Claire was three flights up when she saw Jim fall head first into the lake. From where she stood at the kitchen window, the plunge looked cartoonish, as if Jim's head had grown suddenly too heavy to resist the pull of gravity.
She'd been giving her grandson a bath in the kitchen sink. Moments earlier his diaper had exploded all over the floor. Her daughter, the baby's mother, had left the thing on too long and when she'd handed the baby over to Claire for looking after, she hadn't mentioned he needed a change. Or she hadn't noticed. Claire didn't mind looking after her grandson, but she minded the diaper. She minded her daughter not noticing.
She'd finished the hard part, the stink and stickiness of it, and was letting the baby splash and babble in the water, when she lifted her eyes out the window and caught sight of Jim on the end of the well-worn cedar dock. He sat in his favorite chair -- the white plastic one he preferred over the wooden Adirondack. Typical, she thought, him down there relaxing, oblivious to me up here, elbow deep in baby mess. She may have imagined pushing him in. Just for fun. Then, as if she had super powers (she didn't), he leaned forward and tipped, chair and all, into the lake with a splash she couldn't hear, but could only see from the kitchen window three flights up.
"What on earth?" she thought.
The first time Claire met Jim he was precariously balanced at the top of a ladder, leaning around the front of a freshly-painted boathouse to affix a sparkling aqua mermaid. She was in the red canoe with her brother, Sam.
Sam snarked, "Nice mermaid!"
Jim turned pink. His scalp glowed through his white blonde hair.
Claire knocked water onto Sam with her paddle and told him to shut up. To Jim she said, "Ignore him. He's an idiot." Sam was fifteen and Claire was constantly apologizing for him. At seventeen, Claire considered herself a grownup, fully fledged and launched into the adult world except for one gaping omission: She'd never been in love. In seventeen summers at the lake she'd never seen this boy hanging mermaids. The boathouse, she knew, belonged to the old Denningers who hadn't been up for years. But the tall, skinny boy with the mermaid in his hands was not someone she'd met before. She was certain of that.
Through two summers Claire mooned over Jim while Sam teased her relentlessly and Jim appeared not to notice. When she'd paddle by in the canoe, he'd give her the same look of surprise and delight he gave everyone else. "Claire," he'd say, "Have you seen the loons today?"
Finally, she decided enough was enough. She packed two peanut butter sandwiches, blueberries and ginger ale into a basket, paddled over to the old Denninger's place and invited him for a ride in her canoe. "We could look for the beaver dam," she said.
"Or mermaids," he answered. She couldn't tell if he was joking, but she didn't care because he climbed into her canoe.
She would come to learn that it wasn't Jim's idea to hang that aquamarine mermaid on the boathouse. His mother (the old Denninger's niece it turned out) had bought it at the flea market and asked him to hang it there. But as Claire got to know Jim, she saw that the mermaid could've been his idea. He liked pretty things more than any boy she'd ever met. He gravitated toward shine and sparkle, noticed flashes of color and light.
After comically tipping into the water, chair and all, Claire expected Jim to surface right away. She imagined him dragging himself out, water-logged. He would laugh and shake his head, in case someone (her) was watching, to show that he knew how clumsy, how silly, he'd been to lean over so far. Something he'd glimpsed in the lake -- a leaping frog, a yellow perch reflecting the light -- would have propelled him forward for a better look. "A lily," he'd say later by way of explanation. "It was just opening up."
But he didn't surface and Claire began to fret, grasping at the baby, trying lift him out of the water. But he was so slippery. The soap suds, his smooth skin, it was like wrestling a bar of soap in a bowl full of oil. Impossible.
Not impossible. She got him, clutched him to her chest where he soaked clean through her blouse. Water ran down her stomach, dripped over her hips and under her skirt, wetting even her underwear.
"I want to show you something," Jim said one day when they were picking blueberries on the side of the road. "Can you come by tonight in the canoe?"
"Tonight?" Claire's mind exploded, her skin tingled. At ten o'clock she paddled over, tunnel-visioned with the thrilling terror of meeting a boy, this boy, alone in the night. He waited by boathouse, shadowy movement urging her to hurry as she neared.
"Did you see it?" he asked, excited. "I wanted to be with you when you saw it. I should have met you at your house so we could've paddled out together."
"I didn't see anything," she said. He took the oar from her and glided them into the center of the lake. The water shone like glass reflecting a million stars as warm summer air wrapped around her like the softest blanket. Night blooming jasmine perfumed the air. "It's magical," she said.
Jim stopped paddling and the canoe gently bobbed. "No," he said. "You have to lean back to see." He stretched out his legs and pulled her onto them so she was facing the sky, but all she could think about was the solid warmth of his legs where her head and shoulders pressed against them, the feather touch of his hand on her arm. "Look," he said, pointing up.
Though she could barely breathe from the sensation of him, she gasped. The millions of stars were alive, skidding across the sky like pinballs. Everywhere she looked a bullet of light, a shower, a cascade of shimmering silver.
They were married the third summer. In his toast, Sam told the story of meeting Jim for the first time. "Claire threw me into the water for rousting him about those precious mermaids," he said. "I knew it must be love."
Claire followed Jim to university where he studied poetry and science and wrote about things he noticed that nobody else could see: A thin pink eggshell poking up from a pile of loose dirt, a delicate new sword fern curling out from between the cracks of a mossy stone wall. She followed him to his first job as a research scientist (poetry not being something that paid the bills). They always spent their summers at the lake.
Claire took the stairs as fast as she dared, the dripping wet baby flailing in her arms, making slick puddles on the wooden steps. She was afraid she would slip and wished for a safe place to put him down -- a crib, a playpen. But her daughter didn't believe in such contraptions: "Why would I want to put my child in a cage?" Claire supposed she should be grateful that her daughter had any parenting ideas at all. She hadn't expected that. But now, hurrying down the stairs, trying not to slip in the pools of water they were creating, trying not to allow the floundering baby to slither out of her arms, she wished she had a baby cage for him.
At the bottom of the stairs Claire shifted the baby and fumbled with the screen door. It always stuck -- a glitch Jim had been promising to fix for ten years. They were used to it now, the way you had to lift the handle and pull in before pushing open. But in her frenzy, it took three tries to perform the steps in proper order.
After a while she quit thinking of Jim as the mermaid boy. A penchant for shiny pretty things had stopped seeming like an asset in the midst of mortgages and child raising. Irritation prickled whenever he'd comment about the "color of those leaves" or the "most remarkable bird," comments inevitably made as he gazed out some window while she churned out a casserole or school lunch, cleaned up some mess or tried to herd everyone out the door. "Can you please just help find the keys so we can get out of here?" she'd snap.
Eventually his dreamy window-gazing became worse than irritating; it started to seem like the root of the problem when overnight their daughter went from popping bubblegum to popping pills. When the teen girl smells emanating from her pink bedroom went from bonny bell lipgloss and watermelon jolly rancher sticks to something stranger and more sinister. "She gets it from you," Claire blamed Jim. "Always trying to escape the real world."
The baby was squalling now, furious at the way his splashing fun had abruptly become a cold, jostled tear down the stairs and out the back door. Claire clutched him like a football, tucked under her arm as she raced across the grass in her bare feet, pebbles and burrs sticking in, making her hop and skip. She still couldn't see Jim and was seized with the horrible certainty that he was gone. The millions of times she'd fantasized about what life would be like without him swarmed around her like locusts pronouncing her guilt. She batted them away. "I didn't mean it," she thought as she stumbled across the grass.
When their daughter returned from a months-long disappearance to announce she was pregnant, Jim responded by dragging out the old Radio Flyer wagon and painting it yellow. Claire nearly left him. "That's your response?" she yelled. "Our daughter's throwing her life away and you're painting a wagon?" She'd never felt so alone, so like the foundation of her life rested upon nothing but jello, oozing and spilling around her feet.
Instead of ignoring Claire's reproach like he usually did, Jim pushed back saying, "Nothing was ever solved by refusing to see the good in a thing."
The words struck Claire like a slap in the face. The two of them hadn't been right since. Now she could see the truth in his words. She could feel it in the squirming, raging, precious baby; living proof that good pulsated under the muckiest of situations. And now she'd never get the chance to tell him.
But then, as the dock appeared in her range of sight, she saw Jim lying in the sand, staring up at the sky. A gash ran across his forehead, but his eyes were open and he smiled at her. She knelt. The baby, forgetting his rage at this new game, squirreled free and crawled happily toward the sand.
"It was the damnest thing," Jim said. "I could've sworn I saw a mermaid."
Choking with relief, Claire lay down beside him and took his hand.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Jenny Fosket. All rights reserved.