The Last Laugh: Historical Romance

article image
With help from the spirit of Christmas, a historical romance can prevail over a grudge.

“A Historical Romance is the only kind of book where chastity really counts.”Barbara Cartland.

“Stop right there, you shine-sippin’ scallywags! Don’t eves bother to open the door!”

Well sir, I don’t reckon I ever told you about Sylvester “Ol’ Silver” Pennywhistle, the feller what owns an’ operates Barren County’s Gen’ral Store (which, as you do know, is the main waterin’ hole of thet group of cronies known as the Plumtree Crossin’ Truth an’ Veracity League).

“Can’t you old fossils even, read?! The sign in the window there says, `ANY FRIENDS OF NEWT BLANCHARD CAN GIT AND STAY GOT!’ “

Fact is, though, I ain’t fixin’ to tell you about Mister Pennywhistle today, either, ’cause thet mild-mannered storekeeper, who’s spent pretty much his whole life sittin’ perched aside his cash register (lookin’ fer all the world like one of those cans of fancy French snails what’s been standin’ on the store shelffer goin’ on three decades now) … well, he jist ain’t thet intrestin’ a person.

“You don’t believe one, huh? Well, you’ll listen to this!”

“Look out, Lafe! Thet’s a pipe wrench she’s a–throwin’! “

Besides, it bein’ the holiday season an’ all, Ol’ Silver packed his bags the other day an’ left town. He an’ his missis went visitin’ their relatives down in Floryda, leavin’ the Gen’ral Store in the care of Sylvester’s spinster sister … a woman by the name of Liza T. Pennywhistle, what normally resides over to Lick Skillet. When it comes to holding a grudge, she can hold her own with the best of ’em … or the worst.

“Head for the woods, fellers! Then tuna tins are flyin’ outa there faster’n buckshot fired downhill!”

“An you no-goods don’t come back, neither… hear?!”

Well, Miz Pennywhistle hadn’t hardly taken over the store afore she served notice thet, under the new management, the members of the Plumtree Crossin’ Born Liars Assembly was a tad less than welcome on the premises. An’ seein’ as how the lady’s displeasure seemed to focus on ol’ Newt Blanchard, the evicted squatters headed over to the Blanchard residence (after they’d salved their wounds with a few swigs of Purvis Jacobs’ oral antiseptic, o’course) to see if they could puzzle out what in blue blazes was goin’ on.

Howev’r, Newt jist put on a scowl fit fer a black bear woke in January when the boys mentioned Liza’s name, an’ wouldn’t say no more ‘ceptin’ he didn’t care to go nowheres where he might run into thet woman. Skeeter Ridges piped up then an’ reminded Newt thet he’d promised to play Santa Claus at the Plumtree Crossin’ Community Center Christmas Eve Party, an event what usually brought ev’rybody in the county out. Mister Blanchard started fumin’ in earnest at thet remark, but he didn’t elucydate any further.

Well, seein’ as how the ol’ reprobates was well aware thet Newt can be harder to move’n a hog on butcherin’ day, they decided thet maybe Miss Pennywhistle could be persuaded to relax her wrath jist a smidgen. ( After all, she were a member of what folks call the gentler sex.)

But Liza weren’t about to budge, neither. Oh, the shrewd ol’ boys tried leavin’ boxes of chocolate in front of the store (at night, when she weren’t likely to throw things at ’em), but Miz Pennywhistle merely fed those offerin’s to the two sows Sylvester raised out back. The fellers even made some nighttime donations of Purvis Jacobs’ 120-proof peacemaker … only to find out thet the orn’ry woman was sloppin’ thet precious libation to the hogs, too! As a last resort, Lafe Higgins sent a postcard to Sylvester hisself, beggin’ the storekeeper to come back quick, but Ol’ Silver wrote back thet the sea air were helpin’ his rheumytism an’ darned if he might not stay down there an extry month or more!

All in all, it were beginnin’ to look like the old-timers would be stuck without a gatherin’ ground for nigh onto forever. An’ Newt mighta stayed holed up at home for jist as long, too, only he had promised to play Santa for the young’uns’ Christmas party … which meant thet December 24th found him stuffin’ hisself, an’ a few pillers, into a red suit an’ headin’ on down to the community center (keepin’ a suspicious eye open fer Miz Liza as he went).

He was late gittin’ started, though, an’ so he found hisself drivin’ on a deserted road in the thick of a sudden snowstorm. Worse yet, his old Ford pickup–which were a bit finicky in the best of times–decided to give out on him halfway through town … as luck would have it, right in front of the Plumtree Crossin’ Gen’ral Store itself. An’ I reckon you can guess which individual in all of Barren County had resolved not to go to any party what Newt Blanchard might be attendin’ … a fact thet explains why there was a light burnin’ in the store thet night an’ why, sittin’ next to the 60-watt an’ readin’ one of them historical romances, was none other than Liza T. Pennywhistle.

It musty been quite a sight to behold, them white flakes of new snow swirlin’ around ev’rywhere whilst two of the world’s mule-headedest individuals sat–one in the broke-down truck an’ one in a gloomy, half-lit store–starin’ out each at th’other (an’ neither one movin’ an inch). Finally, though, Liza went to the door, opened it jist a crack and yelled out, “Ain’t ev’ry little boy an’ girl in the county expectin’ Santa to be down at thet party givin’ out Christmas presents right around now”

Newt rolled down his truck window a hair and hollered back, “Tell it to this four-wheeled calamity! “

Liza grabbed a shawl an’ coat, stepped outside toward Newt’s truck, an’ said firmly, “You cain’t let one broke vehicle stop you from fulfillin’ your oblygation to them innocent children. SALLLLLY MAE!!! EEEEEEEEEESMERALDA! ! ! “

An’ darned if Sylvester’s pair of 350-pound sows didn’t come aprancin’ around from the lot out back of the store an’ stop, lookin’ perky as puppies, at Liza’s feet.

“Them pigs has kinda taken a shine to me since I started feedin’ ’em likker an’ chocolates,” Liza said, with jist a hint of a twinkle in her eyes, as she stroked the animals’ bristly heads. “Now, git off yer duff, of man. We kin hitch the sows up to thet $56 sled what nobody’s ever gonna buy an’ slide on down to the party! “

Well, I don’t care how orn’ry an’ stubborn a person might be. There’s jist got to be somethin’ about ridin’ together through a full-blown Christmas Eve snowstorm, clingin’ to a child’s sled an’ preceded by the tail ends of two humongous sows, thet’s bound to melt the hard out of anyone’s heart. An’ thet’s what happened to Liza an’ Newt. Fact is, by the time the pigs switched into fast forward on the last downhill slide to the community center, those two ol’ cusses was hangin’ onto each other fer dear life an’ jist a-howlin’ with laughter.

Yessir, it were quite an entrance thet good St. Nicholas–pulled along by a pair of pretty peculiar reindeer–made at the party thet night, an’ a jolly set of festivities thet followed (well enhanced, for many of the grown-ups, by a shared gift of Mister Jacobs’ finest social enlivener). Still, once the party had ended an’ Santa an’ his sled driver were bundlin’ up so’s they could head out to their two-sow open sleigh, of Newt couldn’t restrain hisself from openin’ his mouth an’ sayin’, “You know, Liza, you ought never’ve asked Nate Hawkins to thet Ladies’ Choice Square Dance. It was you an’ me was s’posed to be a-courtin’. “

“Well then, Mister Blanchard,” she tartly responded, “you ought never have bought Sara Dippidy’s box lunch at the church social the fortnight afore.”

“Tarnation, woman, if you hadn’t …”

“An’ furthermore . .

They both set to shoutin’ in the same instant … an’ stopped jist as quick. Then ol’ Newt’s scowl worked its way, with some effort, to a grin, an’ he said, “Ah, face it, woman, we wasn’t never meant to be lovebirds. Neither of us is amiable enough to git wished on anyone else, worse yet on each other.”

“Newt Blanchard, I’ll wager them’s the first sensible words you’ve said since I met you more’n 40 years back. I s’pose we might could be friends, though.”

“Reckon thet’s true,” Newt agreed. “All right, then, let’s shake on it.”

Newt stuck out his hand, an’ as Liza was about to do the same, she jist happened to glance overhead. Newt’s gaze followed hers, an’ what he saw–a-hangin’ in the doorway–was a fresh sprig of yuletide mistletoe. Well, neither of ’em said a word after thet, but somehow (jist somehow) their truce-sealin’ handshake turned instead into a lingerin’, snow-rimmed Christmas kiss. Not a bad way to end a historical romance, I guess.

Thet’s how peace an’ quiet returned to Plumtree Crossin’ anyhow. We sure hope ev’rything works out as well this year fer you an.’ yourn.

“The best thing to hold onto in this world is each other. “