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Authors: Patricia Highsmith

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BOOK: Mermaids on the Golf Course
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“Hello, Simon . . .”

“Simon . . .” said another voice.

“The
second
time . . .”

Simon could not move his arms. His feet also refused to move, or his knees to bend. He thought he was lying flat on his back. Shadow turned into images of human figures. A voice murmured in German. A thin man with a black mustache and white shirt bent over him, thrust a needle into Simon’s left thigh or hip, but Simon felt nothing. It was Chris’s house again. Or was it another world that merely looked like Chris’s house?

“You’re okay, Simon. You’ll be all right.” This was Carl bending over Simon.

Simon realized that he was again on the big leather sofa which was at least three yards long. “And Chris?”

The number of voices reached a crescendo, then died down.

“Go ahead!” a man’s voice said in a tone of impatience.

“Chris died around one o’clock. Very peacefully. He—” This was Carl again, speaking softly. “Now it’s nearly midnight. You’ve got to stay put for a while, Simon. Best not to move you tonight, the doctor said.”

“Wh—” Simon was growing increasingly sleepy. He tried without success to form the word “Why?”

“Tell him!” said Detweiler’s voice.

“You’ve got two broken arms, Simon, no doubt a few cracked ribs, and a very swollen ankle. Now do you understand why you can’t move?” Jonathan spoke gently, then moved back from the sofa and became a shadow that disappeared among the others.

When Simon next woke up, it was different. Dawn was coming through the tall curtains that were not totally closed. And Detweiler—yes, it was Detweiler’s form, propped on a similar big sofa some three yards away and parallel to the one Simon was lying on. A dim light from a standing lamp flowed down on Freddy, who had fallen asleep over his book. Freddy was in pajamas and bathrobe again.

And Chris was dead, Simon remembered, his body probably no longer in the house. They were all alone, Detweiler, Jonathan, Carl, and the others who had not left. And Simon was in a state in which he could not move, like someone dead, too. He gasped, but the sound did not awaken Detweiler. He was going to live. He was broken a bit, and he would remain broken, even when the bones mended.

An existence now with Chris gone. That was the fact. And Simon had to see himself in a different way, not exactly reborn—at his age—but as having died and come back to life. He felt he had really done this. Call himself fifty, yes. And give the
William
lead to Russell Johnson. Tell him today. And carry on in Chris’s tradition. Chris wouldn’t want to see him downcast. Chris wouldn’t have wanted him to try to kill himself, and at exactly the same time that Chris himself had died, Simon realized. Chris would have said, “Absurd, Simon. For me? I’m not that important. The rest of your life is important.”

Simon laughed a little, and pain hit his ribs on both sides. Simon kept on smiling.

“Awake?” said Detweiler, and his book fell with a thud to the floor. “Good morning, Simon. Need something?—Hey, you’re looking a lot better!”

Simon made an effort, lifted his head, his heavy arms with their boards and bandanges.

“Stop that!” Detweiler rushed to him.

“I want to walk. I can walk!” Simon wanted to make a bet that he could.

“Not today you can’t. Do you have to pee?”

“Where’re the others?”

“Asleep, I trust.” Detweiler’s lean face creased with his grin. He still hadn’t shaved. “Jonathan took off. Carl’s leaving at ten this morning. I can stay for a day or so, at least till you get a plane to somewhere. Three or four of us are still here.”

And wasn’t he the oldest now, Simon thought. Very likely. Carl Parker was certainly three years younger.

“Chris left you the house. Did you know that?” asked Detweiler.

A Clock Ticks
at Christmas

“H
ave you got a spare franc, madame?”

That was how it began.

Michèle looked down over her armsful of boxes and plastic bags at a small boy in a loose tweed coat and tweed cap that hung over his ears. He had big dark eyes and an appealing smile. “Yes!” She managed to drop two francs which were still in her fingers after paying the taxi.


Merci,
madame!”

“And this,” said Michèle, suddenly remembering that she had stuck a ten-franc note into her coat pocket a moment ago.

The boy’s mouth fell open. “Oh, madame!
Merci
!”

One slippery shopping bag had fallen. The boy picked it up.

Michèle smiled, secured the bag handle with one finger, and pressed the door button with an elbow. The heavy door clicked open, and she stepped over a raised threshold. A shove of her shoulder closed the door, and she crossed the courtyard of her apartment house. Bamboo trees stood like slender sentinels on left and right, and laurels and ferns grew on either side of the cobbled path she took to Court E. Charles would be home, as it was nearly six. What would he say to all the packages, the more than three thousand francs she had spent today? Well, she had done most of their Christmas shopping, and one of the presents was for Charles to give his family—he could hardly complain about that—and the rest of the presents were for Charles himself and her parents, and only one thing was for her, a Hermés belt that she hadn’t been able to resist.

“Father Christmas!” Charles said as Michèle came in. “Or Mother Christmas?”

She had let the packages fall to the floor in the hall. “Whew! Yes, a good day! A lot done, I mean. Really!”

“So it seems.” Charles helped her to gather the boxes and bags.

Michèle had taken off her coat and slipped out of her shoes. They tossed the parcels on the big double bed in their bedroom, Michèle talking all the while. She told him about the pretty white tablecloth for his parents, and about the little boy downstairs who had asked her for a franc. “A franc—after all I bought today! Such a sweet little boy about ten years old. And so poor looking—his clothes. Just like the old stories about Christmas, I thought. You know? When someone with less asks for such a little bit.” Michèle was smiling broadly, happily.

Charles nodded. Michèle’s was a rich family. Charles Clement had worked his way up from apprentice mason at sixteen to become the head of his company, Athenas Construction, at twenty-eight. At thirty, he had met Michèle, the daughter of one of his clients, and married her. Sometimes Charles felt dazzled by his success in his work and in his marriage, because he adored Michèle and she was lovely. But he realized that he could more easily imagine himself as the small boy asking for a franc, which he would never have done, than he could imagine himself as Michèle’s brother, for instance, dispensing largesse with her particular attitude, at once superior and kindly. He had seen that attitude before in Michèle.

“Only one franc?” Charles said finally, smiling.

Michèle laughed. “No, I gave him a ten-franc note. I had it loose in my pocket—and after all it’s Christmas.”

Charles chuckled. “That little boy will be back.”

Michèle was facing her closet whose sliding doors she had opened. “What should I wear tonight? That light purple dress you like or—the yellow? The yellow one’s newer.”

Charles circled her waist with his arm. The row of dresses and blouses, long skirts, looked like a tangible rainbow: shimmering gold, velvety blue, beige and green, satin and silk. He could not even see the light purple in all of it, but he said, “The light purple, yes. Is that all right with you?”

“Of course, dear.”

They were going out to dinner at the apartment of some friends. Charles went back into the living room and resumed his newspaper, while Michèle showered and changed her clothes. Charles wore his house slippers—the habit of an old man, he thought, though he was only thirty-two. At any rate, it was a habit he had had since his teens, when he had been living with his parents in the Clichy area. Half the time he had come home with his shoes and socks damp from standing in mud or water on a construction lot, and woolen house slippers had felt good. Otherwise Charles was dressed for the evening in a dark blue suit, a shirt with cuff links, a silk tie knotted but not yet tightened at the collar. Charles lit his pipe—Michèle would be a long while yet—and surveyed his handsome living room, thinking of Christmas. Its first sign was the dark green wreath some thirty centimeters in diameter, which Michèle must have bought that morning, and which leaned against the fruit bowl on the dining table. Michèle would put it on the knocker of the apartment door, he knew. The brass fixtures by the fireplace gleamed as usual, poker and tongs, polished by Geneviève, their
femme de ménage.
Four of the six or seven oil paintings on the walls were of Michèle’s ancestors, two of them in white ruffled lace collars. Charles poured himself a small Glenfiddich whiskey, and sipped it straight. The best whiskey in the world, in his opinion. Yes, fate had been good to him. He had luxury and comfort, everywhere he looked. He stepped out of his clumsy house slippers and carried them into the bedroom, where he put on his shoes for the evening with the aid of a silver shoehorn. Michèle was still in the bathroom, humming, doing her make-up.

Two days later Michèle again encountered the small boy to whom she had given the ten-franc note. She was nearly at her house door before she saw him, because she had been concentrating on a white poodle that she had just bought. She had dismissed her taxi at the corner of the street, and was carefully leading the puppy on his new black and gold leash along the curb. The puppy did not know in which direction to go, unless Michèle tugged him. He turned in circles, scampered in the wrong direction until his collar checked him, then looked up smiling at Michèle and trotted after her. A man paused to look and admire.

“Not quite three months,” Michèle replied to his question.

It was then that she noticed the small boy. He wore the same tweed coat with its collar turned up against the cold, and she realized that it was a man’s suit jacket, much too big, with the cuffs rolled back and the buttons adjusted so it would fit more tightly around the child’s body.


B’jour,
madame!” the boy said. “This is
your
dog?”

“Yes, I’ve just bought him,” said Michèle.

“How much did he cost?”

Michèle laughed.

The boy whipped something out of his pocket. “I brought this for you.”

It was a tiny bunch of holly with red berries. As Michèle took it with her free hand, she realized that it was plastic, that the berries were bent on their artificial stems, the tinsel cup crushed. “Thank—you,” she said, amused. “Oh, and what do I owe you for this?”

“Nothing at all, madame!” He had an air of pride and looked her straight in the eyes, smiling. His nose was running.

She pressed the door button of her house. “Would you like to come up for a minute—play with the puppy?”

“Oui, merci!”
he replied, pleased and surprised.

Michéle led the way across the court and into the lift. She unlocked her apartment door, and unfastened the puppy’s leash. Then she handed the boy a paper tissue from her handbag, and he blew his nose. The boy and the puppy behaved in the same manner, Michéle thought, looking around, turning in circles, sniffing.

“What shall I name the puppy?” Michèle asked. “Any ideas? What’s your name?”

“Paul, madame,” the boy replied, and returned to gazing at the walls, the big sofa.

“Let’s go in the kitchen. I’ll give you—a Coca-Cola.”

The boy and the puppy followed her. Michèle set down a bowl of water for the puppy, and took a bottle of Coca-Cola from the fridge.

The boy sipped his drink from a glass, while his eyes wandered over the big white kitchen, eyes that reminded Michèle of open windows, or of a camera’s lens. “You give the puppy
biftek hâché,
madame?” asked the boy.

Michèle was spooning the red meat from the butcher’s paper into a saucer. “Oh, today, yes. Maybe all the time, a little bit. Later he can eat from tins.” The child’s eyes had fixed on the meat she was wrapping up, and she said impulsively, “Would you like some? A hamburger?”

“Even uncooked! A little bit—yes.” He extended a hand whose nails were filthy, and took what Michèle held out in the teaspoon. Paul shoved the meat into his mouth.

Michèle put the meat package back into the fridge, and nudged the door shut. The boy’s hunger made her nervous, somehow. Of course if he were poor, his family wouldn’t eat meat often. She didn’t want to ask him about this. It was easier for her, a moment later, to offer Paul some cookies from a box that was nearly full. “Take several!” She handed the box to him.

Slowly and steadily, the boy ate them all, while he and Michèle watched the puppy licking the last morsels from his saucer. Then Paul picked up the saucer and carried it to the sink.

“Is this right, madame?”

Michèle nodded. She and Charles had a washing machine, and seldom used the sink for washing dishes. Now the boy was putting the empty cookie box into the yellow garbage bin. The bin was almost full, and the boy asked if he could empty it for her. Michèle shook her head a little, in wonderment, feeling as if a Christmas angel had wandered into her home. The boy and the white puppy! The boy so hungry, and he and the puppy so young! “It’s this way—but you don’t have to.”

The boy wanted to be of help, so she showed him the gray plastic sack at the servants’ entrance, where he could dump the contents of the garbage bin. Then they went back into the living room and played with the puppy on the carpet. Michèle had bought a blue rubber ball with a bell in it. Paul rolled the ball carefully for the puppy. He had politely declined to remove his coat or to sit down. Michèle noticed holes at the heels of both his socks. His shoes were in worse condition, cracked between soles and uppers. Even his blue jeans cuffs were tattered. How could a child keep warm in blue jeans in this weather?

“Thank you, madame,” said Paul. “I’ll go now.”

“Aw-
ruff
!” said the puppy, wanting the boy to roll the ball again.

Michèle found herself as awkward suddenly as if she were with an adult from a different country and culture. “Thank you for your visit, Paul. And I wish you a happy Christmas in case I don’t see you again.”

Paul looked equally ill at ease, twisted his neck, and said, “And to you, madame, happy Christmas.—And you!” He addressed the white puppy. Abruptly he turned towards the door.

“I’d like to give you a present, Paul,” Michèle said, following him. “How about a pair of shoes? What size do you wear?”

“Ha!” Was the boy blushing? “Thirty-two. Thirty-three maybe, since I’m growing, my father says.” He lifted one foot in a comical manner.

“What does your father do?” Michèle was delighted to ask him a down-to-earth question.

“Deliverer. He takes bottles down from trucks.”

Michèle imagined a sturdy fellow hauling down boxes of mineral water, wine, beer from a huge truck and tossing up empty crates. She saw such work all over Paris, every day, and maybe she had even glimpsed Paul’s father. “Have you brothers and sisters?”

“One brother. Two sisters.”

“And where do you live?”

“Oh—we live in a basement.”

Michèle didn’t want to ask him about the basement, whether it was a semi- or total basement, or whether his mother worked too. She was cheered by the idea of a present for him, shoes. “Come back tomorrow around eleven, and I’ll have a pair of shoes for you.”

Paul looked unbelieving, and wriggled his hands nervously in the pockets of his coat. “Yes, okay. At eleven.”

The boy wanted to go down in the lift by himself, so Michèle let him.

The next morning at a few minutes past eleven, Michèle was strolling along the pavement near her apartment with the puppy on his leash. She and Charles had decided to name him Ezekiel last evening, a name already shortened to Zeke. Michèle suddenly saw Paul and a smaller figure beside him.

“My sister, Marie-Jeanne,” said Paul, looking up at Michèle with his big dark eyes, then at his sister, whose hand he pushed towards Michèle.

Michèle took the little hand and they greeted each other. The sister was a smaller version of Paul, with longer black hair.
The shoes.
Michèle had bought two pairs for Paul. She asked them both to come up. The lift again, the apartment door opening, and the same wonder in the eyes of the sister.

“Try them on, Paul. Both pairs,” said Michèle.

Paul sat on the floor and did so, excited and happy. “They both fit! Both pairs!” For fun, he put on a left and a right shoe of different pairs.

Marie-Jeanne was taking more interest in the apartment than in the shoes.

Michèle fetched Coca-Cola. One bottle each might be enough, she thought. Her heart went out to these children, but she was afraid of overdoing it, of losing control somehow. When she brought the cold drinks in, Zeke was starting to chew on one new shoe, and Paul was laughing. Quickly his sister rescued the shoe. Some Coca-Cola got spilled on the carpet, Michèle brought a sponge, and Paul scrubbed away, then rinsed the sponge.

Then suddenly they were both gone, each with a box of shoes under an arm.

That evening Charles could not find his letter-opener. It lay always on his desk in a room off the living room which was their library as well as Charles’s study. He asked Michèle if she had possibly taken it.

“No. Maybe it fell on the floor?”

“I looked,” said Charles.

But they both looked again. It was of silver, like a flat dagger with the hilt in the form of a coiled serpent.

“Genevieve will find it somewhere,” said Michèle, but as soon as the words were out of her mouth, she suspected Paul—or even his sister. A throb went through her, akin to a sense of personal embarrassment, as if she were responsible for the theft, which was only a possibility, not yet a fact. But Michèle felt guilt as she glanced at her husband’s slightly troubled face. He was opening a letter with his thumbnail.

BOOK: Mermaids on the Golf Course
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