The music thing turned out to be a birthday party for a friend of the art professor’s, held in the large banquet room of a local hotel. Franny heaved a sigh of relief at the sight of the art professor’s wonderful gray hair and red glasses. Someone to talk to, at least, she thought, as she watched Leo make his way to the stage to set up his equipment. Marilyn, Franny reminded herself. The professor’s name is Marilyn, as in Monroe.
“Hello, dear,” the art professor said. “Delighted to see you here. Do you know the birthday girl?” Marilyn put her hand around Franny’s wrist and pulled her toward a knot of people standing near the bar area. “Penelope! I have a new friend for you to meet.”
The knot gave way and Franny saw a large woman, swathed in a dark maroon cape, holding a glass filled with wine of nearly the same color. “Marilyn,” the large woman who must be Penelope beamed. “Did you get a glass of this wine? Someone recommended it to Smitty, who recommended it to me, and it’s fantastic. And fantastically expensive. It’s my birthday gift to myself, you know. I bought gallons of it.”
“This is Franny.” Marilyn touched Franny’s arm. “She’s new to town, so be gentle, Penelope. Perhaps she would like a glass of your birthday present to yourself?”
“Of course! There’s more than enough for everyone! Glad to meet you, Fran.” Franny clenched her teeth at that version of her name, her least favorite. It sounded like a 1950’s housewife to her. But she forced a smile.
“Happy birthday. Thanks for letting me join the party.”
“Of course! All are welcome. This is my ninth fiftieth birthday party, you know.” Penny winked. “I decided to stay fifty until I turn sixty. Who knows – once I turn sixty, I might decide to stay sixty forever.”
Close enough to shake Penelope’s hand, Franny caught a whiff of sweat covered by perfume, tangy body odor blended with something profoundly chemical. She noticed the beads of perspiration on Penny’s broad forehead and wondered if the woman was drunk or having a hot flash, or simply overcome by the crowded room.
Franny felt another tug on her arm, and Marilyn steered her back to a quieter corner, where they could sit on high stools around a tiny round table. A single white tea candle flickered, providing another layer of perfume to the room’s already stifling atmosphere.
“Penelope is a good sort, really, but beware. You won’t see her best side tonight. She’s already had a few too many glasses of wine, her health is not good, and her sense of humor is rather vicious. Still, she’s been quite generous to me, so I’m happy to celebrate with her.” Marilyn waived over a young waitress with a tray of wineglasses filled with dark liquid. “And she does have marvelous taste in wine, so drink up, dear.” Franny took a glass and ventured a delicate sip. The rich wine slid down her throat with remarkable ease.
“I’m not much of a wine drinker, I’m afraid,” Franny said, taking a longer pull. “But this does seem awfully good.” Her head felt lighter, and the divot of her top lip, right beneath her nose, began to thrum. Franny looked down and realized she’d drained the glass.
“Careful, dear. It can sneak up on you.” Yet Marilyn deftly scooped another goblet from another waitress’s tray and placed the glass in front of Franny. “Meanwhile, between gulps, tell me more about yourself.”
“I’m not sure what to say, exactly,” Franny began. The music started with a loud chord, a bluesy-rock number that Franny could somehow smell as well as hear. But she couldn’t hear anything else, so she and Marilyn leaned back on their stools, sipped (or gulped) the very nice red wine, and listened.