Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 7:
Bless Her Heart
I am about as mad as a wet hen right now, and the fact that Tater’s pushing gives out before he can get the station wagon all the way into my preferred parking spot only makes it worse. I do not know what I’m about to say, but I guarantee y’all, it ain’t gonna be pretty.
“Tater Eugene McGunkle! Did I not give you my last twenty dollars an hour ago and ask you to put some gas in my car? Land of Goshen, son, do I need to take you back to that fancy ear doctor down in Bugswallow Hollow?”
I turn to Loretta. “She charged me fifty dollars last time and pulled out a ball of earwax so big, I swear we could’ve made some of them fake lips you get at Halloween and given ‘em out to every man, woman, and child in Hogwalla County.”
I’m not lying, neither. When I married Earl, I knew that rampant earwax production was a trait among McGunkle men, but Tater got a double helping of it.
Tater looks winded, but he tries to explain as he catches his breath. “Well, mama…I was gonna…but then I got to Darrell’s house–”
“Lord, son, please do not tell me that you failed to get beer! The one night of the year that Earl and I entertain, and there ain’t gonna be nothing for nobody to drink! What if somebody starts to choking on one of Loretta’s peppermint shrimp?”
I point at Loretta’s covered dish, and she looks all kinds of offended at the thought of anything so heavenly getting caught in somebody’s throat. “Well, Grenadine,” she starts in, “I’ve been making this dish for near on twenty years, and I’ve never had anybody so much as cough while they’re eating it, so—”
“How they gonna wash that down?” I ask, cutting Loretta off mid-sentence. I know it’s rude, but I’m not feeling too kindly just now. “They’re gonna collapse right here by the barbecue grill, and you know all the negative publicity that generated the last time.”
“For the record,” Loretta says, “that was my Great Aunt Clarice’s Salted Caramel Crawfish, which I admit is an acquired taste. Poor Clarice never could hold a candle to my mama in the kitchen, may they both rest in peace.”
I turn back to my son, and I can feel my up-do starting to sag from all the heat and stress and whatnot.
“So, Tater, what have you got to say for yourself?”
I hate myself for getting this angry on Christmas Eve, but lord love a duck, that boy just knows how to set me off. Don’t get me wrong: I love him like he’s my own flesh and blood, which he is, despite some vicious rumors to the contrary. But sometimes, I’d love to string him up by the toenails, too.
Tater looks a little embarrassed, and I understand why. I have just cussed him up one side and down the other in front of Sally Ann, who may be his fiancee before the night is through. She’s still sitting in the car touching up her lipstick and pretending not to notice, which is considerate of her, but I know I’m shouting so loud they could probably hear me at the Church of Christ out on route four if they wasn’t so busy hollering up to Jesus themselves. Unless Sally Ann’s got that earwax gene herself, she heard every last syllable to come out of my mouth.
Tater finally catches his breath and stands up straight and looks me dead in the eye. “I’m trying to tell you, mama, if you’ll just listen for a gosh darned minute.”
Well, that stops me dead in my tracks, it does. Tater ain’t perfect, and he’s guilty of a lot of things I’d rather not talk about with anybody but a parole officer, but one thing he don’t never do is fuss at his mama.
I’ve got an awful feeling in my gut. There’s a chance it might be that Snickers bar I found under the car seat fighting its way back up, but it’s probably my intuition telling me that Tater’s got a good explanation for what he’s done and that I have jumped to the wrong conclusions about his errand-running. I feel about two inches tall.
“Like I was trying to say, I went to Darrell’s house first to make sure I didn’t miss him–I know that he’s got family up the road that he likes to visit on holidays, and since it was getting kinda late, I started to think he might close up early. But when I got there and saw all the cars and flashing lights outside, I started worrying for another reason.”
“Oh my word,” Loretta says. “Please don’t tell me that Sheriff Lloyd was trying to crash Darrell’s pissant booze smuggling operation. I’ve seen that man drink more whiskey in one sitting than Colleen McConnnell, and you know that woman never met a bottle of grain alcohol she didn’t like.”
“Well, he was there all right,” Tater says, “along with Carlton, Roy, and half of Pittsville, it seemed like. But that wasn’t the problem. It’s that Darrell was starting to run low, and there was kind of a bidding war. That so-and-so wanted six dollars for a six-pack. Can you believe? Six dollars! That’s…that’s nearly….”
I can see Tater trying to do the math. Poor thing never did have a head for numbers.
“A dollar a beer,” I say, trying to move the story along.
“A dollar a beer! And people was a-yelling and a-fussing and a-fighting to pay it. If it hadn’t been Christmas Eve, I woulda turned on my heel, put some gas in the tank, and driven straight to the Toys R Us in London.”
“They sell beer at the Toys R Us, now?” Loretta asks me with a little sparkle in her eye, like the idea of toy shopping just got a little less grim.
“No,” I tell her, “they done went out of business. Carole Ann Landrum just pulls up in the empty parking lot and sells beer out of a cooler. Saves you the trouble of driving all the way to the corner store.”
I turn back to Tater. “So, what did you do, son?”
“Didn’t have much choice, mama. I bought three six packs. Then I picked up Sally Ann, and we was passing back by here on the way to the Stop and Shop when I ran out of gas.” He steps over to the car, reaches in the back seat, and pulls out a big ol’ grocery bag the size of three six-packs.
My sweet baby boy done right after all. I sigh, feeling full up to the rim with stupid. “I’m sorry to fuss at you, Tater. You done awful good. Don’t worry about the gas none. Your daddy’ll pull some out of the generator tomorrow. But we ain’t gonna think about that tonight. You just put that beer in the cooler for me, please, so I can get ready. We gonna have ourselves a Christmas barbecue if it kills me. And at this rate, it just might.”
I’m about to start gathering up my groceries when Sally Ann finally puts away her lipstick and gets down from my car pretty as you please, like she was stepping out of Cinderella’s pumpkin. Her blonde hair is piled so high she has to duck to get out the door, and she’s wearing the second-cutest little Christmas cardigan sweater I done seen today. Honestly, I need to find out where she and Madge do their shopping. I hope it ain’t noplace pricey like Target. That could send me to the poor house.
“Miss Grenadine! And Miss Loretta, too! It’s so good to see y’all. Merry Christmas!”
Still pretending she hadn’t heard a damn word that passed between Tater and me. Must be some kinda response mechanism they taught her down at that charm school she’s always talking about. Well, if she wants to make like she’s crazy, that’s fine, but she’s gonna have to do it on her own time. Grenadine McGunkle ain’t got a second to waste on them kind of shenanigans–not today.
“Hey, Sally Ann, Merry Christmas to you, too. Sorry you had to hear all that between me and Tater, but I’m just about out of my mind, with a barbecue to host in less than two hours, and I hadn’t even started the yam surprise. Now, if you all will excuse me–”
“Oh, don’t you worry about a thing, Miss Grenadine. I’m sure it’s gonna be just as wonderful as always”.
“Well, I hope so, but I best get a move on. Y’all make yourselves comfortable. I’ll be back in two shakes.”
I bend over to pick up the rest of my groceries, but before I can skedaddle inside, I hear Sally Ann shout, “Why, there’s my little superstar!” I turn around to see Sierra Britney skipping up the row with Madge weaving along about two steps behind her, carrying one of them big cups from the Sonic in one hand and a six-inch-long Misty in the other. Sierra’s dressed in the same outfit as her mama: cute sweater, matching skirt, sparkly shoes. Between the two of them and Madge, they look like a group of mannequins. I’ve never felt so underdressed in a housecoat and slippers before.
Loretta isn’t so impressed. “Well, ain’t the two of y’all cute? I’ve heard about folks who dress up like their pets, but I’ve never seen it with my own eyes. I didn’t know they had a clothing line down at the Feed and Seed, Sally Ann.”
Sally Ann just glares at Loretta, and I can’t say I blame her. I mean, yes, Sierra Britney’s apple fell a long way from Sally Ann’s tree–then it rolled off into a ditch, across a highway, and got run over by a small army of tractors. But the girl will grow into her looks. Eventually. Probably. I hope.
Besides, it’s not nice being mean to a child when the parent’s standing right there. Wasn’t I just talking about Mr. Stouge and the way he makes my blood boil when he starts in on Tater? And speaking of glass houses, it’s not as if all of Loretta’s brood are lookers. That little Mennen has a face that could turn milk, bless her heart.
Sally Ann straightens her back like someone just put a stick where the sun don’t shine and smiles. “I’ll take that as a compliment, Miss Loretta. Sierra Britney and I are dressed up ‘cause tonight, we’re performing our first-ever mama-daughter duet! Ain’t that exciting?” She looks to Sierra Britney, who just beams up at her. I tell you what: that girl ought to learn to smile with her mouth closed ‘til them new teeth come in.
Loretta can’t help taking another swipe. “I assume y’all are doing ‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?’ But who’s gonna do the barking?”
Sally Ann continues like Loretta ain’t even there. “Y’all want a sneak preview? It’s gonna be awful special!”
She comes and guides me over to my chair, and like a dang fool, I let her set me down. Loretta takes another long drag on her vaporizer and disappears behind a cloud of stuff. Madge drifts over and sits next to me on the toilet planter thingamajig, her eyes kind of blurry. She takes a puff from her Misty and offers me a swallow of her Coca-Cola, but I politely decline. From where I am, I can tell there ain’t no more than a dash of Coke in there, and as much as I might appreciate some lubrication, I got to have my head screwed on right if I’m gonna make it through this barbecue in one piece.
Sally Ann reaches into her handbag, pulls out a jump rope, and hands one end to Sierra Britney. Then she tosses something to Tater, who runs over to the station wagon, slides into the driver’s seat, and starts fiddling with the radio.
Sally Ann looks at me, Madge, and Loretta, wearing the biggest grin I ever saw outside one of them Looney Tunes and says, “Y’all ready?” But that’s just a formality, apparently, because before any of us can say “Jack Robinson”, she turns to Tater and shouts, “Hit it!”
What comes after is hard to explain.
Now I admit, I am not well-traveled. I have lived in Hogwalla County my whole life, and most of what I know about the outside world comes from the TV or a handful of vacations like the one I done mentioned involving the Pittsville Possums, which, as I said, wasn’t anything like the vacations them folks take on my stories.
So, I don’t have a whole lot to compare against what I’m seeing, but I have a hunch that if them cave people from back in Jesus’ time had seen this so-called performance by Sierra Britney and Sally Ann, they would’ve spent the best part of a year drawing about it with twigs and warpaint and stuff. I know for sure the Everlasting Arms has seen nothing like it before, and good lord willing and the creek don’t rise, we never will again. I myself started to envy Ronnie Milsap about ten seconds into it.
As you can tell by now, I am not a what-you-call-it wordsmith or anything, but I can offer you a play-by-play of what I’m looking at. Here goes.
First, Tater starts the stereo, and out from my car speakers come a bunch of drum sounds and somebody screaming like a banshee. Or maybe like a poor ol’ tomcat with its tail on fire. (Madge later tells me that this is something called “Immigrant Song” by that group Led Zeppelin that Ruby McCullum used to listen to when we was a lot younger. Now I know why mama and daddy never wanted me to hang around with the likes of her.)
Next, Sally Ann takes her end of the rope and starts spinning in a circle, with Sierra Britney holding her end and running along to keep up. Eventually Sally Ann shouts over the music, “Pick your feet up, sugar!”, which Sierra Britney does, and for a few seconds she’s flying in the air at the end of the rope with her feet dangling in the air. It kinda reminds me of when Earl used to hold Tater by the wrists and fling him around in circles, which is why my husband had that emergency hernia operation on Tater’s twenty-third birthday. Sally Ann is doing better than Earl ever did, though. Even through the cardigan, I can see that the girl’s been pumping some iron down to the YWCA.
This has been going on for less than a minute, and my eardrums are on the verge of giving up the ghost, but otherwise, I suppose the show is going fine. Then one of Sierra’s feet wallops the car aerial, which knocks her out of her mama’s orbit.
Remember when that space station fell back to earth way back in the 1970s? Or maybe it was the 1980s? Whenever it was, I imagine it looked a lot like this. But with about half the fire and hollering.
Sierra eventually tumbles to the ground and lands at my feet, crushing a brand new box of graham crackers. She starts to apologize, but her mama shouts, “Do the wiggle, honey!”, and Sierra starts acting like a lady at one of them clubs for men–not one of the fancy burlesque houses like you see in Saturday afternoon movies, but the real kind, like the one that Ronnie Gordon used to run in that triple-wide out in the woods behind his grandmama’s place. The menfolk think we don’t know about that kind of thing, but I can assure you that we do.
Some of y’all may be on the green side of thirty, so I will not describe all the inappropriate gesticulating and whatnot that Sierra Britney does over the next minute or so. Suffice it to say that every Baptist this side of the state line would be praying for her salvation if they’d gotten half a glimpse of it.
Then, I hear Sally Ann shout over the music again: “Finale!”
I’m fixing to thank the good lord in heaven above that this nonsense is wrapping up, but then I see Sally Ann pull out a baton. In the back of my head, I remember Tater mentioning something about that an hour ago, but I don’t recall exactly what it was. Then Sally Ann runs over to where we’re all sitting, grabs the cigarette out of Madge’s hand, and touches it to the ends of the baton, and whatever they’s wrapped in bursts into flame.
I told y’all before that I got a touch of the psychic in me, didn’t I? Well, when I see Sally Ann light up that baton, I get this vision of a biblical conflagration, which is a fifty-cent word for “fire” according to Pastor Willis. I’m as sure as can be that before this song is through, the Everlasting Arms is going to land smack-dab in the middle of a lake of fire. And on the shore of that lake, I wouldn’t be half surprised to see Sally Ann teaching Sierra Britney how to fish.
Before my vision can become a reality, I get up out of my chair and go tearing over to the station wagon. I can feel my hair flopping around, completely ruined by now, but I don’t care, I just want to save us all from a brimstone bath, whatever brimstone may be. (Pastor Willis ain’t never explained that to my satisfaction.) I hear Sally Ann shout something, but whether it’s to me or Sierra Britney or Tater or Satan himself, I have no idea. I reach in the car fast as you please and turn off the radio.
Then, the world goes silent. Not just quiet, but silent, y’all. Like I got cotton in my ears or something. There ain’t a bird, a truck, a squirrel, nothing making so much as a peep.
Also, it seems as if time has stopped.
I turn around, and there’s everybody looking up, up, up in the sky at that baton sputtering little flames. It’s spinning and spinning and climbing and climbing, and then I could swear it stops in midair, like it’s asking, “Are y’all ready for this?”
Then everything starts up again–time, noise, shouting. There’s a huge commotion as Sally Ann shoves her daughter out of the way, jumps up, and grabs the baton on its way down, then lands in a perfect split, smiling like that cat that done swallowed the canary.
Which would’ve been a mighty impressive ending if Sierra Britney hadn’t tripped over my groceries again and gone flying headfirst into the koi pond that Earl done built me out of an oil drum for my birthday last year.
Lucky for her I hadn’t ever gotten around to putting any water in it, much less koi. I don’t even know what koi is, to tell the truth.
So, there we all are: me huffing and puffing by the station wagon, Sally Ann trying as gracefully as she can to put her legs together, and Sierra Britney face down in a rusty ol’ oil drum with her Wonder Woman unmentionables fully visible to anyone passing by. (Thank goodness Mr. Stouge fixed the washer in the Everlasting Arms laundromat, or I don’t know what the girl might’ve been wearing.)
Tater runs over to Sally Ann and helps her to her feet, then they walk over and put Sierra Britney right-side up. The poor girl is bawling her eyes out, blubbering something about never winning no pageant and asking her mama why she couldn’t catch the baton for once. Sally Ann pats her head like she’s trying to comfort the girl, but it don’t look like she really means it.
From the corner of my eye, I see Loretta give Madge a look and a quick nod, and they both start backing away from everything.
“Where y’all going? Y’all coming back for the party, ain’t you?” I ask, taking a cue from Sally Ann’s charm school and pretending like nothing’s wrong.
“Sure, Grenadine, sure thing,” Loretta says. “I just gotta go and…check on…something.” She mumbles that last part looking straight down at her phone, and I know she got the whole thing on video and is trying to upload it somewhere. Five minutes from now, the civilized world is gonna get an eyeful. Though I suppose it wouldn’t be the first time the Everlasting Arms showed up in one of them viral videos. Too much more of that, and people are gonna start thinking we’re a bunch of rednecks down here.
“I’ll be back, too,” Madge says, stubbing out her cigarette on the bottom of her shoe. “I’m just gonna run down to the Merle Norman before they close up. It’s probably too late in the day for the makeover, but maybe I can get some tips for free.”
“Oh, Miss Madge,” Sally Ann says, “when you go, be sure to talk to Yolanda. I worked down there the summer after I finished my degree at Sylvia Charles’ House of Charm, and Yolanda taught me everything I know about makeup. She gave me this video by Donna Mills called The Eyes Have It. It changed my life. ”
Sally Ann turns to me and looks me square in the face. “For example, Miss Mills would say that because you have blue eyes, you should accentuate them by wearing blue eyeshadow. Don’t that make a world of sense?”
“Uh huh,” I say politely as I can, watching Loretta and Madge tiptoe away while Sally Ann’s back is turned to ‘em. “Maybe I’ll give that advice a shot if I ever have time to apply a little makeup to my face. Right now, though, it looks like that won’t happen ‘til sometime around Easter. Now, if you’ll excuse me, these yams ain’t gonna cook themselves, and—”
“Merry Christmas, Grenadine!” I hear somebody shout behind me.
“It’s your favorite cousins-slash-step-sisters!”
Oh, lord. I say a little prayer, hoping that it ain’t who I think it is. But the lord must be too busy preparing his own birthday party for Jesus, because he don’t hear a word I say. I turn around, and coming up the drive are Crystal and China Pitts, with Helen Highwater in tow.