It was a pleasant summer afternoon in Greater Metropolitan Roopville. The morning was crisp and clear, the dew bringing a brighter glow to the already very green grass and the riot of pink and purple pansies. The sky was so blue it was almost painful to behold, so Nancy Sweetanall advised me not to stare up at it. Her practical suggestion startled me into action, and I put the picnic basket she packed into the back of my truck, and away to a picnic we went.
We met Jim Dimity out at the little nature park along one side of Wett Lake. Across the lake, if you squinted in the wintertime when the leaves were off the trees, you would be able to make out the rooftop of the expansive Butterswing mansion. In the summertime you simply had to assume that Titus Butterswing was pacing up on the widow’s walk hidden by the dense foliage, swearing at whatever nincompoop on the other side of “his” lake who donated valuable land to the city and let Just Anyone go there.
Jim Dimity already had his My-T-Fine grill set up and the charcoal briquettes were bright red, not quite at the dusty gray Burn Them Burgers stage. The city might have set up the park but it didn’t pay for good or useful grills. The ones they offered up were a sort of bastardized pizza-oven-and-Weber hybrid, and served no useful purpose other than giving drunk college boys something to aim at during overnight weekend parties when the beer was low and the urge to pee was high. The only people who used the city grills were new-in-towns who didn’t know any better.
Nancy and I had been dating for several months. To our delight we discovered we liked a lot of the same things, and that extended to our part in the picnic offerings: mustard-based potato salad, a gallon of boneless Buffalo chicken fingers, a vegetable dip plate from what I estimated was the biggest freaking garden known to man, my very best flavored homemade goat cheese, and big fat juicy fruit chunks suspended in enough jello to float a battleship. Jim was in charge of hamburgers and brats. Judge Butler and his lovely wife were providing drinks which meant already iced-down beer, wine coolers, soda, and bottled water.
It was supposed to be the five of us plus Junior and Daphne Butterswing, but they were not sure they could come, as their darling daughter Justine Butterswing was moving into her first apartment prior to taking on her first job as a buyer for Macy’s department stores. When Justine went off to college, it took Junior and Daphne three days to help her move into her dormitory room, decorate said room, attend important mixers and plan for Rush Week. Junior came back looking like hell and Daphne was exhausted, which meant Justine got into the sorority she wanted. They would be in no shape to come to a picnic unless they rented her furniture, had big strong men deliver the furniture, or Junior could wade his way through an IKEA schematic.
I mean, my God. Who can read their way through an IKEA schematic with a high-maintenance daughter and a perfectionist wife breathing over his shoulder? Not Junior, that’s for sure. The trouble was, they were going to provide dessert.
“Well, uh, actually I ran into someone at the store while I was picking up my stuff and, er, she offered to provide the dessert. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Who?” Nancy asked. I couldn’t bring myself to ask. I was afraid he was going to name his sister Sally, who was extremely pissed off to know Nancy and I were a couple. She had been mad at me ever since she thought I had a thing for Mrs. Viola Hassendoodle, which I didn’t. Jim’s answer was worse than I thought, however.
“Mrs. Viola Hassendoodle,” he said without looking up from the grill.
“Oh SHIT Jim,” I said automatically.
“Well she looked kinda lonely, pushing her empty shopping cart around. I didn’t think you’d mind, I mean Nancy is her friend and you’re not her enemy anymore, Truman. Not that you ever were,” he quickly amended.
“I think that’s wonderful, Jim,” Nancy said with hearty approval.
“Oh, whatever,” I grumbled as I climbed into the back of my truck to unload our part of the picnic.
Nancy spread a plastic tablecloth on the nearby picnic table and held it in place with four C clamps at the corners. “It’s not exactly a Southern Living cover idea, but it’ll work,” she told me. I thought it was a great idea and was about to say so, when two cars pulled into the park at the same time and nearly collided.
It was Judge Butler’s convertible Spyder and Viola Hassendoodle’s pink Cadillac. Judge went ahead and parked next to my truck, and Viola took the next space. She bounded out of the car and carried on as if she had not narrowly avoided a neck brace.
“Well hi everyone! Isn’t this just a fine day, a fine, FINE day!” she cooed and billed to one and all. Her tight, pale yellow capri pants flared at the hems, which meant they were indeed capri pants and not sprayed-on latex paint. Neon yellow flip-flops with plastic daisies adorned her feet. She wore an orange scoop-neck crop-top and a multi-colored scarf held back her riotous, almost mutinous newly-auburn curls.
“Miss Hassendoodle,” Judge Butler graciously replied as he helped his wife out of the passenger side, “May I introduce my wife, Shana. Shana, you remember Truman and Jim… and Miss Nancy Sweetanall.”
“I am charmed,” Shana responded in a voice like a whisper. She wore cargo shorts and a Peachtree Road Race tee shirt from last year’s race. Her long brown hair was shiny with just a scant few hints of grey here and there. There was no doubt by the look on Judge Butler’s face that there was no other woman on earth to compare with his lovely Shana. She seldom ventured out in public, preferring to work on her art projects at home. She was an honest-to-goodness artist who sculpted and painted, and not just someone who glued odd items together and spray-painted them as instructed by a Good Housekeeping article, to warn off boredom.
Nancy subconsciously tidied her own windblown blonde ponytail and smoothed the front of her plaid blouse and jeans shorts, gazing at the woman we rarely ever saw in person with something akin to awe. I reached over and stroked Nancy’s cheek with my fingertips, and smiled at her when she glanced my way. She smiled back and resumed setting the table.
The Butlers unloaded coolers of bottles and dry ice. Mrs. Viola carried over a three-foot wide cardboard box and hefted it up on a picnic bench.
“When Jim told me about the party I said what could I bring, and he said desserts with an ‘S’ so that told me Plural,” she chattered a mile a minute as she emptied the box, in sharp contrast to the silent Shana. “I didn’t know what all everyone liked, so I just got a little of everything the bakery had to offer. I hope you don’t mind store-bought goodies but I simply had no time to make anything from home.” In her hurry she fumbled a little as she unpacked a chocolate silk pie, a lemon meringue pie, a German chocolate cake and little vanilla ice cream cups, the kind with little wooden spoons they serve as a special treat in schools and hospitals.
Shana Butler’s eyes lit up. “I remember those,” she purred. “My fourth grade teacher gave us an end-of-the-year party and we had those little cups. It was the best party I attended as a child.”
“We always got them during Vacation Bible School,” Viola said, delighted at the unexpected response.
“Mama called them Company Treats because she only served them when guests visited,” Nancy added.
The judge and I left the ladies to chat about ice cream, and joined Jim at the grill.
“What, ah…” Judge Butler murmured.
“Junior said he might not come, and I guess I let it slip at the store that I was getting stuff for a picnic,” Jim hissed in a huff. “Any objections?”
“No, no. I’m sure we will have a delightful time – oh dear Jesus on a stick.” I followed his gaze as his voice changed from amused to alarmed, just about the time Junior Butterswing’s Prius pulled into the last parking space in the area. We could see Junior’s wide eyes even from way over at the grill.
“Well, I’m probably the last person anyone expected to see,” Viola grumbled to Nancy. “I supposed I’m the fifth wheel for sure, now.”
Shana raised her hand and made a brief “come join us” gesture. Junior and Daphne emerged from the Prius like wary coyotes approaching a beefsteak that just “happened” to be sitting on a woodland trail. They were loaded down with cheesecake, Key Lime pie and that kind of dessert that incorporates marshmallows, chocolate chunks and some sort of cream – every home in the South serves it at some time or another, and every family has its own version. The Butterswing version was hazardously decadent.
“Why, this is handy,” Judge Butler noted as Junior joined us by the grill. “We’re an even number.”
Jim glanced at him before darting a quick look at Viola Hassendoodle. She was nervously chattering about her recent visit to the beauty parlor where she got her auburn locks and freshly-adorned nails. Daphne was Sphinx-like as always, coolly observing but saying nothing, but Shana and Nancy joined forces to put Viola at ease. They smiled at Viola’s tale, until Shana finally managed to counter Daphne’s Sphinx with her own Mona Lisa. You might say, they Out-Mysterious’ed each other into a draw.
“If you tell me Ray Bob Hassendoodle is here too, I’m going to swim across the lake and beg Daddy to beat me with an oar until I go under,” Junior whispered.
“What are you worried about? I’m the one Ray Bob turned into a raccoon, on your account I might add,” I replied. “And no, big brother isn’t here. Jim just invited Viola, that’s all.”
“They make a nice couple,” Judge added. “Jim’s single, and Viola’s currently single. Jim’s a fifth-generation Southerner, and Viola’s a seventh-generation Southerner who is generous to upstart newcomers like Jim. Jim’s an attorney, and Viola is familiar with a courthouse from every possible angle.”
At that moment Viola happened to look Jim’s way, and with a flicker of her eyeliner-and-mascara enhanced eye, winked at him. Jim could not stop the smile the came to his face any more than he could stop the blush from rising from his chest to his hairline.
Junior’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh, you fool,” he told Jim. “You are in for it, now. She’ll get her hooks into you and you will become Mr. Viola the Seventh.”
“Two words of advice, James,” Judge Butler intoned, albeit with a grin on his face. “Pre Nup.”
Jim blithely invited both Junior and the Judge to attempt an uncomfortable solo sex act, and called for a beer. “Let’s get this party started.” He looked at me and gave a carefree shrug of the shoulders.
It’s going to be a long hot summer, evidently.