It was the day my grandmother exploded. Also the day of her eighteenth wedding.
Mom always said she'd get into trouble, carrying on with men like she did, but Gran liked men and men liked Gran. Problem was that she was a staunch Catholic and did not hold with foolin' around outside of marriage, so she dragged each one to the altar, sometimes a couple of times each. (She wasn't so good about divorcing them, but our parish priest had a soft spot for Gran and generally fudged the paperwork.)
The husbands were generally pretty good-natured about it--Gran being well-endowed in the charm department--but the last fellow was a small-time hit-man from Pittsburgh and it turned out his business associates weren't so good natured. I wouldn't think you could wire a bomb to a wedding cake, but mysterious are the ways of The Lord. Or the mob, anyhow.
The explosion was so loud it shorted out Uncle Willy's hearing aid and he kept saying "What? What? Is it the militias?" while bits of Gran, hit-man, wedding cake, and a discount wedding singer rained through the VFW dance hall. I turned to run, and that's when I saw the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen in my life.
She was short and well put together and had dark hair and a diamond stud in her ear. More importantly, she was not a relative.
My heart leapt. I won’t swear that wasn’t the adrenaline.
We took shelter under a table together.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m Jack, short for Jacqueline, never Jackie. I believe I am passionately in love with you, although it could be that things are blowing up, and I’m not good at telling the difference.”
“What is going on?!” she yelled.
I looked over my shoulder. The table full of presents erupted in a sheet of flame.
“They’ve booby-trapped the presents,” I said.
(I should have known. The table had been nearly full, and nobody sends that many presents to an eighteenth wedding. The family had been pretty well tapped out by the time Gran hit double digits.)
Uncle Willy grabbed my shoulder and shouted something about ‘them’ coming through the windows, which wasn’t likely because there weren’t any windows. The VFW was the local shelter in case of tornados or nuclear war. It was built out of cinderblocks and civic paranoia.
The beautiful girl looked around wildly. “Who’s doing this?”
“The mob, I think,” I said.
“The militias!” said Uncle Willy.
“How do we get out of here?”
“I’m not sure…”
“They’ve come with their ammo and their canned goods!”
“There must be a way out!”
“Well, we got in here somehow…”
“Years of canned goods,” Willy clarified. “They have to have enough canned goods each to survive a thousand days of darkness when the Antichrist comes.”
“Oh, is he here too?” I asked vaguely. Another present blew up, embedding a full set of wedding silver two inches into the top of our table.
“They think he is,” said Willy darkly. “They carry specially blessed bullets to shoot him and bring about the Rapture.”
“I always wondered how that worked…”
“Can you shoot the Antichrist?” asked the beautiful girl, sounding a trifle hysterical. I hoped she hadn’t come in with the wedding singer. That would be awkward.
“Only in the forehead,” said Willy. “Between the sixes. That’s what they say, anyway.”
“How do you know so much about militias, Uncle Willy?”
“I dated a woman. But she wanted to bring the canned goods to bed with her, and I drew the line. I respect your survivalism, I said, but I do not believe the love between a man and a woman and a half-ton of French-cut green beans is a wholesome love. And I stood by that.” He nodded firmly.
“You gotta draw the line somewhere,” I said.
“This is not normal,” said the beautiful girl, putting her head in her hands.
“Well, no,” I said. “It’s my family.”
She looked up at me with narrowed eyes. She was wearing a little bit of purple eyeshadow and there was a smudge on her cheek.
“I’m the normal one,” I said, and then the long fuse on the presents finally hit the end. A waffle-iron rose from the table, soaring like a stamped metal bird, and struck the light fixture. I put my arms around the new love of my life and the sparks rained down around us.
Mom eventually overturned the table to discover me with my head in Amanda’s hair (her name was Amanda.) Uncle Willy was composing a letter to the editor on the back of an envelope. She sent them both out to wait for the police, along with the other two dozen guests, and we went to the grim task of scraping up Gran and shoving most of her into Mom’s enormous handbag.
It wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted to do on a first date, and I did get Amanda’s number, so it all worked out for the best.
“Is this Gran or wedding singer?” I asked, holding up a squishy bit on the end of a dustpan.
“Is it wiggling?”
It was not. I dropped it again.
Sirens blared outside the hall. Mom shoved her handbag into my arms and said “Go. I’ll deal with them.”
I went. The handbag was fake alligator and weighed a ton, even without a dead maternal relation in it.
The VFW had a back door, and fortunately there were neither mobsters nor militias around it. I could have probably dealt with the mobsters, but I have never been tested against blessed bullets or cans of French-cut green beans, and I wasn’t in the mood to find out.
It was a short walk around the block, across the high school’s lawn, and onto our street. The handbag thumped against my ribs and I elbowed it. “Settle down in there.” It settled.
The house was unlocked and it is possible that a burglar might have been able to walk in, although I won’t swear to his mental state if he tried to walk out again. I opened the folding doors to the laundry nook, dumped the clothes from the washer into the dryer, and then emptied the handbag into the washer. Chapstick, three paperback romances, a set of keys and a water bottle fell out.
I shook the handbag, and Gran slid out with a wet thwuck! and landed in the washer. I closed the lid, started the water, and set a bulk bucket of detergent on top of it, then went to get more weight.
Two cinderblocks and an unabridged dictionary later, the lid was locked down tight. It still rattled occasionally when something slapped the underside, but it didn’t come loose. I started the dryer so we’d have clean towels afterward.
I wanted to call Amanda, but there was a lot of eldritch howling coming from the washing machine, and anyway, calling thirty minutes after our first meeting might come off as needy. We’d sort of been making out under the table, admittedly, but that was probably-going-to-die petting, and I wasn’t sure if that counted.
I hoped she’d want to talk to me again. We’d have the best meet-cute story ever. On the other hand, Uncle Willy and the exploding wedding cake. Also, she might know the wedding singer.
I did feel bad about the wedding singer. The hit-man had obviously made some bad life choices, but the singer’s only bad choice had been coming to Gran’s wedding. We’d have to see if he had any next of kin.
I decided to text Amanda, under the pretext of finding out if she’d gotten home okay.
About an hour went by, and the howling stopped. So did the thumping. Then Mom came home, looking tired.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“It’s fine,” she said. “A couple of eager deputies, but then Sheriff Eli showed up, and he soothed it all over.” (The family had an understanding with Sheriff Eli.)
“That’s good.” Amanda still hadn’t replied. Maybe her phone wasn’t charged. Maybe I was overthinking this.
“How is she?” asked Mom, pulling open the liquor cabinet.
“She hasn’t answered my text. I don’t want to send another one and look all desperate.”
“I mean your grandmother.”
“Oh. Done howling.”
Mom went over and knocked on the lid. There was a pause, then a knock in reply.
Mom did the first part of shave-and-a-haircut. The response came immediately.
“Good enough.” She stacked up the cinderblocks and the dictionary beside the washer and opened the lid.
“Did you have to use the washer?” asked Gran, standing up. “You know I hate that thing that sticks up in the middle. My back gets so cramped.”
“It’s easier to clean,” I said. “And there was a lot of your hit man in there with you.”
Gran sighed and dabbed her eyes. “Poor boy. He was just looking for a second chance.”
“He was sixty-seven. He told us he’d capped a guy last month.”
“He liked to keep his hand in.”
My phone buzzed. Home ok u?
It pained me that someone so beautiful could not type the word “you.” Still, love was patient, love was kind, love could overlook poor grammatical choices. Got home fine, I replied. Pretty wild day, huh?
“Put that thing down and help your grandmother,” ordered Mom.
I sighed. There are disadvantages to living at home after your first century. Everyone treats you like a kid. I helped Gran down from the washer.
“The dryer is a front-loader,” she said. “I can climb right out.”
“We have to pour all your water in by hand and scrub it down afterward, Gran. We can just set the washer to heavy load and it takes care of itself.”
“In my day, we had cauldrons for this sort of thing.”
“In your day, people lived in hide huts and prayed to the Mother of Serpents.”
“Nothing wrong with the Mother of Serpents, Jack. Could do with a bit more of it. Better neighbors than the Baptists, anyway. None of this parking-you-in on Wednesday nights. It was shameful what that nasty little Patrick man did to her, even if he was a saint.” (This was a sore spot with Gran, and had been for years. You can spot us on St. Patrick’s Day because no one in the family is wearing green.)
My pocket buzzed again. I handed Gran a bathrobe, made my excuses, and went to go see what sort of movies Amanda liked.