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Authors: Patricia Highsmith

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BOOK: Mermaids on the Golf Course
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Vance still looked puzzled, but quite in control of herself, and she even assumed a superior attitude. “How long have you—been seeing him, my dear?” she asked, and chuckled again.

“I saw him first two nights ago,” Eleanor said, still in a whisper. “Then yesterday quite plainly, in broad daylight. He has a deep voice.”

“If he just took a muffin, where is he now?” Vance asked, getting up. “Why can’t I see him?”

“He went into the side room. All right, come along.” Eleanor was suddenly aware that she didn’t know his name, didn’t know how to address him. She and Vance looked into an apparently empty room, empty of anything alive except some plants on the windowsill. Eleanor looked behind the sofa end. “Well—he has the faculty of disappearing.”

Vance smiled, again superiorly. “Eleanor, your eyes are getting worse. Are you using your glasses? That sewing—”

“I don’t need them for sewing. Only for distances. Matter of fact I did put them on when I looked at him yesterday across the room.” She was wearing her glasses now. She was nearsighted.

Vance frowned slightly. “My dear, are you afraid of him?—It looks like it. Stay with me tonight. Come home with me now, if you like. I can come back with Hester and look the house over thoroughly.” Hester was her cleaning woman.

“Oh, I’m sure you wouldn’t see him. And I’m not afraid. He’s rather friendly. But I
did
want you to believe me.”

“How can I believe you, if I don’t see him?”

“I don’t know.” Eleanor thought of describing him more accurately. But would this convince Vance, or anybody? “I think I could take a photograph of him. I don’t think he’d mind,” Eleanor said.

“A good idea! You’ve got a camera?”

“No. Well, I have, an old one of John’s, but—”

“I’ll bring mine. This afternoon.—I’m going to finish my tea.”

Vance brought the camera just before six. “Good luck, Eleanor. This should be interesting!” Vance said as she departed.

Eleanor could tell that Vance had not believed a word of what she had told her. The camera said “4” on its indicator. There were eight more pictures on the roll, Vance had said. Eleanor thought two would be enough.

“I don’t photograph, I’m sure,” his deep voice said on her left, and Eleanor saw him standing in the doorway of the side room. “But I’ll pose for you. Um-hm-hm.” It was the deep laugh.

Eleanor felt only a mild start of surprise, or of fear. The sun was still shining. “Would you sit in a chair in the garden?”

“Certainly,” the creature said, and he was clearly amused.

Eleanor picked up the straight chair which she usually sat on when she worked, but he took it from her and went out the front door with it. He set the chair in the garden, careful not to tread on flowers. Then with a little boost, he got himself on to the seat and folded his short arms.

The sunlight fell full on his face. Vance had showed Eleanor how to work the camera. It was a simple one compared to John’s. She took the picture at the prescribed six-foot distance. Then she saw old Gufford, the town handyman, going by in his little truck, staring at her. They did not usually greet each other, and they did not now, but Eleanor could imagine how odd he must think she was to be taking a picture of an ordinary chair in the garden. But she had seen him clearly in the finder. There was no doubt at all about that.

“Could I take one more of you standing by the chair?” she asked.

“Um-m.” That was not a laugh, but a sound of assent. He slid off the chair and stood beside it, one hand resting on the chair’s back.

This was splendid, Eleanor thought, because it showed his height in proportion to the chair.

Click!

“Thank you.”

“They won’t turn out, as they say,” he replied, and took the chair back into the house.

“If you’d like another muffin,” Eleanor said, wanting to be polite and thinking also he might have resented her asking him to be photographed, “they’re in the kitchen.”

“I know. I don’t need to eat. I just took one to see if your friend would notice. She didn’t. She’s not very observant.”

Eleanor thought again of the muffin in midair for a few seconds—it must have been—but she said nothing. “I—I don’t know what to call you. Have you got a name?”

A fuzzy, rather general expression of amusement came over his square face. “Lots of names. No one particular name. No one speaks to me, so there’s no need of a name.”

“I speak to you,” Eleanor said.

He was standing by the stove now, not as high, not nearly as high as the gas burners. His skin looked dry, yellowish, and his face somehow sad. She felt sorry for him.

“Where have you been living?”

He laughed. “Um-hm-hm. I live anywhere, everywhere. It doesn’t matter.”

She wanted to ask some questions, such as, “Do you feel the cold?” but she did not want to be personal, or prying. “It occurred to me you might like a bed,” she said more brightly. “You could sleep on the sofa in the side room. I mean, with a blanket.”

Again a laugh. “I don’t need to sleep. But it’s a kind thought. You’re very kind.” His eyes moved to the door, as Bessie walked in, making for her tablecloth of newspaper, on which stood her bowl of water and her unfinished bowl of creamy milk. His eyes followed the cat.

Eleanor felt a sudden apprehension. It was probably because Bessie had not seen him. That was certainly disturbing, when she could see him so well that even the wrinkles in his face were quite visible. He was clothed in strange material, gray-black, neither shiny nor dull.

“You must be lonely since your husband died,” he said. “But I admit you do well. Considering he didn’t leave you much.”

Eleanor blushed. She could feel it. John hadn’t been a big earner, certainly. But a decent man, a good husband, yes, he had been that. And their only child, a daughter, had been killed in a snow avalanche in Austria when she was twenty. Eleanor never thought of Penny. She had set herself never to think of Penny. She was disturbed, and felt awkward, because she thought of her now. And she hoped the creature would not mention Penny. Her death was one of life’s tragedies. But other families had similar tragedies, only sons killed in useless wars.

“Now you have your cat,” he said, as if he read her thoughts.

“Yes,” Eleanor said, glad to change the subject. “Bessie is ten. She’s had fifty-seven kittens. But three—no four years ago, I finally had her doctored. She’s a dear companion.”

Eleanor slipped away and got a big gray blanket, an army surplus blanket, from a closet and folded it in half on the sofa in the side room. He stood watching her. She put a pillow under the top part of the blanket. “That’s a little cozier,” she said.

“Thank you,” came the deep voice.

In the next days, he cut the high grass around the barn with a scythe, and moved a huge rock that had always annoyed Eleanor, embedded as it was in the middle of a grassy square in front of the barn. It was August, but quite cool. They cleared out the attic, and he carried the heaviest things downstairs and to the edge of the road to be picked up by Field’s. Some of these things were sold a few days later at auction, and fetched about thirty dollars. Eleanor still felt a slight tenseness when he was present, a fear that she might annoy him in some way, and yet in another way she was growing used to him. He certainly liked to be helpful. At night, he obligingly got on to his sofa bed, and she wanted to tuck him in, to bring him a cup of milk, but in fact he ate next to nothing, and then, as he said, only to keep her company. Eleanor could not understand where all his strength came from.

Vance rang up one day and said she had the pictures. Before Eleanor could ask about them, Vance had hung up. Vance was coming over at once.

“You took a picture of a chair, dear! Does he look like a chair?” Vance asked, laughing. She handed Eleanor the photographs.

There were twelve photographs in the batch, but Eleanor looked only at the top two, which showed him seated in the straight chair and standing by it. “Why, there he
is
!” she said triumphantly.

Vance hastily, but with a frown, looked at the pictures again, then smiled broadly. “Are you implying there’s something wrong with
my
eyes? It’s a chair, darling!”

Eleanor knew Vance was right, speaking for herself. Vance couldn’t see him. For a moment, Eleanor couldn’t say anything.

“I told you what would happen. Um-hm-hm.”

He was behind her, in the doorway of the side room, Eleanor knew, though she did not turn to look at him.

“All right. Perhaps it’s my eyes,” Eleanor said. “But I
see
him there!” She couldn’t give up. Should she tell Vance about his Herculean feats in the attic? Could she have got a big chest of drawers down the stairs by herself?

Vance stayed for a cup of tea. They talked of other things—everything to Eleanor was now “other” and a bit uninteresting and unimportant compared to
him—
and then Vance left, saying, “Promise me you’ll go to Dr. Nimms next week. I’ll drive you, if you don’t want to drive. Maybe you shouldn’t drive if your eyes are acting funny.”

Eleanor had a car, but she seldom used it. She didn’t care for driving. “Thanks, Vance, I’ll go on my own.” She meant it at that moment, but when Vance had gone, Eleanor knew she would not go to the eye doctor.

He sat with her while she ate her dinner. She now felt defensive and protective about him. She didn’t want to share him with anyone.

“You shouldn’t have bothered with those photographs,” he said. “You see, what I told you is true. Whatever I say is true.”

And yet he didn’t look brilliant or even especially intelligent, Eleanor reflected.

He tore a piece of bread rather savagely in half, and stuffed a half into his mouth. “You’re one of the very few people who can see me. Maybe only a dozen people in the world can see me. Maybe less than that.—Why should the others see me?” he continued, and shrugged his chunky shoulders. “They’re just like me.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

He sighed. “Ugly.” Then he laughed softly and deeply. “I am not nice. Not nice at all.”

She was too confused to answer for a moment. A polite answer seemed absurd. She was trying to think what he really meant.

“You enjoyed taking care of your mother, didn’t you? You didn’t mind it,” he said, as if being polite himself and filling in an awkward silence.

“No, of course not. I loved her,” Eleanor said readily. How could he know? Her father had died when she was eighteen, and she hadn’t been able to finish college because of a shortage of money. Then her mother had become ill with leukemia, but she had lived on for ten years. Her treatment had taken all the money Eleanor had been able to earn as a secretary, and a little more besides, so that everything of value they had possessed had finally been sold. Eleanor had married at twenty-nine, and gone with John to live in Boston. Oh, the gone and lovely days! John had been so kind, so understanding of the fact that she had been exhausted, in need of human company—or rather, the company of people her own age. Penny had been born when she was thirty.

“Yes, John was a good man, but not so good as you,” he said, and sighed. “Hm-mm.”

Now Eleanor laughed spontaneously. It was a relief from the thoughts she had been thinking. “How can one be good—or bad? Aren’t we all a mixture? You’re certainly not all bad.”

This seemed to annoy him. “Don’t tell me what I am.”

Rebuffed, Eleanor said nothing more. She cleared the table.

She put him to bed, thanked him for his work in the garden that day—gouging up dandelions, no easy task. She was glad of his company in the house, even glad that no one else could see him. He was a funny doll that belonged to her. He made her feel odd, different, yet somehow special and privileged. She tried to put these thoughts from her mind, lest he disapprove of them, because he was looking, vaguely as usual, at her, with a resentment or a reproach, she felt. “Can I get you anything?” she asked.

“No,” he answered shortly.

The next morning, she found Bessie in the middle of the kitchen floor with her neck wrung. Her head sat in the strangest way on her neck, facing backwards. Eleanor seized up the corpse impulsively and pressed the cat to her breast. The head lolled. She knew he had done it. But why?

“Yes, I did it,” his deep voice said.

She looked at the doorway, but did not see him. “How could you? Why did you do it?” Eleanor began to weep. The cat was not warm any longer, but she was not stiff.

“It’s my nature.” He did not laugh, but there was a smile in his voice. “You hate me now. You wonder if I’ll be going. Yes, I’ll be going.” His voice was fading as he walked through the living room, but still she could not see him. “To prove it, I’ll slam the door, but I don’t need to use the door to get out.” The door slammed.

She was looking at the front door. The door had not moved.

Eleanor buried Bessie in the back lawn by the barn, and the pitchfork was heavy in her hands, the earth heavier on her spade. She had waited until late afternoon, as if hoping that by some miracle the cat might come alive again. But Bessie’s body had grown rigid. Eleanor wept again.

She declined Vance’s next invitation to tea, and finally Vance came to see her, unexpectedly. Eleanor was sewing. She had quite a bit of work to do, but she was depressed and lonely, not knowing what she wanted, there being no person she especially wanted to see. She realized that she missed him, the strange creature. And she knew he would never come back.

Vance was disappointed because she had not been to see Dr. Nimms. She told Eleanor that she was neglecting herself. Eleanor did not enjoy seeing her old friend Vance. Vance also remarked that she had lost weight.

“That—little monster isn’t annoying you still, is he? Or is he?” Vance asked.

“He’s gone,” Eleanor said, and managed a smile, though what the smile meant, she didn’t know.

“How’s Bessie?”

“Bessie—was hit by a car a couple of weeks ago.”

“Oh, Eleanor! I’m sorry.—Why didn’t you—You should’ve
told
me! What bad luck! You’d better get another kitty. That’s always the best thing to do. You’re so fond of cats.”

BOOK: Mermaids on the Golf Course
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