The Shape of Destruction

by Rob BURKE
 
Contributor Rob Burke calls piece a “long-winded back story to two provocative vignettes written by Lawton and Holley.” Thank you, Rob — we are honored. Read the inspiration stories here and here.

Delusion? Is this my prized possession? Is that all I’ve needed to convince myself that he is a good husband? Oh, he wanted to settle down and have kids and a yard to manage, but he never wanted to be married the way I wanted to be married. Blair was successful, resourceful, solid in body and character, but seemingly ignorant of what a makes a woman truly happy, of what keeps a woman’s heart embedded in her man, through monotony and crisis, in a marvelous drama of human interdependence. The new year was approaching and we agreed to dedicate this one to our romantic renewal by throwing a party, better, a gala, a full scale social event, to lure in the future with outstretched arms. If there was one thing I could count on from Blair, it was rising to the occasion. I admitted to myself that the party would prove to our friends, to ourselves, to everyone that we were not simply still married, but still happily married.

Blair worked tirelessly and with genuine enthusiasm on the house. He didn’t balk when I explained to him that every bedroom would need fresh flowers and iced champagne. He winced, but said nothing, when I asked him to repaint the gutters and downspouts that had grown ugly with age. He did not moan or sigh at my insistence that the Japanese pachysandra had to be completely removed from the front and replaced with the Allegheny spurge I’d had my eye on. He only laughed when I firmly suggested that he park his blue work van, painted with “Blair’s Air and Plumbing” in hot yellow, down the street during the party.

For the invitations, I painted a card-size square with a simple design, borrowing shamelessly from Rothko, using red, green and gold. As they were printing I sat to address the envelopes. Looking down the page, I could not help but reflect on the strange paths of our loved ones. In the list I could see the fragmented array left by betrayal and lies and its effect on our family and friends. I thought how strange it was that some consider love transferable like a car title or a gym membership while others would suffer a lifetime without it just to feel safe. Missed opportunities and second chances, the stories of the emotionally frail and those immune to all offense, settled in our Philadelphia suburb almost glued to the very streets they roam.

“Those the invitations? Nice.” Blair drew out the “i” in nice like he does when studying a buxom nude in a gallery.

“Do you think your brother will be uncomfortable meeting Glen? I asked. “To think Georgia married him after only two months. Sure he’s got money, and the firm and he works out and, do you know what? Rebecca Winston told me he may run for City Council. But still, how well you can you get to know someone in two months? How could you marry someone you hardly know?”

“Everything will be fine. Georgia is just being Georgia, a little garish and impulsive, but always accountable. She’s startling, that’s what he liked about her anyway. God if he didn’t drink himself out of that marriage. He got Mom’s looks and Dad’s liver. Look honey, Franklin should be happy to come. If it weren’t for you, he would have never met Julia and they look pretty damn happy to me. Plus, he’s not the type to be intimidated by anyone. He can handle it.”

He was right. Julia and Frank had been married five years, and quite happily. I took a certain pride in their relationship, though I had no such motives when I invited them both to dinner. I’d first met Julia inside the Health Center at the Art Institute 22 years ago. She was thin, too thin, and her matted blonde hair was past art-school hip; she looked downright downtrodden. I asked her why she was there. She said nothing. Feeling sorry for her, I shared that I was nervous too and that I was waiting for a pregnancy test. She looked bewildered and in her poor English told me that she was an exchange student from Germany and that she needed “the inoculation.” I asked to see the forms clenched in her damp fist. I scrutinized the papers and in short time determined that she had an appointment for University Orientation. I explained that the Administration building was next door and without a word she exited. Though she was awkward, there was an unusual energy to her movements that was captivating.

We had a few design classes together in college but it wasn’t until a few years ago, on an errand to the local frame shop, that our paths converged again. The shop was bare, obviously in the middle of a remodeling job. As I stepped in, I saw a figure crouched near the floor, installing lights in a display case. I recognized her quickly and stopped short. She looked up.

“Raine? Is that you?” Her accent persisted but her demeanor was new. She sprung up and wrapped her arms around me.

“Julia!” What are you doing here?”

“You like?” she asked, sweeping her arm around the room. “This… this is mine. My own shop …at long last. I’ve got inventory in the back, come, I will show you.”

I could hardly believe that this was the same girl I’d known in school. She was bold and self-confident and her grammar now sparkled like the chandelier earrings she was holding to my head. “Red” she breathed instinctively, “yes,” nodding, “red is your color. They are Easterling and ruby. You will have these. I made them myself.” I blushed as I accepted the gift, awed by her transformation. Here was a woman wholly reinvented from her former self, brandishing a deep passion for art, color and life. We stood in the naked store and talked at length about her jewelry, life after art school, her recent gem expedition to Africa and her acquisition of the frame shop. I invited her for dinner that weekend and that was when she met Franklin.

“Sorry, I am not familiar with ‘cap-ri-fi?’ This is what?” asked Julia. Franklin was used to this question, and had his response ready. “I’m a horticulturist. More precisely, I’m a fig caprifier. My company works on hybrids that can grow in areas like this, Raine will tell you, but mainly we produce wild figs. Not the kind of figs that you can eat, but still indispensable. See, these figs contain wasp larvae that help pollinate the big boys, your Missions, Calimyrnas, and the like. We send the little worm-filled figs out west where they hang them onto trees that do not bear fruit. After a couple years, voila, your formerly barren tree is loaded with the magical, edible, fig flower. I am a fertility specialist, if you will.”

“Ha,” I said, “a fertility specialist with no kids!”

Franklin smiled and Julia asked “no kids, huh? I have kids. I keep them in a vault. They are very, very old. I rescued them from caves. They are all quite brilliant, so brilliant in fact, they glow at night, in the dark.” Franklin’s attention was on Julia and nothing else. “They are like a drug,” she continued, “yellow and orange stir me and make me invincible, the green ones calm and restore my peace, blue gems are like magic little fairies always dancing, while the reds inspire love, naturally. There is no more powerful aphrodisiac than a blazing red gem be it garnet or spinel. And black, my new friend Franklin” she grasped his hand, “black, I hold black and feel like I am falling, and land right back onto myself. Onyx is a perfect, honest mirror.”

Franklin was transfixed, but sensing an opportunity, replied, “well, as long as you prefer sapphires to Sappho, maybe we could get an espresso sometime?”


“Lana, dinner is ready,” I yelled upstairs.

Blair sat down and began dishing spaghetti onto his plate.

“Can’t you wait for your daughter to sit down before you eat?” I asked.

“Sorry, but I’m starving. I played 27 holes today. Plus she always takes forever. How long should I have to wait?”

“You know I had my appointment today, are you even going to ask?”

“Aww, sorry. How did it go? Did you sell anything?”

“No, they just dragged me along and in the end said they were looking for something with more ‘rhythm’ and ‘opacity’… dilettantes.”

“Well, someone has to buy something soon. I’m sure of it.” He sighed and continued eating.

Lana came in, with her multicolored hair shocked with mousse in a way that brought to mind the clumps of ornamental grass we grow in the backyard. She was different since she switched her major from art to writing last semester. More sullen and more protective of her thoughts. I hoped she didn’t think I was disappointed. Truly, I wanted her only to be happy, whatever she decided to study.

“Did we tell you Jeffrey Winston got married in October?”

“So what?” Lana pissed.

“Just thought you would be glad to hear that he married the ticket-taker from the Cineplex and now they live in his parents’ house—and his biggest claim to fame is that his band played in the Rathskeller of the very same community college that he flunked out of,” I said smugly. “It could have been you, huh?” Lana’s bitter scowl softened and she let out a small laugh and began eating, her mood scantly uplifted.

“You got a job lined up at The Inquirer yet?” Blair smiled.

“It’s funny you ask, Dad. I’ve actually got three poems under consideration for the Spring Beacon. One is about my mother, one is about my father and the other is about a young woman who asphyxiates her needling parents with garlic bread in a pre-menstrual rage.”

“Well be warned, Lana. The Winstons will be here on New Years. Perhaps you can congratulate Jeffrey then. Please be on your worst behavior. And could you please take off your Boa? It’s sagging in your spaghetti.”

Later, as we were clearing the table, my beloved Pomeranian Roman began barking wildly at the front door with no apparent provocation. Lana glared at him.

“One of these days I’m going to punt that mutt across the street,” she muttered.

“Please Lana. You think this is a mutt? He is more pure than you or I.” I knelt down and tried to calm the frantic dog.

Blair stood up from the table and stretched. “Come on, Lana, let’s go check the garage for fireworks.”

Despite my presence, Roman was attacking the door, his nails digging mini-trenches into the Plexiglas. The high-pitched yaps were interrupted intermittently by a low growl that shook his whole body. His lips receded revealing his healthy pink gums and saliva gathered on his chin like a frothy beard. I picked him up and opened the door. Georgia stood there, hand poised to knock.

“Georgia! My goodness come in! What brings you here? It’s been too long!” I embraced her with one arm, holding the wriggling Roman with the other.

She handed me a box wrapped in red paper. “It’s a little late, but Merry Christmas. I was in the neighborhood; I have a client over on Cattail”

“A client? What are you up to these days?” Georgia was always in sales. She sold everything from advice to vinyl siding, from her home, in department stores, over the telephone, she worked in travel and life insurance and in publishing, selling textbooks on topics she knew nothing about. With her glamorous good looks, ample build, and sincere affect she could always find work when she needed it. Blair always said she could sell oil to an Arab. She never stayed too long in any one place.

“Can we sit down, Raine?”

“Of course, is everything alright? You are still coming over for New Years, aren’t you?” We took a seat in the living room.

“Well, I wanted to talk to you about that. I imagine Franklin’s coming?”

“Yes, he and Julia are planning to be here. Is there a problem? We’re all grown up now, you know. I think he can handle the sight of you. He should not be the least bit surprised to see you are still looking so young and radiant.”

“Thank you for saying so, but it’s nothing like that. You see, I think he saw me working a few weeks back… and…well… he’ll be meeting Glen for the first time…” she trailed off. Georgia’s head was sloping and toward the end of her sentence she was actually biting her nail. This highly uncharacteristic body language worried me.

“Why Georgia, what could possibly be so bad about that? Where are you working?”

She erected herself in a calculated pose, but her eyes were veering. “I’m dancing” she finally blurted out, “down at the Sunset….”

I gasped sharply, at the same time I saw her face relax.

“Oh, my…you…dear……oh…” I was at a loss. As difficult as it was, with a little imagination I could picture Franklin sipping whiskey at that club on the edge of town, but the thought of Georgia taking money from strangers—nude, or nearly so—at her age; it was simply too much.

“Glen is thinking of running for City Council. He can never find out.” I laughed, incredulous, “he doesn’t know?”

“I told him it was a book club. Last week a couple of the girls left for the holidays so now I’m in two book clubs. The other night I saw a man that I thought was Franklin, but he left almost immediately so I couldn’t be sure.”

As we talked it occurred to me that Georgia was utterly unrepentant, having described her work with words like ‘thrilling’ and ‘invigorating’. Despite what she called ‘occupational hazards’: the occasional stalker, the undying smell of smoke, the bruising she got from straddling the rim of a gigantic champagne glass, she had somehow managed to recapture her verve and spontaneity, her face shone like a woman guiltlessly pursuing youthful indulgences. I told her not to worry about Franklin but advised her strongly to find new work before it destroyed her untested marriage. “Easter,” she said smiling, “I plan to stop by Easter. I should have enough for Madrid by then.”

*

It was an unusually mild December night. Low clouds from the south smothered the winter sky, suggesting rain. The house was immaculate and smelled of nutmeg and roses. White lights glittered on the tree. The Winstons were the first guests to arrive. I gave Rebecca a hug and was then introduced to her son’s wife.

“This is the lucky girl I married, Tammy, the First Lady of Lake Avenue” Jeffrey said, looking more disheveled than I remembered. “Happy New Year’s Miss Raine, where’s the libations?”

I took their coats and led them to the bar. The doorbell rang again. I stopped in front of the mirror and lowered my blouse slightly before re-opening the door. Over the top of our neighbors, the Utzes, I could see Georgia and Glen coming slowly up the sidewalk, heads close together. I dispensed with the neighbors quickly, and then welcomed Georgia with a long hug, as if I hadn’t seen her for years. Glen was tall, his hair dark and his skin smooth. He was younger than I imagined. He smiled and handed me a bottle of sparkling wine and then took my hand, giving it a squeeze. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, thank you for inviting us.”

“I’ve seen your ads in the newspaper. Black ink does you no justice! You’re even better looking in person.” I could feel Blair behind me and was suddenly embarrassed. “Blair, honey, this is Glen.”

“Hello Georgie,” Blair said, pulling her in for a hug. “Nice to meet you, Glen.”

As they left for the living room I turned to Blair and pulled either side of his bow-tie, giving him a light kiss on the mouth. “I hope you don’t spend all night with your friends; your wife needs some attention too.”

“Of course, dear, and you deserve it,” he said, staring at my chest.

“You’re dismissed, Blair. Go”

The doorbell rang again. For the next thirty minutes, the door remained open as members of our wide circle of friends and family, acquaintances and associates, Blair’s golf gang, my art circle, Lana’s high school Goth Squad, the dog breeder and the piano tuner, all converged on our warm home, celebrating a new year, fresh starts and happy endings. I was full of hope and calm and I went to get a glass of wine.

I grabbed a small plate of pate and sweet potatoes and ducked into the kitchen with my wine. I didn’t see that I was followed.

“Julia! I didn’t see you come in!” I said still chewing. “How is the store coming along?”

“Raine, I see you are wearing my earrings! You look so beautiful, how does your husband let you out of his sight? The store is coming nicely. Franklin took time from work to install the new lighting, not cheap I tell you, but the place now, is absolutely brilliant, like walking into blinding heaven.”

“Where is Franklin?”

“I came in to get him a scotch, he said the good stuff was in the kitchen. He just challenged his ex-wife’s new husband to a game of darts in the basement. A man with five thumbs, throwing darts. Ha! I left immediately. Said he needs a drink to steady his hand. Looks like I am driving home tonight.”

“There is plenty of room here, no need to drive anywhere tonight!” I offered, grabbing two glasses from the cupboard.

Julia’s voice softened. “She looks like his grandmother. She is, you say, grave robber.”

“You mean Georgia? Uhm.. that’s cradle robber, I think. Georgia pretty much does whatever she wants to do. She is young at heart. Never one to listen to my advice or anyone else’s. She seems happy now with Glen, and has never uttered anything bad about Franklin.”

“I know, I know. It’s just that I’d pictured her in a more matronly light, you know, I was hoping she would at least be wearing some sensible shoes instead of those wicked thigh highs, and that bright silk dress was a bold choice for new years, but damn if she didn’t pull it off! Truthfully Raine,” she said coming closer, “when we first saw them at the bar, as I was introducing myself to Glen, I kept my eye on her, and I saw her give Franklin a little wink and she bowed her head a little. I am being paranoid perhaps, but why the hell would she do that?”

“She broke his heart, twice. Their history is a painful one, she was probably trying to lighten the mood a bit. Julia, look at you, you’re magnificent, such allure and style and all that energy. Don’t worry about her, she’s no match for you.”

Julia smiled and sighed, “Thanks Raine, and thank you for the drinks. I’d better go down and see if they need an ambulance.”

I took another glass of wine into the living room. Since most of the guests had arrived I asked Lana to release Roman from his holding cell. I moved through the room observing the intriguing process of social division, the sometimes subtle but always unmistakable hierarchies of human grouping. The entertainers, the listeners, in circles and in lines, some standing and others sitting, all arranged in a completely predetermined, natural order. There was Blair, standing at the head of the dining room table while others stood listening to him re-tell an anecdote about a lonely woman whose heat had broken during a snow storm. According to Blair, she presented herself to him holding a can WD-40, wearing nothing but a pair of dish gloves, and released a steady steam of the sweet-smelling oil onto her vagina, saying, “You fixed my furnace, now I’ll fix your tool.” The group at the table howled and cringed as he began another of his famous heating-and-plumbing stories.

I found Lana in the den, sitting on the floor in front of the couch laughing with her friends. On the other side of the couch, Tammy was squeezing Jeffrey tightly with one arm and with the other had turned her beer bottle upside-down into her mouth, gulped several times, righted the bottle and, with a belch, shoved the empty into Jeffrey’s face. “Get me another,” she slurred with a seductive grin. “God I love you,” he said, returning her amorous gaze, and rose to his feet. “All that glitters is gold” he announced to the room.

I suspected Lana was starting to see in Jeffrey what I always saw in him. Overlooking his surface appeal was easy when you stopped to think about what defined this boy and where he was going. Here is a guy who had every opportunity for success handed to him. He was raised by good people in a good home, free of physical, mental, and chemical abuse. He was sent to the best schools and was given unlimited academic support. From youth, his mother raised him with creativity and generosity, his father an iron work ethic. And what did he do with it? Nothing. Fired from his paper route at 11 years old, suspended from school in 9th grade, beat up the same year, incarcerated for vandalism, now married, without a job, to Tammy, who I dare say, even at this level of inebriation, is his better half.

Of course, for some time Lana could easily overlook these personality failures and focus on Jeffrey’s ruthless good looks, his perfectly messy hair, and his intrepid attitude toward authority. He was a popular high school athlete and it wore off on Lana who took great pride in rejecting it. He wrote confident but oblivious poetry, had his own car, and wore old jeans and sleeveless t-shirts despite his parents protests. Jeffrey was un-tucked and untouchable.

“Yes,” I caught the edge in Lana’s voice as she addressed Tammy, “being a cheerleader sounds profoundly difficult. I’d imagine you had boundless stamina and it must take extraordinary discipline to practice every day.” Lana controlled the room from the floor, adeptly reducing Tammy to a dull trophy weighted by her tattered pompoms.

I saw Blair in the hallway mirror and left the den. “Hey stranger, haven’t forgotten about me, have you?” “Of course not, but I have to get more ice, we’re running low downstairs.” With that he was off, without even a peck on the cheek. I checked the mirror, wondering if I should undo another button.

I dipped into the basement. Julia was standing rather too close to Glen, while Georgia and Franklin were playing pool, on opposing teams. I cut through the crowd to Julia and Glen. “Are you having a good time?”

“Oh my, I think everybody is having a good time!” she yelled through the pulsing music. “Glen’s brother works for a platinum refinery in Canada. He’s going to get me a great deal on some, aren’t you Glen?” He turned to me and said, “well, actually my brother makes catalytic converters, but there is a division of his company that sells jewelry grade platinum, so I am sure he has some connections. Plus he owes me for the valuable beatings I gave him while growing up.” Turning back to Julia, “he required a lot of discipline during his formative years.”

“I’m sure you find that experience useful in dealing with Georgia, too,” I joked. They laughed, and I took my leave, calling, “see you at midnight for the toast” as I hurried up the stairs.

Franklin’s game had ended, and with a youthful leap he flew up the first three stairs, following me up to the kitchen. “Did you get a nice crop this year?”

“Indeed, we got enough for jam and have three racks drying in the garage.”

As a wedding gift, Franklin gave us ten fig trees which we planted along the side of the veranda. Two died during the first winter but the others have done well: bearing fruit and, with their large, bright leaves rustling like sails in the breeze, providing a romantic backdrop for summer evenings outside, as if transported to some remote Grecian isle.

“Great news, think I’ll take a look.” Franklin grabbed a bottle of champagne and exited through the sliding glass off the kitchen.

After conversing with several guests in the living room, I checked my watch and saw that it was nearly midnight. I grabbed Julia and asked her to help me with the champagne. On the way to the kitchen, we saw Tammy trudging up stairs holding onto the rail for dear life. I was tempted to stop and help her, but she managed to reach the second floor without spilling herself or her beer.

“Georgia seems pretty nice after all,” Julia laughed. “Actually I think she and Glen compliment one another nicely. She is like teak, and he is like marble.” Julia was obviously tipsy. She turned her flushed cheeks close to me and shot me a thoughtful gaze saying, “red really is your color, darling.” I opened a second case of champagne.

“Thank you, I just love the earrings. And Julia, have you lost weight? You’re reminding me of that delicate waif I met so long ago in art school.”

Julia laughed. “Who is that young man sitting with Lana?”

I looked through the kitchen door and saw that Jeffrey had taken a seat next to Lana. I scurried around with the clattering glasses and heavy bottles, but all the while kept a close eye on the situation. I watched as Jeffrey touched her hair and then laid his arm on hers. Looking down I noticed that I over-poured a flute and wine pooled on the table and drizzled off the edge. I was now staring intently as Lana’s face cooled and she lifted her glass to him. At that, she got up, uttered something, and walked away from him into the hallway toward Roman. She knelt and rubbed his back, likely surmising that she was better off with a new dog that she loathed than the old dog that aroused such indifference.

“That Lana, she is a smart girl, like her mother.” Julia closed in on me. I put down the bottle I was holding. “I owe you so much Raine.” Her sweet breath rested on my lips. For as long as I have been in this country, you have been my friend, supporting me, sharing everything, spending time with me.” A searing flame ran up my spine and I thought about Blair’s marital ennui. She put her arm around the small of my back and, like magnets, we drew together. I was absorbed into her urgent embrace and drew her mouth into mine. I plunged my tongue past her sweltering lips as my hands dropped to her buttocks. I grabbed large handfuls of her ass as deep moans escaped our mouths. Our hips were gyrating wildly, like suffocating fish, fighting to inhabit the same space: the gap between the exact center of our bodies. My loins burned like white embers, filling her embrace with blistering desire.

“Mom?” “Raine?”, the voices of those closest to me sounded almost simultaneously. I wrenched backward from Julia as if she had pulled a trigger. I ran out of the kitchen covering my face and through the living room, past Glen, who was loudly announcing that only five minutes remained before midnight. His eyes followed me as I ran up the stairs to the bathroom.

Leaning heavily on the sink, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror, tears leaving tributaries of mascara down my powdered face. “Happy new year” I sobbed softly. Outside, the fireworks whined and crackled. Grabbing a tissue, I wiped at the smeared lipstick around my mouth, still stunned at my quivering reflection. I opened the cabinet and grabbed the pills Blair never used after his vasectomy. Adding to my despair, I tore a fingernail trying frantically to open the bottle. Finally, with the promise of unconsciousness, I patiently removed the cap and shook several oblong pills onto my hand. I slapped them to my gaping mouth, and swallowed hard as I entered the bedroom. Collapsing onto the bed, I closed my eyes and waited for tomorrow.

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