Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 6:
When Johnny Shoemake moseyed into Pittsville some 15 years ago, nobody knew quite what to make of him–mostly ‘cause they couldn’t understand but about every other word coming out of his mouth. I don’t know what they teach folks in them fancy elementary schools up in Indiana or Kalamazoo or wherever he was raised, but they have clearly taken talkin’ lessons out of the curriculum. Just another example of America’s crumbling public educational system, if you ask me.
The confusion didn’t last too long, thankfully. Johnny had a wife, Bernice, who had people from over in London (again, the town in Callawamba county, not the pip-pip-cheerio, tea-drinking place way over yonder), so she did some interpreting on his behalf. Once them lines of communication opened up, it was like a whole new world for Johnny.
Before you could say “Dolly Parton in a tube top”, he was speaking like a civilized person. He and my Earl became the best of friends, running over to Lake Itallabeenakesadura three and four times a week. They told me they was going fishing, but I think it was just an excuse to drink beer away from the womenfolk. Either way, it didn’t bother me none–Bernice neither, if you wanna know the truth.
But the talking was just the first curious thing about Johnny. The other was what brought him and Bernice to Pittsville. Would you believe it took me a full six months to figure out what Johnny did for a living? Then one day, he done pulled up in front of my trailer in one of them mixed-up Jeeps, tooting his horn and waving a package out the passenger’s side. I was as tickled as could be. I’ve always loved me a mailman.
Here’s a fun fact you can have for free: I was planning to work for the post office myself after finishing high school–and I would’ve, too, if I hadn’t gotten in a fistfight with Ruby McCullum in the parking lot of the TG&Y after Sunday school.
I landed in a whole heap of trouble after that, but the most important thing for you to know is that Ruby’s mother, Leatha, was the town postmistress at the time. To hear Ruby tell it, her mama balled up my job application and flung it all the way to the moon. I hope I’m alive when scientists find it there someday, crumpled up next to a crater. Otherwise, won’t nobody be around to clear up the confusion, and a whole mess of them internet conspiracy people are gonna start tellin’ everybody with no more than half a brain that the post office and I colonized the moon a million years ago.
* * * * *
“Yoo hoo, Grenadine!” Johnny yodels again, rounding the corner. His voice is as clear as a bell–I swear you could hear that man from under a rock two hollers over.
But what’s funny is, normally, Johnny’s got a smiling face to match that angelic voice. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a frown cross the man’s lips. Today, though, something’s wrong. I mean, the voice is right, but it’s like a recording. His eyes are kinda glassy, like he’s not even there, or maybe like he’s about to have himself a big ol’ cry. My heart just breaks right there on the spot.
“Mailman Johnny Shoemake!” I shout, passing the ice-cold covered dish in my hands back to Loretta. “I hadn’t seen you in nearabout a full week. You get on over here and hug my neck!”
Johnny obliges, but his heart certainly isn’t in it. “Hey, Grenadine. Loretta,” he says, looking over my shoulder.
“Johnny,” Loretta says with the briefest of nods. If you were standing there, you might think she was being ornery, but that’s just her way. Takes a long time for her to warm up to people. She’s never been outright mean toward Johnny–why would she?–but she’s suspicious of the man who brings her all them bills every month. I suppose I understand where she’s coming from, but it’s still downright dumb.
I pull back and look Johnny square in the eye. “Sugar, what on God’s green earth is wrong with you? Did somebody die?”
Then my female intuition kicks in, hitting me like a ton of bricks. “Oh my word, it’s Bernice, ain’t it! Is it the C-word? I had terrible dream about that just the other night, and I have always believed that I’ve got a little bit of the psychic in me!”
“No, Grenadine,” Johnny says, “It’s not cancer.”
“Cancer? Who said anything about cancer? I was talking about corns!”
“Corns?” he says, giving me a look like I give the radio when that Sheila Whatshername tries to tell me it ain’t gonna rain when my ankles is already telling me we gonna get at least two inches before the day is through.
(As an aside, I don’t think any of them weather folks on TV actually earn a meteorological certificate these days. Someone up in Washington just hands them out like Green Stamps to anybody who’s fool enough to ask.)
“Of course, like on your feet,” I say. “My aunt Bertha had ‘em for years. Most painful thing I ever saw. Practically hobbled the woman. Had to get her a Rascal, then when the engine gave out, we hitched her up to the station wagon. Tragic mistake, really. Shoulda thought that one through a couple of times. She gets out of ICU week after next…. Now what was I saying? Oh, right: corns. I wouldn’t wish them on my worst enemy.”
Loretta perks up at that. “Know where we can get some for Stouge? I haven’t bought his Christmas gift yet.” She takes another drag on her vaporizer and disappears in a cloud of whatever that is.
“No, it’s not corns. Or cancer for that matter. It’s just the holidays,” he says, setting himself down in my favorite folding chair, the one with the doily pinned to the back. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you, Earl?” He shoots a look over at my husband, who’s still passed out with a beer in his hand. “Earl knows what I’m talking about,” Johnny says, swiveling back to me and putting down his mailbag.
“Well, I’m afraid I don’t,” I say. “Me, I just love the holidays. What’s the matter with ‘em?”
“Oh, Grenadine,” Johnny says, sighing and looking at me like I was about eight years old. “Of course you love the holidays. Most people do. But most people don’t wear the badge of the United States Postal Service.” He stands right up again and points to the post office patch that’s stitched above his heart. Then he starts to pacing. I have a hunch this may take a while, so I sit my butt down in the chair with the trick leg. I can’t see what Loretta is doing, but I can almost hear her eyeballs rolling in their sockets.
Johnny is getting all wound up now. “Most people don’t have to lift and haul mountains of packages–all of which look alike, by the way–to every corner of Hogwalla County, every day for a solid month. Most people don’t have to worry that they’ve shattered someone’s lifelong dreams because they accidentally dropped a box marked ‘FRAGILE’ or tossed it gently over a gate.
“But above all, most people don’t have to witness otherwise sane individuals turn into jelly-brained monsters when Pittsville gets its first cold snap. ‘Oh, Johnny, could you deliver these twelve boxes of candy to all my neighbors, and I’ll pay you for postage later?’ ‘Oh, Johnny, could you bring that 100-pound gas grill I ordered up the steps and help me install it on the patio?’ ‘Oh, Johnny, what’s gotten into you? All I asked was for you to help me label and stamp 372 identical Christmas cards at the post office window with 29 people waiting in line behind me, all of whom are just gonna ask the same mother-loving, cotton-picking thing?’ On days like this, I need a lot more than a cold beer to take the edge off.” Johnny sits back down on the chair beside me. Loretta halfheartedly offers him her vaporizer, but Johnny’s buried his face in his hands and he don’t see. She takes another big ol’ drag.
After a minute, I get brave and speak up. “Sugar, you know that you are the best dang postal carrier Pittsville has ever seen, and that’s because you are so completely dedicated to your job. But if today’s younguns have taught us anything–and I’m not sure they’ve taught us much–but if they have, it’s the importance of a work-life balance. It’s plain as day that you got the work part down pat. Now, you just need to get the life part up to speed. Ain’t I right, Loretta?”
I see her sunglasses turn toward me over a little cloud. I widen my eyes at her, urging her to say something meaningful. After a few seconds, she stammers kinda slow, “Oh, yeah, Johnny. You got to get the balance right. If you don’t, you just gonna fall right off that pecan log, and then what’re you gonna do? …Wait, did you say something about pecan logs? ‘Cause I could really go for one of them right now. Grenadine, you got a pecan log in them bags?” She takes half a step toward my grocery bags, which are still spread out from here to kingdom come, but I bat my eyelashes at her using some more of that Morse Code: STAY OUTTA MY BAGS, WOMAN.
I am never gonna get dinner on the stove.
And I’m beginning to think that Loretta ain’t smoking normal tobacco neither.
“Now, Johnny,” I say, gentle as can be, “I’ve never seen you get this worked up, even during the holidays. You sure there ain’t something else on your mind?”
Johnny looks at me like a deer in headlights, or maybe like I’m the ghost of Elvis Presley and I done started singing him a lullaby. Then, he looks down at his lap, kinda sad. “Oh, Grenadine, it’s true, it’s true! I’m so sorry for having a fit in front of you, but it’s been building up for so long, and I just don’t know what to do. How did you know?”
“Lucky guess,” I say all confident like. I told you I was intuitive. “You cool your heels a minute and take a breath, and whenever you’re ready, you just tell us what’s stuck in your craw. Ain’t none of us here to judge you.” I turn to look at Loretta, but she’s staring at one of her hands like it’s the Book of Revelation, and Earl is still passed out, of course. “Besides,” I say to Johnny, “I’m probably the only person who’ll remember what you say anyway. It’ll be our secret.”
Before I can even put the period on that sentence, Johnny blurts it out so the whole world can hear: “I want to start transitioning.”
I admit, I’m uncertain where he’s going here. “Like, to a new job?”
“No, to a woman.”
“Wohmann? But Johnny, that’s 40 miles away! I won’t never see you again,” I say, truly distraught at the thought of losing such a good friend–especially to a stinkin’ little town like Wohmann. (I’m not saying that to be mean: Wohmann is tee-nincey. If it weren’t for the chicken farms and the paper mill, you’d hardly know it was there.)
“No, Grenadine. I mean, I want to become a woman.”
That sure as heck gets Loretta’s attention. The cloud suddenly disappears, and her eyes swivel around to focus on Johnny like a couple of laser beams in one of them space movies Earl likes so much. “Windsong!” she shouts over her shoulder, “Hold my calls!” She puts the shrimp casserole down on the beer cooler and sits down next to Johnny on the planter that Tater made out of an old toilet. Then she pats Johnny’s hand real gentle like. “Go on, sugar, we’re all ears.”
The way that looks on the page, it might seem as though Loretta’s the malicious type, wanting to get all the juicy details from Johnny so she can start spreading gossip. But that’s just me not being able to write very well. Loretta is actually a very compassionate person when it comes down to it, and she don’t never dish nobody’s dirt. Well, no more than normal people.
Johnny seems unsure of himself for a minute or two, wondering if he should go on. Then, it’s like a dam done broke inside his mouth, and everything starts pouring out. “Oh, I don’t know why I’m so nervous. I told Earl months ago, but that was the first time I’d ever said it out loud, and it spooked me, so I tried to stop thinking about it for a while–but no more. It’s time for the truth to come out: I feel more comfortable as a woman than as a man, and I think I always have. So tomorrow, I’m going down to Hogwalla County General, and I’m going to start transitioning.” When he says that, he is practically beaming like a headlight–a terrified, happy headlight.
“Oh, Johnny!” I say, confused as all get out, but just happy that he’s happy. “I’m so excited for you! I was worried there for a second that we were gonna lose you, but instead, we’re getting a new and better you! It’ll be a little like a rebirth, won’t it? And on top of everything, you’ll be starting on Christmas day! You’ll be our holiday miracle baby–like Jesus, but in reverse or something. That’s just poetic, is what that is.”
Johnny pauses for a second. “So, you’re not upset?”
“Upset about what?” says Loretta.
“About me transitioning. I mean, some people around here might think it was wrong or something.”
“Not us,” I say, with a big ol’ smile. “We may not fully understand what you’re going through right now, but that don’t matter one iota. We are living in the 21st century, Johnny Shoemake. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and the way I see it, we all ought to make hay while the sun shines. Long as you ain’t hurting others, do what makes you happy.”
“Amen, brother Ben,” Loretta says. Then she adds, a little quieter, “But speaking of ‘others’, have you told Bernice?”
Johnny sighs. “I haven’t, but I think she knows.”
“How would she know something like that?” I ask.
“Well….” He seems unsure of himself again, but Loretta and I just sit there all patient like and wait for him to gather his gumption. Eventually he takes a deep breath and goes on. “When a man and a woman love each other very much–”
“Loretta and I know about all that, Johnny,” I say, cutting him off before the story gets too blue. “I may only have the one offspring, but–”
“I believe what Johnny is trying to tell us,” says Loretta, “is that he and Bernice have already toyed around with this kinda stuff in the boudoir.”
“The what?” I ask. I rue the fact that I never did learn a lick of Spanish.
“The bedroom,” Loretta explains. “You can learn a lot about a person from his bedside manner. My late Buddy had dreams of being a train conductor, though I won’t bother to explain how I know that–at least not in mixed company. And I’m guessing Bernice already has quite a hunch that ol’ Johnny would feel more comfortable in a bra and panties than in his tighty-whiteys.”
For nearabout a full minute, I am stunned. It’s like a light done went off over my head, like in a old Bugs Bunny cartoon, and I’m taking some time to process, as they say on them talk shows. I can’t believe I never thought about sex like that before–like it’s a window into somebody’s soul. I shoulda been paying a lot closer attention all this time that Earl and I have been doin’ it, but it’s usually over so fast…well, never you mind about that. That’s between me and him.
“Is that what you’re getting at?” I ask Johnny.
“Well, I usually wear boxers, but yes, that’s the gist of it.”
“Don’t you worry about a thing,” Loretta says, as sweet as I’ve ever heard her talk. “Bernice is a smart woman. I’m sure she already knows, and I’m double-sure she’ll support you just as much as we do. She’ll just want you to be happy.”
Johnny smiles and even manages to let out the littlest of laughs. “I have to admit, this isn’t the kind of reception I was expecting.”
Loretta gives him a hard look. “What, you think that just because we live in a trailer park we don’t know no trans people? My own little CK One told me she wanted to be a boy just a couple of months ago. I handed her all of Buddy’s old clothes I hadn’t sold on the eBay, and now she’s running around in overalls and that old Thom McAn blazer, just as happy as can be. In the right light, she looks just like him–minus about 250 pounds, of course.” Loretta stifles a tiny sob, the poor thing.
“She’s right, Johnny,” I say. “We just want you to be you. Ain’t nothing in the world as depressing as watching somebody try to be somebody they ain’t. Just look at ol’ Minnie Ellzey, trying to fit in with them uppity women at the First Baptist, when you know good and dang well she’s only there because Claude got that job as choir director. You don’t need a crystal ball to see she’d rather be with her friends over at the Presbyterian church!”
“You can’t fake being a Baptist, my Buddy used to say.” Loretta sobs a little more.
“Well, it’s not quite the same thing,” Johnny says, “but I see the point you’re trying to make, and I appreciate it. Most of all, I’m thankful for you two. Your little pep talk has given me the courage to go face Bernice and tell her the truth. I’m gonna do that right this very minute, before I lose my nerve!” He stands up and gathers his bag, then gives both of us a big ol’ hug. “Thank you, Grenadine. Thank you, Loretta. You’ve made me the happiest transperson on the planet!”
Johnny turns to go, but before he gets a dozen steps, he turns back around. “Oh, Grenadine! There’s one more thing.”
“You sure, Johnny?” I hear myself sigh and realize that I’m nearabout worn out from the conversations of the past hour.
“Of course I’m sure, Grenadine. I’m the best mail carrier in Hogwalla County. I couldn’t forget my duties, could I?” And with that, Johnny pulls a little package out of his bag, all wrapped up in Christmas paper. “Merry Christmas, Grenadine!”
I look at it for a second, stunned. I don’t remember the last time I got anything in the mail that wasn’t a bill. And I’d be willing to bet my life that ain’t nobody never sent me a present by post before. I take it out of Johnny’s hand all careful like–like it might be a bomb–and I look it over real good. It’s meant for me, alright: there’s only one Grenadine McGunkle in the county these days. (Never met the other one, but she’s dead now, so I lost that chance, I guess.) Funny thing is, there’s no return address.
“What is it, Grenadine?” Loretta asks.
“I got no idea,” I say. “I don’t even know who it’s from.” I look at Johnny kinda suspicious. “Is this some kinda prank? Y’all got one of them hidden cameras pointed at me?” I don’t think they would’ve done that, but I fix my hair a little, just in case.
“Grenadine, I am Johnny Shoemake of the U.S. Postal Service. I am capable of delivering packages in snow, rain, heat, and gloom of night, but one thing I cannot, have not, and will not do is tamper with the integrity of the mail.” He looks real stern, but then he smiles a little, just so I know I haven’t offended him. Next thing I know, he’s turned on his heel and gone on his way.
“What should I do, Loretta?” I ask after about a minute of staring at the package in my hand.
She gives me the same look you’d give a dog that’s looking at a water bowl, wondering if he ought to take a drink. “It’s yours, woman, Open it!”
I undo the tape on the side, trying to save the paper, just in case I need to wrap something at the last minute. Then I rip a big chunk of it, so there’s no point pussyfooting around anymore.
Underneath all the paper, there’s a cardboard box. I glance at Loretta, whose face is about six inches from mine, and she nods for me to open it. When I do, we both see a little jar of something, sitting in a mess of tissue paper. I read the label out loud: “Body Butter. Cherry Flavored.” Other than that, there ain’t nothing else in the box–no card or anything.
“Well, what in God’s green earth am I supposed to do with this?” I ask Loretta.
Loretta rolls her eyes and pulls me away from Earl, like she wants us to have a private little talk. “It’s body butter, Grenadine!” she whispers loud enough to wake the dead. “It’s for…well, you know, down there…?”
I look at her like she’s got three heads and only one of ‘em is making sense.
“You know, Grenadine, it’s for when you and Earl have a little time to y’all’s selves. You put a little down there and…. Well, you put a little down there and….” She sticks out her tongue clear to her chin, then starts waggling it like I ain’t never seen nobody do before. I’m serious: it’s a grade-A performance. If Hardee’s should ever get tired of her, Loretta could find a job in the circus faster than you could spit.
The look on my face is still just as blank as the guest book at a hermit’s funeral.
“YOU RUB IT ON YOUR PUSS!” Loretta finally shouts, rattling the windows and setting off a car alarm in the next row. I blush so deep, I get dizzy from the loss of blood. I’m sure that in about five minutes, everyone between here and Callawamba County is gonna know I got sex goop for the Baby Jesus’ birthday.
“Well, who on earth would’ve sent me something like that?” is about all I’m able to ask when I gather my wits again.
“Looks like someone’s got a secret admirer! Jealous, Earl?” Loretta asks, turning to look at my husband, but he’s still asleep in his folding chair. Thank the Lord for small miracles.
“My word,” I say, sitting back down as I realize that Madge’s half a gift ain’t gonna be enough to see me through. “Hand me a nerve pill outta my purse, Loretta. I think I done had about all the excitement I can handle for one day.”
That’s when I see Tater pushing my station wagon up the row. And in the driver’s seat, waving like she’s in a Mardi Gras parade, sits my future daughter-in-law, Sally Ann.