The Mermaid Chair – Excerpt
February 17, 1988, I opened my eyes and heard a procession of sounds: first the phone going off on the opposite side of the bed, rousing us at 5:04 a.m. to what could only be a calamity, then rain pummeling the roof of our old Victorian house, sluicing its sneaky way to the basement, and finally small puffs of air coming from Hugh’s lower lip, each one perfectly timed, like a metronome.
Twenty years of this puffing. I’d heard it when he wasn’t even asleep, when he sat in his leather wing chair after dinner, reading through the column of psychiatric journals rising from the floor, and it would seem like the cadence against which my entire life was set.
The phone rang again, and I lay there, waiting for Hugh to pick up, certain it was one of his patients, probably the paranoid schizophrenic who’d phoned last night convinced the CIA had him cornered in a federal building in downtown Atlanta.
A third ring, and Hugh fumbled for the receiver. “Yes, hello,” he said, and his voice came out coarse, a hangover from sleep.
I rolled away from him then and stared across the room at the faint, watery light on the window, remembering that today was Ash Wednesday, feeling the inevitable rush of guilt.
My father had died on Ash Wednesday when I was nine years old, and in a convoluted way, a way that made no sense to anyone but me, it had been at least partially my fault.
There had been a fire on his boat, a fuel-tank explosion, they’d said. Pieces of the boat had washed up weeks later, including a portion of the stern with Jes-Sea printed on it. He’d named the boat for me, not for my brother, Mike, or even for my mother, whom he’d adored, but for me, Jessie.
I closed my eyes and saw oily flames and roaring orange light. An article in the Charleston newspaper had referred to the explosion as suspicious, and there had been some kind of investigation, though nothing had ever come of it—things Mike and I’d discovered only because we’d sneaked the clipping from Mother’s dresser drawer, a strange, secret place filled with fractured rosaries, discarded saint medals, holy cards, and a small statue of Jesus missing his left arm. She had not imagined we would venture into all that broken-down holiness.
I went into that terrible sanctum almost every day for over a year and read the article obsessively, that one particular line: “Police speculate that a spark from his pipe may have ignited a leak in the fuel line.”
I’d given him the pipe for Father’s Day. Up until then he had never even smoked.
I still could not think of him apart from the word “suspicious,” apart from this day, how he’d become ash the very day people everywhere—me, Mike, and my mother—got our foreheads smudged with it at church. Yet another irony in a whole black ensemble of them.
“Yes, of course I remember you,” I heard Hugh say into the phone, yanking me back to the call, the bleary morning. He said, “Yes, we’re all fine here. And how are things there?”
This didn’t sound like a patient. And it wasn’t our daughter, Dee, I was sure of that. I could tell by the formality in his voice. I wondered if it was one of Hugh’s colleagues. Or a resident at the hospital. They called sometimes to consult about a case, though generally not at five in the morning.
I slipped out from the covers and moved with bare feet to the window across the room, wanting to see how likely it was that rain would flood the basement again and wash out the pilot light on the hot-water heater. I stared out at the cold, granular deluge, the bluish fog, the street already swollen with water, and I shivered, wishing the house were easier to warm.
I’d nearly driven Hugh crazy to buy this big, impractical house, and even though we’d been in it seven years now, I still refused to criticize it. I loved the sixteen-foot ceilings and stained-glass transoms. And the turret—God, I loved the turret. How many houses had one of those? You had to climb the spiral stairs inside it to get to my art studio, a transformed third-floor attic space with a sharply slanted ceiling and a skylight—so remote and enchanting that Dee had dubbed it the “Rapunzel tower.” She was always teasing me about it. “Hey, Mom, when are you gonna let your hair down?”
That was Dee being playful, being Dee, but we both knew what she meant—that I’d become too stuffy and self-protected. Too conventional. This past Christmas, while she was home, I’d posted a Gary Larson cartoon on the refrigerator with a magnet that proclaimed me world’s greatest mom. In it, two cows stood in their idyllic pasture. One announced to the other, “I don’t care what they say, I’m not content.” I’d meant it as a little joke, for Dee.
I remembered now how Hugh had laughed at it. Hugh, who read people as if they were human Rorschachs, yet he’d seen nothing suggestive in it. It was Dee who’d stood before it an inordinate amount of time, then given me a funny look. She hadn’t laughed at all.
To be honest, I had been restless. It had started back in the fall—this feeling of time passing, of being postponed, pent up, not wanting to go up to my studio. The sensation would rise suddenly like freight from the ocean floor—the unexpected discontent of cows in their pasture. The constant chewing of all that cud.
With winter the feeling had deepened. I would see a neighbor running along the sidewalk in front of the house, training, I imagined, for a climb up Kilimanjaro. Or a friend at my book club giving a blow-by-blow of her bungee jump from a bridge in Australia. Or—and this was the worst of all—a TV show about some intrepid woman traveling alone in the blueness of Greece, and I’d be overcome by the little river of sparks that seemed to run beneath all that, the blood/sap/wine, aliveness, whatever it was. It had made me feel bereft over the immensity of the world, the extraordinary things people did with their lives—though, really, I didn’t want to do any of those particular things. I didn’t know then what I wanted, but the ache for it was palpable.
I felt it that morning standing beside the window, the quick, furtive way it insinuated itself, and I had no idea what to say to myself about it. Hugh seemed to think my little collapse of spirit, or whatever it was I was having, was about Dee’s being away at college, the clichéd empty nest and all that.
Last fall, after we’d gotten her settled at Vanderbilt, Hugh and I’d rushed home so he could play in the Waverly Harris Cancer Classic, a tennis tournament he’d been worked up about all summer. He’d gone out in the Georgia heat for three months and practiced twice a week with a fancy Prince graphite racket. Then I’d ended up crying all the way home from Nashville. I kept picturing Dee standing in front of her dorm waving good-bye as we pulled away. She touched her eye, her chest, then pointed at us—a thing she’d done since she was a little girl. Eye. Heart. You. It did me in. When we got home, despite my protests, Hugh called his doubles partner, Scott, to take his place in the tournament, and stayed home and watched a movie with me. An Officer and a Gentleman. He pretended very hard to like it.
The deep sadness I felt in the car that day had lingered for a couple of weeks, but it had finally lifted. I did miss Dee —of course I did—but I couldn’t believe that was the real heart of the matter.
Lately Hugh had pushed me to see Dr. Ilg, one of the psychiatrists in his practice. I’d refused on the grounds that she had a parrot in her office.
I knew that would drive him crazy. This wasn’t the real reason, of course—I have nothing against people’s having parrots, except that they keep them in little cages. But I used it as a way of letting him know I wasn’t taking the suggestion seriously. It was one of the rare times I didn’t acquiesce to him.
“So she’s got a parrot, so what?” he’d said. “You’d like her.” Probably I would, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to go that far—all that paddling around in the alphabet soup of one’s childhood, scooping up letters, hoping to arrange them into enlightening sentences that would explain why things had turned out the way they had. It evoked a certain mutiny in me.
I did occasionally, though, play out imaginary sessions with Dr. Ilg in my head. I would tell her about my father, and, grunting, she would write it down on a little pad—which is all she ever seemed to do. I pictured her bird as a dazzling white cockatoo perched on the back of her chair, belting out all sorts of flagrant opinions, repeating itself like a Greek chorus: “You blame yourself, you blame yourself, you blame yourself.”
Not long ago—I don’t know what possessed me to do it—I’d told Hugh about these make-believe sessions with Dr. Ilg, even about the bird, and he’d smiled. “Maybe you should just see the bird,” he said. “Your Dr. Ilg sounds like an idiot.”
Now, across the room, Hugh was listening to the person on the phone, muttering, “Uh-huh, uh-huh.” His face had clamped down into what Dee called “the Big Frown,” that pinched expression of grave and intense listening in which you could almost see the various pistons in his brain—Freud, Jung, Adler, Horney, Winnicott—bobbing up and down.
Wind lapped over the roof, and I heard the house begin to sing—as it routinely did—with an operatic voice that was very Beverly “Shrill,” as we liked to say. There were also doors that refused to close, ancient toilets that would suddenly decline to flush (“The toilets have gone anal-retentive again!” Dee would shout), and I had to keep constant vigilance to prevent Hugh from exterminating the flying squirrels that lived in the fireplace in his study. If we ever got a divorce, he loved to joke, it would be about squirrels.
But I loved all of this; I truly did. It was only the basement floods and the winter drafts that I hated. And now, with Dee in her first year at Vanderbilt, the emptiness—I hated that.
Hugh was hunched on his side of the bed, his elbows balanced on his knees and the top two knobs of his spine visible through his pajamas. He said, “You realize this is a serious situation, don’t you? She needs to see someone—I mean, an actual psychiatrist.”
I felt sure then it was a resident at the hospital, though it did seem Hugh was talking down to him, and that was not like Hugh.
Through the window the neighborhood looked drowned, as if the houses—some as big as arks—might lift off their foundations and float down the street. I hated the thought of slogging out into this mess, but of course I would. I would drive to Sacred Heart of Mary over on Peachtree and get my forehead swiped with ashes. When Dee was small, she’d mistakenly called the church the “ Scared Heart of Mary.” The two of us still referred to it that way sometimes, and it occurred to me now how apt the name really was. I mean, if Mary was still around, like so many people thought, including my insatiably Catholic mother, maybe her heart was scared. Maybe it was because she was on such a high and impossible pedestal—Consummate Mother, Good Wife, All-Around Paragon of Perfect Womanhood. She was probably up there peering over the side, wishing for a ladder, a parachute, something to get her down from there.
I hadn’t missed going to church on Ash Wednesday since my father had died—not once. Not even when Dee was a baby and I had to take her with me, stuffing her into a thick papoose of blankets, armored with pacifiers and bottles of pumped breast milk. I wondered why I’d kept subjecting myself to it—year after year at the Scared Heart of Mary. The priest with his dreary incantation: “Remember you are dust, to dust you shall return.” The blotch of ash on my forehead.
I only knew I had carried my father this way my whole life.
Hugh was standing now. He said, “Do you want me to tell her?” He looked at me, and I felt the gathering of dread. I imagined a bright wave of water coming down the street, rounding the corner where old Mrs. Vandiver had erected a gazebo too close to her driveway; the wave, not mountainous like a tsunami but a shimmering hillside sweeping toward me, carrying off the ridiculous gazebo, mailboxes, doghouses, utility poles, azalea bushes. A clean, ruinous sweep.
“It’s for you,” Hugh said. I didn’t move at first, and he called my name. “Jessie. The call—it’s for you.”
He held the receiver out to me, sitting there with his thick hair sticking up on the back of his head like a child’s, looking grave and uneasy, and the window copious with water, a trillion pewter droplets coming down on the roof.