A Homecoming of Sorts
By Richard James Hazel
“I’m sorry, Chip, but there is nothing doing right now.”
Chip Sanderson looked pleadingly at the man who had been his agent for over thirty years. Marty Mullikin was easily in his seventies. He vainly kept his thinning hair dyed what he thought was brown but in reality had an unsettling orange tint. In a town that was driven so strongly by image, Marty’s was a confused amalgamation of three decades of fashion, none of which included the current one. His shirt of 90’s green pastel clashed horribly with the striped 70’s earth tone, bell bottom pants. Overall, Marty was more a contradiction of fashion rather than a trend setter. The wrinkles on his face shifted like sand teased by rippling waves as he attempted to show his frustration and deep concern for his client.
“I’m working hard for you, Chip,” Marty continued. “Trust me, kiddo, there isn’t a part for you out there anywhere. I’ve pitched commercials, game shows, info-mercials, sitcoms…everything, Chipper. No one is interested right now in a former teen heart throb. I’m sorry.”
Chip shook his head in bewilderment.
“I don’t understand it, Marty. Other former child stars are working right now. Heck, even my old co-stars, Peter and Gary have steady gigs. Why can’t you find me anything? I haven’t worked in the business since that dinner theatre last summer.”
Marty moved from behind his desk and settled on the couch next to his client, his knees and various other joints popping loudly. The agent grunted in response as he placed his arm around Chip’s shoulders.
“Listen, Chipper, its simple math. Peter and Gary were cute. People remember cute. Cute stands out. The appeal of “No Girls Allowed” was centered around their mischief. You were the older brother. Sure, they played the romance angle with you from time to time, but everything you’ve done since just hasn’t had the staying power. Maybe it’s time to start considering other careers.”
Chip stood, causing Marty’s arm to fall limply on the cushions.
“Like what, Marty? What else do I know how to do? This is all I’ve known since I was fourteen. Fourteen, Marty! I’m forty-four and I’ve already been let out to pasture.”
“It’s a cruel business, Chip, you know that. Tell you what; let me make some more calls…call in some favors.”
“I thought you already tried everywhere, Marty."
“I could try and dig deeper, kid. Don’t give up just yet. Go on home. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Looking out the window at the smog hovering over the valley, Chip rubbed his temples, feeling the stress build.
“All right, Marty. I’ll go home to my dark, lonely apartment. Worrying about my future there is just as pleasant as here, although you at least have air conditioning. My cell was cut off two days ago and my land line hasn’t been live in months so you won’t be able to call. I’ll just come see you in the afternoon. “
“I’ve been to your place, kid. You’ve got air in your building.”
“Yeah…only you need electricity for it to work. Mine was shut off last week. Did I mention that I haven’t worked since last summer?”
“That’s tough, Chip. Real tough. I’m sorry. Don’t you worry though. I’ll start making calls again right away. Come see me tomorrow afternoon. Maybe I can get you a production job or something.”
“Sure, Marty, sure. Thanks for trying anyway. I don’t suppose you could float me a loan? I spent my last cash to get here.”
The agent rose from the couch and moved to his desk. Opening a drawer, he pulled out and envelope, removed three twenties, and offered them to his client.
“No problem, Chip. Here’s sixty from petty cash. That should hold you for a few days so you don’t starve. Chip up, Chipper. We’ll plow through this.”
Chip accepted the cash; his shoulders slumped at the defeat of needing help so desperately.
“Thanks, Marty. I’ll see you tomorrow I guess.”
“Come back around four, Chipper, and try not to get too down.”
Nodding half-heartedly as he shook the agent’s hand, Chip Sanderson stepped out into the receptionist’s cramped office. He nodded to the girl behind the desk, walking as quickly as he thought proper so he could make the next cross-town bus.
On the crowded bus, Chip struggled with his thoughts, trying to figure out where his life had taken its tragic turn. He had tried to be careful and hadn’t squandered his money like other actors he knew. Even so, as the jobs had spread farther and farther apart over the past four years he found himself living more and more from hand to mouth. He thought back to his time on “No Girls Allowed”. Shortly after the program wrapped its first season, his parents had died in a freak car accident leaving him orphaned at the age of fifteen. The actors on the show quickly became his family. He had never felt such a part of something special as he had on that show. Robert MacFarland, the actor who had played the father on “No Girls Allowed”, became a surrogate father to him. The studio had arranged foster parents for him after the accident, but it was MacFarland who truly made the effort to mentor and guide Chip on and off the set.
After the show’s eight year run, Robert had even taken Chip into his own home, renting him his guest bungalow for next to nothing so he could have a place to call his own. Even that was short-lived. Robert MacFarland suffered a massive heart attack thirteen months later. Chip moved from role to role as they were offered to him but nothing took off or had the longevity of the part of Tommy Murray on “No Girls Allowed”. He kept in touch with everyone else as best as he could. The actors who had played his younger brothers both went on to successful careers that eventually branched into film where they had received numerous awards. Chip’s talent never developed to the level that would have given him film opportunities. Outside of the pair of B-movie horror flicks he landed in the late eighties, his roles were restricted to television and the occasional regional theatre. He would give anything to be fourteen again. His happiest moments came during the eight years “No Girls Allowed” had provided him with what he need the most…family.
The bus pulled to the curb one block from his apartment building. Once a fashionable area to live in during the mid-sixties, the neighborhood had faded substantially over the years to become a dim silhouette of itself. The glitter of tinsel town had worn off over time to be replaced by the grime, poverty, and neglect of the inner city. Chip stepped out onto the sidewalk, dodging a pile of something unidentifiable, but considerably pungent. His stomach growled, reminding him that all he had to eat at the apartment was half a cellophane packet of stale saltines. He reached into his pocket for the money Marty had “loaned” him. He would pick up a can of soup or something at the convenience store next to his building. He wanted to be careful with the money until he knew what tomorrow afternoon might hold. The money would have to last him if Marty came up empty.
His fingers groped feebly inside his jacket pocket feeling nothing but lint. Frantically, he searched his other pockets thinking maybe he had forgotten which pocket he had stashed the money in. He came up empty. It had either fallen out of his pocket or someone on the bus had picked him clean.
“Figures,” Chip muttered hopelessly.
The short walk to the apartment building was lengthened by his deepening depression over his lousy luck and increasingly desperate circumstances. He was in no hurry for another long, lonely night in the hot, dark four rooms and a bath he called home, but he wasn’t about to stay on the street as long as he still had a room to cower in.
The apartment was on the seventh floor. His only option was the stairs, the elevator having been out of order for as long as he had lived there. Stepping carefully over two homeless men, he began the ascendance of the fourteen flights of stairs to his floor. The stairwell was cluttered with uncollected trash and a variety of discarded items the tenants no longer found useful. Chip sighed, all the while pining for the simpler days when he needn’t worry where his next meal would come from or how he was going to pay his bills. He longed for the integrity and homespun innocence of the only role that had ever satisfied him. Television today had become so cynical and perverse. Perhaps that was his problem. He couldn’t commit to the roles he had received since because nothing had the same charm or appeal. Maybe he was most successful as Tommy Murray because deep down inside Tommy Murray was who he really was.
Outside his apartment door, Chip fumbled for the one key that he possessed. The key emerged amid a nest of lint and assorted odds and ends he had never gotten around to removing from his pocket. Sliding the key into the lock, Chip opened the door, entered, and closed it behind him as he had done hundreds of times.
His first thought as the door clicked shut was, “I haven’t paid my bill. Why is the power back on?” The small cluster of rooms was brighter than they had been in days. This initial thought was followed immediately by one of a completely different nature. This was not his apartment. It looked vaguely familiar but it was not where he lived. Not only was it brightly lit, but it was roomy, tidy, and well-furnished.
“Sorry,” he said to no one in particular as he opened the door to step back into the hallway.
He had to squint his eyes against the bright sunshine that met him outside the door. The hallway was gone. Chip blinked his eyes several times as he took in the sight of the quaint residential neighborhood he now stood in. He spun around and looked at the door he had just passed through. Again, a twinge of familiarity filled his consciousness. Stepping backward to see more of the house the door was attached to, he scanned the two-story Colonial structure carefully. His eyes came to rest on the numbers nailed to the doorframe.
“315,” he said, reading the numbers out loud. Another 180 degree spin and Chip began to understand the impossibility of where he found himself.
“315 Pine Street,” he muttered incredulously. “This isn’t possible.”
And yet, there it was, the Murray home and neighborhood from “No Girls Allowed” exactly as he remembered it and had seen countless times since on reruns. Everything was just as it should be with one defining difference. There was an inexplicable tangibility to it all. It seemed real and concrete, not simply a studio set.
Chip took a few tentative steps back toward the front door.
“Should I go back in?” He debated, imagining himself passed out from hunger in the filthy street outside his apartment building. “Am I just dreaming?”
He placed his hand upon the doorknob, the brass cool against his palm, and turned. The door swung open and he was plowed into by a fast moving object.
“Sorry, Tommy,” said the twelve year old athletic looking boy who had nearly knocked him over. “I didn’t see you.”
The boy looked at him oddly, punching his fist into the baseball mitt on his other hand.
“What gives? Who’s Peter?”
Chip stood staring, his mind racing to piece together what was happening to him.
“Hey. I gotta go, Tommy, or I’ll miss baseball practice. See ya.”
The youth rushed past, pulling the door shut behind him. Chip couldn’t move. Memories came flooding back. He remembered every inch of this house; only some things were just slightly different because this was definitely a real house and not a sound stage.
He was startled from his nostalgia by the barking and subsequent arrival of two large, shaggy dogs, each leaping up on him, vying for his attention.
The dogs responded with more barking as they bounded playfully around him.
“Oh, hey, Tommy.”
Chip looked up. A nine year old boy stood a few feet away in the front hall, eating an apple. This time Chip was careful not to raise suspicions and simply replied with, “Hey, yourself.” Another, older voice, bellowed from behind the door at the end of the hall.
“Jimbo! I thought I told you to let those dogs out!”
“I’m trying, Uncle Gus!” The boy called over his shoulder. “But my clunky brother is blocking the door!”
The hall door flew open. A balding, red-haired man in his sixties walked through wiping his hands on the white apron around his waist.
“It’s about time you got home, Tommy. Run upstairs and wash up. I need you to help get supper on the table before your dad gets home.”
Not knowing what else to do, Chip decided to comply and started climbing the stairs just to the right and ahead of him.
“Uh, sure. Sure, Uncle Gus. I’ll be right back down.”
Below him, Jimbo opened the front door, calling happily to the dogs as he ran out onto the lawn.
“C’mon, Charlie! Here, Ernie!”
The dogs followed, their barking beginning again in earnest.
As he reached the top of the stairs, he could hear the older man complaining loudly, followed by the door closing, “What’s it gonna take to train you Chimpanzees to close a door?”
Chip smiled. It was just as he remembered and more. The upstairs was as familiar as everything else about the house. The layout returned to him with crystal clarity as he made the turn at the second floor landing and walked down the hall to what was Tommy’s room on the show. He stepped through the open doorway, his eyes taking in every furnishing, wall decoration, and teenage clutter all at once. It was a fairly typical representation of a teen boy’s room from the 1970’s. Every prop, poster, and knick-knack was in the same places they had always been.
A gasp escaped Chip as he looked at the mirror on the facing wall. The improbable reflected back at him. The reflection was his, but it was his from thirty years ago. He touched his face. The fourteen year old in the mirror did the same. His hand felt smooth skin on his cheeks and chin. Just an hour ago he had rubbed his graying stubble in Marty’s office. Now it was as if he had just cleanly shaved himself. He stepped toward the mirror and touched the reflection, almost afraid that it would reach out and grab him. Nothing happened. His fingertips felt nothing but cool glass. There was something else as well…his clothes. This was not what he had been wearing a few minutes ago as he fumbled for his apartment key. He was now dressed in jeans, a red t-shirt, and a lettermen’s jacket with a large ‘V.F.’ for Vista Falls, sewn on the jacket’s left side.
Chip gazed intently into the mirror, slapping his face numerous times and ordering himself to wake up. This would have continued if Uncle Gus hadn’t brought him out of his neurotic loop with his hoarse voice calling from the foot of the stairs, “Tommy! I told you to wash up not take a nice relaxing bubble bath!”
Taking one last look at the youthful face staring back at him, Chip shrugged off the jacket and called back, “Sorry! Coming, Uncle Gus!”
He left the room, his eyes absorbing all the textures and colors of each area of the house. It was all the same but exponentially more concrete. Each item and detail he set his eyes upon was more than a set piece or prop. They were the real possessions of real people. He bounded down the stairs, but stopped abruptly five stairs from the bottom. Smiling nostalgically, he took a firm grasp of the railing and vaulted over, landing perfectly on both feet.
“Stuck it again,” he proclaimed triumphantly.
“Keep it up and you’ll be stuck in traction!” Gus grumped from the kitchen. “Now get in here, Mr. Olympian and chop the carrots!”
More memories assaulted his senses as Chip entered the kitchen. The reality of it all almost overloaded his brain. How many meals had he pretended to eat in this room? Now it was truly a room. There was no missing wall whose void was filled with cameras, crew, and a studio audience. Four walls, a window that looked out on a real back yard, and a very authentic feeling of a place that was the center of activity for a true family all filled Chip with a growing sense that this was not a dream at all.
“What’s with you, Tommy?” asked Uncle Gus as he stood stirring something on the stove. “You feeling all right, son?”
“Yeah, sure, Uncle Gus. I guess I was just appreciating everything a little more than usual.”
Gus frowned, his old Marine sensibilities not prone to sentimentalism.
“You must be coming down with something, kid. How’s about you appreciating those carrots over there?”
Chip picked up the knife smiling as he set into the rhythm of slicing carrots. He wasn’t sure how all of this was happening but he wasn’t about to ruin it by asking too many questions. Somehow he was back in the happiest time of his life and now it wasn’t fantasy. This was a role he would willingly play for as long as it was offered. He dreaded returning to his dark, dingy apartment and his daily struggle to survive in the tinsel façade of Hollywood, a world that used people up and then left them empty shells. Whatever it took to make this last, he would give his greatest performance moment by moment.
As he applied the knife to its work, his thoughts returned to his time on “No Girls Allowed”. The amazing thing about the program was that the cast genuinely loved and cared for one another. The banter and heart-felt moments that kept the viewing audience engaged and faithful to the series was so endearing because, in a sense, it was how the cast truly felt about one another.
“Finished,” Chip announced setting down the knife. “Anything else?”
“Set the table. Rick won’t eat until after baseball practice but set him a place anyway. When you’re done, get Jimbo in here to wash up….and make sure he leaves those two mutts outside! The last thing I need is those two natural disasters blowing around my kitchen while I try to get supper on the table.”
Chuckling to himself, Chip collected plates and silverware and began to place them around the table. He had always loved the character of Uncle Gus. When the actor who had played him had died, Chip had mourned for two people, Uncle Gus and Karl Passard. To him they were essentially one and the same. Now, here he was again, alive, not Karl Passard, but Uncle Gus in the flesh. Contrary to everything that was explainable, Gus was here and Chip was fourteen again, and he was Tommy Murray. As he finished with the table, he marked the sensations that his surroundings triggered, from the smells of Gus’ chow on the stove, to the sound of the neighbor mowing his lawn next door.
The plates were solid in his hands. If this was a dream, it was unlike any he had very had. The intense awareness of wakefulness kept transmitting to his subconscious that he was experiencing all of this in the here and now. With the last of the silverware in place, Chip moved toward the back door to retrieve his “little brother”.
“When will dad be home, Uncle Gus?” he asked as he opened the door.
“Any minute now. Watch yourself out there. Jimbo’s been on an Injun kick. He’s been playing with that goofy bow and arrow since he got home. Watch he don’t mistake you for General Custer.”
As if on cue, a rubber suction cup tipped arrow thunked into the window of the door, quivering as its forward momentum stopped abruptly. Two sneaker clad feet quickly disappeared around the corner of the house into the back yard. Laughing, Chip followed in pursuit. He rounded the corner in time to see the little blond headed boy duck into the garage. Chip looked around the back yard. The carefully laid brick patio, the picnic table, the neatly trimmed lawn were all as he expected but now they were capped by a bright blue, cloudless sky instead of racks of studio lighting and catwalks. He cautiously approached the side of door to the garage, wanting to avoid any more projectiles, rubber-tipped or otherwise.
In the dim light of the garage, Chip couldn’t help the exclamation that escaped his lips.
“The hotrod! I had forgotten all about the hotrod!”
One entire season, the third or fourth, he couldn’t remember which, his character, Tommy, and Mr. Murray had spent the series restoring an old roadster hotrod as a father/son project. That same car sat parked in front of him now in its beginning stages of restoration. He took a step toward the car but stopped suddenly as he felt something firm press against the small of his back.
“Hands up, paleface. Move and me scalpum you.” Ordered a squeaky, pre-adolescent voice.
“Please. I come in peace. I mean you no harm.”
The pressure eased slightly, followed by a grunt of frustration.
“Aw, jeepers, Tommy. You’re not supposed to give up. You’re supposed to fight. It’s no fun when you give up.”
Turning quickly, Chip knocked the toy bow and arrow aside, grabbed Jimbo’s head under his arm and held him in a headlock.
“Gotcha!” He shouted victoriously. “You should know better than to trust a paleface, Jimbo.”
The boy snorted, struggling to free himself.
“Aw, come on, Tommy. No fair. Let me go. I don’t wanna smell your clunky old armpit.”
Laughing, Chip released his hold and stepped back.
“Gus wanted me to call you in to wash up. Dad will be home any minute and supper’s ready.”
“Aw, jeepers,” complained Jimbo as he retrieved his bow and arrow. He stood and trudged out of the garage and towards the house.
Chip took one last loving look at the hotrod, tears coming to his eyes.
“Please,” he whispered. “Please don’t let this be a dream. I don’t want this to end.”
“How can it end, Tommy? We just got started on that hotrod.”
Turning, Chip saw Robert MacFarland or rather his character, John Murray, standing in the doorway. He must have pulled up while Chip was wrestling with Jimbo. There he stood, alive again, briefcase under his arm, pipe projecting prominently from one corner of his mouth. Chip fought back the tears of joy that seeing him again threatened to produce.
“Dad! Uh, hi. Welcome home.”
John Murray smiled warmly. He walked slowly around the car, pausing from time to time to note something that required their attention in the restoration.
“I know it’s got a long way to go, Tommy, but the journey is just as important as the destination. We’ll get it done though, eh? Side by side? You and me?”
“Sure, dad. It’ll be swell,” Chip replied, fighting to control the emotions boiling up within him. Being alone with and so close to the one man he admired most was overwhelming him. The dynamic that was the center of the success of “No Girls Allowed” and the anchor for Chip after his parents died, was Robert MacFarland. He was a genuine, authentic man. The reason the interactions on the series were so endearing was because Robert MacFarland, and his character, John Murray, were carbon copies of one another. He treated all of them as family on the set and off. The performances that resulted left the audience feeling like they had just spent the evening with the Murrays.
“Is something on your mind, son?” John Murray asked, bringing Chip out of his trip down memory lane.
“No. Nothing, dad. You know, I’m just appreciating, I guess. You’re a great guy, dad. I don’t tell you that enough.”
John Murray took his pipe out of his mouth and smiled his crooked smile. He studied the burnt tobacco in the pipe’s bowl for a moment.
“I guess you’re wondering how all of this is possible, eh, Chip?” he asked stoically.
“For sure,” returned Chip. “It’s just so wild, you know?” He paused. Had he just heard him use his real name? He looked into John Murray’s eyes. There was that familiar twinkle he remembered when this man he so looked up to had a secret he was dying to tell.
“Did you just call me Chip?”
The infectious MacFarland laugh filled the empty spaces of the garage. He placed his arm around Chip’s shoulders and drew him close.
“You’ve been given a great gift, son. We all have. Don’t waste it asking questions. Sometimes we are inexplicably given the thing we long for the most, especially when our motives for wanting it are pure. So…what do you want, son?”
Chip thought about the loneliness, disappointment, and confusion he had endured since Robert MacFarland died. He thought of the happiness and fulfillment he experienced being Tommy Murray. There was really only one choice for him.
“I think I’d like to stay for supper.”
John Murray laughed again as they walked together out of the garage.
“Let’s see what Gus has cooked up for us this time.”
Later that night as he lay in Tommy Murray’s old, familiar bed, Chip stared at the ceiling, smiling at nothing in particular. He had decided while he had shared a meal with his “family” that he wasn’t going to question this. However long this blessing lasted, Chip would live it to its fullest.
“Cue theme music,” he thought dreamily, almost expecting to hear the “No Girls Allowed” end credits theme fill the room. Instead, his ears heard an emphatic Uncle Gus shout passionately, “Ernie! Charlie! Get outta my kitchen or I’ll make throw rugs outta the both of youse!”
Tommy Murray chuckled and fell peacefully asleep for the first time in many years.