It’s Friday. It’s time for the next chapter installment from my novel PUSHING THE RIVER. You may notice that I did not say “finished” novel, as I have completely reconceived the structure since last week. Oh well, such is the joy of revision…
The call came from Claire one morning: “I need your help,” she said. I have no memory of how to do this. I have no idea how people move from one place to another.”
The decision that had begun with a gentle hand against a baby elephant’s trunk in far-off Asia had been made. John would remain in Boston to finish school, and Claire would return to Chicago. She would move into the top two rooms on the uppermost floor of Madeline’s house, and she would await the gathering storm.
Billie Rae, Claire’s mother, and Savannah, her baby sister, made it abundantly clear that this was thoroughly unnecessary, confounding, and furthermore, insulting. They steadfastly maintained that they had full control of the situation at hand.
Unwanted in the new life ahead, and leaving her old life behind, she would await the gathering storm.
Madeline knew the low rumble of the U-Haul when it pulled up in front of the house, though her back was turned to the windows facing the street. She considered how many times she had helped her children move in, or out, since each of them had first left home. She was pretty sure the number was somewhere around 623 times, or so it seemed to her. Still, she rued that her advancing years enabled her to do less and less; her legs now wobbled by the third flight of stairs, and she needed to put boxes down to rest for a moment all too often.
It had been decided that Claire would bring the majority of her and John’s possessions back to Chicago with her, leaving John with a skeletal assortment of bare necessities as he focused on the grueling home stretch of school. Still, Madeline was quite taken aback when Claire swung the U-Haul cargo doors open to reveal a van that was crammed completely full, every possible square inch consumed in what amounted to a breathtaking feat of engineering.
Reading Madeline’s thoughts on her face, Claire remarked, “Yeah. We had to pack it and re-pack it a few times.”
Claire had also brought their dog. Everyone marveled since the first day Claire chose the impossibly tiny sleek brown puppy that she had found the exact canine equivalent of herself, for Proust was relentlessly demanding, deeply affectionate, possessed of strong and generally instantly-formed impressions of all people and things in his path, somewhat unpredictable, and generally in-your-face with his intense and abiding love.
Claire made four or five trips to and from the U-Haul, and up and down the three flights of stairs, for every one that Madeline made. Having endured two days of driving in a cramped and un-airconditioned U-Haul, Proust was not about to leave Claire’s side. He followed right at her heels — crossing the street to the van, jumping into the incrementally growing empty space in the cargo area, wagging his mini tail as the women piled on each load, and yipping his high-pitched howling bark at completely random intervals — the entire time.
The U-Haul sat empty in an astonishingly short amount of time. Madeline stood in the street and gaped into the vast cavern of vacant space as if it were a true miracle, as if an outline of the virgin mother would undoubtedly appear on a side wall, like Jesus on a piece of toast.
“I’ll clean it out later,” Claire said over her shoulder. “I want to do some unpacking.”
“What are you talking about – ‘clean it out?’ It looks pretty cleaned out to me.”
Claire did not respond; she was already on her way into the house.
Madeline leaned her head into the stairwell and called up to Claire, “Anything I can do to help?”
A distant voice, dimmed by mountain ranges of boxes and belongings that lay between the two of them, called back, “ No. Thanks. I’ll feel better if I can get a little bit done.”
Madeline attempted to read and otherwise occupy herself despite the fact that it sounded as if elephants were tossing large pieces of furniture around, two stories over her head. Every so often Proust let out a machine-gun burst of yipping, serving as Claire’s doppelganger mixture of impatient insistent cheerleader taskmaster.
Amidst the cacophony of chaos, Madeline found herself welling up with a strange wave of utter peacefulness. Kate could hear the occasional yip, clunk, rumble and clatter while she talked to her mother on the phone, and Madeline mentioned her wonder at her own surprising sense of peace. “Ha,” Kate said, “Face it, Mom. This is your dream come true.”
“What do you mean?” Madeline asked.
“The house is filling up again,” she said.
When Madeline hung up the phone, a ripe orange glow from the late September sunset flooded the room, and she noted a distinct lack of clatter coming from above. Again she climbed the stairs and leaned her head into the stairwell. “Claire? How’s it going up there?”
“It’s going OK. Come on up if you want.”
Madeline slowed as she neared the top of the attic stairs, stopping a few steps from the top. Claire sat on an old wooden chair at a beloved kitchen hutch she had rescued long ago and now transformed into a desk. She was leafing casually through a stack of papers when she looked over at Madeline and said “What? I’m taking a break for a while.”
Madeline had every expectation of utter catastrophe, but nothing could have prepared for the scene she beheld.
The sizable room looked as if a gifted and meticulous set designer had labored long and hard to create a masterwork from the following task: assemble a young woman’s room that is both crowded and painstakingly decorated. Give prominent placement to her many hundreds of books and tapes — likewise to her artwork that has been collected from friends and strangers alike since she was a child. Make clear that she is a lifelong denizen of thrift stores, where she has spent enormous amounts of time scanning the tossed-aside remnants of others’ lives for objects that speak directly, and deeply, to her. Demonstrate that her aesthetic is completely idiosyncratic, and fully formed. Fill all of the space. Make clear that each and every item in the room has a meaningful history, and has been placed with great care.
Proust lay at the foot of the perfectly-made bed, radiating serenity in a way that suggested he was always this calm, and furthermore, was prepared to chest bump anyone who hinted otherwise.
The house is filling up again, Madeline thought.