The Judge, the Ruler, the Martyr, and the Destroyer decided to plan a birthday party for their father who was turning 85. The Judge (who didn’t like her nickname but had given her sisters theirs so she just had to deal with it) offered to host the party. But she complained so much about the condition of her house that the Martyr stepped up and offered to do it instead. Everyone took her up on it. The Judge chose a date, but the Ruler declared it impossible for her family, so the date was changed. Then the Ruler pointed out the effect of coming from Eastern to Central time and its impact on her daughters’ nap and bed times, and the time was changed from 6:30 to 5:00 p.m. The Judge pointed out that she was always rather demanding about things.
The Destroyer said, “Just tell me when and where—oh, and what to bring.”
The rest said, “Uh-huh,” and to each other said, “As if she’d remember.” She was put in charge of balloons and a card to minimize the damage she could do.
The Ruler was not assigned any job. She had enough to deal with, frankly. She was driving in from Charlotte with her new dog and her two kids and her sweet husband in their Acura sport utility vehicle packed like a space station ready for orbit. This was springtime after all, and who knew what the weather might do? They would need clothes for every possible temperature, and allergy medicine, mustn’t forget that.
The Martyr agreed to take care of music, flowers, and food. Her whole-house renovation had just been completed. The place had an echoing quality thanks to the lack of window treatments, carpets, and artwork. The furniture arrangement seemed tentative. Yet the party would show the relatives where to find her now that she and her husband and child had moved back in-state after so many years away. And the house had such nice flow for entertaining. The four big rooms, dining room and living room, kitchen and den, were all open to each other and set up in a big rectangle. Kids could run in a continuous loop through them, and party guests could avoid each other. See someone entering the far end of the living room? Slip through the door of the dining room into the kitchen. The door closed between the kitchen and dining room to hide any mess that might be visible.
The Judge had heart palpitations and the sweats over seating assignments, table centerpieces, and invitations. She didn’t trust her sisters, but she could at least tell the Martyr what to do. No guarantee anything would get done the way it should, but, oh well.
The day of the party arrived.
The Judge and the Martyr’s silver, china, and crystal gleamed on top of white linen tablecloths which amply draped tables on the screened porch, in the dining room, and in the kitchen. Spring flower arrangements were carefully displayed on the living room mantel and the chest in the entrance hall. Chicken casseroles and biscuits baked in the new gas ovens, sending warm, hospitable aromas through the house. Pitchers of iced tea and water sweated next to a crystal bowl of lemon slices. A salad, meticulously assembled by the Ruler, was tossed, dressed, and sitting on the buffet.
The Ruler moved among the tables adjusting the placement of the water glasses and changing the fold of the thick white napkins. She had a snappy, Jackie-O appearance. Her children were at her parents’ house with her husband. They would all arrive soon. The thought made her jaw clench.
The Martyr and the Judge were in the kitchen talking about how successful the Judge’s centerpieces were. They featured photographs from their Father’s life. A burst blood vessel marred the white in one of the Judge’s large brown eyes; she pressed her fingers into the soft space beneath and pressed upward. A bit of gray showed in her auburn hair. She studied the back of the Martyr’s head, trying to see if she was coloring her strawberry blonde hair. It was growing out; apparently, she had decided to try a new look as she crept up on fifty. It would get bigger, not longer, unless she paid a lot for straightening. That would be a silly expense. People mistook them for each other. The Martyr was skinnier, her eyes were a different color, but they had different shades of the same cap of thick, wavy hair. If one of them grew it out, mix-ups would not happen as often.
The Judge realized the Martyr wanted her to leave the kitchen.
She asked, “Can you remember what time you put the rolls in?”
The Martyr’s shoulders dropped, “No! Do you?”
The Judge did in fact. “You let yourself get too distracted,” she scolded.
The Destroyer was late, as usual.
The guests arrived. Old aunts and uncles carried canes or trailed oxygen tanks. Cousins flashed diamonds bestowed by not-yet-dead, oxygen-dependent mothers. The younger cousins, teenagers mostly, appeared preemptively bored as they followed their parents in and exchanged hugs all around.
Shalimar perfume announced the arrival of the Martyr’s namesake–the one who always gave her two Christmas gifts. The Ruler and the Judge greeted her with extra warmth but rolled their eyes at each other behind her back.
The Destroyer arrived, acting more like a guest than a hostess, but was greeted enthusiastically by her younger sister, the Ruler, whom she had not seen in simply ages. The Destroyer’s son had a massive digital camera slung around his neck. She held one Mylar balloon that said “Birthday Boy.” She tied it to her father’s chair at the head of the dining room table, before pouring herself a nice glass of chilled Chardonnay.
The Judge looked at the Martyr and muttered, “Typical.”
The Martyr shrugged, “At least there’s no bizarre-o stranger with her today. Where would he sit?” She went to help her aunt down the steps to a table on the back porch.
There was no birthday card in sight, and no one mentioned it.
After the lunch buffet, the Martyr put out a caramel cake commissioned from a local lady who knew how to do caramel icing properly. While her sisters were rounding up guests to sing “Happy Birthday,” the Destroyer slipped into the kitchen and stuck 85 candles into the cake and lit them. When the Judge came to carry it into the dining room, the Destroyer was standing by, holding the fire extinguisher she had found in the pantry. Her son shot pictures. As the doors to the dining room opened, laughter and gasps greeted the sight. A particularly alert and indiscreet cousin pointed out that the oxygen tank next to the birthday boy’s sister might blow. The 85-year-old birthday boy mustered adequate breath to extinguish all the candles in one try. Everyone applauded and sighed with relief. The fire extinguisher was placed next to the centerpiece, and the Judge frowned at her spoiled tablescape. The top of the cake looked as if it had been plowed under by the time all the candles were removed, but the birthday boy was beaming and bragging over blowing them out. The Martyr was frowning at the cake, but just a little bit.
After eating dessert, most everyone gathered in the living room around the birthday boy—his chair was slid in, across the brightly polished floor from the dining room. The Martyr believed in storytelling, and the Ruler wanted her girls to hear some family tales. All were asked to share favorite memories. A fire would have completed the cozy family scene, but it was early spring and too warm. The Martyr stood back and listened. She wished for a tape recorder as her older cousins shared tales of her Father, the birthday boy. They called him by his nickname, “The Slammer,” described him as “intense,” and recalled his helpful intervention when it came to finding jobs right out of college. The old aunts and uncles recalled chores on the farm and childhood stunts involving blazing bad language at a precocious age.
The cameraman son of the Destroyer cast anxious glances toward the street, so the Martyr became suspicious and positioned herself to watch the front walk.
A young woman in scrubs got out of a Volkswagon Beetle and approached the house. Her hair was in a surgical cap, and a surgical mask covered half her face. She carried a large leather duffel, similar in shape to a doctor’s bag. She also carried a giant envelope. The Destroyer’s son zoomed in his camera on her and took several pictures. The Martyr nudged the Ruler in the ribs and pointed through the window. The Ruler’s eyes darted around the room and caught on the Destroyer’s face. A defiant fire was burning there. With a nod, the Martyr was directed to notice it. They all three looked toward the Judge as the doorbell rang. Her eyes narrowed. The cameraman answered and stepped aside without a word. The Destroyer was his mother, after all; he knew his role in this.
As previously instructed, the young lady went straight for the man in the Birthday Boy-balloon chair. She put down the card and the bag.
“Hello! My name is Nurse Trina. I’m here to offer my prognosis for your happiness, birthday boy!” She ran her hand down his cheek, across his chest, and down his arm.
“Oh my goodness, I’ll never get him home again,” said the Mother from nearby.
Looks were exchanged around the room. The Martyr’s husband turned off the stereo, and the room fell into silence.
Trina opened the bag. Balloons floated toward the ceiling, and music blared from a boom box inside. The birthday boy jumped in his seat. His feet flew out and his hands grabbed the armrests. He was playing things up for comic effect. He was the Destroyer’s father, after all. The Ruler’s little girls began to bat at the balloons, which snapped their mother out of her shocked state of frozen animation. She stepped forward and herded them out of the room with great authority. Her head darted about as she looked for her husband. She would like to delegate this to him instead. He was entering the dining room from the kitchen with the fresh drink she had requested, as she and the girls left the living room and entered the kitchen through den.
“Doctor! Doctor! Give me the news! I gotta…BAD CASE of lovin’… you!” Nurse Trina’s body whipped in time to the music. She slung a stethoscope around her neck and stood up with a stick of peppermint in her hand.
“Say aaah!” she directed the birthday boy.
She popped the peppermint stick into his mouth. He smiled around it and lifted his eyebrows at the audience. The Ruler’s husband was standing at the back of the dining room holding two drinks and looking for his wife and daughters. Trina tore away her mask and tossed aside the cap, slinging her silky black hair out at the fair-haired crowd. She danced. She ripped off her tear-away scrubs.
“Oh!” said many in the room. “Ah!”
The Ruler heard this from behind the closed door of the kitchen where she had opened up her sister’s craft cabinet and started the girls on making a card for their grandfather.
“Mom, what is that lady doing to Slam-Daddy?” asked the youngest.
“Nothing dear, giving him a card,” her mother smiled. She knew she was needed in there to sort this out. Where was her husband? As it happens, he was just on the other side of the closed door between the kitchen and dining room. He put down the drinks he was holding to clap in time to the music. He stepped toward the living room.
At the far end of the living room, the Martyr felt a small crowd form at her elbow. Some of the younger cousins had been drawn into the room by the commotion. She glanced at Rebecca, who stood next to her, and whispered.
“A little. Especially since that’s my roommate and my costume.”
The stripper was taking her time, giving the room a moment to take in her bare skin and bright white bikini with the Red Cross on the butt. The Martyr looked back at her young cousin. She took in her tanning-bed complexion and oddly magenta-colored hair. She recalled the peek-a-boo tattoo Rebecca had flashed one night at a family reunion; it was right at the bikini line. The girl had a pit bull named Marley, after Bob.
“Oh,” said the Martyr. Rebecca was a stripper. After a moment of blank numbness, her impulse to be hospitable gave her an idea. She whispered, “Can we offer her some cake?”
“We can offer,” her cousin giggled. She flashed heavily made up eyes. The Martyr realized Rebecca looked just like her Mama when she smiled. Her Mama was older than the Martyr and all her sisters. She had been the Judge’s favorite cousin, glamorous and kind. Back in the 70s, she rolled up her long blonde hair with orange juice cans to get big bouncy curls. The Judge had worshiped her but had not been allowed to wear as much eye makeup and of course could do nothing with her hair. The Martyr looked at Rebecca’s mother. Poor thing was sitting rigid on the couch, digging her nails into her husband’s leg. The Martyr caught her eye and gave her a wink. The Mama’s eyes widened and her hand unclenched a bit; her husband looked down and patted it with gratitude. He was setting an example for everyone in the room, clapping and laughing: This is how you act when a stripper shows up at your party. He couldn’t say out loud: I wish all the parties these girls stripped at were like this one. He couldn’t look at Rebecca either.
The birthday stripper straddled the Father’s lap to listen to his heart and check his ears. A full examination of his eyes, scalp, chest, and back followed. She coaxed him to his feet and used him as her dance pole, putting one foot and then the other up on the seat of the chair behind him. He was happy to cooperate with all instructions. When she shimmied around behind him, she caught sight of Rebecca. The Martyr saw the recognition in her eyes and rigidness in her expression that lasted only a moment. Trina was clearly surprised to see Rebecca here. Trina nodded slightly at Rebecca, or it may have been a toss of her hair. The next thing the Martyr was focused on was a red cross.
Behind her father, from the dining room, the Judge looked on with pursed lips. Her Father would be embarrassed and angry. She was not going to pay for this; a five-dollar talking Hallmark card was what they had in mind, not this indecent display. Her ears were buzzing a little. She felt light-headed. It was her blood pressure. She put out her hand to steady herself. The room went black for a moment. She blundered toward the door to the kitchen and bumped into the Ruler’s husband. “Sorry, just need to sit down…” she muttered, as she pushed through the door.
The Ruler turned to see her oldest sister enter, white faced and blank eyed. She pulled out a bar stool at the end of the kitchen counter and had her sit.
“I know,” she said and patted the Judge’s back.
“I think I am having a stroke,” said the Judge.
“Stick out your tongue,” said the Ruler.
“Move it left, now right, now up, now down.”
She was able.
“What day is it?”
“I don’t feel like it.” She forced a fake smile. The Ruler was watching her face carefully.
“You aren’t having a stroke, you’re just…pissed,” the Ruler leaned close and whispered the last word, but her girls heard her anyway. They looked at her and at each other, then went back to coloring. They were sitting on the floor.
“True. She’s ruined everything as usual. Dad will be mortified.”
“We can kill her later. Don’t get too worked up. What’s done is done. Have some water,” the Ruler said. It was her final solution for most emotional things. She got a glass and filled it at the refrigerator dispenser. The Judge lifted her chin from her hands and took it. The Martyr entered the kitchen through the den in a hurry.
“That’s Rebecca’s roommate dancing.” She shook her head and waved her hands, talking over her sisters’ angry exclamations about the Destroyer. They stopped talking.
“Our Rebecca?” asked the Judge, she was thinking of her favorite cousin, Rebecca’s Mama.
The Martyr nodded, a crease between her eyes.
“She’s wearing Rebecca’s costume,” she added, glancing at the children.
All three went to the door of the dining room and pushed through for a good view. The little girls stretched out on their bellies and colored furiously to finish the last bits of their pictures, then followed, unnoticed.
On the last beat of the song, the dancer held out the oversized birthday card. She was looking back at the birthday boy, upside down, her long hair brushing the floor between her stilettos. The card was popped out there between her legs in his direction. When he took it, she twisted upright and announced happily, arms spread above her head, “Prognosis excellent! I’ll come back in a year, unless you need me sooner.” She gave him an exaggerated wink punctuated with a bow that stuck her butt out in the opposite direction one more time.
Everyone clapped; some politely, others enthusiastically. The men stood up. The Destroyer whooped out a few “woos.” Rebecca and the Martyr stepped forward from opposite sides and put their hands on Nurse Trina’s bare arms. The Martyr was so glad the girl had not taken off her bikini; it was flimsy enough. She wondered if strippers exercised judgment depending on setting. Maybe she decided to keep some clothes on when she saw Rebecca and realized she was at her family’s party.
Rebecca took a deep breath and said, “Everyone, this is Trina, my roommate. Trina, this is my family, and this is my great uncle, The Slammer. ” She held out her hand at the red-faced, 85-year-old birthday boy. Her arm was long and lanky; it swung loose and free like a limb about to break loose in a thunderstorm.
“Hey, y’all!” said Trina.
Rebecca’s Mama knew conclusions were rapidly being drawn about her baby girl’s current occupation, but she held up her head and stepped forward to give Trina a hug, “Hey girl, how’ve you been?” she asked in her best high-pitched, happy-to-see-you squeal. It was almost as if none of this was a horrible surprise.
“Would you like a piece of cake?” asked the Martyr. She handed Trina her tear-away scrubs top, which she had scooped up with the toe of her pump.
The father began to laugh.
“I thought I set out to a birthday party and stumbled into a wake,” he half-shouted, “but this is a sho-nuf party!” He clapped his hands once loudly.
The Judge looked at him with wide eyes then stared at the floor and straightened her spine.
The Martyr smiled and handed off Trina to the Ruler, who led her to the dining room table. The Ruler helped Trina get her top on, put refreshments in her hands, and stayed at her side to make sure conversation remained appropriate. The Destroyer’s son followed them with his camera, unable to resist obvious contrasts.
The Judge began to marvel at her family’s grasp of the meaning of Southern Hospitality. Her headache was beginning to clear. She maneuvered herself next to Rebecca’s Mama and said not a word as she looked at the split ends of the beloved long blonde tresses.
The Destroyer was restless; she stood next to her father laughing loudly and slapping him on the back. The Martyr whispered something to her husband, and he slipped a CD of The Glenn Miller Orchestra into the stereo. It had been on stand-by, as they knew it was the birthday boy’s favorite. Storytelling was finished. Trumpet blasts and swing rhythm took over the atmosphere. The Father leered a little and his body automatically crouched into jitterbug posture. The Destroyer grabbed his hand, and he swung her out and away from him.
“Bare floors are perfect for stripping and jitterbugging,” she announced, as she step-touch, step-touch, toe-touched to the beat. Her son turned the flash on and caught some action shots of the dancers.
The Martyr’s husband asked the Mother to dance, and she declined but requested a vodka-tonic “With a little lime, please.”
In the dining room, the Ruler’s girls looked at Trina’s bikini bottoms and long, tanned legs from behind their mother. They held their crayon drawings and were quiet, for once. Their father had disappeared into the kitchen after receiving a severe look from their mother.
Trina danced with the birthday boy when she finished her cake.
“Mama, why does that lady not have any pants on?” asked the Ruler’s eldest daughter.
“That’s just a really short dress, honey,” said the Ruler, and she spun her daughter into a jitterbug twirl. The youngest daughter took her pants off and struck elaborate dance poses. Everyone ignored her, except the Destroyer’s cameraman son and her mother whose lips remained in a tight-lipped smile.
The Judge appeared at the Martyr’s shoulder. They were watching the Destroyer teach Rebecca to jitterbug.
“That bitch stole the show again,” she grumbled.
“Nah, we are just really good at delegating. We put her in charge of the card and balloons. Remember?”
Frances Beck is a native of Birmingham who moved away for many years, worked in the publishing business, and returned. She is currently an MA candidate in the Creative Writing program at UAB.