Greta Garbo, Freest Cat There Ever Was

On Monday I left my job in the woods, drove two hours, and got a new job at a hot-springs resort on the other side of the mountain. I showed up and parked my car in the dusty lot, looked at the trees around me. It was drier here. I’d never been to this place, but lots of friends had. It had hotsprings and a ton more people than where I had been working, third-growth forest with trampled-down moss, some sort of cedar I didn’t even recognize. Microclimates are so interesting. Just one ridge east or west, and everything can change.

I walked up to the lodge, and thought, of course there is a lodge. Everywhere that I work has to have a lodge. It’s a central theme, an old building, a word. It means nothing. Sometimes people stay there, sometimes they don’t. The walls are made of wood. I usually spend lots of time inside.

Madge was there, of course, at the lodge. I called her name and she turned, hardly surprised to see me.

“You got my psychic messages,” she said. “Since I can’t use the internet.”

We hugged. Of course we had found each other. So much time had passed. What time had passed? A whole river. Dark water under the bridge, cluttered with flotsam.

Madge had arrived at the resort the night before. She was doing a working interview, as fill-in for the kitchen.

Madge sighed, and swept her arm over the meadow. It was strewn with wooden deck chairs.

“Where do you want to sit?” she asked. “Sun or shade?”

“I don’t care,” I said. We both knew that I usually chose shade, while she chose sun. Today I was feeling impartial.

“I want to sit in the shade,” said Madge, which surprised me. We sat on a wooden stage, which was painted green. Paint, I thought. Nothing at my last job was painted. All the cabins were dark inside, red cedar boards like the womb of the forest. Paint, I thought again. It’s a sort of line in the sand. One step closer to everything.

Madge pulled the sunglasses off her head. She was wearing all black. That’s odd, I thought. If anyone, Madge likes to wear color. More than anyone I know. Lace and stripes and velour. Things from cardboard freeboxes. Torn things and too-small things, things that other people throw away.

I started talking and of course, I talked a lot, even though I was tired. I told her how bad I felt, and how good I felt, and how scared I felt, and how strong I felt. Finally I asked her how she was.

“Bad.” she said. “Really bad.” She pushed at the coleslaw on her plate. Her soup had gone cold, half a rosemary bun stuck in it. “Greta died.” she said, and then I understood everything.

I understood why Madge had wanted shade. I understood why she was wearing all black.

Greta had been Madge’s best friend in the whole world. Greta Garbo was a cat. A cat, but not just any cat. A Rectangular Cat With No Tail, small and grey and soft like a fox hat from the goodwill. And feral too, really wild. Greta was a country-cat, a stalks-the-forest-at-night cat, a flame-lit eyes and plaintive-meows strung together like beads on a string cat. And Greta was more than any cat could ever be. She was a hitch-hiking cat, a rides-the-bus-in-a-plastic-carrier cat, a sleeps-wherever-Madge-sleeps cat, which could be anywhere, nowhere, everywhere.

Greta went everywhere that Madge went.

Greta went to the farm and was a farm cat, she went to the woods and was a woods cat. In the city she was a wild, pent-up house cat, but always she was a spoon-me-under-the-covers cat, a turn-me-over-and-pet-my-belly cat, a hold-me-upside-down-in-the-air-I-trust-you kind of cat, a small and lithe and living cat, a glimmer of hope for all of cat-kind, a brilliant contrast to the dull-eyed cats of apartments everywhere, loose-furred and sluggish cats, cats like sad mops for humanity’s dirty front steps.

She was a lot like Madge. She was a part of Madge. A half of Madge, a third of Madge. And she pulled at her, whenever they were apart. She pulled at Madge whenever Madge could not take her along. She had pulled at Madge this summer, when she was in Europe. She tore at her heart.

Madge came back from Europe, and Greta had died. Crawled under the farmhouse where she was born, right under the bathroom floor. Maybe there had been a catfight. Everyone thought that Greta was only missing, but Madge knew better. And then after a few days they smelled her there, under the floor in the August heat.

“I don’t know why she didn’t meow,” said Madge, her chin tipped down like she couldn’t stand the weight of her head. “She always does her little meows. I don’t know why she didn’t do her little meows.”

It was so fucking sad. I wanted to cry, right there, on that painted stage at the hot springs resort, where colored bath towels dried in the sun, draped over the deck of the lodge, and hula-hoops littered the trampled grass where they’d been dropped by children. But it wasn’t just Greta. It was Madge. She was so fucking sad, it came off of her like fog. And it came off of me too, and we sat there and I thought, it’s alright. It’s alright. We are the same, the two of us. Somehow we are the same.

“What are you going to do now?” I asked.

Madge shrugged.

“I went to the farm, and everything reminds me of Greta. I went to the Peninsula, but that doesn’t feel like home. It’s all sort of up in the air right now, I don’t know where to go or what to do. I don’t know where I’m supposed to be.”

“I know!” I cried. “I know. I feel the same way.”

“This seems like a nice sort of in-between place,” said Madge, nodding her head at the dirt lane in front of us.

“Yeah,” I said. “It used to be fun, not knowing what to do next. But it’s not fun anymore. I’ve BEEN homeless before,” I said, “but I’ve never FELT homeless. You know? What are you going to do after your interview?”

“I promised A. I’d go on a hiking trip,” she said. “On the peninsula. A. doesn’t know what she’s doing, either. She’s pretty depressed about it. She wants to go on adventures but complains that everyone has ‘regular’ lives now, that they can’t get away from. She doesn’t know what to do or where to go.”

“She almost had it,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“She almost had it, last summer. She was going to live on Sam’s land. She almost had it.”

We ate the last of our food and looked at our plates, drying in the heat. In a minute Madge would leave to start her interview, would disappear into the ether again. I felt a panic in my chest.

“How come there’s no place for us?” I asked. “It’s like we don’t exist.”

Madge nodded behind her sunglasses. “There’s some land,” she said, “in California. I’ve been thinking about California. How do you feel about California? Go south, I was thinking. There’s some land, called Bear-something. It’s owned by punks, or whatever we’re called now. They’re motto is ‘free land for free people’.” She laughed a little. “After my trip with A., I think I’ll go to Idaho. I want to go help out my mom. I want to go to Idaho, and be useful to my mom.” She brightened- “Do you want to go to Idaho? I’m recruiting?”

My future was as blank as a two-dollar notebook. I shrugged my shoulders.

“You know,” I said, “If I don’t get a job here, or anywhere, I’ll come to Idaho with you. I’ll come hide out with you.”

Madge picked up her plate.

“I’ve got to go start working. Are you going to be here?”

“For a little while,” I said. “Then I’m driving to Portland.” I slumped my shoulders. “I’ll be there for a few days.” I didn’t want to lose her. She was like me, only sadder. She was just as lost as I was. I hugged her. “I love you,” I said. “There’s a place for us, somewhere.”

After Madge left for the kitchen I found the office, a dark building on a hill with a rope-hammock out front. I wanted to lay in it, but thought, maybe I shouldn’t. It was hard to accept the relaxing vibe of this place. Inside the office were hikebooks and cookbooks, gemstone rings and dagoba chocolate in a locked glass case. AA and AAA batteries, flashlights and floppy hippie hats, all of it for sale.

“I applied to be a fill in,” I told the woman behind the counter, “on the website. But now I’m here and I’ve never been here before. Is there someone I can talk to?”

And so they hired me, and I can start in a week. But not necessarily Madge, because she wants to work in the kitchen and they don’t need kitchen staff just yet. I’ll be cleaning shit, outside moving stuff around, draining hot tubs, that sort of thing. I’m glad I’m not going to work in the kitchen. Food is just too serious a subject for me.

I met up with Madge once more that day, and she told me about her List.

“You have a list?” I asked. It was a list of what she wanted, and she carried it in her pocket.

“Now that I know what I want,” she said, “I just have to find it.”

She read it to me, in the soaking pool, from the journal she clutched in her wet hand. She’s going to email it to me, and I’m going to put it up here.

Because it is amazing.

One thought on “Greta Garbo, Freest Cat There Ever Was

  1. You know, it doesn’t matter who you are, we all have to make a place for ourselves, and there’s many of us out here, in this world, that do this making of our lives, and still feel the aloneness of it all. Just know that, even when we’re all very connected to people, places, and things, we still are very much alone. It’s ok, we are ok. There is something wonderful in this state of aloneness. Cherish it, wrap yourself in it, because that in itself belongs souly to you.

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