Friday Night at the Mermaid Inn

Leah Browning

 

Mary Lee hasn’t slept in days. The hospital sent the baby to a NICU in the city and discharged Mary Lee after twenty-four hours. She’s already back waiting tables. Fitz has been out of work for almost a year and she can’t afford to lose this job.

All morning, she pours hot coffee and carries plates of pancakes out from the kitchen. After the lunch rush, she’ll get a little break. Her calves are killing her, and the bottoms of her feet. She ran out of little corn pads, but she doesn’t want to ask Fitz to go to the drugstore and buy more.

When the man in the chambray work shirt puts down his napkin, Mary Lee takes the check to his table. She’s waited on him a couple of times before. As she turns to walk away, he says, “When are you having your baby?”

Her stomach is still a round bulge under her uniform. “Soon,” she says.

“Well, good luck,” he tells her, and after he finishes with the cashier, Mary Lee sees him go back to the table and slip a twenty-dollar bill under the salt and pepper shakers.

When her shift is over, Fitz meets her out back by the dumpster. He borrowed a car from one of their neighbors. A couple of years earlier, after his wife left him, the guy slept on their couch for a week. The first night, he and Fitz stayed up late talking, and from the bedroom, with the door closed, Mary Lee could hear him crying.

It’s almost a two-hour drive to the hospital, and even with the windows open and the radio turned up loud, Mary Lee has trouble keeping her eyes open. “It’s fine,” Fitz says, but she’s afraid to fall asleep.

It feels like a superstition, but if she doesn’t keep an eye on things, maybe he will fall asleep at the wheel, or have an accident. Fitz is a careful driver, and yet. She just doesn’t want to take any chances.

The motel, when they turn into the lot, is practically deserted. It’s the off-season. They get a room with large sliding-glass windows overlooking the pool.

Fitz and Mary Lee wash their faces and undress and climb into bed. It’s then, as she’s dozing off, that her mind starts up again. Thinking of the baby is like touching an infected tooth. The wretchedness and fear radiate through her entire body.

They don’t know, though. They don’t know anything yet. All they can do is wait until morning and go where they’re told.

Late that night, Mary Lee hears splashing from outside. She is half asleep. Fitz is sitting up beside her, watching television with the sound turned down. He’s the type who can concentrate on anything.

Waves of light move across the white ceiling. She is half asleep, it is the middle of the night, and there is the ceiling or sky, the splashing. For a moment, lying there on her back, Mary Lee thinks that she is outside on the water. For a moment, she thinks that she is floating.

 

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Leah Browning is the author of three short nonfiction books and four chapbooks. Her fiction and poetry have recently appeared in Chagrin River Review, Fiction Southeast, Toad, First Class Literary Magazine, and Waypoints.