He was not an octogenarian. He also wasn't dead. The woman had hired him to attend the party in a professional capacity, as a Regis Philbin impersonator. When styled the right way, he resembled the celebrity in his younger years. He was mostly hired to host charity game nights, where people understood his purpose, and played along. If someone got a trivia question wrong, lost their chance at the cash prize, he was a reminder of the absurdity of the operation. He made people laugh at themselves.
But this job demanded something different from his performance. The guests had not been informed of his attendance. It wasn't as though the party had a theme that would explain his presence. Regis felt nervous and excited, like he was in on a joke that could go terribly wrong—because he was.
Claire, the host, set him up in the garage until it was time, apologizing that she hadn't had time to sweep it properly before he arrived. She'd kindly arranged a lawn chair and a small TV and a folding table of beverages and snacks for him. "If you're there when the party starts, everyone will know something's up. I think it will be all the more confusing and funny if you show up mid-party, once things have kicked off and the room is filling."
Regis wanted to ask how she'd come up with this, why, why him, but he was afraid of insulting her and injuring his tip. And anyway, it was very polite of her to set up this little holding area for him. Most of his clients weren't so welcoming.
"I'll text you when it's time to come inside. I don't care if you drink—and eat of course—so long as you don't break."
Regis thanked her. "So I'm just supposed to mingle?"
"Yep. I hope it's fun for you. I'm sure my friends will try to trick you into revealing your true identity and I'm sorry about that."
"I'm used to it," Regis replied. "I have a deep knowledge of my childhood and career." He winked.
"Oh my gosh! I love it," Claire said. "So good. Thank you! See you soon!" Claire scurried out of the garage.
Regis liked her. He expected not to. He expected to find her condescending. Often when he showed up for gigs, people treated him as though he'd had to settle for this lot in life. Surely he'd wanted to become an Oscar-winning actor, but had landed at the bottom of the barrel, doing this sort of work. When he'd arrived tonight, Claire had treated him like he was a genius, and he'd been grateful for her genuine enthusiasm.
He turned the TV to a basketball game and waited for Claire's text.
In the party, the women wore architectural clothing and the men all looked as if they'd given more than a thought to the styling of their hair. Regis wondered at people's ability to find one another in the wide world.
He took an IPA out of the untouched case he'd carried in and headed for the snack table. Claire clearly had an eye for presentation. She'd covered the dining room table in an artful spread of cheese and fruit, meat and crackers and nuts and flowers Regis wasn't sure were edible. "Incredible!" he exclaimed to no one in particular. He felt a rush when the word came out with Regis's inflection, and he restrained himself from looking around to see if anyone would react.
"Isn't it?" a man said, cheesed crostini in hand. "Claire always has the prettiest snacks."
"I've never seen anything like it!" Regis concurred. More words meant the impersonation was more identifiable.
The man eyed Regis. "I'm Cam," he said after chewing his bite. "How do you know Claire?"
"Regis." He held out his hand. "The gym. We have the same workout schedule."
"Regis! Like the talk show host. I've never met a Regis."
Regis laughed. "That's why I always joke that I'm the Regis." He watched Cam scan the room and stop at Claire, as though he wanted to tell her something.
A woman came up and hugged Cam. "I thought you weren't coming!"
Cam shook his head. "She cancelled again. I should give up, right?"
"She doesn't know what a mistake she's making," the woman replied and pinched his cheek. "I'm sorry," she said, turning to Regis. "I don't think we've met. I'm Catherine."
"Catherine was the name of my first wife!" Regis raised two fingers like a cross to ward her off with a laugh.
"First wife!" Catherine said. "Well it sounds like you have at least one good story to tell me. What was your name?"
"I've got a bucketful of stories for you! Je m'appel Regis." He layered a lousy French accent on top of the New York.
"I'm sorry, Ray-jzees?" Catherine replied, her eyes wide. "Ray-jzees, what do you do?"
"Regis! Regis! I'm a talk show host," he replied.
Cam cocked his head.
"Really!" Claire said. "What channel?"
"ABC," Regis said, willing himself not to cover the answer with chatter that might detract from the impact of the statement.
"ABC," Cam said. "Wow. I'll have to check it out. What's it called?"
"I have to admit, I am actually retired now. I haven't been on the air for a while, but I was quite the hit when I was. Most recently it was called, Live with Regis and Kelly."
Cam and Catherine looked at one another and burst out laughing.
"Oh my god! With a name like Regis, how could you not play it up?"
Regis chuckled. "If I'm being honest, it's a constant battle. Most people recognize me, but when the odd person asks how they know me, it's hard not to tell them I was on their television every day for decades."
Catherine and Cam's smiles faded when they realized he was sticking to the joke. "OK, haha, but really, what do you do?"
"These days, I'm enjoying my time with Joy and our family. I play tennis and I have to admit I love to gamble, but only on the stock market."
Catherine looked away. "Oh, Tom's here." She pointed across the room. "If you'll excuse me."
Catherine headed for Tom, and Cam nodded once and veered toward Claire. He whispered in her ear and glanced over at Regis.
Regis saw Claire shake her head and smile. Regis felt his stomach drop. How would Claire explain his presence? They hadn't agreed upon a backstory of why he was there. Claire took Cam by the arm to freshen up his drink and Regis ran to the bathroom, relieved to find there wasn't a line. He washed his hands and futzed with his hair and stared into his eyes, reaffirming his identity as Regis.
When he emerged, Claire caught him immediately. She knew better than to pull him into a room alone. Catherine and Cam would notice and the jig would be up. Claire turned her body away from the crowd. "I told him you're my cousin."
"Did he ask if I was really Regis Philbin?"
"Of course. I said you were. He's angry. I imagine he's going around the party telling people about you now."
"What should I do?" Regis had never felt nervous like this. He worried it would affect his performance. "Your friends aren't violent, are they?"
"Ha! Hardly. You're hanging with a bunch of art nerds tonight, Reege. Stick with it!" Claire squeezed his shoulder and turned. "Let's get you a cocktail. " She emptied a healthy pour of scotch into a glass of ice, forced it into his hand, and pushed him away. Regis gulped and approached a woman he was pretty certain Cam hadn't gotten to yet. "I don't think we've met. I'm Regis."
"Bohdonna. I guess we both hit the name jackpot, huh?"
"Absolutely. I've never met someone with my name before, have you?"
"Once, on a visit to see family in Ukraine."
"Ukraine! I adore Kiev. Such a beautiful city." Regis realized if he had navigated past his name without issue, he was safe for the time being. No matter that Bohdonna seemed in a mood. This at least was not his problem.
"What's to love? The buildings are falling apart. The place is flooded with nuclear disaster tourists now. Everyone is rude."
Regis chuckled. "Well, I had a lovely time there. I walked from morning to night and never left the shade. And I've never seen such beautiful churches."
"I will not go in churches when I travel," Bohdonna replied. "Monuments to slaughter."
Regis saw another woman stealing glances at him. He hadn't seen Cam for a while, but he felt certain the rumor was spreading. She joined their conversation. "Bohdonna, you look fabulous, as always. Who's your friend here?"
"Regence," Bohdonna said.
"Regis," Regis clarified.
"Even worse, " Bohdonna coughed.
"I'm Eileen. The resident gossip. You tell me who you want some dirt on and I'll give it up if you'll trade me a secret."
"I'm an open book," Regis replied, "but I don't believe I have need of your services at the moment."
"Mmhmm, I hear you work in TV? Cam says you were pulling his leg about being Regis Philbin."
Regis laughed. "I didn't touch his leg!"
"But come on now. What's your real story?"
"Everything I told Cam is true," Regis said with a shrug.
"Did Claire put you up to this? That is just exactly something Claire would do. What, did she come up to you on the street? I don't mean any offense, but I don't even think you look that much like him."
"People say that all the time. 'I thought you'd be taller! You're much more handsome in person.' It can mess with your head if you're not careful. What do you do, Eileen?"
"Don't change the subject on me. I want to know what's going on. I won't tell anybody, but what's the angle here?"
Bohdonna wasn't even paying attention. She sipped through her tiny straw and performed aloofness.
"If doing what you love is an angle, then that's the only angle I've got." Regis felt his scalp go prickly with sweat.
"You're clearly not 88 years old. You're alive," Eileen insisted.
"Stop! You're making me blush!"
"I mean it. Does anyone fall for this shtick?"
"Show biz has been good to me. You've gotta stay fresh or they forget about you. I was never one of those guys who looked good with a little scruff—Sam Shepard (may he rest) or Clint Eastwood. I've worked hard to keep myself up, but there's no way luck hasn't been involved and, if you want the dish—," he leaned in, "—maybe a knife or two."
Eileen looked at his ears for scars, and Regis thought he'd won, but she shook herself out of it. "This is ridiculous. I don't appreciate being the butt of a joke." She stalked away and Regis was left with Bohdonna again.
"Doing anything fun this weekend?" he asked her, but she hadn't tuned back in, so they stood in silence.
Regis heard the clink of silverware on glass and found Cam gathering the party's attention.
"Hello, hello. I wanted to take a moment to thank Claire for having us. Hostess extraordinaire, cheeky little devil, imp in sheep's clothing. She's fed us the fanciest cheese and poured top shelf liquor down our gullets. But now we must reckon with the question: At what cost?"
The group murmured. Regis felt several sets of eyes glance over him.
"It's possible that not all of you have discovered the Easter egg Claire has hidden for us tonight. Perhaps you're not all aware that Regis Philbin himself is in our midst." Several people laughed and slowly everyone identified Regis in the crowd.
Regis smiled and waved the attention away, mimicking how he imagined the real Regis would refuse being acknowledged at a party just for being himself.
Cam insisted though. "Reege, maybe you'd like to say a word or two?"
Regis knew Regis would oblige, and so he had to, as well. He cleared his throat. "I'm so grateful to my baby cousin Claire for gathering such a lovely, and lively, group of people. I'm grateful people haven't asked me for dirt on Kelly—there's none, she's a sweetheart to the core! No one's made a 'final answer' joke. Grateful as I am for all the fans I've been blessed with, I'm sure you wouldn't be surprised to hear how old that stuff gets. Glad to see my Claire has such a sophisticated group of pals. She's kind to invite an embarrassment like me. Cheers to Claire and to all of you! " The crowd bumped their glasses, clearly hoping for something more.
Cam kept a hand clasped on Regis' arm. "It's over. We all know Claire must have hired you to do this. You can drop the routine."
Regis was starting to get angry. This was much more work than a normal engagement. He peeled Cam's hand off his arm and stared.
Claire walked up and embraced Regis in a side hug. "I'm just so glad you're here, cuz."
Cam said, "Claire, tell him he can stop. We all get it. It's insulting at this point."
Claire kept up the ruse though. "Cam, I think you're the one who needs to drop it. Have some respect. My cousin is an icon. Are you that threatened? You can't stand not being the center of attention for one party?"
"Wow, I'm gonna go," Cam said. "Good to know what you think of me." He set down his drink and shook his head like maybe he was dreaming.
As the door slammed, Catherine approached. "Did Cam just leave?"
"He did. He's mad my cousin is here, I guess. It doesn't make any sense to me."
Catherine looked at Regis. "Are you really her cousin? And you just happen to do this impression, too? Or were you just hired?"
Regis looked at Claire.
Claire was doing a good job of seeming ticked off. "This is my cousin Regis Philbin. He's visiting from LA."
Catherine squinted. "Claire."
"Do you have a problem with it, too? It's kind of insane how all of you are messing with me."
"We're messing with you? Claire, stop. This is really weird."
"I agree. You're making me super uncomfortable."
"OK, I think I have to head home." Catherine paused. "Thank you for having us? Nice to meet you, Regis?"
"A pleasure, Catherine."
After that, everyone else took their turns leaving. Regis and Claire held court near the door, and Regis could feel his client boiling beside him, astonished at everyone's unwillingness to believe. But wasn't that what Claire had wanted? For people to question him and identify the practical joke? But then he understood what had caused her frustration. She had become convinced that the people at the party should be able to hold both thoughts at once: that he was, of course, not Regis, but that, should he, in fact, be the famed, beloved, dead talk-show host, they should treat him as such. They should go along for the ride. As soon as she admitted it was all a ruse, the game was over, and she wanted to keep playing. When the last guest, Bohdonna of all people, finished bussing dishes to the kitchen and fitting the remainder of the cheese spread into tupperware, she gave Claire a hug and passed her eyes over Regis without a word before leaving.
Claire poured a nightcap for the two of them and pressed herself into the couch beside him. "How do you stand it?" she asked.
"You can't take it personally. People never want to believe," Regis told her. "They want to be right." He held out his glass, and Claire knocked it with her own.
I started this story while Regis was still alive and then put it down for a while when he died. I thought maybe I'd missed my chance. The energy of the story dissipated if I tried to change it to anyone but him. He had such a good attitude about himself and he was such a specific cultural figure. I wouldn't call myself a true fan; I was just fixated on the idea of him. This is the only story I've written around a pop culture figure: I often try to avoid overt references. But I kept thinking about the story and worked on it again, hoping it'd turn out to be a bittersweet tribute.