written by: Lorenzo Berardi
“Manoh-on? Manoh-oon!? Where's my Manon? Oh, Manon, where did you go this time? Why do you always run away?! Aren't you hungry? Manoh-oon!?”
We used to wake up to those dramatic cries back then, when it wasn't the sharp bugle call played at the Finley Barracks nearby to shatter our dreams first. Manon was the favourite puss of the Crazy Cat Lady or the most adventurous one of the lot she looked after. We understood Manon's desire to see the world for it matched our own. If only she had left for good. But no, the cat came back home each night for her owner called her for breakfast on any given morning.
The Crazy Cat Lady resided in a social housing building identical to ours, across the communal garden. She lived all alone with dozens of felines in a flat on the ground floor with an azure door and three steps leading to the Zamenh of Park. Nobody knew her age and her full name. Nobody knew what she did to earn a living. And not a soul, ever, visited her.
She was often seen around walking by and talking to herself gesticulating wildly as if she were haranguing an imaginary audience. We were merciless kids and poked fun at her, but always behind her back, for we were afraid of that woman. The Crazy Cat Lady – whom we called “the CCL” – had unpredictable reactions. She could shout at you and call you names in front of everyone as she did to Matt, once. She could pop up at your door and tell your parents you were a naughty boy and they should watch you better; it had happened to Nate. Yes, she could be a pretty vicious spinster and we all had come to learn it.
As for the grown-ups, they mostly ignored the CCL. They regarded her as someone who had lost it somehow but was harmless enough. After all, she wasn't the only queer person in the neighbourhood. Zip, the bearded hobo riding a beat-up bike with no tyres, flashing his willy to teenage girls and piling rubbish bags by the kindergarten doors was a much more worrying type. The junkies who gathered at dusk in the Zamenhof Park leaving behind them spent syringes and bloodstained tissues were a greater concern. As it was Norma Jean, the obese woman wearing hot pants who had spent years in a loony bin and enjoyed spitting on your face. To say nothing of the army recruits stationed by the Finley Barracks who indulged in binge drinking, sexual harassing and vandalising on their leave nights.
Also, there were wild rumours the infamous Green Granada Gang that had been terrorising town robbing banks and shooting onlookers had their hideout in the area. Our older brothers told us that the gang was made by renegades who “fought against the system.” Had we found their bolthole, they would have crashed our little brains with baseball bats blows.
The chief problem with the CCL was that she stank: no question about that, no way we could ignore it. No matter the season, she always emanated a strong smell of cat's piss and seemed unaware of it. There was something sick about that persistent powerful odour that surrounded her. The thing is that she wore those fancy expensive-looking dresses, those plumed hats, those fine shoes. As if she had ransacked an expensive vintage boutique or a theatre wardrobe. And yet, despite this extravagant outfit, you could detect her stench of urine the moment she hopped on a bus.
We knew this because we met her often at number 21 on our way back home from school. Most of the times, the CCL carried shopping bags full to the brim of tinned food and was sweaty and red-faced. “Oh my, oh my! What a day!” She sighed as she collapsed onto a seat – there was always someone eager to leave her one – and wiped her forehead dry with a loose sleeve. Then, she delivered a speech to whoever sat around.
She spoke an outlandish, refined language of her own. It was peppered with references to people we had never heard of and that she called by their first names. When we eavesdropped her monologues, always from a safe distance, we had trouble following them. Not that her random interlocutors did much better. They nodded or shook their heads, sometimes mumbling “Yes, yes” or “Really?” or “You don't tell me” at intervals. They smiled at their smelly nuisance while peeking at their wristwatches. They looked nervously out of the window and waited for their bus stop to come near, no doubt cursing red lights.
“Ingmar was such a peculiar irresistible fellow when it came to women. You see, he wedded five times and could have been more. A quite unusual specimen of Scandinavian tombeur de femmes, if you ask me. Also, he fancied me very much indeed. Alas! He always hesitated when the time was ripe to propose,” the Crazy Cat Lady might say.
“Luis confessed to me that I was the one he had been thinking of when he wrote the script for Belle. It goes without saying that I was his chosen Melpomene. However, he had to cast Catherine for the main role because that Jean-Claude imposed a French blondie on him,” she might disclose.
“People have never quite understood poor Alfred. What he needed first and foremost was to be contradicted. A difficult childhood, I suppose. You see, the thing is everyone was terrified of him, of his sheer genius, to do that. Which is to say, everyone except me,” the CCL might boast.
Ingmar, Luis and Alfred belonged to a cosmogony of mysterious characters including perverted Roman, lovely François, coy Michelangelo, and many others. The CCL's favourite and recurring name in her narrative, though, seemed to be Federico, also known as my Federico.
“Federico had seen it in me. It's Federico who made me the woman I am. He was my Pygmalion, my Prometheus, the Maestro who unleashed my potential. I owe him so much and I'll always, always, be indebted to him,” she droned on.
We had no clue on who this Federico and all of those men bearing exotic names were. We thought the CCL had made them up and there was no reason to think otherwise. She lived in a secluded world no one had access to save for her beloved cats. And even they dashed off from time to time. The people she mentioned in her monologues might have well been fruits of her lively imagination and, as such, made of the same stuff dreams were made of.
Nobody visited the Crazy Cat Lady nor knew where she came from. And, to be honest, nobody really cared. She was the kind of woman that everyone in the neighbourhood pretended not to recognise or took detours to avoid stumbling upon. Besides, that persistent stench of cat's piss she gave off didn't help in making the CCL welcome. As far as we were concerned, she was a local character, not an actual person.
“Manoh-on? Manoh-oon!? Where's my beautiful Manon? Oh, Manon, why do you do this to me? Please, show up! There's fresh liver for you! Manoh-oon!?”
We kept hearing in infinite subtle variations through our boyhood.
Then came the summer of the Big Census. We had just finished eighth grade and all that we looked for was enjoying the two warm months ahead of us. We wanted to ride our BMX bikes to the river and back. We wanted to play football from noon to dusk. We wanted to slurp ice creams and share clumsy sticky kisses with our teenage crushes. We wanted to be free. Unfortunately, our parents had other plans in store for us. For that summer our country ran its decennial population census. And we played our part by delivering door to door the questionnaires signed by the Census Bureau that every good family had to return filled out with their personal data.
It was by delivering those papers in sealed Manila envelopes around town and collecting them afterward that we came across many known faces. Among them, there were former teachers and family acquaintances, relatives and playground loves. Plus the unexpected, unforgettable encounter with the most beautiful woman we had ever seen. Then, on a steamy afternoon, we were handing the envelopes over in our neighbourhood. As we crossed the dead grass desert of the Zamenhof Park and came by the three steps leading to the CCL's flat, we were thrilled. Was it out of fear? Not quite. Was it due to curiosity? Possibly. All that we knew was that we had to deliver the Census to the 'head of the household' as per the instructions we were given. That was our menial job. Still, we couldn't help noticing that for the first time ever the Crazy Cat Lady bore a name and a surname. They were both there, printed on the envelope's tag, impossible to overlook: CICELY STONE.
We rang the bell and waited for a good thirty seconds. Meowing, caterwauling, but no sign of the CCL. We rang again. Nothing, save more of the same feline racket. Perhaps she wasn't home? That might have been the case, but we didn't give up. We stuck to written procedures ('Always try at least three times to establish a contact with the head of the household before leaving') and knocked on the azure door. Soon after that, we heard a muffled sound of someone dragging their feet coming from inside the flat. “Oh my, oh my! What a day!” a shrill voice we knew well mumbled.
A few seconds later, the Crazy Cat Lady half-opened the door. She was barefoot and wore a black bathrobe encrusted with silvery cat's fur. Her hair was frizzy and dishevelled with a few curlers still hanging. By contrast, maroon lipstick shone around her mouth as if she had just put it on. At first, the CCL stared at us with blurry eyes drenched in mascara looking lost. Then she shrugged and grinned in what could have been a smile.
“You must be here for that awful nuisance of a Census business,” she said, her vacant gaze addressing none of us but hanging somewhere beyond: “Well, I suppose it's my duty to act the quintessentially law-abiding citizen,” she sighed, wiping a droplet of sweat from her powdered nose: “Do come in, boys.”
We weren't keen to cross the threshold, but duly obliged as the CCL had already disappeared inside. There was no chance left but to follow her. Even in broad daylight, even on that sweltering summer, the flat looked dark and musty. We glimpsed heavy furniture, potted plants, stacks of papers. And sprinting among them, retreating in corners at our passage, leaping to and fro, we saw dozens of hissing shadows. The air was stuffy and reeked so much of cat's urine that we had to breathe with our mouths open to withstand it. We wondered when the last time the CCL had invited anyone in was.
“Fancy a cup of coffee? Hibiscus tea? I don't suppose you drink absinthe...”
“No, thanks, Mrs. Stone.”
“Don't call me Mrs. Stone. Alas! I'm an old maid. Just Miss would do.”
The CCL led us to a cramped parlour whose walls were covered from floor to ceiling with black and white photos. In the half darkness of the room, we could spot portraits of women with full lips and fancy hairdos seductively smiling or blowing kisses to the camera. Next, to them, there were shots of men caught smoking cigars, holding guns or donning bow ties. We didn't recognise any of those people, but we noticed that most of the photos were autographed.
Our host let herself fall into an armchair and invited us to sit down on a huge sofa. Which we would have done, unless the three well-fed cats curled up there weren't keen to make room for us. The CCL gave out a theatrical sigh and clapped her hands twice. The felines shook themselves up and jumped down the sofa presently.
“Do you like cats?”
“Very much, Miss,” we replied as we sank in the sofa holding our breath for the stench of piss was overwhelming there.
“I'm exceedingly glad to hear that,” the CCL exclaimed: “I adore cats. For they are better than most people I've known in my life. And by that I mean big shots, mind you, veritable maestros and prima donnas. Do you know who a prima donna is?”
We shook our heads.
“Oh, it matters not. I don't suppose they provide you with half-decent education at your...school these days. Oh my, oh my! But what I was talking about? Oh yes, cats. Formidable living things. Magnificent beings. Heavenly creatures, if you ask me. For they perceive who you are. And by Jove! I mean it. You see, many people claim cats are selfish and individualistic. Of course, they are! That's what we all are: selfish and individualistic rascals. Just like cats. Unless that most of us civilized human beings fake our inner nature by pretending to be caring and altruistic for the sake of questionable appearances. Well, mark my words, I'm not one of those hypocrites. I'm selfish, individualistic and proud of it.”
We nodded at this speech as vigorously as we could.
“Now, let me introduce you my beloved,” the CCL went on: “Ladies first: Giselle, Blanche, Julie, Carmen...where's Carmie? Ah, there she is! Then Leonore, Hedda, Nora – quiet Nora quiet – they're no foes! And last but definitely not least...that charming mademoiselle stretched on the chaise-longue is Manon, the apple of my eye and jewel of the crown.”
We looked at the famous Manon. She turned out to be a majestic long-haired ginger, white and brown cat. The puss stood up and hissed at us.
“Manon! What are these manners? Shame on you!”
The puss replied with a huge, languid yawn.
“Oh my, oh my! What a capricious strumpet you are, Manon. I do apologise on her behalf. You see, she led a hard life. I rescued her from a shelter where she dwelled in the most unspeakable conditions. Yet, that doesn't mean she's entitled to treat guests like that. Right, mademoiselle? To tell you the truth, I'm afraid I spoiled her. But now, come. Show me what you have. It's utterly poignant to see that someone remembers about me, from time to time.”
The Crazy Cat Lady never returned the Census questionnaire filled in. Five working days later – as per procedure – we knocked again at her door. But she didn't show up after the mandatory three attempts; only the meowing of her cats came from inside the flat. Two days later we were there again, but to no avail: the CCL didn't answer. This time, though, the felines sounded different as if they were trying to call our attention to something urgent. When also our third visit proved unsuccessful, we informed superiors. A couple of weeks passed. Then, upon complaints coming from neighbours who had grown tired of the increasing cats wailing, a police patrol showed up at the azure door.
The cops were welcomed by a pungent sweetish odour and, upon getting no answer from Miss Stone, broke down the door to get into the flat. What they found there were twenty-seven skinny cats and the corpse of a woman decomposing on the kitchenette floor. Later on, rumours circulated in the neighbourhood that the CCL had been hit in the nape by a baseball bat. Also, we heard through the grapevine that the cats weren't scrawny at all as they had been devouring the brains of the CCL out of her smashed head. We found these gruesome details impossible to believe, but couldn't stop thinking about them.
Nobody we knew went to the Crazy Cat Lady's funeral. Our parents told us she had been cremated and the urn with her ashes given to a distant relative living elsewhere. Some of the cats ended up in a shelter, others were put to sleep. We never knew what happened to haughty Manon. The vacant flat was cleaned up by the council, its windows shut with plywood boards, and stayed empty for years. We were in twelfth grade when a bunch of squatters occupied the apartment and repainted its door black.
Fifteen years, many jobs, two weddings and four children later, we watched an old movie starring Gregory Peck on TV. There was something familiar in the co-protagonist of the film, something we couldn't quite place, but that we all perceived at once. She was a stunning woman with a commanding stage presence and a magnetic gaze even though we agreed the clichéd plot didn't give her character justice. None of us knew the name of this mysterious Technicolor demigoddess and yet she definitely rang a bell. No matter how bland the movie turned out to be: we all endured it til its final predictable scene. Then, as soon as the closing credits started rolling down, we focused on them. Not one minute later we read the following bio on the Internet Movie Database:
'Clara Peters (born Cicely Stone) starred in twelve motion pictures from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, mostly in dramatic roles. She was a talented actress with a stunning hourglass figure and alluring emerald eyes. Federico Fellini was particularly fond of her and cast Clara in three of his movies. Alfred Hitchcock wanted her to play Midge Wood in 'Vertigo', but Miss Peters turned down the part. She retired from the film industry due to a quarrel with Michelangelo Antonioni and lived out of social benefits in a provincial town. Miss Peters died of a stroke in 1992 after thirty years spent out of the spotlight.'