He drove home past the men clustered like petals around the neon stamen of the liquor store window, past the fierce embarrassment of the boys with their pit bulls, the mother yanking her child furiously by. Just how stupid was he to lay his bed in the middle of this neighborhood? The Merediths just swooped into it, left their car engines running, mumbled their business, and withdrew. Peter hadn't known where to tell her to go for her errand, but she hadn't cared. As he dipped under the interstate, he tried to picture Charlotte, with her Elizabeth Bishop poems and her anxious good manners, next to Meredith and her mother. He thought of the small family tortures; she had been brave.
Charlotte had worn all black on their first date; the pale stem of her neck welled up from her turtleneck sweater; her head was oval, her hair fine. When Peter ordered meat loaf she slumped back in her seat, smiled, and said," God, I'm so glad you're not a vegan." The ring on her thumb clicked against her knife as she ate. It turned out that sound would become a thousand things she would never hear, most of all, Charlotte's own life turning, clicking to its last frame like a stuttering piece of film. Disgusted with the living, Peter drove himself to work and ruined some perfectly good pieces of wood.
Justin had arranged it all and it would go down on the following Saturday; the house would be chained up and lifted by a crane onto a flatbed truck and carried through the streets of the East Side like an obese patient on a stretcher. His house. When it was turned and lowered onto the new foundation that was being built, Peter would own his own shanty resting on the charred earth of a former crack house. Justin had taken the whole thing in hand, orchestrating cranes and foreman and OVERSIZE LOAD banners, and mapping the route the caravan would take. Peter jotted notes and signed contracts and wrote checks, turning his house over to these men with mustaches and their bleating two-way radios.
Peter stood in the viscous light of the old garage beneath his apartment squinting at the route map the contractor had drawn. It appeared to be a mysterious kind of cartography that he had never learned to read, full of arrows that pointed both ways, and fractions and decimals mixed haphazardly. On the floor around him were cast the leavings of his box-building efforts like shells and bones after a feast. He'd thought it would be easy-a simple box, high polish dignifying its contents, the top fitted tightly, elegant and without adornment-but none of them came out right. They were too small, too ordinary, too claustrophobic, or too bulky. He wouldn't have wanted to spend eternity in any of them. As he worked he'd begun to think of Charlotte's box as a house for a dead person and that seemed only to complicate matters. He spent a lot of time squatting on his heels and knocking scraps of wood against the garage floor to rhythms he heard in his head.
He wasn't surprised when Meredith pulled up in her rental car or that she was wearing the same leather pants, or an identical pair, when she got out. She had a cardboard box under her arm.
She swam slowly toward him through the Texas sunlight and stopped at the edge of the garage, just where the shade began. A pair of enormous plastic sunglasses made her buglike.
"Peter, I'd like you to meet Charlotte," she drawled. "Charlotte, Peter." She held the box out in front of her, into the shade, at Peter's chest. The darkness of the garage cut her hands off at the wrist; the rest of her remained, swayingly, in the light.
"Take. It." She flexed her arms, pushing the box at him again.
Peter took it. The box was still sealed and only a small sticker identified the funeral parlor and the person inside. He put it down.
"I don't want this," he said. "I'm just making the box."
"You have to put them in," she said, coming into the dimness and sinking to the floor of the garage, where she crossed her legs and looked up at him, insect-eyed.
"I'm making the box," he said. "I'm giving it to your mother. The rest I'm not dealing with."
"You can't make her do that." She didn't shake her head so much as turn it slowly from side to side. She was wrecked.
"Then you do it," he said.
"What's this?" She reached up and took the map from his hand and put it on the floor in front of her. "Is it for her box?"
Peter shook his head and Meredith bent forward and quickly, noiselessly vomited onto the floor and the map. "Whoa," she said. "Sorry, man."
"Jesus," Peter said. She was a piece of work. He felt like he should ask her if she was OK, so he did.
"I feel much better now," she said, pushing herself to her feet. Her face was a little too close to his.
"Deerintheheadlights," she said, staggering the smallest bit.
"Junkie," he said.
"Suck me," she said, and adjusting her sunglasses, moved out into the heat and sunlight.
She turned her palms up, feeling the sun. "Nine a.m. Saturday. Mount Bonnell. Bring the box." She turned around to face him. "Don't be an asshole. Put the ashes in the box for us."
He looked down at the brown cardboard container and picked it up. As she walked away, he wanted to throw it at her back, but he didn't. She opened her car door and he thought, she certainly shouldn't be driving, but he didn't say that, either.
She drove away, her long white arm hanging out the window. Hoisting the box a little, he tested its weight. Poor, poor Charlotte.
He had thought of a house tethered to a balloon for Charlotte, in which she would be released from her memorial service to drift up, over the green spongy treetops and far from her horrible family for good. He thought of a submersible house that rested on the pebbled bottom of an aquarium where fish would rise and sink around her. He let his mind play freely, in other words, over the possibilities of the form. A house of glass. A tree house. She had been skinny and nervous and breakable, unlike her sister who would never break, Peter knew, however hard she tried. No, the mother and the sister would keep trudging carelessly on, scattering thoughtlessness like seeds around them. Peter would build Charlotte a house with many rooms, he thought. Air and light. She would want a porch, he decided, and an attic. Charlotte was a girl who'd like an attic especially; the smart nervous ones were the type to sit cross-legged up there all day, the dust pooling in their hair while they played their daydreams like other girls practiced piano, hour after hour. He sketched, he cut, he hammered, he shaped, he soldered, and finally from between his hands rose the house that would hold her.
Saturday morning there was a wind blowing out of West Texas that threw stinging dust everywhere and lifted the dead leaves, skittering them madly around. Peter rose with burning eyes and a sore throat and brought his coffee downstairs to the garage. He closed the wind out with the big doors and turned on the single lightbulb. Gusts blew puffs of dust through the crack beneath the door. He took out his utility knife and split the brown box open and pulled the canister out. Opening the top of his house for Charlotte, he turned his face away, afraid of breathing in the contents, and poured. The bits of Charlotte tapped and rattled as they struck the walls and floors of the box; there was a softer sound too, like sand pouring. Without looking, he replaced the top and took some finishing nails from his workbench.
By eight-fifteen, Peter stood with another paper cup of weak coffee and looked at the jacks cranking his house up off its foundation. He watched as beams were muscled in underneath. Justin was nowhere to be seen and the foreman had only nodded briefly at Peter and gone back to shouting Spanish at the crew. It seemed as if they knew what they were doing; it was all happening slowly, with gravity; it made him feel good. At eight-thirty Peter walked to his car and left for Mount Bonnell. On the seat next to him, inside a cardboard box that once held a pair of cowboy boots, was the house he built for Charlotte's ashes, with Charlotte inside. He steered carefully up the climbing, winding streets by the river.
Mount Bonnell was not a mountain, but a high bluff above the lake, a lover's leap, sun-shot and windy and reached by a hundred stone steps up the side. Climbing, with his box beneath one arm, Peter first heard the chanting, a pulsing he almost mistook for gusts of the wind as they rushed hoarsely across the stone. But the steps led him into the regular beat of it, a humming throb of voices and something deeper. The wind shifted then, and he heard it clearly, drums and people chanting, and he knew, sickly, who it was and that he had to go to it.
It was hot already, unseasonable, and the sun was dampening his scalp beneath the spare growth of his hair. At the top step, he stopped and put the box down and took off his sweater. Looking past a few cedar trees, he could see them. They stood in a circle, around the tall drums, which stood like a giant cluster of malformed fruit, played by a muscular young woman whose eyes were closed. The outer ring of mourners held hands and chanted, now louder, now softer, the words strange to Peter, the whole sight embarrassing, like watching people grope one another in public. An entire family in shiny nylon sweatsuits stood off to one side, alternately looking at the mourners and the view in front of them, so they appeared almost to be watching a very slow tennis match. Peter recognized Sigrid, although she had her back to him, by her bulk and her long hair and graceful movements. He looked into the shoe box by his feet and saw the light and leaf shadows shimmying across the top of the box he'd made for Charlotte. It was a tiny Japanese house of varnished rice paper and balsa wood and slender dowels, translucent and tall and spare and perfect. It was a house for the Charlotte he imagined, the one with the long, tapered fingers, the one who had escaped her family to be smart and nervous and funny, not the other one, the one he'd never called. He lifted the house out and shook it, hearing her inside. She would hate this, he thought, the chanting and the drums and the ring of hand-clasping freaks.
Meredith climbed off the picnic table from where she'd been watching him watching the circle and drifted across to him. She was wearing a long red dress of something gauzy and semitransparent.
In one hand she held a champagne glass and in the other a bottle, and she raised the glass to him in greeting. Then she saw Charlotte's house in the shoe box. She knelt next to it, set her glass down, ran a finger over it.
"I didn't know you had it in you, Petey," she said. She stood, lifted the glass. "To Char."
The champagne glass slipped from her fingers, hit the grass, and fractured crisply. "Fuck!" she yelled. She turned away from Peter, wiping a hand abruptly across her eyes, then turned back to him, offering him the bottle.
He shook his head.
She wore nothing under the dress and her breasts moved under it as she drank. Peter looked away and knelt and picked up the house, holding it close.
Sigrid turned from the circle and saw them and waved, and Peter quickly turned away, obviously and too late, but he couldn't help it.
"I'd grab a glass," said Meredith. "You're gonna need it."
He shook his head.
"Ma's got a ritual, Petey," she said in a tone that made him listen. "A glass of champagne and a pinch of Charlotte, that's what I would have done. A Charlotte cocktail. But Ma came up with her own way. Ashes go in honey, honey goes on toast, toast goes in mouth. And we all get a little piece of Charlotte to carry around inside us."
She took off her sunglasses to get a better look at Peter's face.
"You're going to eat her ashes," he said.
"Like Communion," said Meredith and drenched her glass and foot as she poured more champagne. "It's the only way Sigrid could deal."
He lifted the house out of its box and the sun illuminated the dark silhouette of its contents. No refuge for Charlotte, he realized. No refuge for any of them.
It was easy, a joy really, cradling the house down Mount Bonnell, hitting every third step, flying almost, feeling the sun on the back of his neck. She must have thrown the champagne bottle after him, because something crashed against the stone and a shower of green glass had fallen like prickly rain. Her voice had followed him down the stone stairs, rising above the chanting, but he hadn't listened to it. What could she have to say to him? What could anyone?
Peter had arrived just before they rolled out, as the foreman walked around the truck and checked everything again, peering underneath the bed, pulling on chains, taking his time. Justin was there too, in ugly shorts, talking ceaselessly into his phone, following the foreman. When Peter got out of the car, he carried Charlotte's house with him, afraid now to let it out of his sight, now that it was something stolen, something rescued.
Then his house was moving; elephantine, it rolled past the buckled sidewalks and wretched trees of the East Side. It rolled past clumps of bored kids on bikes and an old man in his shorts hanging out more shorts and Saturday morning grocery shoppers waiting at the bus stop with their collapsible carts. It lumbered past other patched, misshapen houses and dogs who slept through it and dogs who hit the ends of their chain running as they barked after it and disgruntled motorists who pulled off the road and waited for it to pass. It was a beautiful thing to see.
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