I was asked by the three people who read these posts what I thought of the final episode of Downton Abbey. Now I know I said in my last post that I was done until the Christmas special but, as it turns out, in the U.K. the death of Matthew Crawley was the Christmas special. So.
How does a young, healthy, sober man get into a car accident on an empty road on a sunny day with a milk truck that I can beat in a foot race? It isn’t as if Matthew was eating an eclair, then took a swig of coffee that spilled down the front of his impeccable shirt causing him to take his eyes of the road in order to gauge the magnitude of the stain, then decided that perhaps he could get it out with saliva, whereupon he began gnawing wetly on his own button placket, all the while fiddling with the radio trying to find a station that wasn’t playing ”Hotel California” and failing that, propelled his Stutz Bearcat into the nearest available obstruction (milk truck) in an attempt to, dear god, make it stop.
Instead, Matthew’s death reads like the work of ne’er-do-well, marginally embittered writers who were tired of Dan Stevens (Matthew) bursting into their office, interrupting whatever time wasting activity in which they were involved in the name of “research,” demanding to know exactly when he would be available to pursue “other professional opportunities.” Thus serving to remind the writers how lucky they were to have this opportunity because “marketing departments dictate the literary marketplace,” leaving them so few options in the book world, that their response was to write what can only be described as a “just fucking go already” scene.
Question: Is Downton Abbey a scientific experiment in “life out of order”, or the most impressive example of job security ever for older actors ever? (Subset question: Did they turn Downton Abbey into an officers’ military hospital to test the viewers’ willingness to accept Downton as a high end retirement home?)
Downton is a place of death. Specifically, young, untimely death: the randy Turkish fellow, the virginal footman who loved Daisy and died of something that I believe is called We’re Tired of Writing Dull Dialog For You disease; the beautiful Lady Sybil who channels her inner Chatterley by taking up with the chauffeur; Miss Swire who was interchangeable with Lord Grantham’s dog, Isis, in terms of her dramatic impact, and, of course, Matthew. (Eighteen year-old Cousin Rose was at Downton for two days before she got shipped back to Scotland. Let me just say, Whew! Close one.)
I don’t know quite how to say this so I will just say it: The key to unexpected turns of events is to make them unexpected. For example, if you predictably only kill off anyone under the age of thirty, you thereby establish what is known as “a pattern.” A pattern could be considered the opposite of the unexpected. Just something to think about during all that free time the Downton writers now have due to spending exactly three seconds coming up with Matthew Crawley’s death.
Question: Why Don’t The Crawley’s Ever Go Anywhere?
They’re rich. They’re retired. They have great clothes, and no one needs to lose ten pounds before attending a social event, and yet the only place they ever venture is to the drawing room and the dining room in a house the size of the nearby village. The last movie I saw that was historical and set in a mansion where no one ever left the premises, was The Others, with Nicole Kidman. All I’m saying, Downton, is it’s been done.
Just when it seemed that the Crawleys shared a genetic disposition to some sort of agoraphobia, they went to visit Rose’s parents in Scotland—no doubt with the intention of “inviting Rose back to Downton” once they realized she had craftily escaped with her young life. I can’t quite imagine how the Crawleys all came to be sitting around in the drawing room (or dining room), having a family meeting on where to take a week’s vacation as if they only have seven days of vacation left on their time cards, and no one suggests “Paris.” Or “Cairo.” How does “Let’s go see Shrimpy and Lady Shrimpy (aka The Bickersons) in the desolate north in that forbidding manor with the DIY rifle-flower wall art and no central heating” win? Did someone have a wager to settle?
Question: How old were the Shrimpys when they had Cousin Rose?
Odd chronological familial relations is a kind of mini-staple in visual entertainment, to the extent that more than a few casting decisions look more like someone calling in a favor than actually paying attention to the reproductive cycle of the average human female. How else to explain:
1. Marian and Winthrop Paroo
In The Music Man we are introduced to Marian (The Librarian) who lives with her widowed mother and her younger brother, Winthrop. Marian is old enough to be considered a spinster and looks about thirty years old. Winthrop is maybe six years old. I believe Mrs. Paroo’s heavy Irish brogue is a diversionary tactic to prevent us from “doing the math.”
2. Mitch and Kathy Brenner
Mitch Brenner frequently visits his widowed mother and younger sister, Kathy, in sleepy little Bodega Bay, soon to be a vacation spot for The Birds. Ages run crazy all over the place. Mitch looks to be pushing forty, so in 1960s years he’s probably more like thirty-two years old. Kathy is twelve. The Widow Brenner looks about fifty. It’s possible for her to have had Mitch at eighteen and Kathy at thirty-eight, but who plans a family with an entire generational span between siblings and no one in between? I mean, don’t they sort of cease to be siblings and become more like a guy and his mom and “that girl.”
3. The Von Trapps
Nothing seems amiss, until Liesl ‘I-am-sixteen-going-on-forty” von Trapp shows up in the whistle line-up. It’s a testament to Julie Andrew’s acting that when she’s introduced to the children, played by actors who all look age appropriate with the exception of the young matron, Liesl von Trapp, stomping out their names and ages, that she waits until the toad scene at the dinner table to accuse them of “pulling her leg.”
Question: Why Do I Expect The Actors Playing The Servants Only To Leave Their Acting Job at Downton Abbey If Asked To?
It is also a testament to the veracity of Downton Abbey that only the people upstairs seem to be able to leave the show; downstairs it seems they are lucky to have that job. I mean, I have to remind myself that they aren’t really servants with prescribed lives but actors who are playing servants with prescribed lives. Yet somehow I find myself reading about Matthew or Lady Sybil getting other acting opportunities and thinking, well, of course. Yet I somehow know that if O’Brien suddenly showed up as a Broadway lead, or Jimmy the Footman was the new regular on GIRLS I would find myself thinking, Really? Who knew? Followed by a good for them!, as if they had, by sheer luck, escaped their sad little basement life.
My prediction: Jimmy and Thomas will fall in love, though Thomas will tire of him because all those cute little things that were once so endearing—monkeying with the lobster spoons, threatening to call the police—will soon become quite tiresome. But I will leave that for another season.
In the meantime, I’d like to sort out the upstairs mysteries of Downton Abbey.
Money & the Lord
For me, Lord Grantham has been a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a dinner jacket, then wrapped in his old military uniform when he believed he was being called into service during the Great War, only be embarrassed back into the real world, and so returned to being rewrapped in a dinner jacket. But I now think I may know what Lord Grantham is about: He is lazy. Not just lazy, but full-on, lard-ass move-it-mister lazy.
He thinks his financial advisor/lawyer/whatever is some sort of pest and tells Matthew not to let this man “bother him,” as if he’s someone’s funny uncle that must be tolerated. He spends like someone on a bender, What? An investment in railroads? Oh, because of the war and the destruction and the reality they will need to rebuild? And, let me see if I understand, you want ALL my cash? Canada? Well, what can I say except put me down for one hundred percent of everything I own, in a country without a single battleground! No, no. All of it! Baby needs new shoes!
Did he go into the study that he never leaves, inside the house that he never leaves, spin the globe near his desk and invest in the place where his finger landed? Lord Grantham didn’t even need to mention Charles Ponzi in the last episode for us to know that he is eighty years and one Internet friending from sending funds to a Nigerian prince.
Is it possible to be too lazy to even pick up a newspaper? Just how indolent is indolent?
Case in point: Lord Grantham’s quasi-affair with the new housemaid last season. He lives in a castle the size of a castle yet insists that she come to his room, the one separated from his wife’s by one of those connecting motel doors, because it would be asking too much that they meet in one of the other 425 chambers of Downton. He would rather risk his marriage than walk down the hall or a flight of stairs. One can only imagine who would be doing all the heavy lifting had that relationship ever progressed; I’m guessing it would be a lot more take and very little give, if you get my drift.
The servants of Downton are really like Lord Grantham’s sloth beard. Bates dresses him, listens to him prattle on until he’s incarcerated (hey, maybe that’s why Bates was such a hair trigger in the gaol?), then Thomas takes over. Everyone else brings him food and information (unless it’s financial information and then even listening becomes too much work). There’s nothing like a phalanx of servants treating you like a veal to mask your lazy ass self.
He even has beard friends—Dr. Clarkson, the vicar, Tom Branson’s brother who, unfortunately, recalls nothing so much as a pedophile with anger issues—but no real friends because the effort required just to pick up the phone is simply too much. In short, Lord Grantham is that guy who comes to spend a weekend on your couch in San Francisco with no plans and an open plane ticket.
His utter lack of ambition does explain his entire 3-point financial strategy of:
1. Be born into wealth.
2. Marry wealth.
3. Accept gifts of wealth.
A program, I should say, I am totally down with.
The Trials of Lady Edith
The narrative of Lady Edith in Downton Abbey is eerily reminiscent of Zero Dark Thirty: the torture scenes. My confusion here is, when they finally break her, what is it they want her to say? Hey, thanks for making me the plain, resentful sister when being the plain sister would’ve been sufficient? Are you not familiar with the term “overkill?”
That Downton never stops torturing Poor Lady Edith is impressive. It’s like she’s a heroine in one of those Victorian novels that involves a kidnapping and a snuggery. First, she rats out her own sister (evidence of her bitterness, which is an admission of her lack of desirability and popularity, you know, in case we missed the point). Then she’s helping out on some farm where she ends up kissing a farmer who, I’m pretty sure, has never been into anything dentally related. Then she tells her ancient fiancé that not only does she want to take care of him, but that he will be her “life’s work” as if she’s suddenly Vincent Price, while he smiles wanly, his eyes darting around for a door as he happens to mention some recently widowed duchess that he dated back in the 19th century.
Let’s see, Lady Edith…the plain one (check); overlooked daughter (check); left at the altar (check); spinsterhood (check); no meals in bed (check)—What fresh hell is left? What can possibly continue her pattern of humiliation, rejection and heartbreak? What profession (a word that makes her father retire to his study and imitate the vocalizations of a howler monkey) would provide all that and more? Could it be…a writer?
A Final Musing
What is with that pathetic Grapes of Wrath farm Matthew and company keep visiting? And why is it every time the conversation turns to the vast holdings of Downton and how to make them work efficiently enough to preserve the estate for future generations, all roads lead back to that sad little Dorothea Lange farm? We’ve never seen a single person living there yet all Matthew talks about is raising the rent, which, if I’m not mistaken, requires renters to put into effect. And why is it that when the Crawley’s are considering a place for Tom Branson and Baby Sybil to live the only thing they can come up with is that same sad little farm instead of, say, the swanky manse that the Crawleys keep empty in case they lose everything (again)? Why can’t Tom and Baby Sybil live there? Why are Tom’s choices the sad little Dust Bowl farm or his pedophile-with-anger-issues brother’s garage apartment? And, if Tom does move into the sad little farm wouldn’t they be raising his rent? As part of the family, wouldn’t they be paying him to pay them, thus creating the sort of lazy ass financial scheme that only Lord Grantham could love?
I recently came across one of those popular article inserts asking Who are you in Downton Abbey? I’m sure everyone rushed to their local water cooler to declare themselves “a Mrs. Patmore” or that sweaty looking wanna-be valet with the bad comb over last seen working at Mrs. Crawley’s. I’m having a t-shirt made right at this moment that reads “I’m an O’Brien,” as I pull back my hair, leaving only two tiny cocktail weenie curls, symmetrically located on my sour little face (Question: Is it by accident or design that O’Brien and Jan Brady have the exact same forehead hair and sense of social injustice? Discuss.) Before I leave this paragraph entirely, I have no idea what the wanna-be valet actually does at Downton. He isn’t a footman. He isn’t a valet (as we know). I’ve never seen him cooking or polishing silver…come to think of it, I only see him at mealtime, seated somewhere between Anna and Alfred, reminiscent of the groupies “eating all the steak” backstage in Almost Famous.
The Almost Famous valet is only one of the many characters that I no longer understand in this season’s Downton Abbey. Let’s begin downstairs, shall we?
Daisy and The Footmen
While Daisy and the Footmen, sounds like a cross between a Victorian novel by Anonymous and an independent film produced in the San Fernando Valley, circa 1978, it’s really more of an historical Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. To recap: Daisy likes Alfred who is the first footman. He likes the new rouge-wearing kitchen maid, who in turn has eyes for the second footman, Jimmy, who is appears to like Daisy, who likes Alfred, and so on. But wait! Is that the pizza delivery guy at the door, natty in his valet’s uniform, all roving eyes and hands, directing innuendos at the uncomfortable Jimmy? Hullooo Thomas!
Hot Tramp, I Love You So, or Ethel
I realize that the comical value of any given name often depends upon one’s generation. It doesn’t help that almost every single one hundred year old girl’s name has come back into style—except Ethel. Ethel is pretty much the exact mathematical opposite of erotic (the other opposite of erotic at Downton is Lady Edith). Or that the only Ethel many of us ever knew was Ethel Mertz, Lucy and Desi’s homebound tenant who had clearly married a man old enough to be her grandfather, thus establishing the accepted generational span for most Los Angeles marriages. That Ethel Mertz traded her youth for a one bedroom apartment and a pair of landlords who were home often enough to constantly be on you to “turn the music down” is almost as sad as the story of Downton’s Ethel, a young women with what can only be described as a spectacular case of cooties.
Aurally, the Bate’s narrative is comparable to the difficulty of the accents in Trainspotting. Though I couldn’t always catch what was being said in that film, I could at least hear them. I am so taxed trying to understand Bates and his roommate and the prison guard and the friendly inmate that I now have a deep furrow between my eyebrows from squinting with effort. Why? Since my ears didn’t seem to be adequate to the task, I had to enlist the help of my eyes, as if all my senses are just some kind of massive power source of comprehension. Worse, I’m filling in so much of the storyline that I am one professional contract and two postage stamps away from charging Julian Fellowes with my writing services.
Why is Bates being framed? Why, since he’s already convicted of murder, does anyone want to plant that large cigar in his bunk, the one that he hid between the bricks of his cell before transferring it to his cellmate’s bunk? Who stands to gain from Bates remaining in prison? When did Bates become such an Important Person in the English prison system?
All I know is that Bates has a cellmate who is in cahoots with a guard, and both of them are working overtime to make sure that Bates never gets out. They remind me of the boy on the grade school playground who keeps harassing his female classmate because he “likes her.” Downton, am I close?
Additionally, Bates keeps periodically grabbing his cellmate by the shirt and ramming him up against a wall: In their shared cell, and in the prison passage way. Last week Bates yanked him from their queue in the exercise yard, forcing him up against yet another wall in a secluded niche, this time with a small knife to the throat. Let me see if I’m using the term correctly: Is this what is meant by rough trade?
Just when I had comfortably settled into Dr. Clarkson’s portrayal as a country doctor who is really a serial killer, along comes some celebrity MD from London to make Dr. Clarkson look like he knows what he’s doing. The tragedy is that even though this time Dr. Clarkson was one hundred percent correct in his medical diagnosis, the patient still died. Well done, Downton! Frankly, if the Crawleys aren’t careful no one is going to want to visit for a fortnight of shooting and cocktails.
I will say that I that I was impressed by Dr. Clarkson calmly hanging back from Lady Sybil when she was having seizures, since, as he said, “There is nothing to be done,” instead of racing over and pretending to “do something” in the same manner that certain mechanically-challenged motorists check under the hood when the car breaks down.
A high point of the episode was the London MD’s response to Dr. Clarkson’s observation of the very pregnant Lady Sybil that she seemed a “little off and her ankles were swollen.” The London MD replies, as any concerned physician would when faced with a not-unusual pregnancy complication, “Maybe Lady Sybil just has fat ankles.” Yes.The assessment of cankles now passes as a second opinion.
At which point I’m thinking, Did they even have medical schools in England, or just a grand tradition of surgeon-barbers?
Several months ago I read about this horrible, horrible disease. So horrible that I dare not speak its impossible to pronounce name. It features the emergence of small threads from under one’s skin, resembling the fibers of a cheap, plaid polyester sofa that someone’s rarely washed dog claimed ten years ago with no plans to surrender any time soon. A theory has been advanced that this disease comes from outer space. Is this possible? I have to say Yes, because ‘possibility’ is pretty much the cornerstone of hypochondria; and while I’m not a world class hypochondriac but more of a talented amateur, I should know. (This personal state of affairs is not helped by access to the Internet and possessing a novelist’s imagination.)
Which brings me to Dr. Clarkson, M.D., the preferred physician of the family and staff of Downton Abbey, at which point I’d like to refer you to the photograph. Take a good look, linger if you like, because when they eventually fall into the care of the esteemed Dr. Clarkson, you won’t be seeing their likes again. Dr. Clarkson is the exact locus where Downton Abbey and Ten Little Indians (the 1960s film adaption of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None) meet.
In Ten Little Indians, ten people are invited to a mountain retreat by a mysterious host calling himself Mr. Owen, who never seems to arrive, exactly. Unless he is the person picking off all the guests, one by one, their deaths punishment for having literally gotten away with murder themselves. The whole thing is a basically a kind of low-budget, 1970s, New York City vigilante affair, if Charles Bronson were some sort of scold, greeting his guests with a taped voice that gets the accusatory tones of someone’s mother just right.
Predictably, the actors playing the ten guests react to the information that they are all killers by acting as if they had just enrolled in a beginning Method class and were told to “access the time in sixth grade when you were caught red-handed pulling a classmate’s chair out from under him as he went to sit down after saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school assembly, landing hard on the floor. And even though your little hand still gripped the back of the folding chair, you still vehemently denied your guilt, which no one believed.” It may help, too, to know that three of the actors were Shirley Eaton, notable for her willingness to be naked in Goldfinger; Fabian, an American Idol contestant before American Idol existed (such is the sadness of peaking before the wave, creatively speaking), and Hugh O’Brien, one of those handsome-ish TV actors who starred in a series about Wyatt Earp during the Golden Age of Television and who, I discovered on Wikipedia, married for the first time at age eighty-one to a women not much older than I, with Debbie Reynolds singing at their Crystal Cathedral wedding—all of which sounds like a Disneyland attraction located in the New Orleans section between Frontierland and Adventureland. Spoiler Alert (if my memory serves): Shirley “Goldfinger” Eaton survives; Fabian “I’ll Never Achieve Cinematic Legitimacy” does not.
Mr. Owen Dr. Clarkson began the first season of “Downton Abbey” with a seriously ill young farmer in his care. Isobel Crawley, new to Downton and someone who knows her way around a surgery by virtue of her husband (a London doctor) and her position as a physician’s assistant, tells Dr. Clarkson that the young man needn’t necessarily die due to the amazing success with a revolutionary treatment now being used in London.
Dr. Clarkson rejects her suggestion (and the medical wisdom of the MDs in London), explaining that, no, this young man is going to die and they should simply allow him to die. The young man says, weakly, Uh, if I’m dying anyway, what’s the harm is giving it a go? This is met with the doctor’s patented condescension due to the man’s social status and, an admonishment that death is death and that’s your final destination, pal. Then his young wife, who is not at all taken with the prospect of being a destitute widow with children and the very real possibility that she’ll be selling herself on the street in no time thus shortening her own life span by about sixty years, also timidly asks if they might try it?
No, says Dr. Clarkson, sighing and vexed, as if to say, What part of I’m going to let this young fellow die are you not understanding? Do you not know the meaning of the word “expendable?” If you had gone to Oxford, you would, but instead youwere born to a life of decided to muck stalls. And now I must go dress for cocktails with Lord Grantham.
When Isobel Crawley cures the young farmer with the procedure she suggested is Dr. Clarkson relieved? Is he grateful? Does he say, I’ll be damned? No. He complains to Lord Grantham that “this sort of thing will not be tolerated in his surgery,” as if she had broken out the laudanum, then went for a joy ride in his brougham.
Next up in the Ten Little Downton Abbey: Matthew Crawley. Son of Isobel, hero of the first World War where he sustained a spine injury that left him unable to walk, and unable to “truly be a man.” Unfortunately, Matthew is engaged to Miss Swire, a delicate girl with whom he has no discernible sexual chemistry so it could be argued that she may not take the bad “man” news as hard as the doctor thinks.
Months of Matthew in a wheelchair pass, until the day in drawing room when Miss Swire trips on a corner of carpet and Matthew leaps from his chair to catch her. I’m no Doctor Clarkson but I can’t help wondering if there isn’t some physical stage between paraplegic and leaping? Wouldn’t there be some small increments of change, some inkling of improvement that one would notice?
Is Dr. Clarkson relieved? Is he grateful? Does he say, I’ll be damned? No. He tells Lord Grantham and the rest of clan who are questioning him in the drawing room that upon reading the x-ray it was his educated opinion that the spine was severed. Severed, he explains, to the point where one will no longer truly be a man. However, a doctor in London (again with the London medical community) also read the x-ray at the same time as Dr. Clarkson and diagnosed a “bruised spine” meaning that recovery was possible. Yet Dr. Clarkson felt it would be cruel to offer Matthew any shred of hope. And, as you see, Dr. Clarkson finishes, It was, and it is, and what about those cocktails? Carry on being a man, Matthew.
Unfortunately, the Spanish Flu is laying everyone to waste. Lady Grantham gets sick. Very sick and who do they call? Dr. Clarkson tells the family that She’ll probably expire in the night. Unless, of course, she doesn’t. But I really think she will. Yes, look at her bent over the bed, sick and sweating and delirious. Gather round, Granthams, because it isn’t like she should be quarantined or anything because it isn’t like this flu is contagious and killing a third of the planet’s population and—oh, by the way—could you get a couple of the servants in here, too? If only because they eat in the kitchen, near the food.
Miss Swire takes ill at the same time but the doctor says she has just a touch, not even a cough and I’ll see you in the morning…when rigor mortis has set in.
As he stands with Matthew and other family members, looking at Miss Swire’s sweet, lifeless form while the doomed Lady Grantham is recovering nicely down the hall, is Dr. Clarkson relieved? Is he grateful? Does he say, I’ll be damned? No. He says Ah, yes. Tricky business flu. Hard to predict. Cocktails?
(At this point, one wonders why Bates didn’t refer his inconvenient and vindictive ex-wife to Dr. Clarkson for a check-up.)
In the Season Three opener, when Mrs. Hughes discovers a lump in her breast and it’s off to the man who cannot tell the difference between a bruised spine and a severed spine. As Mrs. Hughes sits in Dr. Clarkson’s office, Mrs. Patmore by her side getting increasingly agitated, Mrs. Hughes says, “Mrs. Patmore, please allow me to be the hysterical one.” Now I believe that Mrs. Patmore was attempting the verbal equivalent of kicking a spouse under the table when dining with friends that you really don’t like because of their pretentious utterances, and backhanded compliments yet you can’t avoid them because, you keep claiming to be too busy for dinner, they finally say, Okay, then when can we have dinner? and replying Never is never an option. There is Mrs. Patmore in Dr. Clarkson office, figuratively kicking Mrs. Hughes under the table, speaking with her foot, “Listen, Mrs. Hughes, remember when I was going blind in the first season and was trying to keep it a secret even though I was working all day with knives and boiling water and open flames and no one really noticed I was going blind and making culinary mistakes because I was cooking English cuisine? And when I was found out I said that I hid my condition because I was afraid I would lose my lucrative Downton Abbey kitchen job? Well, really it was because I’m friends with the young farmer’s wife and she told me what happened in the surgery, her fears of destitution and descent into that kind of really unsanitary Edwardian Era prostitution. Then there was the confab of overexposure in the sick room of someone with Spanish Flu. And maybe I didn’t go to Oxford but even I know a severed spine when I see one. After all, I work with joints of venison and butchered lambs and pheasant and it isn’t rocket science to see when something is severed. And, by the way, you’ll notice that Lord Grantham sent me to LONDON, where I was treated by doctors in LONDON and now I don’t even need contacts.”
But Mrs. Hughes, not unlike a spouse who turns to you and says, “Why are you kicking me?” causing you to smile nervously at your hosts while secretly feeling astonished as such cluelessness, says to Dr. Clarkson, “When can we do the biopsy?”
He tells her now, and Mrs. Patmore exclaims, “Will it hurt?”—trying desperately to get her friend on board here. Instead Mrs. Hughes replies, “It doesn’t matter. Whether it hurts or not, it must be done,” effectively releasing Dr. Clarkson from any pretense of medical competency.
Post-biopsy, Dr. Clarkson tells Mrs. Hughes that—big surprise—he can’t tell what’s what. He uses the word “inconclusive” the way other people say, “who the fuck knows?” He’s decided to send it on to London for a second opinion, which would be heartening except this is the same doctor who had a second opinion (from London) on the condition of Matthew’s spine. So, it doesn’t matter what the other doctor says since Dr. Clarkson Owen will be drawing his own conclusions anyway.
It will be over two months before he hears anything—long enough for Mrs. Hughes to be untreated and well on her way to becoming part of the cast of Ten Little Indians. His advice? Take it easy and don’t work too hard, clearly ignoring the fact that all those cocktails don’t pour themselves, something he may want to consider once he’s done “treating” everyone.
(Downton Update: As of last week Mrs Hughes has been given a death warrant clean bill of health by Dr. Clarkson. Nice knowin’ ya, Mrs. H.)
You’ve seen this scene in almost every crime movie: The hero is walking down the street when he passes a parked car with a crooked cop and his muscled sidekick and they invite the hero to “Go for a ride” so “We can talk to you.” Then, after traumatizing him with threats while circling several city blocks, the crooked cop and his muscled sidekick drop off the hero in the exact same spot where they picked him up.
One very hot summer day, John and I were walking through our neighborhood on our way to lunch when we passed a utility pole stapled with the usual Lost Pet flyer. I did what I always do which is to stop, study the picture, learn the lost pet’s name and characteristics (“Cuzco is very skittish and may scratch” ”Lily is excessively shy and may bolt” “Buttons is deaf in one ear” “Arnold takes anxiety medication”). The personality portion of the flyer always begs a few questions: Maybe Arnold needs medication because he doesn’t exactly enjoy your company? Is Cuzco “skittish” or trying to claw his way to freedom? And why, seriously, do you want this pet back when the whole relationship just sounds like a 1950s prison movie with Susan Hayward?
It turns out that this Lost Pet was non-neurotic young tabby who was simply new to the neighborhood and somehow slipped through the door.
Later that same day, my teenage son and I were driving about a dozen blocks from the posted flyer when we came upon a group of young girls on a sidewalk, playing with a young tabby that was the exact image of the Lost Pet Cat. I say ‘playing’, but the scene more accurately resembled a dinner party of dissolute French aristocrats months before their unfortunate introduction to the guillotine, as they sat around ridiculing someone who had just left the room to use the chamber pot. That is to say, they weren’t handling the little cat as much as they were carrying on a kind of running commentary. I’m guessing that some think tank is studying this tendency of Children in the Computer Age right now.
Now I’m disinclined to involve with seemingly unaffiliated animals because of the possibility of the encounter turning into something like an adult version of Hot Potato at the moment when the music stops. I dread an adorable cat following me down the street, or making eye contact with some friendly dog on the loose. For some reason, ‘acting like you don’t care’ is kind of a cross-species turn-on; nothing says pursue me like pretending to check the gum on the bottom of your shoe.
It was with great resignation to the vagaries of life and loss that I leaned out my window (but compromised by keeping the engine running) to ask about the little cat. I am no expert when it comes to nine year old girls, but their excitement at being asked about the cat was pretty impressive. They all spoke at once. They didn’t know who it belonged to; it just showed up. Why did I want to know? Where was the pet flyer? What was it’s name? What was my name? Where did I live? Did I have any cats? They liked Persians. Didn’t I think it should have a collar? A diamond one, in purple. They told me their ages and pointed out their houses. This cat had a home. Was I looking to steal this cat? Someone used to have a cat. Could this be their cat? Could they have the phone number on the flyer? It was an exchange that made little sense, offered no concrete information, was frequently contradictory and was full of more than a little informational one-upmanship.
In short, they so exhausted me that when they offered to return the cat, I said, good and started to leave. Wait! They cried. Where was the flyer? Trying to follow their conversation was nothing next to trying to give them directions to the flyer. It was like talking to aliens. (“Walk up the street two blocks.” ”What street?” ”This street.” ”This street?” ”Yes.” ”What about that street?” ”That street is the wrong direction.” ”But I live on that street.” ”But the flyer isn’t in that direction.” ’Which direction is it?” ”Up that street.” ”Can I go down that street?” And so on, culminating with my favorite comment, “What’s a flyer?”)
Their final remark to me, as I tried to pull away from the curb was that they wanted me to return the cat for them. Actually, they were quite emphatic about it. In popular parlance I believe this is known as “acting like the boss of someone.”
My son retrieved the young tabby, bringing him back to the car, where I had rolled up all the windows despite the blistering hot day. We had just begun our search for the flyer when the cat, docile up until now, let out a yowl and leapt from my kid’s hands while demonstrating a claw dexterity on par with Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. All I could think was please,not the eyes.
If you have never been in an enclosed car on a very hot summer day with a really angry cat, then you really haven’t experienced the dual discomfort of cat pinball as all its hair is now being transferred to your sweaty self. And, as with most highly charged moments involving two or more human beings, someone is yelling directives (“Hold on to it!” ”Keep it away from the accelerator!!” ”I said, hold on to it!”) while the other is saying, “I’m trying” but really thinking, Don’t you think I would IF I could, if only to smack you with it. You have like, twenty seconds before everything devolves into petty criticisms that have nothing to do with the current situation.
We found the flyer. I got out to read the phone number, leaving my son in the car. Okay, before you judge, hear my reasoning: He’s young. He’ll heal faster.
No one answered.
The end of the story is that I brought the cat back to the place where I snatched it. A neighbor, who also knows me, explained that the little cat belonged to her neighbor and why was it in my car? This was when I realized that the answer was, Taking it for a ride.
All I could think about was the little cat telling its other cat friends, “Yeah, I was hanging around, you know how I like to do my business at the green house, when this blue car pulled up. I didn’t think anything of it, until this kid picked me up and there I was—in the car!!”
“No way!” said the other cats.
“I was cool with it until the car started moving.”
“Where did they take you?” Then one cat’s voice drops to a whisper, ”Was it the vet?”
“No. They drove to a far street corner.”
The cats said nothing.
“Then brought me back here.”
“Wait, I don’t understand,” said one of the cats. ”They took you for a car ride? On a ninety-three degree day?”
“Up by Cuzco’s house.”
“Then brought you back to where they picked you up?”
Then there is more discussion of what it all meant, with one cat saying that he hoped you released more hair than normal, and what a drag it is being domesticated, and how they don’t find people as amusing as people finds cats entertaining, which led to the obvious theories of evolution and wondering what’s for dinner.
Today’s cat story, “The Asshole With a Dead Bird In It’s Mouth,” was related to me—breathlessly, I might add—by John.
It seems that John and our friend, Camille, were on one of their usual afternoon dog walks with Gomez (Cairn Terrier) and Doug the Dog (Pit Bull mix), when they noticed a nicely groomed white cat, with a dead bird clamped between it’s (satanic) little teeth, as it stood on the porch of a neighborhood house. Camille asked John to hold Doug’s leash so she could take a picture of the white cat and it’s lunch, using her iPhone. One picture. One.
No sooner did she turn her back, post-photo, holding out her hand for Doug’s leash, when the white cat dropped the bird on the Welcome mat in the same manner that certain scrappy girls at my high school would remove their hoop earrings before pummeling someone, then taking off after the four of them like it was go-time. When John said taking off he meant that the thing was moving like a Concorde leaving London Heathrow because the white cat was racing toward them, its front legs flailing wildly, claws out, in a full-on furious one-cat elevator fight. He said it looked like Steven Segal doing his best spastic faux martial arts moves, so much so that John fully expected the cat to snarl, “That’s right! You want some of this?”
John also said that he didn’t know a house cat could “run on two feet.” And, that “this must be how the paparazzi feel when they try to photograph Alec Baldwin.” Of course, he was thinking all this as he tried to protect himself and Gomez using the patented Single Leg Kick While Also Trying To Not To Turn His Back On The Attacker And Watch Out For On Coming Traffic maneuver since he, Gomez and the white cat were all in the middle of the street. As he turned to run he was thinking What sort of cat abandons its kill to pursue a grown man, a grown woman, a terrier who specializes in killing rats, and a pit bull? Wondering if the white cat had some sort of on switch activated by the appearance of an iPhone?
Further down the street, he said that the white cat was still chasing them on it’s two skinny legs, still ripping at the air with it’s front legs. Not only was it still in hot pursuit, it seemed that running away from the cat had the effect of pissing it off more, something it illustrated by delivering a claw-bitch slap across Gomez’s surprised face when it caught up to them. Camille and Doug were already across the street and halfway down the block.
It finally gave up quite a distance from the porch and the dead bird. John said he was going to go back the next day and see if it was there, like he was suddenly Riff in the original Broadway cast of West Side Story , itching for a turf war. Gomez, on the other hand, was more like the little Jewish candy store owner lecturing the Jets about violence after they pulled off Anita’s shawl (so we’ll know she’s Puerto Rican) and started tossing her around (so we’ll buy into the possibility that all those dancing Jets are going to violate her).
One day, while I was walking our dog with Camille and Doug, one of the kazillion urban chickens that lives in our urban neighborhood, was out of it’s yard and hanging around the sidewalk as they are wont to do, unnerving Camille who has a slight case of Pet PTSD. I wanted to remind her that we casually eat their kind, which I believe is a pretty effective form of domination, and, besides, it’s not like the kazillion crows that lurk around our streets, clearly bored out of their minds and looking, I’m fairly sure, for the opportunity to peck out the soft jelly of one’s eyes, but I know we all have our fears.
Later she sent me a copy of the iPhone Photo That Was Taken And All Hell Followed. She said of the picture, “Here’s the asshole with the dead bird In it’s mouth”—which now offer to you.
Here is what I wrote in an earlier blog about our former Manx, JB:
…[she had] an alarming, rather creative anal issue that would’ve been funny had it been happening to someone else’s cat. We were told it was a “Manx thing” but I really must call bullshit because I’ve since had another Manx and there was no alarming anal business with him.
All true—until yesterday when it seems the gods were screwing around at their desks, halfheartedly checking out bad plastic surgery on the Internet, while lamenting the inability to “discover anything new online” (a fundamental flaw with being all-knowing), that they stumbled across the above statement in my blog. Hmm, they said, perking up a bit, Doesn’t she have another Manx? And isn’t that Manx in possession of an anus? Then someone called out for martinis and tacos and the next thing I knew, I was headed back to the vet with our little Manx, Otis.
Now here I must digress. I’m currently in the second month of a Self-Improvement Program where, among other things, I’m trying not to mix-and-match my waking and sleeping wardrobe, while make an effort to get out more. I happen to be one of those people who gives the impression of being more social than I am because I’m cheerful and chatty and tend to enthuse over the prospect of “getting together.” I am sincere about wanting to see people; I’m just equally sincere about wanting to stay home. Socializing is one of those things where the more you do it, the better you do it, and the less you do it, the more you gaffe, which makes you not want to go out very often, which makes you more gaffe-prone when you do go out. In short, you become your own social problem.
For example, a couple of months ago some friends of ours, who live in a large and lovely Victorian that had once belonged to something like the richest guy on the block, invited us to a dinner party. Their house is a nice blend of a couple of centuries: The structural elements of their beautifully remodeled kitchen includes 19th century wooden columns salvaged from a razed school house, and a gorgeous, repurposed wooden beam rescued from an early 20th century barn, alongside shiny restaurant-style appliances. They also removed the wall between the dining room and kitchen, playing with the whole formal/casual thing, then added a pair of French doors opening onto a deck, secluded by landscaping that looks untouched by a human hand. The entire effect is actually transporting.
The main floor bathroom, located at the end of its own small, dedicated hallway is in keeping with the elegant-modern Victorian vibe. The vintage wooden door is inset with a large sheet of glass. A bathroom door. Sheet of glass. My first thought was This is kind of crazy. Then I considered the close attention paid to the rest of the decor and thought, Or is it crazy like a hip, happening decorator? Here I must digress from my digression for a minute—I had been in a very groovy downtown restaurant a few years ago and the one-room restrooms had sliding glass doors that, when the light came on, blocked the interior view from the people waiting outside. I could see them but they couldn’t see me. It was like peeing while observing a police procedural at HQ.
So here’s the inherent problem with a bathroom that resembles something in a design magazine: I’m not quite sure what is meant to be admired and what is meant to be used. Which brings me to the fancy drapes, held back on either side of the door by what I believe are called “holdbacks”, and pooling artfully on the floor. I stood inside the bathroom, examining the drapes as if I were one of the 2001: A Space Odyssey apes puzzling over the monolith. If my hosts wanted to obscure the view, why didn’t they use textured or frosted glass? And wouldn’t some sort of window shade indicate its purpose in a way that a pair of heavy, perfectly arranged floor-length drapes using holdbacks, do not?
Then it occurred to me that this wasn’t glass glass but trick glass; a kind of wink and a nod within all this Victoriana. After all, it wasn’t as if the toilet was tucked discreetly behind a set of thick Turkish towels on a heated rack, or a refurbished locker from a colonial men’s club that now served as a linen closet. The drapes were merely the frame for the cool window.
I should add that the only illumination in the bathroom came from strategically placed lit candles, lending the interior a soft, romantica glow. Having decided that the glass was the sort of trick glass that was activated by flooding the room with light, I knew the candles were inadequate for the task and flipped on all the lights.
There I was, using the facilities—attempting to use the facilities—panicking a little over a sudden attack of pee-shyness brought on by the sense of being on display when a male guest, who I had yet to be introduced to, came to the door. I didn’t panic because I was in a well-lit bathroom and I knew, per the groovy restaurant restrooms, that I was invisible to the exterior. When the guest reached for the no-lock doorknob I called out, “Someone’s in here!” not wanting, of course, to be walked in upon.
His response was to make eye contact before offering me a little “didn’t mean to disturb you” wave as he disappeared down the hallway.
When I quickly returned to the party (if I was absent any longer Mr. Nameless Bathroom Guy may have thought he interrupted a far more involved activity—forget that I didn’t even get to do what I originally had gone in there to do so I still had to pee but didn’t feel comfortable excusing myself again when I had only just joined everyone), all the guests were at the table. I took the one empty chair to find myself next to Mr. Nameless Bathroom Guy; yes, sitting next to Mr. NBG who had last seen me…sitting.
Though we talked all evening I have no idea what was said because all I could think about was that he had seen me where he had seen me, all the lights on, while I was acting as if I were invisible—I had called out to him when he was staring right at me, like a Mistress Obvious of Indoor Plumbing—and that for all I knew he thought I was some kind of golden shower aficionado who opted not to use the very conspicuous and copious drapes that were clearly to insure privacy, and that maybe he played into my little Dinner Party Toilet Fantasy that I like to indulge in during social occasions with strangers because he had never met me before and so had no way to judge my behavior.
Back to the cat. Last week, the Cat OD prevented us from going to a barbecue that we had been looking forward to attending.
This week we had to miss out on another party for a friend of ours who had been living in New York for the past six months—all due to yet another, serious Cat Problem that I won’t elaborate upon here except to say that it was creepy, unusual, serious, and involved an anus, as was previously mentioned. And it cost $400, which I’m beginning to think is the exact cost of some recreational activity someone at the vet enjoys.