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Wet Forever After

by Ron Van Sweringen

Bud Williams had never seen a Mermaid swimming around topless in a glass fish tank before. It was in Captain Tony’s Mermaid Bar in Opalaka Florida, the do-nothing capital of the world. Bud had rolled into town on a freight two days earlier, and he hadn’t seen anybody doing anything but sit in the shade since he hit town.

They had good reason, though. It was hot enough to burn the hair out of your armpit if you stayed in the sun too long. That’s why Bud ducked into Captain Tony’s looking for two things: cool air and a job doing just about anything. The place was dark. The stink of beer and stale cigarette smoke almost triggered his gag reflex.

The bartender told Bud they were looking for a dishwasher next door at the Crab Shanty. Didn’t pay much, but you got meals and a bed in the shack out back. He also gave Bud a cold draft beer, on the house.

When Bud raised his arm to shake the bartender’s hand, he was reminded he needed a bath. He thought about getting in the water with the girl. The showcase was built into the wall behind the bar, up high, so you could watch her swim.

Her hair was orangey-blonde, flowing through the water in waving strands. She was covered with shiny green fish scales from the waist down, ending in a long tail. When she did a back flip and came up in front of Bud’s face, he decided she definitely wasn’t a fish.

The manager at the Crab Shanty was tough, Florida redneck tough, with an anchor and a heart tattooed on one shoulder and the name Shirley with a heart, tattooed on the other.

“I pay minimum wage, $4.25 an hour, and you get two meals for an eight-hour shift. There’s a bed in the shack out back and a shower too. Something tells me you need it.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Bud replied, “guess ya got yourself a dishwasher.”

“Knock that ‘ma’am’ crap off. My friends cally me Tammy,” she said taking a deep drag on a Camel. “You call me Tamara; got it?”

The cabin wasn’t much. It had a roof that leaked like hell when it rained, judging by the stains on the floor. Both small windows had torn screens, letting the flies in, and a three-inch lizard darted under the bed upon seeing Bud. The best thing about the place was the slight breeze that crept through the open door, along with a thin trail of ants. The lizard’s lunch, Bud guessed.

The shower and soap felt good, eating the crud away. A plastic bag on the bed held a second-hand sport shirt, a pair of shorts and a used pair of sandals, one size too big. All on sale for six dollars at the Salvation Army thrift shop. Bud hadn’t worn anything clean in over a week. It cost his whole bankroll.

The shirt was a Hawaiian number with white parrots and yellow bananas on a black background. Bud liked the way it looked on him. His hair was still wet and beginning to curl at the ends. Sky-blue eyes under thick, blond brows were his best feature. They were set off by a dark tan that went well with yellow bananas and white parrots.

Bud checked himself in a small, cracked mirror over the wash basin. He’d lost weight in the last six weeks, which wasn’t all bad. He’d also lost the upper-class preppy look of a New England Ivy League college. The navy blue crew-neck sweater with the shirt and tie underneath, the expensive hair cut and polished loafers were all gone.

He remembered the heated conversation in his father’s office, when he announced that he wanted to spend his summer vacation hitching across the country.

“Are you crazy, Bud?” his father scathed, slamming his fist down on the mahogany desk. “Why the hell do you want to do a thing like that? If your mother were alive, she would never approve of a stunt like this.”

“I want to be a journalist, Dad,” Bud protested, leaning across the desk. “I’ve spent my whole life in an insulated privileged environment. It’s time I found out how the rest of the world lives, the world I’m going to be a part of. I need to do this on my own, without any help.”

It was the middle of July, only a few more weeks of summer vacation were left. Bud was proud of his independence, he had survived without any help. He wondered about the girl in the fish tank and how she came to be there. Her vulnerability touched Bud. Of all the people he met that summer, he wanted to know this girl’s story more than any other.

It was eight-thirty when Bud walked into Captain Tony’s Mermaid Bar. The place was full with a boisterous crowd, drinking and playing pool. He was disappointed. The girl wasn’t in the showcase behind the bar. He took an empty stool at the end of the bar and gave a friendly sign to the same bartender who had befriended him earlier.

“Hi, Bud.” The plump but muscular young man smiled from under a mop of Irish red hair. “Did ya get the job?”

“Sure did, Charlie,” Bud answered, “thanks to you.”

“No problem, I’m glad for you.” Charlie smiled, setting a draft on the bar in front of Bud.

“Hey, man,” Bud said, “I appreciate it, but I don’t have any money yet and I don’t want you to get into trouble.”

“Don’t sweat it.” Charlie winked. “My old man’s Captain Tony.”

Just then a green fish tail drifted down in the water of the fish tank. The girl smiled when she saw Bud and a trail of small bubbles flew out of her mouth.

Bud returned the smile and lifted his draft beer to toast her.

“What’s her name and how did she get up there?” Bud asked Charlie.

“Name’s Gloria Walker. She’s got a kid and lives a couple of blocks over on West street, in a trailer. Don’t think she’s been married, lives alone.” Charlie winked, heading up the bar to wait on a new customer.

Bud sat through two more free drafts, watching Gloria swim and smile at him occasionally. She was younger than he had originally guessed, probably no more than nineteen. She was prettier, too, and her vulnerable quality still intrigued him.

The plastic Wild Turkey clock on the wall said eleven-thirty, and Bud was finishing his last draft when it started.

“Son-of-a-bitch!” rang out loud and clear over the din, and Bud watched Charlie pick up the phone on the bar. A few seconds later tables were flying along with fists as mayhem took over. Someone threw a beer mug which crashed against the fish tank over the bar.

A large crack appeared immediately in the plate glass. Bud watched the shocked look on Gloria’s face as the glass broke, a large piece giving way, sending a huge torrent of water rushing over the bar. The water sent dozens of liquor bottles crashing into one another and it took down a large mirror behind them.

Bud staggered back, losing his balance. The last thing he saw before falling was Gloria being sucked through the gaping hole in the glass. A helpless look on her face as her neck slid along the edge of the glass.

When he got to her, she was shivering, her eyes looking up at him. More blood than he had ever seen gushed down her shoulders and across the water-soaked floor. Silence took over as shocked spectators circled them, Bud kneeling next to the girl.

The far-off sound of an ambulance siren mixed with the sharp crunch of glass echoed in Bud’s ears. Then the pale Mermaid closed her eyes and went still in the arms of the weeping young man in a black sports shirt with bananas and white parrots on it.

Copyright © 2010 by Ron Van Sweringen

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