THE CAT, THE POTTED PALM, AND THE NAKED LADY
Thirty years ago, I wrote a story called "The Cat, The Potted Palm, and The Naked Lady," published in Issue No. 4, "Straight from the Gut," Ken Kesey's "Spit in the Ocean" Magazine (Winter, 1978, Lee Marrs, ed.). In honor of that anniversary, I open my blog here with that story. I liked the story well enough, but of course could have had no idea that three decades later, one line of that story has spread throughout the world, and has even been translated into Arabic, Serbo-Croatian, Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan. There are calendars and bumper stickers, coffee mugs and posters, buttons and catfood bowls. Tigger was a real cat/person, with a large following of her own, and all this attention would have pleased her. I brought her home at six weeks on a Greyhound bus, tucked inside my jacket, and she honored me with her presence for 21 years. She remains one of the best people I've ever known. MP
"After all, a dog is a dog, and a bird is a bird, but a cat is a person."
I never figured out why they always die. I brought them home immediately, brought them belatedly, repotted them, left them in their original pot, watered them, droughted them, put them in the sun, in the shade. In desperation, I even put them in the refrigerator, put them in the shower (light cream rinse only), and under the bed. No matter what I did with the 6" Potted Palm, it died dead at once.
After changing my toothpaste three times, I decided they must be Scorpio loners, so I put them on the top shelf of the closet and ignored them. If possible, they died more quickly. Eventually, I had a tiny graveyard in the garden, Arlington Local. The neighbors began complaining about zoning, driving me to the People's Law, Dope & Free VD Test Library to research the plantricide laws of the state of california in and for the county of san francisco. I found out a good deal about victimless crimes, and in the course discovered that most of my complaining neighbors' waterbeds were not only x-rated, but illegal, immoral, and that wasn't oregano growing in their back yard either. But still I found nothing pertaining to my systematic genocide of an entire species of Palm.
When my landlord filed his position paper on Arlington Local, I screamed, "You know what you are, you're a cunnilinguist!"
He smiled. "I didn't know you knew, French and Latin, San Diego State," and returned to vacuuming the hall, whistling.
There never was an Annette Funicello/Bobby Darin movie without palms. Thirties and Forties movie stars always draped themselves around such greenery. You never saw Joan Crawford/Bette Davis/Lena Horne without the proverbial potted palm belching in the background. So when I migrated to california, naturally, I had to have one. I actually had about 34, to the amusement of friends and interested others. I am presently convinced that there are only three in california, two of which are 68 years old and owned by Living Plant Rentals, Inc.
(If you've been wondering what happened to all those kids who migrated to san francisco barefoot in the wake of the flower child, well, a number of us are still here, working and not working; living and dying; getting stoned and staying straight, and trying to raise suicidal palms. Those who stayed collected everything everyone else left when they went back to wherever after the diggers quit digging and governor raygun suggested the solution to the logging companies/sierra club feud was to cut down all the trees except those along the scenic highways.)
I was one who stayed. I collected a drafting table, a hamster tank, three pairs of tennis shoes, a doll's house, two televisions and several boarders who didn't work, and TA DA, a potted palm with a will to live! ! ! !
Which doesn't make me Joan Crawford. But if you think about it long enough, you know why Tigger and I live alone, having gotten sick of six consecutive communes and several dozen collectives, all doing Good Things for at least three weeks. And I ran out of room for yes to, "Say could you use a genuine fill-in-the-blank . . ., at least until I get back from. . . ."
Well, Aunt Martha, Tigger is a cat. (She's sitting out there in Watercress, Iowa, asking, "Who's this Tigger, who's this Tigger . . . , because my Midwestern relatives are totally convinced that I am Living in Sin. Oh, lord, if they had any idea just how hard Good Sin is to find! Especially in San Francisco, where 70 percent of the men not only could but often do look better in your favorite dress.)
Tigger is a cat, although she wouldn't like me saying that. As the lady on the tube said, people are so silly about animals. After all, a dog is a dog, a bird is a bird, but a cat is a person.
Tigger has her own sense of things. I put newspaper beneath her kitty litter and under her food bowl. Now she carefully covers up her food dish when she's finished eating. She likes music, often sitting on the Surrealistic Pillow and riding around, though she doesn't think much of the Fountains of Rome. And she likes to sit on my shoulder like a parrot (which is fine as long as she keeps her mouth shut). But, more than anything, she likes to eat Potted Palms. Which she says is her caviar (and my interior decorator's waterloo). Which is how she got into show business, and I nearly ended up in a strait jacket.
Slouching toward Bethlehem one day, she evaded my Maginot Line and ate an entire leaf of P. Palm. (I name everything, according to F. Fern.) P. Palm was howling and swearing a green streak and F. Fern was dialing the SPCP when I decided something needed to be done. I took a terribly frightened P. Palm off to the plant hospital around the corner: Theda Barr's Psychic Parlor and Plant Hospital. She promised me Palm would recover, especially if I paid her $43.00 (food stamps accepted). I mentally added $30.00 for an hour with my shrink, which would follow the worrying I was doing about where to get the money and/or stamps, and went home, where I finally ordered Tig up against the wall. She may be the famous one in the family, having modeled for underground comix, but that didn't give her the right to bully the others. Especially not $43.00 worth.
"You've sponged off me long enough! Goddamn it, I'm not made of money, you're going out and get a job!" I had saved that speech from my Haight-Ashbury daze.
"Doing what? You know how hard it is to get modeling jobs."
"Well, do something, cat food ads, maybe. But you've got to come up with $43.00 by Thursday."
Her sense of integrity was mortally offended. "I'm an Artist," she sniffed. But I explained that I didn't like working either as I packed her portfolio and her dr. dentons. We hopped on the Sacramenna bus down to the J. Walter Thompson Agency, who, it turned out, was only doing radio cat food ads these days. But Tigger showed them her equity card and did her stuff. The entire swimming pool production number from Footlight Parade and a complete Judy Garland concert. Then, wringing wet and high on reds, she recited "The Owl and the Pussycat" and the "Cremation of Sam McGee." They said they'd call us. But the receptionist told us it was because of the Equal Opportunity Employment people being on their case lately. So they had to get a siamese, manx, or Persian. It's tough to be a WASP in show biz these days, she confided.
But we no sooner got in the door when she called us back. Dyna-kitty was doing a whole new promo and liked Tigger's headshots. So I packed her into a cab and she chased back down there with a whole case of stage fright. I suggested a joint would be easier to carry, but she felt she had to do it straight, muttering about Artistic Integrity and The Method. So I muttered back about Paying the Rent and Buying Catfood.
I'd finally managed to relax into a hot tub of old confession magazines ("Lucy Tells the Truth about Liza and Desi, Jr.," "Did the best Seller Win? Or just Peter out?") when the phone rang.
It was my friendly neighborhood friend from Fresno with her annual entry into our Worry Contest (a traveling trophy).
"I think I've got you this time," she said. "I was just sitting here worrying about what to do with the siamese in case of nuclear attack. . . should I take them with me to the shelter, or just open all the cans of cat food. . . "
I wrapped the trophy while I told her about my problem with Tig. She said she'd been planting wild birdseed and the cats like that better than house plants. It was the first viable solution anybody had presented, so I immediately dashed down to the pet store.
"Do you have wild birdseed?" I asked.
"Birdseed, that's all we have, parakeet, finch, or canary," the man said. "And you might want to put some clothes on."
"Canary's fine," I said, "and do you have some potting soil?" "What the hell you going to do with the birdseed, lady?" he asked.
"Grow canaries," I said, rushing out. Buying dirt always bothered me anyway. Something about paying for something you can find anywhere. If you have a jackhammer.
I ran upstairs past the landlord who was now spackeling the holes the piano movers had left in the wall and collected an old pan and spoon and charged back downstairs with a sign from my last demonstration that said: "Free dirt and all political prisoners."
"You might want to put some clothes on!" he shouted.
The nearest thing to a tree on my block is a gas pump with a sign that says "post no bills," so I ran on down the street until I came to a concrete tub with a tree in it. I don't know where they captured said tree, but they had him all tied down with wire and rope so he couldn't get away. I straightaway filled the pan.
"Put it back."
I looked at the tree. Probably an out-of-work actor from Wizard of Oz, I thought.
"Put it back, okay?"
I told him about trying to buy steer manure at sears for my boss so he would understand that I knew BS when I saw it, showed him my sign and told him about Tig and what a brotherly thing it would be to do for P. Palm, but about that time the pet store man came chasing around the corner which was when I remembered I hadn't paid for the birdseed. I looked over my shoulder as I turned the corner to see the pet store man untying the tree. Soon they were beating feet behind me. . . da da da, da da da, da da da da da • • • (think William Tell Overture) da da da, da da da, da da da da da. . .
After I bolted the door, I resumed my meditation in the tub. Lucy never did say why Peter was the better Seller, but the story had a lot of nice pictures of Fred and Ethel Mertz in it.
Then I decided the birdseed was priority, since the box was already sprouting from being dropped in the tub when I got the spoon for the dirt out of the draino can. I wandered out to the kitchen and gathered up an old tv dinner tray and the dirt and planted the burgeoning seeds before anything further could happen to them. The doorbell rang then, and I was so nervous I spilled the remains of the box all over me. I answered the door before I realized I still had no clothes on. Oh, hell, if it was good enough for the Emperor, it was good enough for me. Of course it would be my landlord at the door instead of those guys from Palestine selling The Robe.
I have to admire san francisco chinese landlords for their composure. Even though he was backing through the window across the hall, spilling spackle from his trowel. "Look, you've got to get rid of that old refrigerator on the back porch," he said, standing-on the fire escape. "The public health was just here and they say it's got to go or they're going to fine me $200."
"Can I finish planting my birdseed first?" I asked. He ran down the stairs, muttering to himself in Cantonese.
Tigger came wandering up the stairs with a check for $300 and four cases of cheese-and-liver-flavored dyna-kitty. I helped her carry the check in. We locked the door and I finished planting the seed, which had now grown a full two inches, including the half box spilled all over me, making me look like a soon-to-be Birnham Wood. Tigger stored her royalties in the pantry and opened a can for herself. "Here," I said, putting the birdseed next to her food. "Salad. So don't you ever touch P. Palm again. Understand me? I've got enough trouble with the health department and the landlord right now without the SPCP on my back."
"Is there any thousand island?"
"Only if you paw in blood to leave Palm alone."
She was in such a good mood, she gave in. It seems she'd also been offered a role in Deep Coat, an x-rated movie about a Persian with her claws in her ears – although the cosmetic transformation from Maine Coon to Persian would have her in make-up for hours each morning. "I do have to let my hair grow," she said, "but otherwise I can fake it."
She tossed her National Organization of Cat Women card down the trash chute before I could discuss the ethics of the part with her, but we do have to make our own mistakes in life, and besides, the doorbell rang just then.
Tigger answered it, hoping for her first autograph seekers. "Just a minute," she said, and came back to the kitchen. "Look, I have a feeling you might want to hide. The landlord and some tree and another guy are out there, and I don't think they're going to be too impressed with you standing there looking like the Revenge of the Canary Seed Grass Person." She handed me a blanket, although at the rate the grass was growing, bark might have been more appropriate.
Tig went back out and stalled 'em, letting them scratch her ears while I hid. Finally they gave up their searching, searching, and decided to use the tree's willing branches while available to remove the old refrigerator. Which is how I ended up bruised, naked, and out of breath at the Good Will.
"Nothing in here but a tree with an old blanket on," I heard a voice say.
"No, it's moving. Probably not a tree."
Why the police believed any of this, I'll never know. But they took me to a greenhouse where I was striped of my foliage and then taken home in a big green garbage bag with holes cut in for head and arms.
Tee martoonies later, I sat Tigger and all the houseplants down for a good ole heart-to-heart-to-stem talk. Tigger decided we might go for relationship counseling, but I thought perhaps Theda Barr might help us learn how to get along. I thought P. Palm would be more open with a Palmist as a counselor. It was always so hard to get a plant to open up -- although I'd had considerable practice with some of the losers I'd been dating.
So we trundled down to the California Street Psychic Parlor & Plant Hospital, and I explained the situation to Ms. Barr, with a minimum of clumps of potting soil being thrown at Tigger, and she suggested a medium session. We pulled the drapes and dimmed the lights. Eventually, with paws, branches, and hands on the table, we began to hear strange noises. "I'll be calling you-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou." It was coming from P. Palm. Tigger, looking amazingly Northwest Mounted Police-ish astradle the chair, was echoing this madness. I stared at Ms. Barr in amazement.
"I'm going back to being an honest stock broker," she said. I just nodded, wondering if such a thing were actually possible.
"Oh, Nelson," P. Palm sobbed, "It's what you always do. You always get on that darned horse and upstage me!"
"But, Jeanette, what do you want me to do??? It's in the script," Tigger protested.
"You always have an excuse for what you do, don't you? And you say you love me…"
I suddenly felt so alone, sitting there with a medium who gave massages and my two best friends, a cat and a plant who turned out to be Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in their former lives. I might not be Living in Sin in San Francisco, Aunt Martha, but there were worse things that could happen.
Honestly, I must say, things have somewhat settled down now. It's a good deal noisier in the apartment, what with Tigger and Palm singing duets all the time, and the poor landlord wandering the halls talking to himself, but Palm gave a concert last week at the Boarding House with a cameo appearance by Tigger, and I can finally get some writing done, since they're now able to pay my rent.
Copyright © 2008 by Mugsy Peabody. All world rights reserved.