Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 5:
Dishing Over a Covered Dish
I’ve known Loretta Lopez since you were in short pants.
It will not surprise you to hear that in grade school, she was the class clown–though naturally, Loretta was the meanest clown you ever done seen. On the day that the 4-H Club was having tryouts for the livestock cheerleading squad, she brought a mess of brownies for snack time. She stood there in front of God and everybody and said that her mama done made ‘em, but she gave me a big ol’ wink when she said it, so I knew something was up.
Poor Betty Meador should’ve known, too, since she and Loretta had just had a knock-down, drag-out under the jungle gym the day before. And all on account of gangly little Hank McAlpin–can you imagine?
Technically speaking, Betty won the fight, though if Coach Everett hadn’t flicked his cigarette butt at Loretta to break it up, Betty would’ve walked home with one of Loretta’s sneakers embedded in her backside. Hank was so impressed by Betty’s punching skills, he asked her to go steady later that afternoon.
Betty was prepared to spend the better part of a week rubbing her so-called victory in Loretta’s face, but Loretta nipped that nonsense right in the bud–courtesy of a heaping helping of Ex-Lax in Betty’s brownie. It’s hard to gloat when you’re perched on the toilet for a day and a half.
And that wasn’t the worst of it for Betty, neither. She’d spent days planning a routine for the 4-H tryouts, complete with sparklers and boxes of Milk Duds for the judges, but obviously she was sidelined due to her gastrointestinal distress. The following week, Miss Broadway took pity on the girl and squeezed her onto the goat team, but everybody knows that cheering for a bunch of prize goats is about as rewarding as teaching a bunch of bald men to braid their own hair. The chicken team was where all the cool girls wanted to be. Still is to this day, I reckon.
Betty never recovered, the poor thing. Last I heard, she was making souvenir thimbles and trying to sell ‘em down at the flea market or some such. I ran into her at the Piggly Wiggly a year or two ago and told her she ought to try to get Vera to sell ‘em at the Stop and Shop, but she muttered something about not wanting to be associated with anyplace that “trafficked in the Devil’s urine” (that’s what she calls beer, even though all Vera can sell is the non-alcoholic kind, of course). Last I saw of her, Betty was wandering off toward the frozen chimichangas. Bless her heart.
Anyway, by the time she hit high school, Loretta had become known as the town beauty. She was prized for her delicate features, her itty-bitty little ol’ waist, and a half-dozen wigs suitable for every occasion (with false eyelashes to match, of course). She was the very height of Pittsville elegance.
Loretta tried to get the heck out of Dodge after graduation. Her great-aunt even promised to take her up north to show her the sights. As soon as they hit the road, Loretta was like a kid in a candy store–and I mean that literally. Clarice would just be getting her old Plymouth up to cruising speed when Loretta would see another sign for Stuckey’s, and the whining would commence. The two of ‘em might’ve made it as far as Memphis if they hadn’t had to pull over for pecan logs every five miles. By the time they got back to Pittsville, Clarice had written Loretta out of her will, and Loretta had put on about 40 pounds.
You know the story from that point, I suppose. Loretta met Buddy Perdue down at the car wash, they started dating, and next thing you know, Loretta was a mama five times over. You can say a lot of things about that girl, but you can’t say she ain’t fertile.
She’s never been the same since Buddy died, though. I can’t blame her, neither. Who kisses their husband goodbye in the morning, thinking “There goes the star salesman of Thom McAn,” only to get a call two hours later saying that he’s been killed in a freak shoehorn accident? That just ain’t right.
These days, Loretta’s holding up the best she can. As soon as the last three or four younguns get to grade school-age, she’ll have more time for her career, and then I’m sure she’ll just zoom on up the management ladder down at the Hardee’s. ‘Til then, though, times is tough. At least she’s keeping her spirits high.
* * * * *
“Is he gone?” Loretta hisses at me as Mr. Stouge and his robe flutter on down the row. She’s wearing mirrored sunglasses and a housecoat buttoned nearabout to her chin, like some kinda spy. And in this heat, too.
“I sure as heck hope so,” I say, waving her over from her hiding spot underneath my bedroom window. “That man will befuddle me into an early grave. I can’t figure out whether I wanna turn him over my knee and slap some sense into his butt or hug him and make him see that the world ain’t nearly so bad as he thinks.”
“Girl, that’s what you call a no-win situation.” She lowers her glasses to the tip of her nose, drops her chin, and rolls her eyes so far up at me, I swear I can see her eyebrows bulge, “ ‘Cause either way, you gotta touch him.” She shivers a little. “Ain’t enough Camay on the planet to clean yourself up after that.”
Without turning so much as a hair, Loretta shouts behind her, “Charlie! If you’re gonna play in the dumpster with Jean Nate, you best not be wearing your Sunday flip-flops. I brought you a treat for tonight.”
It takes me a long minute to realize that them last few words is aimed at me. “Oh, really?” I say, suddenly noticing that Loretta is sporting a pair of crocheted oven mitts and carrying a covered dish. (In my defense, Loretta’s got her vaporizer clamped between her teeth and is sucking like a cow on a corncob, so it’s hard to see much below her chin.) “You shouldn’t have, sugar.”
I pause for a second, weighing my next move. Loretta has many gifts–eyelash-curling, watermelon seed-spitting, auto repair–but bless her heart, cooking ain’t on the list. I know I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but I’m dreading what’s under that lid. Curiosity gets the better of me. “What is it?” I ask, casual as can be.
She steps closer, looking like a swan coming out of the mist, if swans wore curlers and mismatched house slippers. “Pack your bags, Grenadine McGunkle, because you are takin’ a flavor journey that most folks can only dream about. I’ve made you my dear, departed mama’s Peppermint Shrimp Casserole! Won the award for most innovative dish three years running down to the YWCA Holiday Cooking Cotillion.” She opens the glass cover and shows me a pile of shrimp, smothered in cheese and covered in broken-up starlight mints. It don’t smell like nothing at all, but the sight…well, if you’re ever in need of an ipecac substitute, there’d be worse places to start.
Loretta puts the cover back on as quick as you please and peeks over her shoulder–partly to make sure that Esperanza is in her bare feet and partly to ensure that we aren’t being watched. She steps a little closer and whispers so loud they could hear her in New York City: “The secret ingredient is salt.” Loretta looks me square in the eye, smiling and nodding and wiggling her brows like she done told me that Pastor Willis was caught in bed with Sheriff Lloyd, which everybody heard about two weeks ago and don’t nobody care about anyway.
“My word, Loretta, your mama sure was a clever so-and-so, wasn’t she?” I say. That’s about all the enthusiasm I can muster.
“May she rest in peace,” Loretta says, crossing herself fast as the dickens and looking around again to make sure nobody saw. Catholics aren’t unheard of in Hogwalla County, but I’d be lying if I said they weren’t viewed with some suspicion. Not because of all them priests wearing dresses, mind you, but because they drink so much wine, which seems a mite uppity.
Loretta hands me the casserole, and I try to take the oven mitts from her to keep from burning my hands. “Don’t bother,” she says, “it’s still as cold as a witch’s titty on New Year’s Eve. I just pulled it out of the deep freeze.” She raises the dish above her head and squints at the masking tape underneath. “Only two years old. Should thaw out fresh as a daisy.”
Yes, I’ve got a frozen shrimp casserole in my hands and a gallon of melted ice cream in the beer cooler. I don’t know exactly what you’d call that, but it’s the story of my day.
“You coming over tonight?” I ask, struggling a little under the weight of the Corelle. Either I need to get to a gym, or this casserole is half full of lead.
“You know I wouldn’t miss your party, Grenadine–not for all the tea in China!” She slaps me on the back so hard I almost fall face-first into the gravel, which would’ve ruined the half-beehive I had Mavis whip up this morning. “It’s the event of the season. I got my outfit already picked out, so now I just got to dig up a sitter for my oldest.”
“What about the other nine?”
“Oh, they’ll be fine. Living on a fixed income, you have to get creative when it comes to childcare. I was at my wit’s end a few months back, when all of a sudden Dr. Phil popped up on the TV, talking about something called a pyramid scheme, and the idea just came to me like it was beamed from Phil’s big, bald head. The way it works is, I find a sitter to watch Obsession–that way, I only get charged for one kid. Then he watches the next two, and they watch the next three, and so on. I talked to Child Protective Services all about it and told ‘em they could take a few of the rugrats off my damn hands if they didn’t approve, but I ain’t heard a peep from ‘em yet, so it must be perfectly legal. Drakkar Noir, you stop chuckin’ dirt clods at Poison ‘til she learns to walk!”
That last part is over her shoulder again. Lord, I’m so happy I just had the one. Tater was plenty.
“Well, I’m glad to hear you’re gonna make it. It wouldn’t be the same without you.” I look down the row to make sure the coast is clear and drop my voice a bit. “You’ll be happy to know that Stouge ain’t coming this year,” I say, trying my best to keep the smile off my face. “He never drops by for long, mind you, but he done been to the doctor today, and it sounds like Hank put the fear of God in him. Told him he’s about to have himself one halleluja of heart attack if he doesn’t get some peace and quiet.”
Loretta fans herself in the heat. “Thank the heavens above–not about the heart attack, I suppose, though it couldn’t happen to a nicer fella. With any luck at all, you and I won’t see hide nor hair of Stouge ‘til this time next year. I mean, he’s already convinced he’s gonna catch cancer every time somebody sneezes. If the doc has told him that he’s about to meet his maker, he’ll probably be holed up in the bathroom for a solid month. Bless you, Hank!” She pulls a beer from her purse and toasts the sky before cracking it open.
“Sometimes, I feel downright sorry for Stouge,” I say. “But then he comes over and cusses about Tater, and I nearabout have to chew on my thumbs to keep from strangling him. You think I’m possessed?”
“Only by good sense,” Loretta says, sighing a little from the first swig of beer and stifling a belch. “Don’t think too much about it, Grenadine. The important thing is that he’s staying home tonight, so the rest of us can celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus with booze, like God intended.”
I sigh, thinking of my conversation with Stouge. “Well, he did say that we’d have to shut down the celebrations by ten o’clock, or he’d have a fit. I suppose he was nice enough to let us go ahead with the party and all, so we ought to respect the poor man’s request.”
“Ten o’clock? It’s Christmas Eve, Grenadine. Ain’t no one gotta be in bed by ten besides children and the chickens, and that don’t apply to nobody comin’ to this party…. ‘Cept Sierra Britney, of course. Though whether she’s a child or a chick, I’d be hard pressed to guess.” She grins from ear to hear, showing off a perfect set of pearly whites. The woman knows how to floss, that’s for dang sure.
My mind settles on Sally Ann’s daughter, and my stomach knots itself a little tighter at the thought of whatever gosh-awful performance she’s gonna want to give. “That poor little girl. Her mama is smart as a whip, I tell you what, but Sierra Britney didn’t get none of it.”
Loretta’s eyes glitter maliciously behind her Foster Grants. “Oh, I don’t know, Grenadine, she’s smart enough to eat corn through a barbed wire fence.”
“Loretta! You know perfectly well that them’s just her baby teeth. I am confident they will fall out soon enough and be replaced by two rows of straight, regular, adult-size teeth.”
“Maybe so. And if not, there’s always braces. But braces won’t do nothing for her singing voice.”
I cringe recalling Sierra Britney’s performance of “Baby One More Time” last year. Sally Ann was standing over by the grill, singing along and clapping out the rhythm, but…well, let’s just call it a disaster and be done with it. Poor Buford was beside himself by the end, barking up a storm with his tail between his legs. Got so worked up, he vomited right on Sierra Britney’s shoes, then hid under the bed for two days straight.
Awful as it was, though, Sally Ann didn’t seem to notice. She was still talking about Sierra’s “big show business career” when I unplugged the lights and went inside to bed. I honestly don’t know if I can endure that again–much less with a flaming baton being tossed around.
Before I can wallow too much in fear and loathing, though, I hear the sound of footsteps on the gravel coming from around the corner, followed by a “Yoo hoo! Grenadine!”
Land sakes, it’s a Christmas miracle. If there is one person on this planet who can lift my spirits now, it’s Mailman Johnny.