In this excerpt from The Old Mermaid's Tale: It is 1963. Clair, Gia, and Karen are waitresses in a waterfront diner and Gia is about to elope with her lover Willy. Clair is in love with a musician who was crippled while working as a deckhand on a merchant ship, and Karen, who has been around for quite awhile, resents their romances.
A group of sailors pushed through the door and crowded into a booth in my station. I sighed and picked up a pitcher of ice water.
“So what’s Mama think about you being a fallen woman?” Karen smirked at Gia.
“I don’t have to talk to you,” Gia said untying her apron.
“No, you sure don’t and I’ll bet you’re not talking much to Mama these days either. How you planning to explain your red eyes when loverboy here pulls out of town? Or do you have a replacement lined up?” She had her hands on her hips and blood dripping from her fangs.
“Shut up, Karen.” I repeated as I passed her. “Leave them alone.”
“Why should I?” she snapped. “You two think you’re such perfect little virgins—always talking like I’m the slut. Seems to me like you’re not one bit different.” Two truck drivers finishing up their meals at the counter nudged each other and snickered.
“What are you laughing at?” she turned on them. “They think just because those bums hold their coats for them and buy them dinner they give a rat’s ass. Ha! Make me laugh!”
“Willy loves me!” Gia said, startled. “He wants to marry me.”
Karen snorted. “Oh right! He’s going to go back to whatever God forsaken cow town he came from and write you love letters and find a little love nest for you. Why, maybe he’ll even invite you home to meet his mama. In a pig’s eye!”
“Willy,” Gia went around and placed her hands on his shoulders, “tell her.”
Willy would have stood up if she hadn’t been leaning on him. He looked up at her and said, “You know how I feel. Who cares what she thinks. I just want to be with you.” He slid his arm around her waist.
“See,” Gia said looking directly at Karen “He’s taking me with him when he leaves. I’m going to stay with his family and we’re going to be happy together.”
Karen stared open-mouthed for a full minute. She poked her pencil back in her curls. “Oh now I’ve heard everything,” she sputtered at last. “Well, I won’t try to stop you making a fool of yourself.” She turned and the obnoxious smirk returned as she eyed me. “You might be making an ass of yourself but you’re still not as stupid as smart-ass college girl here.”
Giovanna’s jaw dropped.
“Ignore her,” I said putting down the pitcher of water and leaning over the counter to give Gia a hug. “Just go. You won’t be sorry.”
But it was me Gia chose to ignore. “What the hell is that supposed to mean, you cow?”
Sal choked on his coffee and stared at her open-mouthed.
Karen looked back and forth between us with that smirk. “Well,” she drawled, “at least your bum has two legs.”
No one is ever prepared for such moments. We prefer to believe we would behave with dignity, at least I always did. But the mad, instinctual violence that had been lurking under my surface ever since I met Karen was way ahead of me. I meant to walk away but somehow—in the same moment—I was turning and the satisfying crunch of her jaw crumpling under my fist was reverberating up my arm. She flew backward in a graceless, but appropriate, spread-legged posture and landed across the end of the counter sending salt shakers, ketchup bottles, and sugar shakers flying. A loud hiss sounded when the brown mountain of curls flew off the top of her head and hit the coffee machine burners where they simmered like a scorched tarantula. I heard a mixture of gasps, laughter, and a brief smattering of applause.
“Goddamn.” Sal put his coffee cup down.
Minka came rocketing around the corner—her skirt in a wad around her waist as she fished in the far-reaches of her pink flowered girdle for her Smith and Wesson.
“Clair!” Gia covered her face with her hands. “My God, Clair! Did you hurt yourself?”
My arm was going numb and, though I could see blood welling up on my split knuckles, I couldn’t move. The truck drivers bent over Karen’s limp form splashing ice water on her face. Carl came running out of the storeroom the side of his face still white from the flour sack he had been sleeping against.
“Who got shot?” he shrieked.
“Way to go, slugger.” Willy chucked me on the arm. I stared at him, then closed my eyes and fainted dead away.