Under the Mistletoe

Under the Mistletoe

Christmas Season, 1975


They want to escape their little hometown forever. Even if it means giving up on love.

 
Dorothy Robbins is working hard to build up her Leaving Legend Fund. She wants to finish college, become a pharmacist, and never see her boring little hometown again. But her source of income is a meager hourly wage and tips at Jim Bob’s Saloon, where the only thing worse than the tips are the songs on the jukebox.
 
Charles McClain has been gone from Legend for years—first serving in Vietnam as a Marine, then finishing college and getting a job in Los Angeles. But his new life hit a snag, and suddenly he has time for a long holiday visit with his family, back in the beautiful mountains of Eastern Tennessee. Too bad there’s nothing interesting going on in Legend.
 
But it’s Christmas… The air is cold, hearts are warm, and mistletoe is overhead when you least expect it. Besides, sometimes the path that leads you away can also bring you home.

Chapter One

Legend, Tennessee
Friday Night
November 28, 1975

“UGH.”

Dorothy Robbins wrinkled her nose in disgust when her broom pulled a load of crud from underneath the table. People ate like pigs sometimes. Did they behave like that at home?

She shrugged. Some of them probably did. But a lot of people certainly treated Jim Bob’s Saloon like their own personal feeding trough. And they didn’t mind slopping their mess all over the floor so she had to clean it up. She was the only one here tonight who’d do it, that’s for sure. Lord knew Jim Bob’s daughter wouldn’t be caught dead cleaning up like this. Which is why Dorothy’s job was secure. That and the fact that she never complained when ending up with the rowdy tables, and the bad tippers.

Dorothy knew everybody, and could get along with all of them. There weren’t a lot of jobs in Legend, Tennessee available for somebody without any skills, so she was lucky to have this one. She sure would like to make more tips, though. How else was she going to save up enough money in her Leaving Legend Fund to get out of town for good?

Ed and Fred Gentry, the most obnoxious twins Dorothy had ever met, started to noisily re-enact a skit from last week’s Saturday Night Live, a new television show that debuted about a month ago.

Dorothy only got to watch the show by sneaking into the living room after her parents and her siblings had gone to bed. It was too risqué for the kids, and her parents didn’t approve of the content, but Dorothy thought it was the best thing that ever happened to television. Of course, when Ed and Fred did the skits, or pretended to be the guest hosts, it was horrible. But she tried to block out their voices and replace them with the people who’d really been on the show.

Hilarious! How could you help but like a show whose first host had been George Carlin? The man was cutting edge. Crude, but so intelligent. That was the thing with Legend. There wasn’t anybody interesting like that. If somebody was crude, he was more like Ed and Fred. If a person was intelligent, they were deadly dull. And evidently that last group included Dorothy.

She scooped the last bits of the mess into the dust pan and went into the back to dump it into the garbage. Then she scrubbed her hands up to the elbows at the sink in the ladies’ room, adjusted her little apron along the waistline of her faded bell-bottom hip huggers. Her tee shirt was snug and black, with The Eagles printed on the front in puffy plastic letters. She loved that band. One day she’d get to hear them live—another thing she wanted to do when she got free of this sad little town.

Heading toward the front of the building again, she checked on her tables. Everybody liked the food tonight—the Friday night fish special was always a big hit—but it sure made them thirsty. Dorothy wished she got commissions for the beers she served. It would probably be better than most of the tips.

Stepping up to the bar, she gave a brief insincere smile to Lila Sue, who did the same. Jim Bob set mugs of foamy beer on Lila Sue’s tray and she pranced off to her big tipping table. Tonight she was doing especially well. She’d flashed a twenty dollar bill at Dorothy earlier before stuffing it into her bra. Dorothy wondered how there was any extra space in there at all, the way Lila Sue was built.

“Four more, Jim Bob.”

He turned to her and grinned. At least he was a nice guy, and decent to work for. His daughter was rotten, but neither he nor his wife seemed to notice, and it wasn’t because they also acted that way.
“You doin’ okay tonight, honey?”

“Sure, Jim Bob. We’re busy.” She pasted a happy look on her face, wishing his daughter would find something else to do with her time so Dorothy could make some money. Lila Sue was smart enough to go to college, but didn’t want to. Dorothy shook her head, watching Jim Bob pull the beers.

Imagine having the opportunity to better yourself, and not being interested. Lila Sue was just looking for a rich man to marry, and she’d tell you that to your face. That’s the only thing about her that wasn’t smart, because there wasn’t anybody like that in Legend. Jim Bob was one of the most prosperous business owners in town, and look where that got him. Working six days a week, breathing clouds of cigarette smoke, and listening to the same country songs on the jukebox every night. His marriage seemed to consist of little besides work. Sylvie, his wife, was the cook. Even though they worked in the same building, they didn’t see each other much. Sylvie spent her time in the back of the building, in the big old kitchen, and Jim Bob was always behind the bar.

When Dorothy found a man—if that ever happened—not only would she not ruin it by getting married, she definitely wouldn’t try to run a business with him. The way she figured it, once she finished college and got a good job, she could afford to live on her own. If a guy came along, even if they moved in together, there’d be no stupid marriage certificate. That was just a paper ticket to misery. No, she’d keep things fun and exciting, and if that wore off, somebody would have to go.

Walking to her rowdy table for four with beer foam drooling onto her tray, Dorothy straightened her posture. Sometimes thinking about how to get out was overwhelming, but she couldn’t afford to be depressed at work. People sure didn’t tip extra if you were depressed. She forced a smile, and tried to ignore the insistent pounding in her right temple. How many times had Convoy played on the jukebox tonight?

****

Charles McClain turned up the collar of his leather bomber jacket as he crossed Main Street. He’d been walking for a while, trying to clear his head, after having a yelling match with his dad after supper. He wasn’t sure what the old man was angry about, but he was in rare form tonight.

Most McClains had hot tempers. It was part of the Scottish heritage, he’d always been told. They’d been lairds in the old country, evidently. And his dad still considered himself laird—lord—of everything he surveyed. Luckily, a few minutes after a blow-up, Dad would be himself again. He wasn’t one to hold a grudge.

It was awkward for Charles, staying in his parents’ house after being on his own. He’d left for the Marines right after high school, served in Vietnam, and when he was discharged, stayed on the west coast and got a college degree in business. He worked as a loan officer in a bank, and hoped to keep heading up the ladder. But then the bank had trouble, and closed his branch. A few of his co-workers moved to other locations, but most of them, like him, were simply out of luck. Charles didn’t have much in savings, having sent a lot of his money home while he was in ‘Nam, to help out the family.

Dan, the oldest, a year older than Charles, was married. He and wife Sharon had a young son. The next in age, Anne, was a high school senior, and Bill a junior—two more reasons it was really hard being back at home. All that teenage angst, and the unrelenting hormones!

Normally, Legend isn’t a place he would choose as a vacation spot. Since leaving town, he’d seen some of the world—a few beautiful places, like the beaches in Southern California, and some horrible scenes, like pretty much everything he had witnessed in Vietnam.

The war finally ended in April, but Charles doubted it would ever end for some of the vets. He’d been lucky and got out in one piece. Which made him more determined than the average citizen of Legend to do the most he could with his life. He’d seen too many promising lives end early.

Turning another corner, a cold wind hit him full force. The feel of winter in the air was something he thought he was homesick for when he was in Southern California. No four seasons there. Now, in late November, it would be cool and dreary, but not really cold.

With an unintentional extended vacation, and very little money left over from unemployment checks after paying his half of the apartment rent in a suburb of Los Angeles, Charles was hardly a cheerful holiday guest. He hadn’t told his parents about losing his job, just called and asked if they’d like him home for the holidays. Now he almost regretted it. Thanksgiving was yesterday and he didn’t know if he could stand his family all the way until Christmas, which is what he had promised his mom. She thought the bank was giving him a huge vacation because he was so important and hard working. He hadn’t told her that—she’d made it up in her head. And it made sense, of course—he had worked hard, but the enforced time off was hardly a reward. Charles told himself he was sparing his parents further worry, by not explaining his employment situation.

Charles grimaced. He had been sending out resumes and applying at all the banks in his area, but no solid leads yet. He had left his parents’ number with Mark, his roommate, in case somebody did call and want an interview.

If he were in L.A. tonight, he and Mark would be out on the town, acting very unlike the upstanding young businessmen they were. There were always pretty women ready to spend time with them, let the guys buy them drinks, dance, go to dinner. Et cetera. It was a great life, and of course Charles would be missing the night scene—movies being filmed, stand-up comedians who were sometimes funny and sometimes pathetic, and almost-famous singers wailing away on poorly lit nightclub stages and street corners. In Legend there was no scene at all. Friday and Saturday nights in Legend were pretty much like any other night.

Charles smiled to himself. One thing, though. He definitely felt rested. He’d slept on the plane, and like a baby ever since he got home. Nothing like his old twin bed with the squishy foam mattress, in the room he used to share with Dan. The whole family was together for the first time in forever. His mom was excited about it, and had cooked so much food for Thanksgiving, the refrigerator could barely hold the leftovers.

In one way Legend should be the perfect break, because nothing here made him think of banking, or being unemployed. Unfortunately, though, there was nothing else in Legend to think about. After just three days in town, he was frustrated with his family and miserably bored.

“Hey! Watch where you’re goin’, buddy!”

Charles stepped back, giving the loud and very drunk man room to stagger back onto the sidewalk. Another guy who looked just like the first one was a couple of yards behind and catching up. Oh yeah, Ed and Fred. Looked like Fred—or was that Ed?—anyway, the second one was relatively sober at least, and when he caught up with his twin, the guy leaned on him heavily. They continued down the sidewalk, and the strains of Convoy rolled through the open doorway of Jim Bob’s Saloon.
Charles stopped. Why not? What else was there to do in Legend at nine o’clock on a Friday night?

****

The place sure hadn’t changed. The room was filled with a dozen brands of cheap cigarette smoke that made a haze of the light coming from the moss-green globes hanging from the high tin ceiling. The old bar that ran along the left wall had seen a couple generations of Legend folk on one side and a couple generations of Jim Bob’s family on the other. Relatively clean beer mugs hung from tarnished brass hooks above the bar, and a few wooden tap handles were being put to use by good old Jim Bob. A couple dozen of Legend’s more interesting citizens were strewn about the place, some of them trying to keep up with the song on the jukebox and doing a poor job of it. There were no aisles, just narrow walkways between tables scattered as if nobody cared where they landed. Yep. Just the same.

“Hey there. You new in town?”

The gorgeous blonde had a killer body, and makeup she must have applied with a trowel. Hm. She almost looked familiar…

“That you, Chuck?”

Charles cringed. He hated the old nickname, and nobody beyond the county line ever called him that. Turning to Jim Bob, he stuck out his hand and got a big bone crusher handshake, spiced with sticky beer. Jim Bob and Charles’ dad went way back. They’d grown up together hunting and fishing in the mountains, often skipping school to do so.

“You met Lila Sue, I see.”

Oh man. This was Jim Bob’s daughter? Charles remembered avoiding her as a brat kid. He turned and smiled at her and saw what was in her eyes. Okay. Definitely need to steer clear of this one. Mankiller alert. No need to get caught up with some female while he was in town, and since everybody knew everybody, the chance of keeping anything quiet didn’t even exist.

“Yeah. Hey, Lila Sue.”

“Hey yourself. I didn’t recognize you at first. It’s been a while.”

Jim Bob smacked the bar top. “Sit up here at the bar and talk to me, Chuck. The place is hoppin’, but I’m never too busy for one of Ray’s kids.”

Charles lowered himself onto one of the worn vinyl-covered stools and ordered a beer, expelled a long breath full, and settled into the ambiance—if you could call it that—of the place.
Just because I’ve been gone a while doesn’t mean I’m better than any of these people. I just need to lighten up and try to fit in while I’m in town.

The glass and oak front door opened again and a few more Legendarians blew in with the bitter cold air. The song changed—Freddy Fender launched into Wasted Days and Wasted Nights. That pretty much summed up this visit so far.

Someone bumped his elbow and he glanced around.

Wow. Now here was something special. Stick straight blonde hair down to her waist, big blue eyes, very little makeup as far as he could tell, but she was beautiful. Her bell bottoms and black tee shirt fit like they’d been sewn on her.

He let himself admire her for a moment. “Hey there.”

“Hey.” She glanced at him, then away again. “Jim Bob, five more. It’s crazy in here tonight.”

Charles leaned toward her and said softly, “Holidays make people crazy. Are you too young to know that, uh…what’s your name?”

Her eyes narrowed as she turned toward him again, and he thought she might not answer. “Dorothy.”
An old-fashioned name, but somehow it suited her. “Well, Dorothy, holidays make people crazy. Especially family holidays. Brings out the worst in a lot of us.” He sipped his beer, watching her. “Are you actually old enough to work here?”

Her blue eyes snapped. “I’ll have you know I’m twenty-two years old!”

He couldn’t quite stop the chuckle. “Wow. That old?” Silky blonde hair whipped his shoulder and arm as she turned away from him again in disgust. Jim Bob set the last of the mugs on her tray and she sashayed away with them to the other side of the room.

Interesting girl. The total opposite of Lila Sue, except they were both pretty blondes. But this one… This one had something else.

Jim Bob wiped a little patch of the bar where her tray had sat. “You not remember Dorothy Robbins?”

“No. Not really. I’ve been gone a while, Jim Bob.”

“I guess. Can’t even imagine that myself. You lose track of people, I s’pose. Well, Dorothy’s Dale and Betty Robbins’ oldest. Lives up on the mountain.”

Charles shook his head. “Sorry. Still drawing a blank here.” Another swig of beer and he swiveled the stool to watch Dorothy move among the tables, writing down orders on a little pad, smiling.

“Dale and Betty Robbins. House full of kids, about fifteen minutes outside town. Dale carves stuff.”

“Oh! The sculptor!”

Jim Bob nodded. “That’s him. One of the younger kids had a real bad bike wreck, and insurance wasn’t what it shoulda been. Dorothy was in college but had to come back home.”

“She’s supporting the family on what she earns here?”

“Oh no. That was a while ago, and I guess Dale sold one of those things he makes, so the money’s better now. Family’s taken care of, and the kid doesn’t even have a limp. It was rough on them all for a while, though.” He shrugged. “Dorothy’s a good girl. Good worker.”

“Uh huh. Looks like she works real hard.” Charles saw her cleaning a table that Lila Sue had pranced by, picking up the tip. Lila Sue seemed to stand around and visit with the customers a lot, or sit down at the tables and visit with them. Lila Sue threw her head back and laughed at something one of the guys said. Even in the noisy room her laughter was loud. Charles glanced at Dorothy, who subtly shook her head as the sound rolled over her.

Poor little Cinderella. She needs a Prince Charming. Well, he had a month here. Maybe they could have some laughs together. It would cheer Dorothy up, and give him a break from the family part of the time. Her prickly manner wasn’t fooling him. She was shy and lonely. All he had to do was get past the prickliness to the softness underneath.

Charles grinned in anticipation. Yeah, getting to the softness would be an enjoyable part of his holiday season.

~End of Excerpt~
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