The Last Show at the Wreck Bar
By Kevin Joseph
This is unusual for me. Usually, when I’m done with a story, I’m done with it. This time, however I have to write it again. I just keep getting stuck on the difference between the truth and the facts. If you happened to read the newspaper article I wrote about the last show at The Wreck Bar you got the facts. This time what I tell you can not be verified. This time I’ll write the truth.
The phone rang at 10:41 AM. Way too early after a night of way too many.
“And good morning to you, too,” it was Gail; an old friend from my newspaper days. We’d started at nearly the same time. Gail had climbed the ladder while I had, well while I hadn’t.
“Got something for you.”
“Don’t want it.”
“Checked your calendar?”
“I know what day it is, Gail.” I did not know what day it was.
“Then you know the docking fees are due at the end of next week. Just take it. It’s a simple fluff feature with photos. I can get you six hundred: three for the story and three for six good shots.”
I was rooting around the boat looking for yesterday’s paper. You don’t pay rent on a houseboat, but with monthly docking fees, you might as well. Gail was right; we were at the end of the month and I had to come up with some cash or I was going to have to find a new place to dock. The story would take one afternoon, finding a new place to live would take weeks.
“Give me the particulars,” I said as I plugged in my coffee maker.
Gail is one of the good ones. She stayed loyal even after some of the fires I’d started in the newsroom. She practically wrote the story for me over the phone, all I had to do was get a couple quotes and be sure there was a charged battery in my camera and this would be a six hundred gift from her to me.
I arrived at the Yankee Clipper on Fort Lauderdale Beach around four in the afternoon. I walked through the lobby and eased my way to the bar. Don’t worry I don’t drink when I’m working. That’s why I work so infrequently.
The bar was the story. The Wreck Bar was closing for renovations, and after decades of performances, tonight was the last Mermaid Show during the remodeling, and perhaps ever. I was here to chronicle the end of a South Florida tradition.
The Wreck Bar had been a hell of an idea. With The Yankee Clipper sitting on the beach, a water theme is obvious, but what they did was not. From the lobby to the bar is about 50 yards, snaking around a curved wall. As you curve along the hallway the floor slopes gently down. By the time you reach the bar, you’re actually one floor below ground without ever going down steps or stairs.
The walls are covered in dark wood, built to resemble the galley of a merchant ship. There’s very little light, just enough to find your seat, except for a cool blue glow emanating from the windows behind the bar. The glow comes from the hotel pool, which was built just on the other side of the bar, but here’s the brilliant little quirk: because the bar is below ground, you are not looking out onto the pool patio, you are looking out into the pool itself.
The entire bar is designed to look and feel like you are trapped inside a wrecked ship at the bottom of the ocean. And for the last fifty years, every Friday night at five, hotel guests are removed from the pool so women employed by the hotel can dress up as mermaids and swim by the windows.
Tourists eat the mermaid show up. And I have to admit so did I. Kitschy, sure. But the girls have trained well and move with the grace and beauty of underwater ballerinas. The form fitting tails hugging the girl’s waists, legs and butts didn’t hurt the entertainment value in my eyes either.
As the first girl swam by the bar in her tail and clam bikini top; flashes strobed the inside of the glass. Like the kickoff of the Super Bowl, everyone wanted a photo to prove they were here. I waited a moment until she floated into the middle window of the bar so my photo wouldn’t be ruined by someone else’s flash, and also so I could frame her better. Her red hair glowed in the afternoon sun and spread out behind her like a school of remoras following a shark.
The bartender told me her name was Ariel, “Like that little mermaid.” I hadn’t needed the clarification, but did put the quote in the newspaper article. After Ariel came a blonde that did not look like Daryl Hannah, but was called Madison anyway. After Madison, a raven haired beauty covered in tattoos that the bartender called Cher.
Cher I needed clarification on. “You know. Cher. The singer. She did that movie “Mermaids.”
“But I don’t think that was about…”
“We don’t do this for realism, honey.” That particular quote I chose not to include in the article.
But Cher did make it in. She had a tattoo of a bouquet of roses growing out of barbed wire around her waist and up her rib cage. The tat drew the attention of a little girl near me. “How did she get tattoos underwater, Daddy?” she asked.
He thought for a moment, “I think they use octopus ink,” he answered.
She nodded in agreement, “That must be what they use.”
The fourth and final girl’s hair wasn’t any color. Or it was every color. I couldn’t tell. It shimmered as a rainbow; as beautiful and as intangible. I took several shots of her, but none ended up in the piece. I’d missed the focus on her and every shot came out muddy and unclear.
“What’s that one’s name?” I asked the bartender.
“Oh her? That’s Sessepoli.”
I searched my memory for any Sessepoli in modern fiction, but could find none. “Where’s that from?”
“I don’t know. Listen Bub, these girls ain’t the only ones losin’ their jobs for six months. I gotta squeeze every nickel out of this show I can.” With that, she was off to the other side of the bar.
I snapped plenty of photos of the crowd, and the swimmers, and even one little girl that the hotel let swim with the mermaids. She was decked out in her own little mermaid tail and was swimming with Ariel. This was the shot that ended up as the teaser on the front page: got an extra two hundred for that, thank you very much, Gail.
The show was winding down, and I had plenty of material from inside, so I moseyed up to ground level and walked out to the pool. For about ten minutes I watched as the girls would come up and wait in the corner, out of view from the people below. When it was their turn, they’d take a deep breath and dive down to swim in front of the windows.
I tried holding my breath when Sessepoli and Madison went down for a tandem dive. I was gasping for air a full minute before Madison came up. It was a good deal longer before Sessepoli returned to the surface.
“Fuckin’ showoff,” Cher said as she readied her own dive. Sessepoli giggled and went to the corner to wait.
A few minutes later a manager came out and told the girls it was last dive. All four took in a deep breath and swam down together. A grand finale I guess. I wished I hadn’t come up at that point. The photo I missed was probably breathtaking.
One by one the girls came up and out of the water. Madison emerged first. She rolled onto the pool and up into a chair. She put a long navy blue T-shirt, before removing the bikini top from underneath. She covered her tail with a towel and wiggled out of the contraption. Madison slipped on some short shorts and flip flops and I decided it was safe to come over.
“I’m doing an article on the show, can I sit down?”
“Of course!” she said. Out of the pool and in normal clothes I realized how young she was; maybe eighteen if even that. I asked how she got into the show.
“I came here when I was a kid and loved it. Plus I got into drama in school and I’m a natural performer, so I came out one afternoon and asked to join the group. I was accepted on my first audition.”
I asked what she would do now that the show was off.
“It’s perfect timing,” she leaned forward. “I’m graduating this year and then I’m going to go off to New York and act.”
“New York, huh?”
“Or LA. I haven’t decided if I should start on Broadway or in movies.”
“Well, I wish you all the luck in the world.” She smiled a smile that told me she didn’t need luck and I smiled back. I envied her arrogance of youth. And I made a wish there that she would find the success she was looking for without the hardships I envisioned. She might be right; she might be the next Megan Fox, or Pam Anderson. It can happen, but the math was not on her side.
Ariel had gotten out of the pool and gotten dressed while I spoke with Madison. But she breezed by me without a word.
Cher came up and rolled onto the pool tile. She pulled off her bikini top in front of me. After she’d put on a shirt she pulled off the tail. The brazenness of her nudity startled me. I turned away for a moment to let her put on her sweat pants. But will admit I’d caught enough to know these mermaids wore nothing under there tails.
“That one was free, buddy. You want to see anymore you should come to my club.”
And it made more sense. “Where else do you work?”
Cher sat down on the deck chair next to me and lit a cigarette. “Pure Platinum on Federal Highway.”
“Do you do this for extra cash?”
“You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me. We get 25 bucks a week to do this shit. I make that in five minutes at the club.”
“Why do you do it?”
She stared off into the night. “It’s nice…”
I didn’t understand.
“My mom can come here to see me work. She knows I dance, of course, but this she can tell her friends about.”
“What’ll you do if the show doesn’t return.”
“It’ll be good. I’m going to start dancing on Fridays. So it’ll be a great thing for me moneywise.” She stared off again.
“But print this: the people tearing this place down are pricks. Why would you remodel something that’s already perfect?”
“Can I change the word pricks to jerks?”
“Yeah, do what you gotta do,” and Cher got up to leave.
“Listen I’ve got a great shot of you from inside. If you want I could email it to you. You could print it for your mom.” I handed her a piece of paper with my email address on it.
Over Cher’s shoulder I saw Sessepoli crawl up and out of the pool. Her hair looked auburn in the sunset; but speckled gold and green as well. She wrapped a towel around her mermaid suit.
“That would be good,” Cher took another drag from her cigarette. “My real name’s Cherise, but if you come up to the club I’m Cherry, I’ll give you a dance in return for the photo.”
“Just send me your email, Cherise. I’ll send you the photo. No charge.”
And Cherise/Cher/Cherry left the pool deck. So far she hasn’t emailed me for the photo. I wonder if I should take it to her at the club. I know she wants it, but I can’t decide if it’s a good idea to merge her two worlds.
I walked over to Sessepoli who was dried off and standing, but still wore the towel around her waist. “May I ask you some questions for a piece in the paper?”
“Yes, but do you mind walking with me. I’d like to be somewhere else right now.”
“Of course,” I said. Sessepoli led me off of the patio to a gate which opened to the beach. “How long have you been doing the show?”
“Sometimes it seems like a very long time, but now that it’s over…” she trailed off. She walked a few steps, then dug her toes in the sand. “Now that it’s over, not long enough.”
“Why? What do you get out of this? I heard the pay is atrocious.”
Sessepoli laughed into the darkening night. “Yeah. None of us do this for the money.”
Sessepoli walked away from me, off toward the shore. She bent down and picked up a plastic bag half buried in the sand. She held the bag up for me to inspect. “What did it take us, fifteen feet maybe, before we ran across garbage on this beach? How much could we find if we really started looking?”
I followed her over to a garbage can where she placed the bag. “It’s worse out there,” she gestured to the ocean. “You wouldn’t believe what you could find in the water without even trying: plastics rings, bags, cans, oil from your boats choking the creatures of the sea.”
“Is it that bad?”
“It was that bad fifty years ago. It’s worse today.”
“So you look at the mermaid show as what… an education?”
Sessepoli dropped her towel and took off the bikini top. The sun was almost gone, but I could tell by her outline that she was completely nude. I’ll admit that my glimpse of Cher had been exciting. But the outline of Sessepoli’s body in the last rays of sun was something different altogether. It was lovely. It was intoxicating.
Sessepoli was completely ignorant of the effect she was having on me. She started for the water.
“Sessepoli, that’s your name right?” I asked. She stopped and looked at me as if she had forgotten I was there.”
“Yes, I’m Sessepoli.”
I continued, “I was asking why you do the mermaid shows?”
“I just thought that if people thought there was something out there… Something closer to them than the fish or the dolphins or the whales, maybe they’d change. I know nobody really believes in mermaids, but if I could show them something beautiful that calls the ocean home, maybe they’d take a little bit better care of the sea.”
“Maybe it worked,” I said, trying to convince myself as much as her. “Maybe the people who came to the shows were affected. There’s no saying that it wouldn’t be worse without you.”
Sessepoli stepped into me and embraced me in a hug. He breasts rubbed into my chest and she stepped up to kiss me softly on the cheek. He body was smoldering; as if she had a 110 degree fever.
“Do you feel alright,” I asked.
“I’m fine,” she answered. “It’s a nice thought. Maybe we did make a difference, maybe not enough of a difference, but a difference none the same.”
She pulled out of my arms and walked closer to the breaking waves. “Can I give you a ride home?” I asked over the sound of the ocean.
“No thank you, I’m going to go for a swim.”
“I’ll wait til’ you’re done,” a comment that made Sessepoli laugh.
“You’ll be waiting a long time. I hope your article comes out nice,” Sessepoli said before taking three running steps and diving into the water.
“I think it will,” I answered to myself. She was already twenty feet out into the water. Sessepoli took a final dive, splashing water violently behind her. It was very dark as I watched her disappear into the sea. And I’ll never be sure if that really was a tail I saw submerging right behind her.
The fact is a woman swam out into the ocean that night and never returned. The truth in my heart is; she wasn’t a woman at all.