To this day I can’t look at a rump roast, pot roast, or any other big ole piece of meat without thinking of my in-laws, the Claytons. I can still hear my husband’s words that sticky afternoon. “How bad can it be, it’s only for eight days?” Eight days. Two days longer than it took the Lord to create the earth. Three weeks shy of celebrating our first anniversary with most of our newlywed kinks worked out I saw a tremendous knot looming on my horizon.
It was coming back like a double root canal, that first meeting with Todd’s parents, Earl and Edna Clayton. I hadn’t laid eyes on his Mama and step-father since our wedding day and for good reason. The first time we met, Edna greeted me with an enthusiastic, “Want to hear me cluck?” She didn’t wait for my response and began clucking, her cackling reverberating throughout the sanctuary. Once the initial shock wore off I hate to admit, she certainly sounded the part. Looked it too, with her fiery-red chicken’s comb hair piled high, her tiny beady eyes, and pointy beak-like nose. She continued, flapping her elbows and scratching her clunky orthopedic sandaled feet on the vestibule floor, digging at imaginary barnyard corn kernels as a crowd of curious guests encircled.
“She might come in handy when it comes time to dig the rice out of the carpet,” whispered my tickled bridesmaid as I stood flabbergasted behind my veil at my newly acquired “side-show” mother-in-law.
Flabbergasted soon turned to loathing as Edna clucked on right through to the reception with not so much as an intermission.
“Most unusual entertainment I’ve ever seen at a reception,” I overheard one of my guest giggling as I peered from my new perch, the champagne fountain.
Todd adoringly watched his mother erratically pecking at beer nuts from a bowl, repeatedly bobbing her head down and up for anybody who’d look.
I wasn’t amused. Nor was I thrilled when she performed her version of the ever popular “Chicken Dance” song with the band on stage. To my horror she completed her act by grabbing the microphone and taking requests. The reception finally over, she bid me goodbye not with words but with a loud high-pitched squawk that would rival any rooster announcing the crack of dawn. With my luck, she’d purposely molt and toss her own feathers at me instead of rice.
“Isn’t she something?”
I smiled and nodded silently. It was my first lie as a married woman.
My father in-law, Earl wasn’t a clucker, but he was a talker.
“Wanna know how much virgin timber I could fall in a week?” asked the woodsy Pacific Northwester.
A simple question, but it took him an hour to get it out as he stretched every single word as if he was engaged in a taffy pull with the English language. My poor Mama spent over an hour pretending to be enthralled in a thrilling conversation on the importance of weed whackers. Slight in stature, a retired lumberjack, stubborn, and able to climb a three-hundred foot redwood tree with nothing more than a rope and a pair of boots, he commanded quite a presence. He showed up in a red plaid flannel shirt, a clip on tie, and a bedazzled, rhinestone belt buckle which read, Earl. Paul Bunyon meets Elvis Presley.
“I didn’t marry very well did I?” I whispered to my sister, Kim as I threw back another shot of whiskey focusing albeit tipsy on my new extended family--- the logger and the mother-clucker.
In a southern woman’s home the success of a visit is largely determined on how much weight she can pack on her company in a week. Hence the more weight gained the better the stay. I promptly went out to buy a bathroom scale and a seven pound pot-roast.
The first days were uneventful. I was content in the kitchen busily cooking three squares daily putting Paula Dean to shame, plying Edna and Earl with a plentitude of Southern fried chicken, biscuits, gravy, and cobbler. Earl couldn’t get enough of my biscuits eating them morning, noon, and night. I was pleased as I saw him loosening his infamous rhinestone “Earl” belt buckle as his pot belly began to expand. Conveniently I needed no alarm clock to remind me to get up and in the morning as I was awakened at daybreak with loud, raucous cackling from the back porch. Yes, “Cluck Fest 2000” was in full swing. My neighbors were not quite so appreciative. By the third day it was beginning to wear thin.
“They can’t be up already?” I yawned the sun just coming up. “
“It’s the coffee,” said Todd, as he readied himself for work. “They drink it all day long,” he laughed.
“I’m aware of that. Who do you think is serving it?” I asked sarcastically?” as I slid groggily out of bed. “I’m going to slip them some decaf today while they’re not looking. Maybe they’ll take a nap,” I said, splashing cold water on my face in our bathroom. “They’re in their eighties, aren’t they supposed to take naps?”
The crack of thunder and flash of lightening brought Edna running inside from the porch. I heard the tinkling of raindrops followed by a sudden heavy onslaught of gushing water. Florida weather. Sounded like the rainy season was beginning early.
That morning there was a storm brewing and it wasn’t just on the outside. Todd wasn’t gone two hours before the roof in the living room began to leak. Heavily.
“You better get a bucket, dear,” Edna said in her faded housecoat, coffee in hand as the water stain on the ceiling began to broaden like a wide mouth bass.
Frantically rushing through the kitchen I couldn’t find a bucket and settled for my ten gallon lobster pot instead. When it began to run over, I announced I was going to call Todd, but I wasn’t quick enough for Earl who had already ascended the ladder to our attic crawl space before you could say “downpour”.
“I’m just g-o-n-n-a check it out for myself, he declared, slowly stretching that sentence to maximum capacity while stuffing another cold biscuit in his mouth.
Edna and I watched. I could hear him rambling around overhead. Edna sensing my anxiety said proudly, “Don’t worry, Earl can fix anything.” Two seconds later there was a loud “thump” followed by an earth-shattering “crash” as soaking-wet pink insulation and crumbled bits of drywall plummeted down onto my living room floor. Earl’s foot followed next. I looked up in total disbelief as he worked his leg back and forth several times, cussing, before he was able to break his leg free from my “man eating” ceiling. Edna and I stared at the crater-sized hole above.
“Oops” Earl muttered. It was all he said, even to this day. As Edna tried to free Earl by shoving his foot back up through the rafters I called Todd deciding this was one of those little family things he shouldn’t miss out on.
“Why did you let him go up there!” he yelled on the phone.
“Like I had any choice,” I screamed, noticing for the first time the ugly stain on my white carpet littered with sheetrock. “You better come home! They’re your folks!”
“ I have a meeting this afternoon. I’ll try to get off a little early, I promise. Why don’t you be a good little wife and take them sight-seeing,” he said.
“Now that they’ve seen the inside of my attic it’s probably time to show them what else Florida has to offer,” I slammed the phone down wondering for the first time if I had what it took to make it to my one year anniversary.
Sightseeing! The Alligator Farm came to mind, I was willing to let them take their chances as I stared at the gaping hole. That evening neighbors dropped by in droves just to gawk at my unusual architectural wonder I later dubbed the “Earl Clayton Memorial Skylight” as the news swept through the neighborhood. The monsoon over for now I made the mistake of asking them what they wanted to go and see.
“I’ve just been dying to see the Monkey Jungle,” Edna replied excitedly, removing her hairnet.
Oh, God. Not The Monkey Jungle. It was over an hour south of Miami. Never having visited it, I didn’t know much about it except the obvious, it contained lots of monkeys. Making Mama proud I smiled the epitome of a true Southern hostess, and loaded them into the car. Edna could barely contain her enthusiasm as we pulled into the small parking lot. It was one of those old Florida attractions that was almost as old as the Claytons and like them, had seen better days.
As soon as we entered I discovered what made this place special as a huge orangutan scampered overhead atop what I prayed was very strong netting. The unique concept here is that the people are in the cages and the apes run free. Wasn’t so bad until the first chimp relieved itself on my head when I wasn’t looking.
“Oh, let’s h-u-r-r-y,” said Earl, enthusiastically. “The Gorilla feeding show is coming up in five minutes.”
As our friendly trainer Wayne asked for volunteers from the audience to assist him, Edna and Earl proceeded to volunteer me…for every show.
“Here, up here. Pick her. Pick her,” they both shouted from the bleachers as I dodged yet another monkey overhead with an eye on my crisp white shirt.
By the end of the afternoon, my shirt was soiled, and all the kids and their parents hated me complaining that I was getting picked every time, because I was.
It’s not fair,” whined one six year old who hissed at me as I walked embarrassed, down front again, Edna snapping pictures in between clucks and Earl cheering me proudly as if I was their little child.
“I get off at five,” Wayne winked, gawking at me hungrily in his cheap version of an Indiana Jones outfit, minus the whip, but sporting a huge banana. “You can help me clean out the chimpanzee cage. Not many girls get that kind of opportunity,” he bragged before slipping his phone number in my shirt pocket as I stood, helpless with an armload of Chiquitas.
It was at that moment I announced that I’d had enough fun for one day and had a pot roast waiting to be fixed. It was during the trip back up the road that Earl began to talk incessantly about shopping for shoes.
“Need me a pair of new tennis shoes,” he nagged repeatedly, as slow as molasses as Edna clucked happily out the window. I remembered Earl was a great hunter, but I hadn’t realized that he’d traded his shotgun for coupon clippers and was now on the hunt for bargains, able to sniff out a blue light special for miles.
“Got this shirt for a quarter at a garage sale,” he said, proudly pointing to the unflattering green plaid. It looked it. The rain had begun to come down again and I was beyond exhausted. Done. The thought of taking them shopping was the furthest thing from my mind.
Two miles from home, I was almost in the clear until we passed the sign—Swap Shop. The World’s Largest Outdoor Flea Market---All shoes $7.00. No use in protesting I counted ten and turned off the exit. I lost my sandals in the first hour as they were swept away by the rushing water that came gushing through the tents, but pressed on. You haven’t lived till you have put shoes on a fidgety old man who hasn’t changed his socks in a week. Another hour later we were loading my trunk with so much crap they had to buy a new suitcase to get it home. Once back, I walked silently to the kitchen, ignoring my new skylight, and took out the roast that like me had sacrificed itself for the Claytons. That roast had gotten off easier than me it was already out of its misery. Edna went to the porch to cluck. Didn’t know where Earl was. Didn’t care. I had just taken the roasting pan out when Earl sneaked up silently in his cheap new shoes presenting me with an oversized package wrapped in newspaper. What on earth?
“For all your Southern h-o-s-p-i-t-a-l-i-t-y,” he said, choking up. I almost felt guilty for wishing them maimed all afternoon.
I unwrapped it revealing a large brownish, stringy chunk of …meat?
“Got it off that guy selling meat from the back of his pickup. Remember? Eleven cents a pound.” he said shrewdly. “Can’t beat that with a stick.”
Precisely how this critter most likely met his end. The peculiar odor burned my nose when I sniffed. Hmm. Roadkill I speculated--- freshly scraped from his truck bumper.
“Well, uh, thanks Earl, but I already have a roast,” I said pointing to my USDA choice.
“Take it back and get your money,” he grumbled. “You got something better now.”
What could I do? At that moment I was conflicted between homicide and suicide. But ever determined, I smiled wrestling the monstrosity--- “Meatzilla,” who was the size of a hefty newborn into the only thing that would hold it, my ten gallon lobster pot and began to braise the hell out of it. Thankfully Earl disappeared again, but reappeared two seconds later with a blood pressure cuff in his hand. Now what?
“Not to worry. Dr. Earl is here.”
I’ve always despised having my blood pressure taken, but having it done while I was struggling with that big ole chunk of mystery meat wasn’t my idea of a good time. So as Meatzilla was noisily sizzling, its rancid steam swirling, clearing my nostrils, and engulfing the tiny kitchen Dr. Earl continued to pump his wicked cuff. The scenario reminded me of a bad horror flick---“Kitchen of Doom” starring Meatzilla, Dr. Earl, and me.
“Check everybody’s pressure back home,” he continued, my arm close to exploding, my eyes ready to pop as a defiant Meatzilla spat at me from the lobster pot. Earl finally got his reading replying, “She’s a little high. Maybe you should drop some weight.”
That’s when I slammed down my small pitchfork.
“I have to borrow a gallon of bourbon from the neighbor.”
I promptly ran downstairs did a few shots with my friend before calling Todd.
“If you aren’t home in twenty minutes there’s going to be lobster pot with your name on it!” An hour later, slightly soused, but with an improved attitude I returned home to find Todd with Dr. Earl at his side, whacking him in both knees with a rubber hammer. I could only hope he’d finish the exam by asking him to turn his head and cough.