Authors: Patricia Highsmith
ADDITIONAL BOOKS BY PATRICIA HIGHSMITH
PUBLISHED BY W. W. NORTON
Strangers on a Train
The Price of Salt (as Claire Morgan)
The Talented Mr. Ripley
This Sweet Sickness
The Glass Cell
A Suspension of Mercy
Ripley Under Ground
A Dog’s Ransom
Little Tales of Misogyny
Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder
Slowly, Slowly in the Wind
The Boy Who Followed Ripley
The Black House
People Who Knock on the Door
Ripley Under Water
Small g: A Summer Idyll
Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith
ADDITIONAL TITLES FROM OTHER PUBLISHERS
Miranda the Panda Is on the Veranda (with Doris Sanders)
A Game for the Living
The Cry of the Owl
The Two Faces of January
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction
Those Who Walk Away
The Tremor of Forgery
The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories
Found in the Street
Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes
Mermaids on the
W. W. N
Mermaids on the
riday, fifteenth of June, was a big day for Kenneth W. Minderquist and family, meaning his wife, Julia, his granddaughter, Penny, aged six and the apple of his eye, and his mother-in-law, Becky Jackson, who was due to arrive with Penny.
The big house was in top-notch order, but Julia had double-checked the liquor supply and the menu—canapés, cold cuts, open-face sandwiches, celery, olives—a real buffet for the journalists and photographers who were due at eleven that morning. Last evening, a telegram had arrived from the President:
CONGRATULATIONS, KEN. HOPING TO LOOK IN FRIDAY MORNING IF I CAN. IF NOT, BEST WISHES ANYWAY. LOVE TO YOU AND FAMILY. TOM.
This had pleased Minderquist and made Julia, always a rather nervous hostess, check everything again. Their chauffeur-butler, Fritz, would be on hand, of course, a big help. Fritz had come with the house, as had the silverware and the heavy white napkins and the furniture and in fact the pictures on the walls.
Minderquist watched his wife with a cool and happy confidence. And he could honestly say that he felt as well now as he had three months ago, before the accident. Sometimes he thought he felt even better than before, more cheerful and lively. After all, he had had weeks of rest in the hospitals, despite all their tests for this and that and the other thing. Minderquist considered himself one of the most tested men in the world, mentally and physically.
The accident had happened on St. Patrick’s Day in New York. Minderquist had been one of a couple of hundred people in a grandstand with the President, and after the parade was over, and everyone in the grandstand had climbed down and were dispersing themselves in limousines and taxis, gunshots had burst out—four of them, three quick ones and one following—and quite fortuitously Minderquist had been near the President when he had seen the President wince and stoop (he had been shot in the calf), and not even thinking what he was doing, Minderquist had hurled himself on to the President like a trained bodyguard, and both of them had fallen. The last shot had caught Minderquist in the left temple, put him into a coma for ten days, and kept him in two hospitals for nearly three months. It was widely believed that if not for Minderquist’s intervention, the last bullet would have hit the President in the back (newspapers had printed diagrams of what might have happened with that last shot), perhaps severing the spinal cord or penetrating his liver or whatnot, and therefore Minderquist was credited with having saved the President’s life. Minderquist had also suffered a couple of cracked ribs, because bodyguards had hurled themselves on
after he had covered the President.
To express his gratitude, the President had presented the Minderquists with “Sundocks,” the handsome house in which they now lived. Julia and Fritz had been here a month. Minderquist had come out of the Arlington hospital, his second, ten days ago. The house was a two-story colonial, with broad and level lawns, on one of which Fritz had set up a croquet field, and there was also a swimming pool eighteen by ten yards wide. Somehow their green Pontiac had been exchanged for a dark blue Cadillac, which looked brand new to Minderquist. Fritz had driven Minderquist a couple of times in the Cadillac to a golf course nearby, where Minderquist had played with his old set of clubs, untouched in years. His doctors said mild sports were good for him. Minderquist thought he was in pretty good shape, but he had added a few inches to his waistline during the last weeks in the hospital.
Today, for the first time since he had emerged from the Arlington hospital, on which day there had been only a few photographers taking shots, Minderquist was to face the press. In the months before the seventeenth of March mishap, Minderquist had been in the public eye because of his closeness to the President in the capacity of economic advisor, though Minderquist held no official title. Minderquist had a Ph.D. in economics, and had been a director of a big electrical company in Kentucky, until six months ago when the President had proposed a retaining salary for him and offered him a room in the White House in which to work. One of the President’s aides had heard Minderquist speak at Johns Hopkins University (Minderquist had been invited to give a lecture), and had introduced him to Tom, and things had gone on from there.
A man who talks simple and straight
, a newspaper heading had said of Minderquist earlier that year, and Minderquist was rather proud of that. He and the President didn’t always see eye to eye. Minderquist presented his views calmly, with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, because what he was saying was the truth, based on laws of economics of which the President knew not much. Minderquist had never lost his temper in Washington, D.C. It wasn’t worth it.
Minderquist hoped that Florence Lee of the
would be coming today. Florrie was a perky little blonde, very bright, and she wrote a column called “Personalities in Politics.” Besides being witty, she had a grasp of what a man’s or woman’s job was all about.
?” Julia’s voice called. “It’s after ten-thirty. How’re you doing?”
“Fine! Coming!” Minderquist called back from the bedroom where he was checking his appearance in the mirror. He ran a comb through his brown and gray hair, and touched his tie. On Julia’s advice, he wore black cotton slacks, a blue summer jacket, a pale blue shirt. Good colors for TV, but probably there would be none today, just journalists and a few cameras snapping. Julia was not as happy as he in Sundocks, Minderquist knew, and maybe in a few weeks they would move back to their Kentucky place, after he and Julia discussed the matter further. But now for the President’s sake, for the sake of his future in Washington, which was interesting and remunerative, and for the pleasure of the media, the Minderquists had to look as if they appreciated their new mansion. Minderquist strode out of the bedroom.
“Penny and Becky aren’t here yet?” he said to his wife who was in the living room. “Ah, maybe that’s them!” Minderquist had heard car tires in the driveway.
Julia glanced out of a side window. “That’s Mama’s car.—Doesn’t it look nice, Ken?” She gestured towards the long buffet table against a wall of the huge living room.
“Great! Beautiful! Like a wedding or something. Ha-ha!” Glasses stood in sparkling rows, bottles, silver ice buckets, plates of goodies. Minderquist was more interested in his granddaughter, and headed for the front door.
“Ken!” said his wife. “Don’t overdo it today. Keep calm—you know? And careful with your language. No four-letter words.”
“Sure, hon.” Minderquist got to the front door before Fritz, and opened it. “Hel-lo, Penny!” He wanted to pick the little fair-haired child up and hug her, but Penny shrank back against Becky and buried her face shyly in her great-grandmother’s skirt. Minderquist laughed. “Still afraid of me? ’S matter, Penny?”
“You scared her—coming at her so fast, Ken,” said Becky, smiling. “How are you? You’re looking mighty handsome today.”
Chitchat between the women in the living room. Minderquist slowly followed the child—his only grandchild—towards the hall that led to the kitchen, but Penny darted down the hall as if running for her life, and Minderquist shook his head. His glimpse of the child’s blue eyes lingered in his mind. She had used to leap into his arms, confident that he would catch her. Had he ever let her down, let her drop? No. It was since he had come out of the hospitals that Penny had decided to be “afraid” of him.
“Kenny? Ken?” said Julia.
But Minderquist addressed his mother-in-law. “Any news from Harriet and George, Becky?”
Harriet was the Minderquists’ daughter, mother of Penny, and Harriet and her husband, George, had parked Penny at Sundocks, much to Minderquist’s delight, while they took a three-week vacation in Florida. But Penny had started acting strangely towards Minderquist, crying real tears for no reason, having a hard time getting to bed or to sleep at night, so Becky, who lived twenty miles away in Virginia, had taken the child to her house a few days ago.
Minderquist never heard Becky’s answer, if she made any, because the press was arriving. Two or three cars rolled up the drive. Julia summoned Fritz from the kitchen, then went to open the front door herself.
There were at least fifteen of them, maybe twenty, mostly men, but five or six were women. Minderquist’s eyes sought Florrie Lee and found her! His morale rose with a leap. She brought him luck, put him at his ease. Not to mention that it was a pleasure to look at a pretty face! Minderquist looked at her until her eyes met his and she smiled.
“Hello, Ken,” she said. “You’re looking well. Glad to see you up and around again.”
Minderquist seized her slightly extended hand and pressed it. “A pleasure to see
Minderquist greeted a few other people politely, recognizing some of the faces, then steered those who wanted refreshments towards the buffet table, where Fritz in his white waistcoat was already busy taking orders. A couple of cameras flashed.
“Mr. Minderquist,” said an earnest, lanky young man with a ballpoint pen and a notepad in one hand. “Can I have a couple of minutes with you later in private? Maybe in your study? I’m with the
“Cain’t promise you, son, but Ah’ll try,” Minderquist replied, putting on his genial southern drawl. “Meanwhile come over here and par-take.”
Julia was pulling up chairs for those who wanted chairs, making sure that people had the drink or fruit juice that they wished. Her mother, Becky, who Minderquist thought looked very trim and well done-up today, was helping her. Becky managed a nursery in Virginia, not for children, Minderquist remembered he had said a few times to the media, when they asked him about family life, but for plants.
“Ah, tell ’em to shove it!” Minderquist said with a grin, in reply to a journalist’s question, were the rumors true that he was going to retire. Minderquist was gratified by the ripple of laughter that this evoked, though he heard Julia say: “Such language, Ken!”
Minderquist had not sat down. “Where’s Penny?” he asked his wife.
“Oh—” Julia gestured vaguely towards the kitchen.
“Going back to Washington again soon then, sir?” asked a voice from among the seated people. “Or maybe Kentucky? Lovely place you’ve got here.”
“Bet yer ass—Washington!” Minderquist said firmly. “Julia, honey, isn’t there a beer for me anywhere? Where’s Fritz?” Minderquist looked for Fritz, and saw him heading for the kitchen with an ice bucket.
“Yes, Ken,” Julia replied, and turned to the buffet table.
He wasn’t supposed to drink anything alcoholic, because of some pills he still had to take, but he treated himself to a beer on rare occasions, such as his fifty-ninth birthday just after he had left the second hospital, and this was another rare occasion, meeting the press with his favorite female journalist, Florrie Lee, sitting just two yards away from where he stood. Minderquist ignored one boring question, as he saw Becky leading his granddaughter in from the kitchen hall, holding Penny by the hand. Penny hung back, squirming at the sight of so many people, and Minderquist’s smile grew broader.
“Here comes the sweetest little granddaughter in the world!” Minderquist said, but maybe nobody heard him, because several of the photographers started clamoring for Minderquist to pose for a shot with Penny.
“Out by the pool!” someone suggested.
They all went out, Julia too. Minderquist placed his beer glass which someone, not Julia, had put into his hand a few seconds ago, by a big flowerpot on the blue-tiled border of the pool, frowned into the bright sunlight, and kept his smile. But Penny refused to take his hand, and evaded like an eel his efforts to grasp her. Becky managed to catch Penny by the shoulders, and they grouped themselves, Minderquist, Julia, Becky and Penny, for several shots, until Penny ducked and escaped, running the length of the pool’s side, and everyone laughed.
Back in the living room, the questions continued.
“Any pains now, Mr. Minderquist?”
Minderquist was staring at Florrie, who he thought was giving him a special smile today. “Na-ah,” he answered. “If I get any pains—” He did get headaches sometimes, but he didn’t want to mention that. “Not to mention, no. I’m feeling fine, doing a little golfing—”
“When do the doctors say you can be back on the job?”
“I’m back at work now, you might say,” Minderquist replied, smiling in the direction of the question. “Yes. I get—you know—memos from the President—make decisions.” Where was Tom? Minderquist looked over his shoulder, as if the President’s car might be slipping up the driveway, or more likely a helicopter would be landing on the big lawn out there, but he had heard nothing. “Tom said he might look in. Don’t know if he can today. Does anybody know?”
“Don’t you want to sit down, Ken?” Julia asked.
“No, I’m fine, thanks, hon.”
“You swim on your own out in the pool?” asked a female voice from somewhere.
“Sure, on my own,” Minderquist said, though Fritz was always in the pool with him when he swam. “Think I’ve got a lifeguard out there? Or a mermaid to hold me up? Wish I had, I’d like that!” Minderquist guffawed, as did a few of the journalists. Minderquist glanced at his wife just in time to see her make a gesture which said, “Watch it,” but Minderquist thought he was doing pretty well. A few laughs never hurt. He knew he looked full of energy, and the press always liked energy. “Ah really would like to ride on a mermaid,” he went on. “Now on the
course—” Minderquist had been going to indulge in a little fantasy about mermaids on the golf course, but he noticed a murmur among the assembled, as if the journalists were consulting one another. Mermaids who graced the links and flipped their tails to send the balls to a more convenient position for the golfer, Minderquist had been going to say, but suddenly three people put questions to him at once.
The questioners wanted to get back to the accident, the attempted assassination of the President.