by Patty Templeton
Content note: This story contains details of a violent fight between a mermaid and a dog.
You ain’t gonna find a better dive than Pep and Luna’s on Rural Route 2. It’s past the second cornfield to the right and straight on till midnight. Get to the quarry and you’ve gone too far. Sun-up and the same directions stand, but keep an ear out for the bee-tree. A murmuring oak flags the final furlong.
Luna’d chitter a creek-curse at me for calling it a dive. Pep’d straighten her yellow neckerchief, dignified-like, and call it a road house. It’s a tin-roofed wooden box with a neon sign and gravel lot. We got thirteen barstools and three round tables. Only time we’re full is the first Friday of the month when there’s live music behind chicken wire in the left corner. Hooch, water, and coffee on hand. Get hungry, and we got a two-buck baked potato. I’d call the place heaven if I didn’t already call it work. Someone’s gotta finagle the dayshift for those two.
Maybe I’m old enough that more midnights have hurt me than mid-afternoons, but I find solace in a sunlit saloon. It’s a trashy kinda romantic, what with dust motes roping sunbeams and water shadows waltzing the room.
Day or night, only three kinds stumble in here: regulars, rubbernecks, and wrong-turns.
First door creak of the day and there’s a lookie-loo wide-eye about them. I get it, I do. I was once where they’re at. Mayhap they bummed a hitcher a smoke and the debt was settled with a story. More likely, they read about us while truck stop shitter-sittin’; ain’t it a roadside rule that a stall’s walls have peculiar pronouncements? I, myself, learned of Pep and Luna’s not from a biker but the blind parrot on her shoulder.
“Go on and gawk,” I says to ‘em and look around myself. “It ain’t ordinary. You heard this here’s a mermaid bar, and you heard right.”
Only bar out there with moonshine pouring from a spigotted, chicken-footed, backbar bathtub connected to clear pipes impersonating crown molding the joint over.
“Saw your ad in Gutter Grub.”
“Heck, that rag’s been dead ten-plus years. Pull up a barstool, and quit looking over your shoulder. Shift change ain’t till four. Pep’ll pop in the backdoor and Luna will plop into that jar. There, by the coffeemaker. She’ll slide down from the bathtub. No, I don’t know if she’s sleeping there now or if she’s in the back, and no, I won’t check. She’s a light sleeper, and it’s rude. Furthermore, I ain’t effin’ up her process. I don’t know if it’s in the sleeping or the swimming, but something Luna does turns water into white lightning. I refill that tub myself and know for verified fact that water goes in. Then that miniature mermaid, in all her pudgy, bolo tie-wearing, bald wonder, turns it into hooch. So, mind your manners. She gets upset and it tastes like coffin varnish.”
“She only ever swim in?”
“You ain’t guaranteed to see a mermaid or know you seen one. How you know I don’t have a tail? How I know you don’t have one? Don’t be the boner who asks Luna to transform from mer-gal to gams aplenty when she gets here. Ain’t no one’s business what other folks’ bottom half can or can’t do.”
“Too early for a drink?”
“Never.” I slide ‘em a tin mug. “Sip slow. It’s schnockerin’ stuff.”
“Pep brought a slew of those mugs back from Big Rock Candy Mountain. If you’re wondering how in the corn-high-hell a human and a mermaid become best friends and open a dive down the road from the edge of nothing, it’s because of Big Rock Candy Mountain. You probably heard Burl Ives sing about it; Johnny Cash even covered that old song, but it’s a real-life land of milk and honey where you don’t need any money. Or was.”
“See, Pep’s an adventurer. Settled these days. But before the bar there was the road and Pep’s brown boots tread more miles than you can fling a fan dancing elephant at. She rode the rails, was a riverboat gambler, sewed sequined suits for country stars, worked as a pinsetter in a bowling alley ran by the mob, and that’s not the half of it. Big Rock Candy Mountain was supposed to be her retirement. But nothing goes according to plan and if it’s Pep’s plan, you can double dunk that donut.”
“Ask her, and Pep won’t say how her bad knees made it to Big Rock Candy Mountain. She’ll declare it took forty days and forty nights on foot. She’ll point at the walking stick nailed above the door. But she won’t jaw on it much. She wanted hobo heaven and found a ruin. Bluebird carcasses in busted crystal fountains. A surface mined mountain. Cigarette trees cut to stumps. Costly lofts where life used to be free. Bad coffee.”
“Ask Luna, and she’ll sing on the sweet ol’ days. The gin lake, big sky, and fireflies. Might mention winning her bolo-tie playing gin rummy with a rodeo clown or the time Whitman and his barbaric yawp came around.”
“Pep’ll pipe up and interrupt. Say Luna gleamed in a moonbeam first time she saw her. Say the world’s smallest mermaid bareknuckle boxed the world’s filthiest mutt in a near-dry river bed.”
“Luna ain’t one to be outdone. She’ll nod at her hometown mural behind the stage–white lightning at a white water gallop clambering Candy Mountain–and remind Pep that the only puddle she had left, in what used to be that corn liquor river, was from the frothing mouth of that mongrel. Then she’ll shout an ode to Pep’s purple flannel, crow-footed squint, and ample fundament.”
“If Pep’s in her cups, she’ll roll up a patched denim pant leg and flash the gash that dog bestowed. She tried to send it packing, instead it got snacking. And tiny don’t mean unmighty because Luna’s the tough cookie of those two. She tail-smacked that mutt’s eye to tatters before it let go and git.”
“Still, they’ll say they saved each other.”
“Pep offered a mason jar and Luna climbed in. Liked the shine but said she made better. She ate Pep’s potato chips while Pep bandaged the bite. Got to chatting. Both wanted more than they had and found increase in each other. I ain’t sure on details, but they got plastered and lit candles in the river bed. A friendship made over shadow and flame with a cloud-covered moon as witness.”
“They got walking, albeit crooked, hanging on a lamppost here and cornstalks there. Luna shimmering, graceful and green, in a jar in the chest pocket of Pep’s overalls. Pep lanky and sweating because Pep’s always sweating. They didn’t stop for forty days and forty nights, lord save their livers. Wouldn’t have halted either but for the both of ‘em spotting a jackalope’s ghost engrossed in the harvest moon. It was a good enough omen to quit roaming.”
“But, like I said, Pep and Luna come in at four. You can ask ‘em yourself about all the hindsights and goodnights they got together. Meantime, you want another drink?”
© Copyright 2021 Patty Templeton and Brett Massé
Patty Templeton is a writer, archivist, artist, and itinerant kitchen dancer. She has a MSLIS with an archival focus from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is a 2020 Library of Congress Junior Fellow, and is a provisional member of the Academy of Certified Archivists.
She is the author of the historical fantasy novel There Is No Lovely End, an 1880s ghost story following the life of rifle heiress Sarah Winchester. Currently, she’s writing a novel in stories about a small city in perpetual autumn. Templeton enjoys hot coffee, loud rock shows, and reading while wrapped in rhinestones. You can find her on Insta and Twitter.
Brett Massé is a graphic designer excited about work centered around art, design, and games, with an emphasis on subcultures, DIY philosophies, and sociopolitical critiques of an instinct-driven society’s impact on technology and culture, making particular note to its influence on the environment.
He lives with a cat. His name’s Boombox.
After earning a degree in graphic design, he went on to manage and direct marketing and branding at various businesses in Southwest Colorado, including the Durango Arts Center. Lately, he’s been catching up on samurai movies and playing PC games in between designing books and zines. You can see his work at BrettMasseWorks.com.
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