Read an Excerpt
Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol
By Elizabeth Hand
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2006 Elizabeth Hand
All rights reserved.
CHIP CROCKETT'S CHRISTMAS CAROL
"This is the day we shut out Nothing!"
"Pause," says a low voice. "Nothing? Think!"
"On Christmas Day, we will shut out from our fireside, Nothing."
"Not the shadow of a vast City where the withered leaves are lying
deep?" the voice replies. "Not the shadow that darkens the whole globe?
Not the shadow of the City of the Dead?"
Not even that
Charles Dickens— "What Christmas Is as We Grow Older"
Tony was the one who called him.
"Brendan, man. I got some bad news." Brendan felt a slight hitch in his stomach. He leaned back in his chair, nudging his office door closed so his secretary wouldn't hear. "Oh yes?"
"Chip Crockett died."
"Chip Crockett?" Brendan frowned, staring at his computer screen as though he was afraid Tony might materialize there. "You mean, like, The Chip Crockett Show?"
"Yeah, man." Tony sighed deeply. "My brother Jake, he just faxed me the obituary from the Daily News. He died over the weekend but they just announced it today."
There was a clunk through the phone receiver, a background clatter of shouting voices and footsteps. Tony was working as a substitute teacher at Saint Ignatius High School. Brendan was amazed he'd been able to hang onto the job at all, but he gathered that being a substitute at Saint Ignatius was way below being sanitation engineer in terms of salary, benefits, and respect. He heard a crackle of static as Tony ran into the corridor, shouting.
"Whoa! Nelson Crane, man! Slow down, okay? Okay. Yeah, I guess it was lung cancer. Did you know he smoked?"
"You're talking about Chip Crockett the kiddie show host. Right?" Brendan rubbed his forehead, feeling the beginning of a headache. "No, Tony, I didn't know he smoked, because I don't actually know Chip Crockett. Do you?"
"No. Remember Ogden Orff? That time he got the milk jug stuck on his nose? 'That's my boy, Ogden Orff!'" Tony intoned, then giggled. "And that puppet? Ooga Booga? The one with the nose?"
"Ogden Orff." Brendan leaned back in his chair. Despite himself, he smiled. "God, yeah, I remember. And the other one—that puppet who sang? He did 'Mister Bassman' and that witch doctor song. I loved him "
"That wasn't a puppet. That was Captain Dingbat—you know, the D.J. character."
"Are you sure? I thought it was a puppet."
"No way, man. I mean, yes! I am ab-so-lute-ly sure—"
An earsplitting whistle echoed over the line. Brendan winced and held the phone at arm's-length, drew it back in time o hear Tony's voice fading.
"Hey man, that's the bell, I gotta go. I'll fax this to you before I leave, okay? Oh, and hey, we're still on for Thursday, right?"
Brendan nodded. "Right," he said, but Tony was already gone.
Late that afternoon the fax arrived. Brendan's secretary gave it to him, the curling cover sheet covered with Tony's nearly illegible scrawl.
Ogden Orff Lives!
See Ya Thurs.
At Childe Roland.
Brendan tossed this and turned to the Daily News obituary, two long columns complete with photo. The faxed image was fragmented but still recognizable—a boyishly handsome man in suit and skinny tie, grinning at a puppet with a huge nose. Above him was the headline:
AU REVOIR, OOGA BOOGA
Brendan shook his head. "Poor Ooga Booga," he murmured, then smoothed the paper on his desk.
Iconic kiddie show host Chip Crockett died yesterday at his home in Manhasset, after a long and valiant battle with lung cancer. While never achieving the recognition accorded peers like Soupy Sales or Captain Kangaroo's Bob Keeshan, Chip Crockett's legend may be greater, because it lives solely in the memories of viewers. Like other shows from the late 1950s and early 1960s, The Chip Crockett Show was either performed live or videotaped; if the latter, the tapes were immediately erased so they could be reused. And, as though Fate conspired to leave no trace of Crockett's comic genius, a 1966 warehouse fire destroyed the few remaining traces of his work.
For years, rumors of "lost" episodes raced among baby boomer fans, but alas, none have ever been found. The show's final episode, the last of the popular Chip Crockett Christmas specials, aired on December 23rd, 1965.
The gentle Crockett was noted for a surreal sense of humor that rivaled Ernie Kovacs'. His cast consisted of a dozen puppets—all created by Crockett—and a rogue's gallery of over-the-top human characters, also given life by the versatile performer. Every weekday morning and again in the afternoon, Chip Crockett's jouncy theme would sound and the fun began, as potato-nosed Ooga Booga, sly Ratty Mouse, and the lovable knucklehead Ogden Orff appeared on WNEW-TV, reaching a broadcast audience of millions of children—and, occasionally, their unsuspecting parents.
Chip Crockett was born in 1923 in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania. His broadcast career began in 1949 with a radio show
Brendan sighed and looked up. Outside a sky the color of scorched nickel hung above Pennsylvania Avenue. In the very corner of his window, you could just make out the scaffolding that covered the Capitol building, a steel trellis overgrown with plywood and poured-concrete forms. When he and Robert Flaherty, his law partner, had first taken this office, Brendan had proudly pointed out the view to everyone, including the Capitol police officers who dropped in with paperwork and Congressional gossip during their breaks. Now Rob was dead, killed four years ago this Christmas Eve by a drunk driver, though Brendan still hadn't taken his name from the brass plate by the front door. The Capitol looked like an image from war-torn Sarajevo, and the officers Brendan had once known were unrecognizable behind bulletproof jackets and wraparound sunglasses.
"Mr. Keegan?" His secretary poked her head around the door. "Okay if I leave a little early today? It's Parent Conference week at Jessie's school—"
"Sure, sure, Ashley. You get that Labor Department stuff over to Phil Lancaster?"
"I did." Ashley already had her coat on, rummaging in a pocket for her farecard. "How's Peter these days?"
Peter was Brendan's son. "Oh, he's great, just great," he said, nodding. "Doing very well. Very, very well."
This wasn't true and, in fact, never really had been. Shortly after his second birthday, Peter Keegan had been diagnosed as having Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which as far as Brendan could figure was just a more socially acceptable term for his son's being (in the medical parlance) "somewhere within the autism continuum." Batteries of tests had followed—CAT scans, MRIs and PETs—and the upshot of it all was yet another string of letters: PDDNOS, or Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. In other words, Peter Xavier Keegan, now four, had never spoken a word to anyone. If you touched him he moved away, deliberately but casually, with no more emotion than if he'd brushed up against a thorny hedge. If you tried to look him in the eye, he looked away; if anyone tried to hold him, however gently, he would scream, and hit, and bite, and eventually fall screaming to the floor.
He had not always been like that. Brendan had to remind himself every day, lest the fragmentary images of eighteen- month-old Peter smiling in his lap disappear forever. Once upon a time, Peter had been okay. Brendan had to believe that, despite the doctors who told him otherwise. That his son had been born with this condition; that Peter's neural wiring was defective; that the chances of reclaiming that other child—the one who clung to his father and babbled wordlessly but cheerfully, the one who gazed at Brendan with clear blue eyes and held his finger as he fell asleep—were slim or nil. Just last week Brendan's ex-wife, Teri, had begun a new regime of vitamin therapy for their son, the latest in an endless series of efforts to reclaim the toddler they had lost.
They were still waiting to see the results. And Brendan's secretary Ashley would have known all this because Teri had told her, during one of her daily phone calls to Brendan to discuss the million details of shared custody arrangements—pickup times, doctors' appointments, changes in Peter's medication, nightmares, biting incidents, bills for the expensive Birchwood School, missing shoes, and loose teeth. To his recollection, Brendan had never volunteered a single word about his son or his divorce to Ashley, but he had no doubt but that, if called upon, his secretary could testify in District Court about everything from his prior sexual relationship with his ex-wife (satisfactory if unremarkable) to his current attendance at AA meetings (occasional).
"Peter's very well," he repeated one last time. He made a tube of Tony's fax and eyed his secretary through one end. "Good luck at school, Ashley."
He walked home that evening, his briefcase nudging his leg as he made his way up Pennsylvania Avenue, keeping his bare head down against the chill night wind. Tony's fax stuck up out of his overcoat pocket, still curled into a tube. He ducked into the gourmet kitchen shop and bought some coffee beans, then headed down Fourth Street towards his apartment. He was thinking about the old Chip Crockett Show, and how his secretary was born a good ten years after it had gone off the air.
How did I get to be so old? he marveled, kicking at the pile of sodden leaves banked against his building's outer door. "Mr. Keegan." When the hell did that happen? And he went inside, to silence and The Washington Post still unread on the kitchen counter, the unblinking red eye of the answering machine signaling that no one had called.
Thursday night he met Tony Kemper at Childe Roland. The club had been a big hangout for them back when Brendan was in law school at Georgetown in the early 1980s. Tony was still playing with the Maronis in those days, and the Childe Roland was a popular after-hours spot for musicians on tour. Later, after Tony left the Maronis and moved back to D.C., he'd headlined with local bands, and he and Brendan and Brendan's cousin, Kevin, had gotten into the habit of meeting at the Childe Roland every Thursday after closing time, to drink and listen to whatever performers happened to drop by.
Now, years later, all three were veterans of Alcoholics Anonymous, although Kevin was the only one who still attended meetings regularly. But they still met once a week at the Childe Roland, sitting at a table in the shabby downstairs room with its brick walls and fading posters for Root Boy Slim and Tommy Keene and the Dale Williams Band. They'd eat hamburgers and drink coffee or Evian water, feed quarters to the vintage Wurlitzer jukeboxes, and argue politics and football over "96 Tears" and "Bastards of Young" and "Pretty Vacant."
Tonight Brendan was the first to arrive, as usual. He'd been divorced for nearly a year but still couldn't quite get the hang of being single. He didn't date, he didn't cook. He worked late when he could, but Flaherty, Keegan & Associates didn't generate enough of a caseload to merit more than two or three nights a week. He had Peter on alternate weekends and Tuesdays, but that still left a lot of downtime. He hated to admit it, but when Tony or Kevin had to cancel Thursdays at Childe Roland, Brendan was depressed—depressed enough that he'd come to Childe Roland by himself and sit at their usual place and feed the jukebox, playing the songs Kevin or Tony would have played, even the ones he hated.
But he wouldn't be alone tonight. He heard Tony before he saw him. Or rather, he heard everyone else seeing him—
"Tony, my man! What's shakin'?"
"Tony Maroni! 'Hooray, hello, whoa whoa whoa!'"
"It's the Tonester!"
Brendan watched as his friend grinned and waved, crossing the room in that bizarre way he had, half-glide and half-slouch, resplendent in his ancient black leather jacket and decrepit Converse hightops, his long black hair streaked with grey, but otherwise pretty much unchanged from the lanky, goofy-faced nineteen-year-old who once upon a time had been the Great White Hope of Rock and Roll. On the Bowery, anyway, for a few years in the mid-1970s, which (according to Tony) was the last time rock had mattered.
That was when Tony founded The Maronis, the proto-punk band whose first, self-titled record had recently been cited by The New York Times as one of the ten most influential rock albums of the century. (The follow- up, Maronis Get Detention, came in at number 79.) The band's formula, equal parts three-chord rock and Three Stooges, won them a record contract with EMI, a national tour, and all the attendant problems as Tony, Mony, Pony, and Tesla (né Tony Kemper, Marty Berenstein, Paul Schippa, and Dickie Stanton) played, fought, drank, dropped acid, shot up, and eventually OD'd.
Not all at the same time, of course, but that was it as far as EMI was concerned. The Maronis lost their only contract with a major label. Worse, they lost their catalog—they hadn't bothered with an attorney when they signed—and the ensuing decades had seen one failed lawsuit after another brought by band members, whenever one was flush enough to hire a lawyer.
Still, the band continued to tour and record, on the small New Jersey-based Millstone label. When Tesla died of a heroin overdose, he was replaced, first by Joni, the band's first female guitarist, and then by Sony, a Japanese fan who attached himself to the Maronis after their disastrous 1984 Tokyo appearance.
That was when Tony left the band. Despite the rumors, he'd never gotten into heroin. Even as a kid in Yonkers he'd been terrified of needles; Kevin used to steal hypos from his doctor father and hide them in Tony's Deputy Dawg lunchbox, something Brendan would never have forgiven his cousin for, but Tony was incapable of anything resembling anger. Whatever demons he encountered, he fought them down with beer—preferably Budweiser, even when he (briefly) could have afforded Heineken. He'd finally lost it in Japan when, jet-lagged and suffering from food poisoning, he'd gotten the DTs and started screaming about Gojiro in the lobby of the Tokyo Hilton. Millstone had no money for an emergency medical evacuation, and so Brendan and Kevin arranged to have their childhood friend flown back to the States. Kevin had gone over to escort Tony—Kevin was raking it in at Merrill Lynch—and on their return he and Brendan checked their friend into detox.
He'd been sober ever since. Although, because he was Tony Maroni, this wasn't always readily apparent.
"Hey, Brenda Starr! How's it goin'?"
Brendan looked up, making a face at the boyhood nickname. "Tony. Good to see you—"
He reached across the table to shake his hand. Tony leaned forward and grabbed him in a hug. "Yeah, man, great to see you, too!" As though it had been a year instead of a week; as though they hadn't just talked on the phone, oh, about two hours ago. "Where's Kevo?"
Brendan shrugged. "He should be here soon."
"Right, right. The Family Man. Family matters. Family matters," Tony repeated, cocking his head and scrunching his face up. "Hey, get it? Like, it matters—"
"I get it, Tony."
"I never did. Not until just now."
Brendan sighed, glanced up to see a young woman in torn fishnets and polyester skirt, Mandelbrot tattoos and enough surgical steel piercings to arm an emerging nation. "Oh good. Here's the Bionic Waitress."
Tony whirled to grin at her. "Bethie! Hi! Hey, you look nice in that outfit—"
"It's my uniform, Tony," the waitress said, but smiled, displaying more gleaming metal and a tongue stud. "Where's your other partner in crime?"
"Kevo? He'll be here. He's got kids, you know—" Tony suddenly looked across the table, stricken. "Oh hey, man, I didn't mean—I mean, he's got kids too," he said, pointing at Brendan. "It's just—"
"Tony. It's okay," said Brendan.
"—just, uh, Kevin's got a lot of 'em. Well, two, anyway."
"Really?" The waitress looked down at Brendan curiously. "I never knew you were married."
"He's not," said Tony. "He's—"
"I'm divorced," Brendan broke in. He gave Tony an icy look. "I have a little boy."
"Yeah? You ought to bring him in some night. Okay, you want something now or you want to wait for your friend?"
They ordered, coffee for Brendan, club soda with lemon for Tony. When she brought the drinks back, Tony took the straw and blew its paper wrapper across the table at Brendan. "No offense, man," he said. "About—"
Excerpted from Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol by Elizabeth Hand. Copyright © 2006 Elizabeth Hand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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