Mary Lannon ~ All the Stray Cats of the World

Oprah will die! Oprah will die! Oprah will die! you think as you pump gas at Gas on the Go on Thanksgiving Day. You mean to send her no bad kar­ma, of course. It’s mere­ly a fact. Still, it seems more shock­ing than oth­er deaths. Oprah will die! Oprah will die! Oprah will die! you feel like shout­ing it to the world, wak­ing its cit­i­zens from their zom­bie-like stu­por. That would do it, you think—Oprah’s death—more shock­ing than the planet’s death or War in Iraq. Easier to fix­ate on at any rate.

Shocking, because Oprah doesn’t seem like the type to die. But then who real­ly is the type to die? No one you know, which doesn’t make sense, of course.

Decide that the­se thought are unhealthy at best, as you get back into your car, an ancient Toyota Corolla, its back­seat strewn with green-and-white Starbucks cof­fee cups; stray brown-and-sil­ver Hershey Almond bar wrap­pers as well as scraps of paper no longer imme­di­ate­ly iden­ti­fi­able. Looking at them, won­der why you nev­er buy cof­fee at local busi­ness­es as you intend or cut out choco­late or keep your car clean as oth­er more togeth­er and pro­gres­sive peo­ple do. Feel like you can nev­er catch up in an impor­tant race that you don’t remem­ber enter­ing but still have to win.

***

As you leave the Gas on the Go to head up the on-ramp to the thru-way, lis­ten to your inner arm­chair psy­chol­o­gist who traces the orig­in of what she calls your “repet­i­tive and com­pul­sive thoughts cen­tered on mor­bid­i­ty” back to the fact that your best friend Linnea died sud­den­ly in a boat­ing acci­dent three years ago. She was only 32.

One after­noon you were hav­ing mar­gar­i­tas by the lake, wax­ing poet­ic about Moxy on Stilts—a local band you’d both been fol­low­ing. Tired from the sun and the drinks, you went into the house to nap. Linnea stayed behind to work on her tan. An hour lat­er, you awoke to a loud crash and screams. Outside, in front of the house, a small crowd had gath­ered and beyond it, you saw planks of wood stick­ing up at odd angles, Linnea, dead, speared by the splin­ter of one, her head dan­gling from her neck. A drunk­en boater had slammed into her. He stood, a chub­by ted­dy-bear-like man, dazed beside the wreck­age.

Such trau­ma, a grief coun­selor explained at the time, has a life-long impact. You believed her then, and you believe her now. Remember that among the many con­flict­ing and dev­as­tat­ing emo­tions of that time, fear dom­i­nat­ed many of your most mun­dane activ­i­ties. Out on your reg­u­lar Saturday morn­ing “get-healthy-lose-weight” bike ride, you would think, I could die! I could die! I could die! rolling down the hill near the ele­men­tary school that you had pre­vi­ous­ly tra­versed with­out thought a hun­dred times. But up until may­be a week ago, those thoughts had large­ly sub­sid­ed. Why their reap­pear­ance now? Three years lat­er? And why in celebri­ty for­mat? Perhaps, the recent deaths of Peter Jennings and Steve Irwin were respon­si­ble. Men who did not seem “the type to die,” (a phrase that has become an irri­tat­ing­ly inces­sant echo in your mind). Men who seemed to have more of a life because they lived in the TV that you stare at many week­nights from six to 11. Odd that some­one else could sim­ply take Peter Jennings’ place in the black box with­out much fan­fare. Shouldn’t there have been a year of mourn­ing, a year of yel­low rib­bons placed on TV sets around the coun­try in hopes that Jennings would return? Should we real­ly give up on the dead so eas­i­ly?

These thoughts do not make sense. So you tell your­self to focus on more impor­tant things like the sol­diers dying in Iraq or glob­al warm­ing or even just your intern­ship at the land trust. Know your role there is not exact­ly the most impor­tant, as you mere­ly take notes while your boss­es do the heavy-lift­ing, try­ing to get big landown­ers to con­serve their land for future gen­er­a­tions. Still, if you have to think of some part of your 35 years of life with some seri­ous­ness, the intern­ship is it. Unlike any oth­er job you’ve had, it fills you with a sense of mis­sion:  you are part of sav­ing the land and, more impor­tant­ly to you, its trees. Touring the parcels that might be pre­served, you find com­fort in look­ing up at the trees’ inter­lock­ing branch­es, hold­ing so many green leaves.

Despite your resolve to stay focused on the sav­ing of the trees or any oth­er sub­stan­tial mat­ters, your mind returns to celebri­ty death: Oprah again, then Dr. Phil, Brad and Angelina, Tom and Katie, Jen and Vince (though no doubt they will no longer plan to be buried in the same plot). The celebri­ty body count piles up with the miles, each more dev­as­tat­ing than the last.

***

Arrive home. Be glad to be dis­tract­ed from your mor­bid thoughts by help­ing your moth­er clean the rec room: putting away the tray tables used for din­ner, stuff­ing mag­a­zi­nes, into the almost already full cab­i­nets of the end tables and vac­u­um­ing, all the while lis­ten­ing to your moth­er com­plain about cous­in Sheila’s deci­sion to skip the shar­ing of Turkey this year and go on a cruise with her boyfriend instead. Sheila is three years younger than you, and like you, she has a small bust, big hips, mousy brown hair and blue eyes, but while you have an aver­age look­ing nose, Sheila’s is promi­nent, mak­ing her not as attrac­tive as you. Still, she has always had more luck with men, and you have tried not to let that both­er you.

The smell of turkey wafts through the room as you move on to wip­ing down coun­ters in the kitchen and mop­ping the floor while try­ing not to envy Sheila her free­dom and, reluc­tant­ly, because you like to think of your­self as hap­py with­out a man, her boyfriend. Try not to think that it’s been five years since you and Ted broke up, and a boyfriend has begun to seem like a mag­i­cal charm that you are unable to con­jure. Finish up with dust­ing the glass can­dy bowls on the end tables in the liv­ing room, as your moth­er con­tin­ues her harangue.

She’s a teacher,” your moth­er says. “She could go dur­ing the sum­mer.  I don’t know how your Aunt Patsy stands it.”

Two hours lat­er, look around the table and think all of the­se peo­ple are going to die. Do not nec­es­sar­i­ly feel grate­ful for this thought. Round will go the sweet pota­toes, the turkey and oth­er fix­ings includ­ing the broc­coli smoth­ered in that thick orange, sticky cheese sub­stance, apt­ly, you decide, known as Velveeta. The near rhyme to Cheeto, mak­ing for a class of pseudo-cheese sub­stances all named with a long “ee” sound—really their only resem­blance to cheese.

This dish your moth­er has made since the 70s. As you pass it along with­out tak­ing any, remem­ber that just moments before the com­pa­ny arrived, you said the dish need­ed to be scratched or at the very least updat­ed. Thirty years of Thanksgivings, Christmases and Easters with the same veg­etable dish you not­ed and sug­gest­ed that it’s time may­be to replace the Velveeta with ched­dar at the min­i­mum.

Nobody eats it any­more,” you said. But your moth­er said, “It’s tra­di­tion,” and you detect­ed a tear in her eye before she said, “You brat,” and laughed.

You felt your heart fill then, heavy with bur­den and wished those feel­ings away. It’s only a veg­etable dish for God’s sake.

Now div­ing into your mashed pota­toes, feel bad about crit­i­ciz­ing your moth­er, wish you could take back your expressed desire for ched­dar rather than Velveeta. Your moth­er is in her late 60s, and she will not be around forever, and if she wants to serve a man­u­fac­tured cheese pro­duct in a dish, is it real­ly nec­es­sary to fight with her about this? To fight with a wom­an who will die?

Your Aunt Patsy reminds every­one to say grace. Your entire fam­i­ly stops, puts down their knives, forks and spoons, makes the sign of the cross and says quick­ly and in unison and with some embar­rass­ment at what seems to be a slight­ly unwel­come ref­er­ence to the depths of human nature: “Bless Us O Lord for the­se thy gifts which we are about to receive through thy boun­ty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” Everybody again makes the sign of the cross. Knives, forks, and spoons are picked up again, and talk resumes.

You try to lis­ten to the table con­ver­sa­tion. Your sis­ter and your cous­in Bill’s wife Betty are dis­cussing their favorite TV shows, specif­i­cal­ly the lat­est America’s Top Model Competition, which fea­tured the mod­els dressed up as celebri­ties like Donald and Ivana Trump (even though Betty points out indig­nant­ly the two are no longer togeth­er). Unfortunately, appar­ent­ly with­out a dose of immi­nent death, talk of celebri­ties does not hold your atten­tion. So you focus in on the old­est mem­ber of the assem­bled con­tin­gent: Aunt Patsy. Right now she’s lis­ten­ing to your moth­er, nod­ding and smil­ing with her small, dark blue eyes that can only be described as mer­ry. Your dear Aunt Patsy will die. And then what? Your Aunt Patsy, the sanest mem­ber sit­ting at the table, the Aunt who always ignores tense sit­u­a­tions and sage­ly remains qui­et or tells just the right amus­ing story—about meet­ing real­ly the nicest man from of all places County Kerry in the park­ing lot of Sears who it turns out is relat­ed to great cous­in Margaret—with such delight that every­one for­gets, at least for the moment, exact­ly what well deserved old ax they were grind­ing. Your sis­ter, for instance, who last Thanksgiving refused to help set the table on the grounds that you are always manip­u­lat­ing her into doing things for you. You were indeed guilty of this when you were 11, and she was eight and you got her to go on the death coast­er three times despite her protests, screams and even tears. You quite sin­cere­ly told her that you would not love her any­more unless she accom­pa­nied you on the death coast­er. But that was 20 odd years ago, and your sis­ter, you think, needs to let go of it already. Unfortunately, the idea that your sis­ter too will die intrudes on your self-right­eous­ness

Your baby cous­in Patrick, who has his father’s star­tling­ly light blond hair, asks you to pass the stuff­ing. He smiles at you and laughs. And for a moment, Thanksgiving is just about food and fam­i­ly again, instead of impend­ing death. But only for a moment. Your mind quick­ly returns to its mor­bid watch. Your Aunt Patsy will die. Aunt Patsy who puts even your father on his best behav­ior, mak­ing him talk about the movie Toy Story rather than focus­ing on your lack of employ­ment, or worse in his book, your lack of ambi­tion. A long-time, unspo­ken accu­sa­tion made ever clear­er to you on your 35th birth­day just weeks ago when, with­out the pres­ence of Aunt Patsy or oth­er mer­ci­ful­ly dis­tract­ing extend­ed fam­i­ly mem­bers, your father gave you a book writ­ten, he explained, by a promi­nent psy­chol­o­gist and called Think Big.

You were left speech­less by his gift, and then indig­nant, yelling, “That’s insult­ing.”

No, it’s not,” your father said. “I heard him speak. He was inter­est­ing. I thought you’d find him inter­est­ing. Don’t be stub­born now and miss out on impor­tant advice.”

To which you could only reply, “It’s insult­ing.” Your inabil­i­ty to speak, mak­ing you feel like a sput­ter­ing engine:  full of ener­gy but unable to ful­ly func­tion.

Now won­der if you were stub­born, if you should read the book. But real­ly, in the end, believe that you have indeed thought big, per­haps, too big, been too ambi­tious, think­ing you could switch from career path to career path with ease until you found the per­fect fit—not tru­ly under­stand­ing that time real­ly does pass so very quick­ly.

~

Mary Lannon has work pub­lished at Story and in the Irish Echo. An Associate Professor of English at Nassau Community College, she is at work on a sec­ond nov­el while look­ing for a pub­lish­er for her first, “An Explanation of the Fundamentals of the Derivation of Dilapidated Brown Station Wagon Theory aka How I Became A Scientist and Discovered the Truth About Getting Stuck in the Wrong Universe by Miranda J. McCleod.”