He'd been out all afternoon with his real estate agent, an aggressive, pop-eyed young man who had dragged him around the ghetto for hours. The ghetto was all Peter could afford. He'd seen five houses that, in the end, all looked like the same house to him: ramshackle, wood, with sagging wire fencing in front and the inevitable junkyard dog chained in back. Two or three NO TRESPASSING signs nailed to the porch and a shabby crape myrtle up against the side. Justin the agent was enthusiastic about the last place in particular.
"Get it for sixty grand," he said. "You can move it! They jack it up and put it on a flatbed. Move it wherever you want, five thousand. Buy a little lot somewhere nice."
It was the only house left on a block of establishments long closed: the Fresh Up Club, Laura Mae's, the Victory Grill. He'd be living there like the last inhabitant of an annihilated planet among the blowing trash and the scrawny trees. He tried to imagine moving it, four walls and a roof floating down the street on wheels, but that seemed somehow unnatural.
He was desperate for his own patch of ground. He stood in the dry weeds and looked at this house he could afford. Nothing about it spoke to him-there was no charm, no residue of happy lives in its rooms, no mystery, no tragic scent. Peter could fix anything, had had dreams of transformation, but even the damage in this house wasn't eloquent: a leaky roof, a cracked toilet, the rotten porch. Surely Justin could find him something better.
Licked by the day spent looking for somewhere to live, Peter dragged himself up the bowed wooden steps to his garage apartment, scuffing the blistered paint with his sneakers. He lifted his head to find a girl leaning against his screen door. A tall scimitar of a girl, looking bored, cigarette butts like grubs around her feet. She was waiting.
Peter stopped where he was. She came to the railing, leaning on both elbows, and looked down at him-a striking, six-foot, obviously stoned woman in leather pants. His eyes were level with her black motorcycle boots resting on the lowest railing of his landing. She had big feet and long legs and she was the sexiest and the meanest-looking girl Peter had seen in a long time. He suddenly felt self-conscious about the sparse forest that was his hair.
He ran a hand through its stiff, upright bristles.
"Peter," she said.
"Yes," he said. "Who are you?"
"I'm Charlotte's sister," the girl said, a blurry drawl. "Are you coming up? I need to talk to you."
Charlotte was a girl Peter had been thinking about guiltily that day. A girl he hadn't called. A girl he hadn't liked that much.
"I didn't know Charlotte had a sister," said Peter.
She nodded impatiently.
"I'm coming," Peter said, getting a bad feeling about things. Digging his keys out of his pocket, he jogged lightly up the last few steps.
Charlotte's sister straightened up as he reached the landing; her faded T-shirt, which said CAMP SHALOM, looked a size too small, stretched distractingly tight across her breasts.
"What's up?" he said. He felt short.
"So you're Peter the Professor."
Peter waited for an explanation. Meredith brushed a fly off her white, wiry arm. Peter wondered irrationally if this had something to do with his not calling Charlotte after their last date, which was over a week ago. He'd taken her out twice; a sexy girl, she was angular and curvy at the same time, and funny, but she talked. She was nervous and it made her talk, and Peter was thin and quiet and discovering he liked the thin and quiet girls. He'd kissed her both times, but the second time it was ambivalent, more about opportunity than desire, and he knew he probably wouldn't call her again.
"Charlotte died," Meredith said. "Can we go inside?"
She clomped inside after him in her big boots and glanced dismissively around his neat, spartan apartment and then she told him the facts while she leaned up against his kitchen counter and flicked cigarette ashes into his sink: a cerebral hemorrhage, Charlotte collapsing like a puppet unstrung, her mother and sister flying down to do what needed to be done.
It seemed natural as rain for a second, when Meredith said it, that the girl he'd been feeling guilty about had died, as if it happened only to make him feel like more of a heel. Then the second passed and it was all strange; trying to absorb the fact of her death was like trying to breathe water. He could picture her clearly, alive, standing next to the jukebox at Lala's, one hip thrust out, her brown hair falling across her bony face, picking out songs he remembered perfectly: by Blondie, the Inkspots, Merle Haggard.
"I'm sorry," he said.
She didn't seem to care if he was sorry. She scratched her arm viciously. "My mother didn't want me to leave it on your messages," she told him.
"Thanks," he said, wishing she had.
After a while, Meredith said, "You need to come see my mother. She thinks you were star-crossed lovers or some shit."
Jesus, he thought. "I don't know if that would be such a good idea," he explained. "Charlotte and I only dated a couple of times. I didn't really know her that well."
Meredith sighed as if she were unbelievably bored by Peter and put her cigarette out in his sink. As she shifted her hips, Peter was buffeted by a gust of attraction to her that blew up from his groin, embarrassing him.
"Ma knows you were in a relationship," she said, as if that settled the issue.
A relationship? I kissed her, he thought. Experimentally. I probed her mouth for a moment in the front seat of my truck.
"I don't know," he said. "I don't know what I could add. I didn't have a chance to call her again."
Meredith broke into a slow, crackling caw. "No, I guess you didn't. I guess you didn't have a chance to call."
She caught her breath. "You had time to kiss her, though."
What the fuck, Peter thought. This was an interrogation.
"We kissed, yes," he said. "We did kiss."
She walked over to Peter's refrigerator and swung the door wide and stood looking in. She slammed it and turned back to Peter. "You should come over. My mother wants to see you."
"I really don't know what I could tell her," Peter said.
Meredith straightened with a creak of leather and opened Peter's front door. Hand on the knob, she turned to him; her eyes were fixed disconcertingly, marblelike.
He wondered what kind of drugs she was on.
"You know what I think," she said. "I think that most likely you're an asshole because she had pretty bad taste in men, though she claimed it was getting better. A trend you were supposed to be proof of. But what Charlotte didn't say to my mother that she said to me was that she didn't think you'd call her again. And if you didn't call her again-just flat out deep-froze her-that would pretty much make you an asshole, right?"
Peter figured it was true, because he usually believed the worst things people said about him, but that didn't stop him from deciding to hate Charlotte's sister. He stood there, woodenly, in his kitchen.
Meredith stomped out and the screen door banged shut behind her.
He started for the door with a jerk.
"I'm sorry for your loss," he half yelled, awkwardly, through the screen. "I am. I-"
"I'm sure you have the number," she said without looking back as she disappeared slowly down the stairs. "Don't be an asshole."
He did have it, on the back of an automated teller receipt; he hadn't bothered to put it in his address book.
He didn't want to see the mother. What could he tell her? I liked the way your daughter kissed but figured she was a little high maintenance for me? Charlotte's nervous energy and her slight, violent gestures had made him think she'd be great in bed. Instead, something in her head had burst. There was nothing he could add, except that he hadn't thought it would be worth it, and besides, he was busy buying a house, preparing his classes for next semester, and building his Bed for Three People.
Peter was a design professor; he built conceptual furniture that was clever, ironic, enigmatic. Sometimes he wrote narratives that he posted alongside the furniture. The Bed for Three was one in his series of ironic beds; he had sketched it a number of ways but nothing seemed to be working. The accompanying narrative was too familiar-bad love affairs, cheating-the old story he couldn't get away from.
Peter slumped on his living room couch and felt a headache germinating beneath his scalp. He sat staring at a sketch on the floor for his Bed for a Cuckold, another idea he'd begun: it would be a shrunken, twisted little berth.
He thought he'd better stop feeling sorry for himself-better a Bed for Three than Charlotte's Grave for One. He didn't know what to do. I never even saw her naked, he wanted to say. You've got it all wrong. It was two dates, two phone calls.
But she'd told her mother about him.
Peter put on a pair of rubber gloves and washed his dishes. The hot water warmed the gloves and his hands inside them; the plates steamed as he racked them. He wasn't going to call. He had nothing to say to those people. Finishing, he tugged at the fingertips of the gloves until his own hands, pale and callused, emerged.
His naked fingers reminded him of Charlotte's long ones like slender white candles. He felt like an asshole. It wasn't her fault, really, that she'd liked him so much more than he had liked her.
I'll go and see the mother, he thought, and say I'm sorry. He was terrified she'd cry, or worse, start wailing like a war widow on the evening news. He knew he couldn't handle that, and to walk out on a grieving mother had to be the worst kind of sin, something that would mark him forever.
"Shit," he said, and went to the telephone.
He had an appointment with the mother and Meredith at five o'clock. At four he was drinking a Shiner Bock with Justin in Justin's cherry-scented car in front of the movable house, a sheaf of mortgage applications in his hand. He was buying his very own shotgun shack, rotting porch and all, and he and the house would move together to some place Justin was going to find for them.
"Congratulations," Justin said. "I now pronounce you man and house."
"It's not exactly what I imagined," said Peter.
"Let me tell you, Pete," Justin said loudly. "I've been doing this a little while now and nobody gets the house they dream about, you know? But everybody gets the house they deserve."
"That's a little scary," said Peter, eyeing his purchase. "I just really want to own my own place."
"You know, Pete," Justin continued. "With this redevelopment thing you won't even recognize this neighborhood in five years. Crack and prostitution gone. Gas lamps, restaurants, law offices. Young people like yourself-and me-all over the place."
"You live around here?" Peter asked.
"Me, nah." He slugged his Shiner. "I got a condo up in Round Rock. But I meant people like you and me."
Peter looked at his watch and felt a slow blossoming of nerves as he considered his next appointment.
"Where are we going to move it?" Peter asked.
"Not a problem," Justin said, carefully opening the car door and setting his empty Shiner bottle on the curb. "I'll find you a lot. Look around. All over this neighborhood there are empty lots, stuff falling down. We could tear something down. Or leave the house where it is. In five years you won't recognize this place."
Peter looked across at Laura Mae's BBQ, its pink cinder blocks a final tip of the hat to what the neighborhood once was before the interstate rose on its concrete legs to neatly divide the new South from the old. Now the windows were covered with plywood and the sidewalk buckled in front.
"Home sweet home," chuckled Justin.
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