WEEKI WACHEE—I am walking into the Mermaid Theater in Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to see the mermaids. Ten minutes until showtime.
This is your quintessential old-time Florida tourist attraction. In the small underground aquatic theater are young and old people seated on benches, waiting to get their money’s worth.
Sitting beside me is little girl wearing a Disney T-shirt. “Are we gonna see muh-mays, Mama?” she says.
“Just be patient,” says her mother.
The theater has been here since 1947. It is a memory from an era when Florida tourists used to pack the family into a four-door Ford Country Squire station wagon and hit the road for vacation.
The elderly couple on my other side is from Upstate New York. “Yeah, I’ve seen the mermaids several times,” the lady says. “Came when I was a kid. The training the mermaids go through is really difficult, I admire them.”
Her husband winks at me. “I admire them, too.”
A cheesy trumpet fanfare comes over the loudspeaker. We are all watching the glass windows which display underwater views of Weeki Wachee’s natural springs. The room has a bluish, underwater hue to it. Sort of like floating at the bottom of a public pool—only without Johnny Cooper yelling, “Marco!” every two seconds.
The worst game ever invented was Marco Polo, wherein in a child closes his eyes and wanders around a swimming pool trying to find his friends by shouting “Marco!”
Theoretically, if his friends are Christians, they will answer “Polo!” But if his friends are, for instance, Satan worshippers, they will say nothing. Whereupon the boy searches for thirty minutes with his eyes closed until he realizes something is wrong.
Finally the lifeguard, who has been watching the whole thing, has enough mercy to say, “Open your eyes, kid, they’ve all gone home.”
Friends don’t let friends play Marco Polo. Remember that.
The mermaids make their appearance. The theater applauds. There is an old man and his grandson in front of me. The grandson is maybe thirteen. Old enough to still be interested in mermaids, but not for the right reasons.
But it’s hard to pass judgment on a kid like this. For I, too, was born male. And males of any age have a strange interest in mermaids.
I remember my uncle’s friend, Mister Jay, had a tattoo of a mermaid on his forearm. He would only show it to us when our parents weren’t around. He’d roll up his sleeve. Admission was free.
“Wow!” my buddy Larry once remarked. “What a tattoo!”
“She looks so healthy!” said Tyler.
“Get a load of those dorsal fins,” said my cousin Ed Lee.
Then Mister Jay would flex his forearm muscles and make the healthful mermaid dance. It was a good time to be alive.
The thirteen-year-old whispers to the old man, “These memaids are dumb, Grandpa.”
“No they’re not,” says the old man. “I saw them when I was your age, I promise it’s worth it.”
As it happens, I tried to see the Weeki Wachee mermaids when I was young. When we got to the gates, the park was closed. It was a huge disappointment.
At the time, I was probably a lot like Thirteen, who pretends not to care about aquatic ballet whatsoever. But he is clearly lying. Because when the show starts he shoots up like popcorn.
We see a handful of mermaids swim past the windows. And it’s great. They do tricks, loops, figure-eights, backflips, you name it.
Thirteen looks at his granddaddy with a sideways look that males have been perfecting throughout ancient history. It’s a look which seems to say, “Now this is an attractive woman, my good man.” Males can communicate this entire sentence using only their eyebrows.
Women can make facial expressions like this, too, whenever they see a nice-looking man. But women are better at hiding it.
A woman can send a sonar message to each of her female friends within a three-mile radius that says, “Tom Selleck is in the building,” without ever breaking eye-contact with her husband who probably has booger crust on his nostrils.
The underwater show is impressive. The entire crowd—all nine of us—clap when the mermaids take a final bow. We are told that the performers can hear our applause behind the glass, so we make it loud.
The boy claps harder than anyone else, just like Grandpa knew he would.
After the show, I am walking out of the park. One of the mermaids is seated on a chair, posing for pictures with visitors.
The couple from New York gets a photo with her. I wait in line for my turn, too. I shake the girl’s hand and ask how long it takes to learn underwater ballet.
“I’m still in training,” she says. “But it’s a lot harder than it looks.”
Thirteen and Grandpa are next in line. The stoic boy is no longer stone-faced. He is putty in the hands of a beautiful young maiden of the sea. He can’t seem to find the words to say to this woman wearing a fishtail and sparkly brassier.
So the boy smiles and says, “I liked your fish show.”
Great work, Shakespeare.
Grandpa holds the camera while the boy poses for a photo. The kid places an arm around the girl, awkwardly.
Before Grandpa snaps the picture, he shouts to his grandson, “Hey! This is a lot better than playing Marco Polo in the hotel pool, ain’t it, Justin?”
Wait a minute, Gramps.
That was supposed to be my line.