Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 3:
A Bona Fide Surprise
Standing downwind of Tater, I can smell the boy coming before he rounds the corner. Brut aftershave, just like his daddy. Good thing he’s not out deer hunting today. With all them 12-pointers roaming the woods–if Billy Chisholm’s stories are to be believed, and I’m not entirely sure that they are–Tater might get himself ambushed by a couple of bucks looking to turn the tables.
Also like his daddy, Tater is usually to be found sleeping at this hour. The fact that he’s mobile right now makes me even more worried about this “surprise” he’s hollering about. Lord, I hope Madge’s little pill kicks in soon.
And there he is. I tell you what: if the sun’s in your eyes and you squint real hard, you might confuse Tater with a young Brad Pitt. Though of course, Brad doesn’t have quite so many tattoos. And I can’t recall ever seeing Brad in a jumpsuit like the mechanic’s kind that Tater wears (something I’ve never understood because my son barely knows how to put gas in a car, let alone change the oil). And Brad has more money to spend on haircuts, I’m sure. If I’ve offered to tidy up that mess on Tater’s head once, I’ve offered a thousand times, but he just waves his hand at me and says it’s his “signature look”, whatever that means. All I know is, if that’s his signature, the boy needs to work on his penmanship.
But underneath the hair and the jumpsuit and the tattoos and the aftershave, Tater’s handsome as can be. That’s not just a proud mama talking, either. All the girls at the Everlasting Arms have taken a liking to Tater at one point or other. Most of the ladies, too. And the men. In fact, the only people who’ve never seemed all that interested in Tater are Rhonda and Jolene, them ol’ spinsters two rows over. Oh well, I suppose that’s more Tater for the others.
Today, Tater’s got an awful funny spring in his step. And I don’t mean ha-ha funny, no siree. It’s about as close to skipping as a McGunkle man, woman, or child has ever come. And on top of that, he’s smiling. Something’s wrong with the boy, I can tell it. I decide to plop down in my lawn chair before he tells me he done converted to Catholicism or something worse.
“Merry Christmas, mama!”, he says, leaning over to hug my neck. The huge jingle bell on top of his TG&Y Santa hat comes perilously close to my right eye–that’s my good eye, mind you–but it misses, so I don’t mention anything. “Merry Christmas, daddy,” he says to Earl, who’s still sound asleep.
“Merry Christmas,” I say, trying not to sound as nervous as a turkey the day before Thanksgiving. “You’re awful early for the barbecue, ain’t you? I hadn’t even had time to put away my groceries.” As I say it, I realize that I never shoved that ice cream in Earl’s cooler like I meant to, and it’s still sitting on the ground at my feet. I lean over and pick it up, but the box is soft as a marshmallow. Nothing but cream now. Oh, well, I suppose pound cake for dessert will have to be enough. I toss the container into Earl’s cooler, hoping the ice will keep it from spoiling too much further.
“Any beer in there?”, Tater asks.
“No, I’m afraid your mama has had a long day, and she took the last one. I would’ve stopped by Darrell Jeffcoats’ house to see about buying a couple of six-packs offa him, but with the holiday traffic, I was in no mood at all. Maybe you could run over and see him for me?”
“Well, mama, I’d love to,” he says, and I can hear the big “but” in his voice plain as day, “but my car died right when I pulled in. Ran out of gas, I think.”
Thirty-four years old and can’t read a dang gas gauge. Don’t that beat all? I sigh to myself and say, “I suppose you can borrow mine, if you like. I’m running low, too, though, so be sure to put some in the tank.”
“Well, mama, I’d love to,” he says, sounding like a broken recording of “I’m Sorry” by the one and only Miss Brenda Lee, “but…”
“…but you don’t have any money, do you?”
“I get paid a week from Tuesday.”
“Lord, son”, I say, trying to control myself on the eve of the Baby Jesus’ birthday. “That’s nearly two weeks from now. I’d have thought you’d be earning a little more, seeing as how you’re the tater tot expert at the county’s only Sonic drive-in restaurant.”
“That’s not my real title, mama. They just call me that on account of my name.”
“Oh”, I say, mostly to myself. I probably should’ve figured that out, shouldn’t I? “Still, they pay you, don’t they, son? With money and all?”
“Yes ma’am,” he says, looking down at his half-tied shoelaces. “They pay me okay, but I had some extra expenses this month, you know.”
“Didn’t we, though? Your mama knows as well as anybody that Christmas presents don’t come cheap.” I can’t help but notice that Tater’s hands are as empty as his gas tank. If the boy’s spent money on gifts, he’s not showering me with ‘em.
“There’s that,” Tater says, “and there’s something else.”
Oh, lord, here it comes. “You mean the ‘surprise’ you were shouting about?”, I ask, sitting back down and gripping the arms of my chair like the sides of the roller coaster at Six Flags. Tater nods. “Son, you know I done told you about the proper use of contraceptives. Remember the banana and the Playtex Living Glove we fiddled with?”
“Mama, it’s not like that. This time.” He looks at the ground again, as embarrassed as I’ve ever seen the boy. “I know this might come as a shock to you, but, well…I’m in love.”
He’s right: I am shocked. Feels like a bolt of lightning done hit me right between the eyes. And got my tongue, too.
You see, McGunkle men are all alike, and Tater’s a McGunkle down to his toenails. His well of emotions runs about as deep and wet as a shotglass during a summer drought. That ain’t to say that he doesn’t have feelings–he does. But like his daddy, those feelings are usually limited to anger when State misses a field goal or jubilation when he wins a drag race out on Route 32 and manages not to get ticketed by Sheriff Lloyd. And though I haven’t seen it myself thank goodness, I’d imagine that Tater’s also prone to the occasional bout of lust. (His daddy really knows how to woo a gal when he’s in the mood, and I’m sure the apple don’t fall far from the tree.)
But love? That is a word that is reserved for special occasions. Like, “I’d love me some more mashed potatoes, please”, or “I tell you what: I love me a cold beer on a hot day!” When speaking about things of a romantic nature, McGunkles use the word “love” sparingly, if at all.
And that’s why I’m sitting in a lawn chair with my mouth hanging open like the world’s laziest bullfrog trying to catch flies. Tater’s waiting for some kind of response from me, so I blurt out the first thing that comes to mind: “With who?”
“Why, Sally Ann, of course! Who’d you think, mama?”
I try to regain my composure. “Well, naturally, I assumed it was gonna be Sally Ann. I’m just making sure.”
“You feeling alright, mama?”
Truth be told, I’m feeling better than I’ve felt all week, thanks to Madge’s pharmaceutical assistance and a couple of swigs of beer. I don’t wanna tell Tater that, though. I’m trying to set an example. “I’m just fine, son. It’s you I’m worried about.”
“Me? Why on earth are you worried about me?”
“Well, how do I put this, Tater?” I pause for a second, choosing my words as carefully as I can. “Are you sure you’re ready for marriage?”
“Mama, I’m 34. If I ain’t ready now….” He shrugs his shoulders and gives me a look to finish the sentence.
“It’s not that, sugar, it’s just, well, I knew you and Sally Ann had feelings for one another. And I got no problem with y’all living together–not one tiny little bit. I just didn’t imagine that y’all would ever get hitched.”
“Well,” I sigh, tired of tiptoeing around the topic. At this rate, I won’t get to my point ‘til about Easter. Might as well dive in. “To be honest, Tater, neither of you seem like the marrying type. At least not right now.”
“What on earth are you talking about, mama?”
I open another lawn chair for Tater–the red one with the tricky back leg–and he plops down next to me. “You see, some people are done sowing their wild oats when they hit 20. Others don’t finish until they’re 30. You and Sally Ann, though? To me, it looks like y’all had a bumper crop, and you ain’t gonna get through your first bushel ‘til you start drawing Social Security.”
Tater waves his hand like he’s swatting at a fly. “Oh, mama, that’s ‘cause you don’t see me every day. It may look like we party a lot, but me and Sally Ann, we’ve talked about it, and we’re ready to settle down. Calpurnia said she’s thinking about making me a day manager, which’d mean I’d have to get to work at the butt-crack of dawn, which means I’d have to cut back on my drinkin’. Well, probably. And Sally Ann’s looking for work so she can support Sierra Britney’s career–them pageant gowns cost a fortune, like a hundred bucks each!–so she’s ready to become a career woman. I promise you, mama: we’re ready.”
He leans back in the chair and almost tips over but manages to catch himself. The boy forgets about the broken leg of a lawn chair he’s been sitting in for thirty years, but he thinks he ready for marriage? Lord, give me strength.
Then again, I can’t say Earl and I were any more mature when we got hitched. We were a heck of a lot younger than Tater and Sally Ann, too. And we made it work, I reckon. Besides, if there’s one thing I learned from being a parent, it’s that the worst thing you can tell a child is “no”. Unless they’re sticking their finger in a wall socket or about to sit in a pile of fire ants. Then “no” will suffice.
“All right, Tater. If you think you’re ready.”
“I am, mama. Believe me. I even got the ring. That’s what I done spent all my money on.” He starts fishing in his back pocket–to show me the ring, I assume–but he just pulls out his usual container of Skoal.
“Tater, please don’t do that out here. I’m already way behind on cleaning up, and the last thing I need is little wads of tobacco spit everywhere.” He just gives me a smile and opens the box, and there’s the ring. It’s nothing Liz Taylor would’ve ever worn–may she rest in peace–far too small for that. But it looks like a diamond, I guess. And hopefully, the band is real gold and not something that’ll turn Sally Ann’s hand green as a new tomato. Given Tater’s limited means, I’d say the boy done pretty good.
“My word, Tater. That’s just beautiful. She’s gonna love it. But why on earth are you keeping it in a tobacco tin? Didn’t they give you a gift box or something?”
“I want it to be a surprise,” he says. Tonight at the barbecue, Sierra Britney’s gonna do a little dance number, and she’s going to finish by tossing this to Sally Ann. You don’t think a little contact with a flaming baton’ll hurt it, do you?”
“Maybe she should just hand it to her, old fashioned-like.” Sierra Britney doesn’t have much apart from the massive hands Madge was talking about and a distinct lack of coordination. The girl can barely avoid running into parked cars. I shudder to think what she’ll do with a moving object that’s on fire.
“You’re probably right. Sierra and I will work out the details later. Anyway, I’m glad you approve. I promise, we’ll make you proud.”
“Your daddy and I just want y’all to be happy,” I say, looking at Earl for some nod of approval, but he’s still slumped over in his chair next to the grill. I stand up, my mind setting the wedding aside and moving on to more pressing matters–namely, getting ready for tonight’s party. “We’ll celebrate with y’all later, but right now, I got to get these groceries inside and start cleaning up. You think you can run over to Darrell’s for some beer? He told me last week he was gonna make a run to London for a few cases.”
“No trouble at all, mama–provided you can pay for it. And I can borrow your car.”
I reach into my purse and pull out my keys and my last twenty dollar bill. “Here you go. Put five dollars worth of gas in the car, and spend the rest on beer. And please don’t start drinking it before you get back. You know Lloyd’s got his men out in full force, and they’re looking to write some tickets. Gotta hit them quotas before the new year rolls around”
“Yes, mama, I know, I know.” Tater looks over my shoulder, and his eyes get as big as dinner plates. “I’ll be back before you know it!” And with that, he takes off running in the opposite direction, leaving me to wonder what’s gotten into him.
Two seconds later, I figure it out, when I turn and see the owner of the Everlasting Arms, Ephraim Stouge, shuffling down the row.
“Grenadine McGunkle!” he shouts, though he’s no more than ten feet away. “I need a word with you!”