This Old House
(You Break Him, You Buy Him)
*Parts 1 and 2 of This Old House are posted in Kenda’s Emergency! Library.
A five-alarm fire wouldn’t have been able to wipe the smile from Chet Kelly’s face on this January morning. He stood in the front doorway of his home, surveying the activity in the kitchen. Chet strained on tip toes to see over the camera man, sound man, lighting tech, and director. At any other time when Chet was anxious to be a part of the action he wouldn’t hesitate to yell, “Get outta my way, you jerks! I can’t see!” But not today. No, most definitely not today. Today, Chester Bartholomaus Kelly, was on his best behavior. For today, Monday, January 28th, 1976, Chet was living out his dream.
I knew it was a good idea. I knew it all along. Even when Cap laughed at me. And Marco gave me all the reasons why no doors in Hollywood would ever be opened to a fireman. And when Roy pointed out how much money it cost to make a TV show. And Mike just walked away with that little smile on his face that said he thought I’d gone off the deep end. And when Johnny just rolled his eyes as though I was the biggest twit he’d ever run across. But I showed them. I showed all of ‘em! And now, because of me, we’re all gonna be TV stars.
Chet’s brother had a friend, of a friend, of a friend, of a friend, of someone’s distant cousin, who was a TV producer. Although that connection was precarious at best, Chet Kelly was nothing if not persistent. Once he had Johnny’s permission to facilitate the production of a show called This Old House, Chet was off and running.
Okay, okay, so maybe I didn’t really have Johnny’s permission, Chet reminded himself now as he stepped out of the way so another sound man could enter the kitchen. I guess Roy was kinda right when he told me Johnny wouldn’t remember what he said that night in the Recovery Room. And I suppose I shoulda waited until Gage was outta the hospital and realized what I was doing before I started meeting with Clarice. But heck, if I would have waited until Johnny felt better he would have never said yes. Not that he really ever did say yes. I guess I kinda tricked him into it when I told him I had everything set up and it was too late to back out. And played that big old soft Gage heart like a violin when I told him I’d get all the materials for free that we needed to fix up the house as part of the TV deal.
Chet thought back to the conversation he and Johnny had in the Station 51 kitchen shortly after Johnny returned to work in November.
“No, Chet. No way! There’s no way I’m gonna be a part of a dumb TV show about remodeling houses.”
“Johnny, come on, man! I’ve already got the deal in the works. All you gotta do is sign on the bottom line and give the camera that charming Gage grin.”
“No. Absolutely not. Look, Chet, I don’t mind helping you out. And except for a couple. . . accidents, I’ve had a good time. But there’s no way I’m gonna remodel your house on national TV.”
“Number one; no one except your mother will be watching the show. And number two; it won’t be fun anymore.”
“It won’t be fun anymore? What’s that supposed to mean? Of course it’ll be fun. It’ll be a blast, Johnny!”
“No, it won’t be fun. Not with God knows how many people hanging over my shoulder watching everything I do, telling me to turn this way and that way, telling me how to swing a hammer for the camera. Hell, I’ve been swinging a hammer since I was eight years old. I don’t need some TV director, who doesn’t know a hammer from a screw driver, bossin’ me around.”
“No one’s gonna boss you around. I already made it clear to Clarice that--”
“Clarice Campbell. The producer. Anyway, I already made it clear to her that you’re the master craftsman. That what you says goes.”
“That what I says goes?”
“And she’s okay with that?”
“You bet she is.”
“Well. . . I don’t know, Chet. I’m still not sure I’m interested in--”
“Johnny, please. For me. I never knew remodeling a house would cost so much. I’ve barely started and already it’s drainin’ me dry. But not only will all of us get paid for our TV work, I’m gonna get all the materials we use for free.”
“Yep. Says so right in my contract.”
“And the other guys are willing to do this? To be in this TV show I mean?”
“They will if you will.”
Chet crossed his fingers behind his back when he said that. Looking back on it now he supposed he really wasn’t lying, just stretching the truth a bit since his co-workers had been certain Johnny would say no. And if Johnny said, no then the TV show would die before it even had a chance to get on the air.
“Roy told me that Chris and Jenny are going out of their minds with excitement at the thought of their dad being on TV. And Joanne. . .well she’s already told all the neighbors, and her mother, too. And you know how her mother is when it comes to Roy. The old lady doesn’t think Roy is good enough for Joanne. Never has. But this. . .
well, Joanne’s mom is pretty impressed let me tell you. And then there’s Mike’s kids. . . they’re nuts over the idea. Of course, they’re a little young to really understand, and seem to think Mike’s gonna be playing Big Bird on Sesame Street for a few weeks, but hey, what do you expect from a two and three year old? And Marco’s Mom told everyone at her church. . . all the people who prayed for you, Johnny, when you were in the hospital after that window fell on you. I bet they’ll look upon your TV debut as some miracle from God. They had a revival and the whole bit. You know, a prayer meeting peppered with a buncha hallelujah’s, a few Praise The Lords, the whole shot.”
“A revival? Chet, Marco’s Catholic. Catholics aren’t prone to holding revivals.”
“Well. . .okay. An exorcism then. Yeah, that’s what they held for you. An exorcism.”
“Look, it’s been a while since I’ve attended church, okay?”
“But my point is, Marco’s mom had a whole slew of people prayin’ for you. So like I said, they’ll think it’s neat to see you walkin’ around all healthy and stuff. And Cap’s wife told her Edsel club, you know. And my Mom. . .my mom is just beside herself with the thought of her little Chester being on TV. And--”
“Okay, okay. I’ll do it. I’ll do it.”
Chet had to stifle his smile that morning. After all, if Johnny could read Chet’s expression he would have deciphered the Irishman’s not so complimentary thoughts.
Ah, Gage. P.T. Barnum was right. There is a sucker born every minute, and you’re the walking, talking proof of that.
Once Chet gave Clarice Campbell the go ahead, he was surprised at how quickly things fell into place. The fact that the men doing the remodeling were Los Angeles County Firefighters seemed to cement the deal. Clarice thought it would be interesting to show footage of the Station 51 A-shift at work, and intersperse that with home remodeling footage.
“It will make it more of human interest show, Chet. If we stick to home remodeling the majority of the viewers we’ll draw in will be men. But we want to draw in women, too. And children. What better way to do that than to let them see you guys at work.”
“Really? You think so?”
“Trust me, I know so. The public is fascinated by firemen. There’s a lot of very romantic notions about the job.”
“Romantic, huh?” Chet had questioned, while thinking a little romance with the beautiful Clarice Campbell would be right up his alley. The woman was a tall, slender, thirty year old chestnut brunett who favored wearing her shoulder length hair in a neat French braid. Her gray eyes were so large and limpid a guy could get lost in them. Everything from her china doll complexion to her small, straight nose was perfect. Chet was amazed she wasn’t in front of the camera on some popular TV show herself.
“Yes. Romantic,” Clarice had assured. “And that’s the emotion we’ll be playing on in an effort to draw in female viewers.”
“Hey, female viewers are cool.”
“You bet they are. Especially if they encourage their husbands, boyfriends, and fathers to watch This Old House.”
Clarice brushed by Chet now with an ‘all-business’ set to her jaw, the fireman
said, “Hey, Clarice? Have you thought
any more about us watching the premiere of This Old House together at your
Clarice Campbell pasted a smile on face as she turned around.
“No, Chet, I haven’t. Sorry. I’ve been too busy to think about much of anything lately except work.”
“Oh. Well. . .maybe after today you’ll get a chance to relax a bit, huh?”
Clarice’s answer was a noncommittal, “Maybe,” as she stepped into the kitchen bustling with activity to talk to her assistant. She found the man in a distant corner.
Dale Tolson smirked.
“That Chet guy buggin’ you for a date again?”
“Again? He hasn’t stopped bugging me since he signed the contract. What a pain in the ass that shrimpy Irishman is proving to be.”
“You haven’t told him you’re seeing Gage, then?”
“Hell, no. Johnny told me I’d better not. Said Chet would be unbearable if he found out.”
“So, is this thing with you and Gage serious?”
“Don’t know,” Clarice shrugged. “We enjoy each other’s company for the time being.”
“In other words he’s good in the sack.”
Clarice laughed. “Let’s put is this way, that paramedic knows how to cool a woman off when she’s on fire.”
“I thought you said he was egotistical, boring, and liked to hear himself talk. How’d you jump from that to sleeping with the guy?”
“I got to know the guy, that’s how I jumped to it. He. . .John Gage is an anomaly if there ever was one. If you judge him by surface appearances you come away thinking he’s a cross between the class clown and the most annoying kid in school. But once you really get to know him you find out what an intelligent, caring, committed guy he is.”
“Committed? As in he should be to a state mental facility like most of the bozos you date?”
“Ha, ha. No. As in dedicated to his job and the guys he works with. He loves what he does, and has a great deal of affection for these men he calls his friends. He’d die for them, and them for him. That’s. . .I just can’t imagine anyone who would be willing to do that for a co-worker, Dale. And who is potentially put in that position each time he reports to work. Johnny didn’t want to do this show, you know.”
“Nope. He thinks it’s a stupid idea. He’s doing it for no other reason than Chet wants him, too. Well, that and something about Roy’s kids, and Marco’s mother’s church, and some Edsel club, but. . .”
“I know, I know. It sounds bizarre. Hell, it is bizarre. But that’s just the kind of guy Johnny is.”
“So does this mean I should rent a tux?”
“No, don’t do anything hasty like that. You know my work takes me all over the country. And Johnny’s job is very stressful. Not to mention we both work odd hours to say the least. I don’t think either one of us ready to take on the responsibility of another person at this time.”
“So for now you’re just having a tryst? Is that it?’
Clarice put her finger to her lips as she watched Johnny marking spots on the walls with a carpenter’s pencil where the new kitchen cabinets would hang.
“Shhh,” she teased in a stage whisper. “Don’t tell anyone. It’s a secret, remember?”
“If you keep ogling his ass like that it won’t be a secret much longer.”
Clarice batted her eye lashes and drawled in a thick Southern accent, “Now, sweetie pie, can I help it ifin’ my Johnny looks right purty in them thar Wrangler jeans?”
Dale grinned at his boss. The woman rarely joked about anything when they were on a job. Time was money, and money was time, and they always seemed to have too little of both. It was good to hear her laugh. Dale watched as Clarice’s demeanor changed to one of complete professional as she approached John Gage. By the way he reacted to her, an outside observer would never know they were seeing one another on the sly. Johnny, too, kept his tone professional as he assured the producer he’d be ready for her to start filming in another twenty minutes. Dale thought he saw a little twinkle in Johnny’s eyes as he turned back to his measurements, and he caught the half grin Johnny tossed the woman, but heck, a lot of guys grinned at Clarice. She was a beautiful woman. She inspired just about any man she crossed paths with to smile. Including Chet Kelly.
The producer took a deep breath as Chet approached her.
“Hey, Clarice, is there something I can help you with in here?”
“No, Chet. We’re fine. Thank you.”
“I could help one of your guys set up the lights or something maybe.”
“Thank you, Chet. But again, no. Only a union electrician can do that.”
“Well, then. . .maybe I can help the sound man.”
“Help him do what?”
“I don’t. . .I don’t know. Whatever it is a sound man does.”
“My point exactly.”
Clarice put a hand on Chet’s back and gently pushed him toward the door.
“Why don’t you join the other guys down by Mike’s truck. I think I heard them say they’re eating breakfast.”
“Well. . .if that’s really what you want me to do.”
“Are you gonna come down there, too? Joanne DeSoto sent along some of her cinnamon coffee cake. And Mike’s wife makes the best blueberry muffins you’ll ever taste. I’ll save one for you.”
“That would be great.”
“How about some of each? The coffee cake and a muffin I mean?”
“Sure, Chet. Wonderful.”
Chet felt his heart go pitter patter when Clarice smiled at him. She turned her beautiful face away when Johnny beckoned, “Reece?”
“Reece?” Chet echoed with a cocked eyebrow.
Clarice spared the fireman a brief glance. “It’s my nickname.”
“You never told me that.”
“That’s because I don’t invite everyone I meet to refer to me as such.”
“Then how come Gage gets to?”
“He just does, Chet. After all, he is the star of This Old House, you know.”
“So that was written in his contract or something?”
Chet didn’t like the smile that played on Clarice’s lips. He didn’t like it one bit.
“Are you and Johnny--”
Those big gray eyes cast themselves upon Chet with all the innocence of a newborn babe’s.
“Are me and Johnny what, Chet?”
“Uh. . .never mind. Nothing. I just thought. . forget it. You’re right. He is the star. And I guess this was my idea, after all. I mean, I’m the one who talked him into doing it.”
“You’re right. You did.”
Chet had the feeling Clarice purposely postponed walking over to Johnny until he’d left the house. The Irishman tried to see in through the kitchen window, but his view was blocked by people and equipment.
“Hey, Kelly!” Hank Stanley shouted from the curb. “Whatta ya’ doin’? Practicing to be a peeping Tom?”
“Hardy har har,” Chet grumbled as he trudged across his front lawn towards his laughing co-workers. “Gage is making time with my woman, and all these guys can do is stand around cracking bad jokes.”
“Why the long face, Chet?” Roy asked as Chet joined him by the side of Mike’s Dodge.
The men had their breakfast spread out in the bed of the truck. Aside from the muffins and coffee cake Chet had promised Clarice, there was enough doughnuts, sweet rolls, loaves of banana bread, thermoses of coffee, and jugs of orange juice to feed everyone present, including the film crew.
Chet waited until Marco, Cap and Mike were engaged in a conversation about fishing before turning to Roy.
“What do you know about Gage and Clarice?”
“What about them?” Roy asked.
“Is he seeing her?”
“You know. Dating her?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“You’re sure? You wouldn’t lie to me, would you, Roy? I mean, if Johnny asked you not to tell me then I suppose—“
“Chet, I’m not lying to you. And Johnny didn’t ask me not to tell you anything. If he’s seeing Clarice then it’s news to me.”
Chet grinned. “Really?”
that supposed to mean?”
“Johnny tells you everything. So if he hasn’t told you about Clarice then I must be wrong. They must not be dating.”
Roy wasn’t about to point out to Chet that he highly doubted Johnny told him everything. Or at least not before Johnny was good and ready to tell him. But considering the grumpy mood Chet had been in when he first joined them by the truck made Roy decide to keep his mouth shut.
Hank Stanley nodded toward the house. “Hey, Kelly. She’s startin’ to shape up, huh?”
Pride lit Chet’s eyes as he looked at his bungalow. Barker Windows had not only given him a new bay window for free, they hadn’t charged him for the other windows either. They’d also paid the portion of Johnny’s hospital bill the fire department’s insurance didn’t cover like Cap had suggested they should.
If Johnny had any qualms about returning to Chet’s home to help install those windows once Doctor Brackett cleared him for normal activity, they didn’t show. He arrived at the crack of dawn one Saturday morning in November with the rest of the Station 51 A-shift, plus the entire B-shift, and by Saturday night the work was done.
Now that the film crew had arrived the weeks ahead would see Chet’s house transform itself to the peaceful cottage he had long envisioned. Under Johnny’s guidance they’d be installing new bathroom fixtures, putting on a new roof, siding the outside of the house, and eventually finishing up with new paint and carpeting for all the inside rooms. Not to mention the work on the kitchen that would be done today.
Aside from the installation of the windows, the only other major project recently finished that wouldn’t be caught on film was the installation of the central heating/air conditioning system. Like a lot of older homes in relatively warm climates, Chet’s bungalow had a space heater when he purchased it. Chet’s work as a fireman had long ago taught him how dangerous that means of heating a home could be. Especially when the space heaters are half a century old. He’d talked to Johnny about installing the new system, but that was one job the paramedic refused to tackle.
“I don’t know anything about running gas lines, Chet. I know it won’t be cheap, but in this case I think you’re better off hiring someone who does that kind of work for a living. It’s just too dangerous for an amateur to mess around with.”
Though Chet hardly considered Johnny an amateur when it came to home remodeling, he deferred to the paramedic’s wisdom in this matter. Chet got estimates from several local heating/air conditioning companies. He finally went with a firm that offered him a price he could afford, and that had been recommended by a neighbor down the street.
Hank Stanley interrupted Chet’s thoughts.
“So what’s on tap for today, Chet?”
“We’re gonna hang the kitchen cabinets, get the new flooring down, and put up the new woodwork.”
“Sounds like we’ve got a long day ahead of us.”
“I guess. But it’s worth it for what they’re payin’ us, don’t ya’ think, Cap?”
Hank grabbed a second blueberry muffin from the bed of Mike’s truck.
“The money’s nice,” Hank agreed, thinking of how a little extra income never hurt when a man was putting two daughters through college.
The firemen watched as various members of the film crew began to drift outside and head for Mike’s truck. They’d all been invited to partake in the breakfast spread Joanne DeSoto, Peggy Stoker, Grace Stanley, and Marco’s mom, Carmita Lopez, had sent along with their men that morning.
Chet took a mental roll call as people gathered around the Dodge filling paper plates and pouring juice into Styrofoam cups. He knew the crew consisted of twenty people. When he got to number nineteen he realized who was missing.
Clarice is still in the house with Gage. Alone in the house with Gage.
Chet turned toward his home, only to see Clarice step out the front door with a clipboard in hand. She leafed through several sheets of paper as she walked. Chet grabbed the last blueberry muffin from Marco’s hand as it was headed for the fireman’s mouth.
“Hey! What’s the big idea, Chet?”
“Marco, I know you’re not gonna like hearin’ this, but I’m your friend so I guess I should be the one to tell you, you’re puttin’ on a little weight there, pal.”
“A little weight? Chet--”
The firemen shook their heads as they watched Chet race toward the producer. He met her halfway across the front lawn, offering her the blueberry muffin as though he was handing her a diamond ring.
“I think he’s gonna get down on bended knee,” Hank remarked.
“Does Chet have something going with her?” Mike asked.
“Not yet,” Roy said. “Though I think he’s got his sights set on that goal. He was just quizzing me about Clarice and Johnny.”
“Clarice and Johnny?” Marco asked as he reached for a slice of his mother’s banana bread since Chet had taken the last blueberry muffin. “Is something going on between them?”
“Only in Chet’s imagination. Or at least as far as I know.”
“Well then, that must be the case, ‘cause if there was something going on between Clarice and Johnny you’d find it out before any of the rest of us. Johnny tells you everything.”
“Why do you guys think that?”
“Because it’s true,” Mike said. “You and Johnny are tight.”
“Yeah. But he doesn’t tell me everything.”
“Sure he does.”
“No, he doesn’t.”
“Okay. Name one thing you don’t know about John Gage.”
“I’m serious, Roy. Name one thing.”
“Well...let’s see, I don’t--”
“See, you can’t do it.”
“Yes, I can. Just give me a few seconds here.”
“I’ll help you out. What’s Johnny’s favorite drink?”
“Wheels And Gears.”
“How does he like his coffee?”
“Bowling, camping, and hiking.”
“Best sport in high school?”
“Favorite TV show?”
“Sylvester and Tweety Bird. But, Mike, those are easy questions. Anyone who’s worked with Johnny as long as I have could answer those questions.”
“Okay. Next level. Name of Johnny’s first grade teacher?”
“A little girl named Aubrey.”
“How old was he when he had a crush on this girl?”
“Gee, he started young. I didn’t even wanna look at girls until I hit about thirteen. But that sounds like Johnny,” Mike said as he took a long swig of juice.
“What thing did he do that got him in the most trouble with his folks when he was four?”
“Putting crayons in the toaster. And toasting them.”
“And at ten?”
“Riding his bike out of the hay mow.”
Hank Stanley choked on his doughnut. “Riding his bike out of where?”
“The hay mow. He piled hay bales on the ground and thought he could land in them. He over shot ‘em by about ten feet and broke his collarbone. Said he was lucky he was in so much pain because that’s about the only thing that stopped his dad from killing him for doing something so stupid.”
about at fifteen?” Mike asked. “What got him in the most trouble at
“Hot wiring his father’s truck, picking up a twenty-two year old woman, and taking her to a drive-in movie.”
“Geez,” Hank chuckled, “I’m surprised John’s father let him live to see sixteen.”
“Johnny was surprised about that, too. Only it wasn’t his father who was furious this time, it was his mother.”
“I can understand why,” Marco said, thinking of how any mother would react to discover her fifteen year old son went on a date with a twenty-two year old woman.
“So see,” Mike said to Roy, “this just proves it. There’s nothing Johnny doesn’t tell you.”
“Then assure Chet of that fact for me, please. If I have to spend the next two months with him following me around asking me questions about Johnny and Clarice I swear I’ll lose my mind.”
Chet walked backwards in front of Clarice, his tongue never tiring.
“And I know of a real nice Italian restaurant where we could have a quiet meal and—“
“I don’t like Italian food.”
“Okay. It doesn’t have to be Italian then. It can be anything you want. Any place you wanna go.”
“Chet, let’s not worry about dinner right now, okay? It’s barely seven-thirty in the morning. I’d just like to get a hot cup of coffee before we start filming.”
“Sure. Sure, I understand. We can talk about it later. I’ll get the coffee for you. Black? Or with cream and sugar?”
“Black will be fine.”
Clarice caught Roy’s smile as she joined the firemen by the far side of Mike’s truck. They didn’t have to worry about any danger from standing in the street. This portion of Chet’s neighborhood had been blocked off for the filming.
“Don’t let Chet get on your nerves,” Roy said. “He’s not a bad guy. Just a little overly enthusiastic when the mood strikes.”
“Not a problem. I’m used to dealing with guys like him. Women in my position in the TV industry are still uncommon. If I had a dime for every unwelcome advance I’ve fielded I’d be able to retire.”
Roy nodded, knowing Clarice was probably correct.
The woman flicked her right thumb over her shoulder while glancing down at her clipboard again.
“In the kitchen. He’s finishing up a couple things before we get started. I sent everyone out here so he wouldn’t have to trip over them.”
“Yeah, it’s gonna be pretty cramped in there, huh? I didn’t realize it took this many people to make a TV show,” Roy said as he surveyed the small crowd gathered around Mike’s truck.
“It takes a number of helping hands, that’s for sure.” Clarice did her best to smile at Chet when he approached with her coffee. “Thanks, Chet.”
problem. You sure I can’t get you anything else? Some banana bread? A sweet roll?”
“No, this on top of that blueberry muffin you brought me is quite enough.” The woman motioned for the firemen to gather around her. “Okay, guys, this the plan for this morning. You already know how to act in front of the camera. All of you have done a great job of ignoring it when we’ve gone out on runs with you the last three weeks.” Clarice paused there to give Chet a pointed look. “Except for you, Chet. You need to stop with the waving and mouthing ‘Hi, Mom.’ ”
Chet felt his face flush. The last thing he wanted was to be chastised by a woman he was trying so hard to impress.
“Sorry. I get a little carried away sometimes I guess.”
“Well, don’t let it happen today. Every time we have to stop the film rolling it costs us money.”
“Okay. I won’t.”
“Good. Now, as I was saying, this is what to expect from this morning’s filming. Johnny will instruct each of you on what to do, just like he has since you guys started working on the house. The only difference today is, twenty other people will be behind the scenes. There’s times when I’ll appear on camera to ask Johnny questions about the project. When that happens he’ll stop what he’s doing and explain things to the camera as though he was talking to a room full of people. He and I have already gone over this, so he knows what to do. The rest of you will simply keep working while this is going on behind you. You can talk amongst yourselves, joke back and forth, stuff like that. Just whatever you normally do when you’re together here working on Chet’s house. If you don’t say anything to each other, it’ll seem unnatural. But, of course, if you get too loud your words will drown out what Johnny’s saying so you have to keep that in mind.”
The men nodded their understanding of Clarice’s instructions.
“I’ve seen a lot of camaraderie amongst the six of you these past few weeks. We caught a lot of that on tape, too. That same feeling is what I want to carry over into This Old House.” The woman smiled. “So I guess what I’m saying is just be yourselves. Forget the camera is there. And have a good time.”
“Hey, Clarice, maybe you can talk to me in front of the camera, too, huh? I mean, after all, it is my house.”
“Sure, Chet. Maybe. We’ll see.” The woman turned toward the makeup artist’s small trailer parked across the street from Mike’s truck. “Look, I have to go get my makeup touched up. You guys wait here. As soon as I’m done we’ll be ready to start.”
After Clarice had entered the little trailer Chet turned to his co-workers wearing a huge grin.
“She’s got the hots for me.”
“Oh, yeah,” Marco deadpanned. “I’ve noticed that.”
“You bet. There’s not doubt she can barely keep her hands off you, Chet.”
Mike and Cap joined in the teasing that Chet gobbled up as facts.
Before this day ends they’re gonna have Chet believing Clarice wants to marry him, Roy thought as he looked at the house. Wish I was inside with Johnny. Whatever he’s doing has got to be more interesting than listening to Chet ramble on like a twelve year old infatuated with his homeroom teacher.
As much as Roy wanted to join Johnny in the house he remained where he was. Like Clarice had said, making a TV show cost money. He wasn’t about to add to that cost by disobeying any of her instructions. The paramedic leaned over the side of Mike’s truck and refilled his juice glass. He listened to his co-workers give Chet a hard time while he waited for Clarice to come out of the makeup trailer.
Though John Gage wasn’t a man given to long silences, he was savoring the quiet of Chet’s kitchen. Carpentry work had always been something he’d enjoyed doing with his dad. The smell of wood shavings, and the whine of a circular saw brought back fond memories for the paramedic.
Johnny’s mind drifted to Clarice as he stepped over a thick cable. He still wasn’t certain how he’d finally convinced her to go out with him. The first week they’d known each other her standard answer to his requests for a date had been, “I don’t get involved with people I work with.”
Johnny was growing weary of hearing this line tossed at him by women. A number of the nurses at Rampart seemed to have it memorized, which made it hard for a single guy who spent much of his time working out of hospital to meet eligible females.
The paramedic couldn’t deny the first thing that attracted him to Clarice had been her looks. Once he’d gotten to know her, though, he’d almost forgotten how beautiful she was as he came to respect her for her intelligence, sense of humor, and commitment to her career. What she hadn’t known about home remodeling before taking on the production of This Old House, and it hadn’t been much she freely admitted, she learned through research, study, and asking questions. Johnny couldn’t help but admire anyone who would go to those lengths for their job. She could have just deferred to him as the expert, but she didn’t. She wanted to know everything that went into fixing up an old house from the very first nail that was driven, to the very last.
“Then there’s also the unexpected things that come along with remodeling,” Johnny had told the woman one night over dinner at his apartment. “Like insecticide poisoning and getting crushed by a bay window.”
“Insecticide poisoning and getting crushed by a bay window.”
“Those things really happened to you?”
“Yeah. The first one happened in July when I was down in Chet’s crawl space running water pipes. The second happened in September when the living room window fell on me.”
“And after all that you’re still willing to work on Chet’s house? I don’t know whether to admire you for your tenacity, or look you in the eye and tell you you’re crazy.”
“You wouldn’t be the first woman to tell me that,” Johnny grinned. “That I’m crazy I mean. And as for tenacity. . .well, Chet’s a friend, though don’t ever tell him I said that. I agreed to help him so I can’t back out now.”
“I’m sure he’d understand if you did.”
“Yeah, he probably would. But none of that stuff was Chet’s fault. They were just freak accidents. And besides, what’s the chances of anything else happening?”
“I suppose you’re right. I can’t think of anything else that’s worse than what you’ve already described.”
“Me either.” Johnny ran a hand up the woman’s thigh. “But I can think of something better.”
And that’s where talk of home remodeling ended that night as the couple moved on to. . .other activities.
Despite their intimacy, Johnny was realistic. Reece was working in L.A. today, but in two months she could be in Orlando. Whether their relationship had the kind of future he’d always envisioned for himself and a wife remained to be seen.
The paramedic looked around the room one last time, making certain every tool was in place before the filming began. He glanced at his watch. It was ten to eight. The twenty minutes he’d asked Reece for were about up. Johnny grabbed the circular saw sitting on the floor. Because of all the filming equipment there was no room in the kitchen to operate it. Reece had suggested it be set up outside. When she wanted shots of one of the men using the saw she’d send someone out with a hand-held camera.
Johnny walked out the back door of Chet’s home. The garage sat two hundred feet from the house. Another two hundred feet beyond that was the back yard of a neighbor.
The paramedic laid the circular saw on the ground outside the door. He walked to the garage, retrieving two saw horses and an orange extension cord. He carried everything to within ten feet of the house, then set the saw horses in place across from one another. Johnny picked up the circular saw and rested it on top of one of the wooden horses. He plugged the saw’s cord into one end of the extension cord, then walked the other end to the electrical outlet he’d installed on the outside of Chet’s home back in July.
If John Gage would have known what was going to happen next, he never would have plugged that circular saw in.
Everyone remained gathered around Mike’s truck waiting final word from Clarice that the work day was about to commence. Later, Roy would remember that he was facing Chet’s house as he took a swig of juice. He knew Marco, Cap and Mike were facing the house, too, and were talking about the work they were about to complete in Chet’s kitchen. Chet was turned around, keeping a watchful eye on the makeup trailer. Roy supposed the Irishman was going to make a fool of himself again by running over to Clarice the minute she stepped out the trailer’s door.
Roy had been close to a few explosions in his career as a firefighter, but he didn’t think he’d ever felt one this powerful. One second there were twenty-four people standing around Mike’s truck talking and laughing while they waited for their work day to start, and the next second the ground erupted beneath their feet as though one hundred freight trains were roaring by. Debris rained down around them as people ducked, ran, dove in ditches, or scrambled beneath Mike’s truck.
Roy heard screams, shouts, and cries over the crackle of fire. From his own mouth came, “Johnny!” as he raced to the pile of lumber that had seconds before been Chet’s house.
Footsteps pounded behind Roy, but he didn’t turn around to see who was following him.
“Johnny! Johnny!” Roy hollered as the fire began to gain strength. He grabbed boards and yanked them aside, sure he’d find Johnny’s broken, lifeless body somewhere beneath the rubble. “Johnny!”
Chet, Marco, and half a dozen men from the film crew, including Dale Tolson, dug through the wreckage with Roy. Captain Stanley and Mike remained at the road doing their best to keep everyone back. As much as they both wanted to help with the search for Johnny, they knew the dangers of another explosion was promising.
“Get back,” Hank yelled as he gathered everyone who was emerging from ditches and slithering from beneath Mike’s Dodge. “Get back. Over there! Across the street! Go across the street!”
Cap grabbed Clarice as she shot by him.
“No! Stay back!”
“I have to find, Johnny!” The woman was fighting gallantly to keep her tears from falling. “He was in there! He was in the house!”
“We know. My men are looking for him now. But you have to stay back.”
“Clarice, listen to me. You’ll be more help to Johnny if you make certain one of Chet’s neighbors has put a call into the fire department, and if you keep your people back for me. It’s dangerous for anyone to get too close.”
Clarice looked over Hank’s shoulder. All she saw was a pile of burning lumber that grew fifteen feet from the ground at its highest point. The pink bathtub lay in one corner of the yard, Chet’s washing machine in another. Glass and small splinters of wood littered the area, along with far too many things Clarice couldn’t identify that she knew had been clothes, dishes, and furniture.
Clarice had a feeling Hank Stanley was simply giving her things to do to keep her mind off Johnny’s fate. Certainly by now someone had to have called the fire department. The explosion had rocked the entire neighborhood and brought people running from their houses. As far as Clarice’s people went, other than the men who were helping to look for Johnny the rest of the film crew stood across the street watching the drama unfold before them. Every one of them was pale and shaky, and a few of the women were crying. Not that Clarice could blame them. She was pale and shaky, too. And God knew she felt like crying.
The woman pulled herself together and did as Hank asked. She made certain the fire department had been called, then settled in to wait with her co-workers. She remembered Johnny’s words from two weeks earlier.
“But none of that stuff is Chet’s fault. They were just freak accidents. And besides, what’s the chances of anything else happening?”
“Oh, Johnny, please be okay,” Clarice murmured as she watched Roy frantically dig for his friend, all the while ignoring the danger of the fire around him. “Please be okay, Johnny. Please.”
Feeling your body being propelled through the air is a strange sensation. Or so John Gage thought in a detached sort of way as he was lifted from his feet by something so powerful he concluded Los Angeles had just experienced what was almost unheard of for this area of California; a tornado. Johnny’s body flipped end over end five times with all the grace of an Olympic gymnast until the tornado slammed him to the ground on his back. The air rushed out of Johnny’s lungs with a “whoosh!” It took him several long seconds to get his breath back. Debris showered down on him. He cried out when a board bounced off the top of his head, and for a few mind numbing ticks of the clock the pain threatened to make him pass out.
The paramedic wondered why it was so dark as he started to dig his way out from under what had been portions of Chet’s house. He couldn’t hear anything either, except an annoying roaring in both ears like the sound of a violent wind.
That musta been some hell of a storm if it’s still this dark out. I never even saw it blow in. When I went to Chet’s garage the sun was out.
Johnny staggered to his feet. His ankles crossed over one another, causing him to trip and fall. He cried out in pain again as he landed on his left arm. It was odd, he knew he had the knowledge to assess his injuries, but he couldn’t seem to focus long enough to do so.
Why the hell is it so dark? I can’t see a damn thing.
Johnny pushed himself to his feet again. Without realizing he was doing so, he clutched his left arm to his side as he stumbled over the debris blocking his path.
Each time he fell Johnny would once again climb to his feet. A part of his mind acknowledged the pain lancing up his left arm, and the pounding in his skull that increased with every step he took, but shock over road the paramedic’s ability to realize the extent of his injuries.
Johnny wasn’t sure where he was going. After all, it was too dark to see. But he figured sooner or later he’d run across one of the guys. He hoped none of his friends had been hurt when the tornado whipped through. Nor anyone from the film crew, either. He briefly thought of Clarice, but he remembered she’d gone out to Mike’s truck for some coffee so at least that meant she was surrounded by firemen who knew what to do in the event of an emergency.
The paramedic cried out as he tripped again. He shook his head to try to clear the roaring in his ears, only to immediately regret that action when the urge to throw up became so overwhelming he had to turn and do just that. He lifted his right arm and used the sleeve of his work shirt to wipe the gunk away from his mouth.
Man, I don’t feel so great all of a sudden. Hope I come to Mike’s truck soon. A couple aspirin and a glass of juice oughta fix me up just fine.
Johnny ignored the feeling of warm blood running down the side of his face as he continued his trek forward through the suddenly dark, silent world he found himself trapped in.
Chet Kelly tossed boards aside with reckless abandon.
He’s gotta be here! He’s gotta be here somewhere. Johnny, come on, man! Just a boot, or a hand. Show something of yourself so we know where you are.
Chet barely took notice of the four fire engines pulling up in front of his house. Squad 36 was right behind them. Before Bob Bellingham and Craig Brice had a chance to get their equipment a movement to Chet’s left caused him to glance up. If he hadn’t known better, Chet would have sworn The Creature From The Black Lagoon had just emerged from his swamp. Blood and soot covered the man’s face. What was left of his shirt hung from his body in tattered shreds. His work boots were still on his feet, but the force of the blast had ripped the laces from the eyes.
Chet’s cry caused Roy’s head to whip around. He scrambled over a pile of debris and ran to his staggering partner.
Even at this distance, Roy knew Johnny was in shock and not feeling the full pain of the broken arm he was clutching, or of the scalp wound that was causing blood to flow down the right side of his face.
“Johnny!” Roy caught his partner by the right arm and waist as Johnny’s legs started to accordion. “Johnny, come on. Sit down. Let me help you sit down.”
It was then that John Gage realized it wasn’t dark outside, and that the roaring in his ears wasn’t high winds brought on by a tornado. He could feel the hands touching him. Then could feel the owner of those hands urging him to a sitting position in the grass. Other hands joined the first pair and Johnny felt a B/P cuff being secured around his right arm. That’s when fear hit the paramedic for the first time since this whole thing had started.
They’re here! They’re right here next to me, but I can’t see them! I can’t hear them! They must be talking! They have to be! Someone’s taking my B/P. And someone else has a stethoscope against my chest. They’ve got to be talking to each other. . .they might even be in contact with Rampart by now, but I can’t hear them. I can’t hear them and I can’t see them! What the hell happened? Roy! Roy!
When Johnny finally voiced his thoughts he had no idea if he was whispering or shouting.
“Roy!” The paramedic’s head twisted from side to side even when Chet tried to stop that motion. “Roy!”
“I’m right here, Johnny.” Roy squeezed his partner’s uninjured arm. “I’m right here helping Bob and Craig.”
The panic in Johnny’s voice wasn’t like him. In all the years Roy had known the man, John Gage had never openly displayed fear when he was injured unless he was too out of it to realize what he was saying.
“Johnny, I’m right here.”
“Roy! Roy, where are you! Roy!”
Bob Bellingham and Craig Brice exchanged concerned looks as Roy waved a hand in front of his Johnny’s face. Johnny didn’t respond to the motion in any way.
Roy grasped his partner’s chin with his left hand in an effort to keep Johnny’s head still. With his right he held up two fingers.
“Johnny, follow my fingers.” Roy slowly moved the fingers side to side, then up and down.
“He’s not even trying to do what you’re asking,” Bob said.
“Johnny, can you see my fingers?” Roy waited a few seconds, and when he got no verbal response asked, “Johnny, how many fingers am I holding up? Johnny?”
There was something about the look on Johnny’s face that told Roy they had more to worry about here than just his inability to see.
Oh, Lord, no. No.
can you hear me? Johnny?”
Roy put his mouth next to his partner’s ear and beckoned loudly, “Johnny? Johnny, can you hear me?”
When Johnny made no response the blond paramedic fell back on his heels. Roy was only vaguely aware of Craig Brice contacting Rampart. He heard the man say, “Rampart, at this time the patient has lost vision in both eyes, and indications are his hearing has been impaired as well.”
What Doctor Brackett said in return Roy didn’t know. It was then that he stopped being a paramedic to instead, simply be a friend.
“Roy! Roy, where are you? Roy!”
Roy wasn’t sure how to offer his partner comfort considering Johnny could neither see nor hear him. He could do nothing more but allow his instincts to guide him. Roy clutched Johnny’s questing hand while placing his other hand on Johnny’s back.
“I’m here, Johnny. I’m right here.”
Johnny couldn’t say how he recognized the hand encasing his, and the one rubbing over his back, as being Roy’s. Somehow he just knew those hands belonged to his partner. God, he was scared. So scared when he thought of the possibility of going through life never seeing or hearing again. But Roy’s presence calmed him. If nothing else Roy was the one constant in Johnny’s dark, silent world right now.
Johnny resisted when he felt another set of hands urging him to lie down. It wasn’t until Roy’s hands urged him to do the same thing that he complied. It was weird to have your eyes open but not be able to see the activity going on around you. It was even weirder when you couldn’t hear what was going on around you either. Johnny felt someone put a C-collar on him, while someone else put a splint his left arm. An IV was started in his right arm, and then the wound on top of his scalp was carefully dabbed with gauze before being bandaged.
John Gage didn’t think he could have held it together that morning if it hadn’t been for his partner. Roy’s hand never let go of Johnny’s while Brice and Bellingham worked on him. Roy didn’t even let go when they placed him on a backboard, or lifted him to the gurney, or wheeled him to the ambulance. Johnny had no way of knowing if it was Craig or Bob in the ambulance with him, but then he didn’t really care either. The only thing that mattered to Johnny was the knowledge that Roy stayed was him, and remained with him even when he arrived at Rampart and was wheeled into a treatment room.
When Johnny finally slipped into unconsciousness he was still clutching his partner’s hand as though his life depended on the bond they’d shared for so many years now.
The explosion that rocked Chet’s neighborhood kept the Station 51 A-shift on the scene long after Roy left with Johnny in the ambulance. It wasn’t until four o’clock that afternoon that they arrived at Rampart tired, dirty, and hungry. Hank Stanley didn’t think it was a good sign when he spotted Roy and Clarice Campbell still seated in the Emergency Room’s waiting area.
“Roy?” Hank asked as he lead his men to the paramedic.
Roy looked up. He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting in this hard plastic chair staring at his boots.
“Nothing, Cap,” the paramedic said softly. “We don’t know anything yet.”
“But he was brought in at eight-thirty this morning. That’s been over seven hours now.”
“I know. Dixie comes out every so often to tell me what tests they’re running, but that’s about it.”
Aside from being dirty and tired, Roy thought his comrades looked shell-shocked as they took seats. Especially poor Chet.
I suppose I’d look shell-shocked, too, if my house had just been blown to smithereens.
“Does anyone know what caused the explosion?” Roy asked.
“At this point it looks like a natural gas leak prompted by a faulty connection to the new furnace,” Hank said. “There will be further investigation yet, but more than likely small amounts of gas had slowly been leaking into Chet’s house for days. It finally built up to the point that when Johnny plugged something in it set off enough of an electrical current to spark.”
“The saw,” Clarice said. She dabbed at her red eyes with a wadded Kleenex that looked like it had gotten a lot of use through the long hours of the day.
“The circular saw. When I left the house he was getting ready to go out back and plug it in.”
“Then that probably saved his life,” Hank concluded.
“Because he wasn’t in the house when it blew, but outside of it. Don’t take me wrong when I say this, but we were wondering how he managed to live through the explosion.”
Clarice turned her attention to Chet.
“I’m so sorry about your house. I know how proud you were of it.”
“Thanks. It...it was insured so I should come out okay in the end. It doesn’t matter anyway. All I care about is that Johnny’s gonna be okay.”
“He will be, Chet,” Marco assured his friend. “Johnny’s tough. Look at the way he came walking toward us. Not even a house blowing up around the guy can keep him down.”
“Yeah, only Gage could manage to get to his feet after something like that.”
“Only Gage could manage to get caught in the middle of something like that,” Hank said.
“True,” Mike said. “No one else but Johnny has these freaky things happen to him. But just think of the stories he’ll be able to tell his grandchildren.”
Clarice had been around these men long enough to know their jokes and wise cracks weren’t meant to be disrespectful to their friend, but rather were being employed to cover their worry.
Roy was the only one who didn’t join in the light hearted banter. But then he was also the only one who had remained by Johnny’s side until Dixie led him from the treatment room. He’d seen the fear on Johnny’s face, and felt the fear Johnny wasn’t voicing each time Johnny squeezed his hand. Long before they’d loaded Johnny in the ambulance he’d quit talking, which Roy supposed made sense since his partner couldn’t hear anyone’s responses. Still, that action had unnerved Roy in ways he couldn’t describe. It made him realize how alone Johnny must feel. Alone and frightened in a world he could no longer partake in.
Roy jumped to his feet when he saw Kelly Brackett headed their way.
Finally, we’ll get some answers.
Doctor Brackett waved Roy back to his seat. He sat in the empty chair to the left of the paramedic.
“Sorry it took me so long to get back to you, but I wanted to be able to bring you all the news at once.”
“What news?” Chet asked. “Is Johnny gonna be okay? Will he hear again? What about his eyesight?”
“Johnny’s already beginning to get both of those senses back, though at this point we’ll just have to take it a day at a time in order to see how much of his hearing he’ll regain.”
“So he could be deaf?” Hank asked.
“The otolaryngologist who examined him--”
“Oto who?” Chet interrupted.
“Otolaryngologist. A physician who specializes in ear, nose, and throat disorders. He. . Doctor Kennison, feels Johnny will at least get a portion of his hearing back. Possibly even all of it if he’s lucky. Right now Johnny’s gone from experiencing a roaring sensation to experiencing a ringing sensation, which is actually a good sign.”
“How do you know that?” Roy asked.
“Because Johnny told me.”
“He told you?”
“Yes. Within the last half hour he began to regain his ability to hear to some degree provided the person speaking to him was looking at him and talking at full volume.”
“And his eye sight?” Roy asked. “You said he’s regaining some of that, too?”
“Yes. The force of the blast caused swelling around his optic nerve. The ophthalmologist who examined him thinks that within a few days the swelling will be down enough so we can determine if there’s been any permanent damage. By about two o’clock this afternoon Johnny was seeing shadows. An hour ago those shadows came into enough focus that he surprised Dixie by telling her hi when she walked into the room.”
Roy couldn’t help but smile. Even if Johnny’s hearing and vision didn’t return to what they had been before the explosion, this was a step in the right direction.
“What about his arm?” Chet asked. “And the cut on his head?”
“He suffered a clean break of his left radius.” Brackett pointed to the area between his thumb and mid-section of his forearm. “The bone right here. We’ve already got it in a cast. As far as the scalp laceration goes, it took ten stitches to close. He’s got a hairline skull fracture, but the tests we’ve run reveal no internal hemorrhaging or swelling. However; Johnny will be monitored closely in that regard for the next twenty-four hours.”
“So overall things are looking up?” Chet asked.
Doctor Brackett smiled. “Let’s put it this way, things are looking better for Johnny now than they were when Roy brought him in here this morning.”
Roy opened his mouth to speak, but before he could get any words out the doctor said, “Yes, you can see him. They just took him up to ICU. But only--”
“For a few minutes,” Roy finished with a grin. “Unfortunately, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to memorize the routine ever since Chet bought his house.”
“I’d say you have,” the doctor agreed. “And by the way, Chet, I’m sorry to hear about your house. But do us all a favor when you buy another one.”
“Don’t ask Johnny to work on it.”
“I’m not planning to, Doc. Gage is a walking jinx when it comes to houses if there ever was one.”
Before the doctor could make a response he was paged.
“I’ll see all of you later. Roy, go on up to ICU. I already told the nurses to expect you.”
“We’ll head to the cafeteria to get some supper, Roy,” Hank said. “Why don’t you meet us there.”
Roy hadn’t eaten since seven-thirty that morning and was just now regaining his appetite.
“I’ll do that.”
Roy thought it was Chet tagging along behind him until he got in the elevator and discovered it was Clarice.
“I hope you don’t mind. I’d like to see Johnny for a minute, too.”
“I don’t mind.”
As they rode up to the eighth floor Clarice said, “Johnny’s a great guy. He thinks the world of you.”
“And I think the world of him.”
“It must be nice, to have a friend you’re that close to.”
“My job keeps me on the move. I don’t have much of a chance to nurture friendships. Or any other type of a relationship for that matter.”
Roy merely nodded, not sure where this conversation was going or what prompted it.
“Roy, is it okay with you if I see Johnny first?”
“Sure. But can I ask why?”
“Because he might need a friend when I’m through talking to him.”
“Uh. . .listen, Clarice, whatever’s going on between you and Johnny is none of my business, but right now isn’t the time to upset him.”
“Oh, I don’t think he’ll be upset. Or at least not too upset.”
“Well, just make certain he’s not.”
Clarice smiled at the man’s loyalty to his friend. “I will.”
Roy waited outside the ICU ward for Clarice. Like she promised, her visit didn’t take more than five minutes.
“How is he?” Roy asked when she appeared from the other side of the double doors.
“Groggy. In some pain. Pretty hard of hearing, but otherwise okay I guess.”
“And he was all right with whatever it was you told him?”
Clarice nodded. “He was all right. I think he knew all along, like I did, that it was only a temporary thing. A TV producer and a firefighter couldn’t have much of a life together. . .raise a family, unless one of them was willing to give up his or her career. Which neither of us are at this point in our lives.”
Clarice turned toward the elevator without saying another word. Roy thought she might have been crying by the time the doors slid closed, but since her back was to him he couldn’t say that for certain.
The paramedic pushed the ICU doors open.
I hope to God she didn’t upset Johnny. If she did...
Roy’s thought trailed off as a nurse he knew pointed to the room that held his partner.
Johnny had been cleaned up since the last time Roy had seen him. No longer were there smears of blood and soot on his face. He was in a hospital gown now, sporting a cast on his left arm, an IV in his right, and a fresh bandage on top of his that covered Doctor Brackett’s stitches.
Johnny’s eyes remained closed as Roy approached the bed. At first he thought his partner was sleeping, but then he remembered that if Johnny was awake he wouldn’t be able to hear him.
Roy laid a hand on Johnny’s right shoulder in order to alert the man of his presence. He bent close to his partner’s ear and said loudly, “Johnny?”
Johnny’s eyes slowly opened.
“Hey. . .Roy.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Like. . .like I’ve been shot out of a cannon.”
Roy smiled. “I see this latest escapade hasn’t harmed your sense of humor.”
“Not a chance.”
Though Roy was fuzzy, Johnny could make out his features. And though he could only pick up about every other word his friend was saying, he was able to follow the conversation, which was far more than he could say was the case the last time he’d been with Roy.
“Are you okay?” Roy asked.
“You mean. . .’bout Reece?”
“Oh, sure. Never. . .never thought it was. . .serious. She. . .her job is ‘portant to her. She’s...not like Jo. . .Joanne.”
“Not like Joanne?”
“Wife and mother. Reece. . .wants more than that. I. . .I need to find me. . .a woman like Joanne.”
Roy smiled. “Sorry, partner, but Joanne is taken.”
“And by the. . .best guy I can. . .can think of. . ’cept for me maybe.”
“Boy, Brackett’s got you doped to the gills, doesn’t he?”
Johnny smiled a goofy grin that spoke of sedation. “Yep.” Because of that sedation Johnny fought hard to find his next thought.
“You know somethin’?”
“I been dumped. . .dumped a lot of ways before. But never. . .never while I was layin’ in. . .ICU.”
“Guess there’s always a first for everything, huh?”
“I’m sure it will earn you a good deal of sympathy with the nurses when the word gets out.”
Johnny brightened. “Think so?”
“No doubt about it.”
Johnny’s eyes drooped twice, then popped back open.
“You know. . .what?”
“I think. . .I think Chet’s house is tryin’. . .tryin’ to kill me.”
Roy chuckled. “You don’t have to worry about that any more. Take it from me, all that’s left of Chet’s house is a pile of burned lumber.”
“Is he. . .Chet. . .okay?”
“He’s fine. Actually, I think he’s kind of relieved.”
“Re. . .relieved?”
“Chet’s just now beginning to realize that not everyone’s cut out to be a homeowner.”
“That. . .that seems to be. . .to be the case where. . Chet’s concerned.”
“Seems to be.” Roy squeezed Johnny’s shoulder. “You get some rest now. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Roy turned for the door. His progress was stopped by Johnny’s voice.
“Don’t tell Chet. . .’bout me and Reece, okay? It. . would only upset. . .him.”
“Don’t worry. You’re secret’s safe with me.”
Though Roy was now too far away for Johnny to be able to hear him, he had no doubt about the loyalty of his friend. The injured man drifted off to sleep then, dreaming about pretty nurses lined up outside his door just waiting to offer him sympathy for both his injuries and broken heart.
Five days after Chet’s house blew up the Station 51-A shift was gathered in John Gage’s hospital room. Johnny had been moved off ICU the previous morning. He had fully recovered his eyesight as the swelling of his optic nerve gradually decreased, and other than a slight ringing in his ears his hearing was almost back to normal. As Dixie McCall was fond of saying, John Gage not only had a guardian angel, he had an entire platoon of them.
The cause of the explosion was indeed, prompted by a gas leak due to the faulty hookup of Chet’s furnace. If Chet was upset about the loss of his home it wasn’t readily apparent. He and Marco sat in chairs beside Johnny’s bed while Hank and Mike stood behind them. Roy sat on the foot of his partner’s mattress.
“I’m sorry about your house, Chet,” Johnny said as he reclined against three pillows. “I know how much you loved it.”
“Everything was insured, and most of my stuff that was irreplaceable like pictures and things were in boxes in the garage because of the remodeling. At least that’s still standing.” Chet shrugged. “Besides, I’m just glad you’re okay. When I saw you staggering toward us. . .well, let’s just say you’ve got more than nine lives, Johnny. I’d guess you’ve got something like twenty-nine.”
“And in need of every one of them,” Roy quipped, causing his co-workers to laugh while Johnny shot him a mock scowl.
“So, Chet, you can’t live with Marco and his mom forever,” Cap said. “Where do go from here?”
“I think I’m gonna rent an apartment again.”
“Yeah. I’ve decided houses are too much trouble.”
“No kidding,” Johnny agreed. “And I’ve got the hospital bills to prove it.”
“Don’t worry,” Chet said. “I’m gonna make sure the heating company picks up your tab.”
“I won’t argue with that.”
“But actually, in a few short months money won’t be a concern for you anymore, Johnny.”
“It won’t be?”
“ ‘Cause of the TV show.”
“TV show? Chet, I think This Old House was blown sky high. No pun intended.”
“No, not This Old House. I talked to Clarice about it, but she’s decided to scrap the concept. Besides, she heard about a guy out east. . .in Boston I think, who stole my idea if you can believe it.”
“A guy out east?”
“Yeah. Some dude by the name of Bob Villa. And you know what he calls his show?”
“This Old House. Ironic, huh?”
“At first I was ticked, but then I gave it some thought and figured you were right along, Johnny.”
“Yeah. After all, who’s gonna waste a Sunday afternoon watching a show about a guy who remodels houses?”
“I’m glad you finally see my point, Chet. Unfortunately, I had to get poisoned, impaled, and blown up for you to come to that realization.”
Chet ignored Johnny’s sarcasm. “Besides, I’ve got an even better idea than This Old House.”
“A better idea?”
“Yep. Remember how when I was thinking up names for the show I mentioned Home Improvement and Tool Time?”
“So, after everything that happened to you working on my house I got to thinking what a funny TV show it would make.”
“Funny? Chet, there’s not a whole lot about any of this I’ve found funny.”
“I know, but it would play out great on a sitcom. See, my idea is about a guy who has his own home remodeling show called Tool Time. But he’s kind of accident prone like you, Johnny, and he keeps screwing things up.”
“Chet, I did not screw things up.”
“I know, I know. And I’m not sayin’ you did. But this show. . .I’m gonna call it Home Improvement. . .the guy in this show would screw things up. He’d get electrocuted, fall off the roof, get blown up,--”
Hank just shook his head as he grasped Chet’s shoulders.
“Kelly, I think it’s time we go and let Johnny get some rest.”
“But, Cap, don’t you wanna hear about--”
“No, we don’t. Your last idea regarding a TV show landed Johnny in that hospital bed. Let’s just stick to what we do best. Being firefighters.”
“I’ll second that,” Mike said.
“I’ll third it,” Marco added.
“Aw, come on, you guys. This is really a great idea. It could take me places. It could take all of us places if you’ll only help me get it off the ground.”
“Chet, the last time I helped you get something off the ground I landed on my ass underneath a pile of lumber,” Johnny said. “I’m with Cap. Let’s forget about making our fortunes on TV and just stick with being firefighters.”
“All right, all right. But don’t you guys come crying to me when someone steals my idea like that Bob Villa guy did.”
“We won’t,” Roy promised as Dixie entered the room. “Believe me, we won’t.”
Roy said goodbye to his partner before Dixie could kick him out. He followed his co-workers from the room as the woman crossed to the bed and picked up Johnny’s right arm. She placed her fingers at the pulse point on his wrist.
“We’ve got to quit meeting like this, Mr. Gage. People are beginning to talk.”
“Well, now that Chet’s house blew up the gossip should end. Hopefully I won’t be back here again any time soon.”
“I’ll go along with that,” the woman said as she recorded Johnny’s pulse rate on his chart. “Did I hear Chet talking about another idea for a TV show as Captain Stanley was pushing him out of the room?”
“You’d think the man would have learned by now.”
“What was this one about?”
“Some guy who has a home remodeling show called Tool Time. Only he’s always messing things up and getting injured.”
“Sounds pretty dumb to me.”
“Me, too. Who’d wanna watch something like that anyway? I mean, why waste your time watching someone do everything wrong?”
“Good point. But I guess people are always full of what they think are good ideas. Two of my nurses claim they have an idea for a hit TV show, too.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s centered around an Emergency Room. They’re going to call it ER. They think it should be as realistic as possible. Can you imagine the American public wanting to watch something like that?”
“Neither can I. Which is why I told them they’re wasting their time.”
“Good advice, Dix.”
Johnny’s brow furrowed with thought as Dixie checked the flow of his IV.
“But you know, Dix, now that you mention it, what do you think about a TV show that alternates between scenes at a fire station and scenes in an ER?”
“It would have everything. Action, adventure, trauma . . .a little humor now and again. A couple of good looking paramedics. . .and a beautiful head nurse, of course.”
“We could call it. . .Emergency.”
“I do believe Kel’s got you overmedicated again. After a good night’s rest you’ll realize how silly this idea sounds.”
“You think so?”
“I know so. Now go to sleep.”
Johnny did as the nurse ordered. He settled into his pillows and closed his eyes. The overhead light was extinguished as Dixie passed the switch, then he heard the door swing closed.
“It really isn’t a bad idea, Dix,” Johnny muttered as he drifted toward sleep. “And maybe...just maybe in this TV show, Roy will let me drive the squad.”
That night John Gage dreamed of a television show that featured his co-workers at Station 51, the Phantom, Henry, and the doctors and nurses of Rampart’s Emergency Room. But somehow, no matter how hard his mind tried to conjure it up, Johnny never did get to drive the squad.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~