Excerpt: 'The Mermaid Chair'

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 clich├ęd empty nest and all that.

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