The Perfect Christmas


Claire vowed this was going to be a perfect Christmas.  She wouldn’t have the Charlie Brown Christmas tree with the one light that refused to shine nor the house with its anemic decorations, a sad comparison to the neighbors.  Her Christmas dinner wouldn’t have burnt rolls, lumpy mashed potatoes or overcooked beef.   And just once, for the love of God, she wanted to have a Christmas where she didn’t have to hear about Gracie Picklers’ perfectly wonderful holiday!

Claire could just imagine the Pickler’s Christmas.  The family would be dressed in their most expensive clothing, they’d receive the most expensive gifts and then they’d sit around the table and have the most wonderful dinner.

Why, it was enough to make Claire want to puke.

She had enough of Gracie’s perfect holiday.  It was high time Claire had one too!  She spent a whole week planning.  When she was done planning she set about making her perfect holiday happen.  The first thing she would need was a Christmas tree.  She knew just the place to get one too, Sam’s Lot of Pines.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to get a Christmas tree.”  The words were out of Claire’s mouth before she could stop them.

Kitty’s eyes lit up.  “Woo wee!  I love Christmas tree shopping.”  She slipped her feet into a pair of Burt’s rubber galoshes and snatched her coat off the rack.

Claire didn’t see how she could out of taking her elderly aunt without hurting her feelings.  With a sigh, Claire said, “Come on.  Let’s go.”

Picking out a tree should have been simple.  It probably would have been too if Kitty hadn’t been there.  No matter what tree Claire picked out, Kitty had an opinion about it.  The tree was either too tall, too short, too fat, too skinny.

“Kitty, it’s a Christmas tree, for God’s sake!  I’m not picking a husband to spend the rest of my life with.  I need the tree for one week,” Claire said in exasperation.

“It’s a good thing you’re not picking a husband, because you have terrible taste in men,” Kitty retorted

“What was wrong with Robert?” Claire demanded.

“He died at fifty, that’s what.  You need someone like my Burt,” Kitty told her.  “You watch, Burt’s gonna last another twenty years.”

“Burt’s ninety!” Claire exclaimed.

“That’s right.  His right in the prime of his life,” Kitty said.

Claire rolled her eyes.  “Does this mean you two will live with me for another twenty years?”

Kitty nodded her head happily.  “Yeah.  You’re a lucky gal.”

Claire kept her opinion to herself.  They finally settled on a tree.  As soon as they got it home, Claire called Ben to set it up for her.  It took him a good ten minutes to place the tree in the stand then another ten to straighten it.  Claire stood back and looked at it.  The living room looked like it was on a slant.

“Is it me or is my living room slanted?” Claire asked Ben.

“It’s the tree,” Ben replied dryly.  “It’s crooked.”

The muscle flexed in Claire’s cheek.  “You see?  This is what happens when you let Kitty pick out a tree!”  Claire sighed.  “And here I wanted a perfect Christmas.  You can’t have a perfect Christmas with a crooked tree.”

“Since when has any of our Christmas’ been perfect?” Ben drawled out.

Exactly never, Claire thought, but she wasn’t about to admit that.  After decorating the tree, Claire decorated her house.  She had just finished putting up her Victorian Christmas village when Kitty arrived.  She stood next to Claire and studied the village.

“Hey, where’s the casino I bought you?” Kitty finally asked.

The casino . . . the bane of Claire’s Christmas Village.  It was an ugly thing with flashing lights and a showgirl with plenty of feathers in her hair and little else on her body.  It certainly didn’t belong in a Victorian Christmas village.

“Oh, that one . . .” Claire said as she quickly popped the plastic lid back on the container before pushing it under the table.  “Why, I don’t know what happened to it,” Claire lied.

A frown crossed Kitty’s face.  “Well now that’s just too bad.  You know that was miniature version of the casino where I had my affair with Frank Sinatra when I was a showgirl.”

Claire rolled her eyes.  She’d heard Kitty’s story about her supposed affair with Frank Sinatra so often she almost believed it herself.

“Yes.  Yes.  I remember,” Claire replied as she hurried into the kitchen to get away from the whole conversation.

After church on Sunday, Claire sat down at her kitchen table and began to prepare her grocery list for the dinner.  She had just started when Kitty dropped a fouling smelling plastic bag on the table.

“What the hell is that?” Claire asked.

“Lutefisk.  It’s my gift to the family for our Christmas dinner,” Kitty replied as she opened the bag.

Claire started to gag. It certainly didn’t smell like any gift she wanted.  Claire pushed the bag away.  “I think we’ll just stick with the Crown Rib Roast.”

“Now why would you want to do that?  Everyone does a rib roast.  There’s nothing special about that,” Kitty pointed out.  “Now lutefisk, that will make your dinner special.”

Claire didn’t think she wanted her dinner to be that special.  But there was a look of determination in Kitty’s eyes that Claire knew only too well.  It was the same look Claire’s mother once had.

“Fine.  I’ll make it,” Claire said, snatching the bag off the table and stuffing it in the fridge.

Claire intended to do her grocery shopping alone.  Kitty had other ideas.  As soon as Claire grabbed her coat, Kitty was up and out of her chair.

“I’ll come with you,” Kitty said.

“You don’t need too,” Claire told her.

“Nonsense,” Kitty replied.  “You can’t possibly do grocery shopping on your own.  There’s no telling what you’ll get.  You saw the tree you got, right?”

Claire started to reply then gave up.  There was no sense pointing out the obvious to Kitty.  Stop ‘n Shop was packed with last minute shoppers.  It took them forever to get the items on the list what with all the people in the store.  They were almost done and heading for the meat department when they spotted Gracie Pickler.  She was dressed in a deep purple wool coat that matched her bruised eye.

“Now don’t you cause any problems like the last time we went shopping!” Claire hissed, giving Kitty a look of warning.

“Just for the record, I wasn’t the one to cause problems.  That was all Gracie Pickler,” Kitty retorted in a tart voice.

“Why, Claire, isn’t this a happy coincidence,” Gracie said with a smug smile.

“I see you still have a black eye,” Claire couldn’t help saying.

Gracie fixed a furious gaze on Kitty.  “Oh this . . . why it’s almost gone,” Gracie said, dismissing Claire’s comment.

“I certainly hope so.  I wouldn’t want your Christmas pictures to be ruined,” Claire retorted.

“Oh don’t worry it will be gone.  I wouldn’t let something like this ruin my Christmas,” Gracie replied.  “I hope you have a wonderful Christmas . . .”

Both Claire and Kitty watched her walk away, her tinkling laughter mixing with the clicking of her Armani heels.

“I don’t believe her,” Claire hissed as they continued towards the meat counter.

“Yeah, I know.  I think that purple eye looks great,” Kitty said.  “It would really jazz up those Christmas pictures.”

Things took a decided turn for the worse when they reached the meat counter.  Roger, the butcher, shook his head, frowning.  “Sorry, Claire but Gracie Pickler got the last rib roast,” he told her.  “Maybe you’d like to have a ham instead?”

A Ham?  Claire didn’t want ham for her Christmas dinner.  She wanted an elegant dinner with fine linen tablecloth, china plates, polished silverware, and cut crystal wine glasses holding deep red Merlot.  There would be a beautiful floral arrangement in the center of the table and sitting proudly on the fine china platter Robert had bought would be the Crown Rib Roast!  Not some ugly old ham.

“Woo wee!  Looks like it’s lutefisk for everyone!” Kitty cried out with her fist raised upward.

Lutefisk for everyone?  Claire didn’t think so.  She turned back to Roger.  “We’ll take a ham.”

She spent the rest of the week baking.  She made cookies, her famous triple chocolate truffle cake and three different pies.  Burt came into the kitchen just as she was finishing icing the last batch of sugar cookies she’d made.  She sprinkled some green sugar on the cookie, keeping an eye on Burt as he opened one kitchen cupboard after another.

Finally, she asked, “What are you looking for, Burt?”

“The gingerbread cookies,” he said.

“Gingerbread cookies?  I didn’t make gingerbread cookies.”

“What?  You can’t have Christmas without gingerbread cookies!” Burt snapped.  “Everyone knows that!”

“Burt, I’m certain Christmas is going to come whether I make gingerbread cookies or not,” Claire told him.  “Besides, I made sugar cookies, peanut butter blossoms and Italian anise cookies.”

“Anise cookies?  No one eats them!” Burt complained.

“As a matter of fact, Kitty does,” Claire pointed out.

“Oh sure, you make Kitty’s favorite cookie but not mine?”

Claire sighed.  There was no way she was going to get out of it and she knew it.  “Fine.  I’ll make some gingerbread cookies.”

Christmas Day arrived bright and sunny.  Claire woke up exhausted.  She wanted to stay in bed and sleep.  She couldn’t though.  She had too much to do before her guests arrived.

“Woo wee, this is going to be fun!” Kitty exclaimed with her fist in the air as Claire stepped into the kitchen.  “Now tell me, do we have any good-looking men coming to dinner?”

Claire frowned as she looked at her aunt.  Kitty was eighty-eight years old.  Should she be even looking at men?

“Burt, Sam and Ben will be here,” Claire replied.  “Father Frank will be here, too,” Claire added.

“Frank . . .?  Why would you invite him?”

“Because it’s Christmas and he’s our priest.  You can’t leave him out.”

“I could,” Burt interjected.  “The man has an inordinate fondness for gossip.  He’s always listening to people’s conversations.”

“He does?” Claire asked in surprise.  She couldn’t imagine Father Frank listening to gossip.  Then again, if he did hear something, she couldn’t really fault him.  This town thrived on gossip.

“Sure,” Burt returned.  “He’s got that little room he sits in.  People go in and out all day telling him all sorts of who knows what!”

Claire rolled her eyes.  “That’s not gossip.  That’s confessional.”

Burt frowned.  “That doesn’t make it right . . .”

“Anyway . . .” Claire ground out with a frown in Burt’s direction.  “Dax will be here.”

“Now we’re talking,” Kitty said, rubbing her hands together in anticipation.

“Whoa . . . whoa . . .whoa . . .” Burt said waving his hands in the air.  “What do you mean Dax will be here.  He’s not family and he’s not a priest.”

“He’s coming because he’s alone for the holiday and he’s Ben’s best friend,” Claire explained.  “Why, he’s almost like family.”

“Well now, you’ve gone and ruined my Christmas,” Kitty grumbled as she got up from the kitchen table and shuffled out of the kitchen.

Claire spent the rest of the morning preparing the food for dinner.  When she was finished, she collected Kitty, then drove to Blooms Galore to pick up the floral arrangement Mayme Wolfe had made for her.  Claire dug under the door mat, found the key Mayme hid and opened the door.

“Hey, do you think there’s a silent alarm that will bring the cops here?” Kitty asked hopefully.  “It’s been years since I’ve been arrested.”

Claire did a double take at Kitty.  “What?”

“It’s a long story.  Dean Martin and I . . .” Kitty began.  Claire gave Kitty an exasperated look.  “What?  It’s a true story!” Kitty insisted.

Claire didn’t believe that for a minute.  “Yeah, well you can tell me later.”

“Why do we need a floral arrangement for Christmas anyway?” Kitty asked.

“Because it looks nice and I want everything to be perfect.”

“That’s too bad because you’re stuck with the family you got,” Kitty replied as she followed Claire out the door of the floral shop.

When they got home, Claire started to put the floral arrangement on the table when she noticed the Christmas village.  There smack dab in the center, exactly where Claire had place the church, sat the casino complete with the flashing neon lights.

Claire glared at Kitty.  “What happened to Vicar Peabody’s church?”

“Why, I don’t know what happened to it,” Kitty replied innocently.

Clare gave up and set the floral arrangement right in the center of the table.  “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“It’s blocking the casino,” Kitty said.

Claire was about to respond when Burt chimed in, “It’s too big.  I can’t see the person across from me.  How do you expect me to have a conversation with a bouquet like that?”

Claire sighed.  “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

It was only later that Claire realized she should have been more explicit with her direction.  She was just getting ready to bring out the dinner when she heard Burt say, “You want a piece of me?” Claire dropped what she was doing and rushed out of the kitchen.  She stood in disbelief as she watched her ninety-year old uncle wrestling with her sixty-year old bother over the seating arrangements.

“Now we’re talking!” Kitty exclaimed.  “Live entertainment!”

It was a good thing Ben was there to stop the wrestling.  He took control of the situation by sitting in the seat under discussion.  Seeing no other choice, Sam and Burt took seats in the opposite corners of the table.  Claire gave her son a look of relief as she hurried to the kitchen to bring out dinner.

“Hey, don’t forget the lutefisk,” Kitty called after her.

With more regret than Claire could imagine she carried out the gelatinous mess and was about to set it on the table when Kitty stopped her.

“Here, let me move this,” Kitty said as she grabbed the centerpiece off the table.

“What are you doing with that?” Claire asked.

“Moving it.  The lutefisk should be the centerpiece.”

Claire thought it should go in the trash.  She wasn’t the only one.  Everyone stared at the gooey mess with looks of disgust on their faces.  Everyone that is expect Burt and Kitty.  They were looking at the lutefisk like it was filet mignon.

Ellen was the first to break the silence.  “What is that smell?”

“Oh dear lord, I think I’m going to be sick!” Marney said as she jumped up from the table.  She didn’t make it to the bathroom in time.  Vomit spewed all over the presents before she reached the stairs.

“Hey!  You better not have ruined the present I bought for Ellen!  Expensive silk like that can’t be replaced,” Kitty announced.

Claire sucked in a breath of outrage.  “You didn’t buy that present!  I did.”

“No you didn’t,” Kitty said.  “You were too busy driving the get-away car.”

“You what?” Ben exclaimed.

Clearly this was something the police chief did not want to hear about his mother.  “It wasn’t a get-away car per se . . .” Claire began only to be interrupted by Kitty.

“I’m thinking of starting a new career,” she told the group.  “I think I’d be pretty good at shoplifting.”

Claire closed her eyes and prayed for patience.  The muscle in Ben’s cheeks flexed.  Ellen let out a soft groan and Frank said a quick prayer.  Only Dax thought Kitty’s comment was funny.

“Why, Kitty, I think you’d be an amazing shoplifter.”

“For the love of God,” Ben ground out.

“What?  It’s an honest profession!” Kitty said in defense.

“It’s a crime,” Claire snapped.  “Do you want to go to jail?”

“I don’t know,” Kitty mused.  She turned to Ben.  “Will the jail be co-ed?”

Claire looked up to the heavens and sighed.  “Why, for once, can I not have a perfect Christmas?”

“Who wants perfect?” Kitty asked Claire.  “One day, I won’t be here and you’ll be missing this!”

Claire realized Kitty was right.  One day Kitty and Burt would be gone and all this craziness would be replaced with the quiet, perfect Christmas the Picklers’ enjoyed.  Suddenly any anger and frustration Claire felt evaporated.  Claire sat back in her chair and smiled.  Gracie Pickler could have her perfect Christmas with her perfect family.  Claire wouldn’t trade a minute with her deranged family for Gracie’s perfectly boring one.

“You’re right Kitty.  I will miss this,” Claire said with a smile as picked up her wine to give a toast.

And without missing a beat, Kitty said, “Of course you’ve got a least another twenty years before that happens.”

Claire drank all the wine out of her glass at that announcement.

The Great Escape

“I sure hope Hank didn’t wake up,” Minnie grumbled as Claire backed out of the driveway.

“Why would Hank wake up?” Claire asked.  “You said he’s a heavy sleeper.”

“Are you kidding me,” Minnie exclaimed.  “You threw rocks at the wall.  You think he’s gonna sleep through that noise?”

“I had to throw them,” Claire retorted, irritated.  “You didn’t wake up when I threw the first pebble.”

“It’s two in the morning, Claire!  Excuse me for sleeping through the sound of a pebble hitting my window.”

“We discussed these plans last night!” Claire exclaimed, exasperated.  “I told you not to drink all that wine.  Wine makes you forget and then you over sleep.  Remember, the last time you drank wine?  We were supposed to go the casino only you overslept and we missed the bus?”

“That doesn’t count,” Minnie protested, irritated that Claire had brought up that incident.  “It’s not my fault people kept refilling my glass and I didn’t know it!”

Claire rolled her eyes.  “It was a wine party for goodness sake!  Of course they’d refill it.  What did you expect?”

Maybe Claire was right, Minnie thought.  Maybe she shouldn’t drink wine. Clearly, she loses all common sense after a glass or two.   She certainly couldn’t explain any other reason for agreeing to this harebrained idea.  Lord knows, she never went to black Friday sales.  At least, she never went to them when the sky was still dark and the sane were still sleeping.

“Wine doesn’t make me forget.”

The sound of Kitty’s voice scared the heck out of Minnie.  Clutching her hand against her chest, Minnie whipped her head around to peer into the backseat.  She could barely see Kitty.  It wasn’t because it was dark but rather because Kitty’s head was barely visible above the seat.  There was no denying the iron grey pin curls though.  They were all Kitty.

Minnie turned to Claire.  “I thought you were going to leave her home?”

A scowl creased Claire’s face.  “I wanted to but she beat me to the car.”

Kitty’s sharp, thin, laughter cackled from the back seat.  “You should have seen it Minnie.  I scared the hell out of Claire.”

“You didn’t scare me,” Claire scoffed in denial.

“Oh really?  Then how come you let out that scream?”

Claire rolled her eyes.  “That wasn’t a scream.  It was barely a squeak.”

“Yeah, a squeak that could wake a neighborhood,” Kitty shot back.

“It didn’t wake everybody,” Claire stated with a pointed glance in Minnie’s direction.  “Anyway, Kitty was already at the car and you know her, when her mind is made up there’s no changing it.  Besides, she’ll be able to help me get those door buster items I want.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” Kitty protested.  “I’ve got some things I want to get too.”

“Oh really?” Curious, Minnie turned around to face Kitty.  “What do you want to get.”

“Well, I saw some nice boxer shorts on sale.  I thought Burt might like them.”

“Don’t you think a pair of flannels would be better for Burt?” Claire asked as she turned onto the highway and started towards Albany.

Kitty shook her head.  “Naw.  They’re too warm for him.  He starts to sweat then he has to strip down to his skivvies.  This way we eliminate the stripping down.”

Claire wished she could eliminate the picture Kitty painted of Burt stripping down.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t erase the image of Burt’s knobby knees and wrinkled skin from her brain.  Maybe if she was lucky, the boxer shorts would be sold out.  Conversation died down after that as Claire drove through the dark streets to Albany.  By the time they reached the mall the parking lot was packed.

“See, this is why I wanted to leave at midnight,” Claire grumbled as she circled the parking lot for the fifth time.

“We couldn’t leave at midnight,” Kitty replied.  “Minnie was passed out.  Remember?”

Minnie gasped.  “I was not passed out.  I was just tired.  Thanksgiving takes it out of a person.”

Claire had just made another pass around the mall when Kitty pressed her hands to her stomach and let out a low moan.  “Oh lord, I think I’m gonna be sick.”

Panicked, Claire glanced up in the rearview window.  “What?”

“Sick!” Kitty shot out.  “We’re spinning like tops in this parking lot.  That makes a person sick!”

“Oh jeez . . .” Claire grumbled as she came to a sudden stop.  Fortunately, there was a traffic jam in front of the mall when Claire slammed on the brakes.  “Minnie, you and Kitty wait here while I find a parking spot.”

“Sure,” Minnie said as she stepped out of the car.

Kitty let out another groan as she clutched her stomach and climbed out of the car.  She stood on the sidewalk, hunched over and moaning.  Minnie rubbed her back as Claire started to pull away.  The brake lights flashed on again.  Both Minnie and Kitty looked up in time to see Claire roll down the passenger window.  She gave Kitty a hard look before turning to Minnie.

“Make sure Kitty doesn’t get into trouble while I’m parking the car,” Claire ordered.

“What trouble could Kitty get into on a sidewalk?” Minnie asked as she breathed warm air on her redden hands.

Claire gave Kitty a pointed look.  “You’d be surprised,” she grumbled.

As soon as Claire’s car was out of sight, Kitty straightened up.  “Come on.  Let’s go,” she announced as she started for the mall entrance.

Minnie reached out and stopped her.  “I thought you were sick.”

A sparkle of laughter lit Kitty’s eyes.  “Naw.  That was just so I could get away from Claire.”

“But we’re supposed to wait here for her,” Minnie said as Kitty once again started towards entrance.

“Look at this place.” Kitty spread her arms wide nearly hitting a swarm of people on the sidewalk.  “There are more people entering than leaving.  The parking lot is like a sea of red brake lights.  Not to mention that it’s freezing out here.  Why, I might die of hyperthermia before Claire finds a spot.  Do you want my death on your head?”

“I think you mean hypothermia,” Minnie corrected as Kitty opened the mall door.

“Well, I don’t want to die of that either,” Kitty retorted as she pushed her way past the group of customers saying, “Sick old lady here ready to puke.”

People scattered like the plague was about to hit Albany.  Minnie had to race to keep up with Kitty.  It wasn’t easy.  Between the crush of people, Kitty’s shorten stature and her uncanny ability to zig zag through crowds like nobody’s business, the woman was impossible to spot.

“Kitty!  Wait,” Minnie called out as she ducked under the outstretched arm of a man.

Kitty stopped and glared at Minnie.  She tapped her foot impatiently as she waited.  “Would you hurry up!” she grumbled.  “We’re going to lose all the best deals.”

“Jeez, it’s not easy getting around people.  I’m a little taller than four feet ten,” Minnie pointed when she finally caught up with Kitty.  “And when you zip around people you’re hard to keep track of.”

“Oh, I got those moves from the sniper movies.”

Minnie frowned.  “What?”

“Jeez, haven’t you ever seen a sniper movie?” Kitty replied.  ‘The actors always run in zig zags when they’re trying to get away.  That way they don’t get hit by the bullets being shot at them.  I just applied that knowledge to the crowd here.  Worked like a charm.”

Minnie looked around the mall.  “How the heck is Claire going find us in this crush?”

“She’s got a cell phone,” Kitty retorted, apparently unconcerned about the loss of her niece.  “Come on.  I heard Hutton’s has some nice silk boxers on special.  I’m thinking my Burt would look darn good in a pair of them.”

Claire was ready to panic.  She’d searched the mall for a good half hour and still she couldn’t find Kitty or Minnie.  The crowds made it nearly impossible.  Of course, if she hadn’t been fooled by Kitty’s lie, she wouldn’t be in this predicament.  She knew Kitty.  The woman never got motion sick.  Heck, the woman never got sick! 

After her third circle of the mall, Claire was desperate.  There was no other alternative but to go to mall security to have them search for Minnie and Kitty.  She turned about and started to head towards the security offices when she caught a glimpse of a scuffle just inside of Hutton’s.  A crowd was quickly forming around it.  A sinking feeling settled in the pit of Claire’s stomach as she hurried to the store.

When she reached the front of the crowd, Claire wished her aunt and Minnie were still lost.  There, straddling Gracie Pickler, was her eighty-nine year old aunt.  Gracie was making a valiant attempt to get away but Kitty was having nothing to do with it.  Not only was she straddling Gracie but she was playing tug of war with the woman over a piece of blue and turquoise fabric.  Minnie stood over the two, shouting words of encouragement in Kitty’s direction.  Suddenly, the fabric slipped free from Gracie’s grip.  Kitty didn’t waste a minute.  She scrambled off Gracie’s prone form and dashed out of the store as Minnie threw some money in the direction of the cashier before chasing after Kitty.

“Where’s the get-away car!” Kitty demanded.

Stunned, Claire watched as Kitty zipped past her.    “Don’t lose her!” Minnie called out as she raced past Claire.  “She’s got the sniper escape down!  In this crowd, we’ll never find her.”

Later, Claire would say she was lost in the moment.  That was the only reason she could come up with for following the two women.  She caught up with them just as Kitty burst out of the mall and into the cold morning.

The sun’s glow was barely visible over the horizon as they dodged cars trying to find a parking spot.  Claire fumbled in her purse in search of her keys.  Her hands were shaking so much she couldn’t seem to grip anything.  When she finally found them, she beeped the car open.  The three of them dove inside.

Claire let out a shaky breath as she turned to face Kitty.  “What the hell just happened back there?”

“Gracie happened!  That’s what,” Kitty grumbled.  “She tried to steal these.” Kitty held up the blue and turquoise fabric as evidence.

“What the hell is that?”

“Boxers.  For Burt,” Kitty retorted.  “I told you I wanted to get some.”

“But what does Gracie have to do with this?” Claire asked as she zipped the car out of the parking lot.

“She tried to take them.  They were the last ones in this color and if you think I’m going to let Gracie Pickler have them, you’ve got another thing coming,” Kitty announced.

“So, you stole them?” Claire demanded.

Kitty shrugged.  “What choice did I have?”

Claire could think of a hundred different choices.  She didn’t bother to mention any of them.  It wouldn’t have helped anyway.  Kitty wouldn’t have listened.  Instead she turned and glared at Minnie.

“Is this how you keep Kitty out of trouble?”

Minnie threw her hands up in the air.  “That’s it!  I am never drinking wine again!”

Welcome to Aberdeen

Every year, on the night before Thanksgiving, Aberdeen filled with people.  They came from far and wide to the quaint little town nestled in the Adirondack Mountains.  Excitement filled the air.  No one seemed to mind the freezing temperatures as they lined the sidewalks in breathless anticipation for the start of the Aberdeen Annual Glow in the Park Turkey Trot.

The evening was perfect.  Freshly fallen snow blanketed the landscape in pristine white.  Colorful Christmas lights sparkled from the trees surrounding the square.  The cozy smells of cocoa and sugar cookies teased the senses.  Santa, with his nose as red as his suit, was the guest of honor.  Lines snaked around the park as good little boys and girls waited patiently to give their requests.

And right there, smack dab in the middle of the square was the Christmas tree.  It took the town a good two weeks to find the perfect tree.  The town had exacting specifications.  The tree had to be taller than any other around.  It had to be wide at the bottom, narrow at the top and perfectly filled out in between.  They wanted something as strong and as proud as they were.

The tree now stood in the center of the town square, naked and unadorned.  That wouldn’t last long.  Even now, city workers stood upon ladders, waiting for the residents to craft an ornament to hang upon the tree.  Once the last runner crossed the finish line, the mayor would flick the switch, and just like that, the Christmas tree would be ablaze with millions of multicolored lights signaling the start of the holiday season.

The square buzzed with activity.  Local merchants sponsored tables to share their products with the visitors.  Dax Moore, a fireman with the Aberdeen Fire Department, stood behind the table serving hot cocoa and sugar cookies to the line of women vying to grab his attention.  Across the way Betty’s Café had a table, where Betty herself was serving steaming hot coffee and tea.  In another part of the park Papa’s Pizza was handing out hot, fresh slices of pizza.  Aberdeeni’s was handing out cannoli, and the world famous Candi Cakes were being shared by Candi’s Candies.

There were activities for young and old alike.  An ice skating rink had been built near the center of the park where even now it was filled with skaters, flying around it’s glasslike surface.  Crafters and merchants had tables displaying their products for sale.  Intricate snow castles were competing with snowmen of all shapes and sizes.  People milled about placing bets as to which would win the competition and reign king or queen of the holiday festival.  Children ran about, not bothered in the least by the flurries of snow that dropped from the night sky, while their parents chatted with their neighbors.

Ben Jordan, the young police chief from Aberdeen, stood next to Mike Landry, the mayor of Aberdeen.  Ben’s gaze swept through the crowds, taking in every detail, making certain everyone was safe.

“I’ve asked City Council to consider refurbishing the gazebo this spring,” Mike said drawing Ben’s attention away from the scene in the park.

The gazebo under question stood next to City Hall.  It was decked out in its finest holiday attire.  Red ribbon was wrapped around the posts and pine boughs were draped off the railing, sparkling with holiday cheer.  Carolers, dressed in rather dubious Victorian garb and singing a lusty holiday too, stood beneath its roof.  To say the gazebo needed to be refurbished was an understatement.  The wooden flooring was warped and worn in places.  The roof, reinforced nearly a dozen times in as many years, was barely hanging on.  Not that it mattered.  There were so many leaks in the roof any snow that landed on it was bound to fall through the holes peppering the surface.

“What they need to do is raze it and build a new one,” Ben replied as he watched Mrs. Jones talking with Gladys Clapper.  Barney, her dog, stood sentinel next to her, eyeing the passing people as if they were intent on doing her harm.

“The council will never agree to that,” Mike replied.  “They think it should be registered with the National Register of Historic Places.”

That bit of information got Ben’s attention.  He turned to Mike in disbelief.  “What?”

Mike Landry shrugged.  “They seem to think it’s historical.”

“It’s barely forty years old!” Ben replied.

Mike shrugged again.  “You know the council.  There’s no sense trying to be logical with them.  You’ll see,” Mike added with knowing glance in Ben’s direction.

Ben ignored Mike’s comment.  City Council had made no secret they wanted Ben to assume the role of mayor when Mike retired next fall.  Each time the council cornered Ben, he had listened patiently to their reasons, neither accepting nor rejecting their offer.  Mike had nearly a year left in his tenure.  Ben wasn’t about to usurp Mike’s authority by considering the council’s offer.

“I think you should know that I’ve arranged to have the guys in flak jackets for this,” Abe, one of Ben’s officers announced as he came to a stop in front of Ben.

The irritation of becoming mayor was quickly replaced by annoyance.  To call Abe ornery and difficult would have been a compliment.  The man had a complaint for everything.  He thought he had a solution too.  Year after year, Ben kept hoping Abe would finally bite the bullet and retire.  In the six years Ben had been police chief, Abe never once hinted at the possibility retirement was in his future.  Ben figured Abe stayed on to do his Word Jumbles, collect the local gossip and to make Ben’s life difficult.  So far, Abe was batting a thousand.

Mike whipped his attention to Ben.  “Do you think there’s gonna be trouble?”

Ben gave Abe an exasperated look as he replied, “Of course not.  We’ve done this for years.  There is never trouble.” At least not the kind of trouble that required flak jackets, Ben thought.

“That’s not true,” Abe corrected before he took a sip of the coffee he held in his gloved hand.  “Don’t you remember what happened in Newton during their Pumpkin Palooza?   There was nearly a riot!”

“There was nearly a riot because someone spiked the apple cider,” Ben replied dryly.

He’d heard the news from Sheriff Wincomb just a few weeks past.  Ben wasn’t surprised the apple cider had been spiked.  Things like that happened.  Ben, however, was not about to allow that to happen here.  He made that perfectly clear to his officers.

“Your men are ready though, right?” Mike asked, clearly concerned.  A riot was not the legacy he wished for.

The muscle flexed in Ben’s cheek.  “My men are always ready.”

“Yeah, thanks to me,” Abe replied.  He saw the dark look Ben shot at him.  “Hey, I’m just trying to be helpful.”

“If you want to be helpful, why don’t you go over there and direct traffic,” Ben retorted, pointing towards the parking area just off Main Street.

“I’m no traffic cop!” Abe protested.  This earned him another hot glare from Ben.  He threw up his hands in submission.  Coffee flew out of his cup and landed on Ben’s jacket.  Abe let out a disgruntled sigh.  “Fine.  I’ll direct traffic but I warn you, the union is not going to be happy about this!” he grumbled as he stormed away.

“What about Rufus?  You don’t think he will be here, do you?” Mike asked as Ben brushed the coffee off his coat.

Ben understood Mike’s concern.  Rufus Merriweather was the town’s streaker.  Sometime during the year, Rufus would strip down into the outfit God had given him and run through the streets of Aberdeen.  He’d been doing it for seventy years and Ben doubted he would stop until he took his last breath.  Rufus naked was not a sight Ben wished to see on a warm, sunny day.  He sure as certain didn’t want to see it when the wind was blowing and the temperature was nearing thirty.  Heck, Ben couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to see Rufus naked.

He scanned the surrounding area to see if Rufus was about.  He didn’t spot Rufus, but he did see his mother and she didn’t look the least bit happy as she marched towards him.  Neither did Kitty, who Claire towed behind her.  Minnie, Claire’s neighbor and friend, kept pace with Claire, chattering the whole way.   Kitty’s husband was nowhere in sight.

“Where’s Burt?” Ben asked when Claire reached his side.

“He’s home.  Where she should be,” Claire snapped giving Kitty a pointed look.

Ben laughed.  Kitty certainly had a way of keeping his mother on her toes.  “What did Kitty do now?”

“Hey!” Kitty said, taking umbrage at Ben’s words.

“I’ll tell you what she did!” Claire shot out.  “She went and sat on Santa’s lap!”

“So?  What’s wrong with that?” Kitty demanded.  “That’s why he’s here!”

“No.  He’s here for the kids,” Claire corrected.  “You’re not a kid.  You’re an old lady.”

“Speak for yourself!” Kitty snapped.  “Besides, Santa didn’t mind that I sat on his lap.”

Claire rolled her eyes.  “Oh for God’s sake.  You’re eighty-nine years old!”

“So?” Kitty protested.  “I don’t know how much longer I have left.  I need to put my requests in when I have a chance.  I want to make certain I have a spot saved for me in heaven.”

“I think you’ve got Santa confused with the man upstairs,” Minnie said, cautiously pointing towards the cloud filled night sky.

“I don’t have them confused,” Kitty corrected.  “I’m hedging my bets.  The way I figure it, I need all the help I can get.  If Father Frank can’t get me into heaven, then maybe Santa can pull some strings for me.”

“Oh for goodness sake!” Claire groaned again, wondering exactly what she had done to deserve having to deal with her aunt for the holidays.

“Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve sat on a young man’s lap,” Kitty continued.

A low groan of irritation erupted from Claire.  Clearly, she did not appreciate Kitty’s opinion.  Ben tried to contain his laughter.  He took pity on his mother and decided to intervene on her behalf.

“What about Burt?”

Minnie gave Ben a look that suggested he’d lost his mind.  “I said young man.  There ain’t nothing young about Burt,” Kitty huffed.

“How do you know Santa is young?” Minnie asked.  “He looked old to me.”

“Naw,” Kitty said, dismissing Minnie’s comment, with a flick of her wrinkled hand.  “That’s just the wig and beard.  When I sat on his lap I noticed . . .”

Claire slapped her hand over Kitty’s mouth.  “Don’t you dare say it!”

“What?  I was just going to say that I noticed he didn’t have any wrinkles around his eyes.  What did you think I was going to say?” Kitty asked when Claire pulled her hand away.

A blush the color of Santa’s suit, ran up Claire’s cheeks.  Thankfully, she was saved from explaining what Jimmy Tanner, Mike’s deputy mayor arrived.

“It’s time,” Jimmy said to the group.  He turned to Mike and asked, “Are you ready?”

“As ready as I will be,” Mike said, holding up the flare gun.

Ben wished he was as confident.  Mike wasn’t known to be the most accurate shot with the flare gun.  One year Mike had shot the star off the top of the Christmas tree.  Another year, he had shot the window out of the Court House.  And yet another year, he had flatten the tire on George Winders Buick.  Last year Ben had asked Mike if he wouldn’t feel better using a starter gun as opposed to a flare gun.  Mike had immediately dismissed Ben’s notion like it was crazy.

“Now you know Ben,” Mike said in a voice that suggested Ben was either a child or ignorant.  “We’ve always used flare guns to start the Turkey Trot.  It’s a tradition and it’s what makes it festive.”

Ben didn’t think danger was festive at all.  He could have gone to city council and pushed his concern regarding the flare gun.  Lord knows he could cite plenty of examples.  But seeing as this was Mike’s last year as mayor, Ben decided he’d make a concession and allow the man to use the gun.  But that didn’t mean Ben wouldn’t keep an eye on him.

At least that was his intention.  Only before Ben knew what had happened, chaos erupted.  Just as Mike started to lift his arm to shoot the flare, a loud explosion sounded in the area.  Barney, Mrs. Jones’ beagle, panicked at the noise, breaking free from Mrs. Jones’ grip.  He charged directly towards Mike, like a heat seeking missile.  He clipped Mike in the knees causing him to fall backward just as he pulled the trigger.  The gun sounded and a flash of light erupted lighting the area.  The flare made a beeline, not towards Stop ‘n Shop parking lot as intended, but headed directly towards the gazebo.  Somehow, no one was hit.  The same couldn’t be said for the gazebo.  The flare sailed through the air, narrowly missing one of the caroler’s top hat as it landed smack dab in the middle of the gazebo.  The caroler’s reaction was instantaneous.   They scattered, leaping over the wooden railing as the worn floor erupted in flames.  Seeing the flames, the spectators panicked and began to run, screaming from the area.  Soon there was a confusion of runners and spectators all racing through the streets.  Ben watched in amazement and disbelief, wondering what more could possibly happen when Kitty suddenly let out a loud whoop.  Ben turned his attention to his great aunt.  All four-foot ten of her stared, mesmerized, straight ahead.

“Woo wee!  Now that’s a lap I wouldn’t mind sitting on,” Kitty announced as Rufus Merriweather ran past them, wearing nothing more than a pair of dayglo socks and sneakers.

Ben looked over to see Mike Landry’s reaction.  Mike lay sprawled on his back in the snowdrift.  Ben reached down to help the mayor up just as Mike said, “I guess we won’t have to refurbish the gazebo after all.”