In Our Lovely Deseret
Edited by Robert Raleigh
Something in the Shape of Something
[p.143]We were having this party to celebrate Burton’s fortieth birthday, the big four-0, and the completion of my graduate school ordeal, “The Unconsoled Narrator in ‘The Diary of Anais Nin,”’ four hundred and twenty-five pages of pure genius. It was something to celebrate. But it was one of those celebrations you secretly give for one reason, but you explain it in terms of something else. The kind of party which says, see I made it after all. In spite of you. Because of you. And all of our best Mormon relatives were there.
It was a patio party by the pool. Everyone was standing around in our back yard eating something my niece had made and congratulating Burton on making it to prime time. Nobody was talking about my book. When Amberdeen, my niece, who is living with us for the duration of my exams, comes out onto the patio and hands my mother-in-law one of her homemade glass-beaded dinosaur eggs.
Amberdeen is supposedly here to help take care of the house, but she spends most of her time tormenting me. She is making us call her by her second name instead of her first, but all her life while she was growing up, no one ever called her anything but Lucky. “I made it myself,” she says and she notices how Leona is fondling the egg. I lean back in my chair and think of a Nin quote from my dissertation, “I get deeply tired because everything touches me.”
[p.144]Meanwhile, Leona, who still has her purple grapes sitting on top of her piano, doesn’t notice the smirk on Lucky’s face because she has already focused on the egg. “It looks just like the ones they have at Mormon Handicraft,” she says. “You can hardly tell the difference.” She holds the beaded egg up to the sun and lets the refracted light break across her face. Another thousand years of sisterhood radiating there, I’m thinking.
“It is truly remarkable,” she says and hands the egg on to Carl, whose hands are more used to Carbon County coal. Carl shifts to the other foot and slides his palms underneath. His fingers do not quite touch the egg. “Could have fooled me,” he says, rocking it gently back and forth, getting the heft of it before passing it back. “That’s something. Really something.”
Amberdeen watches every movement of this transaction. Silent, protective, self-effacing. Burton and I spend most of our evenings telling Amberdeen jokes, trying to lighten our burden until we can get to the end of this mess, my trial by fire, my interminable escape from the relative from hell. So we say, “How many Amberdeens does it take to screw in a light bulb? Three but you have to give one of them the keys to your van.”
Leona takes the egg back and sort of holds it pinned between her elbow and her right breast. “Look,” she says. “You can see yourself in the mirrors.” Carl bends over to take another look. “That’s something. Really something,” he says, then straightens himself and walks over to the food table.
Burton’s brother Dave and his wife Helen say hello from their plates. They are walking around telling everyone that they tried to get their boys to come, but you know teenagers. It is an interesting aside because we all know their teenagers. About Stanley, their second, who just got sent home from his mission, early, and we all know what that means, and Leo next in line who was arrested last week for driving while intoxicated. Then there’s Mark, their eldest, their proud eagle scout, living with a drug cult somewhere in Montana. And we all think about the sacrament bread we used to entrust to those hands every Sunday against our better judgment.
Dave pulls Burton aside and in all seriousness asks him when are we going to get our genealogy sheets turned in. Right there over the potato chips. But you have to give Dave credit. He is recovering nicely after his episode. That morning not too long ago when the daughter [p.145]just older than Leo surprised everyone and came home married to a man her father’s age, she being just fourteen, and Dave woke up the next morning and forgot who he was. These things happen, the doctor says. Go home and get some rest. Try to remember who you are. Dave has almost remembered everything now. You have to give him credit. Their last three, all girls, are raising hell in the shallow end of our pool. Together they are making up for the lost tribes of Israel.
Meanwhile, Leona still has the egg. “Look in those mirrors,” she is still saying. “Just like the temple mirrors. They go on forever.” I sense we are shifting down to a deeper level of triviality. She begins massaging the egg along a seam of blue beads. My mind begins to throb against the blue beads. How everyone is looking in the mirrors but no one seeing their own face. The width of them. The breadth of them. The mirrors that go on forever. Amberdeen sitting in my new recliner sticking in every bead. “This is what I do,” she says. “This is the way I spend my time.” I have lived through Bead World hell, I think she says. “When my packages arrive, I have to count every bead. Sometimes they try to rip you off. Leave out something that you paid for.” When the packages come, time on earth stands still while Amberdeen counts her beads, spreads the strands out like her jewels in her lap, in my recliner, the beads across her arms, across her chest, across the sides of my new chair. Amberdeen pays $20 for the beads to make one egg, then sells them to perfect strangers for $3.00 a piece at our yard sale. At the neighbor’s yard sale. She can’t give them away. But, of course, that is art for art’s sake, isn’t it?
“Just how did you do it?” Leona says. “Did you draw a line?”
“Freehand,” says Amberdeen with a flick of her wrist. “I’m very good with my hands.”
“How wonderful,” says Leona. And she pulls the egg up to her left eye, and I try to fathom what she sees there. Some women make babies, some women make beads? The world of women in a dinosaur egg. Perhaps if I showed Leona my title page. The bibliography alone could blaze a trail back to Missouri.
Then suddenly Leona loops her finger through the string on top and swings the egg in my direction. “Have you ever seen such a thing?” Have I ever seen such a thing, she wants to know. A million-of-a-kind beaded dinosaur egg with little oval mirrors going round and round.
“And those blue beads,” she says. “Aren’t they the bluest blue you have ever seen?” and she holds the egg a little closer to my face.
[p.146]”It’s very wonderful,” I say. Her arm is overextended to show me. You can see the blue vein popping out in the bend of her arm. “Very blue,” I say, after taking a closer look at the egg. The egg remains poised beneath Leona’s fist. I am supposed to understand something about the egg.
“And the mirrors,” she says. “Did you see the mirrors?” She winds the string tighter around her finger and holds it higher for me to see. I see everything now. Leona wants me to take the egg. She wants me to have it. But I won’t take it. Even though Amberdeen has stuck every bead on there herself with me in mind, it is not my egg.
Leona sees that I am not going to take the egg. Her elbow comes down hard on the glass table. “It must have taken her just forever,” she says. “Didn’t it take you just forever?” she says to Amberdeen.
“Forever,” Amberdeen says. “At least two hours on the blue beads alone. You have to put glue on every bead.”
The egg itself was originally a five-inch white styrofoam egg, little end tapering up to the big, weighed practically nothing. But Amberdeen has stuck at least two pounds of plastic glass into it.
“This one was extra hard,” continues Amberdeen. “See? Extra sequins around the mirrors.”
Leona tilts her head back so that she can see the sequins through her bifocals. “Yes, I see,” she says and lowers the egg again, which continues to dangle like a crystal ball between us. Then Leona begins to swing the egg in a circle. The mirrors pick up the color in our clothes—Leona’s grass-green dress, my tan blouse, Amberdeen’s blue California Beach Patrol sweats. And I am waiting for someone to say, “You are getting sleepy. You are getting very sleepy.”
Instead Leona says, “You know the two of you really could be sisters. You’re both so creative.”
Amberdeen giggles something unintelligible. And I hate her even for that. It goes all the way down to the core now. Even past the guilt for hating her.
Was it her fault that her feet gave out two weeks after she got here? Those delicate precocious feet on her mother’s side. Her Gledhill feet. The high instep. Weak ankles. Brittle bones. She would do what she could, she said, but she would have to be careful because of her feet.
“You know some people claim dinosaur eggs are an aphrodisiac,” says Amberdeen. I try to think about how she means this.
[p.147]”Like pyramids?” I say. “Like crystals?”
“You hang them places,” she says.
“Do they sharpen razor blades too?” I say.
“No,” she says. “For sex.”
“They use dinosaur eggs for sex?” I say.
“Not real dinosaur eggs,” she says. “These kind. The kind with mirrors. The kind you have to make. It has to do with the shape of the egg, the reflection of the glass, the loving touch of the hands. It’s all very scientific.”
Amberdeen smirks again as if it were all beyond my comprehension, then she begins to take off her clothes. I am hoping she has forgotten her swimming suit under the sweats, but as luck will have it she is covered.
When she has succeeded in removing her outer layer in front of an important number of Burton’s relatives, she folds her sweats in a neat pile and lays them in her chair to mark her place.
But she doesn’t go directly to the pool. Not yet. We all should be so lucky. My friends have asked, “Why do you let her stay?” I have said, “Good question.”
I go away to get some of the cream cheese dip stuff—this mountain kind of thing with sprinkled nuts—and when I come back, Leona says, “She is very domestic, isn’t she?”
I never said she couldn’t cook. When the occasion demands, Amberdeen can layer our entire kitchen with food. For the Ryersons’ farewell, the Ryersons who successfully transferred out of Salt Lake City to Philadelphia, she made some of those little sandwiches, each one of them in the shape of the Liberty Bell. She has a knack that way. And when Burton received his promotion in June, she made baby quiche and puffed shrimp for department heads. I never said she couldn’t cook.
“Yes, she is very domestic,” I say. “Do you want to try this dip?” Leona lays the egg down to try the dip. It makes a scratching sound on my glass table.
So Amberdeen said, “Let me make a few things for Burton’s party. Just let me throw a few things together. Just something in the shape of something,” she said at some point last week when we were both pretending to get along.
Well here it comes, THE CAKE, rolling its way out to the patio on the universal serving cart. And Amberdeen in her leopard bikini swim [p.148]suit, dancing along behind. Every last tray, saucer, and platter we own is occupied on the serving table, so THE CAKE gets its own cart. And Amberdeen is wheeling it out and stationing it there along the geranium walk where everyone will have to pass by and get a good look. Only the cake is covered adequately. There is this towel thing draped strategically across a curiously arranged something underneath. Her sequin-painted sign reads, “We will serve no cake before it’s time.” It is a miracle she has not planned to sell guesses for a quarter.
But the sign is just one more thing. Amberdeen has layered the entire serving table with food to get me. Saucers of this. Slivers of that. And here we have scampi, and here we have quiche. And Amberdeen drawing back the cellophane covers on some mini-sandwiches and flicking a toothpick with her nail. “I used some of my own money,” she says. “I hope you don’t mind.”
So I try to ignore Amberdeen. It’s the least I can do. As she swivels the wheels of the cart on the brick walk, swivels them until they set just right before she steps on the brake. Try to ignore how she fusses with the white skirt of the linen as it drapes across an invisible mast, or whatever the center peak of whiteness is.
“A sailing ship,” says Carl.
“One of them Spanish armadas,” says Leona.
“A Pixie-Stix in a cardboard box,” I offer. Although one could easily imagine a fine layered devil’s food cake with navy gray icing in the shape of the battleship Utah. But I believe that went down at Pearl Harbor.
“Some people are just very good with their hands,” says Amberdeen, which she aims at me because she has agreed to work for “practically nothing,” which is what I can pay, and I am supposed to love every minute of it.
“Everything is very nice,” I say as Amberdeen goes by. “Very nice,” as she putters off towards the pool.
“She really has done a remarkable job,” says Leona.
“Some spread,” say Helen and Dave who join us arm in arm, their mouths chewing in unison.
“Quite a catch for some man, I’d say,” says Carl as he hoists something-marinara to his lips.
Amberdeen dips her toes tentatively at the water’s edge. “Care for some of this white stuff?” I say to Helen and Dave. Helen reaches down to take a cracker and then she sees the egg.
[p.149]”And what is this? Have you taken up bead work?” she asks.
I’d like to say, “Yes, I made it. I have finally gotten myself involved in something you can understand. Yes. Let’s have a Christmas-around-the-World party next week. Let’s.” But instead I say, “It’s Amberdeen’s. She has a way with her hands.”
Amberdeen is seated now, her Gledhill feet dangling playfully in the pool. Her toes pointing, she is making little ballerina kicks at Burton. And Burton is trying to sneak up on her and give her a good splash. You can always count on a husband with an IQ of a four-year-old to do the most insipid thing. Mid-life crisis. All of that.
“Amberdeen,” Helen says. “How interesting.” And lays the egg down next to my napkin and walks off eating my cheese.
Leona and Carl have wandered off too, and I’m thinking that maybe I’ll get a chance to be alone for a while with a few stray thoughts, when Amberdeen’s ex-boyfriend, the one she lived with for five years, walks in. Comes out through the sliding glass door onto the patio saying, “I let myself in. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, I don’t mind,” I say. “Any friend of Lucky’s.” The last time I saw this guy, he was dragging Lucky Amberdeen’s waterbed off his truck and dumping it on me. And Amberdeen was saying, “Sold my house so here I am. Where do you want my fridge?”
Anyway, so the ex-boyfriend comes up to the table where I’m standing, pretty much by myself. When he comes up, everybody moves away another five feet, a retreating wave of in-law flesh, and I know right away I’m stuck with a winner. Amberdeen is still half in and half out of the pool and makes no move to come over to where we are. I say, “Help yourself to the food. Amberdeen made it.” And I nod my head towards the pool.
The ex-boyfriend nods back and I begin to think maybe I’ve missed something. He picks up a piece of Corelleware and examines it as if it were fine china. His gaze wanders onto the food, and he looks it all over, like he’s calculating how much of everything will fit where. Then he digs in. Positions everything just so. I was right. I’m watching the guy like that because I’m wondering why he’s here. Amberdeen said it was over between them. Before he finishes, I take my leave and make it safely back to the table where I began.
And this is where it gets weird. The guy fills up his plate and follows me to where I’m sitting. He apologizes for taking so much and offers me food from his plate. For a second I imagine him homeless, living [p.150]in a cave somewhere up the canyon, socking away what’s left after alimony, and spending the last of his pocket change on cans of macaroni dinosaur things.
“Good food,” he says. “I almost didn’t make it.”
“Didn’t make what?” I say.
“I almost didn’t make it to your party. Car broke down. I had to hitch.”
“How unfortunate,” I say, then I see the grease stains on his jeans. At least the guy’s not lying, I’m thinking, but why me?
“Smoked cheese,” he says. “Smoked cheese?”
“Yeah, smoked cheese,” he says. “For your husband’s birthday. What’s his name, Burton.” Then this guy, I think his name is Bill, pulls out one of those cheese packs with a green and red plaid ribbon on the top. Not one of the good ones from Hickory Farms, but one of the kind you pick up at the K-Mart for a buck and a quarter the day after Christmas. And this is July.
“I got him this,” he says, and lays the cheese pack at my elbow.
And I say something like, “Thanks. You shouldn’t have. And did I mention that Amberdeen is in the pool.” He looks in that direction, then lifts a cream puff to his lips. He begins to lick the cream off with his tongue. Half way through he notices the beaded egg. It surprises him.
“Nice egg” he says, picking it up as if it were a hand grenade. “Who would have figured.” But I just let this one slide. He thinks I made the egg, but by this time I’m thinking that if a person can’t figure this one out on their own, they don’t deserve to live.
So Bill lays the egg out on his palm and rocks it back to front. “Good balance,” he says, as if that had anything to do with it. Then he lays the egg down and pulls out a book from his back pocket. It is a very beat-up copy of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Penguin edition. He lays it beside the egg. And there they are—the egg and D. H. Lawrence. It is a very beaten-up edition, I decide. The pages are swollen, and the front cover is hanging on by a thread.
“I dropped it in the bathtub,” he says. “I like to read while I’m taking a bath. Sorry about that.” And then I see that it is my copy of Sons and Lovers. Cheap edition, but my copy. The year of publication is written in ball point on the front cover which is one of my habits [p.151]from taking literature classes all my life. Suddenly I’m as mad as hell, but I say, “Looks like it’s been through the wringer.” He’s smiling now. “It was in your living room when I was here before. There were lots of books. I didn’t think you would mind.” “I never missed it,” I say, flipping through the swollen pages. “Maybe it can be ironed.”
“I can get you a new one,” he says. “Next time I come.” He says it like he will be coming for afternoon tea, and we can discuss thematics over crumb cake.
“Don’t bother,” I say. “It was only a buck and a half.” But I’m thinking that the last time I bought a Penguin it was $4.95. “No,” he says. “I’ll get you a new one next time I come. I want to. It’s the least I can do.”
“Okay,” I say. “But, it really is no big deal.”
“I’m glad,” he says and stops an eggroll from skidding off his plate. “I wouldn’t want you to get mad.” And I’m half way through a cheese doodle when he says this.
“Because you can get kind of nasty when you’re mad,” he says and puts his finger on the book, a little Miracle Whip stuff still smeared across his nail. “The things you wrote along the side. You can get downright mean. But that’s okay,” he says. “I liked it better than the book.”
And I’m thinking about the semester I read that book and am trying to figure out what I might have said or who I might have been saying it to. Then I say, “So what was wrong with the book?”
He shakes his head. “Not much of a story. Not much of a plot.”
I nod my head. What else would he say? Then I tell him I’m going in for a swim.
So I’m in my house, back in the master bedroom, thinking about putting on my bathing suit and trying to console myself over the loss of a good book. I open the pages and the spine snaps when I pull it wide. The bathtub, I’m thinking. The dirty creep had my book in his bathtub. I lay it out on my lap and start spreading the pages like they were new, end papers down, the fat splay of pages standing up in the middle. I run my finger along the seam in front, along the seam behind. Fold down a few more pages and begin again. I have written all over this book, and I hardly remember what it was about.
I get half way into my suit, and there is a knock at the door. “Just [p.152]a minute,” I say. I just barely finish the suit and am pulling my robe around me when the knob turns and in walks Amberdeen’s ex-boyfriend wearing just a towel. “Thought you would like to read some of my poetry,” he says. And drops the towel.
When I get back to the patio, Burton is pushing the cake towards the pool for Amberdeen, and Amberdeen is getting ready to make a speech. Amberdeen has to be by the pool because that is where everyone is. She is still in her leopard briefs.
I’m walking up fast, getting ready to say something intentional, something nasty, when my foot sort of catches on a cart leg, and I have to reach out to save myself. Anyone would. And it is not a polite save either, but a big save, my body pitching forward, just the right amount of angle and shriek. That sort of thing. All of which sends the universal serving cart burning rubber towards the pool.
It is a miraculous save when you think about it, in the moments after. When I begin to collect myself and rub my big toe back to life. I could have been maimed seriously. But instead of me the cake. Which shot out into the air, suspended itself in mid-water, then sank to the bottom of the pool.
But not before drawing a significant crowd, a crowd that saw the cake and cart both sitting there momentarily buoyant. A crowd that heard the rush of air and the sinking hiss. A crowd that heaved a collective sigh as the cake, still under its shroud, began to go down. Little green and yellow chunks of it dropping off underneath. A crowd who witnessed it all—the maiden voyage. The moment of truth. Something-in-the-shape-of-something on its slow way down. And the very last, when a large segment of the cake suddenly broke off and descended. That was not without its effect. And I, finding my voice and speaking as one who has seen both the angel Moroni and the Medusa and lived, I say, “One of the great mysteries of life. Tough break!”
PAULINE MORTENSEN is a pseudo-writer living in Orem, Utah. She spent the first twenty years of her life playing in the mountains of Idaho, and the last twenty years being married in Utah, where she has accumulated two adopted sons, several superfluous degrees from assorted universities, a mountain of used books and rejection slips, and an immense desire to go home.