Danny was laying in the office and thinking about Chinese food. Head on the arm of the couch, one foot up on the arm across from him, the other foot down on the floor balanced on top of a basketball, Dan couldnt remember what he'd gotten the last time they ordered from Happy Wok.
Casey came in and tossed a piece of paper down onto Dan's chest.
"Found you the menu."
"Hurry up, I'm starving."
"This could take a minute, Case - I don't even remember if it was chicken or pork."
"Fine, I'll just sit over here, gnawing on office supplies."
"Avoid the stapler -- gave you gas last time."
It was quiet in the office -- senior staff, mostly, in late on a Friday morning. They'd already sat through a few meetings and gotten a few tests out of the way, and it was still awhile before production started in earnest for the night. Trager's people were for the most part cool, and fans of the show who so far had actually had a couple of good ideas. They'd had some stupid ideas, too, but Dana was all too happy to work with them. The buzz of their near-death experience was still heady and pounding in their veins. The whole office seemed happier, cleaner, and smelled better for some reason, since they'd been given a new lease on the show under the Latinate wing of Quo Vadimus. They knew where they were going, and it was sunny and well lit.
"Gentlemen," Natalie stood in the doorway, tapping the end of her pencil on a legal pad. "Last call for food, and if you don't get your own you can not pick on mine. Dan."
Casey chuckled down at his notes.
"Chicken and broccoli for me, Nat."
"Thank you Casey."
"Ta Chien chicken."
"Ta Chien chicken?" Natalie paused after scrawling the T. "Did you just make that up?"
"No, no, that's what I got last time. Ta Chien chicken. It's good." Danny sat up and handed her the menu, "Thanks."
Natalie copied the dish's name from the menu as she walked out to get everyone else's orders.
"Ta Chien chicken?"
"Yeah -- I liked the name so I took a chance on it last time. It's good."
"What's in it?"
Casey nodded and looked up from his notes.
"Yeah, what's the 'Ta Chien'?"
"I honestly don't remember. But it was a flavor sensation that far eclipsed your chicken and broccoli standby, my friend." Dan settled in behind his own desk and switched on his computer.
"I'm going to ignore the part where you said 'flavor sensation' and go back to feigning journalistic enthusiasm over the preview for tomorrow's Long Island Pro-Am golf thing."
"I can do that one if you want."
"I like golf." He smiled from behind his monitor.
"I know you do. Wanna' give me one of yours?"
"How about Northwestern sophomore sensation running back Alan Crockett?"
"With the opening sentence already written? You got yourself a deal. See this? How we can trade stories willy-nilly, work on the fly?"
"We are men of noble profession, Danny."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"I don't know, but it sounds good. I like it."
They worked for a solid half hour in near silence, the Zen-like clicking of keys interrupted sporadically by Casey singing "Alan, Alan Crockett, king of the wild frontier," low under his breath.
It was a good script, and it was a good show, despite Casey's sudden need to sneeze in the middle of one of Dan's segments. He tried to get off-set but forgot he was attached to it via earpiece, and ended up on his back on the floor, sneezing while Dan willed himself not to laugh into the camera. In the commercial break Dana glared and asked Casey how long he'd been doing television. Jeremy brought him a tissue.
Afterwards, Dan walked back into the office just as Casey hung up the phone.
"Everything okay?" He sat down on the couch, yawning.
"Yeah. Message from Charlie." Casey looked up, concerned.
"Is everything okay?" Dan raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah, everything's fine. He called to find out if he could bring a friend to dinner tomorrow night."
"Well, that's certainly cause for some concern, Casey. Your kid's already more popular than you. Seriously -- what's the big deal?"
"His friend's name is Alexis."
"As in ... girl Alexis, or stuffy-parents-who-really-wanted-a-girl boy Alexis?"
"He's eleven. He's eleven years old, and he has an Alexis."
"Charlie the ladies man. I knew I could influence the kid. Suaveness isn't coded into his DNA, Casey, it was up to me, in my role as cool Uncle Danny, to nurture his nature."
"My son's dating."
"Oh, he's not dating. He's eleven. It's a miracle he's not still pulling pigtails. Kids these days grow up fast."
Danny walked over to his desk and leaned against the edge, crossed his legs at the ankles and arms at the elbows.
"Nothing to worry about, Case. So, is this Alexis a classmate?" Danny clapped his hands together and waggled his eyebrows, "Is she a teammate?"
"Their classes have recess together." Casey looked up, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "She's on the soccer team."
Danny pushed himself up and pointed at Casey.
"I'm afraid so, Danny."
"You have to call it off!"
"Calm down there, Tevya -- they're not getting married."
"She's a soccer girl, Casey."
"She is, and Charlie begged me not to mention that to you."
"'Her name is Alexis Bergen, she's really pretty, and she's on the soccer team -- please please please don't say that last part to Dan.' I have a smart kid."
"Sure -- except for the part where he's willingly entering into a relationship that will require him to hang out with soccer fans." The last words came out a whisper, like Dan was talking about social diseases, or Michael Jackson.
"You know, your reaction is weirdly helping me be okay with this whole thing."
"I want to meet this girl."
"Invite me to dinner."
"Your standing invitation notwithstanding?"
Casey blinked around his own words.
"Interesting semantics there."
"You're always welcome to dinner, Dan."
"All right, then it's settled."
"Give the kid a shot will you? Don't do that thing where you get all up in arms and Charlie gets embarrassed and blames me and he pierces his face because his dad's friend, and by extension his dad, shamed him in front of his first girlfriend."
Dan smirked at Casey.
"You can just produce an amazing and detailed amount of worry in a tiny amount of time, can't you?"
"I'm serious, Dan."
"You're like my mom, Casey. You're like my mom with less Yiddish, but you're like my mom."
Dan pulled his coat from the chair and headed for the door.
"Give me a call tomorrow"
Casey nodded and raised a hand in Dan's general direction.
Charlie McCall, ladies man. Danny was right: the kid was already miles ahead of his father.
Saturday was the kind of bright October day that made you forget winter was waiting around the corner, evilly stockpiling sleet and bad moods.
Casey came in early to get as much script done as possible as soon as possible. Dan arrived shortly after, with the same goal in mind. Dana knew Casey would be gone for much of the day, he'd checked with her before. The plan was to cut out right after the four o'clock rundown and head home, do the dinner thing, drive Alexa home, bring Charlie back to the studio in time to do the show. Dana was a little irked when Dan yelled to her, on his way out, that he was going with Casey. A half written show was bad enough when the slack was left for one anchor to pick up, but now they'd have to finish up on the fly after they got back. Dana hated when they did things on the fly. Spontaneity was great, but so was making sure everyone got laughing at Radek Bonk's name out of their system long before cameras rolled.
For his own part, Casey had made a mental list of the reasons why he was a cool dad, and was repeating them to himself as he started getting dinner together. He realized that the list in itself wasn't actually cool, but he ignored that for the greater good of focusing on not messing everything up. Lasagna was good, right? Easy for him, and all kids liked it. Except, possibly, vegetarian kids, and why hadn't he asked whether or not Alexis was a vegetarian? Okay, well -- he could leave out the meat. There was probably some spinach in the freezer, and he could double up on the cheese.
Unless she was a vegan.
To someone not standing directly in front of Casey, it was entirely possible to interpret his tone of voice as that of a man on fire, or possibly being nibbled to death by ferrets. This was the only reason Danny got up from watching CSC's coverage of the American Association of Collegiate Cheerleading semifinals to go find out the cause of Casey's entirely unsettling shriek.
In the small kitchen, satisfied that his friend was neither being devoured by small surly rodents or actually ablaze, Danny got a beer from the refrigerator and ignored Casey, standing in the middle of the room holding a wooden spoon, looking like for all intents and purposes as if he was a clove of garlic away from falling down weeping.
"What if this kid's a vegan?"
"I mean it, what if she doesn't eat meat or dairy or or anything that's ever cast a shadow?"
"Then the soccer thing's the least of our worries regarding Charlie's taste in womenfolk."
"I'm serious, Dan."
"Case -- she's eleven. Chances are she's not committed to a lifestyle of New Agery so young, and if she is, you have salad. Vegans love them some salad. More lasagna for us and Charlie that way, too."
Casey leaned his elbows on the counter and rested his face on the inside of his forearm. He wondered if it was possible to push the tension out of his body and into Formica.
"You need to relax." Danny laid a hand on Casey's shoulder and put his just opened beer on the countertop in front of him. He walked back to the fridge and opened another for himself. "Charlie's eleven, and despite being raised in large part by a woman who I deeply loathe, he's got good genes in him. He's a good kid, Casey, and you know it.
"There're going to be times when you embarrass him. It's his whole prepubescent birthright to kvetch about how not cool his dad is. Now, in Charlie's case, he's right--"
Casey had a look, a smile mixed with a glare, and Dan never minded when it was loosed upon him.
"But he'll never hate you, because you'll never give him a reason to. He'll never hate you, Casey. How could he?"
Dan had a look too, but it was far away and profound in its emptiness. Casey hated it.
"Thanks man." He stood up and rubbed a hand against the back of his neck.
"You want to help me do some lasagna?"
"Sure," Dan rolled up his sleeves, "It's either that or go back to watching Missy and the Mighty Cougars of Clark University cavort all over the mat, and I'll tell ya' -- I've just about fulfilled my daily quota of feeling like a pervy old man."
"Good to know," Casey chucked an enormous brick of parmesan, thankfully still wrapped, at Danny's chest. "Get to grating."
Danny nudged the cabinet open with his knee and pulled out the shelf on which Casey kept his more complicated kitchen equipment; basically anything that wasn't a fork or a frying pan lived in a shiny metallic heap at the base of his kitchen operations. There was a whisk Dana had bought for him what seemed like forever ago. Before the sale, before the stroke, before Gordon, even. There was one of those indestructible rabbit-looking bottle openers that someone (Kim? Will?) had gotten Casey last Christmas, and that Casey had managed to break into ergonomically correct pieces during its first battle with a mild-mannered Riesling. Dan pushed the pieces aside and stood up abruptly.
"Dude," he pointed into the drawer, "you got like ten kinds of cheese graters going on in there."
Casey didn't look up from the ground beef he was browning, staring intently as he poked it around the pan with his spoon.
"Yeah, it was a thing. Feel free to take. As you can see, I'm burdened with an overabundance."
"I'll say." Danny picked up a plain old steel box grater and peeled the label off. Soon the brick of aged, smelly Parmesan was a memory, replaced by a whitish mound of cheesy shrapnel.
Casey turned around with the pan, moving to drain the fat into the sink, and raised an eyebrow at the cheese pile.
"I didn't actually need the whole two pounds shredded, Danny."
"Well, you didn't specify." Dan popped the last little corner, the bit of cheese he couldn't grate for fear of losing a fingertip, into his mouth.
Casey smiled and set the pan down on the counter next to a bowl of tomato sauce. He glanced up at the clock, a blue and orange Knicks-themed monstrosity of a timepiece.
"Okay, we've approximately forty five minutes before Charlie gets dropped off that gives me enough time to make dinner, get changed, fix my hair for ten minutes, find a radio station Charlie won't make fun of me having on -- let's put this thing together and into the oven, make the salad, and, ahh -- what am I forgetting?"
"Well, you haven't breathed in a few minutes. That could be it."
"Helpful, Dan." Casey started laying noodles in the bottom of his baking dish. "Always helpful."
"You know, I do try. What are you and Charlie doing tomorrow?"
"Rangers Canucks at the Garden."
"Oh, that should be a barnburner."
"Considering that the boys of Vancouver are currently just barely out of first place in their conference while the Rangers are hanging out in ninth -- under the Islanders? Yeah, there'll be a shellacking, but it probably won't be the Blueshirts coming out on top."
"You're watching Sports Night on CSC, so come on back now, y'hear?" Dan passed Casey a ladle from the utensil drawer.
"Make sure we have Dana put hockey in the tease tomorrow night."
"Cuz you just wrote it?"
"I'm an efficient guy, Dan."
"No one's calling that into question."
"They'd best not." Casey grabbed a handful of cheese from in front of Dan and topped off the lasagna.
Dan camped back out on the couch -- it was lumber sports on CSC now, and he changed the channel out of habit. He turned to VH1, surprised to see an actual video on, and rested his head on the back of the couch. He fell asleep to Blondie, wondering how even the goddess that was Debbie Harry could get away with using the word "sacroiliac" in a pop song.
An hour later the buzzer pulled him from his sleep. Casey leaned on the intercom and stood behind the door. He had on the Natalie shirt, the one she'd insisted he buy the last time he dragged her shopping, and then insisted he always remember she told him to get it. It was soft white cotton twill, meant to be worn with the top button open and the tails untucked. Casey had buttoned it up to his neck and tucked it in to his jeans. He was a striped tie away from ready to go on-air.
Danny had to admire the way Casey could effortlessly suck the casual right out of any piece of clothing. He walked over to Casey and looked him in the eye.
"Unbutton your top button."
"Dan, this isn't the time or the--"
"I'm serious. Charlie's your son, not your lawyer. Take it down a bit."
Casey unbuttoned the little top button and fixed his collar.
"Much. Now untuck your shirt and roll up your sleeves, and you'll at least look like the world's coolest dad."
"Jesus, where were you when I was getting dressed for twenty minutes?"
"It appears I was lulled to sleep by the siren song of Debbie Harry."
"She'll get you every time," Casey pushed his sleeves up over his elbows and pulled his shirt from his waistband. He did look damn cool.
"Make sure you thank Natalie again for making you buy that shirt."
"I still don't get it. I still don't get what's the deal with this shirt."
"It's just a good shirt, Case."
The elevator wasn't new, so whenever anyone got on or off, or rode past Casey's floor, you were aware of it. When it stopped and the doors slid open with a creaky protest, Casey turned to Danny with the last of his nerves playing hopscotch behind his eyes.
"Chill, man." Danny clapped him on the back. "He will never. In his life. Hate you."
Dan walked into the kitchen while Casey opened the door.
"Charlie!" he high fived his son and pulled him into a quick, very manly, hug.
Danny set the stack of plates and forks on the table and came back out to the hall in time to see Casey shake hands with Alexis. The girl was at least six inches taller than Charlie, with long brown curls tied up in a ponytail and the spindly arms and legs of a kid who still had a few feet straight up left to grow.
"Dan!" Charlie nodded in his direction. Danny nodded back. This kid was cool. Possibly cooler than Dan. He congratulated himself on a job well done. "This is my friend Alexis, Alexis this is my Dad's friend Dan."
"Hi!" Alexis was blushing up a storm. "I like your show. A lot."
"Well thanks, Alexis -- does everyone call you Alexis?"
"No -- my mom calls me Lex, and my dad calls me Al." She smiled.
"Well, I'd pick up the last syllable and call you 'Is,' but I think that'd just be confusing for everyone."
Alexis laughed and Charlie raised an eyebrow at Dan.
"Okay, well," Casey closed the door behind the kids and gestured towards the kitchen, "I hope everyone's hungry."
He walked with Alexis, asking her about meat and cheese, and Charlie poked Dan, hard, in the arm.
"Ow, hey, Charlie. What'd I do?"
"Dad says you can't help it, but could you try and, you know, not flirt with my girlfriend, Dan?"
And apparently, there had still been a ways to go before his quota of pervy old man had been reached, but Danny was pretty sure he was there now.
He nodded and smirked, and steered Charlie into the kitchen by his spiky blonde head.
"You got it, buddy."
Dinner went well; Alexis was not only carnivorous but starving from a vigorous practice that day. She was also clearly a fan of the show, she talked animatedly between Charlie and Casey the whole meal, asking questions about athletes Casey had talked to on-air, and how she wanted to be a sportscaster when she grew up. She liked Kelly Kirkpatrick and the thought of getting to travel all around the country following sports. She also liked to watch Bobbi Bernstein whenever she guest co-hosted. Casey looked surreptitiously at Danny on that one. Danny remained focused on his garlic bread.
After dinner they sat in the living room for a little while. Casey and Charlie sat side by side on the small couch, Alexis sat in the big leather armchair, talking animatedly about her last big win as Casey nodded and smiled big and encouraged her to talk even more. Dan sat in the chair opposite her, smiling and chiming in occasionally when Casey rambled off some of the best Sports Night stories he could, some of which, like the turkey in the light grid, were specially requested by Charlie.
Dan looked at his best friend and his best friend's son, and this little girl who seemed unable to decide which McCall boy she liked best, and his tiny pang of jealousy was far eclipsed by the warmth he felt. Casey was his family, in good times and in horribly bitter times. Isaac and Dana, Jeremy, Natalie -- they were all waiting for Dan and Casey to head back to the studio, and they were family too. Danny thought of all the time he spent with Abby talking, or rather avoiding talk about his parents. About Sam. And he wondered suddenly why she never asked him about these people who made his life what it is now. When Dan saw the word, the actual word "family," he thought of the people who he'd left down. Let behind. Left behind, he corrected his mind as it spun the terms around into nonsense. Let, he stressed it until the phrase echoed off the walls of his brain, down.
" so Dan turns around and goes, 'He's talkin' about you, ya freak!'"
"Is that true, Danny?"
Charlie was looking over to Dan, Alexis was giggling still, her hand clapped over her mouth.
"Yes, Charlie, it's true." Dan nodded. "That's how I vanquished the evil non-genius who was trying to kill my show."
"Well, you didn't " Casey looked back and forth between Charlie and Dan, "I mean she wasn't gone, she still-"
"For the purposes of this story and the current company, Case?," Danny opened his eyes wide and raised his eyebrows, "This was the end, the unembarrassing, still-flattering-to-you end of Sally the Impaler."
Casey made a sound like understanding, and checked his watch.
"Whoa, we have to get you home," he pointed to Alexis, "and us to the studio."
"If I call my mom and dad and they say it's okay, could I come see the show tonight?"
Charlie looked up at Casey. Casey knew the look, it was one Dan had given him countless times. It was the look a guy gives his wingman. The look of reliance. Of you're standing between me and the love of a good woman. Choose wisely.
Casey looked over to Dan, who shrugged and left the room to get his jacket.
"My dad's a fan of the show, I'm sure he'll say yes." Alexis took the phone from Charlie's hand and started dialing.
Danny tossed Charlie his jacket and laid Alexis's down over the back of the chair. Casey sat on the arm of the couch.
"Hi Dad! I was wondering no I know. Dad. Lemme' get a whole sentence out."
Danny chuckled and looked at Casey.
"Can I go with Charlie to see his dad do his show? Okay. Yes, hang on."
She walked over to Casey.
"He wants to talk to you."
Casey flickered a look at Dan and took the phone.
"Hello? Hello, Mr. Bergen. Okay Kevin. Yes, we do the show live, but I'm heading over now to finish the script, do wardrobe and other things like th yes, Charlie will be there the whole time, and they can stay in the studio, or hang out in the green room or the control room -- pretty much whatever they want. They're good kids. Yeah, I can bring her home as soon as we wrap. Right after midnight, usually. Okay. Great. It's a pleasure talking to you, too. Yes, I'll tell him. Thanks. Let me give you back to your daughter."
Casey passed off the phone and went to get his coat. Danny stood and walked over to him, pulling his own coat on.
"She coming along?"
"Yeah -- dad's a huge fan. Told me to tell you his wife loves you."
"I'll come with you when you bring her home later meet the parents."
"So, you approve?" Casey smirked at him and pulled his collar straight.
"Charlie's happy -- I'm happy."
"She seems really nice."
"And you come out of the whole thing looking like the world's most awesome dad."
"I don't see the bad here."
"Because there's no bad to see, my good man."
Casey was grinning the whole way back to Rock Center, and Dan was pretty sure Charlie would have quite the rep at school the next week after Alexis spread the word about the reception they got at CSC. Kim swept Charlie up in a flail of hair and perfume, kissing a red imprint on his cheek and complimenting Alexis's hair. Everywhere else they went they were assailed with people shouting "Hey, Charlie!" Charlie McCall felt like The Man, and Casey, by extension, felt like The Man, too.
Between eight and ten, Dan and Casey tapped away at the rest of their scripts while the kids watched TV.
At ten fifteen Dana came in to offer Alexis a tour of the soundstage and the control room. Charlie, of course, went with them. Dan and Casey headed down to wardrobe, then makeup, then took their seats at the desk. Alexis waved to them from inside the control room, where Natalie and Charlie pretended to box a few feet behind her. Casey waved back, Dan saluted.
Casey grinned and straightened his script pages.
"I'm the coolest dad in the world, Danny."
"You're certainly my favorite."
"You're going to be a good dad, too, someday."
"Yeah, well -- we'll see."
"Nahh," Casey was still smiling, leaning back as Alyson hit his forehead with a powdered brush, "I can tell these things. It's a lot like a gift."
"It's a lot like something, that's for sure."
"Roll VTR," Dave's voice rang through the studio.
"You want to come to the Rangers tomorrow?"
"No, that's okay," Dan shook his head, "I got stuff. You have fun."
"Did we know Radek Bonk was in the teaser?" Casey suppressed a laugh.
"Well, I knew."
"In ten " Dave again, and Danny looked over to where Casey was mouthing "Bonk" over and over again.
"You gonna' be okay with this, chief?"
"Sure," Casey smiled, "I can do this."
"For we are men of noble profession?"
"For we are."
"Good evening from New York City. I'm Casey McCall alongside Dan Rydell. Those stories plus Jack Jankowitz in Orange County, Larry Toomer's moving to Cincinnati, and Ottowa's a contender, on the strength of their Bonk.
"We've got more scores and highlights than you could shake a stick it, if you were so inclined. If you're not, we still highly suggest you watch. This is Sports Night on CSC, so stick around."
© scrunchy 2004