by Erin Smith
During my two seasons on the show Peter’s Rule, I played little Bobby Van Camp—the adorably witty next-door neighbor to the McMahon family—and I said his catch phrase eighty-one times. This is especially impressive given there were only twenty episodes in each season.
Bobby was brought in as a last-ditch effort when the once-popular show started tanking in its fifth season. The writers tried to save it when Peter, drunk, flirted with a secretary at his company’s Christmas party. They tried to save it when Peter’s teenage son got with the wrong crowd and smoked weed.
When none of that worked, the writers brought in me, Bobby Van Camp, the kid from across the street. I had the cutest dimples, an infectious laugh, questionable parental oversight, and a no-nonsense attitude to give Peter’s Rule the kick it needed.
But it didn’t give it the kick it needed. Those things never do.
I didn’t know that, of course. For me, it was my family. Off set, I played in my room alone at home, but here I need only walk into the McMahon kitchen to see my playmates, Chris and Trisha. Off set, we hadn’t received child support from my dead-beat dad in more than five years, but here I had Peter, seated at the kitchen table, dispensing honest, helpful advice.
After Peter’s Rule my gigs dried out. I had my growth spurt; my voice changed. I had acne and limbs that seemed too loose, too long. The last three on-air roles I played under my stage name, Ray Goodman, were junior high and high school bullies, one uncredited. I felt like a lesser Anthony Michael Hall from Edward Scissorhands—the Geek from Sixteen Candles still trying to be relevant.
With the gigs went the money and I dusted off my given name, Ray Carter, and enrolled in public high school. Life went on.
When I was in college, an agent from the studio called to see if I’d be interested in resurrecting the role and doing a guest appearance. The money was so good I kept doing it. I retained her as an agent and she booked me gig after gig on the touring circuit.
And don’t I look cute! Thirty-three year old Little Bobby Van Camp! I sign posters and say the line that made me briefly famous: “Ain’t that what family’s for?”
I watch the line of impatient patrons snake back from the ticket stanchion into the lobby, where those entering the theater—shivering against the cold—must thread through a wall of people in their Sunday best.
Gladys is at the stanchion, fiddling in vain with the ticket scanner. Her brow is crinkled, her shoulders hunched. I watch from my place near the emergency exit and count to ten in my head. When I get to eight, I start to panic that I might have to step in and do something. But finally, mercifully, Gladys puts down the scanner, stubs the tickets and smiles cluelessly at the red-faced couple standing in front of her.
“Your seats are two floors up. Enjoy the show.”
The old bat has worked for the Broadline Theatre for over thirty years and refuses to be told how to do her job. It’s nothing personal. She treats everyone like they’re just a young punk usher and no one of any consequence. I started at the Broadline seven years ago as an usher earning a little over minimum wage and now I’m a manager. But still no one of any consequence. I haven’t been anyone of any consequence since I was Bobby Van Camp.
Here, I’m Ray Carter. My fellow ushers know who I was, but it’s brought up so rarely, and never by me. When I first started I begrudgingly signed a few autographs. But I don’t do that now.
“This is Janine calling Ray,” the voice crackles over my earpiece.
I push the button on my cheap radio and say, “Go ahead Janine.”
“Ray, there’s some vomit in the vestibule, near the trashcan.”
“This is Ray calling housekeeping . . .”
Along with vomit in the vestibule, there’s magic in the air. It’s always there in the moments before the show starts. I see it on the patrons’ faces as they shuffle through the thinning lobbies. The real world is put on pause. Something better than real is about to begin. It’s like the magic on the set before the director shouts “action.”
Those are moments I remember on the set of Peter’s Rule.
Between takes, I would sit at the McMahon kitchen table. I’d go over my lines in my head, but I’d think so hard about them that they would move on my lips, then whisper out.
“Relax, sweetie” Alexandria—Wendy, Peter’s wife—would say.
The cameraman would take his place. The director would lift his microphone.
All was quiet on the set.
All is chaos at the Broadline Theatre.
I reach the First Mezzanine as the two-minute fanfare sounds. Jodi, a Level Supervisor, walks toward the patrons standing by the windows, wine in hand, staring out on the park below.
“Two minutes, two minutes folks,” she’s saying over and over.
As I approach her, I’m trying to look like I’m here to do my job. I’m holding up my fingers in the peace sign, waving them around to anyone who comes near me as they make a mad dash for their seats. My mouth is even moving, but I’m not saying anything related to a two-minute warning. I’m rehearsing my lines. I’ve been thinking of them all day, so hard they are appearing on my lips, unbidden.
They start to whisper out as I follow Jodi to the Center Mezzanine doors and the theater turns to black.
“. . . coffee sometime . . . something to eat maybe?”
We close the last door, locking the magic in with over three thousand people. Soon, the conductor’s baton will drop, the orchestra will strike their first chord. But this is the moment before, the moment of greatest anticipation.
“Thanks for helping,” Jodi says.
I nod, the words still swimming in my brain, willing my tongue to form a sound.
The usually awkward usher uniform—knee-length skirt, white button-up shirt under a gaping-open black coat lined in bright red with yellow rope-like trim—looks good on Jodi’s slight frame. Her body type, shared, I’m sure, by less than five percent of the US population, was what the makers of the uniforms had in mind. On me, the pants hang a little low, my belly pokes out over my belt, accentuated by the obscene openness of the coat. I could stand to lose ten pounds. This uniform reminds me of that every time I put it on.
Jodi adjusts her radio, unclips it from the top of her skirt and clips it in a different location.
“Ray, can I ask you something?”
“Yes,” I say, sucking in my belly and thinking of my lines, now caught in my throat.
“Would you be able to cover my shift tomorrow night? Something came up.”
Some directors don’t mind a little ad lib, as long as you capture the intent of the lines.
“Uh,” I manage to say.
“If you can’t it’s fine . . .”
There’s a long pause. I feel like someone should be feeding me a line. In slow motion, words and thoughts pass through my mind. Coffee. My calendar hanging in my kitchen. Date. Is there something written on tomorrow?
“It’s fine,” Jodi says, walking away. “Think about it and get back to me. I’ve still got John to ask.”
I watch her leave and feel the lines slipping away.
In the glare of the light, behind the camera, I can almost feel the frustration of the director. I was only seven. I was bound to forget some lines now and again.
I’m not sure what my excuse is now.
My agent calls.
“Twenty-five years,” I repeat back to her. “Wow.”
If I could low whistle under my breath like they do in the movies, I’d add that in, too, for effect.
She charges ahead. “Clear your calendar. Reunion episode will be filmed late next month with a Christmas release. Then things get really crazy. I’ll email you details when I get them.”
I go to my wall calendar as my agent hangs up and look at the empty square that is today. A day off. Me in a bathrobe in my cramped high-rise with Flintstone, my tabby cat. Why didn’t I say I would take Jodi’s shift? She’d already found John by the time I recovered enough to say yes. With a heavy sigh, I flip the calendar to November.
Flintstone rubs against my leg. As I draw a long, red line from the middle to the end of the month, I make a mental note to ask my neighbor to stop in a few times while I’m gone.
Red on the calendar is for Bobby. It’s mostly for the area Cons (ValleyCon, RetroCon, StaticCon) where Peter’s Rule is a mainstay. I’m at every one of them. There’s red writing on Friday.
The white space flashes by in a blur of Bite Squad and binge watching, and then I’m there.
On the stage, a table is set up with four chairs, two bottles of water at each station, labels facing out. The forum is sponsored by Krystal Water Corp, and the backdrop of the stage is a sign with their logo—blue waves with the words “Feel the Kool.” I remember hearing they’re currently in a copyright lawsuit with the cigarette manufacturer.
I’ve spoken in front of more depressing backdrops. Three years ago, StaticCon was sponsored by a denture cream. Last year, ValleyCon was sponsored by a drain cleaner.
I wait in the wings with Valerie Sweet—Trisha, Peter’s daughter. I look at her now and I don’t see a speck of that scared possibly pregnant girl on the screen, holding her stomach in the bathroom as her dad pounds on the door shouting that other people live in this household, too, you know.
Now, Valerie is old like me. Older. She keeps her hair pinned back around her oval face and when I look at her, I always think she’d look better with bangs, like she had on the show.
Valerie catches me staring at her forehead and purses her lips at me.
“You ready for November?” she asks.
I shrug. “Rough schedule.”
“Not when you’re used to it,” she says and does this thing where she touches the back of her hair, gives it a little bounce. She looks away, not just looks away, but physically turns her body away from me. I’m so busy noticing this—noticing I’ve always noticed this—that I hardly feel the sting. I have to remind myself she’s insulting me, but I just keep thinking twenty-five fucking years I’ve had to deal with this bitch.
I could say so many things. Like, how was the schedule for the incontinence medicine commercials you did? I could remind her she hasn’t been in a single successful sitcom since Peter’s Rule except for Swiss Queen and she was killed off in the middle of the second season.
I could say so many things, but Valerie’s back is to me now and she’s right. The bitch is actually right. I sleep until noon and go into the theater four days a week around two in the afternoon. It’s been so many years since I’ve worked in the TV industry that I have no idea of the demands of the schedule anymore.
“Where are the others?” I ask.
Valerie shrugs, her back still to me. “They have three minutes to get here. Relax.”
The other two on the panel are Ms. Alexandria Deacon—mother Wendy—and Caleb Wilson, who played little Chris, the boy who got pressured to take a puff off a joint. Ironic, considering that I’d caught him smoking a joint in the back of the studio long before his on-screen character was tempted by older classmates. The little sociopath offered me a puff.
I was eight!
Caleb looks good in an expensive suit and struts onto the stage with all the vigor of a game show host—which is what he’s been doing for the last ten years. I think of that moment behind the studio sometimes when it’s late at night and I’m flipping through channels and see Caleb, microphone in hand, encouraging beautiful co-eds to take their time at whatever game they’re playing.
Alexandria looks polished and dignified as always. She smoothes out the skirt of her grey suit and smears a dab of Vaseline on her teeth before she takes her seat.
The panel host tells a joke and opens it immediately for audience questions.
There’s two dozen or so people peppered on folding chairs. A gruff looking man in flannel takes the mic.
“Is this thing on?” he asks, tapping the microphone. “Can you hear me?”
“You’re good,” the host says impatiently.
“Okay, well, I just wanted to know what the cast knows about the twenty-fifth anniversary reunion episode?”
Alexandria leans into her microphone and answers, smile absolutely gleaming. “We’re all going to be there.”
Valerie nods vigorously. “And we’re all really excited.”
After the panel discussion, I wander through the convention hall past the 20th Century Fox booth and a statue of the MGM lion.
“Mr. Goodman, sir?”
The voice comes from behind me. I turn to see a man, maybe a decade older than me. He has a camera around his neck and he’s wearing a button-down Hawaiian T-shirt.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but can I have your autograph?”
He holds out a headshot. I take it, along with his sharpie.
It’s a familiar image: young Bobby Van Camp, smiling into the camera. I remember the day they took it. I remember the way the photographer looked bored, saying over and over, smile. Smile.
I frown, thinking how I didn’t even need to hear it. The smile came so easily, photo after photo.
I scribble my signature across the upper corner, last flourish crossing my little forehead.
“Thank you, sir,” he says. “This sure means a lot. I remember watching the show when I came home from junior high, every Wednesday night. My dad wanted me to join the baseball team but when I learned practice was Wednesdays I said no. I don’t think my dad ever forgave me for that,” he adds sheepishly.
I pat him on the shoulder and turn to go, think better of it and turn back.
“Ain’t that what family’s for?”
The look on his face makes it all worth it.
Inside the hall of the Broadline Theatre, three thousand people are tucked into the dark, watching the magic unfold. On the lit stage, for eighty-seven minutes before intermission, the actors sing and dance and deliver their lines seamlessly, something that stresses me out to comprehend. On the set of Peter’s Rule we were averaging four takes per scene. I have that to look forward to next week when we begin filming.
During the first act, I make my rounds and go to the bar to get my complementary beverage.
“Diet Coke,” I say to the bartender. I’m watching my figure.
At the Gallery Left doors near the bar I hear two ushers talking.
“It’s her mom,” one usher says to another. “Cancer, I heard.”
I know they’re talking about Jodi. Everyone knows it, though she hasn’t made any formal announcement. This is our theater family. We know everyone’s business. And Jodi has seemed off her game lately.
I wander down to the Second Balcony and see Jodi sitting on one of the blue couches. She has her legs crossed tight, this way she does where she can wrap her foot back around to the other side of the opposite ankle. I’ve seen this for the last seven years, wondering if it’s the length of her legs or something else—flexible muscles, supple connective tissue. I try not to think about it too long, try not to stare at her legs. Most of the female friends I’ve had throughout the years have told me they can sense within a millisecond if a man glances at their chest. Are legs the same?
Jodi is looking down at a sheet of paper, maybe the usher position sheet, but she’s really studying it, like she’s never seen it before and she needs to wrap her head around it, which makes no sense because Jodi has worked at the Broadline longer than I have, going on ten years, I think.
Right before I get to her, she flips the pages, held together by a staple in the upper left hand corner. I see a glimpse of it as the page turns. Looks like graphs.
She looks up at me and I get the feeling I’m seeing something personal—something I shouldn’t be seeing. Like Jodi coming out of the shower, reaching for a towel. Jodi on the toilet, turned slightly, caught mid-wipe.
I shake these thoughts from my head and clear my throat, ready to deliver my line. The script would go something like this:
How many late seaters?
But I see those graphs and I can only imagine what they are—white blood cell counts, clinical cancer staging, insurance Explanation of Benefits—and I want to break from the script.
“How’s your mother?” As I say the words I know I’ve chosen the wrong ones. I say them with what I hope is tenderness, but Jodi looks like I’ve slapped her all the same.
“She’s dying, Ray. How do you think she’s doing?” Jodi says, folding the pages in half and tucking them next to her. Her legs are uncrossed now, both feet planted firmly on the floor.
She delivers the line like a bad actress, her face flushed, her eyes dead. She sounds like she’s reciting lines she quickly memorized off stage. She looks like she was given the line with absolutely no context and is now trying to look convincing.
This line is to be delivered with anger, the director might have said to her.
“I guess I was really asking how you were doing,” I say, my calm voice hiding my panic.
Jodi has felt it, too; that I’ve seen her vulnerability. She stands abruptly.
“Five late seaters,” she says, getting us back on script, where we belong.
“Great,” I say, writing a small “5” on the upper corner of the paper I’m holding. I look at it after I’ve written it for a moment too long. What I’m really looking at is the flyer I’ve written it on.
FIVE BANDS, ONE NIGHT!
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 7!!
It’s not the official event report. It was my idea of a distraction for Jodi, perhaps well-intentioned, but not well thought out.
I fold the flyer in half and stick it in my jacket pocket.
“Thanks,” I say and walk down the stairs to the First Balcony. When I get to the bottom of the stairs, out of view, I lean against the wall by the women’s restroom and take the flyer out of my pocket.
One last look and I pitch it in the trash. Without a script, my timing is horseshit.
I’m horseshit with a script, too. We all are with this one.
“Alright folks,” the director yells. “Let’s take a five-minute break.”
It’s day two of filming. Shooting for the The Peter’s Rule Reunion has been slow. Turns out there was enough interest to make it into a three-night special. Each special is an hour long, or about 44 minutes of screen time. Each ten-hour day on set gives us an average 16-24 usable minutes of film. We’ll have all three episodes done in nine days if all goes according to schedule.
Between scenes, I sit at the McMahon family dining table and study the script and think of the last time I watched an episode of Peter’s Rule. I was in public high school. I’d gone to the home of a girl in my English class to complete a project. Her TV was blaring in the living room as we sat at the dining room table, A Separate Peace and notebook paper spread out before us. I glanced at the screen every few minutes, each word my classmate said drowned out by the laugh track.
I pull my phone out of my pocket. I text my neighbor and ask how Flintstone is doing. He answers in pictures—Flintstone on the bed, Flintstone eating.
I glance around the studio.
Caleb is on his phone, pacing and talking too loud about funds and timing. Valerie is in her makeup chair, reading a magazine. Alexandria disappears to her room and Oliver Thomas lumbers over to the table, struggling to breathe. He grabs the back of the chair and it groans under his weight. With a rush of air, he sits and stares straight ahead. I don’t think he’s had any acting gigs since his cameos on Law and Order.
It’s hard for me to separate our scripted and unscripted moments together. Peter and Bobby sat at this table twenty years ago just as Oliver and I are sitting now.
“I love you like a son,” Peter once said to Bobby.
“Your character will resonate if you call on your personal experience,” Oliver once said to me.
But so much of my personal experience was here, at this table. That’s why it’s painful to see Oliver this way. I focus on the wood grain while I listen to his breathing settle to a low rasp.
None of us has said an unscripted word to each other in two days. But I have the urge to say something to him now. I glance at the script, look at the wood grain, think of Jodi.
“I’ve been practicing my line,” I say.
He jolts to attention like I’ve shocked him, but he recovers and smiles at me.
“Oh, yeah?” he asks
So nice. He’s always been so nice.
“It takes me a little longer to remember them now,” he says.
There was an episode of Law and Order where Oliver played a grandfather who is wrongly accused of a crime, convicted and sent to prison. I remember the scene when they gather the proof of his innocence and rush to the governor’s office to exonerate him. He dies at the end of the episode, right before they arrive. Shanked in the lunchroom over a stupid argument. His dead body is uncovered just long enough for the detectives to see his face and shake their heads.
What a shame.
I feel like I’m looking at that man now, laid out on the table. Oliver’s mouth hangs open slightly.
“That’s the funny thing,” I tell him. “I’m fine with all the new lines. I just want the old one to sound just right.”
He nods like he understands but doesn’t say anything. Instead, he traces an imaginary line on the table with his fingernail.
“I guess we all have our lines,” I say, keeping the conversation moving, unsure how or if to stop.
Oliver looks confused.
“Alright, places everyone,” the director calls.
Oliver doesn’t move.
“This isn’t the table, you know?” he says, and I’m not sure I hear him correctly over all the commotion around us. “I wonder what happened to our table?”
It’s December and the big advertising blitz for the The Peter’s Rule Reunion is in full swing; I mute my TV when the promos come on. I brace myself for awkward work conversations. Criticisms. Or, worse yet, compliments.
While I was in my red Bobby bubble, the real world kept going. The Broadline is training new usher hires. Flintstone is happy to have me home.
Jodi’s mom is dead.
I got the mass e-mail from work while still on set. Please pass on your sympathies, it said. I don’t call. I don’t e-mail. I stop by the Broadline to get my check and ask Eric at the Stage Door if he’s seen her around.
“Who knows?” he asks, exasperated. “Do you see all the people coming in and out, man?”
The crew of Wizard of Oz is loading out. The crew of White Christmas is loading in. The stage door is chaos.
I wander into the empty auditorium and stand in the dark at the back of the Orchestra section. The stage is completely empty, the curtain is up. The floor looks scuffed and I can see little x’s of tape here and there.
After a month long run, those actors know each blemish on that stage by heart. Just as Oliver knew the McMahon’s table. I didn’t say it to Oliver, but I was sure the table, the couch, the beds, all of it, the whole set of Peter’s Rule was taken out to the dumpster after it was over.
I don’t know how long I’ve been standing there when I hear the inner door softly close. It’s Jodi, wearing a heavy coat wrapped around her body protectively. She’s looking up at the empty stage. For a second, I think she doesn’t know I’m here.
Then she walks over. “Eric said you were looking for me.”
“I just wanted to say I was sorry.”
Jodi dismisses me with the wave of her hand, but she doesn’t move, just stays with her eyes glued to the stage.
“We never really got along. She was always broke and borrowing money. Never paid it back. Her insurance didn’t cover everything, so I know where this is going,” she waves her paycheck. “And that’s on top of the cost of the cremation.”
I open my mouth to speak but realize I’m just going to say “I’m sorry” again and I think how worthless that would be. I need something meaningful, just that perfect line to make everything better. I dig deep inside myself, feeling this is my only chance. My Hail Mary. I call on the spirit of Bobby Van Camp, the little boy with the big heart.
But Jodi beats me to it.
She shrugs and says, “Ain’t that what family’s for?”
I’m horrified. But then she laughs. It’s an honest laugh that fills the empty theater and ricochets off the rafters and catwalks far above us.
“I’m sorry,” she says with a grin that tells me she is the opposite of sorry and it’s so good to see her smile, even if it is at my expense. “I was so young when that show was on. I remember the reruns, though. I never told you when you started that I always wanted to punch that kid.”
I let out a rush of air, strange relief washing over me.
“When I got older, believe me,” I say. “I did, too.”
Her smile softens to a worried frown and her eyes return to the stage.
“I just saw the ad on TV last night . . .” I cringe and wait for her to go on. “And I couldn’t stop laughing at the irony. And at the fact that yo . . . that he was right. I mean, isn’t that what family’s for? Leave you broke and broken hearted. No answers. Leaving you alone?”
In the semi-dark of the theater, I see a tear streaking down Jodi’s cheek.
On the stage, housekeeping comes out with a broom and starts to clean away the Wizard of Oz and that’s when it hits me that the McMahon table probably wasn’t thrown in the garbage. It was more likely cleaned up and taken to storage to be picked out by another set designer on yet another sitcom where another father-like character dispensed advice and where another child sat between takes, practicing his lines, wanting so bad to make his TV family proud.
I love you like a son, Oliver said. Or was that Peter?
I turn away from the stage.
The last page of this script is blank. So I write it.
I reach out and take hold of Jodi’s hand, gently. She looks over at me, surprised, but she holds on, then squeezes my hand back as we stand in the empty theater.
Erin Smith is a writer, funeral director, and shiatsu therapist living in the Twin Cities. A transplant from the South, she’s seen her O’s lengthen in her fourteen years in Minnesota and has learned to love All Wheel Drive. When she’s not writing, she can be found with her cat, Chloe, on her lap. Erin has been published in Liars’ League NYC, Mount Hope Magazine, Here Comes Everyone, Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine, Strange Mysteries, TWJ Magazine, Anotherealm and Mortuary Management Magazine. Find her at www.erinsmithwrites.com.