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Sara Dobbie

Luck Be a Modern Lady

Obviously, the mermaid can’t reveal her true identity to anyone at the casino. Especially after what happened last time. She poses at the top of the escalator, considers her tibia, her patella and femur, each glorious bone draped in smooth, taut skin. She points her toes, flexes her calf muscles as she descends to the gaming floor. Places one marvelous foot in front of the other to meld into the crowd. Slot machine bells ring their perpetual refrain, margaritas and martinis float by on trays carried by cocktail waitresses.

While it’s true she left home because of a man, the surreal glow of her infatuation waned quickly. When he took her to Atlantic City for the weekend, it was all over. That’s when she discovered that what really thrills her, what makes her feel truly alive, is poker. And roulette. Even craps. The sound of dice clinking across the smooth green felt of the tables makes her blood flow as fast as the Gulf Stream. The sheen of the mahogany wheel spinning out her fate makes her vibrate with desire more than the kisses of any man.

Here’s one now, in a tuxedo, offering her a drink as she sits down at a Black Jack table, asking her name. Millie, she answers, and he laughs. She’d chosen the name herself that first day on land, as she wandered through shops near the seaside, while Eric slept in a motel room. The loveliest voices she’d ever heard emanated from a box in which a black circle spun round and round. A lady handed her the record cover, though the mermaid didn’t know what it was. Thoroughly Modern Millie, the woman said. Do you like it? The mermaid did like it, so much so that she’d adopted the name for herself. I am, she thought, or at least I want to be, thoroughly modern.

Ignoring tuxedo man, Millie slaps the edge of the table. “Hit me,” she tells the dealer, and he lays down an Ace. Triumph washes over her, and tuxedo man eyes her with that look, the one she associates with lust and envy. Humans, Millie knows, have a universal agenda. They either want to fuck her, dissect her, or put her in an aquarium like a goddamned sideshow attraction. Best to keep her guard up, to avoid the pitfalls she’d stepped into in the past.

The romance with Eric began when she spotted him on a cruise ship, his face a mask of intensity bathed in beams of moonlight. Of course he was fascinated with her tail, couldn’t keep his hands off it, practically eroded her scales. He promised to keep her secret, but only if she would transform for him; in the bathtub, or at the beach when no one was around. He didn’t understand how wearisome this became for her, how she wished to renounce her oceanic origins. I can get a girl with legs anywhere, he told her, how lucky that I found you instead. Which pissed Millie off because technically speaking, she was the one who found him.

In the suite at Bally’s, Eric attempted to coax Millie into the Jacuzzi, begged her to let him ogle her as her limbs fused together and sprouted a fin, as her skin shimmered in opalescent hues of turquoise. Millie refused, told Eric he could forget it, and walked out on him. Later, when she was celebrating a big win on a roulette spin, she spotted him at the bar. Watched him through narrowed eyes as he stumbled toward her, a sneer twisting his mouth.

He grabbed her arm, pointy fingers bruising flesh, and dragged her out to the patio. Girls in bikinis lounged in lawn chairs, palm trees lit up with electric bulbs swayed in a warm breeze. The people in the pool leaned against the edges, or floated in inflatable tubes. They chuckled at the sight of a man picking up a struggling female and tossing her into the water, cheered even. But then they saw it, her tail. She couldn’t help it thrashing wildly, because everybody gasped and pointed. Millie knew what they would do to her; she’d be chopped into pieces with her organs under a microscope by morning, just like her cousin from the Pacific.

Millie closed her eyes and started to paddle her flukes. The astonished crowd sighed collectively as she rose up out of the water like a dolphin, swaying her arms as though she were conducting an orchestra. High, clear strains poured from her throat, her siren song. Good bye, good-goody girl, I’m changing, and how! Millie watched as faces in the crowd blanched, as eyes rolled back and bodies fell listless to the concrete. Let out a breath of relief because Eric’s limp body lay stretched motionless across a row of potted ferns.

After easing herself out of the pool and regaining her limbs, Millie grabbed a towel, wrapped it around herself and ran to the beach. She waded out as far as she could before the metamorphosis took place, then dropped into the water like a seal and swam into the ocean. Deeper and deeper she glided until she skimmed coral reefs, surpassed schools of rainbow colored fish. A thousand miles, two thousand, three thousand. With an iron will Millie swam until she arrived here, on the azure coast of Monaco.

Tuxedo man is persistent, and places a crystal glass in front of Millie. The dealer shuffles the cards, and she tilts her head back to swallow the vodka. Crosses her legs for luck. Twenty-one, the dealer says, and she stands up, dances on her stiletto sandals. Tuxedo man places a hand on her bare shoulder. “Baby,” he croons, “this calls for a celebration. A bottle of champagne and a midnight dip?”

“I hate the water,” Millie says firmly, “I never learned to swim.”

She turns back to the table, and tuxedo man stalks off, annoyed that Millie is more interested in betting chips than in his advances.

➥ Bio