Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 8: Dance of the Sugar Plum Tarts


Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 8:
Dance of the Sugar Plum Tarts

If you read the arrest reports in Hogwalla Weekly, you are no doubt familiar with the names Crystal and China Pitts. In the past year alone, they’ve been cited five times for disturbing the peace (they said they was having a “band rehearsal”, but it sounded more like they was hosting a cat-breeding convention in the middle of a fireworks festival); three times for disorderly conduct (they was probably drunk, too, but the county’s only breathalyzer has been broken since before Reagan took office); and one time for impersonating a passel of hogs (which is apparently something that somebody did once back in olden times and caused a whole lot of commotion, leading to a law that had never been enforced until Crystal and China came along).

For those who don’t subscribe to Hogwalla Weekly–and I don’t recommend you do, seeing as how they stopped running Paul Harvey about six months back–I’ll fill you in real quick.

But first, you ought to know a bit about my family tree.

Crystal and China were born to my daddy, Donald Berry, and his first wife, Cherry Shows. Daddy and Cherry didn’t last more than a year on account of Cherry didn’t like the fact that her married name had become Cherry Berry, which just sounded too cutesy for her tastes. You’d think she might’ve seen that one coming before walking down the aisle. Continue reading

Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 7: Bless Her Heart


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. Continue reading

Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 6: Surprise Packages


Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 6:
Surprise Packages

When Johnny Shoemake moseyed into Pittsville some fifteen 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. Continue reading

Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 5: Dishing Over a Covered Dish


Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 5:
Dishing Over a Covered Dish

I’ve known Loretta Lopez since you were in short pants.

It will not surprise you to hear that in grade school, she was the class clown–though naturally, Loretta was the meanest clown you ever done seen. On the day that the 4-H Club was having tryouts for the livestock cheerleading squad, she brought a mess of brownies for snack time. She stood there in front of God and everybody and said that her mama done made ‘em, but she gave me a big ol’ wink when she said it, so I knew something was up.

Poor Betty Meador should’ve known, too, since she and Loretta had just had a knock-down, drag-out under the jungle gym the day before. And all on account of gangly little Hank McAlpin–can you imagine?

Technically speaking, Betty won the fight, though if Coach Everett hadn’t flicked his cigarette butt at Loretta to break it up, Betty would’ve walked home with one of Loretta’s sneakers embedded in her backside. Hank was so impressed by Betty’s punching skills, he asked her to go steady later that afternoon.

Betty was prepared to spend the better part of a week rubbing her so-called victory in Loretta’s face, but Loretta nipped that nonsense right in the bud–courtesy of a heaping helping of Ex-Lax in Betty’s brownie. It’s hard to gloat when you’re perched on the toilet for a day and a half.

And that wasn’t the worst of it for Betty, neither. She’d spent days planning a routine for the 4-H tryouts, complete with sparklers and boxes of Milk Duds for the judges, but obviously she was sidelined due to her gastrointestinal distress. The following week, Miss Broadway took pity on the girl and squeezed her onto the goat team, but everybody knows that cheering for a bunch of prize goats is about as rewarding as teaching a bunch of bald men to braid their own hair. The chicken team was where all the cool girls wanted to be. Still is to this day, I reckon. Continue reading

Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 4: A Fly in the Ornament


Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 4:
A Fly in the Ornament

Sugar, let me tell you something: Ephraim Stouge is not the kind of person you want to visit with before your first cup of coffee. If you’re one of those poor, lost souls that believes in decaf, you might never want to face the man, lord help you.

First off, Mr. Stouge is loud. Everything he does, it sounds like somebody’s dropping an atom bomb two doors down. You ever seen the movie Showgirls? Earl and me went to have a look at it years ago, over at the dollar theatre. Stickiest floors I ever done walked on in my life, and after the movie was over, I knew why. Thank the heavens my mama and daddy have passed on to their great reward, because I couldn’t live with myself, thinking that they might’ve found out that I paid good money to sit and watch nearly three godless hours of pure-D smut. I know it was only a dollar, but it’s the principle, you understand.

Anyway. You know that actress who stars in it, that blonde that dances a lot nowadays? The one in the movie who just stomps around and throws things and yells at people out of the blue, like even the tiniest little speck of cloud in the sky is enough to set her off? Well, that’s Mr. Stouge to a tee. Though thankfully, I can’t picture the man doing any of those girly-show dance moves from the film. The thought alone is enough to send me off to the looney bin. Or the grave.

Second, Mr. Stouge is…well, to call the man unpleasant to look at is probably the kindest thing anyone’s done for him all year. His teeth make the Yellow Pages look the color of the pearly gates. The top of his head is like a pecan orchard in winter–not because he’s gone gray, mind you, but on account of all the dandruff. “Snow on the roof?” Sugar, that there’s a blizzard. In Alaska. In February. And I am truly sorry to report that the man’s skin looks like an old elephant’s knee. You’d need dental floss and a year’s supply of Pine-Sol to clean out all them crevices. Somebody evidently failed to understand the importance of sunscreen back when he was a youngun. Whether cavemen had invented sunscreen at the time of his birth is another matter.

I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. I can be a little spiteful when I go without ice cream too long. Continue reading

Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 3: A Bona Fide Surprise


Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 3:
A Bona Fide Surprise

Standing downwind of Tater, I can smell the boy coming before he rounds the corner. Brut aftershave, just like his daddy. Good thing he’s not out deer hunting today. With all them 12-pointers roaming the woods–if Billy Chisholm’s stories are to be believed, and I’m not entirely sure that they are–Tater might get himself ambushed by a couple of bucks looking to turn the tables.

Also like his daddy, Tater is usually to be found sleeping at this hour. The fact that he’s mobile right now makes me even more worried about this “surprise” he’s hollering about. Lord, I hope Madge’s little pill kicks in soon.

And there he is. I tell you what: if the sun’s in your eyes and you squint real hard, you might confuse Tater with a young Brad Pitt. Though of course, Brad doesn’t have quite so many tattoos. And I can’t recall ever seeing Brad in a jumpsuit like the mechanic’s kind that Tater wears (something I’ve never understood because my son barely knows how to put gas in a car, let alone change the oil). And Brad has more money to spend on haircuts, I’m sure. If I’ve offered to tidy up that mess on Tater’s head once, I’ve offered a thousand times, but he just waves his hand at me and says it’s his “signature look”, whatever that means. All I know is, if that’s his signature, the boy needs to work on his penmanship.

But underneath the hair and the jumpsuit and the tattoos and the aftershave, Tater’s handsome as can be. That’s not just a proud mama talking, either. All the girls at the Everlasting Arms have taken a liking to Tater at one point or other. Most of the ladies, too. And the men. In fact, the only people who’ve never seemed all that interested in Tater are Rhonda and Jolene, them ol’ spinsters two rows over. Oh well, I suppose that’s more Tater for the others. Continue reading

Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 2: The Leftovers


Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 2:
The Leftovers

Grenadine, do not panic. You hear me, girl? Do. Not. PANIC!

All right, let’s breathe for a second. Breathe like them nurses taught you down at Hogwalla General when Tater was trying to drop-kick himself right out of you. Don’t think about the birthing part, though. Land of Goshen, that was pure-D awful. Just breathe.

Better? Okay, now where is that Judgement Day Emergency Kit you got from them Jehovah’s? I know it’s not in the car. I hope to high heavens it ain’t in the trailer, ‘cause I’ll never find it. Could I have loaned it to someone? Who on Earth would I have loaned it to? Are they even on Earth now? Oh, why couldn’t this have happened back in 2012 when the Aztecs said it would? I was prepared as all get out.

“Hey, Earl, have you seen my Judgement Day Kit? Earl, come on, now. Wake up! This is not a drill!’

That man could sleep through anything but a football game. Dagnabbit.

Well, I’m just gonna have to make do. I know I got a flashlight in the glove box and my travel-size New Testament. I reckon that’s all I need to send the good lord a message. Good thing I kept up on my Morse Code classes. Thank you, YWCA.

All right, let’s hope these batteries are good. Finger on the switch, aim at the sky, and…

“Dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot. SOS, Jesus! Please come back, you forgot one! Well, two, counting Earl. I know he might seem a little borderline due to his current blood alcohol situation, but I can assure you, underneath all that beer, he’s a good man. SOS! Dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot….”

Hold up a minute. Have I got that right? Is it dot, dash, dot or dash, dot, dash? Oh, Grenadine, of all the times for you to have a senior moment. Shit!

“I am so sorry, Jesus! The devil has done got ahold of my vocabulary. It won’t happen again, though! If it don’t come out of the Thorndike-Barnhart, it won’t come out of me. Dot, dot, dot–”

Suddenly, there’s a voice speaking to me, but it’s not coming from the sky, and it don’t sound like I was expecting. “What’s with the flashlight, Grenadine? It’s a little early in the day for a disco party, don’t ya think?” Continue reading

Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 1: The Everlasting Arms Motor Ark


Once upon a time, there was a theatre company in New Orleans. The group put on dozens of shows over the course of about 15 years, but none was as popular as Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas. Something in that redneck holiday jamboree captured folks’ attention, made them laugh.

A few years back, it ended. Not in a bad way, it was simply time for everyone to move on. To this day, though, people still ask if we’ll ever remount Grenadine. As much as I’d love to say yes, I have to be honest: I don’t know, but I kinda doubt it. Between the lack of venues in New Orleans and the fact that our performers are so damn busy these days, it’d be a long row to hoe.

But Grenadine and her friends still live on in my mind, so I’ve decided to let ’em romp around a bit. It’s not nearly as much fun to read about them as it is to see them gallivanting on stage, but for now, I suppose it’ll have to do.

Here’s chapter one of Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas. I’ll see about posting chapter two next week.

Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 1:
The Everlasting Arms Motor Ark

The traffic out on Route 12 could give anyone a conniption fit, but on Christmas Eve, it just might drive you to drink.

Of course, you’d have to mosey 20 minutes out of your way to sip anything other than rubbing alcohol since Hogwalla County is dry as a you-know-what bone. Even for a little ol’ bottle of cooking sherry, you’ve got to motor clear over to London. (That’s London, the seat of Callawamba County, not the place in England. Though you can probably get sherry there, too, I reckon.)

Y’all might think that a little podunk town like our Pittsville wouldn’t have big-city problems like traffic. But you, sir–or ma’am, whatever–would be dead wrong, because first of all, there is a lumber mill just outside the city limits that accepts log trucks 23 hours a day (the exception being noon to one, which is sacred because it’s lunch, of course), and those damn big rigs run every whichway through town, blocking intersections and making wide right turns and causing all kinds of mayhem and…and….

Hold up, now. I lost my train of thought.

Oh, right: and second of all, the streets of Pittsville are capital-T treacherous today because it is Christmas Eve, meaning that everyone has forgotten how to ding-dang-diddly-dong drive. Continue reading

The country cousin of Auntie Mame and Pee Wee Herman is gone, and the world is a darker place


Me, Margaret, and Buck

This is a photo of me, my former girlfriend, Margaret, and my friend Buck in San Antonio, circa 1988. Buck passed away unexpectedly yesterday.

I knew Buck for more than three decades, and for several of those years, we were inseparable.

That’s not a fully accurate statement. It would be better to say this: Buck changed my life.

When we met, I was still in the closet. Most people already knew I was gay, but I hadn’t accepted it myself.

Buck didn’t just teach me to appreciate being gay. Corny as it sounds, he taught me to appreciate being alive. He was always up to something creative (usually involving a mannequin or two). He was always up for a party.

I know that kind of exuberance sometimes masks depression, but I never saw an ounce of that from Buck. Every night, there was something new and fun happening at his house, a new, random assortment of people. He was like the country cousin of Auntie Mame and Pee Wee Herman.

The man knew how to entertain, is what I’m saying.

For good or bad, I wouldn’t be the person I am today without Buck. And I know I’m not the only one who can say that.

I’ve posted this poem before because it’s special, and it’s special because it always makes me think of Buck. It became one of our favorites after we stumbled across it in an old Interview magazine. It also describes him to a tee.

Good Time Girl
by Charles Bukowski

you had your crowd
out back. .. your people just
sitting there and drinking and
listening to you …
you were competing with
but we danced!
we had a good time!
and god, we laughed too!
you missed Culpepper!
god, Culpepper was funny!
we danced and laughed, that’s what
a party’s for!
you don’t know it, but I went back
and I saw you with 3 or 4
god, how somber you all were!
it was like a meeting of the
well, you tried to compete with me
and you failed!
I’m from the country and we know
how to party!
you think I dance too sexy!
sure I shake my ass!
it feels good!
I dance close and I follow the man’s
lead, I was always taught to follow
the man’s lead since I was a
little girl!
in the country, that’s natural,
there’s nothing dirty about it!
you’re the one with the dirty
you’re jealous because you can’t dance.
and you don’t like people because
you’re afraid of them!
I like people and I like parties
and I like to dance!
and so do all my sisters, they’d
drive 2,000 miles to go to a
well, why don’t you say something?
you just sit there drinking and
looking at me!
hey, where the hell are you
you’re always running out the
door and jumping into your car
and driving off!
well, if you don’t want my
somebody else
You don’t know nothin’ about
parties, you son of a

8 lessons dogs teach me every time they die 


Dogs are cruel.

They’re cruel to one another. They fight over food, toys, attention. They’re jealous. They often abandon their own kind when their own kind become weak, frail, old, infirm.

They’re also cruel to humans. They force us to accept life’s hard lessons–lessons they teach with a directness that even the most tactless asshole on the planet couldn’t manage.

Dogs are at their cruelest when they prepare to die. They don’t sugar-coat anything. They force us to take that journey with them, all the way to the end.

What we learn during that process is important, but few of us remember it for long. Distracted by the messiness of life, we forget about the simplicity of death. We have to re-learn it every single time.

* * * * *

Ruffin wasn’t always the best friend, but he was an excellent teacher.

Like all dogs, he forced me to understand. He told me when he was feeling good, when he wasn’t, when he was up for company, when he wanted to be left alone.

And because we lived together for so long–nearly 16 years–we had quite a while to get to know one another. He began separating himself from the rest of us a couple of years ago, which allowed plenty of time for his teachings to sink in.

Will they stick with me? Probably not. If they did, watching someone die would get easier as I got older.

So, I’m taking notes now, in the hope that I’ll remember to read them the next time this happens. And the next. And the next.

8 notes on death, courtesy of Ruffin

  1. Death is natural and inevitable. It’s the hardest thing that most of us ever come to accept. Death is simply another cycle of life, like birth, puberty, menopause, whatever. You can’t run from it. Approach it with grace and, if possible, joy.
  2. Death is often a decision. You know this already. You see it all the time, when someone passes away after a major event like a 100th birthday or the death of a spouse. Just as people can choose to die, they can sometimes choose to live (so long as they remember lesson #1 and don’t try to avoid it forever). Ruffin decided to die a couple of years ago. He began separating himself from John, Peter, me, and the other dogs. He didn’t just lie down and end all, but he did start preparing himself and us for the last breath.
  3. Death shouldn’t be prolonged. Sometimes late in life, there’s hope for a rebound thanks to medicines, exercise, and so on. Ruffin had overcome a host of small illnesses, but last week, something changed. His appetite was gone. He had no energy. He even let me cuddle him, which was a rare thing. It was obvious to all of us that he was making his exit. It would’ve been foolish and cruel to try to prevent him from doing so.
  4. For the dying, death is easier with company. They say that everyone dies alone. That’s bullshit. Everyone should be fortunate enough to die surrounded by those they know and love.
  5. For the living, death is easier when it’s ignored. Being with someone at the end of their life is tough. It’s especially easy to abandon responsibility with a pet, to hand her to a vet and say, “You take care of it, I can’t bear to watch.” But while that might make the moment less painful, it won’t make the subsequent lifetime of regret any easier. Believe me, I’ve made that choice, and I can never un-make it. Take the time to say your goodbyes. Let your face be the last one they see as they go.
  6. Grief is selfish. Only the living grieve. Much of the time, our grief is about instability, about losing something we loved, not about the one who died or the pain they were feeling at the end. Grief is irrational.
  7. Dwelling on mortality is good, for a while. After someone dies, it’s natural to begin thinking about others you love, about the next inevitable death, to see death everywhere. Live in that headspace a bit, but only a bit. Use it to make yourself softer, and eventually, you’ll begin to…
  8. Celebrate the luck of life. I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe that things happen for a reason, I don’t believe that some sentient uber-being is treating us like action figures, making events occur or preventing them from occurring. Life is a complicated mix of chemistry, biology, and physics. It is rare. It is fleeting. Don’t take it for granted. Celebrate the others in your life and the brief time that you have with them. It’s as close to magic as we come on this planet.