by Tom McAllister
It started with just a few of the boys painting their faces like Garfield’s, his smirk and those giant eyes, and I’m telling you, they looked like they had stepped right off the comics page into real life. I don’t want to be rude, not to kids, but it was unsettling. Three boys with cartoon cat faces, all watching me, while I walked past and tried to play it cool, because if I looked freaked out, then they would be laughing at me all day. They would probably laugh at me anyway, because I’m forty-five, and to kids that age, nothing is funnier than old people. The fear of being mocked by a group of kids never really goes away; the sound of their contempt dredges up something primal and terrible inside you.
I moved to this neighborhood seven years ago, back when most of these kids were just funny little things getting ready for their first day of school, giant backpacks like anchors to keep them from floating away. For the first year I waved to their parents and sometimes even smiled or said good morning, but I never had one of those moments when they knocked on my door with a plate full of brownies or something. Nobody ever invited me over for a cookout even when I could see everyone was there. I know they were a little wary of a single guy in his late thirties. People with kids trust other people with kids, and that’s basically it. Everyone else is suspect.
I worked from home, at my standing desk because my doctor was worried about my sedentary lifestyle. I watched the kids through the gap in my window blinds. They came out around ten o’clock, with the Garfield makeup on already, and walked up and down the street in a staggered formation, meowing in a rhythm like it was a chant. And I thought: first of all, is it even canonical that Garfield meows? Has anyone ever heard him do it? And second: is this some kind of cult thing? Should I be calling the cops? But you can’t call the cops anymore because they might show up and kill one of the kids for no reason. Then you’ve got that on your conscience.
I’d spent most of my life online and considered myself pretty savvy, but I’d never heard of anything like this before. Part of getting older is finding out the world keeps multiplying and the universe keeps expanding even without your permission. Once I hit my forties, I had to admit I could never keep up with every new thing. I just wanted to know enough not to look like an idiot if I ever went on a date.
The group kept growing by the day, until there were thirty or forty kids marching on my street with Garfield faces. My house was the at the end of a cul-de-sac, so I watched them approaching and receding all day like the tide. One day I saw them complete fifty laps without a break. They only took Mondays off. Some days they ate lasagna instead of marching. Most of them either wore orange or painted their skin, and some had added stripes. A few carried stuffed teddy bears like Garfield’s beloved Pooky. They were all gaining weight so they could look more like the cat. I felt bad for the skinny kids who were probably trying everything they could to get fatter but having no luck. Whatever body you have, it’s never quite the one you want or need.
I watched Youtube tutorials on Garfielding—that’s what they called it—and you could see these twelve-year -old boys transform themselves in five minutes from normal-looking kids into chubby, sarcastic cats. I couldn’t tell whether kids had always been this talented and just kept it a secret, or if this was a new development. I don’t remember anyone my age being good at anything when we were young. Even now, it’s hard to think of things we do especially well. My generation, I mean.
After a few weeks, the girls started showing up, wearing big floppy ears and calling themselves Odies. They still marched, alternating between meows and barks, but now took more frequent breaks, and sat in loose clusters on my lawn. The Garfields napped while the Odies watched, panting. They all spent a lot of time taking selfies. I sat on the floor beneath my open windows so I could eavesdrop without calling attention to myself. When they talked, it was never for long, but I guessed they did most of their talking by text. If one of the girls wanted to leave, she would stand in front of a Garfield and wait for him to kick her in the butt. It didn’t make sense that the girls would be Odie, because Odie is a male and also Garfield had a girlfriend named Arlene. One thing I never understood about kids is how they can have these complex systems but then get the simple things wrong.
The girls were four or five years older than the boys, who probably had never imagined they could be lying in the grass in the sun next to actual high school girls. Some of the girls were beautiful in a way that can only apply to people their age. If it makes me a deviant to say that, then I don’t know what to tell you; it was true. Besides the ears and the face paint and the little black spot on their sides, they wore normal teenage girl clothes, which is to say they wore almost nothing. I tried not to think about the girls when they weren’t around. At that time, I was spending a lot of my nights writing reviews of kung fu films for my blog. The audience wasn’t huge, but I had a few regular commenters. It had occurred to me that my ex was probably reading it sometimes too, the same way I was looking at her Instagram every couple days, just to see. By the middle of summer, I was so distracted by the Garfield stuff that I’d been neglecting my blog. I just couldn’t stop thinking that maybe these kids had figured something out that adults couldn’t understand.
When I was their age, I was doing what everyone else did: listening to Nirvana CDs and playing Nintendo 64 during the day, and drinking vodka-spiked Gatorade in the woods at night. I wasn’t popular, but people liked me enough that I was allowed to hang with the popular kids. Everybody says kids are different these days, and I thought I had a firm grasp on the concept, but one afternoon you look out the window and you really feel it, the difference. Watching them on my lawn, I thought I might as well be 200 years old. I don’t think the teenage version of myself would have been disappointed in me; he wouldn’t even think about me. There are lots of ways to be young and not all of them are good but they’re all better than the alternative.
By August, they were spending less time on our street, so one afternoon I followed them in my car, at a reasonable distance, as they marched away. They had begun congregating with other groups of Garfields and Odies in the woods a mile from my house. I watched them do this five days in a row.
I called out sick from work for the next week. On the fifth day, I’d gotten a stern talk from my manager about my declining productivity, about the urgency I needed to show in improving my performance, but I barely listened. A few of the Odies were on my lawn by themselves, and I thought maybe they were about to knock on my door, or leave me a note, or something. Every hour I spent at my job was a waste. I was never someone who dreamed of feeling fulfilled by work, but I always thought it would at least be interesting.
That week, I watched dozens of tutorials, and then I painted my own face. I couldn’t pass as a Garfield, but I could pull off being a Jon. I was tall and thin and already owned the wardrobe—light blue collared shirt, navy pants, sensible brown shoes. I needed to paint on the big eyes and work on the hair, but otherwise, I’d nailed it.
As I approached the woods, I heard them all meowing and barking and making sarcastic comments about dieting. I still had no idea what this was about. Was it a drug thing or a sex thing or a weird internet thing or what? At least when I was young there was some logic to the way we lived. Now kids go online and they mash up eight different things and turn it into some new thing and nobody understands any of it.
I followed their trail through the woods, tracking the foil pans of microwave lasagna. At first they didn’t see me. There were more than a hundred kids. Nobody was drinking or smoking anything. If they were touching one another, it was not sexual. Around a bonfire, they had arranged inflatable huge lawn decorations like the kind people put out on Christmas. Each one was a different character from the Garfield-verse. A Jon, an Odie, the lady veterinarian, Doc Boy, and so on. There were 6 Garfields, in different poses (one for each good day of the week, I concluded). The fans powering the inflatables buzzed loudly enough I thought I could hide on the perimeter, undetected. If a nearby volcano had erupted and preserved this scene like Pompeii, future archaeologists would mistake us for a religious sect. They would create a whole mythology around it.
I had this weird feeling as I watched them, like a kid who’d just found his older brother’s stash of porn. I’m talking about back before the internet, when that was a thing that happened. I couldn’t explain it, and it wasn’t a sex thing for me. It wasn’t. But there was something about it, like I was about to get in trouble and I’d better not get caught but also I had no choice but to keep going. My body refused to move from that spot, and the longer I waited, the less afraid I became. There were enough of them that they could hurt me, if they wanted to, but in their exaggerated features, I read something else, something like acceptance. Every generation before theirs had been a disaster in some way, but there was hope here, a sense that maybe these kids would just be cool. You know? That they would let me sit with them. Why do your friends need to be the same age as you anyway? That’s not how things used to be. I’m talking about a long time ago now, back in history.
I made an involuntary sound—like a groan, maybe—and one of the lookouts heard me. They all turned to stare, and I heard their necks moving in unison. You can hear that kind of thing if you really listen. One of the girls made eye contact with me, and even through the makeup, I recognized her as the cute barista at my local coffee shop, the one who smiled at my jokes. I doubted she recognized me. I yelled “GARFIELD!” the way he would in the comic when he was exasperated with the cat. The Garfields yawned in unison. The barista Odie stepped closer to me and licked my face, not in an erotic way, but in a slobbery dog way. All the Odies surrounded me then, and a few others licked my face. I realized how this would look if someone saw me there, but I didn’t know what to do. Before any others could lick me, one of the Garfields—a potbellied kid whose body was so similar to the cat’s that I wondered if he’d had some kind of surgery to emphasize his haunches—stepped between me and the Odies. Everyone fell silent, and I understood he was the leader. He gripped the cuffs on my shirt, checking for stiffness first, and then he used a small ruler to measure their size. He searched my pockets and found the cat treats I had brought as an offering. He passed them off to one of his assistants to distribute.
I realized I had stopped breathing.
“This is no Jon,” the leader said. “This is a Nermal.”
They converged on me, and then I was being carried by the mob deeper into the woods. I was afraid to fight back; there were so many of them, and even in the best-case scenario, I would be a guy who had beaten up a bunch of kids. When we stopped, they dropped me into a wooden crate large enough to hold me if I curled my knees. It wasn’t the size or shape of a coffin, but inside it felt like one. They hammered a lid on, the sides reverberating with each whack. The box had a half-dozen air holes drilled into it, and I watched through them as the cats added stamps and scribbled writing on the outside. The leader kicked the box: “We are mailing you to Abu Dhabi,” he said. He pronounced it “Ay-boo Day-bee,” and I thought: these kinds don’t even understand the shit they’re reading. It’s embarrassing.
I still had no way out of the box. I had left my phone at home, for verisimilitude.
If the barista hadn’t come back that night, I might have died in there. I had tried to make my peace with it, but it would have been a very bad death. There are people who would have missed me. My commenters would have wondered what happened to the kung fu blog. There would have been investigations. When she pried open the lid, it was dark, but I could see she wasn’t wearing the makeup anymore. I tried to thank her but she told me to shut up. She whispered: “Sorry, but this is what happens to Nermals. It’s the rule.”
She was gone before I could even get to my feet. I walked home slowly because my legs were stiff. I already knew I would be back tomorrow. I would be dark gray and striped and I would have long, fluttering eyelashes, and I would be so cute it would drive them crazy. If I was meant to be a Nermal, then I would embrace being a Nermal; it felt like a kind of wisdom to think this way. They would put me back in the box, day after day after day, and one day maybe they would actually ship me. I imagined myself, flying. I imagined myself, arriving overseas, adorable and beloved. I imagined myself reborn in another world.
Tom McAllister is the author of the novels How To Be Safe and The Young Widower’s Handbook, as well as the memoir Bury Me In My Jersey. His short stories and essays have been published in Hobart, The Collagist, The Rumpus, Black Warrior Review, Cincinnati Review, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and some other places. He is the nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse, and co-host of the Book Fight! podcast. Find him on twitter @t_mcallister.
Art by Michelle Johnsen, art editor
Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.