A Modine Christmas

LORI OSIECKI ILLUSTRATION

I was a disappointment to Sister Gargantua.

She taught English back at Celibacy Academy, and I was always lacking in vocabulary skills.

But since I downloaded “Word Genius” onto my iPhone, that’s changing.

In this game, you got two minutes to find as many words as you can on a 16-letter grid.

I am real good at finding three-letter words. And I get a few four-letter words and sometimes even a five-letter word. But the other day, I got a six-letter word. I was so excited, I yelled it right out loud.

Unfortunately, I was at the Christmas pageant at my granddaughter Lollipop’s nursery school.

The audience had just got quiet, the curtain was about to open, and I screeched, “I got herpes!”

I would have slunk out then, but Lollipop was expecting me at the after-pageant juice-and-cookie party. So I stay, and tell her how good she did as Camel No. 2, and she starts telling me what all she wants for Christmas in her shrill little voice. So to redeem myself, I said, sort of loud, “Now Lollipop, Christmas isn’t just about toys, it’s about helping others …” I felt like the center of attention, so I warmed up to the lecture and I even told how Jesus said if you meet some stranger who needs help, you better help them because that stranger is really Jesus.

And that’s how we got Jesus the cat.

She found him the next morning out by the garbage and I guess he looked pretty strange to her, so she put her little arms around him and dragged him inside. She told her mama that I said it was Jesus.

And I get a phone call from my daughter Gumdrop, telling me to come get Jesus.

I do, but I don’t want no cat, so I call my mother-in-law, Ms. Larda, and ask her if she needs Jesus.

“Don’t talk to me about religion, Modine,” she says. “I got enough trouble with Christmas coming and everybody eating here …”

 Now, it’s true, half the family eats nothing but nuts and leaves and the other half nothing but salt and lard, except the ones who are pregnant and ain’t supposed to eat anything. But once they smell Ms. Larda’s cooking, they all pull up to the table, scoff up everything in sight and look for more.

Still, if I tactfully inquire what got her drawersies in a bunch, she will just get madder, so instead I ask how can I help. She says I can tell Gizzard Gunch to stay home, that’s how.

Gizzard Gunch is a cousin once removed; he removed himself to Atlanta once and stayed there. And he just announced that he’ll be here at Christmastime and plans to stay at Ms. Larda’s.

Well, where he can stay is with her sons Leech and Lurch on the other side of her double house, because she don’t need no overnight gentlemen callers even if he is a relative, she says.

But the boy ain’t cooperating. Leech says they worked hard to make their home a shrine to the Saints – with a Saints Christmas tree and Saints-themed bath accessories – and Gizzard is doubtless an Atlanta Falcons fan, and they don’t want no dirty birds under their roof.

Well, the Saints-themed Christmas tree is actually a pyramid of gold-and-black beer cans. And the so-called Saints shower curtain is black from mildew, with an “S” somebody traced on it with their finger, and they got a toilet interior to match (without an “S,” thank God.)

Still and all, if this boy from Atlanta shows up wearing a red-and-black Falcon jersey, who knows what Leech and Lurch might do? I say we’re all Saints fanatics, but maybe they’re taking it too seriously. “That ain’t possible,” snaps Ms. Larda.

She says if I really want to help, I can call Gizzard and ask him if he’s a Saints fan. She rattles off his phone number and hangs up.

“Why me, Jesus?” I say.

“Mrow,” says the cat.

 I call the number, and this soft voice answers. I say Ms. Larda asked me to inquire whether he likes the Saints. He says he don’t follow football too much. I warn him we’re all Saints-crazy and maybe he shouldn’t wear red-and-black. He giggles and says to tell his cousins not to worry about a thing.

But that ain’t enough for Ms. Larda. “He always was smart-alecky; full of surprises,” she says. “God knows what he’ll show up in – maybe feathers.”

She is still grumbling about it the day Gizzard is supposed to get here in his new black Nissan. We are all at Ms. Larda’s for a pre-Christmas crawfish boil, sitting out in lawn chairs around the pot when, sure enough, a black Nissan with tinted windows slides up to the curb. “Oh God,” mutters Ms. Larda, “I hope he ain’t wearing a Matt Ryan jersey.”

Nope.

He is wearing a slinky black dress. Stiletto heels. A bouffant updo. Dangly earrings.

“Surprise!” he – um – she says, “I’m Gizzard Gunch – now Griselda.”

We stand there like a bunch of goggle-eyed bass.

Ms. Larda’s pokes me with an elbow. “You ask about football, but you couldn’t inquire about this?” I am too busy goggle-eyeing to answer.

 Griselda gracefully emerges from the car until one heel catches on the curb. She goes to her knees. And still, none of us move – until Lollipop runs over. “You need help?” she says. “I bet you’re Jesus!”

That breaks the spell. Lurch hurries over and pulls her up; Ms. Larda wraps her in a hug; Leech runs up with a lawn chair; I bring her a beer; and we all try to act like we didn’t just have the shock of our lives.

Lollipop whispers in my ear, “Which one is Jesus, this lady or the cat?”

I whisper, “They both are.”

Then I tell her, “You done good, Sweetheart.”

I done good myself.

I got herpes.

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