When this story ended—or when it began, because who on June Plum Road could tell the difference?—the mermaids were floating at the top of Old Henry’s tank. The green hair of one and the pink hair of the other fanned out on the water’s surface, silky straight hair, and the sparkles in their tails caught the afternoon light. Old Henry laughed when he saw the dolls in his tank, a laugh he would later regret. Because when he looked beyond the mermaids, his eyes made out two forms, the little girls, beneath the water’s surface.
And the mother would go mad when she heard, at least for a while, sitting on the steps in front of her house, legs wide, without panties. A shame a man passing by was the one to call out to let her know. Her people would send for her. News would travel back that she’s now cleaning for white people in New York. Many on June Plum Road wouldn’t know what to do with this information but to wonder if she remembers to wear panties.
Suppose we surprised him coming off the path into the patch of pines and saw palmettos, two girls with our child-sized bikes. Suppose he had a reason to chase us back to the path, his pale face flushed with—what? Desire? Wrath?
His father’s apartment, with its floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, Oriental rugs, and views of Central Park, filled Helen with longing. She had always imagined herself in New York. She had always wanted a claim to that city’s streets.
The box dates from the late sixties, from a trip I took with my family to Ireland. I would have been eight or nine at the time. Of the trip itself I have one vivid memory. We are in a rental car, my father at the wheel, his attention focused vigilantly on the challenge of driving on the wrong side of the road.