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One warm, breezy night this past January a man emerged from the stretch of dark warehouses downriver and paused at the wooden gangway leading up to the door. According to the attendant at the bar parking lot across the street, he stood for several minutes looking up at the blue neon script Mermaid River Inn, then ran his hands through his rumpled hair and went in.
To the bartender, as he came towards her, he looked as if he’d been asleep and just woken up, which wasn’t uncommon here. He had an unusual style, his wide white shirt tucked into belted trousers, the belt looped on itself, his brown shoes polished. She placed him somewhere in his forties. He sat on a stool and asked for a beer.
She indicated the extensive chalked list and mentioned the local microbrews.
“I haven’t seen a blackboard that big since I was in school,“ the stranger said and laughed, showing big teeth and looking suddenly wolfish. He read down the names, then pointed. “Let me try that brown ale.”
He swiveled his seat and looked around. A few people inside talked at tables, and more sat out beyond the big glass windows and the folded-back glass doors. On the platform at one end of the deck a combo was playing a tune from the Thirties. No one was dancing.
The bartender placed a heavy glass mug of ale on a coaster.
He reached into one trouser pocket, pulled out a money clip, and, again checking the list, peeled off a bill. “Keep the change. Lucky I’m in the money, hey? Say, I’m looking for someone, a girl who worked here a while back, named Josie.”
The bartender shook her head. “We just opened recently. My partners and I have been handling everything. I’ve got my nephews helping out the kitchen.” She handed him a card listing bar snacks. “Before us the place was closed for years.”
“Yeah, I’ve been away.” He tasted his ale, nodded, then pulled a cigarette from a pack in his shirt pocket.
“Smoking outside on the deck only,” she said.
He shrugged, grabbed his drink, and strode out through the open doorway and straight across to set his mug on the shelf that ran below the porch railing.
The full moon, faintly orange, hung over a boat storage building across the river. He struck a match and lit up, turning to block the wind. He leaned his elbow on the railing and smoked, facing three guys in small sporty hats playing an old song fast, on horn, electric keyboards, and drums.
A space had been cleared in front of them for dancing. At the nearest of the tables, half a dozen or so youngish men and women were drinking. When he caught the stranger’s gaze, one of the men stood up and approached him. Unlike his friends, who were dressed in black and denim, he wore a gray suit jacket over a gray t-shirt, gray jeans.
“Excuse me. I just want to say I like your shirt,” he said. “I design clothing, including men’s. Is that linen? It looks quite heavy, but it moves.” He reached toward one sleeve, but the man grinned, and he stopped.
“Yeah, linen. I got it in Egypt, a while back.”
The designer had pulled a small notebook and pencil from his jacket pocket. “I like the way the shoulder is set, almost gathered, but not puffy. Hard to get that right.” In swift lines he drew the placement of the seam, then, moving down the sleeve, the cuff, the scar along the back of the man’s right hand, and the tip of the middle finger, gone. “What happened?” he asked, pointing with the pencil.
“Just a fishing accident. I got careless.”
“Come, sit with us,” said the designer, touching his sleeve. “I’m Phillip.”
“McNally.” Picking up his drink, he followed Phillip to the table, where the others nodded hello while Phillip identified them as a painter, sculptor, gallerist, writer, and two more painters.
The designer pulled over a chair from the next table, and McNally sat, holding his cigarette away from the others. He looked up at the porch roof, edged in small blue lights.
“I used to come here,” he said, “when it was under different management.”
Phillip said, “I’ve heard it was wild. Bootleggers. Drug runners. I guess along the water somebody’s always bringing in one thing or another.”
“It had a reputation,” McNally said. “My last night here, I had to leave in a hurry, but I promised to come back to see a girl who worked here. Josie. Short for Josephine.”
The woman sitting beside Phillip leaned across him and said, “That’s my middle name. That is, it’s Josefina. For my grandmother. She died when I was a kid.”
She had strong, almost stern features and dark, blue-tipped hair. She wore black layers, cut loose. The edge of a tattoo showed on her left wrist.
McNally asked what it was.
She pulled her sleeve back, revealing a swirling fish. “It’s a koi. For good luck, they say, and help in facing challenges.”
McNally nodded and took a swig of ale.
She picked up her nearly empty glass of rosé and finished it.
The large young man with a full red beard sitting on her other side said, “Are you about ready to leave, Ella?”
“Not right now, Carl,” she said. Phillip had pushed his chair back and was sketching the band. She drew her seat closer and asked McNally, “What was Josie like?”
McNally said, “She was lively. Unpredictable.” He pointed at her wrist. “When she danced, she’d shimmy like a fish you couldn’t catch. She said she’d wait for me, but I guess I missed my chance.”
”Where did you go?”
“Far as I could. I was hurt and screwed over. Somebody fingered me, you know?”
“Fingered you? I don’t understand.”
“I mean somebody put the blame on me for something I didn’t do. Got me killed—“ He grinned. “Well, nearly.”
She ran her hand across her good luck koi.
“So your name’s Ella?” McNally said.
“Really Graciela. I prefer that, but some people say Ella for short.”
“Pretty,” he said. “But then all women’s names are pretty if you think about it. Louise, and Marie, and Graciela Josefina.” He tilted his ale up and finished it. He leaned back and waved towards the bartender inside.
She said, “Do you like to dance?”
“Doesn’t look like anybody’s dancing tonight.” He listened. “It’s a foxtrot, isn’t it? Pretty fast, though.”
The bartender came out, and McNally said, “Another round,” drawing a loop in the air to indicate the table.
“Neo-swing, that’s what Didier, the drummer, calls it. It’s his group.” Graciela stood up. “Come on. I know how to foxtrot. I had ballroom lessons as a kid.”
McNally said, “Why not?”
He went over to the railing and flicked his cigarette butt into the water, then turned to where she waited. He clasped her right hand in his left and wrapped his other arm around her, his hand finding the hidden shape of her waist. He steered her towards the band, moving fast. “This is what they used to call the quickstep,” he said in her ear.
When they turned she saw the drummer looking at them. She waved over McNally’s shoulder, mouthing the words Slow it down. The drummer frowned, then nodded.
The beat eased a fraction, and the dancers caught it, as McNally pulled her beside him and then pushed her into retreat.
“Some weird guy,” Carl said loudly at the table. But when the round of drinks arrived, he took his. Phillip lifted his schooner in toast to the dancing pair.
Now, somehow, the band made sense. Two women stood up from the table and launched into something like a jig, and soon half a dozen couples were making their journeys around the cleared end of the wooden floor.
“We’ve got it,” said Graciela, as he dipped her.
McNally grinned and murmured, “I waited too long to come back. But I tried, honey,“ and turned her as one song swung into another, till they wound up near the table, where he grabbed his ale and took a long gulp.
She paused beside him and drank rosé, still tapping her foot.
“Let’s go down there,” Graciela said, pointing to the big wooden swing with its back to them at the far end of the porch.
She was walking that way already when McNally, carrying their drinks, caught up and said, “Your boyfriend will be unhappy.”
“He’s not my boyfriend. We don’t even say things like boyfriend and girlfriend. Anyway, he’s just my ride.”
They set their glasses on the low tables either side of the swing and sat, looking downstream towards the dark warehouses and the city lights beyond. The moon was high enough now to cast spangles on the water.
Her hair was sweaty. She lifted it to feel cool air on her neck, but the night was too muggy. Her clothes were damp, too, clinging to her, the river’s breath all around them.
“This isn’t a real river, you know,” she said. “They dug drainage canals to dry out the interior so they could farm, and channeled the water here, and just called it the Mermaid River.”
“Sure, that’s the best they could do with a swamp,” he said. “Still, it’s water moving to the sea. Guess you’ve got to make do with what you’ve got.” He looked far off and hummed to the music. He’d stretched his arms along the back of the swing. She leaned back till her shoulder blades were against his warm linen sleeve.
He asked, “What did you say they call that style they’re playing?”
“Neo-swing. Or electric swing. It’s bigger in Europe. I think they could use more people—maybe a sax and a vocalist—but as it is I don’t think they make much.”
“Neo-swing. That’s like that word on the blackboard. Microbrew. What is that, something scientific?”
She almost asked if he was kidding, but she played it straight. “It’s beer made in small batches, in local breweries. It’s a trend. There’s one right near here, named for the river, though I’m sure they don’t use this water.”
“I see.” And he relapsed into silence.
“Tell me about Josie.”
“She was a great gal.”
“I’m trying to picture her. You said she shimmied, like a fish you couldn’t catch?”
“That’s how she looked. She wore shiny dresses.”
“Sequined, you mean? Or satin?”
“Slippery stuff—satin. I remember one was silvery blue.” He shifted his arm behind her, and his hand curved around her shoulder.
She held still, waiting for something more. He was humming to the music.
She looked down at his fingers, pale against her black sleeve, the one with the missing tip aimed at her breast, or her heart. She felt a chill, and held her breath. Then she leaned forward, pushed her hair back, and said, “Come on, let’s dance.”
He laughed. “One more, Graciela. Then I’ve got to go.”
She got up, he grabbed her, and they set off again.
As they wove among the others, she was a black silhouette against his white shirt. The beat picked up, and their legs moved faster. Sounding suddenly young, he sang along, “You, you’re driving me crazy,” while he twisted her and whirled her, and then he steered her inside and stopped by the bar.
He asked the bartender, “What’s the tariff?” and when she handed him the tab he counted out bills, tossed them down, and walked towards the door with Graciela beside him.
Then—everyone in the place was watching and this much they agreed on, later—he bent and spoke to her, close to her ear. She touched his shoulder. Maybe she said something. He gave her a little nod—or was it a bow?—and then he headed out the door.
She waited a moment, then, smiling, walked back out onto the deck. By the swing she found their glasses and brought them over to the table, now deserted, everyone dancing or inside by the bar.
She went over to the railing and leaned on it and hummed, looking at the reflection of the tawny moon.
In the months that followed, Phillip often told the story of the man who returned from the past, looking for his lost love. He sold a lot of wide white shirts with well-cut shoulders, modeled on the one McNally wore.
The bartender and her partners told the story, too. In some versions McNally was a gangster, or a gambler, or maybe a drug smuggler, depending on the era, and Josie had betrayed him, so he came back looking for revenge. Others said no, she was loyal, and the bosses killed her for having helped him get away. A popular rumor said that the parking attendant had seen McNally go down the gangway, turn towards the warehouses, and disappear. Tourists began to show up, which was fine with the owners, although the regular crowd grumbled.
When Graciela asked her dad about his mother, he denied that Josefina had ever worked in any restaurant at all, let alone some saloon along the river. And no one called her Josie. Her mother said, “You can’t really know what happened before you were born,” but he pointed out that would have been more than fifty years ago, and so the man would now be, what, ninety?
“Or more,” said Graciela, quietly. “I just wondered.” Then she told them how doing graphics for Phillip was bringing her other paying work, and she was getting one of the studios in the warehouse the bar group was fixing up with city seed money to revive the riverfront.
This November, on a Friday night, Graciela’s group had their first show there. When Phillip arrived, people were strolling along the river road and he could hear the combo’s jaunty music from the porch crowded with drinkers.
Just downstream, in the warehouse’s first floor gallery space, people drank yellow wine from plastic cups. Phillip told Graciela how fabulous she looked in the dress he’d made for her, which was black and fitted, with cap sleeves and a silver belt that knotted on itself. And then he moved on to look at her small paintings where shimmering fish and women swam in swirls of lacy darkness that might be water or dreams.
Later, Graciela sat out back in the dockside area they’d cleared to make a patio. The band had gone on break, and a couple of drunken artists could be heard arguing out in the street.
Soon Didier, the drummer, came around the corner of the warehouse and sat beside her. He took off his narrow-brimmed straw hat and fanned himself with it.
He said, “I hear it went well?”
“Three paintings sold—three lovely red dots—and other people said they were interested, though you never know. I’m happy.”
He took her hand. “We got a great crowd tonight.”
“Did anybody dance?”
“Just the last couple of numbers.”
“People have to be pretty drunk before they’ll try. You always play so fast.”
“But that’s what makes it fresh,” he said. “It can’t be at some draggy ballroom pace, forty measures a minute, come on.”
“Somewhere in between,” said Graciela. “That’s where it feels right. I told you—“
“I know. That night, the first time I got to see you move. Before that I thought you were just sulky. Who knew you had all that energy pent up?” He leaned over and kissed her, touching her hair.
He said, “You know what? Somebody told me tonight they heard McNally was an actor, hired by the owners to play a part.”
She paused to consider this. “No, I don’t think so.”
She looked across the water, where chrome glinted here and there from the stacked boats in storage. “There was just something about him.”
“So,” Didier said, “are you going to tell me what he said to you before he left?”
She hummed, “You, you’re driving me crazy.”
“The bartender says he did, and that you said something, too, so I wonder.”
“Well, silly, you can’t be jealous of a ghost.”
A deep, wobbly chord came from next door.
“Starting up again already?” she said.
“Last set, just a short one. Can I come over later?”
“Yes. I’m certain to be wide awake tonight.”
He smoothed her hair, then left, putting on his hat as he went.
She sat waiting for the music. From here she could just see the top edge of the porch swing. She would never tell all of it, how McNally, leaving, grinned and said, “I’ll be back, honey, if they let me. But, well—” And then he leaned close and whispered again what he’d said on the swing, “Guess you’ve got to make do with what you’ve got.” The best advice ever.
She’d said, “I’ll wait for you,” but of course they both knew that was a lie.
Lynne Barrett’s recent fiction can be found in Mystery Tribune, Necessary Fiction, Rose Red Review, and Just to Watch Them Die: Stories Inspired by the Songs of Johnny Cash. She’s the author of the story collection Magpies (gold medal, FL Book Awards) and the handbook What Editors Want. She edits The Florida Book Review and teaches at Florida International University.