Welcome Home, AndybyRoute66Girl©
Andy stood in the doorway of the school auditorium in his snow-covered boots, itching to turn around and leave the place just as he found it. The small theater was absolutely crawling with kids of all shapes and sizes, scrambling over seats and down the aisle. The din of squeals, shouting and laughter bounced off the walls, into Andy’s ears, and found the same place in his spinal cord that fingernails on a blackboard always wrenched.
Scratchscratchscratch Susan Madsen had already spied him, huffing in his direction with her plump, nylon-clad thighs rubbing together under a too-tight skirt. He carved his face into the best grin he could muster, silently cursing the woman. How in the hell did I let her talk me into this?
“Andrew! Oh, I’m so glad you’re here,” she exclaimed.
A small boy squeezed past her in a panic, trying to outrun two larger boys hot on his heels. As the child rushed forward, Andy tried to step out of the way, only to get his feet twisted into a pretzel when the boy suddenly hid behind him, screaming with an exhilarated grin.
Andy went down in a tangle of arms and legs as the other two kids crashed into him, still pursuing the small one who had seemed to disappear.
“Get off, Mister! You’re heavy!” came a muffled voice from underneath. Andy leapt up, fighting to keep his cool as he shrugged off clinging children who tumbled to the floor.
“You boys get up onstage,” Susan chided. “Play tag when you’re outside, and leave Mr. Jameson alone.”
They shrieked, having barely paid attention to her, scampering toward the other end of the theater.
“How many kids are there in this thing?” he asked, eyes wide at the pandemonium.
“The whole school; thirty-two in all. As you can see, there are all ages. There are only a few kindergarteners, though. The oldest ones are ten, eleven. Little Michael Talbot is the youngest. He’s only four, but such a smart little boy. He can’t be here tonight, though. Poor thing’s got the chicken pox.”
Susan handed him a stack of folders, which she explained were the script, musical score, schedule and cast list for the Christmas play.
“It’s all up to you now, Andrew,” she beamed, launching into chatter. “There’s Cheryl to help out as the Stage Manager, over there,” she pointed at a large, grandmotherly woman who was attempting to herd all the children to the stage. “… and Jessica is helping out with the music. I know you’ll just adore her to bits. She’s backstage right now. I really can’t thank you enough for doing this, Andrew,” she gushed. Perkperkperk “It’s a pity that I won’t be able to help with the play this year, but Tim and I have been looking forward to this cruise for a long time. If it weren’t for you, there wouldn’t be anyone to help these kids. The teachers are just too swamped this time of year.”
“No problem,” he replied, his voice devoid of enthusiasm. “But, please, call me Andy.”
Susan whirled around and clapped her hands three times.
“Everyone listen up! I want your attention please! You too, Jamie,” she said to a portly boy who was making faces at one of the girls. Susan waved her hands in front of Andy with a flourish. “This is Andrew Jameson. He’ll be directing the play for us this year!”
She started applauding, and soon every tiny pair of hands in the small theater followed suit, slapping together, little voices cheering as Andy stood still, blood draining from his face. Susan continued after the ovation died down.
“And so it’s very important that you all do exactly what he tells you to do, and not give him any trouble. I want you to do your very best and show him what great kids we have here in Swan Junction…”
Andy lost focus on Susan’s speech when he saw the girl shimmer from backstage. No…not a girl. A young woman. She peeked her head out from behind the curtain first. Long, curly hair spilled over her shoulders and even in the dimmed lights, he could tell that she wasn’t wearing her natural color. Her dark locks had that pretty but metallic burgundy sheen that was a dead giveaway. But he was captivated. She approached the foot of the stage with a flowing, gentle grace that complemented her lithe figure. Large, friendly brown eyes smiled as she regarded the man whom Susan was introducing.
“…and I know that with his guidance and your very best efforts, we’ll have the best Christmas play ever!”
Another round of cheering burst from the kids as Susan wrapped up, shocking Andy out of his reverie.
“It’s all yours!” Susan sat down in the front row, and a hush enveloped the auditorium. Every pair of eyes was glued to Andy, who smiled nervously, sweat forming on his brow.
“Um, well…” he started, clearing his throat. “I, uh, think this is going to be a lot of fun, and…”
“Mr. Jameson!” A little girl no more than six had raised her hand, waving it frantically.
“You can call me Andy.”
“Aaaandy!” she shifted around, itching in her woolens.
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
She leapt offstage and scurried out of the auditorium as Andy turned back to dozens of expectant faces.
“Any other questions before we get started?”
Fifteen hands went up.
Two hours later, Andy slumped into a seat of the first row, mentally exhausted. Cheryl and Susan had gone. The last parent had just departed, the last child in tow.
He had no idea how he was going to pull this off. He could barely even remember the kids’ names, let alone tell them where to go and which lines to say.
Andy got up wearily and went to the small table at the foot of the stage, remembering one of the things that had lured him into this in the first place- homemade food. On the table were thermoses of coffee and hot chocolate, a basket of rolls and a crock-pot full of steaming clam chowder. It wasn’t often that a transient construction worker like him got treated to home cooking, and, in cajoling him to direct the play, Susan Madsen had “mentioned” there would be some at every rehearsal.
He poured a cup of coffee and got a plastic spoon and bowl, which was quickly filled up with steaming chowder. He sat back down; taking a bite of the first homemade soup he’d eaten in years.
“You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”
Andy looked up to the stage, half-startled. There she was- that lovely creature who’d disappeared backstage after rehearsal got underway, leaving him to wonder whether she’d been a ghost. Now the very real-looking, very attractive woman gazed down at him, smirking, bemused… enchanting. He swallowed down the bite, smiling back as he wiped away a drop of chowder from his beard.
“Is it that obvious?”
“It’s obvious you’ve never worked with kids, that much I’d bet money on,” she stepped off the stage with a chuckle, offering her hand. “I’m Jessica Talbot. I’ll be working on the musical end of things.”
“Ah-ha!” he straightened up in the seat, wrapping her cool, sleight fingers in his for a brief handshake. She’d be here every night with him. Oh, the possibilities! “So you’re the infamous Jessica. And where were you this evening, may I ask? I could’ve used some help.”
“Sorry,” she grinned. “I was organizing the score, making a few notes, dusting off the piano backstage; it hasn’t been used since the dark ages… just preliminary stuff. I’ll be out front from now on, I promise.”
“You better be.”
“Yes, sir!” she mock-saluted, then relaxed as Andy laughed. “Susan kept going on about how you were a ‘real director,’” she raised her eyebrow. “I hope that doesn’t mean you’re going to be some kind of raging dictator.”
“I hate to burst your bubble, Jessica, but Susan doesn’t know what the hell she’s talking about. ‘Real director,’ my ass,” he rolled his eyes. “Makes me sound like Steven Spielberg.”
“You mean you’ve never done anything like this?”
“Well, yes and no. I did a lot of acting and some directing when I was in high school and college; community theater, a few local commercials. You know, that kind of thing. It’s not like I was ever professional. Besides, that was ten years ago. Thought I’d left all that behind,” he sighed, thoughtfully gazing at the stage as he bit into a soft roll. He chewed briefly before swallowing. “I’m not even sure why I agreed to do this. Tell you the truth, it sounded about as fun as taking a ride in an industrial clothes-dryer.”
“Don’t be shy. Tell me how you really feel,” Jessica chuckled.
“Anyway, yes,” he smiled. “I’ve worked in theater, but you’re right. I’ve never worked with kids.”
“You’ll catch on,” she assured Andy as she took a seat next to him. “How did Susan manage to get you in on this, anyway?”
Andy chuckled bitterly. “Her husband, Tim, told her about my theater experience. Anyway, she played dirty; lured me to a PTA meeting and plied me with chocolate éclairs.”
Jessica burst into a fit of laughter.
“That’s her, all right. If Susan Madsen ever invites you someplace and offers food, you know she’s out to talk you into something, and you can bet she’ll get what she’s after. Maybe she knows something the rest of us don’t,” Jessica smirked. “Do you think it’s true what they say… about the way to a man’s heart being through his stomach?”
“Somewhere in that vicinity, anyway.” He grinned as she slugged his shoulder playfully, feigning indignation at the innuendo.
They smiled at each other in the ensuing silence, and Andy took another bite of chowder, watching her curiously.
“So, Jessica, how long have you lived in Swan Junction?”
“All my life.”
“And how long would that be?”
“Twenty-five years. What about you? I know everyone in this little berg, and this is the first time I’ve seen you.”
“Well, I’ve only been here about seven weeks. I was hired to help build the new library. Tim Madsen was on the same construction crew- that’s how he found out about me and theater.”
“The library was finished two weeks ago.” She looked at him questioningly. “What made you stick around?”
Andy swallowed a spoonful, looking around the auditorium as if seeing through its walls to the snow-covered mountains beyond.
“It’s a pretty area, and there’s some good skiing,” he shrugged. “Seemed like a nice place to stay for the Holidays. Don’t really have anything to do until January, anyway.”
“What happens in January?”
“I’m heading off to Los Angeles after the New Year. I know a guy there who wants me on his crew for a project he’s got going. When I finish with that job, I’ll probably hang around L.A. for a while, too. Hit the beaches, get a tan, maybe learn how to surf…”
“And then move on again?”
“You got it.”
“Don’t you have family anywhere?” she cocked her head, mocha eyes wide with interest.
“Nope,” he said shortly, hoping the interrogation would end soon. “My parents are gone. I have an older brother who lives in Minnesota, but he’s pretty much it for family. We aren’t close.”
“How come you’re so nosy?” he muttered, irritably dropping a spoonful of chowder back into the bowl. “I swear, the people in this town…”
“Jeez, sorry!” she leaned back, putting her hands up. “Didn’t mean to tread on your space.”
“I’m serious,” he continued, attempting to put his tone in check. “I’ve run into more busybodies in this town than anywhere else I’ve been. Between you, Tim, Susan…what is it? Why do you all care so much who I am and where I’ve been? I don’t get it, honestly.”
Jessica’s eyes had gone wide as he vented, and she remained silent for a few moments.
“Yeah,” he couldn’t help smirking.
“You have to understand something,” she said quietly. “This is the kind of town where everyone knows each other, looks out for each other. We don’t get a lot of new people around here, and you came out of nowhere. It’s just, well…” she met his gaze, “…a little odd that you’re here on your own.”
“Okay, I get that. But why would Susan Madsen peck at me about directing the school play? She doesn’t know me from Adam. I’m just some stranger. I could be a child molester, for all she knows. It’s just weird.”
“I think it’s just her way of making you crawl out of the woodwork,” Jessica replied softly. ”That’s just the way she is. She sees someone who isn’t involved, and she wants to get them involved. That’s really all there is to it.”
“But I’m just passing through Swan Junction.”
“I’m not saying that what she does makes sense, Mr. Jameson. I’m just saying that’s the way she is.”
I’m sorry,” he sighed. “I guess I’m taking it out on you. I’m just not used to being examined like a bug under a microscope, or pushed into community projects like this.”
“That’s understandable,” she smiled wryly. “But that’s not really what set you off just now, is it?”
He smirked, amused by her perceptive nature. “My brother… he’s just a touchy subject. I didn’t mean to jump down your throat. I’m really sorry.”
“I accept your apology, if you’ll accept mine,” Jessica covered his hand with hers, leaning towards him. The affectionate touch consumed the last traces of his aggravation. “I’m sorry for prying.”
She sat up straight again, removing her hand as Andy went back to his meal.
“How’s the chowder?” she asked.
“Terrific. Why? You made it?”
She nodded with a smile.
“Jessica,” he grinned after swallowing down the last bite. “It’s the best I’ve ever eaten, and that’s no exaggeration. Even better than the so-called ‘real thing’ I had in New England.”
“I’m glad you like it. It’s a family recipe,” she beamed with pride, proceeding to the table to put away the food.
Despite sharing the same nosy trait as her fellow townsfolk, Andy liked Jessica Talbot immensely. Susan Madsen had been right in her prediction.
Andy sat still, examining her as she worked with her back turned to him. Watching the way Jessica’s mane draped along the svelte bows of her shoulders and back, the graceful way she moved and spoke, he let his imagination wander to soft, sighing places.
Would Jessica be as thrilling to touch, as she was to look at? What would it be like, he wondered, to run his hands along those curves, exploring every warm nook? How would she react when he kissed her, touching his tongue to her lips? Would her lovely face blush or burn when he nibbled on her breasts? Would she moan when she felt him pressing between her legs?
“Do you want some?” she asked, turning around with a brilliant smile.
“The chowder? Do you want some extra to take home with you?” She held out two bowls sealed with Saran-wrap.
He cleared his throat.
“Sure,” he offered a friendly smile. “But do you know what would be even better?”
“Going over to your place so we could eat some together.”
The warmth disappeared from Jessica’s face. She deposited the bowls on the end of the table and returned to her task of gathering the food.
“I’m afraid that’s not possible, Mr. Jameson,” she said evenly. “My little boy’s very sick at home with the chicken pox right now.”
Andy struggled to keep his face from turning red, at the same time scanning her hands for a wedding ring. There wasn’t one, but he didn’t feel much better about the clumsy come-on.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know.”
“It’s okay. You couldn’t have.”
“I was out of line all the same. How bad is he, your son?”
“Mostly he’s just itching like crazy,” she sighed. “When he’s better, he’ll be coming back to school, and he has a small part in the play. But he’ll be the easiest one to direct. He’s a really good boy.”
“I’m sure he is, with a Mom like you.”
“Well, thanks, but I can’t take all the credit. Michael was just born with a good disposition.”
“Is his Dad at home with him now?” Andy asked tentatively.
“Now who’s being a snoop, Mr. Jameson?” She kept wrapping up food without looking at him.
“His Dad isn’t around,” she admitted. “But Michael’s not alone. Normally I wouldn’t be away from him for even a second when he’s sick, but my next-door neighbor offered to baby-sit tonight.”
She turned back to Andy, her friendly smile back and an enigmatic gleam in her eyes.
“By the way, you weren’t all that out of line,” she said quietly.
“Maybe you can come by for dinner sometime, when he’s over it?”
“I’d like that,” Andy smiled, half in relief. He hadn’t blown it after all. “And you’d better call me Andy, I think. It would be kind of strange to have the kids calling me by my first name, and you calling me ‘Mr. Jameson.’ Might give them a weird age complex.”
She laughed, nodding. “Okay then, Andy. How about helping me carry this stuff to my car?”
Snow crunching under their feet, arms laden with leftover food, Andy and Jessica made their way out to her excuse for an automobile. The rusted 1974 El Camino groaned when she opened the passenger door to set her armload on the seat. She stepped out of the way for Andy, who leaned over to set the crock-pot in a snug place where it wouldn’t tip over.
He rose up and she shut the door, then turning towards him.
“So I guess I’ll see you tomorrow night?” she inquired.
“I’ll be here,” he grinned, preening a bit when he noticed that she was scanning his body. Is it me, or did she just look at my crotch? “Can I have your number?”
“Sure. If you have any questions about the music or the kids, just give me a ring.” She pulled out a notepad and pen from her purse, jotting down the information.
“What if I want to call just to talk to you?”
She smiled without looking at him, finishing up the note.
“I think I could live with that.” She handed over the piece of paper, studying him with amusement as they walked to the other side of the car.
“Has anyone ever told you how handsome you’d be without that beard?”
“Has anyone ever told you how much prettier you’d look if you didn’t dye your hair?”
Jessica’s eyes widened, with surprise, he assumed, that he’d notice such a thing. Smiling wryly, he opened the driver’s side door for her. She slid in, eyes locked onto his.
She turned the ignition, the engine wheezing to life as he shut the door. Andy watched as her El Camino rolled out of the school parking lot, scratching his reddish beard. He wondered if he had enough shaving cream left to do the job.
“Andy? Is that you? Holy God, boy. I almost didn’t recognize you!”
Tim Madsen shouted as Andy walked into Shots, drawing every eye in the town’s only bar to his newly-shaven face. Not that there were many of them in the watering hole that night. Only four guys sat at the horseshoe-shaped bar, and the only reason they looked at Andy was because the Monday night game was stuck on halftime. But a Coors ad featuring a bus full of blonde Swedish babes drew their attention back quickly.
“Hey-ya, Tim,” Andy greeted the burly man, sliding onto the stool next to him, peeling off his leather coat. He ordered a dark brew from the bartender, who was likewise riveted by the attractive displays of female flesh on the tube. “Who’s winning?”
“Dallas is up by ten. So, how are those rehearsals going, Mr. Big Shot Director?” Tim grinned with an evil glint in his expression.
“I oughtta hit you for telling your wife that I used to be in the theater,” Andy scowled. “And I oughtta flat-out kill you for giving her my number and telling her I’d do this.”
“Well, you’re doing it, aren’t ya?”
“Sure am. God only knows why, but I am.”
“It’s ‘cause you love the kids so much, Andy,” Tim replied sarcastically. “You’re such a fuzzy-hearted guy.”
“Seriously, thanks,” the old man confided. “Me and the old lady really wanted to go on this cruise. We wouldn’t have been able to go if it weren’t for you helping out with the play.”
“You guys taking off tomorrow?”
“Thank God, yes.”
“Be sure and think of me when you’re sunning yourself on the boat deck with a margarita.”