wondrous woman who passed him in the night. The radio was tuned to a classical station broadcasting a piece by Mozart. It wasn’t the well-known “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” which would have been appropriate, but something else by Mozart, something he heard a lot since he had seen Amadeus, which was one of his all-time favorite movies and which he watched innumerable times. The ear-catching melody was just the thing the doctor ordered. It soothed his soul, almost bestowed a kind of consolation on his sense of loss over the apparition of the beautiful woman who vanished as quickly as she first presented herself to his astonished eyes.

Would he ever see her again? Was such a bliss or reward, if you will, possible in this world? Melvin knew, of course, that one did on occasion meet the same stranger over and over again, perhaps even in the same place, like in the supermarket. Or the beach, for that matter. He knew, too, that he would walk in the same area night after night now, in the hopes of running into this woman once more. And he also knew that if and when the opportunity presented itself, he would definitely engage her in conversation. “Allow me to introduce myself,” he would say. And that would be the beginning, even though the real beginning had already taken place.

In his next evening class Melvin decided to share with his students William Butler Yeats’s “Song of Wandering Aengus.” In this poem the speaker catches a little “silver trout” that turns into a “glimmering girl” and, after calling his name, disappears from sight. He swears he is going to find her again, so he wanders into his old age where he is going to “pluck till time and times are done, / The silver apples of the moon, / The golden apples of the sun.” Quite an ambition, Melvin thought. But one that he was willing to undertake himself. What was it with vanishing girls, or women, for that matter? Was there some well-known myth that would help him understand his predicament? Why is it that we even seek for understanding in cases like this? Why can’t we just live with mystery? Why do we have the irritating habit of reaching for explanations, explanations that may satisfy the mind even if they don’t really make sense, even if they remain absurd?

The next time he had a chance, he went back to the beach and walked in the same area for at least an hour. He went to a point beyond the spot where his vision or apparition came into sight, and then he turned around and walked back to another point beyond the spot of the guessed-at meeting (for he couldn’t quite pinpoint the exact place). She never showed up. Not that he really expected such a miracle, but still. Hope springs eternal. Even in the face of absurdity Melvin had a feeling. He couldn’t name it, but it was there and it was real nonetheless. Deep down he just knew that his situation wasn’t hopeless. If pressed, he couldn’t possibly have given an adequate accounting. Some things go without saying. Even if they are in the realm of the impossible. Looking for a woman he knew not and knew nothing about, on the beach, in the dark to boot, may not seem like a sane thing to do, but to Melvin it seemed like the most natural thing in the world at the time.

Especially when it occurred to him that he first encountered his enchantment on September 21, the first day of fall (even if perhaps not officially). He felt that that was the perfect day on which to fall into a new life. Once we reach a certain age, Melvin reflected, we have many opportunities to start new lives, each time with a sense of renewed resolutions. Not unlike the ones people make at the beginning of each year. But there are days in our lives that we remember or even commemorate that are entirely private, entirely our own. Don’t we all remember the day – the night, perhaps – on which we lost our virginity? Such days may be shared days, days of shared experiences, like our first communion, or the day on which something historically significant happens, like 9/11. For Melvin the first day of fall three years after the fall of the Twin Towers was going to be such a day. Shared with everyone because of its calendaric significance, but having a private and personal association for him on account of the woman who vanished no sooner than she appeared to him on the twilit beach as he thought of mermaids and watched the foam on the sea.

A poem about the mystery of the woman who vanished began to suggest itself to Melvin. It’s been a while since his last poem. Though most of the time poems got started with a catchy phrase or two, this time it was the situation that seems to have become the grounding, the “inspiration.” And the funny thing was that Melvin found himself wondering where the needed catchy phrase would come from. He kept thinking and thinking hard. He should have been feeling his way toward the right words instead. Once he stopped thinking, in a day or two, the words did come. “Out of sight, not out of mind.” He wasn’t sure that this switch on a cliché would do the trick. Yet he felt that some commonplaces should not necessarily be always out of order, not even in poetry, which is still essentially a magnificent attempt to avoid what has often been said before. Thoughts or feelings could be used over and over again, provided that one phrased them in unique new ways. “Out of sight, not out of mind” kept presenting itself either as the beginning or as the ending of the poem.

When the next twilight came around he found himself in the same spot on the beach. There were some walkers in the distance, but he was alone near the spot of the elusive meeting place, alone with his yearnings. Definitely not out of mind, he thought. The woman’s image in his memory was acute and accurate. It seems to have imprinted itself on his heart, which felt the pangs of love, of hopeless, unrequited love. “Out of sight, not out of mind.” The line wouldn’t go away. It almost became an obsession. The words seemed to have obsessed over themselves, as if to say, like it or not, here we stay. “Out of sight, not out of mind, / Why am I in such a bind?” Right away it struck Melvin that the poem wasn’t going to be free verse. The opening lines struck Melvin as being a bit sing-songy, too, but then perhaps the poem was destined to be parodic. After all, wasn’t his predicament rather adolescent?

How could he, at the age of 59, be in the grips of such a crush on a complete stranger, even if she resembled Rachael Ray? Lost in thought and alone with his feelings, at first he didn’t hear – or sense – the gently falling footsteps behind him. After all, the sand can muffle a lot. But some suddenly electrifying emotion caught him off guard and he turned around so quickly that he almost fell down. Miracle of miracles! It was she!

“May I introduce myself?” he heard himself asking her. “I am Melvin Broker, poet and professor, part time.”

He didn’t quite know why he added his double profession, but perhaps he felt that women were partial to poets, if not to professors.

“I am Helen Troy,” she said. “Not to be confused with the cause of the Trojan War.”

And so the second beginning had commenced. Melvin hoped that his happiness wasn’t too obvious. He didn’t want to seem half as eager as he was.

“I like to walk here when the sun is about to set,” said Melvin. “It’s the best time of the day. No longer light, but not yet dark. I guess I feel the possibilities of things shifting, or being suspended between two poles.”

He hoped that this made sense to Helen. He felt so flustered (Shucks, ma’am, I don’t know what to say) that he wasn’t certain he was thinking straight. Nothing can make a man feel as foolish as being face to face with the woman with whom he thinks he has just fallen in love. But wasn’t he in love with her always already? Wasn’t this love at first sight? And wasn’t Shakespeare, quoting Marlowe, right when he asserted that only those who love at first sight can ever really truly love at all?

“We have a lot in common,” said Helen. “Let’s get married.” She said this with such an exaggerated smile on her face that the jocular intention of the remark was clearly unquestionable.

A sense of humor, thought Melvin. And he returned her broad smile with pleasure.

“You know,” he said, “it was love at first sight, sort of, the other night when I first saw you. And what puzzled me no end is that by the time I turned around to say something to you, you had simply vanished. Where did you go?”

“Nowhere special,” said she. “You see that shed that used to be a concession stand over there? I went behind it and stopped to rest for a while.”

“I’ve never noticed that thing before. Funny how we overlook what’s in front of our eyes if it doesn’t concern us.”

They sat down on the dry and still warm sand just a few feet from where the waves gently petered out on the shore. The evening was quiet and balmy. And they felt like talking, like getting to know each other better.

“I have had a strange life,” said Melvin. “Eventful in its own uneventful way. How I ended up in Southern California is itself a long story, but here I find myself in my ‘old age’ living as frugally as possible on my scanty savings and modest part-time salary.”

Perhaps he shouldn’t have confessed so readily his troublesome financial situation, but he felt that putting on airs, pretending to be somebody he wasn’t, would not be a good idea.

“Any kids?”

“No,” said Melvin. “I never did get married, though I have had a series of significant others in my life. In my late 40s I experienced something like cosmic sorrow, but I am over it now. You?”

“It seems that we really do have a lot in common. I was married twice, but we didn’t have any children either. I have now been divorced for five years. I am 49. You look close to my age. How old are you?”

“I have 10 years on you,” said Melvin. And he felt that this wasn’t exactly a promising something. Shouldn’t a woman in her late 40s be better off with a younger man? In the past, when he was younger, being 10 years older than the woman wouldn’t have seemed like a big deal. But now? Melvin wished he knew.

“I always liked older men,” said Helen once more with that exaggerated smile of hers.

“Not to change the subject, but don’t people call you ‘Helen of Troy’ at times? It seems that “of” is missing from your name. By the way, when we met I was thinking of mermaids, and later I even associated you with the ‘glimmering girl’ in a poem by William Butler Yeats, who also vanishes, and who is also a kind of mermaid, since she shows up as a “silver trout” prior to turning into a woman and then vanishing from the poor speaker’s sight by some magic spell. I felt quite mad between the time of our original meeting and tonight. Mad in the original sense of the word – like, insane.”

“Perhaps I should be your mermaid, and you my madman,” Helen suggested. Melvin loved her spontaneous mischievousness. We should get along very well, he thought. So much so that he no longer felt apprehensive about broaching the subject of dating.

“I am not sure that we should call what we will do ‘dating,’ exactly, but – if I may be so bold – may I suggest that we see each other again, and soon?”

“It seems like a very good idea,” said Helen. “Here’s my card. It’s got everything on it. My e-mail address, too.”

“Strangers in the night / Exchanging e-mail,” Melvin began to sing.

“Did you drive?” asked Helen.

“No, I live only a couple of blocks from here.”

“My car is parked up there on the lot overlooking the beach. If you walk me to my car, I’ll give you a lift home.”

They were quiet as they ascended to Helen’s car. And were quiet in the car as well, except for Melvin’s uttering a few words by way of directions. When Helen pulled up in front of his apartment building, Melvin felt an elation that was something else altogether, something he had not felt in a long, long time. He knew he would call Helen, and she did, too. They sealed their unspoken agreement with a light kiss on the lips as they said good night and Melvin got out of the car.

They began to spend a lot of time together. They felt very comfortable in each other’s company. She worked as an acquisitions librarian and he taught a few evening classes. Their love of books was another thing they had in common. It amazed them just how natural their friendship was and how utterly satisfying all their physical contacts were. Lovemaking was never better for either of them. They both agreed that until they met and became a couple they never really understood what people meant by the phrase “soul-mate.” Now they felt that they themselves embodied the term to perfection.

One of their favorite activities was fixing breakfast for each other, especially on Sunday mornings. Whether they spent the night at his place or at hers made no difference. They took turns and tried to outdo each other. First they tried versions of the typical American breakfast – bacon and eggs and wheat toast with hash browns, as they do it in the Midwest – but they soon ventured into more sophisticated territory, trying things like Spaghetti carbonara or, when they were in the mood for something a bit more risqué, Pasta puttanesca, which wasn’t a breakfast dish at all, but then their breakfasts were not typical anyway. They were more like brunches, with wine, even with sparkling wine, as the occasion seemed to demand.

They took long walks on the beach, mostly near twilight when Melvin didn’t have an evening class. They never seemed to run out of things to talk about.

“It’s as if we were undergraduates, still excited about books and ideas,” Helen once said.

“I wonder if college students are still like that these days. If not, I feel sorry for them. They don’t know what they are missing.”

“Are we beginning to sound like old folks? The ones who irritated us when we were young by insisting that things were better in their time? That we were all going to hell in a hand basket?”

“I wonder if that will ever change,” replied Melvin. “But I do think that things change anyway, and they don’t stay the same the more they change, as the saying goes, not always.”

Soon after this discussion Melvin and Helen rented The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. There is a scene in the movie where “The Lady of Shalott” comes into the picture. This got them excited about that famous poem by Tennyson.

“I think it’s impossible to say just what the curse is that’s keeping her singing and weaving in that tower prison of hers,” said Melvin.

“I agree,” said Helen. “But I also think that the fact that this woman turns out to be Elaine in the Arthurian cycle is important.”

“Yes, she is the Lily Maid of Astolat, isn’t she? The one who commits suicide and floats down in a boat to Camelot with a letter for Lancelot in her hands.”

“Yes, but when Tennyson wrote the original poem he didn’t know this. He was following an Italian narrative,” said Helen. “And this made the poem all the more mysterious.”

“Yes,” said Melvin. “But the thing that puzzles and fascinates me about the story is why she has to die when she falls in love and attempts to go to the man she loves. The fact that Lancelot’s shield bears the image of a knight kneeling in front of a lady conjures up the Courtly Love business. All that love and death stuff. Also, in the ‘Lancelot and Elaine’ section of Idylls of the King, Elaine sings a song the essence of which is that if love is sweet, death is bitter, but if death is bitter, love is sweet.

“Yes,” said Helen, “I used to think a great deal about these love and death stories in my time.”

“It seems that fulfilled love is doomed, doesn’t it? Have you ever seen a French movie called The Hairdresser’s Husband? It’s an utterly charming story about an older couple, childless, who are incredibly happy together. Kind of like you and I. But during a stormy night she goes out and jumps into the sea and drowns herself. She leaves a suicide note behind in which she tells her husband that going past their passionate phase won’t do, that she wants to die before that happens, that she would never be satisfied with just affection between them.”

“I haven’t seen that movie. Should we rent it and watch it together?”

“A great idea,” said Melvin.

After watching the movie they revisited the whole question of love and death stories and were, in a way, more puzzled than ever. They understood that the first phase, the in-love phase, may not last “forever” – even if that’s what lovers in their initial enthusiasm claim – and sincerely, too – but they didn’t understand why the affectionate phase would be so bad. They themselves haven’t reached that stage yet, but they felt that if and when they would, they would be perfectly fine with it.

“At the same time,” said Helen one day while they were having one of their great Sunday brunches (Spaghetti carbonara at that time), “there is something about the passionate phase wanting to survive, isn’t there? I mean, aren’t love and death stories not only illicit for the most part, but stories that thrive precisely because they are moribund?”

“Morituri salutamus,” said Melvin with a certain amount of irony. Except he wasn’t thinking about gladiators addressing emperors, he was thinking about lovers addressing their own passion, their in-love phase. The Latin is usually rendered as “we who are about to die salute you,” and rightly so. Should we die for love before love ceases to be? They both asked themselves the same question – in silence – without letting the other know that the question popped into their heads. Their own love wasn’t illicit, so that wasn’t its attraction. Yet it wasn’t the conventional “boy meets girl and they fall in love and marry and have children and live happily ever after” thing either. What was it then? A fairy tale? After all, wasn’t Helen Melvin’s mermaid, and wasn’t Melvin Helen’s madman? Yet it wasn’t a fairy tale. It was quite real, very real in its own way. And isn’t that the way of things? Aren’t all things both real and unreal in their own special way?

Neither Helen nor Melvin believed in God. Though they kept an open mind. They considered themselves agnostics. In any case, they thought of their “accidental” meeting as one of those “things.” The kind of thing that has “fate” written all over it. As if by design. Which is one of the main arguments in favor of the existence of God.

“Do you believe that the ‘creation’ is just a cosmic joke?” asked Helen one fine morning.

“Could be,” answered Melvin. “I mean, as between thinking that some ‘god’ created the world or that it just ‘evolved,’ the idea that it just ‘evolved’ makes as much sense as the idea that some ‘god’ made the whole shebang.”

“Yes,” said Helen, “and more evil has been committed in the name of God and in the name of some Holy Scripture or other in history than in the name of any other crazy ideology, including Nazism or Communism.”

“What should we believe then?” asked Melvin. “Should we believe that when we die we just cease to be altogether? Get into ‘nothingness,’ into what the Buddhists call ‘Nirvana’? And why are people so afraid of that? Why does total nonexistence, the kind of nonexistence we all had before we were conceived, bother us? But it seems to, doesn’t it? At least for most people, for the majority.”

“Yes,” said Helen. “I guess once we have a sense of our selves, it doesn’t seem possible that they (our selves) should ever cease to be.”

“Once alive, always alive,” suggested Melvin.

This philosophical discussion didn’t get them anywhere. It was like those discussions they had in college, when they were exited about ideas – and books, too, for that matter. One thing was clear to both of them, though. And that was that their relationship was there for the long haul. Nothing, it seemed, could get into the picture to distort it or – alas! – annihilate it.

But one day Melvin saw something he couldn’t believe. He came to the beach to meet Helen for lunch. He came to the place – elusive as it was – where she first intruded herself on his vision, where he fell in love with her at first sight. But this time she wasn’t alone. She was talking to a much younger man. And it seemed that they were adept at this, that this wasn’t the first time. And when he saw her embrace the young man and even give him a kiss, he was all over himself. He turned back and went home with a broken heart. This is it, he thought, the end. Nothing can last forever. Love doesn’t have to end in death, paradoxically, in order to survive. It can just peter out, like waves when they hit the shore. And the foam that failed mermaids become.

Melvin sat in his room, with a broken heart, thinking of things, thinking hard about all the things that have been pleasant before. He was thinking about all the things that they had in common, about their mutual love of books and ideas, about love and death. And while he was thinking, he had that image of her and her young man, hugging and kissing on the shore.

But then something occurred to him. And it was something that came up in movies over and over again. The miscommunication thing. It struck him that so many times the whole plot gets nasty when people don’t ask simple questions. Like "What the hell were you doing?” So Melvin decided not to let this happen. After all, this wasn’t a movie – this was real life.

So he went over to her house. When she opened the door, she was her usual self, kind and eager to see Melvin. She offered him a drink and he sat down on the couch, as was his wont. Soon she realized that something was bothering him.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “And why didn’t you meet me for lunch?”

“I saw you with him,” said Melvin, with a broken heart.

“Yes,” said Helen. “I ran into the son of my first husband, and we were happy to see each other. He said that I was his favorite stepmother. ‘Step’ only in name. And that’s what you saw. A friendly hug.”

Melvin was glad he got to the bottom of the situation right off the bat. It seemed like Helen (of) Troy and he (Melvin Broker) were destined to stay on good terms, after all. Perhaps not all love was love-and-death love. Perhaps it was possible to live and let live, to be both in love and to be perfectly comfortable in each other’s company. Perhaps a mermaid and a madman could be just a nice couple who live happily ever after, like some fairy tale. Isn’t that what life should be all about?

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Copyright 2006 © by Steven C. Scheer. All rights reserved.

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