A Fiction Selection from “Snow-Blind: And Other Stories.”
By Nolan Peterson
“We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.”
The architect parked his car where the road ended, deep in the woods.
There were no buildings, only a dirt turnaround with a strand of pink plastic tape around the base of a maple tree to mark the beginning of the trail. Here, at its beginning, the path offered no hint as to where it might lead. It was a just a direction. But the architect knew what was at the end, of course. He had designed it.
In the dark beneath the trees, the piled up, dead, dry branches and leaves crackled and popped under the man’s boots. The path was a hallway through the forest, winding through beams of light that came from the canopy above and left patches like lily pads on the shadowed earth.
Tied pink ribbons on the trees showed the way. Although the man had been there many times, each time felt like something new, and it was still easy to get turned around in the woods.
How much and how little things have changed, the architect, whose name was Christopher Creigh, thought. Sometimes, I can’t tell which is more.
Into the woods, deeper, to the place he had loved so much but had hid so well. A small clearing, a round break in the forest where the clear, grassy ground sloped down to a small stream that stair-stepped into eddies of swirling clear water between the mossy banks.
The cabin was at the center of the clearing. The product of 30 years of secret work. Christopher lived a few hours away, in the big city. But over the years he had come here, usually for just a day or two at first, but for longer and longer periods of time as he got older. He came to add, bit-by-bit, to that small structure. It had taken him many years, and the construction of the cabin had spanned many other events in Christopher’s life.
It was his perfect design; simple, clean and true. But he had told no one about it. It was a purposeful concealment. This cabin, his greatest achievement, would never be forgotten because he would never show it to anyone who could remember it.
“You’re only as good as your last design,” his university professor had told him when he was a younger man, and Christopher had never forgotten the words. They had steered his life.
There were the early years when he lived in an attic apartment with his new wife, and they had only a mattress and a secondhand beige coffee table, and later, a baby’s crib. They never had enough money and it left them hungry for many things. He missed the hunger of poverty and youth. It was an honest hunger for the things he really needed.
Then, the years of struggle transformed into ones of success. No more fast-food restaurants and remodeling jobs. Now it was hotels and mansions. Each new design more cutting edge than the last. Every new project was only a stepping-stone to something bigger and better.
Christopher was, after all, an artist playing for an audience each time he sat down at his drafting board, crouched over the inclined surface where he scribbled away on the pale orange, thinly transparent drawing paper. Every angle or curve the architect conceived were really notes and rhythms. Geometry was his instrument to make the notes of his song of light and space come alive. But without the audience, without the opium of their applause, the art Christopher created meant nothing. The audience’s approval perfected and pleased the artist, but ruined the man.
First, the parties, the fame, the covers of magazines, the media interviews, the awards, and the money. Next, like a tired cliché, the drugs, the affairs, the betrayals, and the loss. But Christopher’s talent never dulled. He kept getting better. Each design was, indeed, better than the last. His professor would have been proud. Somewhere along the way, though, he had lost his talent for living. Christopher knew the mistakes he was making while he made them. But the architect had wanted and hoped for success for so long that when it finally happened, he had an endless well of excuses for his bad behavior. By the time he was a great success, all the reasons for Christopher to be a good man had long ago disappeared, and it was only up to his conscience to save him. He knew he was doomed.
Yet, through it all, the architect would slip away on some early mornings to buy the supplies he needed at the same place at the fourth off-ramp on the highway out of the city. From there he would drive and drive through the fields and wooded hills.
A few hours away from all the movement and motion of his urban life, he arrived at the pullout for that old dirt road that had no name. His shiny black Lexus SUV rumbled along until he reached the road’s end. From there, he would carry load after load of supplies on his shoulders, following the darkened path to the secret place and his perfect design. Now, years later, Christopher’s shoulders were thin and the cabin was complete.
He had an idea when he began it—as to what the structure would look like, that is. He had a design in his imagination, which he thought was perfect before he ever tried to make it real. Over the years that original idea changed. Sometimes, in small, almost imperceptible ways. Sometimes, in massive, transformational leaps. But the tone and the beat of his first concept were always there. The architect never abandoned his intent to catch the light in that particular way he wanted, or for the cabin to meld into the woods like he had imagined, with its dark features and subtle, modest profile. He had, in fact, designed a feeling, not a building. And like a mountain climber always aiming for the summit but considering different lines through the glaciers and the rock faces to get there, the way the architect arrived at his original design had evolved. So, too, had Christopher.
After 30 years, the cabin was perfect. But it was empty inside. Except for the one big chair in the corner window that caught the light best in the morning. And a small painting, a cheap knockoff of Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa,” propped up against one wall. The painting didn’t really go with the modern design. But it meant something special to Christopher, and he wanted it there.
For a while, on the floor by the chair, he had kept a framed photo from a long time ago, when his wife was young and beautiful and still in love with him, and his son was still a boy who believed his father had every answer. But Christopher had taken that photo out of the cabin a year ago when he had learned of the other thing. He didn’t want to be reminded of everything he had lost, now, at the end. He just wanted to feel nothing.
Later, on his way back to the city, the architect pulled off the highway for dinner. One old man sat alone at the counter in the diner. He didn’t turn his head or even seem to notice at all when Christopher entered. A man behind the bar wiped a coffee mug clean with a gray towel and nodded.
“Sit wherever,” the man said.
Christopher nodded back and went straight to a booth by the window where he sat and waited. He looked out the window, which faced the direction of the highway. The reflection of his face on the glass was, for an instant, washed out by the lights of a passing truck. As the light faded, the lines of his face materialized as if from nothing and he was there, reflected in the glass again. So much older than he remembered.
“What can I get you, hun?” the waitress asked. Christopher hadn’t noticed her approach. He turned away from the window.
“I haven’t looked yet,” he said. “Anything you recommend?”
“Hmm, Sam makes the world’s best blueberry pancakes. I can always count on them to cheer me up.”
“Do I look like I need cheering up?”
“I couldn’t say,” the waitress said, almost imperceptibly shaking her head with the words.
Christopher looked down, scanning the plastic place mat that doubled as a menu with its airbrushed pictures of waffles, French toast, omelets, hash browns, and some delicious-looking blueberry pancakes.
“Blueberry pancakes it is,” he said.
“Coming right up.” The waitress scribbled on her notepad.
“And a coffee, too,” Christopher added.
“Anything in it?”
“Be back in a sec, hun.”
Hanging on the wall behind the bar counter, a round dial clock with a black and white image of the Empire State Building on its face said it was 10 o’clock.
The old man was gone. The man behind the bar was gone, too. The waitress came back with Christopher’s coffee.
“Pancakes will be about 10 minutes,” she said. “Sam had to make the batter from scratch.”
The waitress wore a high-necked baby blue dress with faded pink pin stripes and a stained white apron tied around her waist. A notepad was tucked under the apron strap where it was tied at the small of her back. Her salt-and-pepper hair was pulled in a bun, and her skin was tough but flush and healthy looking, like someone who had been in the sun a lot when she was younger but had never been a smoker. There were lines around her eyes and the corners of her mouth, but her cheekbones were high and still visible and her face had all the right angles to have been beautiful once. The nametag said “Diane.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
She had a hand on her hip. “Ask away.”
Christopher took a sip of his coffee without having added anything to it. He said, “It’s good.”
“Thanks, we keep it fresh. So, what do you wanna know?”
Christopher exhaled a suppressed laugh, as if to excuse what he was about to say.
“I guess this might be a little strange to ask, but…I’m curious. What’s the most beautiful building you’ve ever seen?”
“The most beautiful building?”
“Good Lord. I don’t think I have one.”
“Nothing stands out?”
“Hold on, now, give me a minute to think about it.”
“Of course,” the architect said. He took another sip of coffee.
“What’s yours?” Diane deflected.
“I’ve got one picked out. But I want to hear yours first.”
“Okay. Let’s see here. I haven’t done much traveling, so…”
There was a pause as Diane thought. The architect in Christopher was genuinely interested in what she had to say, which surprised him.
“I have it,” Diane declared.
Christopher had a hand comfortably curled around the warm coffee mug. He waited for her to begin.
“My grandparents’ home in Oklahoma,” Diane said. “I used to go there every summer growing up.”
“What was it like?”
“Well, it was in some farm fields along a dirt road that went for miles and miles. Nothing but empty land all around. There was a small pond down back, where we used to swim in the summer. Out over the fields, you could see the thunderstorms build in the afternoons. They looked like mountains. Tall, dark, terrible things. During one storm, I remember, a bolt of lighting killed one of papa’s cows. We found it the next day all bloated and stinking and it was on its back with its legs sticking straight up in the air like a cartoon. Can you imagine?”
“What did the house look like?” Christopher asked. “What made it so beautiful?”
“Oh, let me think. It had wide, flat steps out front where my grandparents sat and waited for my brother and me when we arrived, and where they stood and waved goodbye for as long as we could see them out the rear window when we left at the end of summer. There was a porch with a couple rocking chairs and a swing hanging from the ceiling. That’s where we used to drink lemonade.”
“The rocking chairs or the swing?”
“The swing. The rockers were for papa and gramma. And papa used to like something harder than lemonade.”
She smiled. Christopher was enjoying what Diane had to say, but he wanted to know more about the house.
“What color was the house?” the architect asked.
“It was, well, you know…” Diane looked up, searching for a memory that wasn’t entirely there, not anymore. “Yellow. No, I think it was white. No, let me think.” A pause, and then she said, “You know, maybe it sounds crazy, but I can’t even remember.”
“Was it one or two stories high?”
“Three, if you count the loft,” she replied confidently. “There was a big open living room with a fireplace where papa kept his hunting rifle and all his things from the war. Gramma had a soft chair with flower patterns on it, I remember. She used to sit there and knit in the evenings and watch her game shows. Papa always went to bed right after dinner. Maybe not even 8 o’clock, or so. But gramma would stay up late at night in that chair of hers. In the mornings, I remember coming downstairs and seeing papa in his bathrobe sitting in his hard wooden chair in front of the grandfather clock, reading the newspaper he had picked up in town the day before.”
“Were there windows in the living room?” Christopher asked.
“Yes, well, I think so. It was so long ago, it’s a little hard to remember.”
“Was it bright or dark inside?”
“Bright,” Diane immediately replied. “Especially in the kitchen. Gramma always made us eggs with toast for breakfast, I remember that. She put peanut butter on the toast and cut it diagonally so we had little triangle pieces with the peanut butter spread perfectly to the edges.” She smiled. “Funny, isn’t it, how you remember those little things?”
“What else can you say about the house?” Christopher pressed for details. “Did it have a pitched roof? Was it made of brick or of wood?”
“I can’t quite remember what the house was made of. Good Lord, my memory is terrible.”
“It’s been a long time,” the architect said. “Memories fade.”
“The roof,” Diane said abruptly. “Definitely a pitched roof. I remember climbing up there at night with my older brother, Danny, to look at the stars. It was steep, and we had to be careful not to fall. Yeah, we used to watch the stars for hours and hours up there.”
Diane looked out the window, past Christopher, staring into the black night that disappeared, for a moment, with each passing pair of headlights.
“That was the same summer they landed on the moon. Danny was so interested in all that stuff, space and what not. He was always reading the magazines with the stories about the astronauts and their Corvettes and wild lives. I think he would’ve been a good pilot, I always thought that. But the Army got him first.”
She paused. “Geez, mister—”
“Christopher. I haven’t thought about all this in years. It’s like one old memory just opened the door to a whole lot more.”
“They have a habit of that.”
“Yeah. Well, Danny left for Vietnam that fall. Can you believe it? Just a couple months after Armstrong walked on the moon.”
Diane paused, her cheeks clinched and then relaxed. She said softly, “He died in the war, you see.”
Christopher saw it clearly in her eyes.
“It sounds like a beautiful house.”
“It was.” Diane hurriedly wiped her eyes dry and then forced a smile. “Now let me check on those pancakes. You poor man, you must be starving. Me just yacking away about everything and nothing at all while you’re waiting so patiently. Be back in a sec.”
Diane came back with the pancakes. She placed the plate and a glass jar of syrup on the table and laid out Christopher’s silverware.
“You know, I thought of one more thing,” she said.
“Yes? What’s that?” Christopher said as he spread butter and drizzled syrup on the pancakes. He was hungrier now that he could see and smell the food.
“May I?” Diane nodded to the empty side of the booth.
“Of course.” Christopher halfway stood, awkwardly, in the space between the bench and the table.
As she sat, Diane took the notepad out from behind the strap of her apron and laid it before her. She thought there was something mysterious about this handsome old man who had a thin, worn face that made him look very tired and very sad.
“Well, the summer after Danny died in the war,” Diane began, lightly drumming her fingers on the notepad as she spoke. “I went back to gramma and papa’s for one last time. Not so long after that, papa died, too. Then gramma sold the house and went to live with my aunt in Tulsa. But that last summer, well, you can imagine, it was a sad summer. Me being there, I think, made it even sadder. They were so used to me and Danny coming together and all. But, things pretty much went on like they always had. Gramma stayed up nights, watching her game shows. I’d lay out on the big, soft rug on the floor and read all their old National Geographic magazines. And in the morning, papa, as always, would be downstairs in his bathrobe, reading the paper. It looked like nothing had changed, even if it all felt different.”
Christopher listened silently.
“I came downstairs real early one morning, and papa’s chair was empty. The back porch door was open, and I could see him out in the field down by the little pond. He was in his work clothes and he had a shovel and he was digging a hole. At a real furious pace, too. I walked down to him and it seemed like he didn’t notice me. He was sweating and covered in dirt and had dug the hole real deep. His things from the war were all there. The old rifle, that funny helmet with the spike on top, and a bunch of medals and other things. I couldn’t tell you what they all were, but I knew I had never been allowed to touch any of them. While I stood there watching, papa just scooped up all those things in his big arms and tossed them in the hole and went to work on burying them. I asked, ‘Is everything okay?’ And you know, I could see he was crying, even though he was quiet about it. I put a hand on his shoulder and felt him tremble. He stopped shoveling, just for a beat, and told me, ‘I want to forget, but I can’t.’ Then he went back to filling in the hole. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, so I walked back inside and made myself breakfast.”
Diane paused, looked into Christopher’s eyes and said, “Wood.”
“Wood. You asked me if the house was made of brick or wood. It was wood. I remember now. That morning, I noticed some places where the wood had started to rot on the outside of the house. It was made of wood.”
“Have you ever gone back?” Christopher asked. He hadn’t touched his pancakes yet.
“No. It’s just an empty old house now. It’s better the way I remember it.”
Diane looked at Christopher with a sad smile.
“Go ahead, hun,” she said, “take a bite of those pancakes and tell me if I wasn’t wrong.”
Christopher took a bite. “You were right. Best I’ve ever had.”
There was no nausea with the taste of food. He was glad that was over. It never amounted to anything, anyway. He took a sip of coffee.
“Let me freshen that up,” Diane said. She stood and put the notepad back under her apron strap. She came back a moment later with a new mug and a full pot of coffee.
“Well, now, Christopher,” Diane said, pouring a fresh cup. “I’ve talked your ear off telling you mine. But you never told me, what’s your most beautiful building?”
Christopher thought about the cabin in the woods. The way his design blended stone and metal and wood and was as a song in perfect harmony with the woods in which it sat. A masterpiece, his finest design. Perfection in geometry and in light and shadow. But empty inside and forever hidden.
“I don’t have one,” Christopher said.
“But a minute ago—” Diane began.
“No,” the architect said. “I have nothing.”