Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 9:
Two Epiphanies for the Price of One
Lurleen and Punkin have been thick as thieves since they was knee-high to a roly-poly. They were in the same class as Tater down at the Pittsville Elementary, and every afternoon when I drove by to pick up my son, there they’d be: Lurleen on the corner, directing traffic with a couple of pine limbs she’d picked up off the playground, and Punkin offering to check the air pressure on everybody’s tires–for a quarter, no less. By the time Tater got out of detention, they’d be on their way to the Dairy Queen, where Mamie Sumrall says Punkin would buy them a Blizzard to share with the money he’d made that day.
Most people change as they grow up, but Lurleen and Punkin never did. By the time they got to Pittsville High, Lurleen had won three gold medals in the state crossing-guard championships, and Punkin was the youngest-ever president of the school’s Automotive and Fashion Technology Club.
The way I see it, they was lucky. You and me, we probably went through a whole bunch of careers when we was kids. In addition to wanting to be a postmistress, I once had dreams of being an international spy, a tap dancer, a nuclear scientist, a tennis pro, and one of them people that designs lampshades–a lampshade designer? I thought there was a fancier name for it, but I guess that’ll have to do.
Lurleen and Punkin, though? They knew exactly what they was supposed to do from the time they could walk, and bless their hearts, they’ve just kept on doing it.
These days, Lurleen is Pittsville’s highest-ranking crossing guard. Granted, she’s the only one we’ve got, and there’s not a lot for her to do when school ain’t in session, but she finds other ways to keep busy. In the summer, she parks down by Route 32 where it runs along Ronnie Gordon’s back forty, and she helps the turtles migrate across to Hobowamba Creek so they can do their business. I ain’t never seen a car, truck, four-wheeler, or Rascal that won’t come to a full stop when Lurleen’s got her hand up.
As for Punkin, that boy’s just about the best mechanic you ever saw. I can take my old station wagon in when it’s acting up, and he’ll say, “Why don’t you let me fix that such-and-such for you while I’m at it?” And he’ll pop the hood and show me a whole mess of things just on the brink of going wrong. That boy’s got the gift, I’ll tell you what. We ought to call him “The Station Wagon Whisperer”. Or maybe just “The Wagon Whisperer”? Lemme work on that some more and get back to you.
The funny thing is, Punkin barely charges anyone a dime. I mean, he bills folks enough to get by–his mama, Paulette, owns the garage, so she sees to that–but the money we pay is well worth it. If he weren’t so ding-dang-dong trustworthy, Punkin could make out like a bandit.
The only thing neither of ‘em ever found was love. Punkin has pined after most of the mechanics on Paulette’s staff, but very few of ‘em have been oriented in Punkin’s direction, if you know what I mean. And Lurleen…well, she just likes helping others too much, is what I think. She spends all her waking hours making sure everyone else stays safe, and doesn’t waste two minutes thinking about her own needs. For now, I guess all they really have is each other.
* * * * *
“Merry Christmas, Grenadine!” says Punkin, sounding about as bright as New Year’s Day. He hands me a milk jug full of something yellowish with a big silver bow on top. I hope to high heaven he ain’t been over to Crystal and China’s and filled up on knockoff perfume. Since Tater was born, the scent of Ivory soap is about the only thing I can stand to wear. Doctor said the birthing must’ve done something to my nerves, but the way Tater was walloping up a storm on his way out, I think the boy might’ve kicked clear up to my sinuses. Even today, my sense of smell ain’t much to write home about.
I start to twist off the cap of the jug, but Punkin stops me. “Don’t open it, Grenadine! The fumes will lay you right out. I’ll just tell you: it’s a gallon of our best gasoline!”
“Premium unleaded? Why, Punkin Pickins, you’re gonna have me putting on airs! Sugar, you are a mind-reader, I tell you what–my poor car has just this very minute run out of gas. Tater, take this and put most of it in the tank, but leave a little smidge so I can start the grill.” Tater grabs the jug, then runs off and does what I done asked him to, and I give Punkin about the biggest hug I can muster after such a long, hot day.
“I brought y’all something, too, Grenadine,” says Lurleen. She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a couple of them itty-bitty flashlights they have now, the kind that go on your keychain. “They made ‘em mostly for city employees, but since there are only about nine of us on a good day and the minimum order was for 300, we had a lot left over, so I grabbed a handful. Put ‘em on your belt and wherever. They’ll keep cars from getting you when I’m not around.”
I take the little flashlights and see they’re stamped on the side: “Pittsville Pride!” Ain’t that cute? They’ll go perfect with the brand new Judgment Day kit I’m gonna assemble.
“Well, thank you, Lurleen! You always have been safety-minded. I’ll do like you say, but I hope and pray that you’ll always be around to protect us from awful drivers.”
“I suppose I will be, at this rate,” Lurleen says, glum as can be. Punkin gives her a look and shakes his head just the tiniest little bit. “I’m sorry, Grenadine, I promised myself and Punkin here I wasn’t going to talk about the disappointing state of my life–at least not tonight. I can wait ‘til Christmas Day.”
“You already started, Lurleen,” Crystal says, still pulling sequins out of her teeth. “You might as well finish.”
“For once, Crystal’s right,” says China. “Besides, if you want to be wishing for something to change, what better time to do that than on Christmas Eve? You never know what ol’ Santa Claus might stuff down your chimney.”
“China speaks from experience,” says Crystal. “My sister may not know much, but she could host a documentary on the subject of chimney-stuffing.”
I assume you caught Crystal’s vulgar little pun. If you didn’t, far be it from me to spoil your innocence.
China makes a face like a pageant contestant who’s hit every sour note in “I Will Always Love You” but is determined to finish the talent competition with a smile anyway. “Crystal, may I speak to you in private for a moment?” She drags her sister and Helen about three feet away and proceeds to lecture the two of them about her virtue and chastity for the better part of ten minutes. Which seems an unduly long time, given the topic.
“Well,” I say, trying to keep the mood light and all, “go on, Lurleen. Tell us what you’re wishing for this year. Assuming it’s appropriate for younger ears.” I add the last bit with a nod toward Sierra Britney, who’s been put in the wobbly folding chair so her mama can touch up her hairdo.
Lurleen looks down at her feet while she talks. “It’s just that…well, I done had me one of them epiphanies, you know.”
“A what now?” I have a colorful vocabulary, but that word ain’t in it.
“An epiphany, Grenadine. Like when a lightbulb goes off in your head and you suddenly understand that something ain’t right, but it could be? I had one of them about three weeks ago during the morning rush. I’d stopped a couple of cars so the kindergarteners could cross over to the tractor shed. That’s where the kids have had to do their finger painting ever since the janitor went on a hunger strike after complaining about the state of the art room. I mean, they’re five years old, of course they’re gonna make a mess. I don’t know what ol’ Fred was expecting….
“Anyway, the kindergarten kids were crossing the street when up walks Nadine Cosgrove and her son, I forget his name, the kinda tall one with the lazy eye? Makes me nervous ‘cause I can’t never tell where he’s looking. He’s a cute little boy otherwise—-”
“Lurleen, I love you like a duck, but I got to put dinner on the table at some point,” I say, as gentle as can be.
“Right, right…. Now where was I?”
“Oh, right. So, Nadine walks up, and you know she was the crossing guard before I was, and there she is in a kind of police uniform, with a gun and everything! And I said, ‘Nadine, you done joined the force?’ And she says, ‘Nope, but it sure looks like it, don’t it? I’m a security guard down at the Walmart in Langford Falls.’ Grenadine, I tell you what, you coulda knocked me over with a feather. I didn’t even know they had a Walmart in Langford Falls. That’s five minutes nearer to my house than the one out on Route 4.”
I knew I shouldn’t have asked her to explain. As soon as it came out of my mouth, I knew that I was gonna regret it. Christmas Eve dinner is gonna be nothing but microwave fish sticks and chicken nuggets and maybe a Jenny Craig burrito, if I can find one that hasn’t expired. Lord have mercy, this is what I get for being a caring friend.
“So, the thing is,” Lurleen says, “I’m looking at Nadine and her gun and her holster and everything, and Punkin will tell you, I don’t have a jealous bone in my body, but that day, I was plum jealous. Ever since then, I been trying to find out what I need to do to become a security guard, but they’se all kind of tests and physicals and rigamarole and whatnot, and I just want to be done with it and have my gun.”
“Well now, Lurleen,” I say, kind as can be under the circumstances, “the good things in life are worth waiting for. Makes you appreciate them that more when you get ‘em. And as for the gun, you can get one of those almost anywhere, whether you’re a crossing guard or not. Heck, Vera was giving away little pink pistols a couple of weeks ago to anyone who came in for a manicure. I don’t know if she’s still running that special, but I’m sure she’s got a few lying around if you ask real nice.”
“Oh, it’s not just the gun, Grenadine. It’s the whole package,” Lurleen says. “I’ve outgrown this bright orange vest,” she says, pointing to her bright orange vest. “I want the full uniform and the badge and everything that goes with it. I want people to look at me with the same respect that they do the security guards down at the movie theatre or the ice cream shop. I want it so bad I can almost taste it. But things like that, Santa can’t put under a tree. Ain’t that right, Punkin?”
“That’s right, Lurleen,” Punkin says. “But don’t you worry none–it’ll happen. You’ll see–in another month or two, you’ll have your new outfit, and it’ll feel like you’ve been wearing it your whole life. Christmas will come to both of us, it’ll just be a little late this year.”
“Wait, now, Punkin,” I say kinda confused. “You wanna be a security guard, too?”
“Me? Oh no, indeed not. All I want at this point in my life is a nice boyfriend.”
“I thought you were still going out with Wally Grubbs. Y’all looked so cute together.”
“I was, but Wally’s way too young and innocent. Some guys find that attractive, I suppose, but I prefer guys who’ve been around the block. Besides, Wally just wanted to plop down and start a family. It seems like everyone I’ve ever dated has after the same thing: marriage and kids. I mean, I’ve got nothing against getting hitched, but I’m sure as heck not ready to settle down. I need someone who wants to travel, see beyond Hogwalla County, someone with a little wanderlust–heavy on the lust, if you know what I mean.” I can’t help blushing a bit, though whether you can tell in this heat, I don’t know.
“Well, I’ll be sure to keep my eyes open for any suitable candidates. Now, I have absolutely, positively, one-hundred-percent got to start on dinner right this very second or we’re all gonna be sitting here an hour from now staring at each other with our stomachs rumbling because we ain’t got nothing to eat.”
I start picking up my packages for the umpteenth time, and Punkin lends a hand, bless his heart. After a few seconds, I hear him behind me asking, “Hey, Grenadine, what’s this?” I spin around, and he’s holding up the body butter for all the world to see.
Lurleen looks over and sees the little tub in Punkin’s hand. “Oh, that’s just some cherry-flavored body butter.”
“What do you do with it?”
China stops talking mid-sentence, and in a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone from here to the old drive in, she and Crystal say in unison, “You rub it on your puss!”
Sally Ann looks like she’s been stabbed in the heart and slaps her hands over Sierra Britney’s ears. Tater laughs so loud that he farts, which only makes him laugh harder. Helen runs over to Punkin and tries to grab the body butter out of his hand–to what end I shudder to think–but I snatch it before she can get her paws on it.
“All right, everyone,” I say with my teeth clenched tight, “the pre-party is now closed. It is the baby Jesus’ birthday night, and I have not even applied makeup, much less started in on the yam surprise. Go on, git! Vamoose!” I pick up my broom and point the business end at everyone, and they get the hint. I don’t get mad often, but when I do, people have the decency to pay attention.
Two minutes later, everyone has wandered off. I’m gathering up the last of my groceries when I hear footsteps on the gravel. I’m sliding right into a conniption fit when I hear, “Aloha, Grenadine!”
Gladys Finkelstein has dropped by. Lord knows her timing could not be better.