I caught a merman once, swimming under
that iron bridge near Wacker and Orleans.
I lured him out of the water by dangling
liverwurst sandwiches from fishing line.
I thought I would keep him safe, a short
while only, behind my bedroom door.
He smelled like the thawed slush of late
February snow, or maybe it was more like dirty
rain and molding, half-finished milk cartons.
Either way he was humidity, a slick thing
that talked and spit, touched and licked his
lips. But my merman longed for light, for
air, for a breeze warm and certain enough to
lift him past the concrete horizon he’d stared
at from his riverbed. He began to wake at dawn,
whistling Papageno’s Aria, circling the classifieds
with a sharpie that squeaked and grated my nerves.
He found a gig baking bread. When he came home
at night he smelled of dust, pollen, flour – of things
that crumble and dissolve in strange, heaping clouds
and quantities, then take shape and reform only to
collapse once more. I thought of tossing him back
into the river. The very last time I saw him, I asked
him, red-faced and threatening tears, if he’d already
forgotten how to breathe water. He smiled so wide I
thought I saw points of aching stars, dim and lost like
lighthouses, gleaming from the back of his mouth. The
merman shook his head. No, no, he replied, not yet.