Saturday was beautiful. Slightly cool in the morning, warm but not hot in the afternoon; sunny but not humid. Parmelia Mobley wished every summer day could be like that.
To her astonishment, Shane had produced tickets to the Smyrna Gala, and asked her to go with him. She knew he hated neckties (in spite of all the tight-fitting lingerie he'd designed), and on his own would probably never have gone to anything with the word "gala" in it, so she took it as a sign of love that he was willing to go outside his comfort zone for her.
She wore her only really nice evening gown. Under it was Shane's other present: a deep red Merry Widow, decorated with intricate beadwork. It incorporated garters, and he'd included a pair of red silk stockings. Compared to the cargo pants and scrubs she was used to, it was the most feminine thing she'd worn in months.
It turned out to be a great event. At first Shane fidgeted in his suit like a ten-year-old, but after she coaxed him into a little wine-tasting he was fine, and even made eye contact with a few people. They heard some good music, ate a lot of good food, and learned about all the worthwhile stuff the Smyrna Public Safety Foundation was doing.
They ran into Parmie's boss, affably half in the bag. Their clinic had put up an item in the auction: lifetime free care for a given household pet. For some of their clients (idiots with exotic pets they didn't know how to care for), that could be worth thousands.
They talked about bidding, but Shane admitted he'd pretty much shot his wad on the tickets and necktie. (He'd never owned more than one necktie at a time; he bought a replacement every time one was accidentally burned, shredded or otherwise lost.)
Parmie had checked around. The custom-fitted lingerie Shane had made for her, based on fabric, original design, and hours of skilled workmanship, would cost hundreds of dollars to buy from a commercial vendor—including, she'd found, his Auntie Moira's Web-based business, Precious Stuffs. The garment fit her like a living second skin, without restricting her breathing; that alone was worth top dollar.
She didn't want to be the kind of girlfriend who interferes, especially in family matters ... but she'd love to take a look at their business agreement.
Fairly late, she drove Shane home in her Beetle. She would have liked to go upstairs and get comfortable, but she'd promised her mother she'd come home. It was past midnight by then, so they indulged in some early birthday cuddling, etc., in the back yard hammock. Then home, sneaking in at one thirty, like she was back in high school.
Her mom had gotten used to her spending half her nights at Shane's house. But she'd made it clear, in her overly sweet, passive-aggressive way, that she expected her only daughter to be available, at home, on her birthday morning. She'd already gotten a cake for the occasion, from .
Parmie had taken a peek already. Lemon cream: her mother's favorite. Parmie's favorite was Black Forest cake. Her mother always asked, and then always forgot and just got what she liked.
Parmie's brother Jamie was home from UGA for the weekend. He'd already given her a twenty dollar bill. It was the same twenty she'd given him last January. They'd been giving each other the bill on their birthdays for most of Jamie's young life; a few years ago Parmie had gotten it matted and framed so they could gift-wrap it. She wasn't exactly a fan of Andrew Jackson, but back when they'd started the tradition, $20 was all she could afford.
Jamie never gave it to her on her actual birthday, not since 2001. He had a phobia about the 11th of September.
She didn't blame the kid. He'd only been nine when she had her sweet sixteen. He was excited to be wearing a necktie; always willing to let their mother dress him up like a paper doll. When they turned on the tv and saw what was happening in New York and Washington, he thought there was somehow a connection between his sister's birthday and giant planes flying into giant buildings.
There was a lingering smell of pot in the house. She opened the fridge and checked; sure enough, half the cake was gone. Her mom's insomnia tended to lead to sparking a J, which led to the munchies. But half a cake? Jamie must have joined her. Parmie didn't know of any relatives who didn't smoke up; she always felt like the square at family get-togethers.
She didn't care for weed, but she could definitely go for some of that cake. Sex outdoors always gave her an appetite.
She served herself half the remaining cake, and enjoyed it with cold milk while watching a video of a cholecystectomy on a Labradoodle. It showed a newly-approved technique she couldn't wait to use.
Already, she'd had a good birthday. But she needed a few hours sleep before dealing with Mom. She settled down and looked around at her room for a while before turning out the light. My last night in this bed, she thought.
* * *
Sunday brought another beautiful morning. Parmie got out of the house as soon as she could. Her big talk with her mom about moving out had ended up taking less than two minutes; maybe a minute forty-five. If she hadn't had to wait 'til after eleven for her mother to get up, she could have freed up her whole morning.
But it was still a nice day. Parmie had her windows down; she smelled meat half a block before she got to Shane's Mamaw's house. In the backyard, she found him grilling enough hamburgers, sausages, and (with mixed success) pizza to feed ten people.
Eventually they had seven people, including herself. Caliban, the massive cat, and Marty, the three-legged terrier, certainly ate their share as well.
The back yard looked good. With the late hare's hutch gone, and the hammock taken down, it looked a lot roomier. (She thought, I'm putting that hammock right back up. Maybe there'd be some more mild nights.)
Shane had set up folding tables. Wishes had mown the yard the day before, after locking Marty inside. (Marty didn't care for mowers, not even the quiet reel mower they used. But he liked to eat grass clippings and then throw up.)
Aardvark, wearing a colorful tee shirt with a dragon on it, brought a keg of beer. He and Ronnie wrestled it out of his truck and into the back yard. He shook his head sadly at Shane's rusty old charcoal grill; Ronnie laughed and said she'd build a gas-fired brick smoker/griller.
Moira showed up with a Black Forest cake from . She told Parmie Shane'd texted her three times to remind her what kind to get.
There was a girl she didn't know; Ronnie introduced her as Cherie, a friend she'd met at that big sci-fi convention they had downtown. Strapping girl with a big smile; Parmie thought her skin was the color of maple syrup in the bright sun. Cherie was a hugger; she walked in past Parmie's extended hand and wrapped her arms around her, then got Ronnie to hug from the other side. With both girls a head taller than her, Parmie felt like a child.
Shane snapped a picture, and suggested they should all spank each other. They didn't, and Ronnie slapped Shane on the back of the head, but the ice was definitely broken, and it started to feel like a party.
When Parmie went inside to wash up, Ronnie followed and showed her a new tattoo; a gold-tone female robot. Parmie wasn't crazy about tattoos, but had to admit it was beautiful work. Cherie joined them and showed her own tattoo, which was some kind of freaky cartoon beast.
There was something different about Ronnie; Parmie thought she'd never seen her smile so much. When she stood next to Cherie, the two six-foot girls looked like bookends, or maybe the Queens in a human chess set. They even had matching glasses. That was something different—she'd never seen Ronnie wearing glasses before.
After they went back out, Parmie washed her face and studied herself in the mirror. Did she rate a party? She'd gotten out of the habit after her birthday became a date of infamy in most of the world.
She'd almost declined to go out with Shane because he was an awkward, inappropriate high school dropout with startling gaps in his base of knowledge. She broke several personal rules within a week of meeting him, and another rule when they got back together. But ... she couldn't imagine not having him in her life. Well, she could imagine it, and it wasn't horrible, but she'd miss him like hell.
Through all the years of school, and all her adult life, she'd never had more than two or three people she could count as friends, and no really serious relationships. (Except her marriage, which hadn't lasted long enough to count.) But somehow, when she wasn't looking, Shane's people had become her people too.
She went back out and joined them, and they had a great day.
No tv, no radios, and no talk about where they'd all been ten years ago, when the first year of the new century took a bad turn. The beer flowed. Wishes didn't show it beyond grinning a lot and then dozing off in a folding lounge chair until Marty licked his face. But Moira, Ronnie and Cherie got tipsy.
What did come out in conversation was that, amazingly, nobody had to get up early on Monday. Parmie had traded a morning shift for two evening shifts. Wishes had rewritten his own work schedule at the law firm. (He said, "I assume I'm allowed to.") Ronnie said she'd make up some excuse for her boss. Since her boss was sitting next to her, they worked it out fairly quickly.
Moira was her own boss; and Shane was technically an independent contractor. Cherie said she could make up her morning lecture. With one exception nobody was safe to drive, and they worked out crash space arrangements; it looked like they'd have a full house.
Parmie had definite plans about where she'd be sleeping, tonight and for a while.
The exception was Aardvark. He nursed a mug of beer all afternoon, and except for comparing tattoos with Ronnie and Cherie, was unusually quiet. Toward sunset, after everything (except the beer) was either consumed or put away, he suggested everybody come out and take a look at the artwork Ronnie had done on his F-150.
They started at the passenger side door, nearest the curb. It showed his business totem, a cartoon aardvark (matching the tattoo on his arm), peeking out of an old-fashioned stone well, his head making the wooden bucket tilt. Below the well, the words "I DON'T DO WELLS!" Ronnie told everybody she didn't see the point of advertising a negative, but that Aardvark had insisted, and he also had her transcribe, onto the website, a lengthy, profanity-laced explanation for why he didn't do wells.
On the near side of the truck, she'd painted a nearly-finished stone fence being worked on by the aardvark (wearing overalls), setting a stone into place with one hand and giving a thumb's-up with the other. Aardvark had insisted his cartoon namesake be smoking a cigarette, even though he'd given them up decades ago. The business name, phone number and URL were painted on the fence in broad brushstrokes.
Spread out on the opposite side of the truck was the scene she considered some of her best work. A red, stony, almost volcanic-looking landscape. Hazy shadows in the background that could be a dark forest, obscured by smoke and fog. In the foreground, a massive black stallion was frozen in a heavy canter, his blocky hooves striking sparks from the stones, his eyes glowing red, steam jetting from his flared nostrils. Sweat lathering his great chest.
Astride the mighty beast, on a leather saddle gleaming with brass and gold, was, of course, the aardvark. He wore a hauberk of shiny black mail, fringed with silver rings, and carried a spear bearing a long pennon, flowing in the (assumed) breeze. On the pennon it said: ALL WORK GUARANTEED!
Moira said it looked like a Molly Hatchet album. Aardvark and Wishes laughed; Shane looked at Parmie and shrugged.
Lastly, the driver's side door was covered with an image of a traditional Tarot card, showing a stone tower, struck by lightning, its turret toppling down, two men helplessly falling to the rocks below. Below the picture was the legend "LA MAISON DIEU".
Ronnie said, "I copied a card from this antique deck at Aardvark's house, close as I could. I wanted to replace that French stuff with something like 'We do repairs!' but Aardvark wouldn't have it."
Aardvark leaned back against the side of his truck, his arms crossed. He spoke in low tones, and in a few moments everyone else stopped joking among themselves and listened.
"People've always made up a lot of ways to try and tell fortunes. You can lay out Tarot cards, or toss runes, or, Hell, shuffle a pack of Chance cards from Monopoly. None of those things will tell you what the future is, because nothing will. But they'll all make you look at the past and think about how you got to the present."
He pointed to the painting. "This particular card, The Tower, or the House of God, or whatever you want to call it, is kind of special because, I can guarantee you, it will come true.
"People interpret it in different ways, like representing constructions of the ego that crumble under an emotional breakdown, or a flash of insight that just breaks down your obsolete conceptions, or even the war between lies and the truth. I think it just shows a basic fact of the universe, which is that anything that's built up will eventually come down.
"Whether it's a species built by evolution, or a tower built by the hand of Man—or in the case of Ronnie there, the hand of some nice tall woman—or even just an idea, or a faith, that's built through trials and contemplation ... someday a calamity will befall what's been built, and bring it down.
"Doesn't matter, really, whether it's a natural calamity or human beings. I've been looking at people for a long time, and if you do that you'll spot that destruction is a big part of human nature. More bad stuff, more destruction, happens through neglect or just looking the other way than is ever committed in open hostility. I think that's because most people don't have the guts to express their nature, which is probably a good thing."
He turned to Ronnie. "Hey, Toots, next time you're over, paint something under here." He pointed to the bottom of the painted card. "Leave those words, see, but paint 'BUILD NEW' down under them. Kind of in an arc, like so. But try to make the letters so they look the same as the ones on the card."
He looked at his watch. "I got to get home and make a phone call. Wishes, you mind gettin' that keg back to the store in your fancy Benz?"
Everybody made their goodbyes to Aardvark and drifted back to the yard. Parmelia lingered for a minute with Aardvark. She shook her head. "I'm gonna stop having birthdays."
He stuck a cigarette in his mouth, but didn't light it. "C'mon now, don't do that. Don't ever stop. I think you oughta have at least one birthday every year." He hugged her and smacked her on the butt. "One to grow on."