The Mermaid’s Shadow Lamp
by Nora B. Peevy
|part 2 of 4|
Miriam decided to test her gumption by riding the banister downstairs as she had when she was younger. A favorite pastime, it was something she’d given up in old age, too afraid of falling and breaking her neck.
She often imagined the grotesque twist of her neck, the bulge of warped, broken discs, and her eyes popping wide out of her head, her tongue lolling like a sheep dog’s. It was a great deterrent to banister riding, until now.
She made it to the bottom unscathed, and rose with a somber ladylike dignity, but a hint of a childlike sparkle remained in her reserved green eyes. She felt stronger than a mule and decided to fix herself a special treat for her evening meal, goose pâté and crackers and a glass of Merlot.
Elated and less hungry after her decadent splurging, she opted to go to bed early, so she could wake up and enjoy a brisk swim in the pool as she’d done many years before. Miriam wasn’t going to waste this second chance at youth.
Mrs. Frieda Manning, eat your heart out now. You’re stuck with a husband and I’m going to be a single cat on the prowl tomorrow night. Too bad, so sad for you. Miriam smiled to herself as she sat at her dressing table, her skin flushed pink by the glow of her makeup lights, pinning her hair into tight tiny curls with the same bobby pins she’d used for years. Content, she slipped between the cool, crisp sheets, and fell into dreamland.
Late morning sunlight fell in buttery waves over Miriam’s pillow when she woke and rolled over in bed. Slipping on her rose silk gown, she sat down at her dressing table to study her face.
No. It couldn’t be. It was all wrong. All wrong! All wrong! She pounded the glossy mahogany tabletop with a wrinkled fist. Her upper eyelids drooped like a hippopotamus’s again. A gathering of wrinkles crowded her once sweet, cherubic lips. Her hair. She ran a trembling hand through her headful of bobby pins, taking them out one by one as the pewter curls fell limp and dull around her shoulders. Her beautiful dark English hair. All gone.
But wait. A sly smile crossed her withered lips as her hand reached to plug in the shadow lamp. Für Elise played as the mermaids’ smoky shadows capered amongst the sea horses on the yellow rose wallpaper. She lay back, resting her forearm against her eyes to shut out the invasive morning light, letting the soothing waves of music roll over her. She would lie here for a short while and regain her youth. And then she was going out to enjoy it.
An hour later, freshly showered and dressed in a Liz Claiborne pantsuit, black, with slimming white piping on the pants and jacket, Miriam opted to go out for lunch, rather than order in, her usual Friday afternoon ritual. She glanced at the jubilant youthful face beaming at her, before sliding down the banister like a kid in her twenties. Miriam enjoyed every second of it, and wondered if the old swing her father hung from the willows in back would still hold her. That was something to explore after lunch.
Miriam drove her white, modest Volvo to the nearest pub, a favorite local spot of hers and Alan’s when they were still dating. She hadn’t been in there since things went sour, and for good reason. Alan was a regular at The Dubliner and a huge fan of Irish music. The two of them used to come every Friday night to hear live musicians. Sean, the Irish singer, would not have won any awards with his humble voice, but his wild wayward spirit carried every tune with exuberance. And the haunting lilt of the bagpipes and the tin whistle always entranced Miriam.
This afternoon, there were no musicians. And the owner’s annoying white miniature poodle was not running free around the pub. Miriam sat down at the chunky wooden bar and studied the rows of shining bottles and glasses positioned on mirrored shelves. She waited a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim interior and glanced around, noticing only one other occupant at the far end of the bar, a younger man in his forties, with graying hair at the temples, quite distinguished. His leather jacket and jeans made him look dangerous and he had quite the engaging smile as he raised his pint in greeting.
“Come here often?”
“No.” Miriam fluffed her hair, not used to drawing the attention of men in her older years. The once familiar feeling of vigor and beauty warmed her blood as she stared at the menu, playing coy and aloof.
“They don’t have much in the way of food. Just burgers and fries. But they’re good.”
“You don’t strike me as the salad type, anyway.” The man slid down a few barstools, until he sat near Miriam. His stein left a water ring on the polished bar.
“And what do I strike you, as Mr...” Miriam’s voice trailed off, waiting for his name.
“You can call me, Tom.” Tom smiled at her, a hearty smile that filled his whole face and set his blue eyes blazing. “And you are?”
“Well, Miriam. As I was saying, you don’t strike me as the salad type. Salad eaters tend to pick at their meals. A woman who eats meat tends to be ambitious and driven. You strike me as a woman who eats meat — strong and decisive.”
“You would be correct, Tom.”
“Good. Then let me recommend the Bleu Bonny Special. It’s the best one. Who can resist a cheeseburger with bleu cheese? I know I can’t.”
“That does sound good. I’ll have that.” Miriam ordered. Glancing shyly at Tom, she drank the Sprite the bartender placed before her on a white cocktail napkin.
“May I be so forward as to ask if you’re free for dinner tomorrow night?” He hoped she would accept. She was a striking woman.
Miriam put down the cheeseburger the bartender had just brought her. “Why, yes.” Her breath caught in her throat. How long had it been since a handsome man had asked her out? Why, it’d been years. She beamed.
It no longer mattered that Alan had left her for Frieda. Alan probably looked older than his age anyway, the way he soaked up the sun. She could do much better now. And she would. She would show them all. She wasn’t going to waste this second chance at youth and the power that came with it. She would finally be someone the town would notice for her beauty, her place in society, and her family’s financial success, not for her father’s scandal or her parents’ tragic death. Finally, people would see Miriam for who she truly was.
“Good. Here’s my number.” He scribbled something on a napkin and slid it to her. “I hate to rush and seem impolite, but I have a meeting to attend. Call me tonight and we’ll set some plans for tomorrow.”
“Okay.” Miriam took a sip of her Sprite, noting the confident, bold writing on the napkin. “I’ll call you after seven. I eat dinner late.”
“Sounds lovely. It was nice to meet you.” Tom nodded to her. “Enjoy your lunch.”
And just like that, he left. A little conversation, a cheeseburger ordered and barely touched, and she had a date for tomorrow night. Miriam glanced at her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. That shadow lamp was liquid gold. If all her friends in The North Shore Garden Club found out about it, they’d be clamoring at her doorstep day and night, which is why she wasn’t going to tell anyone about her little lucky find. She was going to keep it all to herself and she was going to crush them all and finally have the life that should have been hers with Alan.
She pursed her lips, admiring her lustrous hair falling in soft waves around her shoulders. Miriam picked up her burger, wrinkling her nose at the salty bleu cheese, but she had ordered it, and she could stomach it for a date with Tom tomorrow night. She decided to treat herself to an afternoon at the spa and salon and a new outfit from Macy’s. She was going to knock the socks off Mr. Tom whatever-his-last-name was. And she was going to do it in style.
* * *
Miriam ate a light dinner of lemon chicken and herb pasta with a glass of chilled Pinot Blanc and then curled up in her dressing gown in her favorite rattan chair in the sunroom with a Jane Austen novel. Promptly at seven o’clock, she set down her empty wine glass and fished a crumpled napkin out of her pocket. She rose with a smile on her face, to wash her hands before using the phone, and to freshen up a little for Tom.
Peering at her reflection in the gold gilt mirror in the guest bathroom, she frowned. How horrible. Apparently, the effects of the shadow lamp were temporary and fading fast. She calculated the time in her head from when she’d used the lamp until now. Around eight hours. So she’d have to make sure she never went anywhere without that lamp, or never went out anywhere past eight hours, or her secret would be revealed. She’d make sure to use it just before her date with Tom tomorrow night to be on the safe side.
Miriam glanced at her watch inlaid with mother of pearl. It was a little past seven, just enough to keep him waiting, but not enough to make him worry. She licked her dried red lips, cracking like antiqued lacquer. Miriam scowled and slammed a palm against the mirror, obscuring her mouth. There. Much better. Rattled nerves assuaged, she snatched the white princess phone from the sideboard beside the bathroom door and dialed Tom’s number.
“Tom, its Miriam.”
“Why, hello, Miriam. And how are you this fine evening?” She sounded nervous, and he hoped it wasn’t because of him. It’d been a long time since he’d enjoyed the company of a woman. His wife died four years ago and he had not made time for dating, choosing instead to focus on his career. Most women Miriam’s age, besides his late wife, seemed content to be led around like a show pony on a bridle. But Miriam had fire and determination and he liked it, though he wondered if the rumors going around town were true. But he was never one to listen to gossip, so why should he start now?
He shrugged and twirled the coaster from his after-dinner drink in his hands. He was new in town and did love a good mystery, and Miriam was well-worth the investigation. He grinned to himself.
They decided on a movie after dinner at Bartolotta’s, an Italian restaurant. Miriam shuddered as she hung up the phone; glad she’d avoided the possibility of riding in a Datsun or a Geo Metro by meeting him at the restaurant. She would have to find out what type of car Tom drove, if it was even suitable for her to be seen in around town.
The town may think she’s a witch, but she thought herself a refined society woman with an image to uphold. Whether or not those stuck up bitches at The North Shore Garden Club thought so, she had money and deserved to be treated like all the other societal Nancies, even if she was twenty-some years older than all of them. Why in her day, people stared when she walked into a room and the men only dared to dream about kissing her hand. And so it would be again, with Tom’s help.
She smiled and lazily stroked the soft petals of the rose against her withered lips, having settled back comfortably in the sunroom in her rattan chair. She would retire early tonight and get all the beauty sleep she could by the soothing light of the shadow lamp. Chuckling to herself, she ascended the stairs to bed, enjoying the view of dusk approaching soft and mellow through the vast skylight of the vaulted foyer.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2008 by Nora B. Peevy