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The invitation said a send off for Chairman Mao. Marsha never liked Mao, but with one week to go before her name graced the mailbox at 234 Hill Street, San Francisco, California, she thought not attending would start her new life off on the wrong foot. When her friend Lisa asked if this was some kind of Chinese New Year thing, Marsha remained non committal because she had lied to Lisa when she told her they were going to a party. Right or wrong foot, Marsha wasn’t stupid enough to risk going to Hill Street alone. Lisa pulled up in front of the building. “Park in the driveway,” said Marsha, “just in case we need to make a quick getaway.” “I thought this was a party? Why would we need to leave fast?” “Well, sort of a party. My friend Arnell is different.” Marsha. This should be run of the mill, but then again, freaky things were always happening here, and Marsha knew Lisa freaked out easily. “What do you mean sort of a party? How is she different? Is she a communist?” Lisa pulled into the driveway and switched off the engine. Marsha looked up at the dark green Victorian building in front of them. “Here it is, my new home. And don’t you know all liberals are communists?” “It looks like every other old San Francisco Edwardian to me,” said Lisa.
Marsha had met Arnell at a sculpting class she’d taken a couple of years before. While she chipped away at the stone, Arnell would regale Marsha with stories about the building where she lived. She said it was the last hippie commune in San Francisco. All the inhabitants obsessively recycled, rode bikes, and they even had compost bins before the city offered them as standard faire. Nobody locked their doors. And best of all, the rent harkened back to the days of the original communes that sprang up in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco. On her birthday, Marsha told herself she wanted to change her life. Break out of her sorority sister existence that had her living in San Francisco’s Marina district – the land of blondes, botox, and BMWs – for the past seven years. Then Arnell told her an apartment might be opening in her building and Martha immediately quit the peroxide to prepare. Truthfully, Marsha wanted to lower her rent payments. But Marsha never told anyone, including herself, the truth unless it was necessary, and then only when it was absolutely necessary. For the moment, Marsha’s ‘truth’ was recycling and composting. Once she moved in, she’d find a reason for ridding herself of the black strip that stretched a good two inches on each side of her part. She’d hope they didn’t notice when she threw used paper towels in the garbage instead of compost and drove her car daily instead of monthly as she’d told the landlord in her interview. None of that mattered, though, because tonight was all about being a good neighbor and turning up in a time of need.
The noise from the slamming doors echoed across the empty street. Lisa glanced up at the porch. “I don’t see any people,” she said.
Marsha didn’t react. She thought it best to leave all the explaining for the last minute. “If it’s a dud, we can bail for the Toronado,” she said, referring to a bar around the corner. Lisa stopped. “I heard the Toronado smells and the bartenders play the music so loud it makes your ears bleed.” Marsha knew Lisa’s goal for the evening was to meet and conquer a new man, so she said, “But the guys are cute and plenty.”
Marsha scanned the numbers on the wall in front of her. There were no names beside the numbers and she only remembered the number of her new apartment. The other tenants will be there she thought. She vowed to at least put her name next to her number when she moved in next week, then she started at the top, pressing each bell, including the one soon to be hers, twice. When she reached the sixth and last one, Arnell’s natural blonde head appeared between the rickety flower boxes perching on the railing above them. Marsha could see her puffy red eyes from the street. Oh for God’s sake she thought, it’s been a week and she’s still crying. “What’s wrong with her?” hissed Lisa. “Hi, Arnell.” Marsha waved and Arnell disappeared. A few seconds later she reappeared behind the front gate. Her swollen eyes almost sank in the sockets. Marsha wondered if they should leave as Arnell opened the gate. “This is my friend Lisa,” she said. Arnell leaned forward so her nose was inches from Lisa’s face. Lisa flinched and stepped backwards. The light at the front gate made strange shadows appear over Arnell’s
swollen eyes. Marsha squinted her own for a better look. She wondered if Arnell had gotten one of those living room botox treatments she’d read about. Then she wondered if someone who lived in a hippie commune would even want to get botoxed. Do these people even worry about wrinkles? She moved forward on the pretense of giving Arnell a hug to get a closer look. In between the overpowering smell of patchouli, Marsha noticed that Arnell’s eyebrows were completely gone.
As Arnell lead Marsha and Lisa up the stairs. Marsha whispered, “Did you see her eyebrows? I want the name of her waxer.” Lisa glared at her and whispered, “I don’t think this is a party.”
When they entered the hallway, Marsha noticed the air hung thick with incense and a new nose wrinkling smell she couldn’t quite place. “What’s that smell?” asked Lisa. “They’re all natural here. Who knows? Probably some granola plant tonic.” Arnell paused at the front door. Then she turned and said “I’m glad you came by to see him.” “See who?” Lisa mouthed to Marsha. Marsha elbowed her and said “We wanted to quickly pay our respects and then go to the Toronado.” Marsha immediately wondered if it sounded callous to say they’d rather be at a bar than here. Then she remembered the landlord had cashed her first and last months rent check, so even if it did, so what. She was in.
“Respects?” said Lisa. Marsha mouthed “Cute guys and Toronado,” to Lisa hoping to use the bad news/good news thing to her advantage. “Shall we go in?” said Arnell. “Marsha, did somebody die?” Lisa sounded frightened and Marsha wished she’d get it together and hold it that way for the ten minutes they needed to drink a toast and depart. “Who died?” said Lisa as Marsha entered the front door of Arnell’s flat. She stopped short. This is not good, Marsha thought as Lisa plowed right into her. “Oh my God,” shrieked Lisa. The source of the unpleasant smell lay atop a gold satin pillow, smack in the center of the coffee table. “Look, Arnell’s cat,” said Marsha. “But, I’m allergic,” cried Lisa.
The two guys in tie-dye and the Goth woman from apartment 3 watched as Lisa plucked a Kleenex, sneezed, dropped the Kleenex on the floor, plucked another, repeating the process in a continuous motion. Marsha thought Lisa’s behavior to be a bit on the dramatic side because a dead cat couldn’t possibly cause an allergic reaction of that magnitude in such a short time. Especially a cat that had been dead nearly a week if the invitation that compelled her visit in the first place was accurate.
“Can I offer you something to drink?” asked Arnell. Marsha dropped her gaze from the ceiling where she had been concentrating in an effort not to look upon the dead cat. The dead cat with receded lips and bared teeth lying in state on a golden pallet. The dead cat who should be resting snugly under a pile of garden dirt instead of on a pillow flanked by two bowls of potato chips. “Something to drink?” she asked again. Marsha slid her eyes sidelong at Lisa who only slowed her sinus ritual long enough to take in the woman from the back house wearing a crown of battery powered lights. “Do you have red wine?” asked Marsha. “There’s a dead cat on the coffee table,” whispered Lisa. Marsha shifted her gaze downward and saw that Lisa had exhausted the Kleenex box. She was holding the last ragged tissue over her nose and mouth. “There’s a dead cat on the table,” she whispered again. “Yes,” Marsha whispered back, “don’t look at it.” As Arnell went into the kitchen to get the wine, she called out, “Please, help yourself to some chips.” “I thought those were for him.” Marsha pointed at the cat on the coffee table.
Lisa and Marsha stood rigidly against the bookshelf staring at the dead cat lying in a position one would expect if he’d been thrown out a twenty story window and was trying to make the famous on-his-feet landing. Legs straight, paws relevé, tail acting as a rudder. He’d become the evening’s car wreck that neither could take her eyes off.
Arnell passed in front of them with a tray of tiny pastries still steaming from the hot oven. Lisa unwadded her Kleenex and piled three or four of the dainties on it while Arnell watched. Working up the courage, Marsha finally asked the question she’d been dying to ask all night, “So, Arnell, um, shouldn’t he be in the garden?” she paused, “underground? Like in a proper grave?” “Well, we’ve buried his organs. They had to be removed,” she paused, “you know, to allow his body to be more well-preserved as he rests. The heart is in that canopic jar behind you on the bookshelf. When he passes to the afterlife, his body will be placed in the sarcophagus behind you. I made it and the jar in art class,” she added brightly. “He’ll go in there with the flowers and catnip and be buried in the garden under his favorite plant.” Marsha wondered if she meant the flowers that circled the cat’s stiff body looking deader than he did. Then she considered the week dead cat on the coffee table and wondered if catnip was the only thing growing in that garden. “Because the Chairman was an Egyptian Mau breed of cat, we’re following the Egyptian ritual to honor him,” said Arnell. “I shaved my eyebrows and we’ve mummified him. Now he just needs to cross over.” Marsha felt relieved that her eyebrows were not a waxing mishap. “How did you mummify him?” “Well, after I removed the organs, I needed to remove moisture from the body. So I improvised and stuck him in the oven,” said Arnell.
Lisa spit out the puff pastry she’d just taken a bite from. It hit the hardwood floor with a splat. Marsha rolled her eyes and wished she’d brought a sturdier friend.
The tie-dyed guy with a pony tail passed a ritual joint to the woman with lights who extended it to Marsha next. When she both she and Lisa abstained, one of them muttered, “Its cool man.” When they’d finished smoking the joint, light lady invited them to the front porch for a cigarette. Marsha opened her mouth to ask why joints inside and cigarettes outside, but Lisa stepped on her foot before she could get the words out. Once they were alone in the flat, Lisa said “This is a freak show.” “No,” said Marsha patiently, “it’s the Lower Haight. I wanted something different from the Marina and you said OK. Too late to change your mind now.” “Different, not dead animals. I’m leaving.” I wonder how they’ll know he passed, thought Marsha. Lisa stepped forward. The heel of her shoe slid across the masticated pastry puff. Her body toppled sideways. Then her fist hit the coffee table and made contact with the soft funeral pallet where the dead cat rested. Marsha’s shrieked when she heard a thud accompanied by what sounded like a golf ball rolling across hardwood.
Lisa sat heaving on the floor as Marsha peered over the coffee table to inspect the damage. The back half of the cat’s body stuck out from under the futon couch. “Watch the door.”
Marsha tiptoed around the table. Then she stuck out her shoe, caught the front legs of the cat with her pointed toe, and gently moved him back. “Oh shit,” said Marsha. “He lost his head.”
“What are we going to do?” said Lisa, “they’ll be back any minute.” “OK, let’s put the pillow back on the table and take the body,” said Marsha. “We can tell them he passed and then throw him in the trash on the way to the bar. I’ll get a towel, you get the head.” Marsha found what looked like an old towel in the bathroom cupboard. She figured this towel probably had the same status as the rotten old underwear everyone saves just in case they go too long before doing laundry; the pair you absolutely do not want to be wearing if you ever got in a car accident. She rolled the body up in the towel thinking that she’d read the ancient Egyptians sometimes wrapped the dead in reed mats before burying and thought the towel and trash could be considered the modern equivalent of this practice. As Marsha shoved the body in her purse, Lisa said, “Should we leave a note?”
The five smokers were just taking their last drag as Marsha and Lisa stepped onto the porch. “Sorry to drink and run,” said Marsha, “but we have friends waiting at the Toronado.” For the first time, Marsha looked forward to the stench of stale beer their destination was famous for. She figured that was the only thing that could overcome the dead cat odor that had taken residence in her sinuses.
When they reached the end of the block, Marsha spotted a trash can across the street. She motioned to Lisa and crossed. Marsha glanced back at the Arnell’s porch halfway up the block. It stood empty. She pulled the body out and wondered if they should say some sort of prayer. “I hope there’s lots of mice where you go,” said Marsha as she dropped the dead parcel into the trash. “Throw in the head and let’s get a drink.” “I thought you grabbed the head?” said Lisa. “I told you to,” said Marsha. They looked back at the empty porch, then turned around and ran.
Marsha moved in a week later. Another week passed before she found an invitation for tea from Arnell pinned to her door.
Marsha stood in front of Arnell’s door listening to her anxious heart pounding inside her chest. She paused and sniffed the air. At least the incense smell is gone. She rapped her knuckles lightly on the door, counted to three, and then turned to leave right as Arnell opened it. When she entered Arnell’s flat, Marsha noticed the pillow on the coffee table where she and Lisa had left it two weeks before. Two bowls of chips still sat like fat guards on either end and the Chairman’s head sat in the middle. Marsha pointed and said, “Do you think he’s coming back for that?”