A Haunting Manifestation of Musicals Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber

The old lady who lives in the mansion has 1,000 cats. How many litter boxes she has, no one knows but herself and the ten hundred felines who use them. When the new version of Cats, the musical, came out, it was supposed by her neighbors that the lady who lives in the mansion would finally risk daylight, exposure to the outside world, for a front row viewing of the CG perversion that was the newest rendition of an old classic. But her doors remained closed, hermetically sealed. Neither cat nor lady emerged. Not even a curtain was drawn.

Some of the kids half joked, half supposed to be true, that the old lady in the mansion is a vampire. That she would turn to ash, whirl away, crumble into dust, if even a fleeting, thin ray of the sun caressed but an inch of her flesh. Some of the kids’ parents wondered if the old lady was even alive. They daydreamed macabre potentialities; cats meowing, unheard behind closed doors and locked windows, starving, having last eaten the semi-decayed remains of their caretaker weeks ago. Visions of big toms and pampered ragdolls circulated the neighbors’ thoughts, maybe a Maine coon or a British shorthair, a multitude of bone-thin felines that rabidly eye the oak-paneled cupboard that they know is impregnated with large sacks of cat biscuits, yet without a means to access the provisions. They thought of who-knows-how-many litter boxes, each one filled to max capacity, the very brim.

The old lady who lived in the mansion could be dead, it’s true. But the newspapers thrown at her door every morning disappeared before the next one would sail across the lawn to herald a new day. The old lady’s mailbox never clogged with uncollected letters. On the contrary, it was dutifully kept unencumbered by mail, real estate pamphlets or department store catalogues that were destined to rest, unread, among the other detritus within a garbage bin. Even so, no one ever saw her unburden her letter box, retrieve the daily stash which was bestowed to her by Leo, the local mailman. Perhaps the old lady emerges in the night. Perhaps she prefers the shadows.

She might not be a vampire—that’s absurd. But maybe there is some truth to her sensitivity to the sun. No one is suggesting the old lady will combust into scattered smithereens if the amber glow of the sunset traces over her bare knuckles, a slim, exposed, frail ankle—no one other than those simpering kids—but it is entirely possible she has that rare condition, a hereditary intolerance to ultra-violet light. There’s a thought… the old lady may have Xeroderma pigmentosum. But really, curiosity aside, it was no one’s damned business.

On Halloween, the local children side-step the mansion that has so much potential for creepy, haunted house décor if only its owner had a single, festive bone in her body, which she doesn’t. Only a few daring or disrespectful or ignorant teenagers squeeze past the creaky, wrought iron gate to walk the considerable length of unlit pathway that bisects an overgrown lawn to knock upon the old mansion’s looming double doors. They’d knock upon the massive slabs of wood, knuckles tapping resounding echoes of Morse code, clear communication that was as good as shouting through an open window, screaming Trick or treat! Or for those who wandered into the neighborhood from the other side of the tracks—the wrong side of the tracks—the knocks would come heavier, more persistent. Such knocks would convey in crystal clear diction, Open the fucking door you petty hag.

Pillow cases and plastic, hollowed out pumpkin heads with handles would not be weighed down by green apples or Rice Krispies treats, offerings that would go straight into the trash, unwrapped, and therefore, uneaten—its the rule. No off-limits, home baked goods or fresh fruit. Not from the lady who lived in the old mansion. No miniature Snicker bars, fun-sized 3 Musketeers, Tootsie Roll Pops or heaven-filled Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. None of those gut-rot, diabetes forming, malignant sweats that usher youth to early obesity, all perfectly fine, encouraged, because they come wrapped. None of those kosher, mother-approved snacks that spike their child’s glucose levels after one, measly bite. Not from the petty hag.

Bitch, some of the teenagers would utter in the dark, maybe spit at the old lady’s door or look, in vain, for a jack-o-lantern that was not there to smash upon the curbside. They’d carry their disappointment, their overwhelming angst to the next house. They’d be given candy—wrapped of course—by the neighbors who lived in the shadow of the mansion next door. They’d say Happy Halloween, accept the bag of rainbow M&M’s, then smash the crude, but reasonably executed, mischievous grin right off the face of that smug pumpkin. They’d leave the curbside a confetti of pepitas, the sidewalk festooned in stringy, soft guts.

A wide framed, athletic type who lets everyone know he is an athletic type by the letter jacket he is wearing asks a scrawny kid, Who are you? What the fuck are you supposed to be, anyways?

The scrawny kid swallows, looks through the collection of thick lenses, the condensed constellations of acne, the glint of moonlight that ricochets off of metallic, orthodontic grimaces of fear. He searches for something, anything, in the terrified faces of his friends. He digs for pearls of wisdom, he begs for advice, or backup. He pleas for an answer to that very simple question.

The athletic type, the archetypal bully, loses patience. He takes an aggressive step towards the huddled mass of pasty, soft flesh. You deaf, moron? What’s with the mask? You lose the other half?

The scrawny kid caresses his half-mask. His long fingernails pick at the small, silver beads as he searches for the right words, for any words. He hides behind his black, velvet cape, paralytic. Then, he sees who watches, a figure high above, gazing down upon the scene as if from the rafters of an antiquated theater. The shadowed silhouette is eerie, the perfect sort of thing for hallows eve. The dark form wedged into the narrow partition of the curtains, the hollow face that peers, wide eyed, pressed close to the aged glass, distorted and skewed, everything, even down to the black cat that now sits upon the windowsill high up in the mansion window, somehow, all lends courage to the scrawny nerd who is pressured by a varsity legend.

He finds his voice. He sings, aloud. He wails, perhaps possessed.

Sing, my angel of music
He’s there
The Phantom of the Opera

There is a pause wherein crickets can be heard, the rustling of autumn leaves upon the pavement that scratch away an otherwise perfect silence. Then more than crickets and autumn leaves fill the silence. More than the dying echo of heartfelt verse. Cutting deep into the quiet night, the first-string quarterback makes his demands: Hand over your candy, choir boy. And you, blubber. And you, pizza face.

And thus, a night’s worth of walking in the cold, ringing doorbells and chanting happy Halloween, holding out opened pillow sacks and giving thanks, carrying the growing burden of tomorrow’s belly ache, smiling at the repeated question that came with every other answered door, hearing it over and over again, aren’t you a little old to be trick-or-treating? It all came to nothing. A waste. But then again, something special happened this late, October 31st.

The scrawny phantom looks up to the window but the old woman has gone. So too, has her cat. There is only the faint movement of the curtain, a tiny ripple in the fabric, that implies recent occupation. Behind the curtain, an old woman wades through purring cats. She treads in slow motion so as not to kick the many dozens of felines that vie to press up against her ankles. One hundred or more sleek coats, graceful tails, glow within the bright hues that ejaculate across the dark room from the television set. The live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar plays, triumphant.

Like a messiah, like Jesus Christ or maybe a modern superstar, like Moses, a sea parts for her careful steps, an ocean of furry bodies makes way for their goddess. From the television, a cheerful crowd sings. It is almost as if the cats are the ones who are chanting in elation for their savior.

Hosanna, hey sanna, sanna sanna ho
Sanna hey, sanna hosanna

Perhaps in anticipation, a sixth sense guided by some strange, occult knowledge, the gift of elevated awareness concocted and consumed, some foul-smelling, heady, witchcraft brew, or perhaps just by coincidence, the old lady’s footsteps have guided her to the front door just as the doorbell has rung. She has prepared but one treat. She has but one offering to give on this Halloween night. It awaits on the mantelpiece just inside the doorway. A trio of knocks echo in the foyer, loud and long, as the old woman takes up a candied apple by its skinny stick. It is as if a slender wand. One wave, the right incantation, and the curse, covered in a coat of sickly caramel, goes all the way through the thin green skin, the sweet pulp, and deep into the core. She opens the door.

Trick or treat!

Several hundred cats create an illusion that the mansion interior is alive, a biological entity. The wide-framed, athletic type marvels at how many cats can fit into one foyer. He searches for a sign of litter boxes, but sees none whatsoever. His own cat has three and it still manages to piss on the carpet daily. He sniffs, but smells no ammonia. He shakes his head, silently commending the old lady for her absolute mastery of cat ownership. He takes his candied apple and says thank you, but fails to hide a face of disappointment. The unwrapped, homemade shit, he thinks. He hefts three sacks of candy over his shoulder and walks the substantial length of pathway bisecting the mansion grounds. At the wrought iron gate he bites into his candied apple. He doesn’t really want it, but unwrapped, it can’t go into his pillow sack without making a mess. Rather than carry it throughout the night, the athletic type devours his treat. He nods approval. Not bad, he thinks.

Two blocks later, an athletic type with a letter jacket hits the pavement. He lies, face down, foaming between strained, labored breaths. Half a minute later, a star quarterback lies dead. A corpse in a letter jacket is buried beneath three white sheets, pillow sacks encumbered with candy.

From her lofty, third floor bedroom, an old lady stares out into the night. She peers between the modest opening in the fabric and gazes to where a commotion stirs, unseen, two blocks away, where a group of teenagers drop their sacks of candy, their carton of eggs and rolls of toilet paper, and for the first time in their lives look upon a dead human being. An old lady stares out into the night. She is quiet, almost breathless. She is out of date, expired. She is a shade of her former self, a silent-film queen in the age of CG monstrosities. She is antiquated and done. And now, she roosts up in her mansion, and remembers who she was.

An old lady stares out into the night, well after sunset, over Sunset Boulevard.

James Callan


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