My mother grew up on Coney Island. Her family rented the third floor of a rickety wooden building three blocks from the sea. From the greasy windows of the apartment you could see the bungalow next door, where one of the broken panes was replaced with a dirty rag.
It was hot on the third floor—a fan my mother’s aunt had loaned them chugged away, barely blowing the mail, including the overdue rent bill. Every evening, amid the smell of burnt onions, my mother could hear the Schramms below, screaming at each other, throwing pots and pans. The house would rumble as if it were under the Cyclone.
Sometimes, my mother saw a shadowy figure pass in the window of the bungalow next door. No one knew who lived there. Nobody ever came out to talk to neighbors, to buy groceries, even to throw out garbage. My mother and her sister named the shadowy figure Ray.
Whenever the weather permitted, my mother escaped the apartment to the magical world surrounding her: the beach, the Parachute Jump, the Cyclone, the Steeplechase. She didn’t have money for the rides, but she learned to scour the ground for fallen change that would buy her the occasional thrill.
Her parents—my grandparents—ran a candy store. My mother and her sister were not allowed to eat the candy, not because my grandparents were concerned about their teeth rotting, but because they needed every penny to make ends meet. The Schramms were bean counters, making sure their inventory brought maximum profit. “Shoo,” they said whenever children wandered in without parents. With the ever-present temptation, my mother and her sister played in the streets, ragamuffin girls in hand-me-down dresses.
There was a boy who played with them whose name sounded like Morris. The boys playing stickball called him Missy. Morris often stayed home from school, reading and drawing.
My mother and her sister didn’t have books. Sometimes they’d go to the beach with Morris and draw in the sand. Anita would draw stick figures of girls in nice clothes. My mother would draw children with round cheeks who were allowed to eat candy. Morris would draw sea creatures, monsters and mermaids. Soon Anita, who was a few years older, grew tired of these games and ran off to find older friends, or even help my grandparents in the store. My mother would stay and listen to Morris’s stories about the figures he drew. She would sit at the sandy shore, staring out at the sea, as Morris talked about an ugly old witch who lived on an island they could just barely make out on the horizon. The old lady’s hair was made of seaweed and she had a spiky wand she’d use to beat children. If the children were especially naughty, she would turn them into pigs.
“She was once beautiful,” Morris told my mother. “And in love with a handsome prince. But then the prince drank a potion that gave him wanderlust, and he sailed away to another land. The beautiful young girl also took a sip of the potion, hoping it would transport her to her hero. But the potion reacts differently for different people, and it made her grow warts and develop evil powers.”
My mother wondered whether the Schramms had imbibed a potion that made them so mean and ugly. Sometimes, when they threw pots at each other, she secretly wished they’d maim one another. Then her parents would become the bosses of the candy store. She promised Morris that if that ever happened, she’d share the candy with him.
There was also the story he told my mother about a mermaid named Pearl. “Although Pearl was a magnificent swimmer, she aspired to be a singer, but alas the sounds she made were not quite as beautiful as what she heard in her head. This made Pearl sad. The sea witch loved to find others who were even less happy than she. She went into her laboratory and mixed up a potion, attaching a label that read: ‘Take one tablespoon a day for voice enhancement.’ Then, with a stroke of her wand, she dropped the bottle in the sea so that it floated just above Pearl’s head.
“What’s this? thought Pearl, grabbing the bottle and reading the label. When she saw what it was purported to do, she screwed off the cap, sniffed to make sure it wasn’t poison—in order to guarantee success, the witch had made it smell like chocolate—and took a sip.”
Meanwhile, the ship on which the witch’s handsome prince sailed was on a mission in Pearl’s part of the sea. When he spotted Pearl sunning herself on a rock, her hair and fin flowing beguilingly, he became smitten. He ordered his crew to sail closer.
The sea witch was watching on her crystal ball. She knew this was her opportunity. The potion Pearl had just sipped would switch the soul of the witch into Pearl’s shimmering body, leaving Pearl behind as the witch of the sea.
“But, once again, the potion didn’t work as the sea witch intended,” said Morris. “Her soul indeed went into Pearl’s body, but at that moment a huge wave came and swept Pearl off to sea. The prince was mystified. He ordered his crew to find her. They searched for days and days. All they found was the seaweed snarl that had been the witch’s hair.”
“What ever happened to Pearl’s soul?” asked my mother.
Morris shook his head. “Never found.”
When Morris wasn’t telling stories about sea witches, he taught my mother to blow bubbles and swim like a mermaid.
One rainy afternoon, stuck indoors, my mother heard the Schramms’ door slam below. She heard screaming, and the usual throwing of pots and pans. She couldn’t make out the words. When my grandparents weren’t working in the Schramms’ candy store, they’d tell my mother and her sister to ignore the fights. My grandfather would whistle and my grandmother would sing. One day they brought home a radio. The radio remained on whenever they were home, helping tune out the Schramms.
But even the radio could not block this argument. It sounded like Mr. Schramm was killing Mrs. Schramm. Although it had been what she wished for, my mother didn’t want Mr. Schramm to survive his wife. She didn’t like the way Mr. Schramm looked at her. He frequently talked about how he hated children. He’d let my grandparents rent the apartment on the condition that the children were kept out of his way. But lately Mr. Schramm was looking at my mother in a creepy way.
They had to share a toilet with the Schramms on the second floor. It was actually a small closet with a filthy toilet, and a tank hanging on the wall. My mother would hold her nose. She and her sister would drink as little as possible so they didn’t have to use the toilet.
In the evenings, after my grandparents cleaned up from a dinner of fried fish and mashed up hardboiled eggs with potatoes, my grandfather would go downstairs to play pinochle with Mr. Schramm and two other men. They drank something that lingered on their breath in a way that made my mother feel like she had to throw up. Mrs. Schramm must have felt that way too, because she’d leave their apartment when the pinochle players came.
Mrs. Schramm sat at my mother’s kitchen table, talking to my grandmother. My grandmother served her tea in a jelly jar. She would have preferred to have the evenings to herself, to catch up on housework, to darn socks or cross-stitch a tablecloth, but felt beholden to Mrs. Schramm.
On the afternoon when it sounded like Mr. Schramm had murdered his wife, my mother wondered whether she should check in on Mrs. Schramm. In the end she decided she’d let someone else find the body, but she did have to use the bathroom. Quietly, on tiptoes, she made her way to the second-floor water closet. The door was slightly ajar, and Mr. Schramm was inside. My mother tried to slip away before he saw her, but it was too late. “Hello little girl,” he said, turning around, not even bothering to zip up his pants. There was a sneer on his face as he exposed himself.
She ran back up to the third floor and closed the bolt on the door. It wasn’t a very strong bolt—Mr. Schramm could easily break in if he wanted to. My mother stayed pushed up against the door for a long time, her mouth dry, her heart pounding. She only let go so that she could find a tin can to pee in and then wash it down the kitchen sink.
When my grandparents came home, she told them that Mr. Schramm had killed Mrs. Schramm. They looked at one another and then at my mother. They didn’t say anything. Soon Mrs. Schramm was at their door.
After that, Mr. Schramm would come home in the afternoon and knock at my mother’s door. She would remain quiet, under the covers, with the door bolted. “I know you’re in there,” Mr. Schramm would say. My mother told her parents, and they would just look at each other. My mother was terrified of using the bathroom.
My mother was 12 years old when she developed tonsillitis and had to stay home in bed with a fever. My grandmother would take periodic breaks from the store to check on my mother. When Mr. Schramm offered to check on her, my grandparents were powerless to stop him. He let himself in with the master key as my mother slept off her fever. When she awoke, he was sitting beside her on the bed, his hand on her breast. She was too terrified to scream, too weak to run. His hand made her pain even worse. At that moment, she wished she were dead.
The next day, though barely better, she forced herself to get out of bed and go back to school. She didn’t tell her parents what happened. She knew they would just look at her and stare down at the floor. “Beholden” was the word they always used.
She was afraid to tell Morris or Anita about Mr. Schramm. Would they believe her? Maybe they would think she was sick for thinking up such things. Or maybe they would think she had done something to provoke it.
One day, Morris came to tell her he was moving away to Long Island, a real island.
“You drank the magic potion,” she said. She wished for some, too.
Feeling as she imagined the sea witch had felt—before she turned into the sea witch—my mother went for a swim in the sea. Looking back at the shore, so far in the distance, she felt free. Free from the Schramms, from her beholden parents, even free from the loss of her best friend. Swimming was like flying, she thought. She could swim forever. She could swim to another continent and never grow tired. Her body was meant for swimming. Suddenly her legs melded together, her feet turned into a fin, and her body was covered with shimmering blue-green scales. Basking in the sun and surf, she formed bubbles on the curl of her tongue and blew.
My mother loved being a mermaid, and as long as the weather was warm, she would swim out to sea for hours. She had to swim beyond where anyone could see her, in order for her fins to form. As long as she was a mermaid, she didn’t have to be beholden.
One afternoon, during lunch, the Schramms started in. There was yelling and screaming in Yiddish, words my mother had been taught never to use. She turned up the radio—she loved listening to The Shadow and The Inner Sanctum, but she could barely hear it over the cacophony of the Schramms. She made it louder. Suddenly the shadowy figure in the bungalow next door opened the rag-patched window. Ray revealed himself, a bald man, shirtless, with a hairy belly. “Shaddup in there!”
Terrified, my mother ran out without even turning off the radio. She didn’t have time to grab a bathing suit. She ran the three blocks to the beach, took off her shoes in the sand, and waded out in her skirt and blouse. She swam the distance she needed and as her fin formed, she felt soothed. She thought long and hard about what it would be like to stay out at sea, a mermaid forever. There was no reason to go back.
This time she began to feel cramps. She’d been warned not to swim after eating, but she ignored the pain, focusing instead on how good it felt to be wild and free.
She got caught up in the tide, which was dragging her out, but didn’t fear drowning because mermaids don’t drown. Her clothes were weighing her down. She thought she was alone, and then a man appeared, carrying her back to shore. Back on land, her fins and her tail disappeared. She was a girl again.
“You could have drowned,” the man said. He was kind. My mother blinked to make sure she was seeing right. The man was Ray.
My mother eventually wandered far from Coney Island, spending her adult years in California where she swam every day, albeit in a lake. And perhaps because she feared turning into Mrs. Schramm, she never fought with my father, though so many times I wished she would have stood up, but she always felt beholden to him for rescuing her from her childhood.
When I was 5, my mother took me to the library. There on the shelf were books written and illustrated by Morris. I grew up reading tales of sea monsters, mermaids and sea witches. But the story of my mother’s near drowning, and being saved by that strange and reclusive man, was only recounted in the final days of her life. In all the years of watching her swim back and forth across the lake, we had no idea. In finally telling it, it was her way of letting us know she was ready.
About the author:
Ilene Dube grew up in Brooklyn and spent much of her childhood in Coney Island, hearing about its glory days from her parents while witnessing its demise and then resurgence. She recently illustrated a children’s book, Smell Coney Island. Her short stories, poetry and personal essays have appeared in Atticus Review, Corvus Review, HerStory, Huffington Post, Kelsey Review, Foliate Oak, The Grief Diaries, The Oddville Press, Penny Shorts, Unlikely Stories and U.S. 1 Summer Fiction.