It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
We’re a good two weeks away from Thanksgiving but the local mall in Woodbury, North Carolina, is decorated all holly-jolly for Christmas like you wouldn’t believe. There are bells and balls everywhere. And candles that smell like pine trees. And mechanical reindeer whose necks bend and bow down slowly so they can nibble imaginary snow or grass or whatever it is they eat up at the North Pole. Brace yourself for the worst: Santa’s massive chair is already set up, one of its legs sitting on what appears to be a cardboard turkey that was probably displayed in a storefront. The chair is safely out of range of Victoria’s Secret, though. (Everybody in Woodbury remembers that scandal from a few years back. Some religious types complained that while they were standing in line for Little Johnny’s turn to sit on the lap of this fine symbol of the Holy Child’s natal celebration, they ought not to have to look at women’s unmentionables and life-size models on posters with, well, a good portion of their sacred parts showing.) Anyway, I made the mistake of going over to the mall this past Saturday to use my Belks coupon before it expired, and let’s just say what happened makes the Victoria’s Secret incident look like Wednesday night prayer meeting.
Here’s the story. I ran into my friend Sugar at the mall’s main bookstore when I ducked in there to check out the new paperbacks. I was just about to head out toward Belks, fortified against all the Christmas mess, when I saw her. She was sitting at the little café area looking through what I’d soon find out was one of those upscale ladies’ home décor magazines and most likely sipping peppermint mocha coffee. I smiled, knowing that just about anyone else in the bookstore would look at Sugar and think, Here’s a nice, normal, pretty woman, drinking her coffee, looking at kitchen layouts, coordinating paint color shades like Mauve Dream or Candied Apple for her perfect home. I knew the real story. Sugar’s name is actually Ruby but about six months ago she kicked her husband out and told God and everybody to call her Sugar from now on. “Who in the hell wants to be named after some stupid Kenny Rogers song?” Sugar said. “My mother must have lost her mind when she heard, ‘Ruby, don’t take your love to town,’ and then up and named a baby that.” I didn’t ask any questions. My husband Bruce says he can’t get used to it and keeps calling her Ruby. Bruce and Sugar’s soon-to-be-ex-husband Danny are still pretty good friends since they work together nights over at the Grande Stallion Lodge doing whatever needs done.
Mostly they work as porters and pitch in on occasion with special group events. Danny told Bruce that if Ruby had asked him, which she hadn’t, he’d have suggested any name other than Sugar since she was more bitter than sweet.
Sugar finally looked up from her magazine. “Whitney! I’m so glad to see you,” she shouted, jumping to hug me and pointing to a page in her magazine, motioning for me to sit. “Look, what do you think about this for my dining room?” she asked. “You know, Danny took that awful table with him and I’ve been trying to find a good replacement ever since.”
“Replacement for Danny or the table?”
“Table,” she laughed. “I don’t need another man in there to fool with and fuss at and clean up after. Me and Melanie and the birds and squirrels are doing just fine. So what do you think?” She pointed again to the Dining and Entertaining section in her magazine.
“I like it,” I said, not caring too much either way about furniture or decorating. What fascinates me are people and their stories. “Hey, how’s Melanie doing? When is her dance recital? I’d like to come see it.”
“It’s perfect, isn’t it,” Sugar gushed, tracing the new table with her finger. She and Melanie were close, but since the split with Danny she seemed more interested in surface-level conversation.
“I want to have a big Christmas party this year,” Sugar mused, “and invite everybody except the idiot Stallion people and have my new table set just like this one is.” She paused as if she’d only just then heard my question. “Oh, sorry, Melanie’s good but worrying me some now that she’s driving.”
Noticing a hint of sadness in Sugar’s eyes, I nodded and looked again at the glossy scene on the page: low lighting, sparkly chandelier, white china, fine silver, a beige table runner with greenery and pinecones embroidered on it, crystal goblets, red candles, cloth napkins, and a mistletoe centerpiece. I resolved to support my friend and her fantasy but quickly realized I couldn’t help myself – maybe due to all the reading I’d been doing lately – and spoke truthfully.
“You know,” I said, “I think mistletoe is poisonous.”
Sugar frowned. “You always say stuff like that, especially when I get excited about something.” She forgave me quickly, though, and grabbed my hand. “Want to go to Belks with me and see if they have this china pattern? It’s called Winter Icicles. I’ve got a half hour left on my break.”
I wasn’t interested in china but figured something else I did want might turn up, so I agreed.
“Ok, I’ve got my coupon,” I said, taking hold of her elbow as we walked together out of the bookstore. “Let’s go this way to avoid the Santa station. How can you stand working here at the mall? All this Christmas stuff so soon and you already get pretty ill-tempered during the holidays.”
Sugar looked first left then right, grinning. “I’ll tell you how. I’ve got my hairbrush.” We set out and she fiddled in her purse as we walked, pulling out a paddle brush with a mirror on the back. “My sister Kim mailed it to me for my birthday.”
“What’s the big deal about that? Hey, stop a minute,” I said, taking the brush in hand, surprised at how light it felt. There was no weight to it at all.
“It’s a fully functional hairbrush,” Sugar said with authority. “But look here. It holds about six ounces and has a plastic funnel.”
A flask! Only Sugar would carry something like that around.
“Kim figured it would be good to have this in the house instead of vodka bottles that Melanie or her friends might get into. It just sits right there on my dresser and nobody suspects.”
“Why is it so light? Has the stuff leaked out?” I checked my lipstick in the brush’s mirror, its other special feature, and then shook the thing a little.
“Just ran out of booze yesterday,” Sugar said. “Got to pick up some more this afternoon for a refill. Oh, and no leakage so far. I’ve taken it to Melanie’s dance classes, PTA meetings, work, anywhere I think I might need a little Absolut refreshment to keep nerves and anger away.”
“Well, fill ‘er up, and you can deck the damn halls tonight if you want,” I said, and we both laughed so loud that people nearby gave us a wide berth.
Sugar stuffed the brush back in her purse and we took off again, not realizing that what we’d find at the top of the Belks home store escalator was a frenzy of senior citizens. Dodging several aggressive groups of older folks, I wondered: was this Senior Day? Did the elders among us get first dibs with the coupon deals? Well, no matter. After a quick browse I realized there was nothing on that floor I wanted, and Sugar reminded me that seniors get the best deals on Tuesdays. So why were so many of them there?
“Oh, sweet Jesus in the manger,” Sugar mumbled, pulling me close. “Do you see what I see, over
I gazed around, squinting, trying to make out anything other than gray heads eyeballing red placemats and “Merry Christmas, Y’all!” kitchen towels. Finally I saw Sugar’s ex Danny skulking around by the pillow shams. Sugar hunkered down to stay out of sight, but I watched as a pretty young woman… who in the world?... strolled over to the shams. Giving Danny a little wink, she moved away from him to corral the seniors.
“Everyone,” the young woman said in a high-pitched voice, blonde curls bouncing as she walked. “We’ve got about 20 minutes to board the Grande Stallion Lodge trolley with our driver here and head back to the hotel in time for tea. Let’s make our way up to the cash registers, ok?”
Hiding near the racks of five-piece place settings, Sugar and I listened to the cadence of the tour group members’ accents as they chatted and traded coupons.
“We’ve got a situation on our hands,” I whispered to Sugar. “Bruce told me about a group of Northerners coming down to the Stallion for an all-inclusive Very Merry Southern Shopping weekend. I guess this is it. I’ve never been surrounded by so many retirees from New Jersey or Boston or whatever in my life.”
“It’s the second Yankee invasion,” Sugar laughed.
She hadn’t seen the young woman yet. Maybe I could shuffle Sugar out by the lingerie section, tell her we could look at plates another time when things weren’t so busy. Too late, though. Before I could make a move, Sugar spotted Danny leading the woman over to a hanging ball of mistletoe and kissing her, right there in the middle of Belks home store with Andy Williams’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!” blasting overhead.
Sugar’s expression turned fast, her face flushing flame-red as the cinnamon candles on the shelf next to us. Her breath quickened. Fearing her temper, I knew this could be bad.
“Sugar, you’re done with Danny. That girl can have him. Remember how you said he always had to pop the Viagra for anything to happen? Come on, let me walk with you to your car.” I took her hand but she jerked it away, darting forward into the main aisle like one of those ferocious honey badgers Bruce and I saw on a documentary the other day.
“Danny, you bastard! I knew it. I knew it!” Sugar roared toward him. “Staying to help the kitchen staff at the hotel. Working late. This is what you were working on, this child here.” She jabbed her finger at the young woman whose name tag, I saw, read ALYX.
“Ma’am, I am a 25-year-old professional Hospitality Events Coordinator, and I don’t appreciate your tone,” Alyx said. I admired her assertiveness but dreaded Sugar’s reaction, especially to being called “ma’am.”
Like something out of an episode of Peaky Blinders, Sugar went wild as if one of the Lee boys made a derogatory comment about her mother’s Gypsy blood. Without benefit of razor blades, she bolted instead toward the Winter Icicles china display and took each plate – one by one – and smashed it on the floor, on the wall, against the cash register, on the heads of those poor neck-bobbing mechanized reindeer.
“SECURITY TO THE HOME STORE!”
Sugar seized goblets and crashed them into punch bowls, cleared off a whole set of Pfalzgraff Winterberry platters with a sweep of her arm, and hit Danny over the head with a massive crystal candelabra when he made a heroic effort to subdue her.
I watched helplessly as several soft-looking preppy sales clerks from Men’s Wear ushered the traumatized Yankee elders away from the scene, guiding wheelchairs into elevators and calming various other frantic patrons who’d stopped their shopping in Lingerie and were screaming and cowering behind the racks. Alyx tended the cuts on Danny’s forehead while he sat heavily against the blanket display, moaning. Mall cops arrived just as Sugar flung the remainder of the Winter Icicle dessert plates, Frisbee-style, into the fine china cabinets like target practice. City police secured the area once and for all, but the home store was a disaster. Elvis crooned, I’ll have a blue Christmas… without you…
“I can stay with Melanie tonight,” I told Sugar, searching for some part of her to comfort – a hand, a cheek – before the cop that handcuffed her led her to the cruiser. And then, of course, I added, “Do you need anything?” I didn’t expect a reply but it was all I could think to say.
“Whitney, honey,” Sugar said, sweet as pie, as the cop did his routine to settle her into the backseat, “I wish I had some vodka in my hairbrush.”
About the Author:
Ellen Perry is an English instructor in North Carolina. Her academic interests include 17th- and 18th-century British life and literature, Restoration drama, and Southern/ Appalachian culture. Her story "Milk, Bread, Soft Drinks" was recently awarded First Place in Fiction by the Bacopa Literary Review. Ellen enjoys reading, traveling, dancing, working on her collection of short stories, and playing with her stylish cat, Ms. Coco Chanel.