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The Mermaid of The Heart

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From his perch on the 20th floor, Jonathan Cabot scanned the Boston horizon: the old State House dome, the Pru, the gothic pinnacle of the Hancock building. A ribbon of river twisted below in the afternoon heat. God, it's a beautiful city. And God, he thought, I have to get out of it. Now.
The week had been rough. The Cavanaugh case had taken a few unexpected turns, but his closing argument was effective and the jury seemed eager to acquit. He closed the folder, satisfied that this part of his life, at least, was working. The rest of it -- well, there wasn't much of it to worry about anymore. He opened the folder again, neatened the sheaf of papers, tapping them twice on the surface of his desk; then replaced them cleanly in the folder before sliding it into the left desk drawer between Canter and Dodd. He reached for his briefcase, but decided to leave it behind. Not tonight. The Warren case could wait until Monday.
Janet and he had spent a few days on Heron Cove just after they were married. They had, of course, stayed in an upscale bed and breakfast. He demanded it. But during one of their walks, Janet had dragged him out beyond the ropes of their private beach to a gray promontory where they watched the sunset. Returning, they looked up and spotted an inn, nestled in the crags above the ocean. She said it was late 18th century and had a fine widow's walk. She knew about such things. He found it ramshackle at best and joked about her sentimentality and whether they would find it listed in Michelin.
Still, since Tuesday, he'd been thinking about the gray shutters and sloping white porch of the old place. He even checked the AAA guide but, of course, it wasn't listed. Not even among the one diamond losers. But somehow, after the sterile madness of this week, Jonathan knew it was just the kind of dull, quiet retreat he needed to sort things out. No bar, no frills, no yuppies. Nobody like me, he thought. His suitcase had been in the trunk since Thursday.
Downstairs, the July heat was dry and oppressive. He backed the BMW out of his space, waved at the attendant and headed for the expressway. The traffic was a nightmare, but at least it was moving. Along Route 93, the usual Friday evening maniacs wove in and around stodgier drivers like himself who chose to keep to the speed limit. His slender hands gripped the wheel, fine blue veins edging out beyond his starched cuffs. Idiots, I'm really so tired of all these idiots, risking my life so they can get home to their beer ten minutes earlier. He found himself losing his temper often now. Janet's gentle presence had mellowed him, but since their separation, or because of it, he gave into frequent bouts of anger. It was one of the few outlets he allowed himself.
In the rear view mirror, he noticed a sleek green Packard, crossing lanes three or four cars behind him, making for the passing lane. The car was well-preserved, and so highly polished, it shimmered. Suddenly, it was beside him, keeping pace. He waited for it to pass, even made space for it to move in front. But the car stayed neck and neck, slowing and speeding up as he did. After forty seconds of these antics, he turned his eyes in the driver's direction, catching a glimpse of a green headscarf, and a few tendrils of burnished gold hair snapping around the edges. A nice profile. The traffic was moving now, nearing 65 miles an hour. Hardly the kind of situation to lend itself to a lot of eye contact. Still, he wanted to see her face. Did he know her? Was she a friend of Janet's?
At this point, he knew she had turned, was looking directly at him. Sidelong, he could see she wore no sun glasses and he knew she was smiling. He could feel her smile. His eyes moved down and to the left. His eyebrow lifted. She was staring at him, a quiet 'I know you,' smile on her mouth. Her face was lovely, perfect, carved out of soap. The Packard took the turns naturally, as if on automatic pilot. He lifted his right hand off the wheel in a half-wave. She laughed, returned a soft salute and was gone, moving out of sight ahead of him.
Maybe the weekend holds some promise after all, he thought. Would a beautiful woman excite him? Since the separation, he had not dated, could not get up the mental energy necessary to tackle exploratory conversations with strangers. He had been invited to dinner parties by well-meaning married friends whose concern was a little too obvious. He would dress up, take his place beside the operative attractive designee of the evening, but find himself unable to invest in her. He would look at her pretty blond or black or red hair and think of Janet's chestnut mane. He would listen to her well-chosen words on the coming mayoral election, and yearn for Janet's soft retelling of her day at school.
On one Saturday evening, he had been invited to a party at the Copley Plaza, hosted by one of the firm's senior partners. He got out his tux, polished his shoes, drove to the underground garage early. This was the night he would turn his life around, he determined. In the elevator, a young twentyish couple eyed each other hungrily. When he left them at the third floor, he could see the guy's hand reaching around her head from behind, pushing up her chin and bearing in for a kiss. We did that too in the early days, he thought. Just like that. One afternoon in the courtyard at the Gardner Museum. They had stopped under the Titian, The Rape of Europa. Woodwind music drifted from the balcony. He had looked down at her face, studiously raised to the painting. I wanted to take her into me, to protect her like the little bird she was. It had been their first kiss. They had stopped doing museums and free afternoon chamber music concerts after they married. He worked toward his first million by thirty and made it. He had finally given her a diamond ring last year. She hardly wore it, preferring the small star sapphire engagement ring. Funny, sweet child… how he missed her.
Still in a dream state, he somehow found the party suite at the Copley Plaza, and walked up to the door, his hand ready to turn the knob. He froze, unable to move, paralyzed in the dead space inside himself. He felt as if a pair of hands had taken his soul and wrung the life out of it. Turning away, he found the stairs and ran blindly down to the garage and home. Gradually, the invitations stopped coming.
It wasn't green exactly. The scarf. He kept thinking about the woman in the Packard, how it had seemed more than just your usual pickup. She was beautiful, but comfortable-looking, too, like a childhood friend. The scarf was soft, diaphanous, blues blending into greens. It looked inviting, touchable. He snapped out of his reverie in time to spot the exit to Nantasket and Heron Cove ahead.
* * *
Friday night in Nantasket Beach was alive with noise, traffic, sunburned kids, rock and roll. As garish and grating as it was, Jonathan found the bedlam comforting. He drove through the heart of the beach town, opened his shirt, rolled down the windows, saw the sun burning itself out behind the peninsula. It was good to be here, even alone.
"Mr. Cabot, we have a nice single on the third floor, overlooking the bay. We don't usually rent it out. But since it's the last room available this weekend. . . I guess it's OK. The manager pressed a brochure into his hand and said, "Here's a little history of the place. Enjoy your stay at The Mermaid Inn."
The room was beautiful, an isolated attic loft, large and high-ceilinged with windows on three sides. Maybe an artist's garret at one time, he figured. He had once studied sculpture in college, wondered if he still had the knack. On the east side, French doors looked out on a promontory of gray rock. Our rock, he thought. Maybe I can catch the sunrise. I don't think I can deal with the sunset at this point. But now, hunger, not sentiment, drove him back down to Ocean Boulevard and a clam shack he remembered.
The fried clams were tender, greasy and wonderful. He was sated, and any nostalgia that might have begun gnawing at his stomach was put aside in the noisy energy of the boardwalk restaurant. He decided to end the evening with a stroll through the Park, maybe a ride on the carrousel.
Paradise Park had not yet entered the late twentieth century. The roller coaster stretched out wide and handsome on a white wooden trellis. The Lindy Loop promised gentle thrills; the Caterpillar with its convertible cover and the Red Mill provided refuge for teenage lovers. These Jonathan avoided. But he found solace in memories reaching back to boyhood when his parents made an annual pilgrimage to the place. The heavy scent of cotton candy still sweetened the air. Thank God, some things hadn't changed.
To honor his youth, he bought himself a vanilla and chocolate Dixie cup and stood in line at the entrance to the carrousel. Kids with big eyes waved from the platform. Grandpas snapped photos. All the buried unhappiness of the past year seemed to evaporate in the whisper of the calliope. Life could be simple and good again, he began to believe. Above the heads of the spinning tigers and plumed horses, something caught his attention, something bright and unreal, shining out from the mirrors around the canopy. Someone's face, her face, the mysterious woman was imaged in the mirrors, circling round and round above him. Her green scarf shimmered in the lights and her face was smiling, soft and beautiful as before.
Jonathan lurched around. She must be standing behind him to reflect in that way. But he saw no one except a few scattered families waiting their turn. Terrified and mesmerized, he looked up again. Her face was above him in the mirrors. Her lips framed the words, "Jon, you are love," or was it "loved?" Not "I love you," or worse, some obscenity, but simply "You are loved." Even if he hadn't understood the words, her eyes spoke concern, not desire. She seemed older than he, mid-fifties perhaps, though her skin was translucent and smooth. He remembered her earlier expression on the highway. Her smile said, "I like you," not "meet me at the nearest motel." She was beautiful, desirable even, but seemed to want more from him than a one-night stand. He realized he had been standing here for minutes analyzing this completely absurd situation. How could he take this seriously? Was he possessed? Haunted? Or merely insane? Gingerly, he looked up again. The face was gone. Only kids and grandpas filled the reflectors, and himself, Jonathan Cabot, age 36, Dixie cup in hand, looking very much like a lost little boy.
* * *
Somehow he got back to his room high atop Heron Cove and collapsed on the bed. The ornate Victorian day bed, all wrought iron filigree, was narrow and lumpy. But it was done up in good linen sheets and he sank into its softness. His dreams were wild with Ferris wheels and wooden lions and tigers. Just before waking, he saw her face again and heard her calling to him. "Jon, Jon, don't be afraid. Come to the window. Jon, I have things to tell you."
The alarm shrilled at his ear. Sunrise. He hoped he hadn’t missed it. Through the east window, the sky, like lemon sherbet and watermelon, greeted him. The sun was low on the water, burning through the morning mist. Jonathan, still groggy, peered down through half-shut eyes. In the cleft of rock, partially obscured by the morning haze, was the woman, dressed in white, her green scarf loosely spread around her. She lifted her face toward the window and held out her hand to him.
He flew into his clothes and ran down the fire escape. In a moment he was near the rocks. He picked his way over the rugged jetty until he was within ten feet of her. She had watched him, coaching him with her eyes all along. He stopped, wondering who would set the agenda. She beckoned him to sit. He spoke first.
"You've been following me. Why?"
"Yes, Jon. I have followed you for many years. But for the past year especially, since your separation from Janet."
"Janet? How do you know Janet? And what do you mean, years. There's a law against that, you know."
Ignoring the comment, she moved toward him, her hand reaching out toward his. "I know both of you in a certain way, and I want to help you. It's what I'm supposed to do."
By now Jonathan's curiosity was overwhelmed by irritation. He'd forgotten the fear. How dare she bring up Janet's name and the separation? He reared back.
"Lady, I really resent your intrusion into my affairs. My marital problems are none of your concern. And what about that disappearing act you pulled last night in the Park? How did you do that?"
"Jon, everything will become clear to you soon. Just realize that I needed to get your attention. If I had simply walked up to you on the street and started discussing your marriage, you wouldn't have listened."
"I'm not sure I'm going to listen now. But, OK, what do you have to say?"
"Simply this: Janet loves you still. But she is yet young and impatient for your time. And work has become foremost with you, has it not? With age, some women can read a man's love in the furniture he mends or the dishes he washes. Janet does not yet have that wisdom. She sees only two lives, moving along parallel tracks, seldom intersecting. Like many women, she wants a little part of you. And she needs to hear those special words, which you have seldom said. Isn't that so?"
Jonathan sat back on his heels as if struck. He barely heard the woman's explanation beyond the phrase, "she loves you still." During the weeks before they separated, he and Janet had fallen into bickering and nagging. She called him old and stodgy. He called her a child. If she had loved him, he hadn't seen it. And now this strange mystical woman was telling him it had all been a misunderstanding.
He looked at her abjectly. "What shall I do?" he said.
"Forget your pride. Tell her of your unhappiness and your love. And then, take her for a ride on the carrousel. Enjoy your life together. Don't waste it."
"I don't know who you are," Jon said slowly, focusing for the first time on the archaic tinge of her speech, "but if you're right . . . ." He looked beyond her toward the glistening expanse of ocean. "Where do I find her?" he finally whispered.
"Get on with your day. Go down to the village. She'll be waiting."
The woman rose and gestured him to his feet. "Go, now," she said, urging him off the breaker. Her long linen shift caught the ocean wind. He saw himself reflected in her green eyes. "Thank you," was all he could muster to say. She brushed it off with a graceful hand. As he half-turned to move away, he thought in her gentleness how like his mother she seemed and how like an angel.
He struggled off the rocks and onto the grassy dune again. When he regained his footing, he turned around for a last look. Of course, she was gone.
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