How to be a Celebrity

Peter DeMarco

Is that an Academy Award, Henry asks Janet, a woman he met in a bar two hours ago. Yes, it’s Gig Young’s Oscar. He was my third cousin or something; I’m not good with the lineage thing.

Wow, Gig Young, Henry says, stunned.

You’ve heard of him, she asks.

Of course.

I don’t meet many guys who know about him.

I like movies, Henry says, staring at the gold figure in the mahogany curio.

She tells Henry she still hasn’t seen the movie.

It’s a depressing film, Henry says. Gig got the supporting actor Oscar for it.

Henry can’t believe he’s face to face with an Academy Award. He thinks it’s almost sacrilegious of her to have possession of one when she hadn’t even seen the film.

I also read the book, Henry tells her. The last line is the title. This guy is asked by the Jane Fonda character to shoot her because she’s depressed and hates life and when the cops ask him why he did it he says, they shoot horses, don’t they. Great line, and a great last line.

My mother said that Gig also did a Twilight Zone episode.

Yes, it was called “Walking Distance.” He plays a guy that’s similar to who he was in real life. Tired and forlorn, yearning for some peace of mind. He goes back into his past to the town he grew up in, which was walking distance from the gas station he stopped at to have his car repaired.

You sound like a promotion for the show.

I like movies.

Henry and the woman are a little drunk. He’d met her at a martini bar a few blocks away when she complimented his hair. He was used to compliments about his hair. His mother had once said it was so fine and golden that it looked like Rumplestiltskin had something to do with it. You could be a movie star with that hair, she’d told him.

In the bar, Henry and Janet had slow-danced to the Bee Gees song I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You, even though the place lacked a dance floor. She had a pretty face but an extremely large body. Henry wondered how often someone like her danced with a guy. Then again, he hadn’t been in the company of a woman since he paid for a prostitute in Amsterdam five years ago.

Her apartment is small. The walls are covered with movie posters from famous musicals, like Top Hat and Singin’ in the Rain. She tells Henry that she moved to New York to be a singer.

Janet excuses herself and goes to the bathroom. Henry is alone with the Oscar and thinks about picking it up. He remembers Dustin Hoffman’s acceptance speech about how the award lacked genitalia, which got a big laugh. Hoffman should’ve had two of those damn things by then, Henry says aloud.

Did you say something, Janet asks when she returns.

Everybody always says that the Oscar is heavier than they imagined it to be.

Would you like to hold it?

I know this sounds silly but I feel like it would jinx my chances of winning one if I touched it now.

Are you an actor.

No, but I was thinking of taking some classes.

It is heavy, Janet says. She asks Henry if he wants coffee. Only if it’s strong, he says.

While she’s in the kitchen Henry thinks he can steal the Oscar and be on a train home before she reported it stolen. Janet had no idea where he lived.

He imagines her telling the police that the only thing she knew about him was that he wanted to win an Oscar. This thought makes him laugh.

Are you talking to yourself again, she calls out.

I was just rehearsing my acceptance speech, he says. You’re funny, she calls back.

Henry gets second thoughts about asking for coffee and wonders if he should’ve kept her drinking. Maybe she only likes me when she’s drinking, he thinks, like the millionaire in Chaplin’s City Lights who only befriended the Little Tramp when he was drunk.

He sits on a couch and stares at the Oscar. He wants to hold it. Would he take it in one hand, as a symbol of triumph, or with two hands, modest, a kind of self-effacing I don’t deserve this pose.

Henry had thought about acting classes. When he imitated scenes from movies in his house he felt he was a natural performer, earnest and believable, and that an Academy Award was his destiny.

Janet brings in two cups of coffee. Smells good, Henry says.

She opens the glass door and picks up the Oscar. Don’t be superstitious, she says, offering it to him. Henry takes it with both hands.

Who would you like to thank, she laughs.

I guess I would thank my mother, he says, for believing in me.

That’s sweet. Hey, would you like to call her right now and tell her what you’re holding. She’s dead.

I’m sorry.

A long time ago, it’s alright.

He puts the award back in the curio and says he has to catch a train back to the suburbs. He thanks her for the coffee.

Janet tells him she has a cousin who casts extras for movies. She gives him a card and says to mention her name.

Henry thanks her again from the hallway. They maintain eye contact until the door closes. The harsh click of a lock sounds final, as if they’re never going to see each other again.

On the train back to the suburbs, Henry thinks about Gig Young. Five wives, alcoholic, a suicide by gunshot. A hell of a life, and a hell of an irony in that, like the character in the movie, he shot himself to forget about the pain.

Henry thinks about his father, who worked six days a week in a plumbing supply store, his own business, and took care of Henry when his mother died. That was a hell of a life, but he endured.

These celebrities treated their lives like a piece of candy, Henry thinks.

Janet was from Nebraska. It made him think of waking up on a farm, the smell of hay in the air. A quiet landscape. Henry thought he could enjoy that kind of life. Simple tasks. No stress.

Many celebrities came from the midwest to the city. Maybe they sought adventure and wanted to make up for too many uneventful nights in a small town. Henry couldn’t stand the city with its smell of urine in the subways and crowds on sidewalks and in elevators.

He wished he’d been born in a place like Nebraska instead of the suburbs, which were getting more crowded. He couldn’t go to the supermarket without his cart getting boxed in down every aisle he browsed.

At home Henry turns on the TV. If he was fated for celebrity after touching the Oscar, a Gig Young movie would be on now, maybe one of those conspiracy ones from the 70s where Gig usually played an unctuous bureaucrat. Henry flicks through the channels. Nothing.

He makes himself a martini with leftover gin and vermouth from when his uncle once visited. These were the real martinis, not this apple martini stuff which Gig and his cognoscenti would look down upon.

The martini is what they used to call a stiff drink and Henry can see why. He can barely get it down. Hard drinks for hard lives.

He takes out the Casting Director’s card. They called it background casting. Maybe he’d be singled out because of his hair and placed in a shot with the star.

The start of his career.

The next morning, Henry goes to his temporary office job with a sense of purpose. He imbues each task as if it were a crucial procedure. His father once said not to do a job unless you could do it with pride. Henry files papers with accuracy and collates sales reports in the copy room, hand delivering each one to its respective executive.

He leaves a message with the casting director.

After lunch he calls Janet. He hadn’t called a woman for a date since he worked at Home Depot. A co-worker set him up with his sister. They’d gone to the movies, which was a mistake, because the woman didn’t appreciate film like Henry did. For her, it was something to do, and movies were not just something to do. He couldn’t even get her to talk about the movie, which was the best part, to keep the memory and images alive. She didn’t even remember the first movie she’d ever seen in a theater, and to Henry, that was also sacrilegious.

Janet sounds happy to hear from him and they set up a date. Henry thinks how she’d be happy to hear from anyone.

After work Henry buys a pack of cigarettes. If he was going to be part of the movies, he figured he should take up smoking. Cigarettes made for a great shot in a scene. He decides on Marlboro. What the hell, he figured, all those damn ads had to mean something.

Janet meets him for a dinner at an Italian restaurant in the Village. Henry orders a martini and Janet orders a white wine. Going for the strong stuff, she asks.

The kind Gig Young would drink, Henry smiles.

He asks her if it’s alright to smoke. I didn’t know you smoked, she says. He tells her he’s trying to quit. Henry coughs on the first few inhales. He extinguishes the cigarette and tells her that he’s got a sore throat.

They go back to her apartment and kiss on the couch. Henry’s hands roam over her large body and he makes eye contact with the Oscar. He thinks about Gig Young in the Twilight Zone episode. That’s Homewood, I used to live there, Gig’s character had said to the gas station attendant when he saw a sign on the road that led to the town he grew up in.

What was that about home, Janet asks, kissing his ear.

I’m just glad I got to take you home, Henry responds.

They continue to kiss and Henry rubs his body against her. He climaxes in his pants and sits up. I just came, he tells her.

Oh, good for you, she says, seeming pleased that she’s aroused someone to that point. She makes coffee and Henry walks over to the curio. He takes out the Oscar and holds it with one hand.

He leaves the apartment while Janet is in the kitchen. On the street he lights a cigarette. He takes a cab to Penn Station, and stops in a nearby Irish pub. A fireplace burns. A fake fire. He orders a martini and keeps his backpack, holding the Oscar, on his lap.

The smoke from the cigarette doesn’t feel harsh anymore. He orders a martini. Three women at the bar play a trivia game with cards.

Henry listens in. A question about movies stumps them. John Garfield, Henry says, smoke streaming from his mouth. Good one, they say. Then they tell him that he looks like a celebrity.

I get that a lot.

He orders another martini. Two of the women wear wedding rings. The third makes eye contact and smiles. I guess you know your movies, she says.

A little.

He buys a round of drinks for the women. The one without a ring slides over and compliments his hair.

You don’t have an Oscar at home, do you, he says.

She looks confused, then asks him what his favorite movie is.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They.

Never heard of it.

It was a book, Henry tells her, with a great last line. I like stories with memorable last lines.

I saw a film in college, she says, I can’t remember the name, but the last line is, I steal.

Great movie, Henry says, it’s got a long title, I Am a Fugitive

He drops the knapsack. It thuds against the bar rail at his feet.

The woman is distracted by her friends who continue to play the trivia game. Henry picks up the knapsack and stares at her in the mirror, all blonde hair and soft cleavage, the kind that would break his heart after his witty one liners and movie mentality began to bore her, when she realized there were better looking guys with motivation and real jobs out there.

And he’d be left alone, sitting at a bar like this, an empty martini in front of him, an ashtray full of cigarettes, and perhaps some pills to wash down later that night, and if that didn’t work, who knows what else.

Would you like to get some coffee, he asks.

Sure. If you’re not a serial killer we could go back to my place.

Okay. I’ll get us a cab.

It’s walking distance.

PETER DEMARCO teaches high school English and film in New York City. He was first published in The New York Times when he wrote about hanging out with his idol, writer Mickey Spillane. His stories have appeared online in Prime Number Magazine, decomP, Red Lightbulbs, Monkeybicycle, SmokeLong Quarterly, Flashquake, Verbsap, Pindeldyboz, and Dogzplot. Peter’s debut collection of short stories, Background Noise, was published in November by Pangea Books. Peter lives in New Jersey with his wife Charmaine, and two boys, Dexter and Sammy.

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