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 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 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, 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 itthings 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 everywhereme, Mike, and my mothergot 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 turretGod, 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 skylightso 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?"
From The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd. Copyright Sue Monk Kidd. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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