Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 4:
A Fly in the Ornament
Sugar, let me tell you something: Ephraim Stouge is not the kind of person you want to visit with before your first cup of coffee. If you’re one of those poor, lost souls that believes in decaf, you might never want to face the man, lord help you.
First off, Mr. Stouge is loud. Everything he does, it sounds like somebody’s dropping an atom bomb two doors down. You ever seen the movie Showgirls? Earl and me went to have a look at it years ago, over at the dollar theatre. Stickiest floors I ever done walked on in my life, and after the movie was over, I knew why. Thank the heavens my mama and daddy have passed on to their great reward, because I couldn’t live with myself, thinking that they might’ve found out that I paid good money to sit and watch nearly three godless hours of pure-D smut. I know it was only a dollar, but it’s the principle, you understand.
Anyway. You know that actress who stars in it, that blonde that dances a lot nowadays? The one in the movie who just stomps around and throws things and yells at people out of the blue, like even the tiniest little speck of cloud in the sky is enough to set her off? Well, that’s Mr. Stouge to a tee. Though thankfully, I can’t picture the man doing any of those girly-show dance moves from the film. The thought alone is enough to send me off to the looney bin. Or the grave.
Second, Mr. Stouge is…well, to call the man unpleasant to look at is probably the kindest thing anyone’s done for him all year. His teeth make the Yellow Pages look the color of the pearly gates. The top of his head is like a pecan orchard in winter–not because he’s gone gray, mind you, but on account of all the dandruff. “Snow on the roof?” Sugar, that there’s a blizzard. In Alaska. In February. And I am truly sorry to report that the man’s skin looks like an old elephant’s knee. You’d need dental floss and a year’s supply of Pine-Sol to clean out all them crevices. Somebody evidently failed to understand the importance of sunscreen back when he was a youngun. Whether cavemen had invented sunscreen at the time of his birth is another matter.
I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. I can be a little spiteful when I go without ice cream too long.
Now ordinarily, when Mr. Stouge comes scooting down the row toward McGunkle Mansion (that’s what we call it, but it’s only a double-wide, so it’s a joke, you see), I start running the other way. But today, I’ve got no choice. I got to stand here and take my licks. I turn to Earl, hoping for some backup. It will not surprise you to learn that none is forthcoming. I give him my best, “Just you wait ‘til I have you alone” face, but he doesn’t look up from his nap, the lazy so-and-so.
So, I change over to my cheeriest holiday face and see if I can’t melt Mr. Stouge’s ice-cold heart a little. It’s never worked before, but there’s always a first time, I suppose.
“Well, good afternoon, Mr. Stouge. Merry Christmas to you!” The sugar in my own voice is enough to give me the diabetes. I sound like a greeter down at the Walmart: nice on the outside, but you can tell plain as day I don’t mean it.
“No time for any of that holiday nonsense, Grenadine,” he says, shrill as a child screaming his head off at the dentist. He’s looking over my shoulder at Tater, who I can hear trying to start up the car. The man doesn’t say anything for a full ten seconds, and all that time, I’m praying for the engine to turn over, hoping there’s enough gas to get Tater and that dang car out of sight.
Mr. Stouge flicks his eyes to me, looking for all the world like that ol’ biddy Colleen McConnell when she’s got a bee in her bonnet about something. Except in Mr. Stouge’s case, it’s more than one little ol’ bee, it’s a whole flock of ‘em. (That don’t sound right. A herd? A pack? Whatever you call a bunch of bees, that’s what’s buzzing around in his head.) As much as I hate to do it, I ought to give him the opportunity to let ‘em loose before he blows a gasket right in front of me.
I take a deep breath and brace myself for what’s coming. “How are you today, Mr. Stouge?”
“I’ll have you know that I just got back from the doctor, Grenadine,” he says, pursing his lips and holding his hands to his chest, like he was trying to keep his internal organs from spilling out onto the gravel.
“Oh, well that’s a smart thing to do on Christmas Eve,” I say. “I bet there wasn’t nobody in line. In and out, lickety-split!”
“Dr. McAlpin tells me that I’m suffering from chronic anxiety syndrome,” says Mr. Stouge, completely ignoring my compliment. “It’s a serious nervous condition. A very serious condition, indeed.”
Did I mention that Mr. Stouge is a nymphomaniac or whatever you call it? He just loves to talk about being sick. I think he’d probably feel better if he didn’t, but that’s only my opinion, you understand.
“Oh my word, I am so sorry to hear about that. Is there anything I can do?” Lord knows I don’t really mean it, but it’d be impolite not to offer.
“As a matter of fact, there is. Hank says that I need complete peace and quiet until further notice. Day and night, night and day, no loud noises of any kind,” he shouts.
“Well, of course, Mr. Stouge. You know, Earl and I are always in bed by ten o’clock, and apart from that old Hee-Haw boxed set of videotapes we like to watch on weekends, we hardly ever turn on the TV or the stereo. We’re just as quiet as a couple of old married field mice.”
“I see,” he says, winding up like a pitcher on a baseball mound at the Little League World Series. (Believe me, I know what that looks like: Earl took me a few years back, when the Pittsville Possums was in the running for a trophy. Dullest vacation I ever had. Not that I’ve had many to compare it with, mind you.) “So, does that mean you’ve cancelled your barbecue for tonight, then?”
Uh oh. “Well, no, I’m afraid that’s still on,” I say kinda slow-like, hoping that Mr. Stouge isn’t asking me what I think he’s asking. “But you’re coming over, aren’t you? Surely Doctor McAlpin wouldn’t object to you enjoying a plate of vittles and a couple of hours of holiday cheer. It’s Christmas Eve, for heaven’s sake!”
“Grenadine McGunkle, did you hear anything I just said? My nerves are shot. My hands won’t stop shaking. I can barely open the bottle of nerve pills Hank prescribed for me. My heart is pounding like a drum. And common decency prevents me from going into detail, but I assure you, my intestines–both large and small–have seen better days. No, I most certainly will not be coming over.”
“Well, would you like me to fix you a plate? I could have Tater bring it by when he gets back.”
“Absolutely not, Grenadine. I tolerate Tater because he is your son and because he and Sally Ann somehow manage to pay their bills on time. But we both know that the boy has a rebellious streak, and that’s something that sets me on edge.” He clutches the folds of his bathrobe together like he’s got a chill–though if he does, he should probably be wearing something a tad warmer than that ratty satin robe and his two-dollar pajamas. The thought of wearing satin in this heat makes me sweat where the sun don’t shine.
“Oh, Tater used to be a little scamp,” I say, “but he’s a changed man, I can promise you that.” I’m listening to the words coming out of my mouth, fighting like the devil to keep from saying more. What kind of person insults a woman’s flesh and blood to her face and thinks it’s acceptable social behavior? “Maybe I could send over Loretta with something for you to eat instead?”
“She won’t come within fifty yards of me, Grenadine. She owes me too much back rent.”
“How about Madge, then?”
“The smell of her cigarettes sets off my sinuses.”
We both look over at my husband and know he’s not moving anytime soon.
“Well,” I say, “I’ll try to think of something.”
“Don’t bother,” says Mr. Stouge. “You’ve already invited your guests, and I suppose there’s no way I can prevent you from throwing your little shindig–not legally, anyway.” He ducks his chin and looks at me over the rim of his readers, like he’s promising me that he’d have more than one leg to stand on in a court of law. “But mark my words, Grenadine McGunkle: when the clock strikes ten, the music goes off, the lights go out, and everyone walks back to their trailers in a single-file line, no talking. Understood?”
Beneath my calm exterior, I’m hot as a tea kettle–and it ain’t no flash because I’ve done been through the Change. Talking to me like I’m a second-grader isn’t the way to get on my good side. I can feel a conniption fit coming on. “Well, I’ll try my darndest, Mr. Stouge, but it’s Christmas Eve! I don’t know if I —”
“Understood?” I can tell from the glint in his eye, the old cuss isn’t going to take “no” for an answer.
“Understood, Mr. Stouge,” I sigh.
“Good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a series of meditation videos to watch. I don’t believe in all that hippy-dippy bunk, but Hank seems to think it’ll do something to make my nerves less jangly. I don’t know if I’m more excited by the prospect that it might work, or by the fact that it probably won’t, and I can rub it in Hank’s face. Either way, you’re shutting down at ten o’clock sharp!”
Without even waiting for a reply, he turns on the heel of his mangy old slippers and heads back toward his trailer at the end of the row, leaving a flurry of dandruff floating on the breeze like a bunch of dying moths. I watch him for a second, wondering how anybody could be that hard-hearted.
Then, I hear footsteps behind me. A woman whispering louder than Mr. Stouge shouts says, “Lauren, I told you: get that diaper off your head and back on your fat little ass where it belongs.”
Thank goodness. Loretta has come for a visit.