Through the window I saw the garbage truck crush what would have been. The lockbox had been sitting on my dresser for years, the key lost decades ago. She always dusted around it, gently closed the lid when it was open. I left myself open and she never looked. Eventually I gave up and threw it away. She didn’t see me.
She didn’t see him when she opened the shop door. After a few minutes her dad appeared, rubbing his hands together in the way he always greeted customers. “Oh,” he said, surprised to see her.
“Mom sent me.”
She had never been able to cry in front of him so she swallowed it away.
This life swallowed me away like the mouth of the subway. The smell of desiccated vomit, the touching of bodies, the man crooning into a pair of cantankerous speakers: I fled these things only to find there was no escape. The key to escape was lost decades ago. Without the key there could be no box.
A box teetered in the man’s arms. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“It’s a puzzle,” he answered.
“A dry mount?”
“I’m not sure.” He cradled the box like a child. “It’s my husband.”
My wife told me she was pregnant before I had a chance to tell her that the Park Service had found a place for me. Her surprise trumped mine and I never said anything. Instead I put the papers into the lockbox. In spite of how happy our daughter made me, a part of me died.
“He died,” the man said. He made it to the edge of the shop table and set the box down. “We started this before he was diagnosed. He always wanted to go to Neuschwanstein. To get married there. It took us three years.” He wiped the tears from his taut cheeks. “I took it to the hospital, in the end. We finished it together.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
“I need it framed.”
“We’ll need one week.”
“Please be careful,” the man pleaded.
“I will,” she promised.
I promised and we took a trip to Storm King on a foggy afternoon, the sculptures haunting overhead like mythical beasts. I looked across to see the mountain for which the park was named lurking in the mist: the most sure foreteller of a storm. In a different life a storm would rock the tower. The glass walls would shake violently.
In the clouds I would watch.
She watched the man leave and picked up the box. Her foot caught an unfamiliar bump in the carpet and she tripped. Three thousand puzzle pieces rained down. When her father returned she was still collapsed on the floor in the shatter.
“My God, are you alright?” He rushed to her.
“It took them three years.” She looked at the heap before her, splinters of memory, fragments of lost love. “I have to fix it.”
“There’s not enough time.”
There’s not enough time and so I wouldn’t give her a job at the frame shop. I saw her life passing through my eyes, her eyes dulling through my life. Then she fell in love. Then she collected her pieces of a broken dream into her own boxes and moved back home. I didn’t know how to help.
He didn’t know how to help her. Each night she stayed after he left, sleeping on the floor to be able to return to her stool before dawn. After two days she had only completed a corner. It was lunchtime and she wordlessly accepted the sandwich he offered. Then she wordlessly accepted him sitting down next to her.
They worked together. Each ring of the bell he leapt up and she froze, both of them afraid it would be the man returning early. There was nowhere but the table in the front to place the puzzle so they worked there through the night. Her mother called the frame shop long after dinner, long after dark. Her father answered.
“I’m going to stay. She needs me.”
Together they pieced Neuschwanstein: rebuilt of the old castle of ruin. Neuschwanstein: a king’s retreat on a rugged hill.
On a rugged hill it sat, resting on stilts, tied to the craggy rock. We would have spent our lives there above everything else. Dark crevasses creeping to the heavens, I would have seen them. Smoke like a worm crawling to the sky, I would have watched. Above the clouds we would have spotted the fires. Foretellers of disaster. A king above the trees.
Above the trees was a hole, the last piece to be placed. He handed it to her. She clutched it and fell into her father’s open arms, weeping.
Through the window he saw.