By Margot Pepper
From forthcoming book, The Acrobat and Other Stories for Dark Times
“It’s here! It’s here!” she yelled into Debbie and Jennifer Gulli’s room. “Is your dad home?”
“Yeah,” came a response.
“Meet you back at the club-house!” Eve shouted, darting back home.
There was hardly any street traffic since Hamilton eventually dead-ended at La Cienega. It was a nice working class, 1970s neighborhood, the kind with ecologically-disastrous lawns and long blocks that invited children to play outside for hours without parental intervention. Although Eve’s mother was supporting her only child on a modest salary as a court economist, the duplex rental qualified her daughter for the Beverly Hills school district.
After securing permission from their parents, the two girls knocked on the back door leading directly to Eve’s room. The walls were decorated with colorful graffiti songs and slogans Eve and her visitors had carefully sketched in pencil and filled in with bright markers. Eve’s mother had given her permission to do so prior to having the room painted, but Eve talked her out of it.
Eve used a pair of scissors to open the shipment box as her two friends leaned in. They had waited an interminable six weeks for the package to arrive after pooling months of allowances. In the meantime, they had developed the infrastructure of their Sea Monkey® Club. Jennifer was the nurse, Debbie, the treasurer and Eve, the office manager. They rotated the job of president. They had a safe in which they kept dues and badges made by laminating the official Transcience Corporation Sea Monkey® logo of a hatched egg with an emergent Sea Monkey®.
At their bi-weekly Sea Monkey® Club meetings, the girls would pour over comic books containing various Sea Monkey® ads. The weeks of add-inspired ruminations had fixed in their heads the existence of a parallel, aquatic Dr. Seuss-like universe in which mermaids and mermen frolicked, darting through the water with the aid of their dinosaur-like tails. Their crustacean crowns and wide simian smiles rendered them mischievous royalty three quarters of an inch tall. The little aquatic monkeys amazed observers with their circus antics. “…It is rumored that they really do look like the cartoon and telepathically mask their appearance,” the ad claimed. Eve convinced the Sea Monkey® Club members that to better discern the Sea Monkeys’® coquettish grins and cute little cartoon eyes, it was imperative to order the Magic View Ocean Zoo tank with half a dozen magnifying glasses built into the walls.
Eve lay the contents of the box out on the stained tan rental carpet. Therein lay the three wondrous Ocean Zoos; a packet of Super Food for their new pet’s meals; a packet of Banana Treat for desert; a packet of Grow-Kwikly to help them grow into the adorable adults more quickly for faster viewing and three pendants in which the new friends might be transported to the girls’ school.
Debbie, who earlier had retrieved the members’ badges from the safe, now extracted the accessories: a packet of Cupid’s Arrow to help the Sea Monkeys® fall in love and have more babies; Red Magic, which turned them crab red for easier viewing, and a packet of Sea Medic, in case they should fall ill. The packets were to be stored in the safe for the treasurer to ascertain when it was necessary to reorder.
Eve handed out the Sea Monkey® zoos and pendants. The girls delightedly fondled their small, clear glass Christmas balls and clasped them around their necks. Finally, they unsealed their Magic-View Ocean Zoos and examined the packets containing purifier and Sea Monkey® eggs.
Each kit came with an elaborate instruction book written in blue ink, which the girls immediately began to devour. Besides illustrations depicting various facets of Sea Monkey® culture, the booklet contained pages on their food and environmental preferences, behavior, growth and reproduction cycles.
“Look, if you hold a flashlight up to the side of the tank, they’ll come toward the light!” Jennifer noted.
Eve found a page detailing how Sea Monkey® eggs had survived until the climate was hospitable. “Wow! These eggs might have been around during the dinosaurs!” she concluded. “Listen! ‘Sea-Monkeys are real Time-Travelers asleep in biological time capsules for their strange journey into the future!’”
“But how do we hatch them?” Debbie was examining the writing on the two packets in her zoo and growing impatient.
There was a knock at the door. “Mrs. Gulli’s on the phone. She’d like them back for dinner,” Eve’s mother called out.
Debbie and Jennifer froze, looking to Eve for a response.
“Tell my mom we’ll be home later,” Debbie called out, expecting Eve’s approval, since this was the tac she always used.
On such occasions, Eve’s mother would initially threaten to deprive her daughter of her dinner.
“So?” would come the response from one who was about as interested in food as adults are in computing income tax.
Eve opened the door and poked her head out. Her mother was still on the phone. She looked at Eve and explained, “She says if they don’t come home now, they won’t get any dinner. That it’s a special one because they want to celebrate the news about Rick’s homecoming.”
Rick was the girls’ older half brother through their father’s previous wife. He had served out his term in Vietnam and the family had just learned that he was scheduled to arrive home at the end of the month.
Eve had been over when they first got the news. Mr. Guilli had been overjoyed.
“See! I toldja, Alice. I toldja he’d be fine!” Eve thought he sounded like the stereotype of a Bronx gangster. “Now he’ll finally have something to be proud of!” Mr. Guilli slapped his knees and stood up. He spun around, then hit his wife on the back. He was yelling. He always yelled to be heard above the loud volume of the television, which was never given a chance to rest.
“I knew it! Now aren’t you glad I insisted? Tolja!” Mr. Guilli behaved like a cross between an unrefined gangster and the crude, bigoted TV character, Archie Bunker, Eve reflected. Ever since she accidentally discovered Mr. Guilli beating Jennifer with a belt, she tried to avoid him. Their mother had pointed to the closed door in tears, as though she had wanted a witness.
Mrs. Guilli was always very nice to Eve and tried to protect the girls as much as possible.
“Everyone says my mom looks like Lisa Minelli,” Debbie would announce proudly, referring to an actress Eve didn’t think was so attractive to begin with.
Mrs. Guilli always smiled and rang her hands with embarrassment.
They did have the same nose, Eve would agree.
“And hair,” Jennifer would grin, shaking her own shag hair cut in the same style as her mother. “Except Lisa’s is dark….”
And the mother’s grey streaked with blonde.
“If you don’t leave now, your mom says you won’t get any dinner,” Eve repeated to her friends.
“Tell her we don’t care,” Jennifer announced, arms folded.
“Tell her just ten more minutes,” plump little Debbie negotiated.
“She says no more than ten minutes, girls,” Eve’s mother repeated.
“Okay,” Eve read from her instruction booklet. “’Add Water Purifier to your tank filled with distilled or filtered water—‘”
“Oh no! What’s distilled water?” Jennifer squeaked.
“This!” Eve said triumphantly pulling a gallon from her shelf. My mom got it for us.” She filled up each Ocean Zoo to the indicated line.
“Next?” Debbie wanted to know.
“’Add Water Purifier to your tank filled with distilled or filtered water. Stir for 60 seconds,’” Eve read as she darted toward the kitchen for a clean ice-tea spoon.
Her mother intercepted her. “The girls’ mother’s on the phone again. She says she’s giving Debbie’s dinner to the cats.”
Eve repeated the information to her friend as she stirred in her Purifier and counted out the seconds. Her mother stood in the door way watching.
“Tell her I don’t care,” pouted Debbie.
Eve’s mother repeated the information on the phone, then began laughing. Debbie and Jennifer looked puzzled.
Eve’s mother looked at Debbie, “She says good. It will suit you to go without dinner for one night.”
Jennifer tried to suppress her laugher but she and Eve could hardly contain themselves. Debbie looked as though she was about to cry.
“Quick, Debbie, add the purifier,” Jennifer said, “forty-six, forty-seven.”
“Now we wait 24 hours until our meeting tomorrow at this time to put the eggs in. Let’s just leave everything here,” Eve instructed.
No sooner had Debbie finished counting out her seconds than she bolted for the door.
“How come ‘Later,’ ‘Later’ always works for you when your mom calls you for dinner?” Jennifer asked Eve.
“My mom thinks I’m too skinny.”
The next evening, the girls stirred in the packet of Instant Life eggs. When they were finished counting out the minute, Debbie reached for a packet of Grow Quickly. “Now the food,” she said.
“No, no, no!” Jennifer called out, trying to grab the packet from Debbie,
“Not yet! We have to wait 5 days,” Eve explained.
Debbie shouted, pinching Jennifer’s hand, who in turn began to cry.
“When do they hatch?” Debbie inquired.
“In three days,” Eve responded. “We can finish reading our booklets until the next meeting.”
“Meeting adjourned,” Jennifer pouted.
Three days later, the girls were disappointed to find, instead of the little creatures depicted in the cartoons, hundreds of little white points darting through the water. They discovered that if they held a flashlight to the tank, the babies would swirl and gyrate toward the light.
After many long days, a dozen adults emerged. The girls had meetings in which they recorded the names of these adults. Debbie complained that they didn’t look like the cartoon; they were almost transparent. Nurse Jennifer suggested Red Magic to give them color. The red hue helped make them more visible, but the Sea Monkeys® seemed to Eve more fish or bacteria-like than monkey-like… more scaly, than cuddly.
A week passed and the girls affection for their new pets grew. They especially enjoyed wearing their Sea Monkey® amulets wherever they went. But after a couple of days, Zeek, one of Jennifer’s males, floated to the top of the crystal pendant. A meeting was held immediately. It was clear that unless the girls restored their pets to the Ocean Zoo each night , they would die in the little crystal ball.
The next evening Debbie was in tears and called for a meeting. Pixie had gotten stuck in the rubber part of the eyedropper. The girls held a funeral. There was some discussion about where to burry her, since Eve believed that if she dried up, she’d become an egg sack, then come back to life as hundreds of other babies. She had heard of a jellyfish that reproduced this way too, when it was threatened. But the thought of leaving her on the table to dry out seemed distasteful, especially with Mittens, Eve’s cat, prowling the club house. In the end, Pixie was buried in the maiden hair fern with prayers that she transform into new growth or more eggs.
Everything went smoothly for several months. One or two adults would die, but by then, some of the juniors would reach maturation and there were a few more babies around. Then for some reason, Debbie’s Sea Monkeys® kept dying without any more coming to take their place. Another meeting. Debbie was depressed that now only one Sea Monkey® remained.
“Let’s each give Debbie some of ours,” Eve suggested.
“But what if her water kills them? Let’s write to the Trans whatever company.”
After some investigation they learned that they could order some more purifier and eggs. They were just about to send in the $5, when Debbie and Jennifer’s father got wind of it.
“You’ve got to be kiddin! You can get tons of Brine shrimp at any fish store for a quarter of that price!”
So the next Saturday, the girls took the La Cienega bus toward Sunset Boulevard, where there was a tremendous tropical fish store.
“Do you have any shrimp?” Jennifer inquired.
“Shrimp? No, I’m sorry,” the young man said.
“No, bry shrimp,” Eve corrected.
“You mean brine shrimp?” the skinny, pimply clerk asked.
The girls nodded enthusiastically.
The salesboy lead them to a green tank packed with what looked like large healthy Sea Monkeys®.
“Look at that!” the girls cried out.
“Must be thousands of adults!” Eve exclaimed.
“How much do you want?” the salesboy inquired.
“How much are a dozen?” Eve asked.
“A dozen? I wouldn’t know. The smallest amount we sell is a cup full. See this plastic bag?”
“Woah! There must be hundreds of adults in there!” Debbie was almost jumping up and down.
“How much is that?” Jennifer asked.
“No way!” Debbie blurted out. The other two girls told her to “Shhhh.”
“We’ll take three bags!” Eve said.
“Three? Why not… Debbie counted on her fingers…. Six?!”
“Okay, six,” the sales boy said. When he was finished he handed the girls their bags.
They just stood there grinning, looking at their thousands of Sea Monkeys®.
“How come–?” Debbie blurted out. Jennifer jabbed an elbow into her side.
“Why?” She glared at Jennifer.
Eve struggled with herself and asked the question they had all been wanting to know. They had already paid. The man couldn’t suddenly realize it was a mistake and charge them more.
“Why only a quarter each cup?”
The salesboy laughed. “You think fish food should cost more?” he laughed. “You remind me—“ He walked over to the tank and scooped up another cup of Sea Monkeys®. Then he walked over to a tank full of beautiful yellow and black angel fish and poured the contents of the cup inside. The girls watched in horror as the dark puckering lips of the Angel Fish sucked up the Sea Monkeys®. They could even see one or two struggling as their torsos snapped.
Jennifer and Eve had turned away, almost bolting from the store. They were joined a few minutes later by Debbie, who had remained inside, watching. There were tears in Jennifer’s eyes.
“These aren’t Sea Monkeys®. They can’t be,” Debbie said. “Want mine?”
“They probably die within days, “ Jennifer said.
They walked the rest of the way in silence.
The club was disbanded within a week of that outing. Partially owing to the girls’ depreciated fondness for Sea Monkeys®, but mostly owing to the fact that upon their arrival home that evening, Debbie and Jennifer learned that his last week of duty, their brother had stepped on a mine, ending his life.