Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 12: A B+ of a Christmas Eve
I look down at my watch and tap on the glass to make sure it ain’t stopped. Sure enough, the little red hand is circling Minnie’s head, just like it always does. Unless my eyesight’s started to go all of a sudden, it ain’t even nine o’clock yet! So what in the devil can that man be shouting about?
I don’t have to wait long to find out. Stouge’s voice is still bouncing off the trailers when he rounds the bend, running up the row like a bat out of Hellman’s Mayonnaise. Whatever he’s upset about, it’s got to be big. Under normal circumstances, the man don’t even walk fast.
Before Stouge gets too close, I shoot a look at Earl, hoping for some backup, but he’s still in his chair by the barbecue grill. How that man can sleep through all this racket, I’ll never know. Some folks in white coats ought to take him to a lab and put him under a microscope.
I notice my husband did wake up long enough to get himself a beer, though, ‘cause there’s a cold one sitting in his lap. Must’ve been when Gladys and I was inside cooking, the sneaky so-and-so. Good thing, too–if I’d seen him awake, you can bet your bottom dollar I would’ve asked him to help clean up. Not that he’d have actually lent a hand, mind you.
Marriage is a complicated thing, is what I’m trying to say.
By the time I look around from checking on Earl, Stouge is within spitting distance. “Grenadine! Grenadine!” he hollers again at the top of his lungs. Lord, someone needs to tell that man about mouthwash.
“Look here, Mr. Stouge,” I say, trying to keep my wits together. “It’s barely half past eight, and we’ve done an awful good job of keeping our voices down ‘til now. I ain’t no lawyer, but I believe that we are perfectly within our rights to have a little get-together once a year to celebrate the birth of our lord and—”
“Merry Christmas!” Stouge shouts from three feet away, looking around at all of us. “Merry Christmas, everybody!”
Now, I’ve seen a lot of stuff today, including a few things I shouldn’t have. And I’m not even talking about what I glimpsed on Earl’s computer while I was making breakfast. Good goobity goo, that internet’s a mess, ain’t it?
But nothing–and I mean nothing with a capital “NO”–compares with Ephraim Stouge wishing everyone at the Everlasting Arms Motor Park a merry Christmas.
I don’t think nobody moves for a solid minute. If aliens was to come down from the sky right now, they’d take one look at us and think the whole planet was nothing but a bunch of festive little statues.
Finally, I manage to say something. “Mr. Stouge, are you feeling alright? You ain’t been drinking, have you?”
“Not a drop, but thanks for asking,” he says with a wink.
Y’all, I don’t think I’m ready for a world where Ephraim Stouge winks. The End Times is surely upon us. Now, where on earth could I have put that dang-blasted Judgment Day Emergency Kit?
“Well,” I say, trying to recover a tad, “I’m glad you’ve found the Christmas spirit. Would you like to join our little party?”
“Indeed, I would, Grenadine. And I brought a covered dish. I hope it’s okay. I made a batch earlier, and it was so good, I thought I’d make another just for y’all.”
“Why, thank you,” I say as politely as I can, looking at the dish in his hand, half convinced that it ain’t nothing but rat poison. “What is it?”
“It’s my great-grandmother’s mushroom casserole. And I picked the mushrooms myself–there was a whole bunch of ‘em growing right behind Tater and Sally Ann’s trailer!”
Sally Ann shoots Tater a look like a ball peen hammer and whispers loud enough for everyone in Hogwalla County to hear, “Tater, that was our stash! Now how are we gonna pay for Sierra Britney’s pageant dresses?”
“What do you mean, mama?” Sierra Britney asks. “I’m still gonna be a beauty queen, ain’t I?” Then, the poor girl bursts into tears. She may not be much for dancing, but Sierra could win a gold medal when it comes to ugly crying. (Loretta would say that’s because she’s got a head start in the ugly department, but I ain’t that mean-spirited.)
“Don’t you worry none, Sierra,” says Tater. I’m gonna take care of them dresses and your mama, too. Toss me my tobacco.”
Sierra Britney wipes a big bubble of snot on the sleeve of her sweater and throws Tater the Skoal can she’s been hiding in her unmentionables. Then, Tater gets down on one knee. I thought everybody was quiet before, but somehow, it just got quieter. I swear on a stack of bibles, you could hear Darrell Jeffcoats pop the top off a PBR clear on the other side of town.
“Sally Ann, will you—”
“Yes, Tater, I will marry you!” Sally Ann shouts before he can finish, lifting Tater off his feet and laying a kiss on him, just like in the movies. Everybody starts to clapping, even me. I admit I have some lingering concerns about this marriage, but right now, I am just as happy as a pig in poop.
Next thing you know, everyone’s taking pictures of Tater and Sally Ann and Sierra Britney on their phones, then they all start posting them on the Twitters and the Instabooks and whatnot. It ain’t a minute later when them same phones start to ringing with folks wanting to hear the details.
Loretta is laughing up a storm with her phone to her ear, but considering how much she’s been smoking, I can’t promise there’s anyone on the line. Punkin’s talking to somebody, too–and given how he’s describing the outfit Sally Ann’s wearing, it’s probably that society columnist Louella Weems over at the Hogwalla Weekly. Joanne is livestreaming the whole thing, but every now and then she turns the camera around so she can dispense some makeup tips.
After about five minutes of this, Crystal walks back over from where I assume she’s been gossiping on the phone and shouts at the top of her lungs, “Y’all ain’t gonna believe this! I have some news that is going to blow your cotton-picking minds!” Lord, I wish she’d just be happy for her cousin/step-nephew instead of trying to be the center of attention, but that ain’t her way, bless her heart.
Everybody finally quiets down long enough for Crystal to blurt out, “China and me done been hired to perform on a cruise ship!”
I take back what I said a second ago. That really is some news worth sharing.
China runs up to her sister looking confused and happy and about a thousand other things. “Well, don’t just sit there like a knot on a log, Crystal, give me the details! Do we get a dressing room this time?”
“Oh, it’s better than that! Are you sitting down?” Crystal asks, even though she can see that China is standing not two feet away. She talks in little bursts like she can’t catch her breath. I hope I can remember my CPR if it comes down to it. “We. Have been hired. To perform a new musical. Based on the life of Miss Jane Goodall. AND! We’re gonna do it on the deck of a Greenpeace boat. While they’re ramming oil tankers in the Gulf of Mexico!”
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: I just don’t understand live theatre.
“But I thought you said it was a cruise ship,” China says.
Crystal rolls her eyes so far up in her head she can probably see backward. “It’s a ship, China. And they’re gonna be cruising through the Gulf. That makes it a cruise ship.”
“But where will the audience be?” China says.
“Well, the way Arnold explained it, there ain’t gonna be much of an audience–at least not on the ship. It’s probably just gonna be a Greenpeace person filming us and an intern over in the corner tweeting about what we’re doing. I guess it’s more like performance art or something. But it’s gonna run live on the internet, so we could have dozens of people watching. Maybe even a hundred!”
China looks like she’s trying to be excited, though she’s still got a frown on her face. “But Crystal, we ain’t got a musical about Jane Goodall. Ain’t she that tire lady?”
Crystal rolls her eyes again. One day they’re gonna stick like that. “You’re thinking about Jane Goodyear. Or Goodrich. Or Goodwrench. Now that you mention it, I’m not even sure that’s a real person. Anyway, Jane Goodall is the monkey lady. Remember, she was in that commercial on the gorilla channel or whatever, and the next day, we told Arnold we had a show about her?” China seems to recall it, or at least she wants to. “Don’t worry none. We can just take that interpretive dance we worked up about the Boston Tea Party and add a couple of songs. It’s all eco-terrorism, right?”
“I suppose,” says China. Then she has another thought: “Does it pay?”
Crystal’s face goes blank for a second. “I didn’t think to ask about that. I’m sure it pays something, though. And the best part is, we can take an entourage! Well, two people. Helen, you’re still going to be our gopher, of course. And Lurleen, if you want, you can be our bodyguard! It’ll be good practice for your security guard training.”
Lurleen smiles the tiniest little bit, but Helen’s face lights up like the Christmas tree down at city hall. She grabs the only person within arm’s reach–Punkin–and lays a kiss on him just like in From Here to Eternity. Punkin is none too pleased, but he’s polite enough not to wipe his lips afterward.
Everybody crowds around Crystal and China to congratulate them, even Sally Ann. When Gladys leans in to hug them, she asks kinda quiet like, “Will your tour take you anywhere near Miami?”
“As a matter of fact, that’s our final destination!” says Crystal.
“Would you mind taking a few things to my son, Daniel? I’ve been knitting all these sweaters for him, but I just can’t bring myself to send them by mail. It’s so darned expensive! No offense, Joanne.”
“None taken, Gladys,” says Joanne without looking up from her phone.
“Hmmm,” says Crystal, putting on her thinking face. “I think we can do you one better, Gladys. We can’t have but four in our entourage, but if you don’t mind stowing away, we’d be happy to have you join us on the ship! We’ve got a steamer trunk that’s the perfect size–Helen used to use it before we became famous enough to travel with a squad. It’s a little on the small side, but it’s comfortable. We recently put in some airholes, too, so breathing ain’t a problem like it used to be. And I’m sure Helen cleaned it out thoroughly after her stomach bug incident.”
Helen’s eyes go wide as dinner plates. “Of course I did. I’m not some cretin!” she says, sprinting off in the direction of Crystal and China’s trailer.
Five minutes later, everybody’s attention has turned back to Sally Ann, and we’ve heard every detail of her dream wedding twice over. The short version is that it takes place in Branson at one of them big theatres with knights in shining armor, like in olden times. She wants her and Tater to get married on horseback, which sounds alright, I guess, but I’ve been on exactly one horse in my life and the darned thing wouldn’t stop peeing. If I were in her shoes, I’d prefer something a little more traditional.
Meanwhile, Crystal and China have done some researching on Jane Goodall and learned that she’s from London (the place over in England, not the seat of Callawamba County). They’re drinking beer with their pinkies out and practicing their accents by shouting “Off with her head!” There’s also been some heated discussion about who’s going to play Jane and who’s playing her best friend, the gorilla. I ain’t no Dionne Warwick, but I’m predicting a fistfight before long.
Eventually, Helen comes back, dragging a steamer trunk that she’s obviously just hosed out because the inside is sopping wet. “See, Gladys, it’s the perfect size,” she says, and I admit, it’s not bad–bigger than the closet in my trailer, anyhow. “There were a couple of outfits still in it, but with a little Febreeze, they’ll be good as new.” She hands two sparkly dresses over to Crystal.
“Oh my word, I’d plum forgotten about this one,” says Crystal, looking at the dress on top. “I had it made for a student film we was in about carnivorous plants. It’s supposed to be a venus flytrap, but the director thought it was too sexy. It’d be great on you, if you want it,” she says, handing the dress to Joanne.
“I’ll cherish it for the rest of my days,” says Joanne, standing up and holding the dress to her chest. I don’t know that it looks much like a plant, but it sure is green, I’ll give you that much.
“And look here!” China says, taking a big white wad of fabric out of Crystal’s hands. “Do you remember this? I wore it in that musical revue about golf?”
“Lord, don’t remind me,” says Crystal. “Musical theatre can work plenty of magic, but not on golf.”
“You got that right,” says China, turning to Sierra Britney. “I think it’d be just about your size.” That ain’t much of a compliment. The dress is as big as a pickup, and it’s shaped like a giant golf ball. It’d fit a dozen Sierra Britneys–and a couple of Sally Anns, too.
“You mean it? A real pageant dress?” Sierra asks, like she’s in a dream. I can’t imagine what kind of pageant judges want to see contestants looking like humongous golf balls on stage, but there’s probably a few somewhere.
“I do indeed,” says China. “You take good care of it, now. I brushed up against President Obama’s backside while I was wearing it one night. Tried to give it to the Smithsonian, but they wasn’t interested. I’ll see about digging up the rejection letter. I think I had it framed.”
Sally Ann’s eyes light up. “That’s a collector’s item, sugar! It could be your downpayment for beauty school!”
“Oh, thank you, China!” says Sierra Britney, giving her a hug.
“It’s Aunt China now,” China says, though I’m not entirely sure she’s right. “Merry Christmas, Sierra. You go try it on, and Madge and me will give you a makeover to go with it!”
“How about a mommy-daughter makeover?” Sally Ann asks, looking at Madge with one of her big ol’ terrifying smiles.
Them pills must be doing quite a number on Madge because she don’t bat an eye before saying, “Why not? After the burgers are done, we’ll do makeovers for everybody!”
“Well, alrighty then!” I say, looking right at Tater. “We’d best get that grill going.”
“Right away, mama!” Tater says, tossing the last of Punkin’s gasoline onto the grill, container and all. Then he reaches into Sally Ann’s handbag and starts loading up the charcoal with hairspray, Dippity-Doo, and some other stuff. I ain’t entirely sure how a barbecue grill is gonna react to so many beauty products, but Tater looks like he knows what he’s doing, so I’m happy to leave well enough alone.
I take just a minute to look around, and I’m pleased to report that we’ve got a pretty successful party on our hands. My son’s getting married, Joanne’s made her debut, Crystal and China are shipping out, and Mr. Stouge ain’t gonna shut us down. I’d call it a solid B+ of a Christmas Eve.
But despite all that, Punkin’s sitting by the buffet table, staring down at his feet and looking about as sad as the little match girl. I walk over and ask as soft as I can, “You feeling alright, sugar? If you had too much merriment, I can put on a pot of coffee.”
He looks up at me with eyes like an old hound dog. Lord, I ain’t never seen that boy so depressed. “Thanks, Grenadine. It’s not that. It’s just—” And with that, the boy bursts into tears like a sprinkler in the middle of July. Everybody is polite enough to pretend that it ain’t happening, but I can tell they’re all listening with one ear.
“You wanna go inside and lie down, Punkin? Earl ain’t about to move anytime soon–you can have his easy chair if you want.”
“No, no, I’ll be fine,” he says, blowing his nose in a paper towel. “It’s just that.…” He’s quiet for half a minute.
“Just what? Is there something I can do?”
“No, Grenadine, that’s awful kind of you, but it’s…well, it’s just that everyone here is so dang happy.”
That’s not what I was expecting him to say. The folks who heard it–by which I mean everybody at the party, of course–quiet down a notch, waiting for him to go on.
“But it’s the holidays,” I say. “Everybody’s miserable the whole rest of the year. This is when you’re supposed to be happy.”
“I know, I know. I apologize, Grenadine. I’m just feeling sorry for myself. Crystal and China are going on tour with Helen and Gladys and Lurleen. Madge has a new job. Johnny has a new life and a new ball gown to go with it. Tater and Sally Ann are getting hitched. All I want is a boyfriend–a man I can watch TV with and fall asleep with and show how to change a tire. I mean, am I that hideous that I can’t find one decent man in all of Hogwalla County?”
“Well, of course not, sugar!” I say, straightening the mistletoe dangling over his head. “You’re one of the most eligible bachelors in the state! The right one’ll show up–sometimes, it just takes him a while to find you.”
I hear someone behind me cough a little bit. I turn around, and there’s Mr. Stouge, slicking down what’s left of his hair. “Funny you should mention all this, Punkin,” he says. “I’ve been wondering the same thing. Would you maybe want to go see a movie after all this is over?”
Let me stop here for a minute and say that I have never felt sorry for Mr. Stouge, not once in my life. I don’t hate the man–I do my best not to hate anybody. But he can be a real ornery cuss, if you know what I mean.
Right now, though, my heart breaks a little watching him ask Punkin out. Punkin’s young and cute and funny and friendly, and Mr. Stouge is…well, he ain’t none of those things. I know Punkin said that he’s looking for someone older who’s been around the feedlot a few times, but I can’t imagine that Mr. Stouge is what he has in mind.
Then again, you never really know anybody’s heart. So, I can’t say for sure whether Punkin is romantically interested in Mr. Stouge or if he’s just being polite when he says, “I’d love that, Ephraim.” But either way, I’m happy for them both–happy that Mr. Stouge has some company for a while, and happy to know that Punkin has such a good soul. Maybe even a boyfriend.
Mr. Stouge leans over and gives Punkin a big kiss on the cheek. “Thank you, Punkin! You’ve made me the happiest man in Hogwalla County tonight!”
Stouge looks up and sees everybody staring in his direction. He pauses for just a second and says, “Listen up, y’all! I’m turning over a new leaf, right this very minute! I promise, I will try to be a better landlord. Tater and Sally Ann, I will do my best not to pick from your mushroom patch. Grenadine, I will try not to throw a fit about noise.”
Then he turns to face Loretta, who freezes like she done seen another possum in her toilet. “And Loretta, as a special gift to you, I’m going to wipe your balance clean. We’ll start over from scratch next month!”
Everybody gasps like they can’t believe what they’re seeing, and Loretta promptly falls out. Later, she’ll probably tell me that she tripped on a beer can or something, but believe you me: that woman faints. Falls like a ton of bricks. Good thing she’s wearing two wigs and a Bumpit, or she’d be down at Hogwalla General right this very minute getting stitched up.
As all the commotion is dying down, I hear my kitchen timer go off. “The yam surprise is done!” I race inside, pull it out of the oven with a couple of winter socks (it’s too hot to be wearing ‘em now anyway), and step back out of the trailer. “Who wants a slice?”
Everybody raises a hand, and I start doling it out as fast as I can. You gotta eat it while it’s piping hot–that’s the trick of a good yam surprise.
“Oh, Grenadine, this is your best batch yet!” says Sally Ann, licking her spoon.
“Tastes sweeter than I remember it, though,” says China.
“Uh-huh. Like cherries,” says Tater.
I got my face down in my plate, but I can feel everybody turn their heads in my direction, real slow like. I look up and see the whole party staring at me.
“What?” I say. “It’s called ‘body butter’ for a reason. I wasn’t just gonna let it go to waste.”
I must’ve made some sense because two seconds later, everybody’s digging in again.
“Hey, mama!” Tater says, “Can I light the grill now?”
“Lord yes! Alright everybody, I got burgers, weiners, and a few of them tofu dogs that some of y’all like, plus all the fixings, including French dressing. Now, just tell me who wants what—”
And with that, a bomb goes off at the Everlasting Arms Motor Park.
At least that’s what it sounds like.
“Armageddon is upon us!” I shout, upset for the umpteenth time in 24 hours that my Judgment Day Emergency Kit has gone missing. “Hit the dirt!”
I dive for the ground, and when I look up again, flames are leaping off the grill twenty feet in the air. Sally Ann shouts over the roar of the fire, “Dangit, Tater, did you use my Aquanet again? That stuff’s expensive!”
Punkin grabs the beer out of Tater’s hand and starts to throw it on the fire, but Tater yanks it right back. With his left foot, he kicks the lid of the grill closed to smother the flames and chugs the rest of the PBR. “Now, Punkin, that ain’t no way to use a perfectly good beer!”
As I get up and start dusting myself off, I see that I was the only one to duck and cover apart from Earl. “Tater,” I say, “help your daddy up before he suffocates in the dirt.”
Tater tries his best, but Earl won’t budge. Lurleen steps over to lend a hand, but she stops after a second and feels on his neck. She looks at Tater, then she looks at me. “He’s dead, y’all.”
* * * * *
An hour later, the ambulance has come and gone, taking my Earl for his final ride. The fire department has finished, too. They say hairspray may have played a part in the explosion, but the alcohol fumes from my husband was the trigger. I told Earl all that drinking would kill him, but I never imagined this.
I don’t know what to do with myself, so I join everybody in the cleanup, putting away covered dishes and trying not to think about anything beyond making room in the fridge.
I have no way of knowing if Earl was conscious for Tater’s proposal. I hope he was. If there’s an upside to all this, I guess it’s that Earl died in his favorite spot: beside the barbecue grill. That’s something, I suppose.
Tater comes up to me after everything’s been put away. “Mama, I found this by daddy’s chair. You might wanna take a look at it.”
He hands me a wadded-up slip of paper. I start reading, and all of a sudden, I can’t catch my breath. “Hey! Hey, everybody, listen to this!”
Madge and Joanne and Loretta and everybody else stop what they’re doing and gather round. “Tater found this on the ground by Earl. It’s a receipt from Spencer Gifts for pepper-flavored gum, something called ‘Fart in a Can’, and….body butter!”
I look up at the night sky with tears running down my cheeks, and I swear I can see a new constellation there, past the trees and the clouds and the light pollution. It’s my husband, looking down on all of us with a beer in his hand and a smile on his face.
“Oh, Earl,” I whisper. “Even in death, you are a hopeless romantic.”