Adam Mansbach 2008

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Theo the Cat
by Adam Mansbach

Jeff Randone was dying of boredom. For twenty-five years, he’d drawn the same cat, the same bird, the same hapless woman. Three panels a day, black and white on weekdays and color for the Sunday paper. Anything remotely fresh or funny about the strip was gone now, had been gone for years. There was only so much humor you could wring from a wisecracking cat, a stupid bird, a goofy, lovelorn owner. Social commentary wasn’t Jeff’s forte. The strip had become popular because it was simple, not edgy. Wars had been fought and presidents impeached and Theo the Cat had kept his fat furry ass out of it.

Jeff opened his file cabinet and extracted an early Theo collection. He’d published one a year since the beginning. Kids who’d gone to sleep clutching Theo dolls in grubby, chocolate-covered mitts were lawyers now.

Still no one remembered the early strips, or so Jeff hoped. He’d been reusing old jokes for a year or two now, cannibalizing his own work. Occasionally, some die-hard weirdo fan, the kind of person Jeff could barely believe existed, would write him a letter pointing out the similarities between today’s strip and one from March of 1985. Sometimes they’d even enclose the two strips in the letter, as evidence. Jeff never replied. He’d stopped responding to fan mail in 1989, after a woman in Miami had mailed him a roll of photos of her house, covered from floor to ceiling in Theo the Cat merchandise. Theo wallpaper in the kitchen. Theo sheets. Theo magnets and cookie jars. About two hundred stuffed Theos in the master bedroom, and a picture of the woman lying buried in them, grinning like a loon.

Most of the merchandising deals had expired by now. Theo’s popularity had peaked in the mid-nineties, with the airing of a short-lived afterschool cartoon, Theo and His Friends, that Jeff had liscensed and been hired to consult on. He’d seldom watched the show. He didn’t like the voice they’d given Theo, or Sammy the Bird, but he didn’t much care. He’d found Melinda’s voice quite sexy, which was mildly disturbing. It was a relief when the show was cancelled in its second season.

Theo’s waning appeal was no cause for alarm. The strip was too much a part of the dreary scenery of people’s lives to ever be dropped from syndication. They expected to see it when they opened the paper; not to laugh when they read it, but to find it there and thus have their own existences somehow confirmed. The censors certainly never read it; they only checked Doonesbury and The Boondocks. Theo the Cat had never been the slightest bit riske.

Jeff sat at his desk and read through a hundred old strips, looking for something he could reuse. He found nothing, closed the book, and stared down at the well-lit drafting board beneath his elbows for an hour, waiting for an idea. The only disadvantage to living alone was that you had to distract yourself from your work; there was no one there to interrupt you. He picked up another book and flipped through a hundred more strips. Nothing. He only had to read the first panel to remember a strip, and be bored by it.

His eye stopped on an unfunny strip from 1991. It had been raining when he inked it. In the first panel, Theo sat on the couch, with Sammy the Bird in his customary perch on the cat’s left shoulder. There’s nothing like a quiet night in front of the TV, said Theo. In the following panel, the bubble from the television read Tonight, part three of our special series on the vacation homes of soap stars, and Theo and Sammy exchanged a look of disenchantment. In the final panel, the two of them sat before the blank TV. Nothing like a quiet night of staring at the walls, said Sammy. Now that’s entertainment, responded Theo.

Jeff reread the script, then set about copying it onto the paper before him: the cat, the bird, the couch. He began copying the words, in pencil, hoping he could change one or two around, update the TV’s line to make the strip sound new.

There’s nothing like a quiet night in front of the TV.

Tonight, part three of our special series on the vacation homes of rap stars.

Nothing like a quiet night of staring at the walls.

I wish I had some heroin.

For the first time he could remember, Jeff cracked himself up. He dropped his pencil and laughed until tears welled in the corners of his eyes. He read the strip over and over, laughing harder every time. Finally, he picked up his pencil and put the eraser to the paper. He paused, hand fisted, poised to rub the line vigorously from existence, and began to laugh again. He put the pencil down, picked up the strip, and slid in inside the manilla envelope he sent into the office every Friday. He took out another piece of paper and began to draw.

What’s it like? asked Sammy the Bird, perched on Theo’s shoulder.

It’s the biggest rush I’ve ever had, replied that cat, lying on the couch with a needle sticking out of his front leg. I’ve never felt like this before.

I want to try some too said Sammy the Bird.

You can’t, said Theo. I used it all. Let’s get some more.

We need some money, Sammy said. I’ll go get Melinda’s purse.

Jeff worked quickly, giddily. He added the finished strip to the envelope and began another. Theo and Sammy sat slumped on the couch, nodding, with needles protruding from Sammy’s skinny birdleg and Theo’s meaty front haunch. In the second panel, Melinda entered the room, saw them, and screamed. In the third panel, she sat between them, an arm around each one’s shoulders. Guys, Melinda said, I don’t know how to tell you this. I just found out today. I have an inoperable brain tumor. I’m gonna die. Neither one responded.

Jeff was in hysterics. He took a deep breath, licked the envelope, sealed and stamped it, left it on his doorstep for the delivery man. He sat down on his couch, opened a beer, and laughed until bedtime.

The phone rang at nine-thirty the next morning. “Jeff,” said Harry, “have you lost your goddamn mind? Heroin? Brain tumors? Is this some kind of joke? I can’t print this.”

“That’s the strip, Harry,” Jeff said. “Print it or don’t. But if you don’t, a lot of people are gonna wonder where Theo the Cat is today. Lotta calls from angry readers.”

“And if I do, I’m gonna get a lot of calls wondering why America’s favorite wisecracking cat is suddenly a junkie.”

“It’s time for a change, Harry. Time for a change.” Jeff hung up the phone, got out of bed. He took a shower, cracked a beer, and went to work.

You don’t seem to care that I’m dying, Melinda said to Theo.

I’ve got problems of my own
, the cat replied. Can you tie me off? It’s so hard to shoot up without opposable thumbs.

Where’s Sammy today? Melinda asked.

Oh, him
, said Theo. I finally ate his punk ass.

On Monday, Jeff ran outside as soon as he heard the morning paper thud agains his doormat. He turned to the comics and grinned. Harry had had no choice, and there it was. Millions of people all over America were dropping their cereal spoons and spilling their orange juice right now, wondering why Theo the Cat had turned to narcotics. Soon, they’d be writing Jeff letters. He planned to read every last one.

Harry called around eleven. “Jeff, half the papers in America are threatening to drop your strip. The syndicate’s not renewing youe contract when the year’s up. I hope you’re pleased with yourself.”

Jeff spoke with the phone wedged between his ear and shoulder. He was busy drawing. “That’s fine, Harry, that’s just fine. I think I’m going to retire after this years anyway. Enough’s enough. Tell the papers I’m sorry they feel that way, but if they drop me they’re going to miss the best Theo the Cat strips Jeff Nardone has ever drawn.”

Harry sighed into the phone. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Jeff. After twenty-five years, is this really how you want to be remembered?”

“Listen, Harry, I’ve got to go. I’m right in the middle of inking the Sunday strip. Talk to you later.”

The strip was a gorgeous six-panel. The first showed a windswept cemetery illuminated by a setting sun; gauzy clouds hovered before a wash of orange and magenta. Theo sat alone, before a gravestone reading Melinda, weeping, with a needle in his arm. He cried through the second and third panels. In the fourth, Theo was keeled over. In the fifth he was gone, and in the final panel a second gravestone, reading Theo, sat beside Melinda’s.

Jeff smiled down at his creation, set it aside, and got to work on the following week’s strips, which were all static shots of the gravestones. It was raining one day. A squirrel capered briefly on Melinda’s tombstone the next. The grass began to grow.

He put the strips into the envelope, got himself a beer, and went outside. Soon the mail would arrive, and he would sit on the front porch and read through the horrified letters of old people, the bewildered inquiries of longtime fans, and the approving postcards of teenagers. He thought forward to drawing a year’s worth of cemetery still-lifes, and smiled. Sorry, Harry, he thought. Sorry, Theo. Tough shit, America. He laughed out loud and threw his empty beer can on the lawn.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing