Peter drove his truck to Charlotte's apartment, where he climbed the back stairs, past the blue recycling bin filled with her empties: Aqua Fina, a single bottle of Beaujolais Villages. He pulled open the screen door and knocked on the glass. After a moment, the door was opened slowly and Peter was staring at Meredith, wearing cut-off shorts and her motorcycle boots, her legs pale and strong-looking and covered with the whitest down. He had a quick, involuntary desire to press his face to them. Meredith looked at Peter, and though her expression didn't change at all, she fairly radiated disgust with him.
She stood back and let the door swing wide.
"Peter Professor," she said.
He stepped in slowly. "Meredith."
"Don't wear it out," she said, turning her back and going into the living room. "Ma, Charlotte's date is here."
Peter stepped inside and closed the door behind him. Charlotte's kitchen remained as placidly cheerful as when he'd come to pick her up for their dates. The yellow counters were uncluttered, wiped clean, dishes were set to dry in the rack, a bunch of dried roses hung from one of the overhead cabinets. He hesitated by the door for a moment.
"Peter!" The voice, throaty and resonant, arrived first. It was followed by the appearance of a heavy woman in a purple T-shirt and a long black skirt of an iridescent fabric; her long gray hair fell loose around her face, a rather round, pink face out of which two small, dark, glistening eyes peered at Peter. She stepped toward him, head cocked slightly to one side sympathetically, both arms outstretched, her two hands seeking both of his. Oh, they were in this together-everything about her approach told him that.
"Peter," she said again. "Let me look at you." She clasped him by his upper arms and stood still, her two peculiar eyes fixed on his. She was almost beaming at him, he thought, except for the transparent sheen of grief across her gaze. He didn't say anything, and though he had never liked the touch of strangers he tried not to stiffen under her fingers. At last she stepped back, releasing his arms.
"The face at last," she said. "Come and talk." Peter followed her into Charlotte's cramped living room and, seeing no other chairs, stood as she sank into the corner of the love seat. "Aah," she breathed, and she opened her arms to each side, exposing to him the waxen skin of her soft upper arms, and let her head roll back onto the cushions. Her eyes were closed and she breathed noisily for a few seconds. Peter read the front of her T-shirt: LITTLE RIVER ECSTATIC DANCE RETREAT. There was an inkbrush drawing of a naked woman in a pose, he supposed, of Ecstatic Dance, her arms overhead and one leg raised improbably. He could not believe that the angular, nervous, brainy Charlotte had sprung from this large, weird woman, and for a moment he liked Charlotte more than he ever had when she was alive. Then Charlotte's mother's eyes popped open, startlingly, and she lifted her head.
"Sit, sit," she cried, patting the cushion next to her. "Are you breathing? You look like you're not breathing. Always breathe, Peter. It's what has gotten me through this, and everything else in my life."
"Thank you, Mrs. Johannsen," Peter said as he sat, shifting his frame into the corner of the love seat opposite her, and running a hand through the bristles of his hair.
Charlotte's mother took his other hand rather fiercely. "Sigrid," she said. "You're family."
That was too much for Peter-first the hand, then the family-and each one of his reticent Midwestern bones throbbed with the desire to get away from this woman. He had to set the record straight.
"Uh, Sigrid," he started, attempting to slide his hand slowly, gently from her grasp. He lost his train of thought as she actually tightened her grip on his hand, keeping it from leaving her own plump warm one. He gave up on the hand and spoke. "Sigrid, I don't know what Charlotte said to you, but actually I, we didn't know each other that well. We only went out on two dates, it wasn't as if we were a couple."
Sigrid struggled her bulk forward from the corner of the couch and leaned close to Peter. Her voice fell into a kind of dramatic murmur. "What Charlotte said to me was, actually . . ." She paused. "Was that you two had a wonderful kiss. That was enough for her, a good kiss. That was everything."
What kind of grown woman tells her mother about her kisses? It irritated Peter for a moment till a voice in his head gently reminded him, She's dead. It could have been her saying that, saving him from his own embarrassment.
"Charlotte had this extraordinary energy," she was saying. "When she came in the house I could always feel her, even if I couldn't hear her. It was as if the whole house contracted a little when she came into it."
Peter couldn't help but picture a contracting house, and his mind twitched with possibilities for a new piece. Then he caught a glimpse of Sigrid, her face still near his, but her expression closed with memory and sorrow, and he was struck with his first real understanding of Charlotte's death, her utter disappearance from the world.
Sigrid released his hand abruptly, as if holding it had become suddenly repellent to her, and she clicked back to life.
"So," she said. "Tell me about your relationship. Tell me you had a great sex life."
"Mrs. Johannsen," Peter said, his voice creaking out strangely. "We only went out to dinner a couple of times. Not even that. Once it was drinks."
"It's a shame," said Sigrid. "I'd like to think there was ecstasy in her life before she left it."
"You're assuming, Ma, that she'd have felt ecstasy," said Meredith, who'd reappeared. She stood in the doorway to the living room, a bony shoulder leaning on the doorjamb, eating a Pop-Tart.
Peter was mortified, but what could he do? He sat there.
"Peter builds things," said Sigrid. "A man who can handle tools is almost always good in bed."
"Whatever you say, Ma," said Meredith. She turned to Peter, the Pop-Tart clutched between her thumb and forefinger. "Bet you didn't know Char's family was a bunch of whack jobs. Why do you think she moved down here?"
"Oh Meredith," murmured Sigrid. Meredith's words seemed to have deflated her; exhaustion scraped through her voice. "I hate that term."
"She thinks whack job is like some kind of violent masturbation," Meredith told Peter with a little grimace.
Like a dog scrabbling along a chain-link fence, all of Peter's instincts turned to finding a hole in the conversation through which he could escape. Grieving family or not, he couldn't sit here for another moment with two crazy women talking about masturbation and his sex life with a dead woman. A nonexistent sex life. He felt like crying.
Sigrid must have smelled his panic. She smiled sadly. "We've scared you, Peter. That blunt sex talk. Charlotte said you were shy, a nice Minnesota boy-"
"Char was reaching," interrupted Meredith, with a mouthful of the last of her toaster pastry. "She was out to find a nice guy who was as unlike her as possible. That never works."
Peter stood up from the couch.
"No offense, Peter Professor," she said. "You're all right, I like you. A little of the old deer-in-the-headlights about you, but who can blame you. Dead date, crazy family."
"I've got to get going," Peter said. "I don't know what to say. Charlotte was . . . Charlotte was beautiful. I wish I'd gotten to know her better."
"Peter," said Sigrid, rising from the couch with surprising grace. "Sit down. I want to ask you something. And then we'll set you free."
"Charlotte's being cremated," she said, sitting. "And we're going to have a ceremony. Something sacred, a celebration. A release."
She stopped a moment, imagining, Peter thought, the release, whatever that was. He was wishing for one himself.
"What I want is a box of some sort to hold her ashes. A vessel." She took his hands again. He disowned them. "A vessel made with love by a man who kissed her. It's perfect."
There were many things to which Peter would have agreed in order to hear "Goodbye" from Sigrid and Meredith by then, and this he could do. A box for ashes, a vessel for his escape, a container for his guilt. Something plain, dignified, relatively simple. A lacquer of some somber, yet joyous color. He would have agreed to anything, and so he agreed to this, with relief, and promised a box within a few days.
Finally, Sigrid showed him to the door, eyes glistening with gratitude. "I just wanted to see the face my Charlotte kissed. I think she loved you. I haven't quite seen what it is yet, but you must be extraordinary."
Meredith snorted. "Well, he's a hotty, Ma," she said as she opened the kitchen door for Peter.
He moved as quickly as he could to the door, hoping to avoid any more physical contact with Sigrid. She swayed along to him as he turned in the doorway.
Putting both soft hands against his cheek, she murmured, "Namaste." Meredith, behind her mother, rolled her eyes and began closing the door. "Later," she said.
At home, Peter opened a beer and hit the button on his answering machine.
"Pete!" Justin said. "I've got a lot for you." Peter sat on the arm of his couch and picked a sketch up off the floor. "Now it's not the best neighborhood, but man you should see it. Got a blacktop driveway and a garage already. Place burned down, it was a crack house for a while. A big corner lot. We gotta get wheels under your place and go, Pete."
Peter drained his beer; the purply dusk stained the walls of his living room as he sat among the sketches that lay on the couch and the floor around it. He felt he'd had a narrow escape, but from what he wasn't sure.
The lot was big, with a spreading live oak on the corner, and a garage that could be made into a studio, and a blacktop driveway, and a fire-smudged foundation, but it was still in the middle of a god-awful neighborhood. On the few lots that weren't vacant hunched scrub fifties ranches, armored against the neighbors with drawn blinds and chain-link fencing around dirt-patch yards. Justin leaned against his car with his ubiquitous clipboard, head bobbing to the radio, while Peter strolled through the weeds and litter. He figured it was a little better than the lot the house was on now.
A single car raced by, slowed, sped up, stopped, and backed up to the lot. Justin turned around and Peter stopped. It was Charlotte's and, for a moment, he thought-
The door opened and all six feet of Meredith unfolded out of it.
"Peter Professor," she said. "I thought that was you." She was wearing the same leather pants and another tiny, tight T-shirt. This one read PORN STAR. Peter didn't want to see her at all. She was like a spider, all legs and venom, and he wished she would go away.
She stretched an arm back through her car window for her cigarettes and a lighter. "Aren't you going to say hi?" she said.
"What are you doing around here?" Peter asked. "It's not a good neighborhood."
"My favorite kind," she said. "What are you doing here?"
"Buying a house," he said. Justin was making tracks toward them.
Meredith looked around. "Must be the emperor's new house," she said.
Justin, who had hurried over, erupted in his terrier laugh. "That's good. I've got to remember that. I'm Justin, the agent."
Meredith looked at him as if he were a talking toad and Peter liked her just a little.
Since neither Peter nor Meredith said anything, Justin played with his cell phone and connected himself to someone who would speak to him. He moved away, talking.
"Buying in crackville," Meredith said. "I wouldn't have thought it of you."
"It's a really good deal," he said.
"It looks like it," she said, smirking. "A man's home is his castle, after all."
"Are you always so positive?" he asked.
She shrugged, the T-shirt lifting her breasts slightly. He couldn't help but watch as they rounded and then sighed back into place.
"You know, I don't think you liked Charlotte all that much," she said.
"I've been trying to tell you I hardly knew her." He had picked up a stick and was snapping it into smaller and smaller lengths. "She seemed like a nice girl."
"That is so anemic," she said.
"Fuck you," said Peter.
The words banged around like pots falling. He didn't use them a lot.
Meredith giggled. It was startling. Peter didn't imagine a creature like her could make that sound. Before long it changed to a cough and then she spat.
"All right, Pete," she said. "All right."
They watched a skinny kid pedal past on the street, hunched with effort, chased by a chubby boy running hard and losing ground.
"She did say you were a good kisser," said Meredith.
"I really am sorry about Charlotte," he said, by way of apology.
"It's the way I'd want to go," she said. "Pop. Charlotte thought too much, though. Thought herself right into a cerebral event."
"Jesus," said Peter. He was absently stabbing himself in the palm with what was left of his stick.
"I'm gonna miss the shit out of her, though," Meredith said, nodding once. She paused. "Sigrid's cooking up a service, some of Char's friends, some other people."
From his car, Justin shouted something and waved his cell phone at Peter, who lifted a hand, and Justin roared off, his tires spinning up grit and leaf chaff and bits of broken glass.
Meredith said, "We're picking up Char's ashes from the funeral place tomorrow. I'll have to get the box from you." She looked around. "So. Where's the corner around here with the man on it who's going to be my best friend?"
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