by John Jeffire
The buildings were very tall, different shapes, some pointy in places, some squarish, not bad to look at, but nothing any more special than the Penobscot Building or the Fisher Building in his very own Detroit. “Manhattan!” his wife Delores had gushed after they put their bags down in the hotel room, like they were someplace really big like Hawaii or Miami or England or someplace. Now, as they walked the evening streets of New York, the traffic hustling, the running lights of the theater district gleaming off of hoods and headlights and hundreds of restaurant windows, Gus thought that it was really no better than the best parts of Detroit, which generally was not the nicest city but had its good points, like Tiger Stadium, the Joe Louis Arena, Greektown, Lafayette Coney Island, a lot of places. Why his wife thought this was so “incredible” made no sense.
He hated it when she was like this. She was so excited and had planned everything so much that she was bound to be disappointed, like the time she got tickets to the Barbra Streisand concert and ended up going with her friend Mary Jo when Gus could not get out of a playoff softball commitment. It wasn’t his fault she always wanted to do these “special” things, things that were probably meant to be nice but really didn’t make a lot of sense. Why would this one be any different? It was their anniversary, 22 years, and she would try again, this one, she probably convinced herself, would be different, a surprise, “special.” Gus had to admit, he was surprised when he got home from work and his suitcase was packed and Delores could barely control her goofiness.
“C’mon, we’re going,” she said, waving her hands in little circles, her eyes alive like she was holding onto Super Bowl tickets.
Was it really just hours ago and not days that this “special” event began? “What gives?” Gus had asked just after walking in the front door, sensing something going on, still tired from work, the drive home, the thought of coming home and talking to Delores. He knew the anniversary was coming, but he was hoping this one would just be simple, a dinner out at the chop house, a few drinks, or a movie or bowling or something.
“No time to talk,” she giggled. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon. Get this stuff in the car and we’re going. We can’t miss the flight. Tickets are already paid for and there’s no refund so don’t even say you don’t wanna go.”
“What the hell? Flight? Are you nuts or something? What’s the deal here?”
Gus acted surprised, surprised like surprised in a happy way, but he knew he should expect something like this and while he would do his best he knew this would end up being something he only did to make her happy, about as enjoyable as having the tip of his pinky sewed back on after he got it caught in the lawnmower a couple of summers back. She was smart, though. He could not protest now. There were tickets involved, paid for, she said, no refunds. Smart. A flight even—he thought the train tickets to Chicago a few years ago had been big, but she had really done it now. He remembered that he had told her a week ago when she asked that he had no plans for the weekend, no overtime at work or commitments, but that was before he remembered that it was their anniversary. Yeah, he had been outsmarted.
He did as he was told and stashed the suitcases in the trunk of their car. The last time she had done this, the train ride to Chicago, she did not pack any underwear for him or his glasses and he had the flu and an earache the whole weekend.
“What about my underwear?”
“Don’t worry. I even packed extra.”
“And my glasses. What about glasses?”
“You’re wearing them, goose.”
He reached up to his face, and, yes, sure enough, he was wearing his glasses. His defenses run out, he had no more to say. She even had him stop by McDonald’s drive-through on the way to Metro Airport, sparing no expenses. Gus asked her about money, what were they going to do about money, and Delores just smiled. “Taken care of. We’re going all out,” she declared, and the thought of what she said was both good and maybe bad.
* * * * *
They walked the street, Gus following along with Delores, who seemed to know right where she was going. The people made Gus nervous. They were too well-dressed for a big city. New York, he had heard, was supposed to be tough, tough like Detroit, but these people all looked like hotshots, executives and newscaster types. For a second, he almost relaxed, almost certain no one would take a run at Delores’s purse, which made him uneasy. It was not good to be too relaxed.
“There, there it is.”
Delores pointed down the block, and Gus peered into the haze of signs and neon lights and traffic. She seemed to sense his lack of comprehension and pointed again, drawing him close to her, drawing his face next to hers and pointing his eyes down her arm like it was a rifle, and he fixed his eyes straight ahead, finding a big black sign with two big eyes on it, like some kind of monster or something. He looked down her arm an extra split second. She smelled good, a new perfume, like flowers or something.
“Right there. You know where we’re going now?”
Gus put two and two together. This was the theater district, as she told the taxi driver at the airport, and the sign looked like some kind of creature, one of those new scary movie things. This was exactly why her plans never made sense. They could see a movie in a theater at home, at the cineplex, and have 15 or 20 choices all in the same spot not more than 15 minutes drive from home. Why go all the way to New York and spend all that money when they could do the same exact thing at home?
“No, silly, better than that, way, way better. These aren’t that type of theaters. These are real theaters. For plays and things, with real actors and real singing and stuff. And now we’re going to see the greatest play ever of all time, me and you, together.”
Delores could hardly control herself. Plays and singing and stuff. Could anything on earth be worse? Maybe the Barbra Streisand concert, but this was not far off the mark. It was kind of nice being in a different place, someplace new, but couldn’t they just go in one of these restaurants and sit down and have a couple of drafts and watch a game or something?
“A play, huh? What play, that guy with the mask thingy?”
“No, no, no. Read the sign, silly. CATS. The same guy who did that play, what’s his name, the English guy, he does this one. No play in history has been on Broadway longer, like way off the charts it’s so good. There’s only gonna be a few more shows and we’re going to see it before it stops playing for good. Me and you. It’s like, like, history.”
Gus had stopped listening after he heard the title of the play. He had already read what’s his name, Shakespeare, when he was in high school and it was so boring and crazy you couldn’t understand it. What would a play about cats be about? Hopefully no more than 30 minutes. Cats. You could go to the local high school and see a play, Charlie Brown and what was the other one, their daughter was in it as a senior four years ago, Wizard of Oz. Those were good, at least for a play, and they cost next to nothing to get in. And again, right in their own backyard.
The crowd on the sidewalk converged below the sign with the big eyes, everyone chatting and lively and smiling. Gus looked everyone over. Rich people. Eggheads. Fruitloops. Little kids, but they were excused for being interested in make believe things like plays because kids really couldn’t help but use their imaginations. A play wasn’t like TV, which you could watch in your own home or get a video of it and watch whenever you wanted. No, for a play you had to get all dressed up, go out in front of everybody so they could see you, to be noticed, to show off. These people were full of it.
“Here we go, here we go.”
Delores pulled Gus by the arm. The doors opened to the theater and she scavenged through her purse, finally pulling out two tickets that Gus noticed had the same two cat eyes printed on them. They were sucked into the lobby of the theater with the stream of other audience members. Once inside, they were packed in tightly together, everyone talking, but Gus could not make out what they were saying.
“So, what’s this thing about?”
“Cats,” Delores replied, explaining the obvious, irritating him.
“No shit, Sherlock, cats, but what about the cats, what kind of cats? What’re the cats suppose to do?”
“They, they sing and stuff, and dancing too. They do all kinds of things.”
“Oh, if you’re seeing this for the first time, you’ll be delighted.”
A shorter, bald headed man with a black blazer and an earring chimed in. Gus looked him over. Nobody asked this guy what his interpretation of the play was, and his precisey, lispy way of talking and that know-it-all smirk forced Gus’s eyes to roll back into his head.
“Yes, we’re first timers. Never even been to New York before, let alone Broadway.”
Delores was like that, able to talk to anybody, not embarrassed to appear the idiot to a total stranger. Gus wanted to grab her arm, to tell her not to go broadcasting it to everyone in New York City that they were tourists, advertising to every mugger or pervert psycho in a five block radius that they were an easy hit, but he figured Mr. Playman posed no threat. Even at 42 years of age, if he could not deal with a man who used the word “delighted” then it was time to hang it up.
“Oh, well welcome. This is my fourth time seeing Cats and I’m every bit as excited as the first time. You’ll love it. It takes place one evening as a group of cats gets together to decide the fate of one of their members. If you own a cat, you’ll definitely see yours tonight.”
Delores laughed and then they both laughed together, the stranger actually putting his hand onto Delores’s arm, and Gus shifted his gaze away. They didn’t own a cat, so there was no reason to be all chummy-chummy with this guy. The thought struck him that they were teaming up on him, that Mr. Playman had chimed in as a way of taking sides with his wife. He could probably tell that Gus thought this play business was a crock of shit and this was his way of showing what a jerk he thought Gus was for thinking such a thing. Fine. Delores could talk to her little buddy all she wanted, but it wouldn’t make this any less stupid.
* * * *
Gus was glad to sit down. His dress shoes were killing him, and they seemed to have grown a size smaller since the last time he wore them, which was who knows when, maybe at a wedding or something. He loosened his tie. Delores took the seat next to him, and he smiled. She had changed in the bathroom of their hotel room before they walked to the theater, but he now noticed how pretty she looked. She may have put on some tonnage since they got married, but this dress, which had a kind of pattern on it, looked good, modern-looking, like something he had seen the models wearing in one of Delores’s magazines in the bathroom. She looked good.
A guy in a black turtleneck and a weird suit plowed past Gus and Delores, and Gus got a strong whiff of body odor. He turned to Delores and pinched his nose with his thumb and forefinger but she turned away from him, acting like she hadn’t seen him. If the accent didn’t give him away as a foreigner, the B.O. definitely did. The man had a small girl with him, who was dressed like a princess or something, all kind of ribbons in her hair and a dress that was all frilly and expensive looking.
The foreign guy was trying to get the attention of one of the attendants, leaning over into the seat that now separated him and Gus. The guy’s breath about knocked Gus over. He imagined this guy munching on old tire treads and garlic and then smoking a pack of cigarettes all at once before he came over to the show.
“Meess, ex-kyoose please. Yes, my wife and other child is both here, and no one is sitting in this seats here. They sit here, no?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but all shows are sold out and all tickets are for assigned seats only. Someone will be sitting there, I can assure you.”
The foreign guy did a snooty harumph kind of thing and fell back into his seat, and a moment later his smell followed him.
“God, these guys from Europe never take a damn bath or brush their teeth.”
“Gus!” Delores whispered, but she hissed hard on the last letter of her husband’s name, making it clear he should shut his mouth. He didn’t like how she shushed him, especially when he was right and just pointing out something that was true.
“Isn’t this clever. Just look at the stage and everything.”
Gus looked over at Delores, who was spellbound, and then at the stage. It looked like an alley or something, like a cartoon alley, though, with the garbage all over, but funny garbage, like tuna cans and stuff that was all oversized, huge and bright and funny, not smelly or anything, like a real alley on back in East Dearborn or Coleman Avenue. It had to be made special, because there were no such things as the things he saw decorating the stage, huge tires and junk like this. It was kind of like the kids’ playground at McDonald’s.
He looked at all the garbage and stuff, not noticing the others who pushed in front of him to take their seats. Music then began to play, sounding like live music you might hear at a bar but he could not see where it was coming from. He looked around for speakers hanging from somewhere inside but it was dark now, and when he turned back he could see people, the attendants he guessed, walking all around where the stage was. They had on these kind of light things on their heads like electric eyes or something weird. What the hell was going on? Before he could answer himself, some lights came on and he could see people up on the stage, all dressed in these costume things, tights, what do you call them, leotarts, and all made up. He wanted to laugh. He wanted to laugh real bad, but Delores would kill him, so he gripped his armrests hard and rocked forward once or twice and then settled. Soon the actors, some of them guys, even, began to leap around and jump and twirl and kind of dance around with each other. And they were singing, but he couldn’t make out the words until they came to this one part that they repeated again and again:
…genitals can and genitals do,
genitals do and genitals can….
Gus’s mouth opened and stayed open. He remembered reading one time in the morning newspaper about a play back in the 60s or 70s or something where the actors all got up on the stage and were naked, no clothes, nothing, and it got shut down or cancelled for being indecent. And he had heard from some of the guys at work about plays you can go to overseas and people actually do it right there in front of you, live and in the flesh, parlay-voo-humpety-hump-hump. Was this going to be that kind of a show? Was Delores nutsy coo-coo or something?
…genital songs for genital cats.
Genital songs for genital cats.
Genital songs for genital cats.
“Honey, I can’t believe this,” Gus whispered to Delores, a sense of urgency in his voice. “I can’t believe they’re sayin’ that. There’s kids in here.”
“Saying what?” she whispered back, concerned that maybe she had missed something, scanning the stage very hard, holding her program.
“Genital cats. Genital this and genital that. You know what ‘genitals’ are, don’t you?”
Delores began to flip through her program and hold it at an angle to catch the little bits of light inside the theater. Gus watched the actors jumping around and singing their song.
Genital Cats sing Genital Chants.
Genitals old and genitals new.
Genitals song and genitals dance.
Genital songs for genital cats.
“No, no, no, look, it’s not ‘genital,’ it’s ‘Jellicle.’ Look, right here.”
Delores pointed to something on the program she had, but it was too dark for Gus to read.
“Jello-co? What’s that?”
“It’s, it’s a word, a word the songwriter uses for the cats.”
“SSSHHHHH.” Gus looked to his side, and he could make out Mr. Foreign Breathman looking directly at him with his index finger to his lips. Gus have him the eye, then waved until Breathman looked away. He wanted to shove a breath mint or toothbrush into his mouth or maybe knock out a couple of those corroded teeth. Oh, it’d be his pleasure if Breathman wanted to take it outside onto the sidewalk. Whatever. Gus thought of how crazy this day had been. Just this afternoon he was on his way home from work kind of hoping Delores had made reservations at the chophouse but was now instead in New York City in a theater with people in tights prancing about singing a song that made no sense no matter what words you thought they were saying being shushed by a man whose breath would stop a Mac truck.
* * * * *
“Mongo Jerry and Hmm-Hmm Teaser….”
Things got better. Gus had begun to really pay attention at a part when just two of the people came out onto the stage. They started singing this song, a good song, not like the other ones, the stupid ones. The one cat, the boy cat, or the light-in-the-loafers guy who was supposed to be the boy cat, he was Mongo Jerry. Gus figured this had to do with the guy who sang that song in the 60s, the one with the good piano playing, “Na-na-nah-nah the summertime, dut-dut-dah the weather is hot, dum-dee-lee-dum, yeah it really got hot….” That was a good song, one you didn’t have to listen too hard to and you could still hear the words and it made sense to listen to, because summer is usually when it gets real hot. Anyways, what that song had to do with cats really made no sense, but the singer and the cat had the same name so the play author probably meant something by it or at least in his head it meant something. Probably an Englishguy thing. But how many of the people here, all these big shots, all dressed up and everything, caught that connection like Gus had? Gus even thought over another one as he and Delores stood in the bar line during intermission, one that he knew nobody in the whole place would come up with: Mongo was also the character played by Alex Karras, the all-Pro defensive lineman who used to play for his very own Detroit Lions, in that movie Flaming Saddles way back when. Not even Mr. Playman or Mr. Foreign Breathman would have got that one. Gus loosened his tie and hummed the song he liked about the two cats, ignoring the fancy suits and pearl necklaces that surrounded him.
But the boy cat was not the good part. Gus figured that the boy cat was really just some roody-poo who liked dressing up in tights, probably a friend of Mr. Playman, one of those guys with earrings who talked about famous books and plays nobody cared about. No, the good part was the other cat, the girl cat, something Teaser. This cat, this actor, this girl, now she was something. Gus took Delores’s hand as they waited for a chance to order some drinks at halftime. No, the Teaser cat was a different cat. She wasn’t all skinny and built like one of the guy cats—no, she was shorter, rounder, more to her, more like what a girl should be. When she pranced around and sang, Gus took notice. From what he could hear of the song, these two cats, Mongo and Teaser, were kind of trouble-makers or something, always into something, getting blamed for things. And this Teaser cat, she was kind of saucy with how she sang, really accenting on how she said her name. And her costume, Gus could see, was really like no costume at all, the leotart thing was really just like make-up painted onto her skin. She was something, a full heinie right there in front of him, and when she twirled around so you could see her front….
“So you liked one song, I can see.”
“That song, “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer.” You’ve been humming that since we got in line.”
“Oh, yeah, have I? Well, yeah, it’s a pretty good one. I like that one.”
Gus cleared his throat, adjusting the sleeves of his checkered coat.
“So, do you like it? Do you like the play?”
“Yeah, it’s getting better. It takes some getting used to, you know, to get what’s going on. But it’s definitely getting better.”
“I think it’s just incredible. I can’t believe we’re here, right here, right on Broadway in a real Broadway theater, seeing the greatest play ever in the history of plays. I’m glad we came here, Gussy. Are you having fun, honey?”
“Me? Oh yeah, I’m starting to get it. What was the one cat’s name?”
“The one in the song. The naughty one, with her pal, the other naughty one, Mongo Jerry.”
“Oh, that was Rumpleteazer.”
“Rumble Teaser. Got it.”
Gus stood in line next to his wife. He thought of getting a scotch and water, and Delores a wine, the white kind. He felt good. Gus put his arm around Delores’s waist, pulling her close. She smiled and laid her head against his shoulder. He hadn’t realized he had been humming, though, so he decided to let the words to his new favorite cat song play in his head only, not for anyone else to listen to, and to see the va-voomy cat in the naked suit jumping and spinning and bouncing and singing. A play was really not a bad thing, too dumb a thing, once you understood how to watch it. He pulled Delores closer again, and let his hand slide down her side, across her fanny, let it rest there a second, and then back to his own side. Delores was smart, way smart, and tonight would be good, and maybe New York was a good idea and so was this play.
Mongo Jerry and Rumble Teaser….
John Jeffire was born in Detroit. In 2005, his novel Motown Burning was named Grand Prize Winner in the Mount Arrowsmith Novel Competition and in 2007 it won a Gold Medal for Regional Fiction in the Independent Publishing Awards. His first book of poetry, Stone + Fist + Brick + Bone, was nominated for a Michigan Notable Book Award in 2009. His most recent book, Shoveling Snow in a Snowstorm, a poetry chapbook, was published by the Finishing Line Press in 2016. For more on the author and his work, visit writeondetroit.com.