The Geriatric Merman

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Once upon a time, in a care facility for the elderly situated in the higher elevations of Colorado, there lived (as well as he was able) an elderly gentleman. He had troublesome memories of youth and solid recollections of family life to reflect upon, but he was discontented.  For many years he had been troubled by the world around him, from the catastrophes on the news to the employees at the home who couldn’t be bothered to speak to the residents like they (the residents or the employees) were people, let alone chip in to help resolve the whole bedsore situation.

The old man gripped his walker and thought that it all was, as his son and daughter-in-law would say, “a giant dumpster fire.” And, as the Earth was such a massive s**thole, then all things being equal he would much rather go live in the ocean, thank you. He would float happily and let the water remove the cares of a long life, just as his dentures soaked and were cleansed in the fizzing cup on his bedside table every night.

“Uh, huh,” said the night nurse.

“Good one, Dad,” said his son.

The day shift nurse just laughed and made him take an extra dose of benadryl to make him sleepy for the rest of her shift.

“Possible brain episode,” murmured the doctor that popped her head in once weekly. She made a tick on the chart she carried and stalked down the hall.

Over her book, his daughter-in-law said, “You sure that’s a good idea?  Whales are super depressed, you know, and they’ve had their whole lives to get used to stuff down there.”

This was not encouraging, but the old man decided it was the closest to real feedback he was likely to get. The daughter-in-law might scoff, but he approved of her upright manner, the no-nonsense way she dealt with her locks of severely brown hair, and the way her worried eyes followed his son and grandson across the visiting areas of the home. At very least, she was unlikely to illegally drug him and isn’t it funny how the criteria for friendship change as one ages?

She had come with his son after a phone call regarding a possible cerebral incident and associated care changes, and had been left with the old man while his son was occupied with a fleet of medical practitioners.

He shrugged, ignoring a twinge in his lower back to convey as much indifference as his sloped shoulders could muster. “I’ve been depressed 15 years, girl.  More!  Long as those sad-a** whales haven’t elected a Trump… I figure the ocean’s too wet to be a proper dumpster fire yet.”

The daughter-in-law covered her laugh with her hand, but her eyes shone. “Fine, I’ll play. Is this going to be a spaceman in a bubble thing, or are you going for the full fishtail makeover?”

The old man thumped his walker on the blue and white linoleum floor. “That’s a question, ain’t it? I’ve got all the bubble I can stand right here. But,” he cast his eyes up at the flickering fluorescent lights thoughtfully, “I’m not sure where in that fishtail I would store my bait and tackle, if you catch my meaning.”

“I’m quite sure I don’t.”  She hid another laugh, but put as much I am not encouraging you into her tone as she could.

The old man coughed into a cloth hankie that was in all probability older than his companion. “As it seems hard choices all around, I’ll probably take the first ticket down I can get my hands on.” Another aching shrug, “Work out the details later, little or not so little. If we can put a minivan on Mars and carry computers in our trouser pockets, and order a pizza without ever talking to a person, then the only thing keeping me living on land is lack of trying!” He gave the walker another thump and puffed.

“Then what’s your plan? Generally.”

“Back in the day I’d have put an ad in the paper. Need an extra man on the job, place an ad. I think the local rags won’t have the kind of reach that will find me some answers, though. What do you kids use on the web these days?  I figure that’s the winner there, ask the web and get worldwide answers. ‘Bout time I got some use out of that contraption.”

The daughter-in-law’s eyes widened, first at the internet being a ‘contraption’ and secondly at the thought of myriad internet scammers zeroing in on her husband’s father like seagulls on a fry in a fast food parking lot. “Tell you what…” she said.

It was fun, actually. Anyway her husband appreciated her taking an interest in his old man because that meant he didn’t have to feel guilty for not doing so. She was familiar with the internet, but as green as the old man when it came to advertising for magical transformations (or the information leading to one), so they tried multiple tacks. Once a week she would swing by the home after work and they would wait for the left of the two computers available for resident use to free up. The right one, the old man cackled as he informed her, was now the sole property of Porno Joe, who had just been regular Joe until he bribed a nurse to give him the code to unlock the parental controls on the home’s computers. The right hand computer was now his sole domain, and the less said about what was accomplished there the better.

They used the down time to tweak their drafts, and when the sanitary computer was theirs, they would hunch over it together, faces nearly touching as they scrutinized the glowing box, faces bathed in unnatural light. Each week they would check old accounts and then set up one or two new ones: Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Craigslist (each week a new city), and so on. They set up blogs on all the common platforms as well as some dinosaurs that had not seen regular use since the 90’s. They were particularly proud of theoldmanandthesea.wordpress.org.

She taught the old man what she knew about recognizing scams, and in a few weeks he could really have taken up the search on his own but she kept coming. In part, she truly enjoyed the old man’s company; he had the best worst jokes, any opportunity to be the youngest person in the room was becoming more and more valuable, and there was no possible way she could be expected to wash dishes from across town. Equally, she was becoming wrapped up in the impossible quest, the thought of escape to a better world was enchanting, even if it was granted only to one random grandfather with a tendency towards innuendo. Of course she wouldn’t want such a fantastical removal for herself,  yet it was exhilarating to stand on the edge of that waterfall and feel the pull of the current.

After obvious phishers, the most common response they received was some variant or another on, “Are you serious?” followed usually by, “Are you ok?” which made the old man shake a fist screenward, sick to death of having his ok-ness questioned yet again. But it made the daughter-in-law soften her judgment of the world at large. Third in line were ignorant and vague referrals to the religions of indigenous peoples from across the globe. Only then came open mockery, which was followed closely by turning the conversation to the newest political talking point, then pictures of genitalia. This was the fare they had become accustomed to receiving and mocking .

They were several months into the search, and the old man’s walker was giving up half the day or more to a bargain-basement wheelchair, when they got a new kind of email. And while it would have been reasonable to make a new category, throw this email into it and laugh again, somehow they could not. Maybe it was because it had been so long and this was the only reply of this kind in all that time. Maybe it was because nothing was misspelled. Maybe it was simply more fun to have finally gotten to a next step in their little adventure.

It read, “Sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic, or so lazy authors sometimes say. Our pursuits may complement each other.” It closed with a phone number and nothing else.

They blinked. The miniscule missive took almost no time to read, re-read, and read yet again.

The old man leaned back in the cracked vinyl chair with a creak. His voice was carefully neutral as he turned to the daughter-in-law, “We are going to call, aren’t we?”

“Are you nuts? Of course we’re going to call.”

“Yahoo!”

An orderly, mopping the dim hallway adjacent to the computer nook shushed them, jerking a thumb at the bedroom doors along each side of the damp linoleum. Most of the residents were already asleep. It was just past seven and usually the daughter-in-law took her leave about now. She narrowed her eyes at the clock, weighing her nagging sense of duty against plotting their next step.

Plotting won a moderate victory and they spent the next hour trying to find any info attached to the number, and concocting increasingly bizarre theories on the identity of the sender and what intentions she or he could have that could conceivably dovetail with an old cook’s pursuit of a fresh start next door to Davey Jones.

The daughter-in-law drove home in the dark.  She burst into the kitchen, “Sorry I’m–”

But the room was empty, as was the living room and the office. Upstairs, her son lurked in his locked bedroom and ignored her knock. She wished he would at least play loud and angry music so that the moment would have a proper soundtrack but silence reigned.
She sent her husband a text with no hope she’d be answered.
From childhood to the present, in every house she had ever lived in, there was at least one miscellaneous drawer. It was a place to throw things that were useful sometimes but currently unwanted. She poked cautiously past a travel sized Maglite, tapes electrical duct and Scotch, thumbtacks, a tire pressure gauge, and some random spiky things left over from their last Ikea purchase. Finally her fingers closed on an old, pay by the minute style flip phone. As she had nothing better to do she called the 24 hour service line and added twenty bucks in time. She fell asleep on the couch with her fingers wrapped around the old Motorola.

End Part One

Heyo!  This started as an attempt to reverse as many elements in a fairly tale as I could without losing the original story altogether.  But then things got a mind of their own.  Part Two will go up as soon as I have it, which at my speeds will probably be next Tuesday at the earliest, anyway.

~Mackey

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