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Averyell A. Kessler

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Kate Strikes Out©Averyell A. KesslerKate Beacham was still fuming. Her untimely exit from the horse show party at our house was a hot topic for weeks. Belhaven gossips worked overtime. Sadly, no photo existed of me modeling Kate’s rubberized girdle and heavily decorated brassier, but the scene was still as vivid in everyone’s mind. My mother was ecstatic. Kate, fully aware that achieving social status in Jackson was now impossible, purchased a pair of binoculars, a Smith and Wesson 32, and three cartons of Pall Mall. She spent days shadowing my grandfather WG until she learned his routine.During the week, he stayed at the Robert E. Lee Hotel because it was close to his business; weekends were spent in his small cottage in Avery Gardens, located on a two-lane gravel road north of Jackson known as County Line Road. He’d almost forgotten about Kate when he arrived home late on a Friday afternoon. The October sun was almost down. The day edged to darkness as WG pulled inside his gate, hoping for a quiet weekend. It had been a long, brutal week, and he was exhausted. He parked in front of his house, tossed his cigar into the bushes, and gathered up a 1000-piece jigsaw he planned to attack on Saturday. Ping! He stopped. What the #%@$##? A pinecone falling onto his hood? A squirrel scampering across the roof? He saw nothing. A single Jay fluttered into a giant camelia near the driveway, but the air was still and twilight quiet.Ping. He heard it again. He knelt by his new baby, a black Lincoln Continental Mark II, and inspected the tires, running his fingers over the treads and checking the hubcaps. Nothing. Then he saw it, a small indentation in his left front fender. It looked like….. holy #$%$#! A bullet hole! Crouching low, he dashed into the house, locked the door, and telephoned his pal, Robert Stockett. “Get out here quick, Stockett,” he screamed. “Some son of a bitch is shooting at me.”“Stay inside,” Robert growled. “I’m on the way.”The third ping hit hard, shattering the rear windshield, and sending a shower of broken glass onto the driveway. All he could do was watch as a small man in a leather bomber jacket and plaid pants oozed from behind a spreading yew tree near his car. A brown fedora concealed his face and he held what appeared to be a police revolver as well as shiny Louisville slugger. Ping, ping. In an instant his two front tires hissed and went flat. Then mystery man waved his bat.“Where the heck are you, Stockett?” WG screamed, as he watched in despair as his front windshield crumbled into a spider web of cracks. The next moment, sirens wailed in the distance, and Robert and the Hinds County Sheriff screeched into the driveway. The attacker dropped his bat and fled into the bushes. WG dashed out of his house, waving his arms and yelling, “That way! He ran towards the pond.”An intense foot chase ensued, with all three men searching under azaleas, slogging through day lily beds, and galloping around pine trees like skiers on a downhill run. They found the culprit almost half a mile away when the sheriff spotted a pair of skinny legs dangling from a low hanging branch.“Get down outta that tree,” the sheriff shouted, raising a Remington 12 gauge. “You’re under arrest for destruction of private property, attempted murder, assault and battery, kidnapping, perjury, grand larceny and whatever the hell else I can think of.” He fired a thunderous blast into the clouds; the tree branches rattled like skeletons in the wind.“WG Avery’s not worth that air he breaths,” mystery man yelled. “He’s a no-good skunk, as useless as tits on a bull.”“Last warning,” the sheriff yelled. “Next one’s going between your eyes.”Mystery man dropped from his hideout and fell on the ground in a heap of misery. “Stand up, “the sheriff ordered. “Who are you?”When he stood, the fedora fell off exposing a tumble of raven hair and flaming brown eyes. The leather jacket opened, revealing Kate Beacham’s lush figure.“It’s a woman,” Robert yelled. “Dadgummit, the guy’s a woman!”“Don’t care if she is,” the sheriff shouted. “She’s going to jail.” The next moment, Kate was in handcuffs.“You can’t arrest me,” Kate yelled. “I’m a friend of WG’s. I was just jokin’.”“Had me fooled,” Robert said.“Mr. Avery, do you know this woman?” the sheriff asked.WG rubbed his chin and inspected Kate’s face. Her eyes were saucers. “No,” he replied. “Can’t say as I do.”“How dare you,” Kate screamed. “You know me as well as the back of your hand.”“What about you, Mr. Stockett? You know her?”“Nope,” Robert said. “Never seen her before. Could be a gypsy.”“A gypsy?” Kate hissed. “I swear to God I’ll make you pay!” Her cheeks were scarlet, her lips sputtered like an outboard motor. She was still screaming when the sheriff loaded her into his car, cuffed her to the door handle, and turned towards town.“Hell hath no fury,” WG said as the sheriff drove away. “I must have scorned her pretty bad.”“What are you planning to do?” Robert asked.“I’ll bail her out in the morning.” WG answered.In the end, my grandfather agreed not to press charges. Kate promised not to contact him again. She returned to the coast, opened Kate’s Cut and Curl, and married a shrimper from Moss Point. WG settled with the Great Peril Insurance Company, repaired his car, and decided to stay away from flamboyant women with raven hair. At least, for a few months.

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A Southern Christmas ©We are without snow, but not without joy,It’s too hot for a fire, but we possess abundant warmth,When our pennies are tight, we remember the source of true wealth.When our wallets are full, we celebrate the gift of sharing.Maybe we can’t carry a tune, but we sing anyway.We smile when presents arrive from Ohio containing slippers that don’t fit and we wouldn’t wear anyway.We read Mr. Dickens, Clement Moore and watch Ralphie appear in bright pink pajamas.Our family hops in the car for a tour of the Christmas lights.We help little fingers write letters to Santa and don’t give up the truth unless we are forced.There’s no such thing as waking too early on Christmas morning when joyous children race downstairs before sunrise.We possess a treasure of memories which do not fade. Faces we no longer see are never forgotten. Sadness dissolves because we are not alone.We celebrate new memories, and the joy of making them.There’s a good chance the quail on our table came from a delta hunting camp, the biscuit technique from generations back, and the sweet potatoes from outside Vardaman. We’ve nibbled on a fat MSU cheese, scooped out Aunt Lila’s fig preserves, and remember the aroma our grandmother’s pecan pie when she lifted it from the oven.Mistletoe brings kisses…. laughter too.We set out a plate of cookies for Santa and find crumbs the morning.Forty people are not too many for a celebratory Christmas lunch because we have enough to feed a horde of hungry Marines and still send everybody home with leftovers.Our Christmas stockings are probably handmade. Their colors are faded and a stich or two is missing, but they’re ours. They always have been.We sit still when someone says, “And It came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” The words are carved in our hearts, but we listen anyway.We know what Christmas really means; also, what it does not.Joy to the World, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king.

The Ugliest Tree in Town©Averyell A. KesslerMy Mother had a custom of giving me a Christmas book every year. She always dated it and wrote an inscription on the inside cover. Towards the end of her life, she chose Hans Christian Anderson’s The Fir Tree. Here’s what she wrote. “This book proves my theory about Christmas trees. I’m glad we always selected a tree cut down for Christmas, but not chosen. I gave it a shining star.” Her remarks were my inspiration for the following story.I recognized it immediately, a small scrap of a tree, minus a few branches, a host of needles and leaning left as if it had grown sideways on a steep, mud-caked hill. When I came home from school, it was standing in our den, a bleak, second tier companion to the fragrant Avery Garden’s cedar in our living room. But that would change. My mother bought it, as she always did, from the few remaining Christmas trees available at the Belhaven Jitney. She did it every year. I suppose the conversation went something like this.“Are you sure you want this tree, Lady?” the clerk asked. “It’s kinda skimpy. We got better one’s in back.”“No,” Mama replied. “I want this one. It wants me too.”“Load it into your car?” he asked, quite sure he was staring at a loony bird.“Yes. Absolutely.”My mother was a Christmas person. The moment leftover turkey bones were tossed into a bubbling soup pot and our sumptuous pan of cornbread dressing had been scrapped dry, she began. It was as if an internal Santa-like voice shouted in her ear. “One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go,go,go.” In an instant, she became a scampering elf, a flying reindeer, and a woman who could put Mrs. Santa Claus to shame.Our annual ugly tree was an important part of Mama’s Christmas tradition. She spent hours decking it with ropes of silver garlands, sparking bubble lights, shiny glass balls, and a flock of red cardinal ornaments, until it glowed like a fairy princess. After a few days, a dose of water in the tree stand made our crippled tree stand upright again, and no one noticed that a few critical branches were missing. As Christmas approached, it was just as merry as the fat cedar in the living room.During her last years, the ugly tree tradition continued, even after she moved into to my home in Fondren. One day, during our morning walk, we found a graceful branch lying by the curb on Oakridge Drive. “That’s it,” Mama said, pointing to a castoff limb waiting for garbage pickup. We took it home, set it in a tree stand, and welcomed a stark, leafless tree limb left for dead. When we’d covered it with white lights, red balls and her traditional flock of cardinals, it became a beautiful addition to our decorations.“How unusual,” my friends mumbled, as they inspected our lovely branch. “I thought it might be a sculpture.” Mama smiled, because she’d done it again.My mother’s ugly tree was an eye opener. Every year, I watched as she searched for an unwanted, bedraggled tree, brought it home and treated it with all the love in the world. Suddenly, a transformation. Our tree wasn’t ugly at all. Loving the unlovable can produce unexpected results.Perhaps the best Christmas gifts are not tangible, but things we experience. Perhaps they are lessons of love that soak into our hearts and remain there, strong aromas of the past that linger in our memories, like fresh cut cedar and gingerbread. They are the echo of long-ago laughter, and absent voices ringing like harness bells. New voices too; the giggles of a two-year-old or a fifth-grade choir singing Away in the Manger. The best gifts wrap us in warm coats of joy, keeping us snug all year long. Perhaps, they even give an unwanted tree a second chance.Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight – Clement Moore

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