The Mermaid Chair
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 Hughs lower
lip, each one perfectly timed, like a metronome.
Twenty years of this puffing. Id heard it
when he wasnt 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 whod 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
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, theyd said. Pieces of the boat had washed up weeks later,
including a portion of the stern with Jes-Sea printed on it. Hed named the boat for me, not for my brother, Mike, or
even for my mother, whom hed 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 Id discovered only because
wed sneaked the clipping from Mothers 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.
Id given him the pipe for Fathers 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 hed 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, were all fine here. And how are things there?
This didnt sound like a patient. And it
wasnt our daughter, Dee, I was sure of that. I could tell by the formality in
his voice. I wondered if it was one of Hughs 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.
Id nearly driven Hugh crazy to buy this
big, impractical house, and even though wed 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 Id become too
stuffy and self-protected. Too conventional. This past Christmas, while she was
home, Id posted a Gary Larson cartoon on the refrigerator with a magnet that
proclaimed me worlds greatest mom. In it, two cows stood in
their idyllic pasture. One announced to the other, I dont care what they say,
Im not content. Id 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 hed seen
nothing suggestive in it. It was Dee whod stood before it an
inordinate amount of time, then given me a funny look. She hadnt laughed at
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 Id 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 didnt
want to do any of those particular things. I didnt 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 Dees
being away at college, the clichéd empty nest and all that.
Last fall, after wed gotten her settled at
Vanderbilt, Hugh and Id rushed home so he could play in the Waverly Harris
Cancer Classic, a tennis tournament hed been worked up about all summer. Hed
gone out in the Georgia
heat for three months and practiced twice a week with a fancy Prince graphite
racket. Then Id 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 shed 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 couldnt 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. Id refused on the grounds that she
had a parrot in her office.
I knew that would drive him crazy. This
wasnt the real reason, of course—I have nothing against peoples having
parrots, except that they keep them in little cages. But I used it as a way of
letting him know I wasnt taking the suggestion seriously. It was one of the
rare times I didnt acquiesce to him.
So shes got a parrot, so what? hed
said. Youd like her. Probably I would, but I couldnt quite bring myself to
go that far—all that paddling around in the alphabet soup of ones 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
Not long ago—I dont know what possessed me
to do it—Id told Hugh about these make-believe sessions with Dr. Ilg, even
about the bird, and hed 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
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
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, dont
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
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, shed 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 hadnt 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 Id 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.
Its for you, Hugh said. I didnt move at
first, and he called my name. Jessie. The
call—its 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 childs,
looking grave and uneasy, and the window copious with water, a trillion pewter
droplets coming down on the roof.
from The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd, Copyright © March 2005, Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.,used by permission.