Averyell A. Kessler.
I was ten when my grandfather, WG, started taking me along on his dates. We usually went to his favorite steak place, a southern version of a Mediterranean extravaganza. It was an opportunity for me to shine in my Sunday best dress, patent leather shoes, and a ribbon tied around my ponytail. WG had been a widower for many years and was considered quite a catch. I did not realize that I was protection pure and simple.
He always picked me up first, before gathering up his date. On this night, it was Thelma Treadway, widow of the late Stewart Treadway. As Stewart’s fourth wife, she was left with little. As soon as the roses on Stewart’s casket faded, she set her sights on WG.
When we screeched to a stop in front of her Belhaven apartment, she stepped onto the porch, raised a gloved hand and waved. My mouth dropped open. She did not look like my mother or any of the women at the First Presbyterian Church. Her lush form was encased in a blue velvet sheath with a deep neck exposing bountiful bosoms. Her Richard Hudnut blond hair was formed into a chignon at the back of her neck. The most intriguing feature was a pink cocktail hat topped with a white egret feather and a spray of rhinestones. I had seen such women in the movies, but never in the flesh. Yet here she was, carefully walking down the sidewalk, her high heels clacking on the concrete, her bracelets jingling like reindeer bells.
“Sit in the back, Thelma,” WG yelled. He got out and opened the door for her. Dinner went smoothly because WG’s favorite waited remembered his usual order, two pounds of black and blue porterhouse with fries and onion rings. Thelma and I had filets, mine small, hers large. WG and I ate in silence as Thelma blathered on about Stewart’s first three wives and their profligate spending habits. After dinner, WG allowed me to order a banana spilt with extra chocolate sauce. Thelma asked for a demitasse and excused herself.
“That woman sure can talk,” WG said, wiping his forehead. He sat back and lit a cigar as Thelma swished off to the lady’s room. Suddenly, our waiter charged out of the kitchen waving a napkin over his head.
“We gotta a grease fire in the back, Mr. Avery,” he said. “You better get outta here now!”
“Let’s go little girl,” WG shouted. He grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the entrance. The banana split crashed onto the floor.
“Where’s Thelma,” I asked.
“She’s a big girl,” he answered. “She’ll go out the back door.”
We ran from the entrance as firetrucks roared into the parking lot. Soon the area was filled with a tangle of hoses and firemen clumping around in thick rubber boots. The fire chief took control, shouting orders with a bullhorn, as well-dressed patrons and the waitstaff charged out of the restaurant.
“Don’t you think you should find Thelma?” I asked again.
“She’ll be along shortly,” WG said.
We heard a pop and a crackle, then a shotgun loud blast as a bathtub fireball erupted from the back of the building spewing out a fourth of July shower of sparks and a plume of black smoke. The crowd gasped. The entrance door eased open and a ghastly figure appeared as a grey silhouette barely visible in the moonlight. It was Thelma. She did not look like the woman I saw earlier in the evening. The blue sheath hung from her shoulders, sodden and spongy. Her face was covered with soot so that she resembled a deranged racoon. The chignon had fallen off revealing a tangle of knotted grey hair at the back of her head. She limped toward WG, carrying the chignon in one hand and her damaged hat in the other.
“Whacha got there Thelma,” WG laughed. “A dead cat?
Thelma answered in a low growl. “Youuuuuuu son of a bitch.”
“You’re alright, Thelma,” WG answered. “Get in the car and I’ll take you home.”
“I’d rather ride home in the Titanic than ride with you, WG Avery,” Thelma snarled. “You left me inside while everybody else was running for cover.” She tossed the chignon at WG, striking him directly in the chest before it plopped onto the ground and rolled into a puddle. “I’m not wasting another minute of my time on you.” Then she threw the hat at me, shouting “Take that you little brat.”
There was another pop, then a bright flash. We turned as a newspaper photographer emerged from the bushes edging the parking lot, camera in hand. His flash bulb popped again, as he captured Thelma’s disheveled image.
“You’re front page news, lady,” he cried. “Your name please.”
“Don’t you dare print my picture,” Thelma hissed. “I’ll sue your pants off.”
“It Treadway,” WG said. “Thelma Treadway. That’s T-r-e-a-d-w-a-y.”
“And your name sir?” the photographer asked.
“I’m Joe Crawford,” WG answered. “That’s Crawford with a C. Come on little girl,” he continued. “I better get you home before your Mama hears about the fire.”
“Can I keep this?” I asked, picking up the hat. It was damaged, but the rhinestones still sparked.
“Sure,” he answered. “Keep the damn thing if you want to.”
As the drama of the evening ended, I returned unharmed to my home on Laurel Street. WG fled to Avery Gardens. Except for her photo on the front page of the Clarion Ledger, we never saw Thelma again.