An excerpt from a work in progress — the 1960’s story of a Florida girl who found love, lost it and became a legend in the world of a mermaid theme park.
Light. Water. Magic. The audience made a wavy blur on the opposite side of the glass wall; the water filtered their applause, distanced it, dreamlike. The limestone rocks glowed in soft greens and pinks; behind them, the shadows of the spring’s wild edges created a dark, mysterious backdrop for the performance. Racine pivoted and dived, somersaulted and smiled in sync with the other performers. Her lungs were plump and happy with stored air. Pirouetting in a spiral as natural as a periwinkle twisting its way into creamy sand, she took her turn and disappeared behind a rock, waved at the fellow mermaid who had just finished the same ritual, then slipped the end of an oxygen tube between her lipsticked lips and gracefully inhaled new breath. Without missing an undulation she merged again with the other girls; all curling arms and sex appeal and bright underwater smiles. Awed children crept from the audience and pressed their faces to the glass wall, staring, wide-eyed at Racine and the others. The muted applause rose to a crescendo of soft thunder.
Racine cried sometimes from happiness when she performed. Underwater, no one could tell.
The first time she swam at Weeki Wachee, during auditions for the mermaid show, she looked down happily at the soft, mysterious, turbulent darkness far below the spring’s surface. Hello to all you Chinamen down there.
In terms of water power, Weeki Wachee dwarfed the Coohatchee. It’s sparkling depths filled a craggy limestone pool as big as a football field, then overflowed into a river deep enough to allow entrance to sweet, ponderous manatees who sometimes nuzzled the performers in the midst of a show. During the war Navy divers in heavy suits and helmets had explored more than a hundred feet down, but still found no bottom. They were nearly bowled over by the spring’s powerful vents, where water shot from limestone bedrock as if from fire hoses, threatening to tumble or trap even the strongest swimmer. The divers reported that the spring rose out of grand underwater caves tall enough to stand in. Who knew how far those fabulous and mysterious roots might reach?
Racine loved everything about working at Weeki Wachee. It was no small honor to be selected as one of the twenty girls in the legendary swimming troupe. A mermaid had to be able to hold her breath while smiling, miming the words to a song, changing costumes behind a rock, and even pretending to eat a banana or drink soda — a bit of razzle-dazzle that always brought wild applause from the audience.
A mermaid had not only to be pretty, athletic, and graceful, but also brave enough not to panic when small alligators occasionally joined the show. After all, the auditorium was part of the spring’s open basin. The theater’s pastel wooden structure curved along one shore. Audiences walked down steps to tiers of seats sixteen feet beneath the spring’s surface, where a long glass wall made a window into the spring’s beautiful water, glowing with pastel lights.
“This place’s like a huge fish tank, and we’re the fish on display,” one girl said with a shudder during the auditions. “I bet some folks tap on the glass just to see if we’ll hide like trout.”
“I’ll never hide,” Racine told her. “I’m not a trout. I’m a princess of the water, and people are meant to admire me.”
Indeed, at Weeki Wachee she became a star. The audience loved her. People wanted to pose for pictures with her; children wanted her autograph, and cute college boys from the University of Florida, over in Gainesville, asked her out on dates, which was against Weeki Wachee policy. She’d obeyed the rules proudly and had dreamed of a long future in the bright lights beneath the water. She’d even worked as an extra in a Hollywood movie filmed at the springs. Mr. Peabody And The Mermaid, starring William Powell. Her scene had been cut from the final movie, but still. There she was, immortalized on film, at least in spirit.
“I’m a mermaid and a movie actress,” she had taken to telling people.
And a good mermaid virgin. Truly. Unlike The Little Mermaid, Racine waited wisely for a prince who wouldn’t ask her to sacrifice her fins.
One day, she found him. Or thought she had.
John Van der Vondray the fourth, of the Massachusetts Van der Vondrays, came to Florida for the same reason as every other red-blooded college student. Spring Break. Weeki Wachee Springs was supposed to be just a quick laugh stop for him and his fraternity buddies, who were headed to the Gulf beaches after two days of non-stop driving. All they really wanted were some wholesome Weeki Wachee postcards to send Mumsie and Dads as evidence that Spring Break was about something other than beer and sex.
For Racine, posing in full fin for visitors and their boxy little Kodaks was usually a great part of the job. She smiled as old men kissed her cheek and teenage boys gawked in blushing arousal; she was super-nice to the women and teenage girls so they wouldn’t think she was a tramp, or stuck-up. She doted on the children, who gazed at her in utter wonder.
“Every girl is a mermaid at heart,” she’d tell them, “and every boy has to earn the right to a mermaid’s love. Being a mermaid means a girl is true and strong and trustworthy. Like being a Scout, only with flippers.”
But the college boys came just to leer and laugh. They showed no respect. Hey gorgeous, what’s hidden in your tail? Is your lipstick waterproof? Let me test it.
Another college guy walked up as they were hooting at her. He frowned then turned to the others and said in a stern, exotically crisp, Yankee accent, “That’ll be enough, you apes.”
The apes shrugged, laughed tightly, then wandered off as if they owned the sunshine because they could afford polished loafers and fancy slacks and golf shirts. Racine’s rescuer smiled at her. “I apologize. You must put up with a lot of junk from ignorant people. Personally, I think you’re the only girl I’ve ever met who looks perfectly happy to be who she is.”
Racine stared in hypnotized silence. An aura of quiet confidence radiated from him. He held her gaze without dropping his eyes to her heavily pleated bra, even once. At least not when she noticed, which was fine. He was tall and lean and handsomely long-faced, with big, sweet, dark-blue eyes and a broad smile. She felt as if she were floating in his gaze, lost in ethereal water instead of perched on a blue-painted granite rock by a TAKE YOUR PICTURE WITH A WEEKI WACHEE MERMAID sign. She had never been speechless before in her entire life, yet there she was, deprived of a tongue like a demon-strangled woman she’d seen once at a Pentecostal tent revival near Palatka.
“It’s bad luck,” she finally managed, “to treat a mermaid with disrespect.”
He nodded. Didn’t laugh at her nonsense. “May I sit down? Will you tell me what it’s like to be a mermaid?”
Racine went speechless, again. She pointed to a small bench beside her rock. He levered his tall form onto the kid-sized bench without any obvious embarrassment.
Racine Darlene McEvers, meet John Crispin Van der Vondray, the Fourth.
That was the ice breaker. Racine blurted, “I have never in my life heard a last name as long as yours. How wide do they have to make the grave stones in your family cemetery? How do you sign a check without scribbling off into thin air? When the teacher called out the “who’s here” list in first grade, did she have to break for a sip of water after your name? And you’re the fourth one they’ve named thisaway? Your folks sure must have a sense of humor.”
He laughed so hard he almost turned the bench over. Racine grinned at him and gently flexed her filmy tail fins in the sweet spring air. When he quieted he wiped his eyes and shook his head. “No, I’m afraid my family has no sense of humor whatsoever. Just a great deal of unbending tradition.”
“Where’s did they come up with a name like Vander . . . Vandervoodle, or whatever you said?”
He explained that it was a peculiar – maybe even one-of-a-kind – family name, cobbled together somewhere in Europe five-hundred years earlier, long before his ancestors set sail for Plymouth Rock. “Dutch and German,” he told Racine, “with a bit of royalty thrown in. The Vander is a Dutch suffix, like saying “son of,” and the von means German nobility. The dray comes from Drayfus. So you might say it means I’m a son of the royal Drayfus. ” He watched her carefully as he spoke. “Drayfus. That’s an old Jewish name.”
If he’d expected Racine to clutch her heavily brassiered bosom in Southern cracker shock – a Jew! Or at least a glimpse of one from five hundred years ago! – he didn’t understand Racine in particular or mermaids in general. She’d never forgotten the government water man who’d shared his fantastic notions about the Coohatchee when she was a child. Preachers could say whatever they wanted about Jews going to Hell, but in Racine’s mind anybody who shared her passion for the waters of the world wasn’t destined to end up in a fiery pit.
“So you’re a royal Dutch German Jew Yankee,” she said to John solemnly, nodding as if she met such a combination every day. “No wonder you need a long name to cover all that.”
He smiled widely, and the slight, tense hunch of his shoulders relaxed. “I suppose the Massachusetts accent gave me away.”
“Massachusetts? That’s not just Yankee. That’s Damn Yankee.”
They laughed together. She flexed her fins. Flirting was forbidden, but who could say that a little bounce of the flippers was anything but natural mermaid instincts? He hunched forward with his chin propped on his hands and his elbows propped on his updrawn knees, looking silly and charming on the little bench, his attention riveted to her. “Please,” he said. “I really want to know what’s it like being a mermaid.”
Racine started talking and couldn’t stop. And he listened. He really listened. He was special. She loved him, by then.
Eventually he mentioned that his father was in shipping – as in owning a fleet of cargo ships, to Racine’s astonishment – and that he had other business ventures as well, including some connected to Joe Kennedy. That name meant nothing to Racine, except that John mentioned playing touch football at Hyannis Port with a Kennedy son who planned to run for U.S. Senate.
“So?” she said, flustered. “Running for something and gettin’ it are two different things.”
“You’re just not impressed by much, are you?” John answered. “Not impressed by money and college boys from Yankee states, that’s for certain.”
“Nope. Because I know who I am, I’m an aqua theatrical actress. I uphold a tradition of mermaid womanhood that is smart and classy and choosy. I grew up in a fish camp knowing how to catch brim and bait a crawdad trap and make hush puppies out of coarse corn meal and lard and a little sugar. I won’t ever go hungry. I know who I am, and I’m a mermaid. So I don’t need to be impressed by much.” She paused, feeling her face turn hot, her eyes wanting to be shy. “But I am impressed by you. Because you know who you are, too.”
“I’m the guy who’s going to marry you,” he answered.
After another speechless moment, she agreed that he was right.