The Mermaid’s Song
This is the story of the mermaid on the block. People woke up, one morning, and there was a mermaid on the block. Or at least a painting that looked like a mermaid.
Grumblepuss, call him that, lived across the street from the block at a diagonal, where he sat under a tin, green and white striped awning. He didn’t know what to say about it.
He sat back, on his spread-eagled chair, outside his half of his duplex, in a northern section of what we’ll call, just so as not to insult the original, Funkytown. He had been a pipe fitter for three decades. He was now retired. He kept looking at the figure in silver and blue laminate that was starting to form on the wall in front of him. It melted in and out of the wall itself.
The longer he looked, the more he saw. There was seaweed and groutweed and skunkweed and stinkweed floating upwards; there were the conch shells and open sesames and small pieces of what looked like flotation device, from where he sat, and a general current heading northward. But he was focusing on the shape of humanoid in the middle of it, the glistening eye, the promising raised eyebrows, the mix of blue and white and octopus. There was an octopus. It looked like an octopus. At least from where he was sitting. And next to the octopus, scales, and what looked like a mermaid. He could have lumbered out of the chair, across the street, and to the right, but instead he maintained position.
Yep, it’s a mermaid he said, grumbling.
It’s not a mermaid, said the other guy next to him, on the same porch, but on a different chair, call him Blabberpuss.
Blabberpuss, who lived three houses down, had retired recently after thirty years with the DMV. Now he spent most of his day wandering up and down the Avenue, sampling what he had to admit was an interesting variety of pastries. Grumblepuss argued that, no, a mermaid was visible. Blabberpuss said that was definitely not the case. Then he started to talk about the new gluten free cupcakes that they were selling at Just Be, the café right down the corner.
They had both spent the last week watching the wall art get painted.
The guy who had painted it, whose tag was Floter, had arrived with a couple of rollers. Then scaffolding. Then the first layer. Then the drawing and figuring things out. Everyone watched the process with interest: especially Grumblepuss, who sat on the other side of the street. Stage two involved a cherrypicker, pretty expensive looking. Grumblepuss watched with some sense of what the fuck. The painter himself, light-bearded, late 20’s, some gawkiness mixed with low key confidence, seemed to know pretty much what he was doing. Until, at least, he knocked over a can of mauve on the sidewalk, and started swearing.
So there was wall art. That was a big change. But that wasn’t the only thing changing on the street.
The next morning, Grumblepuss and Blabberpuss headed down to the A and H Diner.
Allison, proprietor and chief cook of said establishment, was placing a large standup poster on a frame outside the door of the A and H. Purple marker, this is what it said:
We Have Snowcones. We Have Wifi!
We have what? said Grumblepuss. They have Wifi, Blabberpuss said, Welcome to the 20th century.
Allison, proprietor and chief cook, had a niece, much younger. Her name was KP. KP worked there, flipped pancakes on Saturdays and on the Lord’s Day. She was not impressed with what Allison had done.
You think you’re gonna get the overflow from JustBe by telling people you have Wi-Fi with an exclamation mark on a cardboard box? Good luck with that.
Allison was a little hurt, because KP had more or less read her mind.
JustBe had stolen their biz from the moment it had implanted itself in what had once been a TV repair shop. The people had moved toward it like flies to the honey, streak-blonded broads w/ babies bobbling from bjorns, sensitive hubbies, neckbearded guys and gals with framed glasses, tattooed ghostly musical types, Voices from the Community, and so on and so forth, armed with laptops and always Thinking About Stuff. Not that Allison knew that they existed to begin with, but somehow, JustBe had brought them out of their mouse holes, flooding past her door to fill up their punch cards. JustBe was packed to the point of overflow. Its signs seemed to turn people aware. No Wifi from 11-2, a sign warned, but that didn’t make any difference.
The fact that they had funded the painting this gigantic undersea scene, directing the population in the direction of JustBe, was, in her opinion, less than fair. Thus the call to Comcast. It wasn’t such a big deal after all. They drilled a hole through the back of A and H, set up one of those boxes with small plastic antennae. They had WI-FI!
So now you got Wi-Fi and we got a fucking mermaid, what’s that about, Grumblepuss grumbled, the next morning, at A and H, over white toast, two eggs over easy, and hash browns. It’s not a mermaid, Allison said, handing him the napkin-bonded utensils.
It’s a mermaid to me, said Grumblepuss, over the hash browns and two eggs over easy. Then a mermaid it is, said Allison, and that ended the topic of discussion.
The truth was, within a week, clear: the Wifi didn’t seem to be pulling the passers by in to the A and H. Allison had gotten the sidewalk permit, and had laid out the Home Depot Patio Sets, with umbrellas, purchased at con bucks a whack. They didn’t do anything either.
Grumblepuss: “So what is this, the Left Bank?”
But Allison perservered, unlatching the chains each morning and setting out the wrought iron chairs. But that didn’t cut the goose. Each morning, the tables stood empty, there was nothing to count on, except Grumblepuss, hunched over his Two Eggs over easy, w/ hashbrowns and white toast.
This sounds desperate, said her niece. Any place that offers wifi for lunch, she said, they’re trying to hide something. It’s a cover for something: roaches, drug selling. Why would they want to come eat at a place full of Wi-Fi bums?
Then the A and H Diner had its first Wi-Fi bum.
Her niece had a name for him: The Weird One. He was kind of skinny, not at all unpleasant though. He had dark hair and spectacles, hair too long to be neat and too short to be hip. Nothing contrived. He also had his laptop. Bingo, said the niece. He had his laptop, an oversized Dell, which he loaded on to the table. He unrolled a long charger, and moved around the room, stalking an outlet.
See what they do, said the niece, you’re stuck with this guy for life. I’ll get the small coffee. You start figuring out the electricity bill.
But he seemed nice enough, and, having set up in the corner, and pulled out a few books.
The Weird One, whose name, according to his debit card, was Joseph, explained that he had more or less been expelled from JustBe, at least for lunch hour. It’s impossible to run a blog from that place, he said, much less a blog that tries to start a revolution. Then he started to talk about fetishism of commodities to Allison, sort of off the bat.
It’s what that whole street reeks of, he said. The idea that you buy something not for its use value, but for some amorphous value. Because you think snuggling up to it will bring the mojo back to your own falling exchange value. Meanwhile someone makes money. But you can bet your ass it isn’t going to be the storeowners who sell that crap.
Then he went back to drinking his small coffee and typing what Allison soon realized was his blog. And he came in the next day and the day after that. With each day he brought up a new stack of books, too. The books stacked up on the double table he used. Allison let him put them on the shelf once occupied by a broken eight ball, and the board game Life, which no one ever touched. She took a few looks at the books. They had communist undertones. .
The Joseph explained that this was a blog, and that he was a citizen journalist. The point being, he explained, that only a minor upheaval would create the tension necessary to create real change. To put things together, he explained, you need to take things apart. Okay, she said. This is where it starts, he said.
Now, Grumblepuss, being a constant visitor, observed this new regular with suppressed amusement. He was revitalized, though briefly.
He came in loaded with stupid jokes he wanted to tell. Always knew you were a commie, Allison, he’d say. Or, you sure this coffee is made in a Russian collective farm, that’s the only coffee I drink? She’d shush him, because the Weird One was usually typing. He came up with a name for the Weird One: Uncle Joe.
Blabberpuss meanwhile, also a frequent visitor, was more tolerant. But only for a moment. Then he’d start to talk about the drip-drip coffee, served out of what looked like a glass IV machine, that was boasted by the boutique down the street.
You can laugh, he’d say, but it’s not so bad, pungent, yes, but definitely not worth the wait if you’re in a hurry, coffee has to be worth the wait, he said. But worth a try.
A and H, he said, served the best two eggs over easy on the street. You know, he said, as if he’d just seized on the thought, you know that’s a misnomer: Two eggs over easy aren’t easy to make …
A few other younger types started to fade in to the place, exiles from JustBe, some of them employees from the boutiques on the Avenue. They didn’t do much in the way of ordering food, so Allison, after four, had plenty of time to start thumbing through the books the Weird One had left behind.
First she did it out of simple curiosity. Then the curiosity became more complex. She would sit there two, three hours after closing time. Sometimes she would take quotes and write them down in her notebook.
One week after the initiation of Wi-Fi, Grumblepuss and Blabberpuss came in for Breakfast. Grumblepuss ordered hashbrowns with two eggs over easy, and then, after appropriate fulmination, started to complain about the budding musicians he was renting the second side of his duplex to.
Then he noticed that Allison was placing a sign in the window.
What the bejesus is that about, grumbled Grumblepuss, some commie pinko manifesto?
Marx’s eleventh thesis from Feuerbach, said Allison. She handed him a book. Here. Read the rest of them. Great, said Grumblepuss, so does that mean I get to read Feuerbach too? I gotta new name for this place. (He had been thinking up this for awhile). Hammer and Pickle! He started to laugh at his own joke. But, since he had a lot of porch time, he started to read it.
About a week later, late April, Grumblepuss and Blabberpuss were sitting on the porch, under the tin awning of the Grumblepuss Duplex.
Grumblepuss had a volume of Selected Works of Marx and Engels on his lap. Blabberpuss was talking about the new meditation center. And he started discoursing on varieties of teas. That’s the way it usually went. He’d talk, Grumblepuss would fall into his mid-afternoon zone.
Not today. Today, he was holding the red book open on his lap. Jesus Christ, he said, suddenly. Blabberpuss, more amazed than irritated, turned to him.
Labor theory of surplus value, said Grumblepuss. That explains a lot.
Labor theory of what, said Blabberpuss. And Grumblepuss elaborated:
We put work into something. We create something. But the tools we use belong to someone else. So they say it’s their work. In other words, think of it this way, we spent our whole lives, our whole productive lives, working for them. It’s only so they can buy more tools. It’s a fucking racket, he said.
You’re right, said Blabberpuss. It is a racket. Then he started talking about the stools at the wine bar that had just opened three blocks down. Damn near slipped right off them, he said, those stools are their own sobriety test. But that’s not the point, said Grumblepuss. What is the point, said Blabberpuss. The point is to change it, said Grumblepuss.
He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. The Weird One, although they didn’t call him that anymore, they called him Simmons, said he had a plan.
It had something to do with International Workers Day, and getting a bunch of people to leave work at ten in the morning and meet somewhere in the middle of the main street. They would take over a certain portion of the street, and claim it their own. They would set up tents. They would hand out literature. Blabberpuss was all in. Allison was skeptical. You know they’ll show up. I’ve got ten thousand hits, said the Weird One, and 462 followers. He explained what that meant. It was time to strike.
I don’t know, said Grumblepuss, that’s all well and good, but you need more than that, you need an ideological basis for change, something that makes the change real. He quoted Marx on the failure of the Paris Commune: What is this Commune, this sphinx, so tantalizing to the bourgeoise mind? So, said Blabberpuss, what is it. I got an idea, said Grumblepuss.
Long story short, Grumblepuss was right. As Marx said of the Paris Commune, in Funkytown, International Workers Day fizzled pretty early.
Ten thousand Internet hits resulted in 32 people showing up. One was a guy with the crab bouncing from his hat, more or less a local fixture. There was the crazy guy, who tended to wander around. The fact that a new baby clothes store named Lenin’s Womb opened up – specializing in baby apparel with red stars and Russian lettering – caused some people to assume that the workers action was linked to kiddie clothes. Blabberpuss showed up and even handed out flyers, but his interest quickly dissolved. Allison had closed her store for the event, but, when it flamed out, returned to finish the day.
But Grumblepuss was absent during this brief protest. He was sitting on his porch, with his leg in a long cast, suffering a compound fracture. Blabberpuss had been right. Those wall art guys know what they’re doing, he said. You don’t just go up there, on a rickety latter, and try to paint the XI
Thesis on Feuerbach with a can of paint and a brush.
You need a cherry picker, warned Blabberpuss. Grumblepuss told him that he had fitted pipes for twenty years, he could splash paint on a wall. He was gonna put one thesis by Feuerbach in ten walls of the city. And he was gonna start with Funkytown. So he’d gotten out the aluminum ladder from the basement, unfolded it, found it a little short, placed it on two empty milk crates, with a board between them.
He clambered up and started to paint. On the night before International Workers Day, there was a loud crash on the avenue, and the sound of a retired pipefitter swearing. Above him, the first half of the XI thesis. And when they asked at the hospital, he blamed it on the italics. Just wanted to make that next word a little bigger, he said.
Lesson learned, and in the process of healing, he sat there, on his spread eagled porch chair, watching the sun set on the street. It was mid-May; the weather didn’t get much better. He had a book in his lap. He paused, between chapters, to look at the mural. Whenever he looked at it, now, he saw something new.
It wasn’t a mermaid, he had realized that. It was a song. It included the pieces of a mermaid, the trappings, the scales on a mermaid tails, the rhythm of deep waters, flowing up and down. They were in the mix. There was no visible mermaid per se, though. He could see the eyes glinting through the weeds, but mostly, the slow muddled current, moving everything on the wall and by the wall towards the avenue, with irresistible but barely detectable force, towards a floating world of the main strip, of half-believed sensibilities, of ideas that call out and step back whenever they see the red wolf eyes of life, the life you sit down to dinner with, eventually, whether you want to or not.
He asked aloud: And how the hell are you supposed to fight something that doesn’t exist?
Blabberpuss, next to him jolted out of his somnolent state.
Nothing, said Grumblepuss, and turned back to his book.
© John Barry
John Barry is a Baltimore writer. His work has appeared in the Baltimore City Paper, N +1, Salon, American Theater Magazine, the Washington Post, Baltimore Style, and elsewhere. His website and links to his work can be found at http://jrbarry63.wordpress.com/.