It Came From the Bottom of the Lake (1954)
Cuts through the water like shears through velvet. Like an arrow through the apple on a little boy’s head. Like any number of sharp things through lovely, yielding softness.
The suit and mask hide his tan leanness, his dark curling hair. The webbing on his feet makes it easier to move in the water, but harder to walk to the canvas chair with his name on the back. Harder to light the cigarettes he smokes one after another.
The girls on set—the extras, make-up and wardrobe, even the producer’s wife—talk about the stuntman. They gather by the craft services table, picking at the limp lettuce that garnishes the actual food, and lament how the mask covers his smile, one corner of his mouth quirked up into a dimple. They watch him leave the set in a little red sports car and wonder who, if anyone, gets to sit beside, bare legs burning in the California sun.
The Stuntman is playing the monster, but only for the underwater scenes. Another actor—taller and with a name more recognizable and easier to pronounce than his—is the monster for the rest of the movie.
They shoot the movie out of order. The first day the Actor staggers dying into the water until the director yells cut. The Stuntman replaces him, exhaling every ounce of breath as he sinks to the bottom of the pool. As he sinks, he thinks of the actor sweat-slick inside his monster suit. Their bodies twinned. As he waits for the sign to resurface, he imagines strong arms reaching into the depths, pulling him back toward the sunlit surface.
Takes five but he can’t rest. His suit is thick foam rubber, inflexible and hot. He waits for action in the man-made lake on the backlot, the one the studio uses to film water battles for adventure flicks. Model ship firing upon model ship. His feet crush the skeletons of balsa wood wrecks as a production assistant sprays him with a hose to keep him from overheating.
The Actor was hired for his height—6’5” in his socks. He towers over the actress, the director, even the stuntman. Even without the suit, the actor is always separate. Too tall to fit in the makeup trailer or the extras’ cabana or the Stuntman’s little red sports car.
In the movie, the Monster is in love with the lady scientist. The Actor feels like he’s cheating, that he’s not really doing his work. He is never acting because he is in love with the Actress. When the monster drags the lady scientist into its underwater cavern, the actor is carrying her over the threshold of his hotel suite. He tries to beam tenderness through layers of foam rubber. Tries to touch gently, even though he can’t feel a thing.
Isn’t in love with anybody, except maybe herself when she swims. In the water, her body is fully hers. Shoulder arms legs hands all working to move her forward.
She was a mermaid at a Florida tourist trap when the director discovered her. She lived a life underwater—waving at sunburnt families from Pittsburgh, combing her hair, hanging clothes on a line. Even submerged, she was expected to be domestic. Her tail weighed 45 pounds.
She had been a championship swimmer in high school, all-county, all-district, and was the best swimmer of all the mermaids. She thought that’s why the director approached her, business card outstretched, but no. He needed a blonde for his movie. He needed a blonde who could smile underwater.
Is making a movie about a team of scientists who discover a monster, a creature amphibious and hideous in its capacity to love. And to kill. He is making a movie about the Curiosity of Man and the Wonders of Science. He is making a movie about Discovery. But the Monster does not want to be discovered.
Waits lonely at the bottom of the lake. It does not understand the studio lights or the sound of the motor boat’s propellers or why all the fish have suddenly gone.
The Monster lies in the weeds and the silt, too hungry to move, and watches creamy white calves kick by. Watches a creature sink to the lake’s bottom. Watches a creature rise to the sun of the surface.
The Monster lurks in muck at the bottom of the lake and waits for the cue to make itself known.
Meghan Phillips is a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her flash fiction chapbook Abstinence Only is forthcoming from Barrelhouse Books. You can find her writing at meghan-phillips.com and her tweets at @mcarphil.
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