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My sister’s rehearsal dinner

When my older sister married her husband, families from opposite ends of the good fortune chain uncomfortably merged. His was born into old money; hers (mine) born in holes, equipped with shovels.

The rehearsal dinner was at a navy blue-blooded private club in a Buckhead high-rise. I was seated next to my late Aunt Babs, a truly gifted color analyst and functioning alcoholic. Had his second wife Zelma not been with him, I would’ve probably ended up beside my grandfather, born, bred and buried in Middle Georgia. He liked telling stories about his miseries, failures and misdeeds; his effortless folksiness, and usage of discarded colloquialisms — “What do you mean, pussel gutted?” “You know, pussel gutted.” Quizzical look. “Pussel gutted (while rubbing extended tummy.” “Oh, you mean fat.” “Yeah, pussel gutted” — made the woebegone tales amusing.

Zelma, quite pussel gutted herself, was proudly humorless, well-practiced at killing the party. Every year they’d come for Thanksgiving dinner, and every year Zelma would announce, right before turkey carving, that she was full from their big lunch at Davis Bros. in Madison. My dad barely hid his contempt for “Pretzel,” also known as the woman my grandfather “courted” while my grandmother was being treated for cancer.

The rest of the family, not so memorable. I’ve seen my uncles a combined dozen times in my life, if that. The older one used to be in a loosely organized motorcycle gang before he settled down as an arcade manager, the guy who would change out your quarters for one of the thousand tokens jangling in his pocket vest. This would mark my only encounter with Paula the hairdresser, wife number four. To hear Babs on her fifth glass of champagne tell it, Paula preferred the ladies — “them bull dyke types,” said the veteran forklift driver. My mom’s sister also had short hair and was really pussel gutted, though her five marriages were enough to discourage the typical assumption.

The much younger uncle said little, though he did enjoy brief chats about the Phils and “Iggles.” I’m told he once tried to bite off his tongue on an acid trip. I guess his wife, a high school math teacher, still had her tongue, though she seemed to regard conversation as a barrier to daydreaming about math.

My mother wanted to have her mother, the aged party girl, seated next to the paternal grandfather (see above) at the head table. Of course, that would upset my fragile grandmother, who thought her third husband deserved a front-row seat.

Ralph looked just like the “time to make the donuts” guy on the old Dunkin’ Donuts commercial, though he was seldom jolly. He could always be counted on for a whopper, insisting, on several occasions, he had lunched with Colin Powell and Dan Quayle. You can imagine ol’  J. Danforth driving all the way to the Shoneys in Ft. Wayne to break bread with a 64-year-old TV repairman. Maybe he shared Ralph’s appreciation for the Scott Baio flick, “Zapped.” (The lies continued even after Ralph’s death; in his obituary he claimed to be a Korean War vet, odd since he was 13 when the started and 16 at its conclusion.)

Ralph — really, really pussel gutted — arrived the dinner in a foul mood, claiming the suspension on his car was compromised after “hauling Mister Boone and Zelma’s fat asses around.” Ralph, nicknamed Guido by the bridesmaids, would’ve shopped at Big and Tall stores had he not spent all his money on porn. He got the Playboy Channel, he said, because it came with basic cable.

At one point, my brother-in-law’s father, a well-traveled patrician, playfully asked Ralph how he could’ve ended up with such a beautiful (step) granddaughter. “You ain’t no prince yourself!” Ralph snorted.

By that time he had already complained about the small portions, an outrage, he said, for such a ritzy joint. Paula, barely able to stand, collected the food off her and my uncle’s plate, advanced to the head table and transferred it to Ralph’s dish. He grunted and resumed eating. Paula would later stand to toast the couple-to-be with a mangled toast she probably picked up at bingo night at the VFW: “Birds do it in the sky, frogs do it and die …”

Don’t remember much else, save for my intoxicated sister planting a wet one on Ralph, who, best-case scenario, was once in the Mob. He had biological kids, but for some reason he agreed to let their mother tell them he’s dead. I hate to ponder what would make one consent to such an arrangement, though, when I have dared wonder, “Mafia hitman” is always the most preferable rationale.

Ralph’s parting words, “Let’s pack up and get the hell out of here.” Agreed.

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