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.
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?"
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.