When I was about seven years old, Wheel of Fortune mania swept through the nation and nobody was better at that game than my father. The kind of genius who would do The New York TimesSunday crossword puzzle in pen, my father was a professor of English and Comedy and the smartest and most hilarious person I have (still) ever known. He was this compelling mix of the highest of the highbrow and the lowest of the lowbrow – and he pulled such a dichotomy off with style. Want an example? He was a huge hockey fan and we went to games all the time and had seats in the fourth row, right near the Islanders’ bench. The refs knew him and they hated him because the things he would shout to them – after a day of teaching college classes about the esoteric nature of Tolstoy’s prose or how many different synonyms Roth was able to come up with for the word “penis” in Portnoy’s Complaint – were vile. I remember one ref skating by and glaring at my father, yelling that he should cut his hair. I remember my father laughing at that guy and how sometimes he would pull out a rubber chicken that he found somewhere and tossing it onto the ice. I have absolutely no understanding of why he had a rubber chicken or from whence that rubber chicken came or what the significance might be for tossing it onto the ice, but what I do know is that he named the rubber chicken “Elsinore” after Hamlet’s hometown. Even today – even after all of those years have drifted by and he’s been gone for so many of them – I still laugh about it all, about that chicken, about those refs, about the fact that a certified genius almost always had a toothpick in his mouth.
During my elementary school years, Wheel of Fortune was a show he watched almost every night, at least when I was at his house. And the blank answer would come up and no letters would have yet been revealed and my father would stare at the lit up display and someone would buy a “G” and one solitary “G” would show up on that board and my father would solve the thing in four seconds flat. He was never wrong and he never missed – not once.
“Daddy,” I exclaimed to him, “you have to go on this show! You’d win! You can get us a trip to Hawaii!”
Those were the days when you didn’t win money on the show. No, you’d take the “money” you just won on a round and you’d go shopping through oddly decorated rooms that would appear onscreen everything you could “buy” had a ridiculously overpriced tag affixed to the front of it.
“Pat, I’d like to buy that beautiful washer/dryer for six thousand dollars and that electric can opener shaped like a foot for three hundred dollars. How much do I have left over? Oh, four hundred dollars? Okay, well then I’d like two of those ceramic dog statues so each can have a friend.”
That’s how it was then, which is to say that I loved it. It was a game that involved both words and shopping – and I was sold. I was also little enough to believe that someone I knew appearing on television would be the most exciting thing that could ever happen in my entire life, and I wish I could tell that old version of me that at some point a good friends would be on TV every week and that sometimes the adult me wouldn’t even remember to DVR the thing – but then again, the seven year old version of me would have no idea what a DVR even was and, if explained, it would sound like a fantasy dreamed up by a benevolent God and I was unsure about religion even then.
My father was not the type to care all that much about appearing on television, but I could see that glint in his eyes that he knew he would win and he liked a lot of things, but very few things made him as deliriously happy as being the best at something. And after about a year or so – after watching the announcement that began, “If you want to compete on Wheel of Fortune…” that was played in the middle of every episode – I finally asked him point blank why he hadn’t applied and that’s when he told me that he was afraid that not only would he lose, but that he would lose to a housewife from Kentucky.
Should anyone reading this currently be a housewife from Kentucky, be married to a housewife from Kentucky, or been birthed by a housewife from Kentucky, please don’t send me vitriolic messages about the inherent misogyny within my father’s statements. I didn’t say it. He did. And he’s dead and can’t apologize because a housewife from Kentucky murdered him.
(I lied: he had a massive heart attack and died on an East Hampton beach. But, while alive, he was perverse enough to have found the above sentence pretty funny.)
I take after him a lot. When I look at the person I am today, I wouldn’t immediately classify myself as competitive, but perhaps I haven’t looked at myself all that closely because it turns out that I am competitive as fuck.
Competitive Example #1: I am about twenty-three and at my very first bridal shower for a friend who would have her marriage annulled within the next year. But before the lawyers were called in, there were festivities to be had and one of them was the shower. For those fortunate enough never to attend a bridal shower – or those fortunate enough to have blocked the ones you have attended out of your psyche – it’s a late morning/early afternoon party in a restaurant or in someone’s house and there’s food you never really want to eat at that hour being served (think Chicken Marsala at 11:00 AM) and a never-ending pile of presents you have to watch someone open and there’s always a toaster and there’s always a blender and once I sat transfixed and filled with envy when a friend unwrapped a quesadilla maker and there’s always at least one piece of filmy lingerie that’s unwrapped and all the women in the room make “ooooh” sounds like the lingerie is so scandalous and I’m always relieved that none of those people have seen any of mylingerie because the leather and the latex and the lace might actually kill them. But then, after the presents are opened and you’re finished making excuses about how you can’t possibly help carry them to the car because your finger hurts from blowing up the balloons, it’s time for the games. It’s usually some bullshit version of what’s coined Shower Bingo and I realized early – during my very first shower – that I would slit the throat of a bride’s family member to win the prize. What’s the prize, you ask? Usually it’s some kind of bath stuff or lotion and it’s always in some scent that actually makes me either gag or sneeze thirty times in a row, but I have found that it doesn’t matter. I want to win. I want that disgusting lotion. And I will murder someone if that pink bath pouf is part of the prize. At that first shower, everyone was talking during the game and not really paying attention so the prize was clearly within reach. But then I saw an older woman concentrating hard and our eyes met one time and she looked serious and it was fucking on. So I did what any normal person would do in a scenario in which a twenty-three year old was facing off against the bride’s aged great aunt: I had a friend approach her while the game was still going on to tell her that one of the cousins was crying in the bathroom and that maybe the woman could come to her aid. And she got up – it took a while; she was old – and then a minute or so later, just as she returned looking puzzled because there was nobody crying anywhere, I shouted out, “Bingo!” and I walked away with lotion that smelled of tea roses, which is the kind of fragrance only someone’s ninety year old great aunt might want to rub on herself.
Competition Example #2: I’m online one day while I’m home sick with strep throat and I go on Facebook and I see that there’s a quiz about the Manson Family and I decide that I might as well take it. And out of twenty-five questions – none of which stump me for more than a millisecond – I see that I got twenty-four correct, which is actually the thing I should be most concerned with because why does a nice girl like myself know so much about a band of motley cult killers? But what really concerned me was that the answer to the question I got wrong was incorrect. The game stated four people died at Sharon Tate’s house that night when, in fact, there were five victims and I researched the creator of the quiz and sent that guy a fiery email and it’s not like I was promised any prize for taking the quiz, but that didn’t stop me from requesting the guy’s firstborn as long as it came out cute.
So yes, I have a slight problem. When I compete, I want to win and I’m not a brush-it-off-because-who-cares-since-what-it’s-all-really-about-anyway-is-fun kind of girl. No, I’m a what-do-you-mean-I-didn’t-fucking-win-are-you-insane-and-how-dare-you-suggest-such-a-thing girl.
I am considering the merits of therapy.
Anyway, about two weeks ago, I received a text from my sweet mother. She’s got the hang of texting now and she’s even started to sprinkle her messages with emojis, though I think she uses them wrong. Like, I’ll tell her that my classroom is two-hundred degrees and she’ll send back that lipsticky kiss picture that I only send to guys who have seen me naked, but at least she’s embracing technology after being afraid of her own microwave for over a decade. Her text said that the Cinema Arts Centre, the main independent movie venue around here, was holding a trivia night on June 8th and that I should go.
“You’ll destroy them,” she wrote, and thinking of that kind of destruction made me very happy.
I went online and looked at the rules for the game. It would cost five dollars to enter. Teams could range from one person to six people. There was a ban on going on electronic devices during the game. Wine would be served.
Thinking that this might be a good mother/daughter activity that didn’t involve her telling me about the merits of cauliflower or that I should walk faster during a power walk, I texted her back and asked if she wanted to be a team, but she responded that she would be away that day at some Congressional conference and I have to say that I hear things like that from both she and my stepfather and I don’t even ask questions anymore. So with my mommy unable to attend because she was hanging out with members of Congress and telling them about the merits of cauliflower, I texted my friend Walt.
“Want to go?” I asked him and I sent him the link to the event.
“Yes!” he wrote back immediately, and I was immediately excited because I love playing with Walt and plus, should any question be about a galaxy far, far away, I needed him. I might have named my dog Wookie, but I remember nothing about Star Wars and I know that screams of being a travesty, but remember that I do know all about the Manson Family so let’s just all settle the fuck down.
A few days before the contest, I got an email from Reality Steve asking if I wanted to recap the Orange County Housewives for his site and I was happy to say yes. But then I realized that the trivia contest and the Housewives premiere would occur on the same night. The trivia thing started at eight. The Housewives began at nine. And what that meant was that I’d have to come home, watch the Housewives, take notes on a show about wealthy psychopaths, and write my review the next morning and submit it to Steve by late morning in between reviewing with my seniors for a final exam that some of them have to pass in order to graduate.
I was exhausted just thinking about it.
“We have to destroy those people quickly because I have to come home and watch the Housewives,” I patiently explained to Walt, a man who has never watched even one episode of any of the Real Housewives and that might be in the top five reasons of why I admire him.
“I’m thinking we might lose,” he told me. “I think the other teams will be made comprised of the kind of people who live in their parents’ basements and only watch movies.” Imagining such a scenario threw me into a bit of a crisis. How could I lose this game? I’m a fucking Film teacher! Could anything be more humiliating than losing a film trivia contest when you’ve made knowing this shit your actual life’s work?
“If we’re asked, I’m telling them I’m a housewife from Kentucky,” I told Walter – and I see that such a thing is wrong and I also know that I don’t really care.
The night of the event, I made sure my DVR was set to record the Housewives and I kissed my dog goodbye and told her that she looks beautiful bald and made my way outside to Walt’s car. I was in a short skirt and a tank top and it was cut lower than it used to be because now it’s a little bit loose on me, but I figured that maybe I could distract the competition with some cleavage. After all, if all those people really lived in their parents’ basements, how often could they have seen real-life cleavage instead of porn-cleavage?
We were the second team to arrive. The tickets, which I’d set a reminder in my phone to print, weren’t even glanced at. The game would be held in the café part of the Cinema, which meant that I would be in a room all night where brownies were being sold less than a foot away at a time when I am avoiding fun stuff like brownies, but I felt brave enough to walk up to the counter and buy a black coffee in the largest cup they had and I got Walt an apple juice, which I thought a cute selection. The contest was to start at eight and I was already feeling fidgety. What if I didn’t win? What if I knew absolutely nothing? What if I blanked under the pressure? What if this thing lasted until midnight and I would have to watch the Housewives at three in the morning? All of these were pressing questions, but as I looked around at the room that was filling up quickly, all I muttered to Walt was this: “Am I the only person in this room wearing makeup?”
Just after eight, the room was packed. There were twenty teams and more than a hundred people. One team had eight members, something that was totally against the rules, but I figured the people in charge would handle such a thing. Wine was being served in thimble-sized cups at a makeshift bar across the room, but I just sipped my coffee. I didn’t want to get foggy at a time when I needed to be sharp, when I had mass destruction in mind, when I had to go home later and write. It seemed that most of the teams had been there before. They greeted one another. They pulled out full picnic baskets stuffed with food so they wouldn’t have to buy anything from the café. I swear that I saw three people tuck into a rotisserie chicken and I was someone who hadn’t even brought a pen.
The guy in charge was about five feet tall. He wasn’t bad looking, but he was the size of an elf and when he came over to give us our game sheets and to explain the rules, I couldn’t tell if he was more attracted to me or to Walt. Both my cleavage and I shrugged as he told me that we had to come up with a team name.
“What should our team name be?” I asked Walt.
“Obviously it should be ‘Walter & Kalter,’” he responded immediately and I laughed. See, years ago, Walter had walked into a room where I thought I was alone and I was belting out a song like I often do when I think nobody else is around.
“You sound like the birds of spring,” he said to me, “while they are being gassed.”
It was an insult so hilarious that I couldn’t even be offended, and soon we decided one punchy night that we should have a duo called Walter & Kalter where I would sing songs like the theme from Ice Castles and he would do interpretive dance and we should appear at events for the blind and the deaf. We’ve yet to get that act fully off the ground, but at least we had our trivia team name.
“Okay,” said the guy in charge, the itty bitty one who clearly always harbored dreamed of holding a microphone in a room where other people were forced to listen to him. “There are six categories: Movie Dads, the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, Legendary Roles and the Actors Who Played Them, Musicians in Film, Movie Star Potpourri, and The Oscars. There are ten questions per category and the questions will appear on the screen. After each category, you will pass your answers to another team so we get an honest score and, for one category, you can play it wild, which means that whatever points you earn in that category will be doubled, but you have to decide ahead of time which category that will be. Any questions?”
How could there possibly be any questions? I thought. The whole thing was pretty self-explanatory. See a question, scrawl down an answer. But there were questions, about twelve of them, and I looked up in full fucking annoyance at the clock that was hanging on the wall and realized this little event could possibly last forever.
Once the least scintillating questions ever posed were all answered by a man who clearly felt both his self-importance and stature begin to expand because he was in command of a room with a microphone as proof, it was time to start and I realized fast that I shouldn’t have been nervous. I immediately knew the answers to nine of the ten questions and the one I vacillated over was one Walt knew immediately. The questions went by pretty quickly and I exhaled in relief and I knew without the shadow of any kind of doubt that had this been a trivia contest on anything besides movies – or flavors of Dunkin Donuts – I would prove hopeless.
We passed our sheet to the couple behind us. They were nice and both were in their late sixties and we found out they were musicians and they congratulated us for getting all ten questions correct when they only got a score of six. And I appreciated their kind words but I was kind of annoyed because the time was ticking by and, after the questions within a category were asked, the guy who fancied himself a wee-sized game show host asked if anybody needed to re-see any of the questions and most teams wanted to see something again so we basically sat thorough the entire category twice and at some point I kind of exploded and said loudly enough for those in my general vicinity to hear, “Can we move this along? I have a Real Housewives recap to write,” and I knew that mentioning something trashy like The Real Housewives of Wherever while in the hallowed walls of a building constructed for the sake of real art would be seen as blasphemous – and that’s precisely why I said it.
Category two started and we both blanked on the name of the actress who appeared in Punch Drunk Love but we got ten out of ten on the next category, the one we’d doubled-down on, and so at halftime, our score was 37 out of a possible 40. Why we needed an intermission at all struck me as mildly idiotic, but I sat through it quietly as a Councilwoman from the town got up with poster boards as a visual aid to explain why everybody needed to riot so a Walgreens wouldn’t be built on the corner near the Cinema and I could see her point, but I’m not a resident of that town and I couldn’t even sign the petition and all I wanted was to move this thing along so Walter & Kalter could be victorious and I could get home to watch the worst show in the universe before having to be at work by seven the next morning.
As the second round started, the host had gained confidence and pretend swagger and he peppered every single question with his own personal views and experiences with each one of the movies and I began to visualize the best ways to destroy him. Since I’m not really the violent sort, I reacted instead with sarcasm and a bit of nastiness. As he talked about how his Labrador loved Cary Grant, I’d stare right at him blankly while tapping my pen loudly on the table. I shot him my rather impressive Bitch face that only comes out in dire emergencies. At one point when he was bantering back and forth over the microphone with a table of girls who smelled like patchouli and had brought with them an enormous Ziploc bag filled with Veggie Fries and then looked over at me and smiled, I said to Walter, “That’s fascinating. I wish he was telling me that story while I was ignoring him at a bar.”
The time kept passing by and we were still doing really well but Walt started to notice that the team of eight was working all together and that it was bullshit and he was right, but my focus was on getting the game over with without killing the host by smashing the microphone over his head. While I imagined terrible things, the host drank more and more wine, which made him more and more chatty, and soon I wasn’t the only one shouting out, “Let’s move on!” A guy at the table in front of me started getting really annoyed and that was good because I figured I could eventually frame him for the murder if necessary.
Between the final two rounds, the host disappeared for a second.
“Did he die?” asked Walt – and it was late and I knew I’d end up being awake and working for most of the night and what he said and how he said it was really funny and we both dissolved into a paroxysm of giggles before nailing every single answer in the final round.
After it was done – finally – we handed in our game sheets and waited while a drunk guy who had never mastered the calculator tallied it all up. And then he announced, in backwards order, every single team’s score just so he could be on that microphone longer.
We came in second. We lost by one point – one! – to the team that illegally had eight people. And the host approached me before I left to tell me how impressive our score was, especially for a first-time player, and I smiled at him with my mouth closed and I thought, “Not only will I win next time, but I will also take this job from you just for fun and my trivia nights will take half the time yours did and I will wander by the window of the basement you live in and flash you my real smile and my winnings.” But I didn’t really say any of that right to him because I suppose the guy was just doing his job and yes, it was bullshit that we lost to a team that broke the rules and that the rules weren’t enforced, but it was actually all kind of fun and I figured I knew a lot about movies, but I had no idea just how much information lives in my head and I was kind of proud of myself.
Besides, a housewife from Kentucky would probably behave in a manner far less cruel than a writer and a teacher from New York – and I thought it best to fully commit to my character.