Saturday, June 26, 1999
In Georgia, we got wet. Not only clinging humidity. Squalling rain.
“Pull over,” I told Tom, after six weeks of barely interfering with his driving.
“Here?” he asked.
The rain was coming down so hard we couldn’t even see out the windshield. The wipers couldn’t keep up. Even the dog was making sinking sounds.
“Or take the next exit and park under something dry.”
Tom didn’t want to pull over, afraid someone might hit us. But since no one in arid Tucson had taught him to pull off the road when you couldn’t see, he would’ve kept driving.
Through my open window, I guided him to the shoulder, then to an exit and an abandoned gas station. For twenty-minutes we sat under its rusting canopy, both truck doors open, till the rain merely resembled a storm. The dog had never seen lightning before and wasn’t pleased.
“It never stays hard for long,” I told Tom. “You just have to get out of it.”
“How come other people kept driving?” he asked.
“Why are there accidents?”
Several hours later, we were safely in Orlando, where we had friends. We hadn’t intended to see Disneyworld, having our own version near home. But our friends said the Mouse had the best food.
The penthouse restaurant was fine, though even at ten PM, it was jammed. We finished after midnight, made a quick tour of a Teddy-Roosevelt-on-acid hotel, then scrammed. But I did like the stream that flowed under a rustic bridge, into a swimming pool, then, after another footbridge, turned back into a stream.
“It’s an illusion,” one of my friends—a theme park designer—explained. “The pool’s filtered. The streams aren’t. And the three aren’t connected.”
Leave it to Walt.
On the other side of the state is the Weekee Watchi Water Ballet. Let me say that again: The Weekee Watchi Water Ballet. It’s an institution, like Spam, created in the late nineteen-thirties to lure tourists to the swamps.
Because Florida was warm, but boring, and up north it was winter. And who wouldn’t want to pause on the way to Tampa and St. Pete, to see two-dozen beautiful girls, swimming underwater in a huge, blue, grotto.
Did I mention they were naked?
Or nearly naked. Though that meant far better covered in the timid thirties.
The Water Ballet held on till the mid-fifties, with shows Every Hour on the Hour—Rain or Shine. Finally, even regular visits from The Today Show couldn’t keep them alive. And just as the water-skiing beauties of Coral Gables downsized, so did Weekee Watchi. Now it’s a kid musical.
There are only four, not-so-beautiful women in fish tails. And a wayward guy. Doing the Definitely-Not-Disney version of, what else, The Little Mermaid.
How the sexy have fallen.
We went anyway. Not the dog—she was caged in a outdoor kennel. Tom and I paid thirteen bucks each, which also allowed entrance to the adjoining water park, and slipped down concrete steps into a half-underground, damp-smelling theater. You find seats along a backless bench—they’re expecting kids straight from the pool—and stare at this CinemaScope wide, though only-bathroom high, shower curtain. When that gathers jerkily upward, you’re looking at a giant fish tank.
Then, The Lovely appears. Okay, her hair’s bleached, aging-chorus-girl style (what do you expect from an actual chlorine?) and she’s not exactly graceful as a fish—not even one on a hook. And she is on a hook, kind of: ‘Cause though she wears no breathing apparatus of any kind, there’s this air hose floating nearby. (That’s always been the Weekee Watchi trademark.) And every-so-often, this vision gracefully approaches the hose, eases it between her elegant lips, and gulps for oxygen.
Before the curtain actually goes up, a stage manager’s voice announces, “This may be too scary for some youngsters.” And she’s right. But it’s not funny enough for adults.
Though in my mind, and helped by a wall full of forties photos in The Mermaid Museum—actually a bar, only open evenings—I could imagine those twenty-four bountiful maidens tumbling through bubbles from their hidden airlocks every hour—challenging the Depression, a war, then suburban sprawl. The airlocks are hidden under a ledge in the aquarium stage, which seemed little changed from those museum glossies. So I could still almost see those water Rockettes forming dolphin circles, doing line kicks, and playing Playboy fantasy tag. And say what you will about the present floaters—discounting the land-bound guy—it takes some skill to hover effortlessly in the water, eyes open, grinning, mouthing words to unhearable songs.
“Is there any chance they’ll restore the old show?” I asked the woman taking tickets as we went out.
“We have new owners,” she shrugged. “Since March. We’ll see what they can do.” Unsaid was, “They may just close the whole thing down.”
At least, they could put out a souvenir booklet—a tribute to Mermaids Past. Though I suppose the kids, and their almost as-young parents, wouldn’t care. And anyone older, driving past and pausing for aquacade memories, would be better off renting an old Esther Williams flick
“Who?” the kids might ask.
Madonna. In Spandex..
We also took a slight side trip, ten miles down a once-barely-used road, to an old motel bordering Weekee Watchi. I didn’t tell Tom why. The place had new siding and paint, though still looked worn. “We’ve both come through,” I wanted to tell it quietly, but the place was only concrete block and wouldn’t have understood. I’d lost my virginity there, one lost Thanksgiving. I’d like to say it was terrific. But I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.