STRAND spotlight

By Liz McLeod

Still Your House Manager

 

“You must contact the authorities at once!” declared Miss Carol T. Cat as she thumped into the room displaying an expression of extreme agitation. Actually, that’s just her regular face, but you get the idea.

I was slumped in the big blue chair, listening with one ear to a droning radio newscaster.  My other ear was otherwise occupied being scratched, because it itched. The way my days usually go, that counts as a highlight. In any event, I did not respond immediately to Miss Carol’s expression of alarm, causing her to sink her claws up to the hilt into my shin. That got my attention.

“OW!” I ow-ed. “Whassya problem?” In these days of renewed social isolation, clear diction is always the first thing to suffer.

“Our Thanksgiving turkey has been stolen,” she growled, “no doubt by brigands who have waylaid the delivery vehicle and made off with the poultry. Summon law enforcement immediately – there is no time to waste if we are to enjoy our meal at the appointed hour!”

“No,” I sighed. “Nobody stole it. Ain’t gonna be a turkey this year.”

Miss Carol doesn’t gape very often, and when she does gape, she looks ridiculous. Have you ever seen a cat gape? Other than in a trick You Tube video, I mean? It’s really something. I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t dare to. But gape she did, and I felt forced to continue my statement.

“No turkey this year,” I reiterated. “Because what would be the point? The Dear Young People can’t come over here and eat it with us, and I’m not going down to my mother’s house – the pandemic’s kiboshed everything, so why bother with cooking a whole turkey just for you and me?”

Miss Carol continued to gape. Truth be told, I don’t even like turkey all that much – it’s a passable delivery system for stuffing and gravy so far as I’m concerned, and that’s about it. If I was the one in charge of coming up with holiday traditions, families would gather ‘round the communal table every November to enjoy a big pastrami sandwich, extra juicy.  But Miss Carol, on the other hand – well, as soon as the first leaf falls she starts plotting her schedule. First the skin, then the white meat, then the dark meat, then the thighs, then the drumsticks, then the neck, and last but not least, the Ecclesiastical Authority’s Nose. I don’t know what you call that part in your family, but that’s what we call it in ours. In any event, I’m lucky if I get a cup of cold turkey soup out of the whole project for myself. Miss Carol didn’t get to tip the scales at twenty pounds by devoting her life to kale frappes.

“Look,” I continued. “Who says you even have to have a turkey to have Thanksgiving anyway? That’s reducin’ the whole point of the holiday to conspicuous consumption, which wasn’t what Abraham Lincoln had in mind when he came up with the whole business anyway. I can be thankful with a couple of soda crackers and a glass of water.”

Miss Carol’s eyes narrowed, as if to insinuate that my silhouette displays no evidence that I have ever indulged in such an elemental diet. Touche.

“Don’t get the idea that just because I’m not roasting a turkey I’m not thankful,” I emphasized. “Because I am.  After nine months of this pandemic – hey, we’ve still got a roof over our heads, don’t we? There’s still food in the refrigerator, even if it isn’t a turkey, right? And we chased off the collection agents for another month, didn’t we?”

Miss Carol shook her head. “I *warned* you that you were being unnecessarily profligate to pay hospital prices for that cat scan,” she admonished, “when I, an actual cat, would have been very willing to perform any procedure you might have required at a steep discount. Your financial woes are the inevitable result of your declining my generous offer.”

I ignored her thrust. “Yes,” I insisted, “I *AM* thankful. I’m thankful that the Strand has survived being closed for nine months – and we’ve got our Members and our supporters to thank for that. They’ve made it possible for us to keep going without our regular revenues. We’ve still got programming going even though the building’s closed – and because of the help we’re getting from people who care about the Strand we’re also doing everything we can to make sure that once the pandemic is over we can reopen the place in way that’s safe and sanitary top to bottom! That’s a lot to be thankful about, don’t you think?”

Miss Carol acknowledged my argument. “Indeed,” she declared, “while there has been much to heap obloquy upon the general run of events over the course of the past year, the level of community support shown for the Strand during 2020 will stand out as a positive and heartwarming aspect of 2020.”

“I’m glad you agree,” I nodded. “And I also think YOU have something to be thankful for.” I reached under the chair cushion and pulled out a small metal can. “Canned Thanksgiving dinner,” I proclaimed. “See, read the label. It’s a real product, and I got it just for you. Happy Thanksgiving, you ridiculous fat barrel cat.”

Miss Carol stopped gaping, and an expression not too far afield from a smile creased her features.  And like that other  famous smiling cat, she quickly vanished – into the kitchen, in search of a can opener.

By Liz McLeod

Still Your House Manager

 

“It’s not convenient and it’s not fair!” I growled aloud. “And if I were to stop your wages half-a-crown, you’d think yourself ill used, I’ll be bound!”

Miss Carol T. Cat looked up from the big blue living room chair and regarded me askance. “You pay no wages, being yourself a wageworker,” she observed, with eyes half-closed. “And if you did pay wages, you would find the willingness of the average employee to accept obsolete British currency to be understandably slight.”

“Don’t bug me,” I replied, absorbed in a thick sheaf of paper. “I need to edit this down. I’m going to be doing a dramatic reading of ‘A Christmas Carol’ for the Strand next month, and I need to get the running time down to an hour or so.”

“You presume to edit the words of the great Charles Dickens?” scoffed Miss Carol, hunching up to a sitting position, the better to fix her gaze upon me. “By what right?”

“Public domain, toots,” I snapped, flourishing my pencil. “No valid copyright means I can do whatever I want with it. This is gonna be somethin’!”

“I blanch at the thought,” Miss Carol responded. Miss Carol has firm views on nineteenth century English literature. Over the course of one long wintry night some years back, she ripped an expurgated edition of “Wuthering Heights” to shreds in her abject rage over the butchering of its more passionate passages. You edit Victoriana in her presence at your peril. I shouldn’t even have mentioned my present project, but hopped up on flat Coca-Cola and stale Milk Duds, I’d thrown caution to the winds, and now the time had come for me to reap the whirlwind. Or something. Anyway, I could tell it was going to be one of those arguments, and I laid back on the couch to try to come up with a worthwhile argument.

“Besides,” I finally ventured, “it’s timely!” It wasn’t much, I figured, but it was enough maybe to divert the conversation from a likely discussion of my many shortcomings as a writer, performer, housekeeper, and general human being.

“’A Christmas Carol’ was published in the year 1843,” Miss Carol sniffed. “While in its time a trenchant critique of early-industrial Britain, it has had its allegorical edge worn away by over a century and a half of adaptation and of cheap parody. Your contributions to this unfortunate tradition are most unnecessary. I advise that you allow the ghosts, as it were, to rest.”

“Ah!” I replied, snapping to attention upon recognizing a rare opening in her usually-impregnable arguments. “Ah!” I replied again, just to underline the point.

Miss Carol’s bright green eyes rolled visibly. I hate when she does that. You haven’t been eyerolled until Miss Carol T. Cat eyerolls you. It’s a gift, I guess.

“Look,” I began again, taking as deep a breath as I dared. “What kind of a man is Scrooge, anyway? He’s completely wrapped up in himself, right?”

“An apostle of nineteenth-century laissez-faire individualism, to be sure,” agreed Miss Carol. “Mr. Dickens constructed him as such.”

“I’m not talkin’ economics, though,” I continued. “That’s not really the point. Scrooge is the kind of a person who is so wound up in his own self, his own agenda, his own way of lookin’ at the world that he hasn’t got any room for anybody else at all.  His real problem isn’t just that he’s greedy, it isn’t that he’s a wrechin’, graspin’ covetous old sinner, it’s that he has no empathy at all. THAT is the point of the story.”

“An interesting observation,” ceded Miss Carol, “and one of greater depth than I would ordinarily expect from you. These months of social isolation have no doubt honed your critical skills. But in what way is this interpretation especially timely?”

“Don’cha see?” I argued. “That’s the real problem in this whole situation we’re in right now! Think about how many people right now don’t want to see anything from the other person’s point of view. So many people don’t want to think about how whatever they might do or say affects anybody else – as long as they can do or say whatever they want, who cares about anybody else? Isn’t that what’s going on right now? Isn’t that why we’ve got so much division right now about things that ought to be just a matter of common sense?”

“Hew-mons are not known for their common sense,” declared Miss Carol. “Were they, present matters might have been resolved with satisfaction well before reaching the present crisis.”

“Exactly,” I interjected, slapping my pencil down for emphasis, and jabbing its point into my thigh. After shouting with pain, limping to the kitchen, and stanching the wound with a wad of paper towel, I staggered back to the couch to resume the discussion. But I found Miss Carol had moved to my former position and was poring over my pages. “I have added a few suggestions to the marginalia of your script,” she pronounced. “You will find that the addition of a feline character during the Christmas dinner scene in the Cratchit home will add much to the texture of the story. Note that this Interpolated cat has received with satisfaction a large portion of the Christmas goose, emphasizing without question the need for hew-mons to be aware of the requirements of all at this season of the year, and not merely their own. I trust your audience will profit by this lesson.”

“Ridiculous fat barrel cat.”

“God bless us all,” purred Miss Carol, her eyes aimed at the refrigerator, where she knew the remains of last night’s fried chicken dinner reposed. “Every one.”  

By Liz McLeod

Still Your House Manager

 

“What do you say,” I mumbled out loud, “when you can’t think of anything else to say?”

“Never has this stopped you before,” replied Miss Carol T. Cat, turning to lick her rear haunch in a manner clearly intended to display her irritation at such a nonsensical question. Miss Carol T. Cat is not much for two-bit philosophy. Being a felid, she is an advocate at all times of clear, directly-expressed thought.

“No,” I replied, “but still – what am I supposed to say? I’ve got a column or a blog or whatever you wanna call it due today and I can’t think of anything I want to write about.”

“And again I reiterate,” Miss Carol volleyed back, “ never has this stopped you before. Your formula is all too clear. You state each week’s theme with a tedious complaint, I offer a glitteringly witty rejoinder, and we continue in this fashion for several hundred words, until all possibilities inherent in the topic have been exhausted. You then dismiss me as – ah – ‘ridiculous fat barrel cat,’ and then I respond with a masterful ‘topper’ to conclude the essay. The task before you is simplicity itself -- *if* you know how.”

I hate literary critics. Did I ever mention that? Apropos of nothing, you understand, but I really hate literary critics. Especially ridiculous fat barrel literary critics.

“Yeah, you’re pretty smart, ain’cha?” I replied just to keep the conversation moving. Miss Carol nodded to acknowledge the absolute veracity of my statement. She is, in fact, pretty smart. “But what I mean is – what can I say right now? With things the way they are, I mean. In the world. You know what’s going on in the world right now, don’cha?”

Miss Carol scowled.  “I have this morning observed a garbage truck collecting the barrels from the apartment complex across the block, a procedure I have found unnecessarily loud and invasive. I have witnessed an intriguingly plump grey squirrel busy about the construction of its autumnal cache of forage. Three chickadees and a tufted titmouse have goaded me from the safety of an outdoor tree limb.  And I have viewed three episodes of  ‘Star Trek: Voyager,’ none of them especially good.”

“That’s not what I mean,” I interrupted.

“The episode in which Captain Janeway and Lieutenant Paris were transformed into disturbing amphibian-like creatures was especially offensive,” continued Miss Carol. “That concludes the resume of my activities this morning, an agenda, which, you will note, has been severely constricted by your unreasonable refusal to permit me to adequately patrol this neighborhood.”

“No,” I sighed. “I mean, do you know what’s going on in the world. Everything feels like it’s out of control. The virus is flaring up again, the news is haywire, the Internet has been hijacked by raging lunatics, and I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in over a week. And now I’m supposed to sit here and be funny. Only I feel like I just don’t have anything to say. What *can* you say?”

Miss Carol frowned. 

“I thought of a whole good, funny bit I could do today,” I continued, “while I was sitting in the drive-thru line up at the Clown’s. But by the time I got my Sausage McMuffin, I couldn’t remember a word of it. Is that normal? To be that forgetful, I mean?”

“Considering that yesterday, between the hours of 8 AM and 7:45 PM, you forgot to provide two of my scheduled meals,” Miss Carol growled, “it would seem that your lack of memory has progressed far beyond the nuisance stage and has reached that of a significant personal crisis. I must advise you that further deviations from your appointed schedule cannot be tolerated.”

“And then there’s the next radio show,” I wailed, throwing my head back and staring at the spreading cracks in the ceiling. “I need to have the script finished soon – but how do you do topical gags when you don’t know how anything’s going to come out? And what’s even safe to joke about anymore? You don’t know what it’s like!”

Miss Carol regarded me for a long moment. “The solution to your dilemma is clear. I prescribe extensive bed rest, commencing at once. A midday nap, under a heavy blanket, with a large feline atop your chest, is considered a universal panacea in times of extreme mental and emotional stress." She hopped down from her perch atop my desk, and headed toward the stairs. “I shall meet you in the bedchamber post-haste.”

“Ridic…” I grunted – but then stopped short. She was exactly right.

By Liz McLeod

Still Your House Manager

 

“Your attention is required at once,” demanded Miss Carol T. Cat.

It was quarter of six in the morning, Miss Carol T. Cat was resting all eighteen pounds of her avoirdupois upon my chest, and consequently, and understandably, I met her demand as thoroughly as my circumstances could permit.

“What?” I sputtered, coughing out a tuft of Miss Carol T. Cat’s fur, no doubt deposited in my bronchial passage as an added incentive for my immediate notice. “Do you know what time it is?”

“Your attempt to deceive me by altering the setting of the clocks this weekend was to no effect,” she glared, her green eyes shining in the pre-dawn gloom. “But I have not roused you at this hour to insist upon my morning meal. Matters of even greater consequence at at hand. I have observed disquieting evidence of a conspiracy so vast, so monstrous, as to galvanize even your lackadaisical self into action.”

“What?” I spluttered. At quarter of six in the morning I’m no particular rival to Dorothy Parker in the department of acid wit. “What?” is a good, all purpose reply to being roused at quarter of six in the morning, and I stuck to it.

“Are you aware of the developments overnight?” she challenged. “A glance outside the window will bring powerful confirmation of the danger we face.”

“Well, if you’ll kindly hoist your bulk and lemme sit up,” I muttered, “I’ll take a look.”

Miss Carol obliged me, and I threw off the blankets and swung myself out of bed. A polar chill in the bedroom air caused me to snap my eyes wide open. That’s never a good sign.  I stumbled over to the window, barely avoiding a poke in the eye from the wizened old ficus tree in the corner, and squinted out the window. 

I blurted out a  naughty word.

“You see?” snapped Miss Carol. “You are now aware, I presume, of the threat we face?”

I gazed out over the empty lot where the old Shafter Junkyard used to be, scarcely fifty feet from my bedroom window, and I saw not the usual weedy, chemical-laden expanse of dirty brown, but instead a magical fairyland dappled in fluffy white snow, a landscape daintily dappled by the enchanted wintry pen of Mr. Jack Frost Himself, Esq.

I blurted out the naughty word again. 

“You see?” repeated Miss Carol. “It is obvious what has occurred. Hostile aliens have tampered with the global weather-control grid. No doubt evil shapeshifters have infiltrated the highest levels of hew-mon authority, and are even now preparing a lethal strike at the very heart of the Federation.”

“You watch too much ‘Star Trek,” I growled,  turning away from the depressing vision outside and fumbling in the dark for my bathrobe.

“There is no such thing as ‘too much Star Trek,” I heard her reply as I staggered downstairs in the general direction of the teakettle, and I grumbled out the naughty word again. Even if it isn’t the harbinger of a sinister alien attack, snow is still my least favorite thing in the world. I don’t like getting it in my shoes, I don’t like having to shovel it or chip it off my car in the morning, and did I mention I don’t like to shovel it?  All right, fine, the snow we got this week wasn’t enough to shovel, it came and went like a surprise visit from a relative you go out of your way to avoid, but it’s still snow, and that’s a sign of winter. And this winter is already shaping up to be a scary one. We’re all aware of that, all aware of what’s going on outside our own little spheres of influence, our own personal  routines. It wasn’t a happy summer, it isn’t a happy fall, and who knows what the winter is going to bring.

Yeah, that’s how I was feeling as I waited for my tea to get strong enough to motivate me to go ahead with the rest of the day. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about other things. The arrival of winter means that this year 2020 is almost over. That’s something to be said right there. 2021 has got to be better – better for the world, better for the Strand, better for all of us. A winter will come, but that means so will a spring, and a summer. And there will come a day when we look back on what we’ve been thru this year as something we’ve *been thru,* a memory to be revisited rather than a present to be overcome.  There will come a day when the Strand is open again, and we’ll all meet together like we used to. None of us know for sure exactly where it’s all going to end up, but no matter what,  we’re one day closer to knowing it. And that’s something to keep us going, that’s something that makes us want to kick the snow off the back stoop and push on out to tackle whatever’s out there.

By Liz McLeod

Still Your House Manager

 

“Well,” I declared, “the time has come.”

“Indeed,” agreed Miss Carol T. Cat. “I need not glance at the clock to know that the hour has struck for my mid-morning meal, but I must acknowledge that I am pleasantly surprised to observe your sudden punctuality concerning this matter. Please see to the necessary arrangements at once.” She paused to lick a disarranged spot of fur at the small of her back. “While you do so, I shall perform my customary pre-meal ablutions.”

“What?” I replied. “Look, we been over this before. There is no mid-morning meal. That’s not even a thing. You can’t make it a thing by saying it’s a  thing. Reality is not so malleable as you seem to think it is.”

“My method has worked for others,” she observed. “Consider the nature of the world in which we live.”

“Yeah, well, that’s exactly the point, ain’t it?” I snapped back. “An’ that’s why I say, ‘the time has come.’ The time has come – for me to vote.”

Miss Carol’s eyes widened. “Surely,” she began, “YOU are not permitted the franchise.”

“Whassats’posetamean?” I blurted, taking as much umbrage as I dared.

“Consider yourself,” she insisted. “You are a person of no influence whatsoever upon the body politic. You possess no wealth. You possess no power or authority or influential role in society. You control no resources. You boast no legion of followers. You are a mere menial, a ticket tearer, a popcorn-hustler, an unfurler of threadbare jokes and japes, lost in the vastness in the great scheme of the world’s affairs. Of what possible consequence could YOUR opinion be?”

“That’s exactly the reason I’m GONNA vote,” I declared, squaring my shoulders and envisioning a courageous line of people from every walk of everyday life marching smartly and socially-distant toward the ballot box. Somewhere in the distant background, a fife played “Yankee Doodle.” 

“Preposterous,” sniffed Miss Carol. “Your vote is but one in hundreds of millions. You are a statistical nonentity.”

“An’ once again,” I snapped back, “that’s exactly the point. What is a mass, anyway? A mass is made up of millions and millions of individuals. Maybe me, alone – well, maybe my vote don’t amount to much. But put me alongside millions and millions of others – an’, well, that’s something. You say I don’t have any power? Well,  hah, I say to you. Hah. You’re darn tootin’ I’m gonna vote. And so will millions and millions of other people – because no matter how little any one of us might have, we’ve got a vote, and nobody – but nobody – can take that away from us. And that vote is just as valuable as the vote of anyone else. My vote counts just the same as a billionaire’s vote or a power-broker’s vote, an’ it’s just as sacred. An’ it’s not for sale at any price. Because once I step in that booth, what I do with that ballot is between me an’ my conscience. An’ that’s the same for anybody else. Yeah, I’m gonna vote –an’  I’d like to see anybody try an’ stop me!”

Miss Carol considered my words carefully, and finally nodded. “Very well,” she declared. “You have my permission to…”

“An’ that’s another thing!” I roared. “I don’t NEED your permission, or anybody else’s permission. Didn’t you hear a word I said??”

Miss Carol’s bright green eyes rolled precipitously, and she took a deep breath. “You have my permission to devote as much time as your expedition to the polls might require,” she finished. “My mid-morning meal may wait until you have completed this vital task. I urge you to cast your ballot wisely.”

“Ridiculous fat barrel…” I began, but broke off with amazement upon realizing what she had said. “Thank you,” I replied, taking a deep breath and buttoning my jacket against the autumn chill. “I will do exactly that.”

By Liz McLeod
Still Your House Manager
 
“I need to lose four seconds here,” I mumbled to myself, bent over the computer screen at my ad-hoc studio in a corner of the Strand auditorium. It was ten o’clock at night, my eyes felt like BBs rattling around inside one of those fit-the-BBs-in-the-clown’s-face puzzle toys your mother used to give to keep you quiet in the back seat when you were six, and I was just about ready to cash it in for the night – when suddenly, the Facebook Messenger window popped open.
 
I hate windows that pop open. When I’m running the universe, windows that pop open will be shut, latched, and painted over so they can’t ever pop open again. So there. But alas, I am not running the universe, and for as long as I am not, windows will continue to pop open and I will be forced to reckon with them.
 
“THE HOUR FOR MY EVENING MEAL HAS LONG PASSED,” declared a message in big capital letters, as the icon displayed none other than the frowning face of Miss Carol T. Cat. Ordinarily she doesn’t trifle with such nonsense as Facebook, no doubt to Mr. Zuckerberg’s eternal relief, but under trying circumstances she is known to indulge in long and pandemonious rants. I braced for the worst. “REPORT TO YOUR DUTIES AT ONCE, I  SHAN’T ISSUE THIS ORDER AGAIN.”
 
I took a deep breath. “Working on radio show,” I typed. “Got to finish before Friday, on air Sunday. That’s Show Biz.” I thought of adding a LOL and a sticker of Pusheen The Cat wearing headphones, but realized that if I did so I would never enjoy an undisturbed night’s sleep again.
 
Miss Carol and I have been over this repeatedly over the seven months since the Strand shut its doors in the face of the pandemic. Just because we aren’t open doesn’t mean I don’t have a full load of work to do. The “Strand On The Air” broadcasts alone take up a lot more time than she is willing to tolerate – for every hour of airtime, thirty or more hours of production time go into each one, between recording, editing, mixing, re-editing, listening, rewriting, rerecording, remixing, re-editing, listening again, and on and on. You get the idea. A live show is a big piece of cheese by comparison – rehearse a couple of times, check the timing, and hit the air live. And then it’s done unless you want to torture yourself by listening to the aircheck so you can wonder why that gag you sweated over didn’t get as big a laugh as you thought it should have. But Miss Carol is not in the entertainment business. Miss Carol is a cat. Miss Carol has certain expectations, tied to the clock. There is feed-me time, and there is sleep time. When feed-me time arrives, she expects to be fed.  And woe unto me if I am unable to immediately comply.
 
But the first rule of show business is that The Show Must Go On – whether for the Strand On The Air or for anything else we do here. For seven months we’ve been working toward the day when the show will go on again – not just this show or that show, but all the shows we do, all the events that are a part of our regular routine of entertainment, education, enlightenment, and involvement in the community. If that means we have to push harder for donations, or put in extra hours editing sound and trying to cut four seconds out of a program that runs 60:04 instead of ending right on the nose like it’s supposed to, or – alas – causing Miss Carol T. Cat to wait just a bit longer than she likes for her late-evening serving of Friskies Turkey Filets with Giblet Gravy, well, time marches on and so must we. In two months 2020 will finally be over, 2021 will dawn, and all we can do is hope the future Time we’re Marching On into will be something we can all look forward to.
 
I settled back in my chair, figuring I could nip a second or two out of a meaningful pause that could stand to be a little less meaningful, but as I did so the window popped open again. “NEVER MIND,” said Miss Carol. “PULLED CUPBOARD OPEN. HIDDEN BAG OF DRY KIBBLE NOT HIDDEN WELL. WILL DISCUSS MATTER ON YOUR RETURN. DO NOT SWITCH ON LIGHT – THE HOUR FOR MY EVENING NAP HAS ARRIVED.”
 
I typed “Ridiculous Fat Barrell…” but immediately thought better. A Pusheen sticker might be less combative.
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