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Picket Fence Day
by Cassandra

I sped along on the outskirts of town in my '85 Toyota Cressida, praying I wouldn't get a ticket. I had a class to teach in ten minutes and I was still a good fifteen minutes from the town. Well, "town" is stretching it. I guess 5,000 people make up a town, but it's nothing compared to the metropolis where I was rushing back from. I'd taken part of the morning off to go the dentist. The road was pretty much empty and I was glad. I had no time to waste trailing behind a grandma going 40 in her Buick.

It was then that I saw the car on the side of the road. It was a Kharman Ghia, which was a little unusual for these parts. There was a man standing beside it with the hood up. There was something about that man that was familiar to me so I slowed down. There was something about the hair, the way he held himself, I knew this man. I pulled over to where he was. When it clicked, when I realized who it was, I couldn't believe it. It was Jon Stewart, the man I'd watched fervently for years, the man I'd crushed on forever. There he was, mere feet away from me, with a broken down vehicle, needing my help. My help. Oh my goodness. I couldn't move. 'Get out of the car, dummy,' I told myself. But I sat . I was jolted back into reality by the sound of tapping on my window. I jumped and turned. There he was, face almost pressed against my window. Collecting myself, I rolled down the window.

"Uh, hi," I said.

"Hi," Jon said, "Uh, my car broke down. Do you think you could give me a ride to the nearest town?"

I stared at him blankly. Jon Stewart wanted a ride with me. I must have had a weird look on my face.

"If you don't want to, that's okay," Jon said, "I know letting a strange man into your car isn't exactly what they teach you in those self-defense classes or whatever-"

Jon Stewart, a strange man? I laughed out loud.

"What?" he asked.

"You're Jon Stewart," I said, "I'd drive you anywhere. Whoops, I shouldn't have said that. Now you'll think I'm the weirdo."

"No, you're the first person in half an hour to pass by," he said, "And I'd be extremely grateful if you'd give me a ride."

"Sure," I said, "Get in."

Before I knew it, he had opened the door and had slid into the passenger seat. He held a handful of stuff that had been thrown on the seat.

"Uh, you want me to hold onto this?" He was holding one of my gradebooks and a red bra of mine that had somehow made its way into my car for the express purpose of embarrassing me at that moment.

"Oh my god," I blushed as I grabbed the book and the bra, throwing them in the back seat. Jon Stewart had held my bra. Jon Stewart was in my car. My very messy car.

"Sorry about the mess," I said.

"No problem," he said, "What was your name by the way?"

"Cassandra," I said, "But everyone calls me Sandy."

"Nice to meet you Sandy," he said.

"You too,"I said. "If I may ask, what in the world are you doing out here in the boonies?"

"I was actually driving to LA," he said, "Tracey and I were in San Francisco and I stayed a bit longer than her. I thought the drive down the heart of California would be nice."

"If you call miles of desert and dry, brown brush nice," I said.

"It was actually kind of peaceful," he said, "Except for the whole breaking down thing."

"Well, here we are," I said.

We'd reached my hometown of Armith, California.

"Armith?" he said, "Interesting."

"Not really," I said, "Most of the teenagers like to call it Armpit."

He laughed that laugh I'd heard so many times before. Except now I was hearing it in person.

"Here's the repair shop," I said, pulling into Grigg's Auto Shop. "They can probably tow your car and bring it here to see what's wrong with it."

"Great," he said.

We got out and I led the way into the repair shop.

"Hey, Andy," I called to the man working on an old truck.

Andy looked up, "Hey," he said, "You got car trouble, Sandy?"

"No," I said, "But this gentleman here does, His Kharman Ghia's broke down out on Dyer and Jameson."

"I'll call Danny to get the tow," Andy said, "Hey, ain't you s'posed to be teaching?"

Andy had a daughter in one of my classes.

"Oh my gosh," I said, "I completely forgot." It was already 10:45.

"Geez, look I'm sorry," Jon said, "Go ahead and go, I'll be fine here."

"No," I said, "I couldn't do that. Let me just call the school and I'll stay here till you're on your way. I'd be worried if I just left you."

Like I would really leave Jon Stewart to go back to my classes! I reached for my cell phone and dialed the school.

Mary, the office secretary answered.

"Mary, this is Sandy," I said, "Do you think you could keep the sub there till lunch? Something important just came up. I'll explain later."

"Sure thing," she said,

Relieved, I hung up.

Andy had come over to the counter and was on the phone with Dan, the tow truck operator. After a few moments, he hung up.

"Your car should be here in a few minutes," Andy told Jon, obviously not recognizing him. I didn't think he would. Andy's an ESPN-Monday Night Football type of guy. If it ain't sports, it doesn't exist. "We'll be able to see what the trouble is."

"Thanks," Jon said.

We sat down in the waiting area that smelled of car oil and leather.

"So you're a teacher?" Jon asked.

"Yeah," I said, "I teach English and Drama at the high school."

"I've always admired teachers," Jon said, "My grandfather taught."

"Really?" I said.

"Yeah, he was a good man," Jon said, "It's always bothered me, you know, how the money is distributed in this country. I get paid big bucks to sit in front of the camera and act like an idiot while this country's teachers are paid pennies to train the future of our country."

"Well thank you," I said, "Sometimes I think we teachers are the only ones that see it that way. If people spent a little more money on education, we might not have a lot of the problems we do."

He didn't say anything.

"I'm sorry," I said, "I didn't mean to get on my soapbox. It's just been frustrating lately. We've got a paper shortage, a budget so small it's practically criminal, and for the umpteenth year in a row, my drama class will be performing in the school cafeteria on a rickety old stage. But the football team got a brand new scoreboard, paid for with taxpayer money." I smiled wryly, "Sorry, there I go again."

"No," he said, "It's okay. I find this whole thing interesting."

"And we're one of the fortunate schools in the county," I said, "We're not even inner-city."

"Damn, that's disgusting," he said.

"The glam life of a teacher," I shrugged.

The rumbling tow truck pulled in at that moment, Jon's Kharman Ghia being towed behind it.

Dan the tow truck man came in soon after.

" 'Ey, Sandy," he said, "Whose car is this?"

We got up.

"Dan, this is Mr. Stewart. The car is his," I said.

"Andy's gonna take a look at your car," Dan told Jon, "But I ain't so sure we've got the right parts. Ain't got many foreign cars around here. We deal with Chevys and Fords mostly. We'll know in a few minutes."

"Thanks," Jon said.

He looked around at the waiting room. There wasn't much to it-a couple of vending machines, outdated magazines. It was pretty drab.

"Not very interesting," I told him, "Much like the town itself."

"Sometimes not interesting can be good," he said, "It can be relief from the mile-a-minute rush of the city."

"New York?" I asked.

"Don't get me wrong, New York is great," he said, "But sometimes it's nice to be where you can take it slow, where you don't have to wear sunglasses and a cap when you go out."

"And then you get to that obscure little town and the first person you meet is dumbstruck at the sight of you," I said.

He laughed. "I thought it was cute. People don't recognize me much, but when they do, I still get a kick out of it."

"People don't recognize you?" I said, "That's kind of hard to believe."

"Nah," he said.

I smiled at this.

Andy came in then.

"Mr.-eh-Stewart?" he said.

"Yes, that's me," Jon said.

Andy then proceeded to explain to Jon what was wrong with his car, a lengthy explanation that I was too auto-illiterate to follow, but Jon seemed to get just fine.

"What's going on?" I asked to either of them.

"They don't have the part my car needs," Jon said, "And the nearest town that has it is an hour and a half away. And when they get it back here in three hours, it'll still be at least an hour before they can finish it up."

"Oh boy," I said, "Sorry about that."

"It's okay," Jon said, "I've got time. It's better than still being on the side of the road."

"True," I said, "Look, I couldn't let you sit here all by yourself, so why don't you come with me and I can show you around our so-called town."

"I couldn't impose on you like that," he said, "You have your classes."

"It's Friday," I said, "No one pays attention on Fridays. I just have to be back later for drama rehearsals."

"If you don't mind," he said.

"Let me just call the office again," I said.

I called Mary again.

"Mary," I said, "Can you keep the sub there for the rest of the day?"

"Sure," Mary said, her voice curious, "Where are you?"

"Here," I said, "In Armith. I'll explain it later, I promise. Thanks a million. Bye!" "Is there any place we could go to eat?" Jon asked when I'd hung up, "I haven't eaten since early this morning."

"There's Boger's," I said.

His eyebrow raised. "Did you just say Boogers?"

I laughed, "Bogers. It's actually called Bo's Burgers, but everyone just calls it Boger's."

"Boger's," he repeated with a chuckle, "In Armith, called Armpit."

"And you wondered why we call it Armpit," I grinned. "Actually, the food there is great."

"Boger's it is," he said.

We walked across the street to Boger's. It was a mom-n-pop type of joint. In half an hour it would be crowded with the high school lunch crowd, so I was determined to get us out of there by then. We got a booth and sat down. After a few moments of looking at the menus, our waitress, a 17-year old dropout named Samantha who'd been in one of my classes came.

"What can I get you?" she asked Jon.

"I'll have, uh, the uh Booger Burger-I mean the Burger Booger--the-the-oh, just bring me a damn grilled cheese sandwich," he laughed.

I giggled at this.

"Hey Miss Kitt," Samantha said.

"Nice to see you, Sam," I said, "But I wish it had been in class instead of here."

"I know, Miss Kitt, but I ain't going to college, so I might as well start working now."

I bit my tongue. We'd talked about this matter many times before. "I'm sorry to hear you still feel that way," I said, "I'd like the Boger Burger please, no lettuce."

She wrote this down and left.

"Damn it," I said, "Damn it all."

"Are you okay?" Jon asked.

"I'm sorry," I sighed, "Sam's a very smart girl if she wanted to be. But here she is, dropped out of high school, trapped in this job forever. It just infuriates me so much. Her boyfriend's a loser who dropped out a few years back, a pothead who convinced her to do the same. She could have gone so damn far-"

I didn't realize I was crying until Jon reached over and handed me a napkin.

"I'm sorry," I said, "You have way better things to do than to be listening to me go on about this."

"Like what?" he laughed, "Sit in the waiting room at Grigg's Auto Repair and read back issues of Popular Mechanics?"

I smiled.

Before I knew it, the food had come and gone and I remembered the soon-to-be-arriving high-schoolers.

"We better get going," I said, "The high school's lunch hour is right about now and this place will be crawling with kids."

"Where to?" he asked.

"Ummm. . . there's a park a few blocks in one of the residential areas," I suggested, "I know it's not that great of weather outside, but . . ." I didn't know what else to suggest . There was really nothing to the town. I certainly was not going to take him to my dumpy apartment.

"It sounds great," he smiled and my heart just about melted.

"Um, okay," I paused, "Let's go then."

We went back to my car and took off for the park. In minutes, we were there.

"Well, here it is," I said, "We actually do have a pretty nice park."

And it was. There was new playground equipment, freshly painted benches, even new picnic tables donated by the Armith Rotary Club. We got out.

"This is so great," Jon said, "So small town. Where's the white picket fence? Or June Cleaver? Or Barney Freakin' Fife?"

"They're with Lassie helping Little Timmy out of the well," I laughed.

We talked as we walked around the perimeter of the park. Our conversation ranged from deep to the inane. One minute we were talking about the dragonflies that buzzed here and there. Somehow we got to one of those lame questions people always ask.

"If you could be a bug, what kind would you be?"

Jon laughed. "Uh . . . a bug . . . one of those walking sticks so I could like, blend in with the trees and then just jump out at someone and scare the crap out of them. How about you?"

"Butterfly," I said quickly, "A monarch butterfly."

"So you could fly away?" he asked knowingly.

"I suppose," I said.

He nodded.

Then our conversation turned to the deep. One minute I was talking again about my teacher woes, and the next he was telling me about his insecurities as an entertainer. And so it went for what seemed like hours and hours. Then, from nowhere, I felt a drop of rain on my nose and I seemed to snap back into the present.

"Oh, my gosh," I said, "What time is it?"

"Two," he said.

"My drama class is in ten minutes," I said.

"I'll go with you," he said.

'Are you sure?" I asked, "These kids will know you. You host the Grammys."

"I'd love to sit in on a high school drama class," he said, "Maybe I'll learn a thing or two."

I drove us back to the school. We went to the cafeteria where my class was starting to gather.

"Stage crew, make sure the props are out," I called, "FX, get the sounds ready. Actors take your places!"

"Who's that?" "Look at that guy Miss Kitt brought."

I could hear the whispers.

"We have a special guest today," I called out.

All twenty curious heads turned my way.

"Class, I'd like to introduce you to Mr. Jon Stewart," I said, "You can talk to him after class, if he is willing, but right now, we need to practice. Opening night is in three weeks and we've still got Scene 5 to do right."

We were doing an obscure little play called "The Little Theater's Production of Hamlet" about these hillbillies in West Virginia who were attempting to put on a production of 'Hamlet.' There was just one scene with two of the main characters that wasn't coming off right. I climbed on the rickety stage where Jamie and Kevin, who played the boyfriend-girlfriend pair Sam and Mona, stood.

"I don't wanna do this, Miss Kitt," Kevin whined.

"You knew what was coming when you auditioned for the role, Kevin," I said, "And when I selected you, it was for the entire role, not just the bits and pieces that you happened to like."

Jamie rolled her eyes, "Come on, Kevin, I even ate a Tic-Tac."

It was a kissing scene that had Kevin so bent out of shape. I'd tried as hard as I could to guide the two on how to do a kissing stage, but the chemistry just wasn't there.

"Kevin, come on now," I coaxed, "We've been through this countless times. This moment will make or break the scene. Remember, it's before anyone else is in the restaurant, you guys are in love, it's just a kiss on the lips, not a giant makeout scene, or sex for that matter."

I heard several laughs, including Jon's.

Jamie was tapping her foot impatiently, the lighting guy was flicking the lights, and I could hear the rising chatter of the other actors, waiting behind stage. The costume girls, several publicity people, the stage crew, and a few others sat watching the scene.

"Fine," Kevin said reluctantly.

Jamie said her line and then Kevin bent down to kiss her. He barely touched his lips and it was over. Actually, I'm not even sure he did touch his lips.

"I've seen dead fish with more life than that, Kevin," I said in exasperation.

"That was craptacular," Jamie snapped.

I rubbed my head. "That's it," I said, "I don't know what else to do with you, Kevin. I had you watch countless clips of kissing scenes in movies, I gave you the pillow to practice on, nothing is working."

"Kissing is spontaneous," Kevin said, "I can't get a good idea of spontaneity with those fake Hollywood kisses or a pillow."

Suddenly, Jon had jumped on stage beside me.

"May I?" he asked.

"May you what?" I asked.

He looked at Kevin. "Lesson one in spontaneity, kid." Before I knew what was happening, Jon had taken my chin in his hand and pulled me toward him. Then he was kissing me, one of those exaggerated, smacky stage kisses. He finally let me go and took a bow. I was caught between laughter and tears. Jon Stewart had kissed me, ME! But at the same time, it was so darn funny. By that time, the kids were clapping and hooping and hollering.

"Woo-ooo, go Miss Kitt!"

I couldn't calm them after that, and they all really wanted to talk with Jon, so I let them. Jon was really sweet about the whole thing, signing autographs for all of them, answering the questions. When the bell rang, I had to shoo off the remaining kids so we could go get Jon's car.

"Thanks," he said as we pulled up to the auto shop, "I had a great time today. I think I might have to come back here with Tracey."

"You could make it your summer place," I laughed.

"Ah, yes," he said, "Some people have villas in France. We'll have a house in Armith."

That was just two weeks ago, so I don't know if I'll ever see Jon Stewart again, aside from on TV.

"Hey, Sandy, you dropped this," Mary the office secretary handed me an envelope I'd dropped from my school mailbox.

"Thanks," I said, taking the envelope. There was no return address, so I opened it, curious.

The first thing I took out was a check. It was addressed to the Armith High School Drama Department. The name in the corner of the check read "Jon and Tracey Stewart Education Foundation." There was also a handwritten note inside.

"I've started this foundation to help needy schools," it said, "And since it was your passion for teaching that inspired me to do so, so, it only seemed right that your excellent drama class be the first to receive anything. It was signed simply, "Jon."

When I looked at the amount written in the little box on the check, I could have fainted. Actually, I started to cry. I ran to the cafeteria where I knew my drama class was waiting.

"We're getting a new stage," I called out giddily, "And some good lighting equipment. And a new sound system. Hell, maybe we'll just build a whole new auditorium . . . ."

 

Added October 28, 2002.


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