Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 11: Dinner and a Show
How in blue blazes Gladys and I managed to whip this party into shape in less than an hour, I’ll never know. I just hope to high heaven we did everything right and ain’t gonna poison nobody. She and I was working like Santa’s elves in my little ol’ kitchen, opening this and defrosting that, singing along to the music of Miss Gloria Estefan. Don’t nothing get me and Gladys moving like a conga beat.
I reckon some of the credit for tonight’s lickety-split meal goes to the folks who make them dried onions, too. About three years ago, they was having a sale on ‘em down at the Piggly Wiggly, and I stocked up. Hadn’t gone through two cans since then, but tonight we put ‘em in everything, even the upside-down cake. I don’t know why those dried little boogers make everything taste so dang good, but so long as they’re legal–and I got no reason to think they ain’t–I’m not gonna ask questions. Too bad I didn’t pick up no breath mints, though. Loretta’s peppermint shrimp casserole will have to do. Provided folks can keep it down.
Oh, and the cherry on top of all this mess? Gladys and I worked so fast in the kitchen, we even managed to rustle up a runner for the card table. Technically, it’s just an old sheet from the rollaway that Tater used to sleep on as a boy, and it’s got some unfortunate stains here and there, but Gladys put the covered dishes in just the right spots to cover ‘em up. The baby Jesus himself would be proud to see it.
* * * * *
Madge is the first to arrive, still in that cute sweater set I’ve been eyeing since this afternoon. I can tell from thirty paces that the woman is excited about something or other. I know because Madge don’t get excited about nothing. Even when Hank Williams Junior’s tour bus blew a tire at the county line, she was as cool as a cucumber. But the way she’s trotting up the row, waving her arms and trying to flag me down–like I can’t see her plain as day–I know something’s up.
“Grenadine! Grenadine!” She’s wheezing and gasping like she done run a marathon. Poor thing. With all them Mistys she smokes, Madge probably can’t remember the last time she ran from the kitchen to the living room, much less down an entire row of trailers at the Everlasting Arms.
“Land sakes, Madge! What on earth is the matter?” I motion to the good folding chair like I’m on Richard Petty’s pit crew, but Madge ain’t interested in sitting down. She just leans against the card table and lights up another cigarette. The table creaks a little, and for half a second, I’m worried that the whole thing’s gonna tump over and we’re gonna be having a picnic instead of a buffet. After that first inhale, though, she straightens up, good as new, like she was sucking down pure oxygen.
“Grenadine, my troubles are over!”
“Well, ain’t that nice?” I say, not entirely sure what she’s talking about but glad it ain’t bad news. To be honest, I didn’t know Madge had much in the way of troubles other than a few spats with Ray. Lord, I hope ain’t nothing bad has happened to him.
“No, Grenadine, I mean it,” she says. “Remember how I was talking about finding something else to do with my time–something other than teaching piano to ham-fisted younguns like Sierra Britney? Well, I did it. I got me a new job!”
“My word! Congratulations, Madge!” I say, giving her a little pat on the shoulder. “That’s about as good a Christmas present as anybody could want.”
“I tell you, it was like a dream! I walked into the Merle Norman, and there was Yolanda, just like Sally Ann talked about. She took one look at me, rushed right over, and said, ‘Honey, I’m giving you a full makeover–on the house!’”
I’m listening to Madge and staring at her face, but to my eyes, she’s the same as she was an hour ago. Gladys must see something different, because she says, “Well, isn’t that sweet of her? I thought you looked a little different.”
“She hasn’t done it yet, Gladys. Yolanda says that tackling this mustache alone will take half a day–assuming there are no complications–and the beauty SWAT team was already packing up when I walked in.”
“So, she’s gonna pay you for getting a makeover?” I ask. Sounds too good to be true.
“Yes, indeed, Grenadine! Y’all are looking at the ‘worst-case scenario’ model for a new series of instructional videos from the Pittsville branch of Merle Norman. Yolanda wants to do three videos just on my upper lip–one about shaving, one about waxing, and another about bleaching. There’s a couple planned for my eyebrows, another two or three for my rosacea, then they’re gonna go after my thin lips, my bald spot, and my eczema. She says she wants to take me to shopping malls around the state–the whole state!–and use me for demonstrations. And while they’re doing all this, they’re gonna pay me and teach me to be a makeover artist myself!”
“Madge, that’s wonderful,” I say, trying to sound happy for her. Between you and me, though, the whole ordeal seems like more plucking and pulling and tweezing than I’d care to do in the privacy of my own home, much less in front of God and everybody at a mall. Apart from covering up a few gray hairs now and then, I’m happy the way I am.
Well, pretty much.
For now, anyway.
“I admit, it’s gonna be a lot of work,” Madge says. “And Yolanda warned me that some of it’s gonna be painful. But jumping Jesus on a pogo stick, if I have to listen to one more child plunk out ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ on my old upright, either I’m going to curl up and die on the spot, or Sheriff Lloyd is gonna haul me in for murder.”
And with that, Madge offers me and Gladys a couple of mystery pills to celebrate. (I decline, Gladys takes both.) Madge downs two herself with the contents of a flask she’s been hiding in her brassiere.
She and Gladys haven’t even finished swallowing when I hear Loretta shouting on the other side of the trailer. “For the last time, I said ‘no’. This is an adult party. Go on back home. Mama done left you half a pecan log and a whole box of sprinkles for dinner. You’re welcome!” When she rounds the corner, I see she’s gotten rid of the housecoat and is wearing a Christmas sweater and matching skirt. Where on earth is everybody finding these outfits? I look down at my Wranglers and my favorite “Ho Ho Ho” t-shirt and start to feel underdressed in my own trailer. Or you know, right outside it.
“Merry Christmas, Loretta!” Gladys says with that little chuckle she’s got. She could give Santa Claus a run for his money in the jolly department.
“And a happy Hanukkah to you, Gladys,” Loretta says. Then she turns to me, and I see she’s carrying another covered dish. “I brought something else for the party!”
“Oh, Loretta, you shouldn’t have!” I say, and lord knows I mean it.
“Well, it was either bring the darn thing or toss it out. It’s right on the verge of turning. The tuna fish is probably fine, but that chocolate sauce just don’t hold up in the freezer.” She drops the dish smack in the middle of the table. “My oven still ain’t working, so I had to defrost it with the blow drier. Give it another half-hour, just to be safe.”
Right about then, two voices shout out, “Merry Christmas, y’all!” Even before I turn around, I can tell it’s Punkin and Lurleen. Punkin is wearing a pair of bright red holiday overalls with two sprigs of holly on the collar. He’s got one of them funny headbands, too–the kind with the little stick on top and a ball of plastic mistletoe dangling from it, the scamp.
Lurleen is another story. She’s changed out of her crossing guard uniform and is now wearing a sparkly police outfit covered in sequins. It’s a sight and a half, I tell you what. Even her little fake pistol is covered in bling. She looks like she walked right out of a Glen Campbell holiday special from 1978. Gladys can barely control herself.
“Lurleen! Where on earth did you get that outfit?” Gladys asks, putting out her hand all reverent, like she was about to touch Joseph’s coat of many colors.
“Oh, I made it. It was gonna be my Halloween costume, but I couldn’t get the pistol just right, and every store from here to London was fresh out of glue guns.”
“Ha!” says Gladys. “That’s a twist. Your pistol was held up by a glue gun!” She’s a funny one, that Gladys.
“I never thought of it that way,” says Lurleen, cracking the tiniest little smile while everybody else belly-laughs. “Anyway, I finished it about a week ago. Figured I’d give it a test run tonight. Maybe some of y’all will forget and be surprised when I pull it out again next October.”
“By then, you’ll be a real security guard and won’t even need the costume!” I say, trying to keep things light, but she just shrugs.
“Maybe so,” she says, cracking open a Dr. Pepper from the cooler. Lord, but she’s glum.
I turn around to take the lid off Loretta’s dish and see Tater has arrived, with Sally Ann and Sierra Britney in tow. Sally Ann and Sierra look just as cute as before, and Tater…well, I think the boy might’ve changed his t-shirt. I suppose that counts as some kind of holiday miracle. “Merry Christmas, mama!” he hollers, and I cringe to think of Mr. Stouge quivering in his trailer.
“Merry Christmas, Tater,” I say as everybody falls into little groups, chatting and whatnot. Madge and Loretta are smoking in the corner, Gladys and Punkin are tidying up the buffet, and Lurleen is talking to Sally Ann and Sierra Britney about costume-making.
“We brought you a pumpkin pie for tonight,” Tater says, handing me a can of pumpkin pie filling.
“You didn’t happen to bring a crust, did you, son?”
“I figured you’d have a few lying around the house. I know how much daddy likes ‘em.”
“Hank told your daddy he couldn’t eat no more raw pie crusts. He was so upset, I just kept buying ‘em for a little while. Then one day I flat-out lied and told him they stopped making ‘em. Your daddy ain’t never set foot in a grocery store, and he ain’t fixing to neither, so if my luck holds out, he’ll never know the truth.”
Right about that time, everybody goes quiet as field mice. I look around and see they’re all staring up the row, their mouths hanging open like they was trying to catch flies. And all because Johnny Shoemake has arrived, wearing an adorable Christmas skirt-and-sweater set.
It ain’t been three hours since Johnny admitted that he–sorry, she–wanted to start transitioning, and already, she’s got nicer clothes than me. I’m this close to going inside and changing my outfit.
“Hello, everybody,” Johnny says kinda soft. “Happy holidays.”
Everybody just keeps on staring, not saying nothing, so I take the lead. “Happy holidays, sugar!” I shout, loud as can be, not giving a fig what Stouge thinks. “Come on in and join the party!”
Five minutes later, Johnny–sorry, Joanne–is telling everybody her story. The short version is that she went home and had “The Talk” with Bernice, and Bernice didn’t even bother looking up from the afghan she was making–as if Joanne was saying she’d put some gas in the car or that she’d had a bad order of tater tots down at the Sonic. As Loretta suspected, Bernice already knew.
I suppose that’s the best outcome in a case like this. Heck, I can imagine things going much, much worse for some people. Still, it sounds like Bernice didn’t so much as hug Joanne or nothing. Just kept on crocheting and said that she was getting a cold and didn’t want to come to the party and infect us all. Being nonchalant is one thing, but that just sounds a mite cruel.
Well, I’m sure it’ll work itself out.
After everyone’s heard Joanne’s story, and after she’s given me the recipe for the salad she brought (she calls it a “Knee Swayze”, but what it has to do with Patrick Swayze, I don’t know), Sally Ann corners her and starts dispensing fashion tips. Before I know it, Madge has run off to her trailer and gotten the beginner’s beauty kit they done gave her at the Merle Norman, and she and Sally Ann start gabbing about highlights and contours and lip liners. The two of ‘em give her a full makeover right there by the buffet table, and Joanne’s having the time of her life.
Finally, just as I’m about to cut into the yam surprise and sit for a spell, I hear Crystal and China coming up the row, shouting at the tip-top of their lungs, “Merry Christmas, y’all!” I look up from the table, and there they are, both of ‘em wearing reindeer cardigans and matching red and green stirrup pants. It’s just so precious I could spit. I know you can’t see it, but the sweaters make it look like you’re staring right at Dasher and Dancer as they’re pulling Santa’s sleigh–one’s on the left side of the zipper, the other’s on the right. It’s a painting come to life, I swear.
That said, the sweaters ain’t perfect. For starters, these Dashers and Dancers have little light-up noses, and I’m pretty sure Rudolph was the only one to possess such a thing–otherwise, why would them other reindeer have kept him out of their games?
Also, the way the sweaters are made, the noses sit right on each bosom, so they look like red hot N-I-P-P-L-E-S. The effect is a tad tawdry, if you ask me. I’m sure the folks who made ‘em didn’t mean it that way, but I sure as heck wouldn’t wear such a thing. Not to Sunday school, anyway.
Right behind Crystal and China, there’s Helen. Thankfully, she’s not wearing anything too cute and Christmasy, so I don’t feel as underdressed as I did a minute ago. She’s shuffling along, carrying a couple of microphones and other stuff. I guess we’re in for another performance, may god help us all. The three of ‘em stop in the middle of the row and wait until everybody’s quieted down.
“Y’all, tonight is such a special night!” China says like she’s telling a story to first-graders.
“That’s right,” says Crystal. “And not just because it’s Christmas Eve.”
“Though that’s part of it,” says China. “Remember the reason for the season.”
Everybody dutifully says “amen,” like we was in church. Lord, please don’t let this be a sermon–not from these two.
“No, what makes tonight special,” Crystal says, giving a little nod to Helen, “is that y’all are gonna be the first people on Earth to get a sneak peek at the opening number of our new show!” She and China clap but nobody else does. We’ve all been down this road before, and everybody’s expecting a bumpy ride.
“Now, earlier today, we showed some of you a piece from our Dolly Madison musical,” China says, then drops her voice a little. “If you missed it, you’re just gonna have to wait for the movie. Our agent’s talking to Reba’s people right this very minute.”
Everybody oohs and aahs, but I got me a feeling they ain’t talking about Ms. McEntire. There’s more than one Reba, you know.
“What you’re about to see, though, is from something else–something being written by our protege, Miss Helen Highwater,” says Crystal. About that time, Helen, who’s had her back to us all, whips around wearing a sparkly eyepatch and carrying a plastic hatchet. The blade’s been dipped in red glitter, making it look kinda bloody, but in a Las Vegas-y kind of way. Not that I’d have any first-hand experience with that city of sin, mind you. The Showgirls movie told me more than I needed to know.
“In her spare time, Helen has been writing a play about the life of Lizzie Borden,” says China. “And since everybody seems to love a historical revue these days, we’re gonna perform a selection for you, with Helen herself acting out the title role.”
Helen looks about as proud as a peacock. Then Crystal says, “She can’t really sing, so for the real show, we’re gonna have to use somebody else. But for now, she’ll do. Ain’t that right, Helen?”
Helen shoots Crystal a look like a sad puppy, then pulls herself together as China picks up a ukulele and starts strumming. It’s the theme song to Gilligan’s Island again. These girls ought to learn a few more tunes if they wanna make it in the big time.
China sings the first verse: “Way up north in olden days, there was a little girl. The kids all thought that she was weird, so her best friend was a squirrel.”
All of a sudden, Helen pulls out a stuffed squirrel from under her dress–not one of the cute kind you buy at a toy store, but one like you’d get from Wayne Holifield’s taxidermy shop. Matter of fact, I think that’s the squirrel that Earl took down a couple of years ago that I’ve been displaying in the bathroom. I ought to check next time I have to pee.
While Helen’s having some kind of imaginary conversation with her squirrel friend, Crystal starts the next verse. “The girl grew up and got real strong, muscles rippled on her back. One day she told her ma and pa, ‘I’ll be a lumberjack!’” Helen stands tall as she can and puts the hatchet over her shoulder. I guess she’s trying to look like that Paul Bunyan fella, but as I’ve said, I ain’t all that knowledgeable about theatre.
Right on cue, here comes China. “Her parents gasped and set her down, said, ‘Lizzie, that can’t be. A year from now you will be wed to Johnny Appleseed!’” Helen acts as about as shocked as I am. I had no idea that Johnny Appleseed was a real person. The piece is educational, I’ll give it that much.
Crystal whispers the next verse, like she’s telling a ghost story. “The girl told this to her squirrel friend, whose name was Falala. He shook his head and told the girl, ‘Go kill your ma and pa!’” Then Helen slaps the sides of her face like that kid from that Home Alone movie. I wonder what he’s doing right about now. I hope he’s not dead.
Land sakes, this show has me thinking some grim thoughts–and on Christmas Eve, too.
China makes a couple of angry strums on the ukulele and changes keys. “The girl was torn–what should she do? Get hitched? Become a killer? To help her think she did the dance from Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.”
Helen runs over to a boom box and hits a button, and next thing you know, she’s doing moonwalks and acting like a zombie, with Michael Jackson singing in the background. Crystal and China join in, with Crystal shouting, “This is the dance break! I know it don’t make no sense, but the kids today love this kinda thing! It’s wacky and cross-cultural and stuff!”
I am completely lost. This is why I don’t go to live theatre. About a third of it is cursing, another third is boring as all get out, and the rest just lands above my head.
After a minute of that nonsense, Helen shuts off the music and China starts playing again. Crystal sings, “When she was done, poor Lizzie understood what she must do. She took her axe and went downstairs. Then ma and pa she slew.”
China bumps up the key one more time. I had no idea she had that kind of vocal range. The girl must’ve been practicing. “Her dad was in the outhouse, where she gave him forty whacks. She killed her ma with forty-one, then dropped her bloody axe.” Helen acts out everything as China sings it, pretending to kill Crystal as her daddy and China as her mama. Then she pulls that Home Alone face again and runs off behind the trailer. Don’t ask me why, but I’m beginning to question the historical accuracy of Helen’s work.
China slows down the rhythm and drops the song back to its original key. Crystal brings it on home: “Ain’t no one seen poor Lizzie since her parents met their end. But in the woods you’ll hear her chopping carried on the wind. Carried on the wind!”
China finishes with one last strum, and Helen creeps out to join them in the middle of the row. They bow, but ain’t no one applauding–well, Loretta is, and laughing up a storm, too. Gladys is clapping a tad to be polite. Everybody else is just kinda sitting there with their mouths open, including me.
Sally Ann speaks up first, which isn’t all that surprising, since Crystal and China done got the jump on her own performance with Sierra Britney. “Well, that was…interesting. Little violent for Christmas Eve though, don’t you think?” I can tell she’s mad because she has this way of smoothing her hair down when she’s about to pitch a fit. Tater hasn’t learned to spot it yet, the poor thing.
China turns to Sally Ann, looking like she’s offended. “But it takes place during Christmas!”
“What?” ask about five people, all at the same time.
“The name of the squirrel was ‘Falala’,” says Crystal. “You know, like that ‘Deck the Halls’ song? It don’t get no more Christmasy than that.”
“Plus,” China says, “everybody knows that Christmas is squirrel-hunting season.”
“Maybe you could put some antlers on the squirrel next time,” says Loretta, slurring a little. “That’d be right cute.”
“With all due respect, Loretta,” Helen says, “that would compromise the integrity of the work. The squirrel symbolizes Satan. I reject the notion that we should make him cuter and more attractive than he already is.” Helen’s kind of a smartypants, if you haven’t figured it out. Why she’s hanging around with numbskulls like Crystal and China I have yet to understand.
“I liked the faces you made, Helen,” Gladys says, trying to calm everybody down. “That was great acting. I was really scared!”
“Thank you, Gladys. I’m glad some people can appreciate our performance on its own merits.” She shoots a big load of stink eye in Loretta’s direction.
“All right, now, if everybody would like to see a number about the true meaning of Christmas, Sierra Britney and I have something to share with you,” says Sally Ann, standing up with a smile on her face that would frighten grown men. “Tater, light the batons.”
But before Tater gets halfway to the barbecue pit, there’s a hooting and a hollering coming from Mr. Stouge’s trailer. “Grenadine! Grenadine McGunkle!”