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Mermaids in the Basement

Chapter 1


If I had not read the cover story in the March 2, 2000, National Enquirer, it’s doubtful that I would have gone to Alabama and ruined my daddy’s engagement party, much less sent the bride-to-be into a coma. Just for the record, I don’t go around hitting other women, even if they are all wrong for my daddy; I don’t read tabloids, and I certainly would never steal one, yet that’s exactly what happened.

For the past six months, I’d been staying at my late mother’s cottage on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, eating salt water taffy, forgetting to shave my legs, and plotting my next trip to Ireland. Days ago, my sweetheart, Ferg Lauderdale, had called from his Dublin hotel room, and, in between sneezes, he’d mentioned that he’d lost his sweater at a pub. “Could you pop a cardigan into the mail, love?” he asked. “Or better yet, could you deliver it in person?”

After we went through our five-minute ritual of saying good-bye, I drove to Jockey’s Ridge Crossing, where I bought a pound of pecan divinity at the Footgear, then looked at a flying pig whirligig at Kitty Hawk Kites. Finally, I wandered over to Black Sheep, an eclectic wool store that sold dhurrie rugs, Flemish tapestries, Aubusson pillows, cashmere sweaters, and assorted one-of-a-kind clothing.

A bell tinkled over my head as I ducked into the store. A woman with short gray curls and horn-rimmed glasses sat next to the checkout desk, dipping French fries into catsup. She directed me to a polished maple display table that was piled high with cashmere. I hadn’t seen Ferg in five weeks, and the notion of hand-delivering a care package was quite appealing. I selected three blue crew-necked sweaters that were exactly the color of his eyes, and a heavy, oatmeal-colored cardigan with deep pockets.

“Don’t forget to look at our fifty-percent-off counter,” called the clerk, lifting a plastic cup.

Tucking the sweaters over my arm, I wandered to the sale bin. A white poncho was spread out like gull wings over a half-price bolster pillow. With one hand, I lifted the poncho, and the macramé fringe, which was knotted with aqua beads, clicked and swayed. I had an image of myself wearing this poncho to Ireland. I’d jump into Ferg’s outstretched arms and wrap my legs around his waist—well, maybe I wouldn’t leap, and I certainly wouldn’t do any sort of leg wrapping. A salt water taffy binge had left me with ten, or maybe twenty, extra pounds.

Setting down Ferg’s sweaters, I slipped the poncho over my head, taking care not to snag my dangly seashell earrings in the fringe. The poncho felt a bit snug, and on my way to the three-way mirror, I caught the clerk’s attention and said, “Does it come in a larger size?”

“I’m afraid not. One size fits all,” said the clerk. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it flatters all.” She waved her hand, knocking over the plastic cup. Ice and cola slid across the glass counter, then cascaded over the sides, pattering against the industrial-grade carpet. The clerk threw down several paper sacks, then bustled off to the stockroom for a mop.

I parked myself in front of the mirror, glancing over my shoulder, trying to see if the poncho covered my rear end. It didn’t. Grasping the fringe, I tried to stretch the garment over my elephantine self. My head jutted out of the poncho, resembling the handiwork of a South American head shrinker.

I turned away from the mirror and bumped into a hospitality table that held a coffee urn and Keebler oatmeal cookies. A thick stack of fashion magazines and tabloids toppled to the floor. I hunkered down, gathering them into my arms, and happened to glance at the cover of the National Enquirer. It was upside down, but I recognized the couple in the photograph.

The laughing, dark-headed woman was Esmé Vasquez, the star of my sweetheart’s new film. Her tight black pants showed the outline of aerobicized thighs. She leaned sideways, her breasts spilling out of a V-necked blouse, a smoky topaz necklace shining against bare skin. Her manicured hand gripped a man’s thigh—Ferg’s thigh. He was wedged against her, gripping a pint of ale. Behind his familiar wire-rimmed glasses, his eyes held a bemused expression.

I’d helped Ferg select those glasses after he’d stopped wearing contact lenses. His hair looked shorter and redder than I remembered. If he’d altered his hairstyle, what else had changed? The old Ferg had coppery, ropelike natural curls that sprang out all over his head. I remembered how he used to sit on the floor between my knees, a towel draped around his shoulders while I shaped and scrunched his hair with my unglamorous, unmanicured hands.

Me, I was the antithesis of all things Hollywood. One year ago, when he gave his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards, the camera had panned over to my row. I started to shrink down, but I was seated next to Susan Sarandon, who’d been nominated for best supporting actress in Bombshell. Susan grabbed a handful of my black gown and held me aloft. Later, when we made the party rounds, she pointed to my feet—one navy pump, one black. I waved my hand, and explained that the shoes were Prada, identical twins except for the color: the navy kid leather was almost black. I had borrowed them from my late mother, a self-professed shoe-a-holic. When Shelby VanDusen fell in love with a shoe, she bought them in multiple colors. “Just go barefoot,” Susan suggested, “unless you’re trying out for Fashion Victim of the Week in the tabloids.”

“But I’ll get my feet dirty,” I said.

“That’s all right, love,” Ferg said, handing his statue to Susan; then he swept me into his arms. He smiled. “I’ll carry you.”

I always thought his hair went with his smile, a wide-mouthed, open grin. I’d worked with him three years, lived with him for two; but the longer I stared at the picture, the more alien he seemed. If it wasn’t the camera angle, only one explanation made sense: I had never really known him. He was a stranger with even stranger hair.

In less than four minutes, my own hair was about to undergo a radical transformation, and not by choice.

Excerpted from MERMAIDS IN THE BASEMENT © Copyright 2011 by Michael Lee West. Reprinted with permission by Avon A. All rights reserved.

Mermaids in the Basement
by by Michael Lee West

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0060184051
  • ISBN-13: 9780060184056