The Birthday Girl 

Page 3 of 10

"I'm fine," he says.

This night is Justin's last till spring, and I know I should stay. But he's been here long enough this time to see inside me, and what I feel right now is not anything a father wants his son to see, small and weak and helpless. Elaine is getting married. Of course she's getting married! It's no business of mine. But I do feel completely undermined by the news.

"Maybe just one drink," I tell him. "Just a quick one. I'm pretty sure she won't make it in."

"A hundred per cent positive," he says. "Do they really have mermaids?"

"Sure they do."

"You've seen them?"

"I've seen pictures."

"But you've never seen an actual mermaid?"

"Not yet," I tell him. "One of these days."

"Come get me if you see one tonight, OK?" he says. "I mean it. The minute the mermaids come out, you come get me."

"Will do," I say. "They weren't out before though. But I'll definitely get you if they show."

"Definitely," he says.

The Sip 'n' Dip Lounge, you see, is on the second floor of the motel, and the pool is on the third floor, and the whole back of the bar is a big window into the underwater part of the pool. I'm not kidding. You can look this up. Some nights they have a show, where girls in bathing suits and mermaid flippers do artistic underwater dances while breathing out of air-hoses. I've seen the pictures, and I've had it described to me. All the way down the long hallways of the motel, I hope that they'll be out when I get to the bar. It seems like a fine night for mermaids.

When I get to the bar, though, the pool is almost empty and things have slowed down from before. The college students have taken their fun somewhere else, Piano Pat has gone on break, or maybe gone for the night — it's eleven-thirty already, which kind of snuck up on me. A light tinkly jazz is playing way in the background, and the couples that remain are scattered among the booths, the fishing nets and tiki faces and plaster-of-paris octopi. Instead of mermaids, we have a hefty couple in the pool behind the bar.

I order a Daniel's on the rocks and a bottle of Bud, which is what I order when I want to get a buzz on. I could have stayed married if I had wanted to. She was the one who left but I was the one who made the thing impossible. I knew that. Still, I loved her. Not that I had any high hopes or expectations, I wasn't waiting, wasn't holding my breath. But just the idea that she's going to be married — and not just married but married to Del, who lived in a gated community and sent out newsletters about himself three times a year — I feel like I'm about to let go of something I didn't know I was holding on to. No affection, she wrote. Justin had showed me one of the newsletters once, full of interesting information about Del, illustrated with full-color glossy pictures.

"It's my birthday today," says the woman on the next barstool.

"Well," I say. "Happy birthday to you."

In the dim light, she looks incredibly wholesome, long light-brown hair drawn back into a wide clip at the back of her neck, a flowered blouse and a long dark skirt. On the bar in front of her sits a brown beer bottle with the label scratched off almost entirely. Little shreds of label-paper line the bar in front of her like mouse turds.

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