Taj Mahal

I've been curious for a while now about people who have positions of great power in their careers but mentally remain like children. I'm using this story to sort of explore that theme. It's about an upper middle-class community that's growing faster than it can come to terms with its own reality. Builders are dotting its landscape with Disney-land like shops and restaurants while an asteroid spins towards earth.

Jack Markoff, age 37 was sitting in a well cushioned chair four rows back from the center of the stage when he saw the dancers come out to take their positions.  He was wearing his best suit and a new pair of shoes.  Beside him, his wife Myrah held a program.  Her legs were crossed and her glasses reflected everything that she saw in crisp white detail. 

Together, the couple made a fine looking pair.  He was tall, ruddy faced and muscularly built.  She was ten years his junior, black haired and waifishly thin.  At home they had two children, both from previous marriages.  Tonight, they’d left them with a sitter for the evening.  On the way show, during diner, he’d complemented her on her dress.  They’d ordered burgers and cheese fries.

After a moment, the auditorium fell silent and the performers posed.  They wore costumes that were decorated to resemble various forms of wildlife.  There were birds with felt wings, foxes with bushy tails, sinister looking wolves with teeth that were painted on faces and cats with cloth ears glued to the tops of their heads.  Softly, violins began to play.

With his hands folded on his lap, Markoff listened to the instruments as they filled the air.  Hearing the richness of their meandering tune, they gave him the same sense of pride that he had experienced earlier on that night when he’d flushed the toilet in the marble tiled men’s room.  The exotic wood panels that had been chosen to line the walls of this theater were a good decision, he thought to himself proudly.  They tended to make the place feel warm and amplified the orchestra back towards the audience at a perfect pitch.

On stage, he watched as a goat started to be chased by a fox.  The animals clung to one another in a frenzy of dizzying positions.  Their movements were impossible to decipher at a mere glance.  A flute piped a series of rapid notes.  The reedy sound echoed in the darkness surrounding him.

This performance hall had been Markoff’s soul focus over the past year of his life.  It had consumed most of his time and drained almost all of his available credit.  Tonight he was glad that everything had turned out so well.

In the foyer before the show, people had actually stopped to congratulate him on his work.  Civic leaders and large dollar donors had told him that the building had made them proud to be living where they were living.  Even the mayor had approached Markoff to express his satisfaction at the way that the arches out front caught the lights from the garden.  He smiled and shook everyone’s hand.

A series of men dressed as frogs bounded onto the stage followed by birds stepping in long strides each holding up an egg into the light.  Someone stuck a snare drum from below.  The birds cracked open what they held revealing real doves inside.  They fluttered in frightened confusion into the rafters above.

This venue had been the product of a rapidly growing suburb that rested about 20 miles south of Houston.  The community was sitting on an unexpected tax reserve and had recently become self-conscious regarding its cultural profile next to that of the larger city. The legions of families who were moving into the newly developed subdivisions felt that they were entitled to some sort of opulent center for showcasing the local arts.  They’d held a bond election and his firm had been selected from a group of over twenty-five other’s that had submitted bids and designs to the city council.

A duck waddled comically through the scene taking short little steps on her heels.  One of the cats leapt at her.  She careened from side to side.  The low sound of a baritone mimicked each step that the ballerina took.

The city had wanted Markoff Construction to build a premier auditorium that would both attract and inspire talent.  As the owner of that firm he had subsequently devoted over one-hundred-and-fifty of his employees towards the task of getting the structure assembled both on budget and on time.  The council had agreed to pay him twenty million dollars for his work and he’d completed it at a cost of fifteen.  They’d wanted it ready for the fall season and he’d gotten it done by July.

Now it was August and a countless number of men and women spun and balanced on their toes with their hands raised above their heads.  For its first performance, the stage had been decorated to look like a forest.  Paper mache tree stumps rose up from its teak planks.  They disappeared into the darkness of the ceiling where cut outs resembling a vast canopy of leaves descended on wires.

By his own admission, Markoff’s company was nothing but a locally successful commercial construction firm that specialized in strip malls and chain restaurants. He did all right with making themed buildings look like old swamp-shacks or New England brownstones but until he’d taken on this project he had no clue as to what would be involved in building an auditorium for the performing arts.  The concert hall had been a learning experience for him as well as everyone else in his office.

From a fold of the other dancers, a woman made up to look like a swan twisted and writhed as they backed away from her.  She collapsed to the stage in a cacophony of instruments.  All of the animals rushed to help on all fours.

He watched all the dancers as they pranced happily in little circles.  The men grabbed, hoisted and spun all the women in unison.  He’d never been to a ballet before and it struck him how distracting it was for him to be able hear their feet flapping about they leapt through the air and skipped along.  He wondered, as he sat listening if there were any sorts of padding that he could have used under the stage in order to prevent that.

To prepare for the project he’d sent his architects to the local colleges to talk to their drama staffs about what they most desired in a stage.  They studied seating arrangements.  They called some of the largest opera houses in the nation and asked them about what made their creative space more special than all of the others. 

The orchestra was blaring.  It seemed as if every member was playing as loudly as they could.  The ballet swelled.

Where they’d found consensus in the designs of the larger, more famous theaters his employees had used math to shrink the dimensions to the size of what Markoff was trying to build.  They guessed at the cost of materials and they sketched up more than fifty different configurations based on what they’d learned.  They threw out the things that they thought didn’t work or were too costly.  Somehow it had all came together.

The birds were flying in circles, the frogs were leaping, the predators were chasing their prey.  Everything was happening all at once.  The stage was littered with broken eggs.

Now both he and his wife were part of an exclusive audience that had been invited to witness a ballet of which some famous Russian had been commissioned to write for the opening of another theater in New York City earlier that year.  It was called ‘The Original Buck to Save the Dying of the Earth’ and it was said to have been a tale that promoted the preservation of all life on a doomed planet.  This theme was popular at the time and the subject was on everyone’s mind.

Gently, the strings faded.  The dancers slowed in their pace.  They extended their arms and legs.  They stumbled about appearing to lose all grace.  One of the wolves grabbed a bird and cradled her in his arms.

In the orchestra pit, a kettle drum began to be hammered upon.  Paper streamers of red and yellow billowed up from behind the hand crafted bushes and logs.  Everything in the forest was silently on fire with flames that were being blown up by quiet fans.  A man wearing antlers leapt onto the scene coming in from stage left.  All of the other forms of wildlife quickly cowered and scurried.

As he watched this, the whole dance suddenly struck Markoff as being extremely stupid.  He sat in the cushioned chair trying to suppress his laughter as the deer-man tip-toed around the circle of flames touching each of the other performers on the head.   One by one they all fell over. 

Hearing the sound of his own stifled snorts, his wife also developed a hitch in her own chest.  Looking over at her, he could see that she was squirming uncomfortably in her seat.  Her face wrinkled up and she kept reaching to the bridge of her nose to push up her glasses.

Slowly, the buck crept to the center on all fours.  The beat slowed and a cello swelled.  The lights dimmed.

In the darkness Markoff took his wife’s hand.  She ripped off her frames burying her face in his chest.  He nuzzled her hair.  As the lights came back on and the set changed to a scene of utter desolation they spent the rest of the show giggling into one another’s bodies as quietly as they possibly could.

During the drive home his wife said:  “Oh my God!  That was so dumb!”

Markoff turned to her smiling.  “Hey, want to stop for margaritas?”

“It’s late.”  She said.

“It’ll be okay.” 

“Should we call the sitter?”

“Let’s not.” He answered reaching over to pat her leg.  “Let’s pretend like we don’t have any kids.”

She smiled.  “We told Cheryl that we’d be back by midnight.”

“I’ll give her an extra twenty dollars.”

His wife shot him a sly glance.  “You!”  She chided.

Wordlessly Markoff pulled the Suburban off into the parking lot of a small Mexican restaurant.  There were cracks that were purposely designed into its adobe walls.   He knew each and every one of them by heart as well as how the irrigation system worked and the precise dimensions of the kitchen.

He had built the structure about two years ago on spec.  He’d done this to take advantage of the low property values in the area and a mall that he’d heard was going up across the freeway.  He’d sold it six months later to a large chain just as the skeleton of the mall had begun to take shape.  They couple knew the manager.  Markoff was sure that the man wouldn’t mind serving them drinks even if it was closing time and all of the tables empty.

Inside as they entered, they found the staff sweeping up and wiping down the counters for the night.  The hostess insisted that they have a seat.  She asked them how they were doing and brought them their order.  They sipped on their straws continuing to laugh about the man in the deer costume. 

Myrah couldn’t get over the fact that he’d looked so stern and proud as he’d skipped back and forth wearing that huge pair of antlers.  Markoff maintained that the whole thing had just made him want to punch the guy in the face.  His wife laughed as he pantomimed the dance.  He stuck out his jaw and positioned his fingers on either side of his head to represent the bucks rack.

“Seriously,” She giggled as she pushed her empty drink to the corner of the table.  “What were they thinking?”

“I don’t know!”  Markoff said taking a twenty out of his billfold and tossing it down.  “That was the gayest thing I think I’ve ever seen.”

“For real!”  His wife agreed.

In the parking lot, they kissed.  The freeway groaned just beyond the edges of where they stood and across the river of headlamps and taillights the mall glowed.  They were nearly home.

The End

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