Popular Science for Mermaid Lovers
By Zachary Kocanda
I half-hear Paz say something about the air conditioning from the passenger seat, and all I can say is, “We’re not here for you. We’re here for the mermaids. Do you have to act like it’s all about you?”
Our friend Ward, like us, is twenty-five years old, but unlike us, he believes there are mermaids in the Pacific Ocean near California, so we’re on our way there now from Texas, taking turns driving the recreational vehicle my parents bought after my sister and I moved out. Of course, a few years later, I dropped out of school and moved back in with them in the Austin suburbs. They don’t go on many vacations now, the RV slowly rusting in the driveway, so they were okay with us borrowing it for a week.
“I only asked you to turn up the AC. Take it easy, pal,” Paz says. She’s my ex-girlfriend. We met in an introductory biology class our first year of college. I had planned to be a high school biology teacher, like my mother. Paz ended our relationship a few years later, one thing led to another, and I dropped out. Then I worked at Target. Now I don’t work anywhere. It was the red vest. It just wasn’t me. And now Paz is in a Ph.D. program, the genius she is. We haven’t dated for a while, but my parents still ask about her. We go out to dinner to the same Mexican restaurant every month, and my mother asks if she has her Ph.D. yet.
I don’t know why Paz is sitting here in the front with me. There are seats in the back. Ward’s in the back, and he’s the reason she’s here. The reason we’re both here. He texted me out of the blue one day, asking for my help. I wasn’t working, so my schedule was open.
“No matter what, it’s just a vacation for me,” Paz says. “The mermaids, they’re not real. But Ward has to—you know, he has to get out. And if it takes going to look for a mermaid, so be it.”
Paz is here because she’s Ward’s friend, too. Ward was in the same biology class where Paz and I met, so the three of us studied and worked in the lab together. Paz looked out for Ward then, and she looks out for him now, too. I could be eaten by a mermaid and she would pat it on its ugly, fishy head and adopt it.
Ward’s in the back reading a book about cryptozoology, muttering to himself and aggressively highlighting every other paragraph. “Goddamn,” he says every so often. I can hear him from the front. “Goddamn, we’re so close. Our names are gonna be everywhere. They’re gonna interview me for Popular Science. They’re gonna put this face on the cover.”
“What about us?” I shout back to him, and he says yes, they’re going to interview Paz and me, but we probably won’t be on the cover, and he apologizes for this. I say it’s okay and thank him.
Ward has just graduated after being in college for eight years. That happens when you try to do a thesis on mermaids every year. He said he had over ten advisors during his collegiate career, five in the last year alone. He finally changed the subject of his thesis, opting to do his cryptozoological work independently per his last advisor’s suggestion, and now he’s the proud owner of biology, chemistry, and physics degrees. He’s taken that many classes in eight years. I’m not sure what he’s going to do now. Ward’s smart. Book smart, at least. His ACT score was better than Paz’s—and my score, too, but that’s not saying much. But then there’s the whole mermaid thing.
Later, Ward drives the RV, Paz still shotgun, and I nap in the bedroom in back and dream I buy a copy of Popular Science with Ward on the cover holding a rotten, monkey-headed mermaid like a baby, with the headline, “Goddamn! Mermaids are real? The son-of-a-bitch who proved it (page 10),” in large letters. Below, a smaller headline reads: “Also confirmed: Paz regrets her decision to break up with Ogden, who was always right, and definitely the best she ever had (page 25).” There are head shots of me and Paz, our expressions ridiculously happy and sad, respectively. I look at the cover and then ask to buy a second copy for my parents.
Ward pulls the RV into a rest stop so Paz can drive. We’re still in Texas, near El Paso and the New Mexico border, not even halfway to “the mermaid capital of the world,” in Ward’s words: Barnum, California, population one thousand eight hundred ninety-two. Awake from my nap, I yawn, walk from the bedroom to the kitchen. Ward’s at the booth built into the wall with a table that folds under and can be used as a bed. I sit next to him as Paz brushes past us to get to the bathroom.
“So what’re we looking for?” I ask. “I have to know how they look so I can give it my all when we’re in California.”
“It’s like the Fiji mermaid, if you’ve heard of that,” he says. “That was a hoax, but this isn’t. Now, a mermaid’s not going to look how you think it should—here, look at the picture of the Fiji mermaid. It looks like this. But—and this is important—this isn’t real. The Fiji mermaid isn’t real, but mermaids are.”
Ward opens up a book and presents a sketch of the Fiji mermaid—a mash-up of a fish and a monkey with knotty doll hair on top. It’s not the sexy nymph-like mermaid that would be worth drowning for, but if that’s what Ward’s into, go for it. Who am I to judge a man’s taste? Hell, I used to think that Paz was a catch and now I hate her.
“I can’t believe all the books you have,” says Paz, returning from the bathroom. She sits across from Ward and me and takes another book from the stack of over a dozen on the table, then starts to flip through it.
“It’s just—look at this shit,” I say, taking the book from Ward. “I don’t know anybody who has such a comprehensive library of fucked up shit. But, you know, it’s cool.” I hand the book back to Ward.
He says, “Thanks for coming, both of you. I know they’re out there, and we’re going to get ‘em.” Ward asks me to get a tackle box that’s stored in the closet in the bedroom, and when I bring it back to him, he takes out a can of tuna and starts eating it with a spork. He asks if Paz and I are hungry, and we politely decline.
“I have something to show you,” he says. He opens his laptop, licking his fingers, and pulls up a YouTube video with about a hundred views that’s titled: “REAL-LIFE MERMAID IN REAL LIFE.”
“It’s like the mermaid I saw on vacation when I was five years old,” Ward says. “The mermaid that saved me. My parents say it wasn’t there, but I know what I saw.” The description of the video says it’s a hoax, that it’s a project by a high school student. The student, to their credit, received ten bonus points in biology class for their work. I start to say this to Ward, but he holds his index finger up to his mouth, shushing me, and says, “There! Look, it’s right there.” There’s no mermaid, but Paz plays along, says, “Interesting.”
“I couldn’t even say thank you,” Ward says, frowning. Paz hops up front, and we drive on.
We’re in Arizona near Tucson when Paz pulls the RV over at a rest stop. It’s my turn to drive again. I’ve been in the bedroom, unable to nap, reading a copy of Popular Science from 2005. I had asked Ward for some reading material, and he said it was the “most accessible” reading he had. There are beautiful pictures of oceans, articles about high-tech equipment for deep-sea diving expeditions. It’s all much more complicated than our operation, with tackle boxes and cans of tuna.
I exit and meet up with Ward, leaning with his back against the vehicle, cooly holding his book one-handed, like he’s modeling for his future Popular Science cover.
“How’s the reading?” I ask.
“It’s okay,” Ward says. “None of the stories in here on mermaids are helpful because they’re not true. C’mon, mermaids aren’t hot. They’re not going to make out with you and then drown you. They’ve been so bastardized by popular culture. These people base everything on legends and that lame-ass Little Mermaid movie. Mermaids are just trying to live. They eat fish. That’s all.”
“I’m not going to eat fish,” I say, “but I’m going to get a snack. Do you want anything?” Ward says no and holds up a can of tuna. I nod and go over to the building and the vending machines.
I look at my cell phone. I’ve missed a call from my sister, who’s five years older than me, married with a two-year-old daughter, and living somewhere in New England. My sister’s a stay-at-home mom, and her husband’s a high school principal, adding to the number of people I know who make me feel bad about being a failed educator. I call her back.
“Mom says you’re taking the RV to Cali?” she says. “And she says you don’t have a job. And that you’re not doing anything.” My parents flew out to see her while I was away, and now it’s clear there’s been a lot of gossiping.
“Wow, she’s really hitting all the highlights,” I say. “Did she also say I’m on a road trip with my ex and my crazy friend? Now you’re all caught up, so it’s my turn to ask questions. How’re you?”
“We’re at Cape Cod. It’s nice.” There’s a pause. “Oh, and she says you’re looking for a mermaid? Your friend’s not being serious, is he? Isn’t he smart?”
“I know it’s odd,” I say. “It’s really, really odd. Ward knows his shit. Besides trying to have a thesis on mermaids, he’s had papers published, he does research for the school, 4.0 GPA. Maybe he’s, like, trying to believe in something that doesn’t make sense.”
My sister asks why.
“I’m not sure if I can ever know that,” I say. “I don’t run into him much anymore with all of his work—and my lack of work. He’s been so busy these past few years. He took way too many classes. Maybe believing in mermaids is like a vacation for him. He doesn’t have to think.”
My sister and I say good-bye and I buy a bag of chips and go back to the RV, open the driver’s door. Paz is shotgun.
“Don’t sit up here,” I say.
“Why’re you acting like this?” Paz asks.
“I act like this to everybody now,” I say. “It’s not you, okay? It’s been two years since you’ve seen me. This is how I act now. I’m here for Ward, not you.”
“No, you’re acting like it’s all because of me,” she says, “like you don’t know what to do because I’m here—and just because I have a fiancé now—”
“You have a fiancé? It’s only been two years and you have a fiancé? Were you going to tell me about this?”
“I was going to tell you soon,” she says. “I told Ward when he asked me to go on this trip. I’m not just a student anymore who has no responsibility and lives off my parents. I have my own students now. I’m an adult. I have a job. I have a fiancé. And I’m going to have a family. God, you son-of-a-bitch. I couldn’t just stop my life like you did. What do you want?”
“Am I invited to the wedding?” I ask. Paz has no reply. “So I’m not invited to the wedding, but Ward is, right? You invited him but not me? I’m not surprised.”
There’s the flush of a toilet and the bathroom door shuts and Ward comes up to where we are and says, “Why are you even asking? Of course I’m going to the wedding. We’re friends. I have a tie with fish that I’m going to wear. It’s a set, so I have an extra if you—”
“I can’t drive,” I say. I don’t have to use the bathroom, but I run to the bathroom, snatching a magazine from the kitchen table on my way there.
Ward drives for the remaining ten hours it takes to get to California. I stay in the bathroom for most of the time and read the old Popular Science.
Eventually, the RV stops, and Ward knocks on the bathroom door around midnight and says that we’ve arrived in Barnum, the tiny mermaid town Ward’s only read about, now a reality. We stay in a parking lot overnight, and I sleep in the tiny shower.
Ward wakes me up at noon, knocking on the bathroom door. “I peed in this jar so I wouldn’t interrupt you,” he says, holding up the jar, and I thank him, but politely ask him not to hold his urine so close to my face.
Paz slept in the bedroom in the back of the vehicle, and I don’t know if Ward slept at all. He takes a net out of the closet, the type that they use on boats that go out into the ocean and catch real marine life, like on Deadliest Catch. Ward says that the net could be used to catch up to twenty-five mermaids, but “mermaids stay with their families, with maybe up to five or so per family, according to the message boards.” I ask Ward if there’s anything I should take with, and he gives me a tackle box. Paz takes a camera. I don’t say anything to her.
We put on our swimsuits and take the supplies to a low-key strip of the beach near a dock Ward says is not used much. It’s not a sizable dock, but Ward says that the net can be put under it and a mermaid, looking for easy, slow-moving fish to eat, could run into it and then—boom!—we’d have a mermaid in our grasp.
“Is there a tool in the tackle box I’m going to use?” I ask.
“No, you looked like you wanted to help, so I let you take the tackle box,” Ward says, and he pats me on the shoulder. “But we’re not going to use it.” Ward, a twenty-five-year-old who believes in mermaids and just graduated college after eight years, pities me, the drop-out ex-Target employee who lives with his parents. I like to think we’re about even.
We go into the Pacific, and I start to help Ward tie the net to a couple of posts under the dock, but Ward stops halfway through the job, constructively criticizes my knot-tying, and moves over to a part of the beach that’s covered in seaweed.
“Ogden,” says Ward. “Come over here. It’s eaten the heads off of all these fish over here.” He sits on the sand, holding a dead fish in his hands. He sniffs it. “From what I’ve read online,” he says, “the mermaids eat the heads to show that they’re in control of the area. They’re asserting dominance. If there’s another family who swims nearby, they know to stay the hell away.”
I finish tying the net, following Ward’s advice, and wade out of the water to join him and his dead fish.
“If there’s more than one mermaid, why hasn’t anybody ever caught one before?” I ask. “A net like the one we’re using can catch shit-tons of fish, so why can’t it get a mermaid? They should be catching mermaids left and right on Deadliest Catch, even accidentally, but I’ve seen every episode and they haven’t caught one. Can they cut themselves free from the nets using their homo sapiens-like hands and rudimentary tools?”
“As a matter of fact—yes,” Ward says, “That’s exactly what they’re saying on the message boards. And I guarantee Deadliest Catch would have to edit out any mermaids they catch. The government wouldn’t let them show that on TV. People would go crazy. A user on the message boards says he has a banned episode where they were close to catching one, but he won’t share it.”
Ward says, “Catch!” and tosses a dead fish sans head over at Paz, who’s using the end of her open-toed shoe to kick at a layer of seaweed on the beach. She turns in Ward’s direction and yelps as the fish splats on her tank top. She laughs it off and says, “There’s one here, too.” She bends over to look at it. “No head.” Paz takes a picture and then dabs at the blotch of fish residue on her shirt with a Kleenex. Ward and I join her, and we stand in a circle around the decapitated fish. I hear Ward mutter an “Amen.”
We go back to the RV, and Ward says there isn’t anything more for us to do now. A mermaid could be trapped in the net in an hour or in a week—or never, if you ask me. I’ll evolve into a mermaid before there’s one in the net.
It’s six o’clock, dinner time, so naturally Ward’s sitting at the kitchen table with a stack of tuna cans near his open books. He has a yellow highlighter in his right hand and four more—green, orange, red, and blue—on the table. I ask if he wants to go into town to eat and he says no.
“I’m going back to the beach soon,” he says. “I have to check the net.”
I don’t ask Paz.
When I get to a small mom-and-pop diner, I buy a sandwich and sit at a table in the corner. Pictures of the ocean line the diner’s walls, but like the ones in Popular Science, they are no mermaids. Maybe they were shy to come out of the water to be photographed.
I take half of my sandwich to go, walk past a high school.
If I had graduated, I would be teaching by now. “Welcome to biology,” I would say to my class. “If you’re looking to study mermaids, you’re in the wrong place.” And the students would laugh. I would be a “cool” teacher, as cool as a teacher can be. I would ask Ward to come in because he knows a lot about the ocean. And after talking about the ocean he would start to talk about mermaids, and I would start clapping and act like his lecture was over and put my hand on his shoulder and laugh. We would both laugh. I would even ask Paz to stop by because she’s going to have a PhD and she’s smart and even though she has a fiancé and she’s an adult and she has her own students, she would fit a visit to my freshman biology class into her schedule.
That’s how she is.
And she sits by you when you’re driving an RV for hours and hours.
I start to run back to the RV, but then I have to walk because the parking lot is across town. And then I run the rest of the way. I stay out by the door for a couple minutes because exercise is new to me and I’m sweaty. I open the door, and Paz is at the table using the laptop.
“Paz, I don’t work at Target,” I say. “I quit months ago. I’m a drop-out and I don’t have a job. And I’m sorry. I’d like to go to your wedding. I won’t act like a son-of-a-bitch to your fiancé. Promise.”
“You have to go to the wedding,” Paz says. “You have to wear Ward’s fish tie. My family’s going to give him so much shit, so you have to take some of the shit for him. You know how they are. They ask about you now and then.”
“I can do that,” I say. I ask where Ward is, and Paz says that he’s been out for over an hour by now. “If there’s a mermaid in that net—or if there’s a whole family of mermaids in that net—I have to help.”
“Of course. There’s enough room in the net for a whole family of mer-people.” We laugh. Paz says that she’s going to bed, that’s she going to call her fiancé. And then she says I’m not such a son-of-a-bitch. “If you want to be a teacher, try again,” she says. “You can do it.” I thank her.
I go to the closet and take out the tackle box. There’s a flashlight in there, and I turn it on and it works. “Bingo,” I say. I take the tackle box with me because it’s my only Ward-given duty. Ward may have a use for some of the supplies, like the cans of tuna. Especially the tuna.
I go out to the dock and say, “Ward, are you making out with a mermaid down there? I don’t want to know, but I also do want to know so I can go back to the RV if you are. Ward?” I use the flashlight and light where the net is tied up under the dock. Ward’s in there, unfortunately trapped, but fortunately not making out with a mermaid.
“If only Paz was here with the camera,” I say.
Ward says, “The Pacific’s got my cell phone now, Ogden. I caught a mermaid in here, so I started to take down the net, but I slipped and now I’m trapped. Thank God you’re here. Do you see the mermaid? It probably hasn’t gone too far, especially if it’s feeding.”
“No, it’s probably back with its family,” I say. “We can put the net back up and try to catch another, but let’s get you out of there.”
I take a pocket knife out of the tackle box and remove my shoes before I make my way into the ocean and toward the dock. The water’s above my waist when I reach Ward.
“You’re really mixed up in here,” I say. I start to cut at one of the ties that holds the net to the dock posts. I move the knife back and forth, and it splits the tie from the post—but then Ward says, “Fuck,” and before I can say anything, a wave hits us and I lose my balance and the knife cuts my hand and Ward is thrown out of the net and hits a post with a thwack and then we’re moving out, out—away from the dock and farther into the Pacific Ocean.
“Ward,” I say. “Ward.” And then I have him in my arms, and we bob in the water. “You have a mermaid to catch,” I say.
We lie on the beach with our backs on the sand, panting, having said our goodbyes to the world’s largest ocean. I swam us back to safety. Thankfully we hadn’t been too far out. I look at the cut on my hand and crawl over to the tackle box to look for any first-aid. Nada. But I take two cans of tuna and two sporks from the tackle box and sit by Ward.
“A mermaid,” Ward slurs. “A mermaid helped us. I know you can’t swim, Ogden. Thank you, mermaid. Now you know their power.”
“Why would a mermaid help us if we had just trapped its mother or father or sister or brother in the net that we put under the dock?” I ask. “Why wouldn’t they let us drown?”
“Mermaids are helpful,” Ward says. “It’s all over the message boards. There’s a mermaid right over there. Look, it’s right over there. It’s waving at us.”
“Just eat the tuna, buddy,” I say. Ward eats a sporkful, then points to the ocean with the utensil, arm extended, and I look at the Pacific Ocean, a body of water that we don’t know, a body of water holding 46% of the water on the Earth. There are organisms of all shapes and sizes in the ocean. We don’t know everything that’s in there—or even most of what’s in there. That’s what I read in the copy of Popular Science from 2005. There could be anything in there.
If you ask Ward, there are mermaids and mermaids and more mermaids in the ocean, families of mermaids: A family of mermaids shares a fishy dinner right now and says a prayer, a mermaid loves another mermaid with all its heart and they marry and start a family and have two mer-children, a mermaid says its goodbyes and dies and mermaids cry and bury it and hack its name into a stone that they add to a seaweed-covered graveyard.
There are mermaids, like the one he’s pointing to now with a spork.
But there isn’t a mermaid over there. There isn’t a mermaid in the Pacific Ocean. There isn’t a mermaid in the Atlantic Ocean or the Indian Ocean. Not in any ocean. But why can’t there be? Why can’t there be a mermaid in the Pacific Ocean today? Something dredged up from an ocean of dreams Ward and I may have once had. Something real. Why can’t Ward be on the cover of Popular Science? Why can’t I go into a Target in ten years and look at the magazines and there, right there, is Ward on the cover of Popular Science, holding the unsexy, rotten mermaid in his guts-covered hands like a baby?