Cataclysm
by Linda Boroff

It was time. Obediently, Marketing assembled in front of Human Resources and counted noses, then filed out through the vast, slick-floored maroon-and-silver lobby. Job-seekers, huddled like troglodytes in cavernous velour armchairs, glanced up from incomprehensible computer journals as the troupe passed.

"Hasta la Vista!" called out blonde Annabelle Hopf from the reception desk, waving gaily.

Nobody waved back. Silently, Marketing crowded through the front door into the parking lot to distribute itself—grunting, squeezing, joints popping-among three cars. The dutiful caravan wended a short, cramped distance to downtown, parking on River Street to avoid the noon traffic jam.

Then they shuffled—like so many ducklings or kindergartners, Sue thought irritably, behind Al Cooke, their Director, all the way down Pacific Avenue to the Palomar Restaurant. Sue noticed that she was dragging her feet, just as she had on field trips back in elementary school. And she felt an insistent, annoying urge to hold Bill Pinkney's hand as he trudged along at her side.

A full year after the earthquake, Pacific Avenue still lay strewn about in raw asphalt chunks, as if ripped by an angry behemoth: post-Godzilla Santa Cruz. Deep, refuse-littered canyons that were the graves of buildings yawned on either side. Sue felt vaguely ashamed peeping down into them, their broken rusty girders and moldy blockite foundations helplessly exposed like the underwear of dead old ladies.

Overdressed and overemployed, Marketing edged self-consciously along cyclone fencing and across broken pavement, past irreverent youth of all styles and commitments, past blowsy older shoppers and Gabby Hayes homeless. The sun glared down unobstructed on the ruined street, startlingly hot. The March of the Toy Soldiers. No, The Procession of the Damned, Sue continued bitterly. And guiltily too. Because it was really very nice of the company to buy them all Mexican lunch every other Thursday, just Marketing, a chummy little claque, no interlopers from Admin or MIS. Our Tradition, Al termed it.

Of course, the cold steel of corporate coercion glinted out from the velvet glove dealing enchiladas. And for some, fear was the "especiale" on the menu, since Al often chose this occasion to call someone aside and mention in his offhand way that someone was "under evaluation"—that gut-piercing, margarita-negating corrida, the guacamole curdling beneath a stinging salsa reflux, the beans hitting the stomach floor like a jai a'lai serve. Poor Mac Morgan had gone positively verde on hearing his summons. Or was it only the restaurant's green-tinted skylight that made them all look as if they were lunching in the Gulag? Sue caught her own reflection in one of the few storefront windows left unboarded: limp, she thought. Her hair drooped from its center part, too dismayed to curl. The mouth was petulant, impotent. Even her large brown eyes retreated, peering back at her accusingly like those of a war orphan.

Mac was history now, Sue thought bitterly. No more Gary Larsen cartoons on her chair in the mornings, no more Star-Trek festival fliers. "Morgan's problem was, he thought like an engineer, not a marketing pro," had eulogized Al, Mac's unrepentant executioner, punctuating his remark with an analytical pursing of the lips that lifted his jowls a good inch and caused him to resemble something that lurks in a coral reef.

Only an hour, Sue told herself. This will soon be over. The hardhats, rulers of the rubble, bestrode their 'dozers like cowboys, lazy-hipped, their proud torsos gleaming with honest sweat. Beneath them, the marketing group, children yet again, gaped at serrated iron shovels and mighty saurian pincers groaning and roaring as they gnashed at massive slabs of concrete and masonry. Sue became disoriented, as she always did now when downtown, all illusions demolished forever that afternoon. No stability. No shelter. No safety. Not on this deceptive, faulted earth that could suddenly lurch into animistic life and sway like a hula dancer's hips. Not in the treacherous ocean either, with its hidden riptide pythons. Not in the universe itself, only a big balloon after all, heedlessly inflating toward some cosmic pop. Or worse, dribbling back over the eons to a flaccid little virtual particle, all grandeur mummified.

Certainly not in love. The sudden indoor cool, and the remote vaulted ceiling of the Palomar made Sue want to kneel and pray, as she had done once before in Notre Dame (and during the earthquake too), her atheism expediently discarded in the face of God's indisputable hegemony. Kneeling beside her in the church had been a Sorbonne student nicknamed Du-Du. On the wall of his Rue de L'Harpe garret had hung a Roy Orbison poster. He had serenaded her in fractured English with "Running Scared"

Scared. Some fifteen years later, the earthquake had caught Sue and her ex-husband Tod bickering over the Visa bill. He didn't give a damn what her lawyer said, why should he have to pay for half of her psychotherapy (that his own infidelity had made necessary)?

"You punished me by seeing the most expensive shrink in the county." Tod's blue eyes were as cold as freon. She would not give him the satisfaction of admitting that he had broken her heart, that on learning of his perfidy she had dashed to the telephone directory and dialed the only therapist whose ad was big enough to read through her tears.

"And what about these charges for that cozy little hideaway in Calistoga?" She counterattacked, waving the bill. "You took her to our honeymoon resort? I'm supposed to pay half of that?"

And suddenly, as if fed up to here, the earth had shrugged, shuddered with disgust. The house groaned, rocking back and forth; massive cracks clove the walls. Sue and Tod froze, stupefied: What manner of divine retribution had their squabbling called down? Sue suddenly recalled reading of a woman during World War II convinced that her own turds were torpedoes sinking allied ships. Had they been?

Desperately, Sue and Tod grabbed for each other, swaying, praying aloud as the house danced like a Max Fleischer cartoon. With a cry, they toppled together and rolled across the floor, sheltering one another's heads. So must Sodom have collapsed, amid wails of terror and remorse. I didn't mean it, Sue prayed desperately, that seventh grade cussing contest, that high school debate, Resolved: God is Dead.

And then it was over. The earth convulsed one last time and lay still, as if spent, handing them back their lives, a miracle. Sue and Tod wept with relief. Bursting with gratitude, they apologized, gushed concessions. How selfish they had been, how misguided. Everything was so clear now. Life was too precious, too uncertain to squander in trivial conflict. Yes, yes, cherish the moment, the priceless gift. Chastened and a little smug, they swept up glass, nipping from a bottle of brandy, tsking in sympathy as news poured from the radio.

But late that night, Tod had left again after all, dressed silently in the dark and let himself out. Sue had awakened alone at five a.m. to the wail of sirens, sitting glumly amid the aftershocks, indifferent to doom. Let it all end in rubble then. Let the whole rotten world come down on her.

"Hey Sue, what's your pleasure?" Bill nudged her arm

"Ondalay, ondalay," prompted Al from the head of the table.

"I'll have the chile verde burrito," Sue responded, her appetite gone.

"To your left," whispered plump Aimee Landsman, "don't look now, is the man who broke my old boss Sally's heart." The heartbreaker was battling for control of an elongating cheese string. Maddeningly elastic, it resisted his efforts, dangling stubbornly from his lips across his fork, stretching toward his tie. He looked up, and his eyes met Sue's. She made a scissors motion with her fingers. He grinned and winked.

"Watch out," said Aimee.

"When the worst has already occurred," answered Sue lightly, "one has nothing left to fear. Or to put it another way, you can't fall off the floor."

"I fell off the floor," said Aimee. "During the earthquake my house broke into four pieces, and I fell off the kitchen floor."

"Onto what?"

"The kitchen floor. But it was five feet lower."

"I'm sure there's some fundamental insight to be gained from that." Sue grinned and tossed her hair, a coquette, fearless.

"So we figured that pricing was the key." Bill hoisted a chip trembling with salsa.

"No way, Jose," shouted Al. "You're off base as usual. Think about the margins, sonny. Where have you been for the past six months?" Salsa dropped like tears onto Bill's menu. "No way, Jose," Al said again, this time to the waiter. "I've got the wrong burrito filling." He pouted. "Where's the beef?"

"Speaking of the worst, I saw Tod yesterday," said Aimee. "He pulled a sad face, said he'll always love you." Sue rolled her eyes.

"A talent for deception." But he had loved her once, hadn't he, rhapsodizing over her dark eyes, her mouth, the way the stem of her back curved beneath his hands. In bed, their contours had fitted perfectly, notched in all the right places, a solid marital foundation if ever there was one. Yet, even then she had been preparing for the cataclysm (not if, but when), bolting her love firmly, warily to the (unreliable) earth, holding herself apart. Needing him the more for that.

The beige flanks of Sue's burrito split and eroded under her indifferent fork. Entrails of green rice and pork spilled out. The meal was ending, she noted with relief, those about her rising with conspicuous grunts and groans of satiety. Sue tossed her napkin gratefully onto the table

"I miss Mac," she said. "Nothing's the same."

"That's for sure," said Bill. "The Mac's working in Sunnyvale now. He hates the commute, but he's holding up." And what else could one wish for after all, Sue decided, but to hold up? To hold up was enough. It was everything.

Like a bad dream, Al Cooke materialized at her side and Bill melted away. "Sue," said Al, "Would you step into the bar with me please? I'm afraid we're due for a chat." His face was so close that she could easily distinguish the graphite-colored bristles on his jaw, the frijole smear beside his mouth. His eyes were a colorless glaze. Such must be the last human image afforded a condemned man: a close-up of his own executioner, all details in place for one final, eternal impression. Al took Sue's elbow and steered her toward the bar, away from the others.

No reliable way to predict: Deep in Sue's molten core, a cauldron of magma heaved and lurched. A plate shifted and suddenly gave way, rupturing swiftly along the fault. Fissures wrenched open like rosy gashes. Her mantle shuddered as seismic waves, amplified by loose upper sediment, made their way toward the unsuspecting crust. Her legs began to tremble, her head swayed as the inner momentum grew. Tremors reverberated along her skin. Al ordered two coffees from the bartender, and Sue took her seat beside him. In her ears was a roaring, and a tinkling not unlike that of breaking glass.

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