Fiction by Jack Pendarvis

Your Cat Can Be a Movie Star! A Guide in 10 Easy Steps Step Eight: Seek Professional Help

Jack Pendarvis

No matter how I search my memory, I cannot recall when Sandy Baker, Jr., bartender at the Green Bear, first mentioned in passing that his cousin in Hollywood was a high-level “animal wrangler” — a gruesome phrase for a noble profession!

Have you ever enjoyed the sight of a chimpanzee on roller skates and wearing human clothing in a motion picture? Perhaps the chimp has donned a beanie as well, and the brightly hued plastic propeller on top spins around and around as he skates merrily along.

You would be a heinous prevaricator of the highest order or else a withered misanthrope with a heart of stone were you not moved to the loftiest realms of entertainment by such a sighting of the playful primate in question. It is a little known fact which I think I read in a magazine or saw on TV that Clint Eastwood’s highest grossing film is not one of his brooding contemplations on the nature of violence and the decay of the body, but the one with the orangutan who gave everybody the finger. It is a mark of the popularity of such films that I recall the orangutan’s name as Clyde, whereas my brain has retained no memory whatsoever of the name given to Clint Eastwood’s character who liked to hang around with Clyde.

Now how do you think the chimpanzee (or in Clint Eastwood’s case, orangutan) who has given you so much joy got to work that day? Did he ride the bus? It is highly unlikely, though I have no doubt a chimpanzee could be taught to count out correct change for bus fare.

You guessed it! Mr. Buttons (for that is what we will call our hypothetical chimp “chum”) arrived to the set right on time, his grateful belly freshly filled with ripe bananas, thanks to the tireless efforts of an animal wrangler.

That’s all well and good for the ape family, comes the logical rejoinder. I imagine an ape or a monkey could be a real handful. But what about the spider in Annie Hall? They probably just found a spider walking around on the ground.

Wrong again, on several counts. First of all, there is no spider in Annie Hall. I believe you are referring to the eminently touching scene in which Diane Keaton would like to get back together with Woody Allen after a breakup. She calls him on the phone, weeping, and tells him about a large spider in the bathroom. An amusing scene follows in which an outmatched Woody Allen, armed with a tennis racquet, attempts to vanquish said spider, which he describes as being “as big as Buick,” using the humorous methodology of hyperbolical speech. The spider, however, is never seen. Characteristic of Woody Allen’s filming techniques, Mr. Allen is visible only in part through a doorway, his frantic, half-obscured motions indicating his mammoth struggle with his arachnid foe, probably to save money on animal wranglers. For yes, a spider would have required a spider wrangler, as amazing as that may sound.

In Europe there are no animal wranglers, which is why every European movie has a scene that starts with a live duck getting its head chopped off. They don’t build up to it with some dramatic music that goes dum-dum-DUM. There might be a couple smooching or some people walking in a field, then BANG! A duck getting its head chopped off.

There is a reason no one wants to know “how the sausage is made.” How the sausage is made is terrible.

Let’s get back to this spider for a minute, you may understandably insist. It concerns me that an animal can be implied in a movie. How do I know that Hollywood will make room for my cat if they are so big on leaving everything to the imagination? In fact, isn’t the pioneering 1940s horror movie named after cats, Cat People, all about what is left off the screen, in the darkness of the viewer’s imagination?

Fair enough! But there is good news concerning your cat’s movie star potential. For you see, a cat is often used as a substitute for the darker forces being explored. In other words, you can imply a spider, but a cat is the implication, and therefore cannot in itself be implied. Is there a murderer lurking about? Then certainly a cat will knock over a garbage can and give everyone a scare. This happens in Pickup on South Street and numerous other films. Even in Cat People, which you mention, an innocent kitten serves as visual counterpoint to the mysterious and otherworldly “Cat Lady,” who is never exactly seen except in her sultry and all-too-delectably-human form. Did you know that actress dated George Gershwin? He was a lucky guy! Until he died of an agonizing brain tumor just at the prime of his young life.

Movies would be nothing without cats, whereas spiders (with the notable exception of Kingdom of the Spiders) are almost wholly dispensable. Even the greatest movie spider of all is never seen. Do you recall in Through a Glass Darkly when Ingmar Bergman’s heroine reveals that God crawled on her face and He was a horrible cold spider? Of course you do! Well, we never saw that spider, did we? To see it would have defeated the point. But you are not a spider owner, you are a cat owner, or otherwise you are reading the wrong book, you want one called Your Spider Can Be a Movie Star!, which does not exist, because there is no way any individual spider is going to become a movie star.

I will not lie to you. Most of my conversations with Sandy Baker, Jr., must have occurred at some point in my enjoyment of the fruits of his labors as a bartender. I do recall telling him about my idea for a children’s book about Scriabin. I imagine the conversation may have gone like this:

“Who’s this Scriabin character?”

“As a young boy he used to kiss and hug his piano.”

“If you say so.”

“He was a visionary composer who wanted to bring about the end of society with his cataclysmic music.”

“How’d that work out?”

“Before he could finish, he picked at a pimple on his face and the next thing you know he was dead of gangrene.”

Sandy took to calling me “The Old Idea Man,” and hinted that he, by contrast, was a man of action. He put such wild things in the air as the veiled suggestion he had once had to eat part of his own body to survive.

Well, this guy is obviously full of beans, comes the swift judgment.

You didn’t know him, with his compelling line of talk and hypnotic, wet eyes.

No, he was no buttoned-down milquetoast, scared of braggadocio. Is that what you want in an advocate? I knew from the start that Sandy Baker, Jr., was a volatile type, the sort of person who in the worst case scenario becomes a petty demagogue or tells his followers to eat poison so the UFOs can come get them. I was warned about him.

As may be imagined, the old farmer who frequented the Green Bear tavern was stoic and in tune with the cycles of nature. Naturally, he was wary of people from the “me generation” or “generation X” or the “flower people” or “young rowdies” or “pot-heads” or whatever it was that Sandy Baker, Jr., apparently represented to him. I should have guessed as much. I suppose I was fooled by my own image of the bar as an oasis full of the cheerful barbs characteristic of masculinity as it is practiced in the United States and on the classic sitcom Cheers. It is instructive to consider how many times the character Cliff Clavin would have committed suicide in real life had he been subject to such bullying as he endured on that show.

One evening I took my customary walk to the bar a little later than usual. As I recall, twilight was in the air and the weather was cooling nicely. My wife was out of town for work and I felt some mild and pleasant sense of liberty.

A stranger (to me) was tending bar, a gruff bald man replete with misshapen teeth in sore need of a dentifrice. Some younger people were milling about, a few in lab coats, refugees from the local chemical plant. Sometimes a familiar place can seem like a different world!

At least I saw one of my fellow “regulars,” the old farmer, and I was moved by sentiment. I had never before had the courage to simply sidle up directly next to him on a stool and engage in casual chit chat, but suddenly I found myself not only willing, but eager, to do just that, my lonely feelings due to my wife’s absence intensified and supplemented by the natural impulse toward “male bonding.”

To my astonishment, the old farmer was garbed in a gray pinstripe suit, a far cry from his usual dungarees or overalls. I fear that my opening remark was some jovial observation on the subject.

“My friend died,” came his sobering reply.

He was referring to Ned Brick, the old detective with whom he had so often gambled.

We spoke for a while of sad things, such as a trip to Alaska he had always hoped to make with his first wife but never had.

The old farmer had been a pallbearer at the old detective’s funeral. I speculated aloud at one point as to whether Sandy Baker, Jr., had been similarly employed. This the old farmer answered with a grunt.

I made some remark about Sandy, something about how he didn’t seem so bad to me, a half-hearted defense, I must admit, because at the moment my most cherished hope was that the old farmer would like me. We are always going around criticizing St. Peter for denying Jesus thrice before the crowing of the cock, but come on! It is so easy to want to “go with the crowd” who happens to be around. We all just want to fit in.

“You must know about my disappointing, fat son,” the old farmer said.

I was startled in numerous ways. For one, it seemed that a very personal conversation was about to ensue. Also, it was intriguing to think what association Sandy Baker, Jr., might have with the old farmer’s disappointing, fat son. Also, it seemed to be a terrible way to describe one’s son. Also, there is the matter of my own weight.

I noted that the old farmer was drinking gin, a “harder” libation than usual. On the spot I made the mental decision to recall his every word as closely as possible, and to use the lengthy restroom breaks for which he was so justifiably famous to make some notes in my own form of shorthand, which I planned to transcribe in my leisure at home. As you will see from the following, my plan was a success in that regard.

“You’re telling me you never heard of my fat, disappointing son? His name is Cookie.”

I paused to think. It is true that I had heard the name Cookie mentioned somewhat frequently, though I could not recall in what capacity. I had a nagging sense that the Cookie of which I had heard was a woman, or had been talked about in strictly womanly terms. I was amazed to think that this Cookie of my imaginings could be a male of any kind. I thought it best not to mention this, and merely shook my head as if in blankness.

Cookie, I was informed, blogged constantly about a young actress named _______. I leave the name blank not from pretension or postmodernism, but simply because the old farmer could not remember the name of the actress that his son liked to blog about. Otherwise alert people of a certain age begin forgetting the names of current superstars, and why shouldn’t they? This man probably knew everything about the phases of the moon.

From various clues, I would suspect that the old farmer might have been trying to refer to Scarlett Johansen, due to a number of mentions of “red hair,” though I cannot say so with certainty. Ms. Johansen has been viewed in films with various shades of hair, red certainly among them. Perhaps a certain Jpeg from Cookie’s blog, at which the old farmer had gazed with disgust, had fastened itself to his mind with, dare I say it, the strange admixture of lust and distaste that is so common for all of us who participate in humankind.

Cookie was fifty years of age, and the old farmer found it unseemly that the girl of his obsession still had baby fat on her, in the old farmer’s estimation. This also makes me suspect that her identity was that of Scarlett Johansen, who is a person so soft and creamy, resembling nothing so much as a nourishing bowl of oatmeal.

Hypocrisy! cries the alert reader. Isn’t this the same old farmer who, as we have been informed in an earlier chapter, has a child bride named Cherry of all things, covered in pale, pink freckles from head to shapely toes?

To which I can only respond, “Touché.”

But may I suggest that we pause for a second before rushing to judgment and take a hard look at our own lives and impulses? It is probably far from uncommon that we recognize as great sins the small faults in others that we fail to recognize in ourselves.

Not that there was any sin involved, on the face of it, with the marriage of the old farmer to his legally aged wife Cherry. As I brood on this complicated matter, it occurs to me that what really bothered the old farmer was his son’s timidity. In keeping with the subject of our book, Cookie was not going after his dream! Rather than tracking down Scarlett Johansen (for the sake of argument) and asking her on a date, he was content to scan the Internet for candid photographs of her, in effect building a virtual shrine to her in full view of a disbelieving public, at which he could kneel and worship like a wretched mooncalf.

We can learn something here! Let us say that Cookie and his father had a different dream. Let us say that instead of wanting to strike up relationships with beautiful younger women, they both wanted to turn their cats into movie stars. Which one do you think would succeed? The clammy recluse who “photoshops” pictures of his cat into great scenes of movie history, or the tough old coot who takes the bull by the horns and “crashes” an exclusive Hollywood party, let us say at the home of Kevin Costner, and says, in effect, “Mr. Costner, I would like to introduce you to the cat who is going to revive your career”? And then he quite literally “lets the cat out of the bag”!

I imagine that Kevin Costner would respond with a wry chuckle, “Buddy, you’re all right. Let’s see what this cat of yours can do.”

One warm evening the old farmer came home, after dropping off his young wife Cherry at the airport, to notice that the living room furniture had been pushed against the walls. Next he saw Sandy Baker, Jr., with his shirt unbuttoned all the way. Sandy Baker, Jr.’s ribs were prominent and pronounced and his chest was quite hairless, almost as if denuded by artificial means. As another part of this scenario, the old farmer’s middle-aged son Cookie was on his hands and knees. Sandy Baker, Jr., was riding Cookie around the room like a horse.

Have I mentioned that Cookie was living with Cherry and the old farmer at the time, due to his pending divorce? Naturally, the old farmer wished to ascertain what was “going on.”

“I was showing Cookie here some tricks,” Sandy Baker, Jr., offered, buttoning his shirt, having dismounted, and attempting to make himself look presentable under the circumstances.

The old farmer thought of a postcard that Cherry had mailed him from one of her shopping trips to Dallas, showing a spider monkey in a cowboy outfit riding a large dog. At the time, everyone had said it was “cute” and “funny.” But now he remembered with stark immediacy the grim, desperate faces of the monkey and the dog.

As he told his story, the old farmer had been staring into the filthy mirror behind the bar, staring the way he might have stared at a fallow field, full of longing and knowledge, seeing things a layman could never see. Suddenly he turned those burning eyes on me.

“Stay away from Mr. Sandy Baker, Jr. He’ll beguile you with his powers, and soon you’ll be his henchman on his bloody, hidden deeds.”

This was interesting news, because I had recently given Sandy Baker, Jr., the sum of $300 that didn’t exactly belong to me so that he could have some special publicity shots of my cat made up.

Inspired by the old farmer’s newfound passion for gin and the reluctant thought of returning to my own dark house, I consumed a quantity of gibsons and made many embarrassing proclamations, only a few of which I can recall with any certainty, most if not all of them to uninterested strangers.


JACK PENDARVIS has written three books. He is a regular columnist for THE OXFORD AMERICAN and THE BELIEVER magazines.

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