Celebrity Death Pool
by David Brinson
Marie asks about my family.
We’re at the library on campus, killing time until our next classes. A chemistry lab for me, interpretive dance for her. This isn’t the first time she’s asked about my family. She thinks I’ve placed her at an arm’s length. She thinks they will be some kind of key to some kind of lock.
To scare her off the subject I tell her about the celebrity death pool. When it comes to my childhood, it’s one of the easier anecdotes to digest. It’s not as strange as it sounds; my mom and dad started the tradition back in their dating days, when Frank Sinatra died, and they argued for a week straight about which one of them had accurately predicted that he was close to kicking the bucket.
We had a twenty-dollar buy-in. Us kids had to use our Christmas money. While waiting for the ball to drop on New Year’s Eve, we each took turns drafting our list of five celebrities, the last pick having to be under forty years old. Once a celebrity was taken, no one else could choose them. You couldn’t pick the same person two years in a row. The tiebreaker went to whoever had the youngest death.
Dad usually won, though Mom did too occasionally. My younger brother won when Robin Williams hanged himself. My younger sister took back-to-back years after researching for weeks ahead of the draft, skimming Mom’s old tabloids, listening to the radio, looking for any sign that someone could be on their way out.
I never won. In our family, it is a running joke that if you want someone with terminal cancer to live, just have Brandon pick them.
Marie says this is all very morbid.
But death was a common conversation point in our house. My parents never shielded our eyes or covered our ears during movies with graphic scenes of murder or sex. And everything was a competition. My dad and I both loved Jeopardy and would watch together, battling to see who could get more answers right. When I was younger, I thought he and Alex Trebek were the smartest men in the world.
My dad knew all of kinds of useless information. He could tell you all the dates and days of the week of many of the major celebrity deaths. J.F.K. was assassinated on a Friday. Marilyn Monroe overdosed on a Saturday. Mickey Mantle, he would say, working himself up. The Mick, the Commerce Comet, lifetime Yankee, World Champion, Triple Crown winner, a perennial Hall of Famer, drank the whole town under the table… died on a Sunday. A Sunday? Of fucking cancer? Like a regular Joe Shmoe? Isn’t that some shit?
What I mean to say is that it wasn’t like we were rooting for them to die. The only time I ever saw anyone celebrate was when the Steve Jobs news broke, and Dad danced around the house as if he were one of the silhouettes in the iPod commercials, bragging about what he was going to do with his one hundred dollars. Even if we were secretly wishing for their demise, they were rich! They had lived good easy lives, full of fame and fortune and admiration. Why would we feel bad for them?
Marie asks if she can meet my family.
I tell her we’ll see. I suggest maybe we’ll drive up to San Jose from Irvine one weekend, without ever planning on following through. I don’t feel like fighting. I’m tired from my closing shift. My feet and my back ache. We’re at her studio apartment because mine’s a shithole and I share a cheap room with another guy I met on campus classifieds, who is also living off scholarships and student loans. Standing at Marie’s kitchen sink, my hands under the running faucet, I’m scrubbing furiously, trying to remove the smell of a white onion I’d chopped earlier from my fingers. No amount of scathing hot water and soap can make it go away. I don’t look over, but I can feel Marie studying me.
Marie isn’t even her full name; her student ID says Rosemarie. It’s too formal and too long, she told me one time. Plus, Rose is so feminine. In high school, she severed the Rose from herself like it was the other half of a conjoined twin. If I jokingly call her Rosie, or mockingly cry, Rosemarie, should I fetch the ponies, with the exaggerated inflection of a Victorian servant, she will laugh like it doesn’t bother her, but I can tell by the way she clams up afterwards that it really does.
Marie is an English major. She’s in a lot of academic clubs I don’t have the time to join and goes to a lot of parties where everyone seems to know her. She loves to tell the story of how we met to her liberal studies friends. The social media activists. The fair-weather anarchists, I call them. They all have some new cause to white-knight each week. It would be more admirable if it weren’t so obviously their rich white guilt disguised as benevolence. None of them have ever went to bed hungry or had a single traumatic experience, so instead they go hunting for it, hoping to extract something out of secondhand pain. To them, attending a public university after not getting into USC and Stanford is like slumming it. Her friends all think I’m painfully boring because I don’t speak every half-formed thought I’ve ever had into existence.
Once, seeing that I was sitting quietly at the edge of the group, Marie asked me to tell these people from her class I’d never met before our story. Another great thing about Marie: she is inclusive, always spotting the person on the outside and bringing them in. I wish she hadn’t though. I’m not a good storyteller, especially not in front of her circle. I find myself omitting important details, adding trivial ones, rushing through it, afraid that if I don’t get to the point that people will quit listening to me. Her version is much more of a meet cute. Here’s how I tell it:
Usually, I’m busy with work and my own premed classes, but sometimes I find a random lecture hall on campus and just sit in. The university’s policy is fairly lenient on this: as long as you’re not being disruptive and there’s enough seats for those actually paying to take the course, they don’t care. One week French Cinema. Another Dinosaur and their Relatives. It’s a bit of a roll of the dice. Once, I sat in on a Stars and Galaxy final exam review, scribbling notes for a test I would never take. Astronomy is terrifying, it turns out. In the vacuum of space, if two materials or metals of the same element happen to touch, they will weld together and become one, because there is no oxide layer to separate them. The objects have no way to know where they end and the other begins. (An example of a useless detail only I find interesting.)
In a large poetry lecture on the ground floor of Berk, I heard someone reciting stanzas and snuck in and sat near the back across the aisle from Marie. She smiled at me, and I looked away and smiled at the ground. That was the first time I had ever saw her. And then I couldn’t stop seeing her around campus, especially at the dining hall where I work. One day, she came to the Asian grill concept I’m usually stationed at. I can remember the embarrassment I felt as I took her order because she was seeing me sweaty and wearing that ugly burnt red uniform. I could barely form sentences. She ate Pad Thai for a week straight before I finally got the hint. I gave her the line that I’d been practicing in my mind. We swapped numbers. That was almost a year ago now.
At least her family likes me, even if her friends don’t. Her father works in arbitrage, and her mother is on the board of directors for some energy company. They live close to UC’s campus, so we meet them for dinner at expensive restaurants I could never afford to eat at, and even though I’m not paying, the prices give me too much anxiety to actually enjoy the food.
I stayed with her family over Christmas break at their home in Chino Hills, which meant I didn’t have to go back to Almaden for the holidays. Then, I spent all last summer with them at their beach house in San Diego. They include me in everything and couldn’t care less about Marie and I sleeping in the same room together. They eat their meals on the deck with the watercolor sunset and the rush of waves as a backdrop. Over the course of the summer, her little brother taught me to surf, her mom and I played Trivial Pursuit, and her dad shared his dispensary weed with me as he talked about all the famous neighbors he’d met over the years that lived along their same stretch of sand.
Their beach house, their secondary house, is more spacious than the one I grew up in. When I’m standing underneath their high ceilings and watching their weekly housekeepers scrub the hardwood, it is difficult for me to even picture my brother and I’s cramped room or the paint chipping at the door frames or our dishwasher that never worked unless you bumped it with your hip just right or the front porch’s rotted-out steps. I can’t even picture Marie sitting on the ratty furniture in our living room. It’s impossible for me to reconcile the fact that these two worlds exist in the same universe.
Marie says I shouldn’t send my family’s calls to voicemail.
I already feel guilty enough about ignoring my little brother and sister. Wanting to hurt her, I share something I’d never told her before: how some days after school, Mom would tell us kids that it was a fend-for-ourselves kind of night, which we all knew meant to go over to a friend’s house and eat their food. The only problem was that unlike my siblings, I didn’t make friends all that easily. I learned to go without.
Mom worked long hours as a cleaner with one of those custodial agencies, but the pay was never great. Dad couldn’t hold down a job. He bounced from a security detail at a server site to a catering gig where they paid under the table to a car detailing business where he got fired after a month. Most jobs expect you to show up on time and be civil. Dad didn’t like taking orders from people he considered intellectually inferior.
During stretches of unemployment, Dad used the internet marketplace as a hustle. He sold rare Beanie Babies and Department 56 Hallmark Christmas Villages on eBay. Then, he invested in a Costco membership. My siblings and I were happy because it meant we would go and get a dollar Pepsi-hotdog combo almost every weekend. He had written an add on Craigslist: COSTCO MEMBER WITH TRUCK. WILL BUY FOR YOU AND DROP OFF. $50 FEE. When not many people took him up on this, he started buying items from Costco and relisting them at a twenty percent markup. Users realized and reported him. Sometimes, if he could, he bartered the unwanted merchandise for other items like motorized scooters and authenticated baseball cards. This drove Mom crazy. She said it was all junk. She said Dad’s get-rich-quick schemes were actually break-even-slowly ideas.
My parents looked down on every profession. Mechanics and lawyers were cheats. Teachers were lazy because they had summers off. Doctors were crooks who got money under the table from insurance companies for making up illnesses. When I told them that I wanted to go to college and major in premed, they acted as if I had said I was going to be a drug dealer. Then they asked me how I planned to pay for it.
Marie thinks I’m exaggerating.
I give her Dad’s ultimate get-rich-quick scheme: the food truck. I show her a picture as proof.
It took two months of convincing, but he wore Mom down until she let him trade her father’s vintage motorcycle that had been left to her. Dad had a vision. In high school, he worked for a car hop in Los Gatos called The Curbateria where the girls delivered food on rollerblades and the men wore paper hats. Dad worked in the kitchen. The place had gone out of business before I was even born, but he still remembered the Curb Burger’s special sauce recipe (a mixture of mayo and onion and shredded lettuce and horse radish) and thought that other people in the community would appreciate a taste from their past.
Where other small businesses failed, he had an advantage: free labor. Dad would man grill, Mom would work register, my younger siblings stocked and handed out food, and I did prep and build. This was practically every weekend during the year and most days in the summer when we were out of school. Little league tournaments and county fairs and festivals. I preferred when we went to events in Morgan Hill or Gilroy, because at least then I wouldn’t have to suffer the humiliation of when we were in Almaden and I would go to hand the order to someone and it would be a girl I liked from my Social Studies class giggling at my hairnet.
We did have more money than usual those years and we no longer had to beg for food or anything, but I was the oldest, which meant, most of the time, I was the one helping, while my brother and sister ran around and played with kids their age. Whenever I complained about not getting paid for my efforts, Dad would retort, Don’t you live in the house I pay for? Don’t I feed you? Don’t I get you everything you need?
And if I talked back, if I said, No, you really don’t, then he’d grab me by the throat and throw me against the nearest wall. He didn’t like to hit me, but he would if I pushed him. Mom saw it and never said a thing, at least not in front of me.
That’s awful, Marie says. I’m sorry you had to go through that, but your family is the reason you have such a good work ethic. That’s why you’re getting promoted to manager.
Don’t talk about work ethic when you’ve never actually had to work a day in your life, I respond. I spend the text two hours apologizing and promising her I didn’t mean it.
Marie demands I tell her one good thing about my family.
My whole family?
At least your dad.
I think. Long. Hard.
If an order asked for everything on it, he would slide it to me and say, Run this one through the garden, Slick.
He could recite entire movies from memory. He would do it between orders, beginning to end, acting out entire scenes from Shrek or Heat or whatever he had stuck in his head that day. Customers would watch and laugh as they waited for their food. He was the kind of man who fed off an audience. Some kids would remember him and shout, Mister, do Donkey! Do Pinocchio!
After especially long shifts, he would hug me in gratitude, and he would be all sweaty, and I would be all sweaty too, so I would try to wiggle away, and he would just laugh and hold me tighter.
Marie suggests that my family come to her parents’ anniversary party.
I finally just tell her to drop it.
She won’t. She asks why I’m so ashamed of my upbringing?
I ask why she isn’t more ashamed of hers? I don’t backtrack this time.
When we fight, I have this tendency to slowly raise my voice until I am screaming, and the problem is that I don’t even realize I’m doing it. Usually, Marie is understanding, patient, and says something like, I hear you, I hear the words you’re saying, I’m right here, there’s no need to yell.
That night, she screams back.
I end up leaving. I don’t answer her calls. I walk the long way home after class to avoid running into her on campus.
Marie asks for her apartment key back.
Early on a Sunday morning, my only day I get to sleep in because of eight-am's and opening shifts, Dad wakes me with a call. I don’t know why I pick up. He only ever talks about himself. Maybe I am still out of it, maybe I am worried it is an emergency, maybe I am lonely. Turns out, he is just calling to tell me that Alex Trebek died.
The man kept on filming until two weeks before his death, my dad says. Kept fighting till the very end, like a man.
My girlfriend and I broke up, I say.
All the money in the world and they couldn’t stop that cancer.
Just thought you should know.
Let that be a lesson to you, Kid. Take no days for granted. Don’t sweat the grades or the girls. Live like you have it bad in the pancreas. You’ll be dead before you know it.
You don’t understand, I think to myself. We all die many times in our lives. My biology professor explained that we are constantly in a state of rejuvenation. The human body replaces all its cells within the span of seven years. Our skin? Less than a month. That means not one inch of me has been touched by you. That means, with time, I will be someone else entirely, not one cell borrowed from the boy who stood in that food truck and wore that stupid hairnet. You will become someone new as well, though at a slower rate because of your age. If you would just let me get a word in edgewise, I would tell you it’s not over for us yet.
Are you listening to me? Call your mom sometime. Do you think you can do that for me? We worry.
I got a promotion at work. All my classes are going really well. One of my professors is writing me a rec letter so I can work in the labs next summer.
Remember when we used to watch the show together?
You were twelve and you were still getting more answers right than me. Do you remember that?
Trebek would have been a good one for the pool, huh? If somebody had picked him and Kobe, they’d be sitting pretty right about now.
Dad, I got to go.
On a Sunday, I hear as a I lower the phone from my ear and hunt for the End Call button. Alex Trebek left on a Sunday.
David Brinson is a graduate of Boston University's MFA program as well as an assistant professor at Berklee College of Music.