1836 Auburndale Av.
Chattanooga TN 37405
Peyton Collier had too many things. The pathway he had carved from the front door to his room, a cramped, book-lined niche, was growing narrower. As he rushed up the stairs clutching his latest acquisition, a 1960's Power Gem Saturn lamp, his shoulders grazed carefully stacked collections of books, magazines, newspapers, and somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000 record albums, which he stopped counting years ago. Peyton tossed his mail, including another warning from the city threatening to condemn his home, on top of the growing pile at the end of his bed. Somewhere beneath it all rested his mother's death certificate, torn into little pieces.
Someday soon he would do all of the things the city was asking him to do, but first he had to see if his new lamp, which he bought at a garage sale for $3, really worked. It was a sweet find, Peyton thought. Not only did it feature colored lights and a continuously spinning Saturn ring, it was voice activated. He found the extension cord buried beneath a heap of newspapers, and plugged it in. It hummed alive, and colored lights spangled the walls of books, illuminating specks of silver and gilt spines.
"Hello human. Take me to your leader," he said, in a Martian monotone. The lights flashed his words. Peyton smiled in delight. "Do not ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," he said, in a broad Boston accent. Again his words lit the room. It was almost like having Mother back.
"What are you going to do with all this shit?" his friend Barry asked when he was blowing through town four years ago, right after Peyton's mother passed away. Barry whistled, his eyes circling the narrow entry hall, the rooms bulging with furniture, and shook his head. Of all his prep school friends, most of whom had never left Lookout Mountain except for college, Barry was the only one who still came around. His latest job was at a used book store in Scranton, which suited his aspiration to become a walking encyclopedia of the random and macabre.
"I plan to keep it all. And if you had the discernment of a pea hen, you'd know better than to call it shit," Peyton spat, pale scarlet splotches blossoming in his cheeks.
Barry shrugged, keeping his eyes glued to the floor, watching for Dickens, Peyton's mother's Himalayan, of (should it say "to whom"?) whom he was violently allergic.
Peyton didn't tell Barry about Dickens' disappearance. He rather enjoyed watching Barry's eyes spastically search the floor.
"So, you're going to live here? Alone. In this gigantic house?"
"Where else would I live?"
"Oh gee, I don't know. How about anywhere else in the world?"
"This," Peyton said, stabbing his finger toward the floor, "is exactly where I want to live."
Barry, wresting an umbrella from the stand by the door, said, "Listen, compadre, if that's the case, you're either going to need a wife or a professional organizer. I'd go with the latter if I were you"a lot less expensive."
Barry should know, he had three ex-wives and was working on a fourth. He still had the same insouciant, springy walk, and the same boyish haircut from school, now thinner and grayer, which contrasted rather pathetically with the deep wrinkles around his eyes and his sagging cheeks.
"Seriously, they're all over the place now"professional organizers, that is. Heck, I might become one myself," he said, tugging at imaginary suit lapels.
"Sure you will," Peyton said.
Barry retrieved a couple of beers from the ice chest he kept on the passenger seat of his car, the same 1979 Firebird Trans-Am he had driven since high school, its glossy silver coat dulled, the firebird bird spread across the hood missing a few proud feathers. Peyton spun a copy of Who's Next and the two friends leaned into the heat of Daltry's angst, his primal screams blasting from the speakers. Barry tapped his bottle to Peyton's and said, "to Mama." Peyton, sensing a hint of disrespect, kept his bottle rigid, tightly clasped in his hand, reminding himself that subtlety was never one of Barry's strong suits.
Leaning back in his chair, his feet resting on a rusted kerosene stove, Barry regaled Peyton with stories he'd read about people who died under the weight of their own possessions.
"There were these two brothers living in a brownstone in New York City and they had over a hundred tons of garbage in their house. A policeman found the first body after he crawled through two hours' worth of trash," Barry said, licking his lips, leaning forward in his chair.
"Three weeks later, they found the second brother underneath a suitcase and some newspapers"who knows how long he'd been dead"and rats were eating his decomposed body." He shook his head. "Man, they found all kinds of shit in that house, a horse's jawbone, bowling balls, baby carriages, human organs pickled in jars, rusty bed springs, their mother's hope chest, even an X-ray machine."
Barry paused, his eyes narrowing as his mind sifted through his voluminous repository of lurid stories. He licked his lips again, "there was this lady, see, who stole bread and butter from restaurants and stuck it in her purse, and after she died they found all these purses in her closet full of maggots. Oh, and there was the guy they found not too long ago buried under about a million books"that was in the Times"oh, and that lady who saved her shit in Tupperware."
Peyton interrupted, "why are you telling me all this?"
"Just worried about you, Buddy, that's all," Barry said, his voice lowered, his eyes studying the dwindling contents of his bottle.
Peyton sipped his beer. "Lest you forget, I'm a lot better off than you are."
"I won't argue that one with you, bud. It's just that . . ."
"It's just so much stuff. And that cat. Where's that damn cat? Trollope?"
"Dickens. He's around here somewhere," Peyton said. "And as for me, why don't you find something legitimate to worry about"like buying a new car?" Peyton quipped.
"OK, brother," Barry said, standing up and slapping Peyton on the back, "gotta split." He stopped halfway down the porch steps and turned around, "say, you wouldn't happen to have a little do-re-mi you could lend me, would you? The last ATM I stopped at was on the blink." Barry smiled his easy smile. Peyton scowled, opened his wallet, and gave Barry the entire contents, knowing he'd never see it again.
Dickens vanished shortly before Barry's visit. When Peyton noticed the cat food in his tarnished silver bowl remained untouched, he'd assumed Dickens was satisfying his appetite elsewhere. Judging from the skeletal remains"squirrels, birds, various reptiles"Dickens left lying around, he was a superb hunter, despite his short legs. Even more likely was the possibility that Dickens refused to eat anything Peyton had touched. Peyton didn't mind so much. Theirs was a relationship of mutual disdain. Dickens, with his matted, flea-infested cream fur, his squinting eyes and squashed frown, would lurk under tables and chairs, swatting at him with extended claws, occasionally managing to snag his socks, sometimes drawing blood. Once, he struck out of nowhere, sunk his teeth into Peyton's hand, then vanished.
Before he disappeared, the battle was escalating. Dickens' ambushes increased in frequency and intensity. To make matters worse, he was using the house as his litter box, leaving fetid piles where Peyton was most likely to encounter them: on his bed or in the middle of his shrinking goat trail, sometimes in the bathroom sink. From time to time, Peyton would see a beige smudge in the corner of his eye, but when he turned to look, nothing was there. It was like living with a hostile ghost.
Two weeks later, the house was choked with an awful odor, like catfish rotting on the river bank. He opened the front and back doors, and the few windows he could reach, but no amount of fresh air and Lysol Spray could exorcise the smell that drove him from his room and forced him to sleep on the front porch. After a few weeks, the smell slunk away.
Barry's bizarre stories left Peyton a little unsettled, but he told himself he came by it honestly. His mother was a collector too. He remembered how proud she was of her collections. How she would sweep her arms out from her sides like a bird taking flight and promise, "someday all this will be yours." All this consisted of, among other things, folk art, 19th century American landscapes by a few well-known artists, hanging alongside garage sale paint-by-number seascapes, antique furniture, and thousands of objects she referred to as collectibles. And she saved everything--food, hotel keys, bottle caps, unopened mail, cardboard boxes, aluminum cans, wrapping paper, smoothed out and folded into neat squares, and toilet paper cores she was planning to make into seed starters. "You never know when you might need this," she would say, as she flattened a Hershey's kiss wrapper, placing it in a box with the others.
Often, he found himself talking to her as if she were just beyond the ceiling-high stacks of records, books, and newspapers arranged in a manner only he could understand. Someday, he would go through them and clip interesting or historically significant articles. Beyond these were armoires and chests brimming with clothes and linens. His mother's mahogany Charleston rice bed, the "place of his conception," as she often reminded him, had all but vanished under a drift of clothes, shoes, silk scarves, gloves with tiny pearl buttons, hats still in their boxes, and evening gowns from Fischer Evans, tailored to fit her child-sized body.
"When I married your father," she would say, rolling her eyes whenever she mentioned him, "he could put his hands around my waist and touch his fingers. It was only 19 inches, just like Elizabeth Taylor's!" she said, forming a small circle with her hands, peering at Peyton through the narrow opening. "I was a real beauty, yes-sir-ree. Could have had my pick of the litter," she would sigh. She kept her wedding gown, a cloud of yellowed duchesse satin, hand-embellished with seed pearls, in an antique chest at the foot of her bed. Someday, Peyton thought, he would have the gown heirloomed.
Peyton was 12 years-old when his mother told him about his father. They were at an estate sale on the mountain when she picked up an old shot glass and smirked, "reminds me of your father." She paused, holding the glass up to the light. "A notorious drunk and a womanizer, you know," she said, slamming the shot glass back on the shelf. Peyton felt an invisible hand clutch his throat.
"Well, I just don't want you to get too nostalgic about him. You should thank your lucky stars you inherited my genes." The hand around his throat tightened.
After that, Peyton tried to despise his father, but his heart always softened when he remembered the tall, quiet man who wrapped him in a blanket and took him fishing on warm Sunday mornings. A thick layer of mist hovered above the silver pond, and Peyton was lulled asleep by the gently rocking boat and the sound of his father's voice. This is the one thing he kept from his mother.
Now, Peyton was living in a house that was falling apart. Water was seeping in from a leak in the roof, and the scent of mildew and disaster hung in the air. When it rained, he was certain thin sheets of water were sliding down the walls into the kitchen, darkening the Wedgewood blue walls he hadn't seen for years, the countertops brimming with unwashed dishes, pots, and pans. In the pantry were hundreds of Mason and Bell jars, bottles of unopened Coca-Cola, cans of corned beef, and cracker tins that predated his birth. Peyton was certain patches of black mold, like Rorschach ink blots, were flourishing on the pale Irish and French linens that had remained neatly folded--some for nearly a century--in the chests and buffets scattered throughout the house.
The house seemed to be slowly sliding into a dark and bottomless ocean, and Peyton imagined sunlight filtering through the murky water, illuminating silent, undulating rooms, schools of tiny fish flashing on and off in the darkness. He also imagined his mother's fury if she could see what had become of her home. The thought blew through him like an icy, white wind. He heard her voice scratch down the walls and across the floors, look what you've done, you ought to be ashamed.
That morning, when he stepped from his bed his feet sank into a cold, wet sponge that had once been a fine Serapi. Its clean, persistent geometry, woven in light reds and browns, and bits of sky blue, was blurred into a dark abstraction. Underneath the Serapi were the Aubusson, and the Kashan he and his mother bought on their trip to India to celebrate his 40th birthday. Every room in the house was insulated with rugs, piled on one another like a multi-layered cake.
The forecast called for more rain. It was only the 4th of June, and the precipitation was two inches over the normal amount. For the next seven days they were expecting scattered thundershowers, afternoon showers, isolated thundershowers"a different type of shower each day. He had to do something"soon.
Maybe Barry was right, maybe he did need to get rid of a few things, just so he could find the leak and start repairing the water damage. After that, he'd get to the exterior, pull the weeds sprouting from the gutter, replace the rotten siding, maybe give the whole house a new coat of paint. Surely, that would convince the city to stop sending threats to board up the place. He couldn't let that happen. Still, the idea of getting rid of any of his things made his heartbeat thrum high in his throat and his palms moisten.
Before he had too much time to think about it, Peyton called the first professional organizer listed in the yellow pages, a brash woman, Midge-something-or-other, who said she could meet him in a couple of hours.
When she arrived, Peyton took an instant disliking to her. Maybe it was the way her perfume blared across the threshold. Maybe it was her clothes: her plush frame draped in varying shades of purple, including a tight, lavender T-shirt revealing striated, sun-spotted cleavage. It could have been her hair, a short, spiky cut that might have worked on someone half her age. And she wore rings on almost every finger, gaudy little constellations of diamond chips, rubies, and amethysts.
"So, aren't you going to ask me in?"
"No, really, I think I've changed my mind," Peyton stammered.
"Ah, come on, Peyton. Let me help you," she said, her voice losing some of its stridency. Still, he didn't like the way his name sounded coming from her mouth.
"I don't need any help."
"Well, at least let me tell you about my m.o., leave you a brochure, then maybe you can think about it? It's all pretty painless, you'll see," she said encouragingly, leaning across the threshold as she spoke, as if he were hard of hearing.
"So, you get four piles: one for garbage, one for Goodwill, one for friends or family, and one for resale." Her small, bead-like eyes appraised him between black, penciled-in eyebrows and a pair of purple reading glasses. "Well, how 'bout a look-see?" she asked, rubbernecking behind him.
The idea of this woman ferreting through his mother's things chilled him. After telling her twice, politely both times, thanks for stopping by, but he had changed his mind, he closed the door. She was still knocking when he put on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, turned up the volume, and slipped inside the music.
Peyton waited a couple of days, but the rain didn't relent. The dampness in the house was growing, chewing away at its dry core, spreading its wet fingers through his bed. Maybe professional organizer wasn't the right route. He needed someone a little more genteel, a little more discreet. Of all the estate sales he and Mother frequented, Trois Femmes seemed to be the most selective, and the most organized. Everything they sold was clearly tagged, and their employees wore crisp white shirts and black aprons, three gold fleur-de-lis embroidered on the front.
The woman who answered the phone said, "Boujour, Trois Femmes," in a French accent. He told her it wasn't an estate sale per se, he just had a few items of value he would have to part with, but he didn't want people traipsing through his house.
She purred with sympathy, "Of course, Mr. Collier, I completely understand. We'll be happy to negotiate with several fine auction houses on your behalf, so your life doesn't have to be disrupted." He liked the kindness in her voice, and its soft lilt. They arranged to meet the following day.
As Peyton listened to the steady flow of rain that night, he decided to move some of the more valuable books from the wet rugs. He pulled a book of Grimm's Fairy Tales from the top of a stack. It was one of a set of four, covered in brown Moroccan leather, and lettered in gilt. A real treasure, worth a fortune, Mother had said to him more than once. He'd have to locate the other three, reunite the set. His mother always said one could never have too many books, so he bought them with impunity, and hoped someday to read them all.
He sat on his bed and began turning the pages, remembering those enchanted childhood evenings when his mother read him fairy tales. Before she read to him she loosened her waist-length auburn hair from its braids, then, sitting at her white dressing table, dutifully brushed it 100 strokes, which she counted aloud. This was how he learned to count. When he was older, she handed the brush to him, and he silently counted each stroke. At 100 strokes, her eyes, the color of forget-me-nots, would meet his in the mirror, and she would smile as if he had just given her a strand of rare pearls.
Afterwards, she read to him late into the evening. He remembered the feel of her warm body lying next to his in the big bed, and how, every morning, he would carefully remove the book, opened and resting on her chest.
Peyton held the yellowed pages to his face, and inhaled the faded scent of his mother's perfume. He lowered the book and watched a tear fall onto the page, blurring the drawing of the shriveled hag standing at Snow White's door, her lipless mouth twisted into a gruesome smile as she extended a red apple to the unsuspecting maiden. He closed the book and watched more tears fall onto his hands. From somewhere within him erupted a flood of loud, painful sobs, which his Saturn lamp gathered and cast across his room like bright jewels. Thunder rolled beneath the shimmer of rain, and he waited for the scalding waves in his heart to subside.
The next morning, dusky clouds brushed the city below. Branched lightening ignited the sky, cutting glowing channels from the low, dark clouds to the ground. The yard was a palette of thick, lush greens. He walked into the wet, without an umbrella, rain pelting his unwashed hair, then made his weekly rounds to his mother's grave, Goodwill, and his latest favorite trash bin near a crumbling apartment building on East Main Street, slowly being dismantled for another swanky mixed-use development.
He had just made it back to the house with his paltry findings"a perfectly good toaster someone had thrown out, Eddie Rabbitt's Rocky Mountain Music, another George Shearing's Touch of Genius, in case something happened to the other five copies he owned, when a large, black Mercedes-Benz roared (maybe say rolled, cruised or something else? Maybe it's just me, but I don't think of a large Mercedes as roaring " maybe even something like "rolled down the street and landed in his driveway [or front drive]" " dunno!) up the street and pulled into the drive.
A bright red umbrella bloomed from the huge car, underneath which was a diminutive woman, no more than five feet tall. She stood for a moment, looking at the giant house looming above her. When she saw him, she waved excitedly, and dashed up the walkway with her hand extended.
"You must be Mr. Collier! I'm Kristin McAvoy with Trois Femmes, pleased to meet you!" It was the voice on the phone. Her tiny, cool hand held his in a firm handshake.
She smiled up at him, and their eyes met in an azure crash. They were almost the bluest eyes he had ever seen, that rare blue one sometimes sees melting at the edges of sunset on fall evenings. Her skin had a soft, ivory sheen, like one of Mother's Balinese dancer's masks. Underneath her raincoat she wore a bright green suit with a white blouse. Curly tendrils of hair the color of aged cherry snaked from the thick French braid falling down the middle of her back. She was like a pleasantly familiar song carried on the breeze from the valley below.
After an awkward silence, he spluttered, "yes, I am. Peyton Collier. But call me Peyton, please. Won't you come in?" he said, holding the door for her. She followed him and they both came to an abrupt stop. Peyton had forgotten they had no other place to go than up the thin path leading to his room. When he suggested they sit on the front porch instead, she said it was a "splendid idea," as if he had just suggested tea at the Paris Ritz.
She carefully arranged herself in a wicker chair and waited for Peyton to speak. For the first time he could remember, he couldn't find words, although he cast frantically in the empty lake of his mind for something to say.
Kristin, her smile gleaming at him, said, "well, I'd love to hear about your collections"and about you." She paused, waiting for Peyton to begin. Finally, she broke the silence streaming between them. "Shall we start with you telling me about your beautiful home?" She looked around and sighed, "j'adore Victorians!"
Peyton began telling her about the house, which was built in 1870 by a judge. It was supposed to be a gift to his wife, but she died of scarlet fever during its construction. His parents purchased the neglected house, which had been chopped into tiny apartments, for a song, then spent the next two years overseeing every detail of its restoration.
"I couldn't help but notice all of those record albums. You're quite the collector! So, si'l vous plat, won't you tell me about them?"
"Well, I've been collecting them since I was a little boy." He shrugged his shoulders and explained, "I can't help it, if they're in good condition, I buy them, from Bach to the Bee Gees to the Drive-By Truckers, it doesn't matter, really."
"So, you've actually listened to all of them?"
Peyton blushed, "no, not yet. I plan on it though, but the real reason I buy them is to save them from an anonymous death. I can't bear the thought of all those notes, all of those songs disappearing forever." Peyton shook his head in disgust, "you wouldn't believe the things people throw away."
"Oh, yes I would," she said knowingly, nodding her head. "And what a lovely idea, saving all those songs," she mewed. "That kind of makes you a hero"if you think about it," she looked at him, her eyes shining with admiration.
Then, he began telling her about his mother, how she loved to say, waste not, want not"that's my motto. "As if she had coined the term," Peyton laughed, and he remembered how his mother would say this with her arms akimbo, her little chest puffed out. "She was just like a wren," he said, "little bird, big voice."
He added that, just in case someone missed whatever point she was trying to make, she'd punctuate her words with sharp finger jabs or expansive sweeps of her short arms. "Mother was slightly prone to hyperbole," he said fondly. Then he told Kristin about his Mother's aluminum can collection and how she planned to use them as shingles for the roof someday. "She'd read about it in a magazine, so she thought it had to be true," he said. "Can you imagine a Victorian with a roof made of Coca-Cola cans?" Kristin convulsed with laughter, and gently slapped Peyton's knee. He felt the place her hand had been.
Peyton studied his hands, folded in his lap, and added, "Mother hated doctors. She hadn't been to one since the day I was born. That's why we didn't know until it was too late." His eyes began to water. "She fought it courageously, though." He turned fond, and his lips curled into a bemused smile, "up until the very end she swore she'd never die"and I believed her."
Kristin looked at him, her eyes filling with tears, "oh, je suis dsol."
Peyton swallowed the lump in his throat and said, faintly, "Mother always said we were soul mates." Then, collecting himself, he waved his hand dismissively in the air. "You should have seen her when Father Frazier came to call on her"right before the end. She took one look at him and said, 'No thanks, Father, God's for sissies'." Peyton remembered the elderly priest sputtering indignantly, then storming out of the room.
"She was like that, you know. Not afraid to speak her mind."
After a heavy pause, he brightened. "I still put fresh flowers on her grave every week. Mother hates silk flowers."
He caught Kristin's eyes, which seemed to be studying the porch ceiling just above his head. She smiled graciously and he added, to lighten the tone, "and on the Fourth of July, her favorite holiday, I put sparklers on her grave."
Kristin laughed appreciatively, "Oh, that's just about the sweetest thing I've ever heard! Why, your mother must have been absolutely adorable! I'm genuinely sorry I didn't get the chance to meet her."
Peyton looked down at his hands and said softly, "you remind me of her."
Kristin's eyes widened and she flinched, as if an unseen hand were about to slap her.
"Did I say something wrong?"
She smiled again, "oh no, of course not! It's just that I've heard about your mother. Only wonderful things, of course, so I'm just flattered, deeply flattered. That's all."
Coincidences began raining like cats and dogs. When he told her he graduated from Vanderbilt she said, "you went to Vandy? I went to Vandy! I was a cheerleader! Go-o-o-o-o-o-o Commodores!" she chirped, jutting her clinched fists in the air above her head in a mock cheer. When she asked what year he graduated, he described, instead, what it was like to study English under the tutelage of the surviving Agrarians, and how he had intended on graduate school, perhaps a dissertation on Faulkner. She leaned forward and touched his arm, "Faulkner! I love Faulkner! I read The Sound and the Fury sophomore year!" Rubbing her arms in a faux shiver, she added, "but I don't like Flannery O'Connor, she gives me the willies!"
"Well, that's understandable," Peyton said, grinning.
Kristin leaned forward, looked him in straight in the eye, and said, softly, "so tell me, Peyton, how you managed to preserve all of these wonderful things. I've never seen such an extensive collection."
No one had ever asked him this question. Peyton considered it a moment, then told her why. "I'm glad somebody appreciates my work," he said. "No one cares about the past anymore." He shrugged, "I suppose it's all left to me to save every bit of history I can before it vanishes into the great dump of modernity." As he spoke, Kristin nodded her head eagerly. Unlike Barry, she got him.
"Oh. My. God. Peyton, don't you see? That's your raison d'tre!" She tilted her chin and looked up at him. "We're both custodians of history, if you think about it."
Peyton was too stunned to answer.
Kristin looked at her watch, and widened her eyes, "goodness gracious, where has all the time gone! I suppose we ought to talk about your collection for a minute. You wouldn't happen to have an inventory, would you?"
Peyton tapped his finger on his forehead, "it's all up here."
"What would you like to know?"
"Let's begin with everything," she laughed, spreading her arms like a game show hostess. She pulled a leather notepad from her purse and asked, "you wouldn't mind if I jot down a few little notes, would you?"
Peyton began reciting an inventory of his valuables, separating them into two categories: the things he would consider selling, and the things he would not. Among the former were one of the pianos, a few sofas, beds, and chests, perhaps some of his books, and most of the local pottery. Among the latter were his records, mother's rice bed, her jewelry, art, and personal effects, all of his first editions, his great-Aunt Gertrude's silver tea service, and most of the antique furniture, including the Chippendale mahogany desk where his mother sat every morning, her lips pursed, legs dangling from the large leather chair, while she attended to her "correspondences."
Kristin scribbled away, obviously impressed with the voluminous catalogue Peyton carried around in his mind. Halfway through, she stopped him, "well, Mon Dieu, am I ever impressed! How on earth do you remember all that?"
Peyton shrugged. "It's my calling. I can't help it. My mind is furnished with memories of every single thing I own. And every thing means something to me. Maybe it's the era, or the craftsmanship, sometimes it's just sentimental value, but I know them all like parents know their children." He looked at Kristin. "The way someday, if I'm lucky, I'll know my own children."
"Well, I'd love to hear more," she glanced at her watch and shook her head, "but I've let time get away from me."
"But I'm not even a quarter of the way through," Peyton protested.
She slipped the notepad into her purse and stood. "It has been such a great pleasure meeting you and I so hate to leave," she said, as she walked toward the steps. She turned and looked at him, her lips in a slight pout, "unfortunately, I have another appointment, but I'd love to talk to you again. You wouldn't happen to have a little time, would you?"
"Tomorrow?" he asked hopefully.
"Oh, je suis dsol, but I can't tomorrow," she apologized in a small voice, then added brightly, "but how about Wednesday? 9 am?" He agreed, then watched her flit down the walkway, and vanish into the vast black car.
When he turned to go inside, Peyton felt strange, as if he were walking alongside himself. His senses sharpened, colors intensified. He could feel the sun shining beyond the rain, and he bounced up the stairs.
The next morning he looked at himself in the small, dim square of his bathroom mirror. The tiny room was crowded with his mother's hand-held mirror collection, sets of heated curlers, two broken vacuum cleaners, an old pink hair dryer, unopened boxes of Avon and Mary Kay, and many deep purple bottles with varying levels of her favorite perfume, Poison. English ivy crept up the outside walls and through the window, permanently propping the window open.
"My Prince Charming!" his mother would say, gazing at him adoringly. He couldn't help but wonder what Kristin saw. Beneath his beard was his father's strong, sharp jawbone, and deeply cleft chin. His dark hair was lightly streaked gray, and his eyes were, by far, his most striking attribute. Mother told him many times to, "get down on your knees and thank god you've got your mother's eyes."
He decided he would shave, get a haircut, go to Goodwill and buy a new shirt, maybe a pair of pants. He could try to find his tasseled loafers, the ones he wore to his college graduation, and to his mother's funeral.
When Kristin arrived on Wednesday, promptly at 9 am, he was sitting on the bottom step of the front porch wearing a new blue-checked shirt, his mother told him he looked divine in blue, and the slightly scuffed loafers he found, along with his old croquet set, after a two hour search. The loafers were tight, so he didn't bother trying to find a pair of socks.
It took her a minute (moment?) to recognize him, but when she did, she clapped her hands in delight. "Well, look at you! Aren't you something?" She gazed at him appreciatively.
Peyton felt his cheeks flush and quickly looked at her feet, which were clad in impossibly high heels. She arranged herself in the same wicker chair she sat in last time. They talked late into the morning about what mattered most to him, which, by some strange and glorious twist of fate, also mattered deeply to her. As he talked, he realized how long it had been since he had such a good conversation, and how she lit corners of his mind long dimmed. He had so much to tell her. She listened raptly, her voice occasionally chirping melodiously beside his.
"Mon dieu," she said, gently slapping her forehead. "Would you look at the time"again! I just can't help myself, you're such a fascinating man!"
She sat up straight up in the chair, and slowly uncrossed her legs. "Perhaps we should discuss our procedure before we run out of time." Peyton nodded. "As I'm sure you know, we're very selective, and only consider fine art and antiques, perhaps a few collectibles, depending on their condition." She also mentioned their commission was 35%, but Peyton wasn't listening. He was too busy studying Kristin, trying to understand why this particular face was unraveling him.
As he pretended to listen, he felt a hard tug on his heartstrings and remembered Big Mama's warning, "women are all out to bleed you dry, then drop you flat." But when he looked into the softness of Kristin's eyes the strings loosened.
Finally, when she finished, she breathed a sigh of relief, and her smile was enough to tamp down his agitation.
"So, do you suppose I can bring the other deux femmes and some paperwork over tomorrow morning? If it suits you, that is."
He said yes to everything, then walked her to her car, opened the door, and watched her peel down the street. An empty space opened inside him and the silence was thicker than before. The word "idiot" played over and over in his mind. Peyton shivered in the warming sun, and realized he needed to call Barry.
"Whoa partner, slow down. What the hell are you talking about?" Barry asked after Peyton's breathless rush of words.
"I'm telling you, she's the one. The one."
"Now, let's see, where have I heard that before?" Barry said, and Peyton could hear the strike and sizzle of a match.
"No, you don't get it, Barry. I never felt this way about the others," and Peyton saw a parade of women, all of whom his mother despised, blur across his mind. He felt certain if she were alive, his mother would give Kristin her seal of approval.
He described Kristin in great and redundant detail, barely pausing for breath, stumbling over words, until he began to get a sense of how ridiculous he must sound to Barry.
"You'll just have to meet her, that's all. Then you'll know I'm not crazy."
"Hey, dude, I didn't say you're crazy, but how long have you known this chick?"
Peyton's spine stiffened and he tightly clutched the phone. Of course, Barry wouldn't understand.
"Please don't call her chick," Peyton snipped.
"Sorry dude. I'm just saying, slow down. Hold off on the sale and, for god's sake, don't make any sudden moves. They make a hefty commission off of the stuff she is so generously taking off your hands." Barry exhaled slowly and spent the next ten minutes telling Peyton why he should wait"at least until he could get down there to lend him a hand.
"And if you can't wait for me, at least get a couple of quotes from other estate sale companies before you commit to anything."
"Peyton, are you there?"
Peyton clicked his tongue.
"I'm just telling you, keep your pants on a little bit longer, OK? If she really cares about you, she'll understand." Peyton didn't respond.
"Well, vive l'amore, dude," Barry said flatly. "I'll see you in a few days."
The rest of that day, Peyton was out of sorts, like the unsettling feeling one gets before contracting a flu, but not as unpleasant. It was more of a slight disorientation, accompanied by an exhilarating inner glistening. His thoughts were being hijacked. One minute he was terror-stricken at the prospect of losing a single belonging; the next, he was willing to hand it all over to her, if that's what it took. He dug up a copy of Paul McCartney and Wings and played "Silly Love Songs," a song he had always loathed. This time, however, Peyton felt the words with stunning clarity, and pictured the two of them cuddling on the loveseat in front of a roaring fire, the world outside crusted over with a fine sheen of ice. He imagined the things she might say as they gazed into the fire, Mother's owl andirons with glowing glass eyes benevolently gazing back at them.
That's it. He would begin by finding the loveseat"tonight. First, he moved layers of books, records, and newspapers to the front porch. Then, he moved chairs and more chairs, a mahogany chest, several empty wooden crates, more newspapers, stacks of magazines, an old mattress, quilts, his grandmother's antique Singer sewing machine, and an old bicycle missing its front tire. He worked all night, carefully stacking things on the front porch until, finally, he could see a spot of the loveseat's rosy damask. Next, he would clear the space between the sofa and the fireplace, clean out the ashes, polish the andirons. He had just moved a large maple armoire when he found Dickens.
His desiccated body was arched in an eternal, frozen hiss, where he had been trapped in a narrow abyss between the back of a set of bookshelves and two armoires. Peyton could see tiny, uneven grooves in the wood where Dickens had tried to claw his way out. Bones peeked from patches of pale gray skin stretched tightly across his frame. Here and there, matted fur clung to his mummy-taught skin, and dusted the rug at his feet. His empty eye sockets stared blankly into the distance.
Peyton buried Dickens in the hard, red clay behind the studio. As he patted the ground on top of the shallow grave, breathless from the effort, he was surprised to find his cheeks glazed with tears.
The next morning, his fingers still dusted with red clay, Peyton sat on the porch and watched the sunrise. Light slowly emerged from the fog, etching trees from the darkness. He kept an eye on the street, and listened for Kristin's car. When she finally arrived the sun was shining from a cloudless sky. He felt its reassuring warmth drawing wetness from the sodden earth, and watched three women approach.
Kristin introduced her partners, two women in their 40's with matching straw-colored hair, deep tennis-court tans, and large, dramatically sparkling diamonds on their ring fingers. They introduced themselves, smiling as if Peyton were the Prince of Wales, and said, "so good to see you," in unison.
"Nice to meet you too," Peyton replied, pretending not to recognize them. As if he hadn't seen them all those summers, sunning themselves at the Fairyland Club or twittering in a gaggle of girls at school dances. He wondered why they looked so much older than him"more like one of his mother's friends than one of his peers. Fortunately, neither of them pointed out that they knew him from long ago.
When they walked into the entry hall, Kristin exclaimed, "my goodness, someone has been working!" and she wagged her finger at him. "I can't believe you've done all this. You must have worked all night!" He smiled sheepishly as she narrowed her eyes in mock scorn.
The partners donned latex gloves and surgical masks"vicious allergies, you know, one of them said. He grew faint with the idea of them touching his things, turning them over and over in their latexed hands, giving one another knowing looks. Mother didn't believe in letting strangers muck around in her house"that's why she didn't have help. "They either break something or rob you blind," she said.
As the two women vanished into the house, Peyton's heard his mother's voice ask him if he had lost his ever-loving mind. A chill, as cold and unforgiving as a marble slab, penetrated his soul. He was about to go after them when Kristin suggested brightly, "Peyton, why don't we go outside on the porch while they look at a few things?" He hovered in the entry hall, his eyes following her partners.
"Oh come on, the sooner you sign, the sooner I can get these women out of our hair," she teased. Kristin locked her arm in his and wheeled him toward the porch.
She pulled an envelope from her purse and handed it to him. "This is our standard contract. I'll be happy to review it with you"if you really need me to, although that probably won't be necessary since you're a Vandy man," and she batted thick eyelashes at him.
Peyton eyed the contract. The legal mumbo-jumbo could wait. He had so much more to say and it was important he say it soon"before she got away. The thought of never seeing her again made him feel as if his bones had been picked away and he was caving in on himself.
"That won't be necessary," he said quickly, adding, in a faltering voice, "as long as we're clear on what I'm willing to sell."
"Well, I think so, but I certainly wouldn't blame you for wanting to read the contract"just to be sure," her words trailed off and she tucked her chin and looked up at him, the corners of her lips sank. In a shallow voice drained of color, she said, "I don't blame you for not trusting a complete stranger, you know. Not one bit. After all, trust is the cornerstone of any good relationship, and, well, you just have too much at stake." She looked slightly to his left, took a handkerchief from her purse, and blotted her cheeks, then stared into her lap, twisting the handkerchief. "I understand, I really do," she said flatly.
A cold, white wind burned through him, and Peyton blurted, "no, that won't be necessary. I do trust you. Besides, I'm not a fine print kind of guy." And it was true, his mother had taken care of the tedious business of their lives.
"Well, OK, if you're sure . . ." she said, somewhat uneasily.
"Of course I am. Sure."
Her smile switched back on and he was flooded with relief. Without taking his eyes from hers, he took the pen she was holding, and scribbled his name next to the large, red arrow. From a dark corner in his heart, he heard Mother scold him for signing away his birthright. He looked at Kristin, whose smile was like a warm pocket of air, and his mother's voice grew tinny, then buzzed away.
"OK, enough business, let's talk about something else!" she said, cupping her hand warmly over his clenched fist. Her touch filled him with joy, warm, and honey-thick.
She looked at the front door and said, "Oh, drats, look who's here!" As if on cue, her partners emerged, dirt smudged, hair mussed, eyes watering, one of them sneezing behind her surgical mask. They removed their gloves and masks, straightened their hair, and resumed their bright-eyed enthusiasm.
"Well, I've got to get these girls back to work, tout-de-suite," Kristin teased.
Her partners smiled wildly, thanked him, and told him he had one of the finest collections they had ever seen. While they were still good-to-seeing-you, Peyton looked past them and asked Kristin, "when will I see you again?"
"Oh, bright and early tomorrow morning! If that's still OK with you."
Peyton stared blankly at her.
"Don't you remember?"
"That I'm coming over tomorrow morning with our moving crew, silly!"
She explained how, as per our discussion, their crew, who had over 50 years of experience between them, would move a few things tomorrow morning, while the two of them snuck off for breakfast at Indigo, her "absolute favorite coffee house! Trs chic, you know."
"Peyton?" she asked. This was all news to him, and he made no effort to conceal his confusion.
"Well, one would think you weren't listening to a word I said yesterday!" she exclaimed, planting her fists on her hips in mock exasperation. He nodded slowly, as if it suddenly dawned on him.
The three of them left in a clot, leaning into one another, chattering excitedly. When he picked out the word "crazy" from the shrill chorus, a pair of tiny, sharp claws scuttled across his chest.
That night Peyton couldn't sleep. The books seemed to be closing in around him. The air grew thin, and he struggled to catch his breath. When he finally fell asleep the sun was just pulling itself over the mountain, turning the edges of the sky early silver. In his dream, he watched himself frantically moving books out of the way, trying to uncover his mother, who was buried somewhere in the endless sea of books. He sensed many rooms beyond the rooms he knew and all of those were filled with books. Then he felt his mother breathing, and knew time was running out. For every book he tore from the pile another appeared, and he knew he was squandering what little time he had. His dream chased him from his bed before he was fully awake, and he mistook the muffled sound of birdsong for his mother's voice.
A large, white moving van was parked in front of the house. Four men stood outside the truck, two of them smoking, another stuffing breakfast into his mouth, spitting bits of egg biscuit when he spoke to the other men. Peyton watched the black Mercedes pull up and Kristin emerge. The man tossed his wrapper into the ditch. The others extinguished their cigarettes. Kristin spoke to them a minute, turning to point at the house occasionally, apparently not seeing Peyton. The inside of Peyton's mouth turned to copper. Sweat beaded on his forehead and upper lip.
Peyton stood on the porch, shivering in the warm morning air, the color drained from his face. Kristin gently patted his arm and said, "don't you worry about a thing, our men are experts. The best team on the planet. Trust me, they'll treat your belongings with kid gloves." She touched his hand, looked up at him with concern-filled eyes, and whispered, so close to his ear he could feel her breath, "I know this must be difficult for you. You just tell me if you want to call it off, and I'll be out of here in a flash. You'll never have to see me again."
She smiled her gleaming white smile, full of promise, redolent of long conversations, and evenings nestled on the loveseat. He decided he could go through with this--for her.
"No," he stammered. "I'm OK. Let's just get this over with." She wrapped her arm in his and led him to her car.
Breakfast was not what he thought it would be. Indigo was a pretentious modern place with stained cement floors, a black ceiling, and oversized light fixtures. He couldn't read the small print on the menu, so he ordered the special, peach crepes with lightly scented basil cream. By the time his food arrived, Peyton had no appetite, his mind kept wandering to the strange men plundering his home. When he looked at Kristin, she was either staring past him, or glancing at her blackberry.
The waiter brought the check, and Peyton snatched it before Kristin had a chance to pick it up. In the process, he knocked the remnants of her caf Americano into her lap. The large, ceramic cup fell from her lap and shattered on the concrete floor. While he kneeled on the hard floor, trying to pick up fragments, he could see Kristin's pointy toes tapping as she discreetly text messaged, occasionally looking at the ceiling, as if she hoped some sympathetic god would rescue her.
When she took him home the truck was gone. He immediately felt something was amiss. The house seemed to draw itself up like an angry giant, glowering at him for his deep and careless theft.
He mustered a weak, "well, here comes the moment of truth," and smiled a wobbly smile. He waited, expecting her to turn off the engine and come inside. Instead, she gazed past him, a placid, detached look on her face. When he realized she wasn't budging, he asked, "aren't you going to come inside with me?" He heard an anxious, whiny voice that didn't seem to belong to him.
She smiled and patted his hand. "Well, normally, I'd love to, but I can't right now. Things are haywire at the office. I have a ton of papers to sift through, clients . . . you know," she said, rolling her eyes.
He stared into his lap, clutching the to-go box full of peach crepes. She smiled widely and suggested they try another time. "When?" he asked weakly, feeling a sharp fragment of his heart dislodge and puncture his stomach.
"We'll have to make a rain date, but I'll call you just as soon as I can get away," she said, her voice a few octaves too high.
"I'll certainly give it the old college try," she practically squealed, and her mouth twitched into a smile.
He searched her face for a sign that she meant it. Her eyes met his, darted to the door handle, his house, then back to his. They were too blue, eerie, he thought, as harsh and electric as neon. Not the blue he remembered. It hadn't occurred to him she was wearing colored contact lenses. And her hair was a little too red, her teeth a little too white. The make-up slathered across her face was thick and garish. Her suit, blotched with dark coffee stains, screeched red, and he thought she should have known better than to wear that color. Why hadn't he seen this before?
Without the dyed hair, tinted lenses, tiny bright suits, and hulking Mercedes, she would be altogether a different person, he thought. Was another person. He could see her, denuded of her persona, a pale, washed-out wisp. Besides that, she spoke in exclamation points, like a high school girl. He looked past the false enthusiasm and saw a thoroughly overwrought character. An actress, he could see, and not a very good one.
"Bye now, I'll talk to you soon!" she chirped sharply.
He sat there a moment, feeling the weight of his stupidity, and a hollowness swept through him on dark wings. Slowly, Peyton lifted himself from the car, and didn't say goodbye. The to-go box seemed heavier than before.
The minute she roared away, Peyton felt empty. He turned to face the house squatting heavily in the tall grass. It opened its shuttered eyes and darkened windows stared at him malevolently. The sagging porch frowned, and bright sunlight seared the bald spot growing on top of his head. He stood very still, his heart hammering, his body bathed in sweat. He lifted his leaden feet, and forced himself forward, hunched under the weight of invisible blows, silently cursing himself up the walk. The house lurched forward and swallowed him whole, sliding the threshold under his feet, hanging its door open.
It looked as if a tornado had ripped through, leaving a wide swath of destruction. Debris was everywhere. Aluminum cans, cardboard boxes, plastic and glass bottles, all of the trash he had been meaning to take out, was strewn across the floor, knee-deep in places. The holes the men made through his carefully stacked walls of records, books, and newspapers had gaping, ragged edges, as if they had been dynamited. He heard his footsteps echo in the yawning emptiness. Shards of glass, china, and a few broken records glinted in the afternoon sun.
They must have worked quickly, like a gang of looters, but there was clearly a method to their madness. True to her word, they had taken only the most valuable things. The dry rugs had been taken, including the Sultanabad and the Bijar in the living room. A few drenched rugs were left rotting on the sodden floors, their edges curled in a sneer. In the entry hall, deep grooves scratched parquet floors that hadn't seen the light of day for decades. They had taken his mother's collection of 18th century Chinese porcelain bowls, the Duncan Phyfe sideboard, and most of the armoires, leaving their contents tossed on the floor. His mother's paintings were gone, as was her folk art, including the life-sized cast iron dog he had been terrified of as a boy. They had even taken the owl andirons. Things they considered worthless were pushed aside, or upended.
Peyton refused to imagine all of the things that had been taken. Sooner or later, he would have to begin the excruciating tally, but his heart couldn't begin to fathom the loss. He trudged up the stairs, the trails he had so carefully blazed obliterated, and found more gaps, more empty spaces punching holes in his heart.
They had blasted through his old room, a testament to his childhood that had remained undisturbed for decades. His brass day bed was gone, as were his pale blue cradle and his oak child's rocker, one of a kind, nothing else like it on earth, his mother had said. Littering the floor were school papers Mother had saved since he started Fairyland Elementary. Shoeprints marched carelessly across crude crayon drawings of rabbits and stick figures. Big Chief tablets were splayed around the floor, his large, loopy letters skating across ruled pages. He stood in the hollow room, silence rubbing lewdly against him.
Peyton's heart slammed against his chest when he saw the hole where his bed had once been. His Saturn lamp lay on its side on the floor, bleeding bits of clear and black plastic. Next to it was his first edition copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales with its spine broken. When he picked it up, flakes of worn pages fluttered to the floor. He stepped over a pile of books and records, and saw they had taken the things he specifically asked her not to take: Mother's white dressing table, her grandmother's armoire, and her desk. His eyes crept slowly along the periphery of the room, afraid to face the void in its center.
When he dragged his eyes to the core of the room, he saw the place his mother's bed had been, its contents heaped in a soft, colorful pile.
The house grew cold, as if the insulation had been ripped away in the dead of winter, and the freezing air was lightly scented with Poison. He walked into the void, following a trail of ivory seed pearls to his mother's wedding gown, lying limply atop the pile like a ravaged maiden. Peyton felt himself shrinking, becoming small and light again, a golden, very special boy.