Thursday, April 16, 2009

1970s Urban Legend Story


At night, tired from a long work day, strange things surface. What would make me remember a story I hadn't thought about in decades—a story that isn't even mine, although it belongs to my childhood? When I was young, I loved to tell jokes. Knock-knock jokes in particular, as my son tells now, and when I was older, jokes from the "Truly Tasteless Jokes" series of books (I think there were many volumes; I had at least one of them, with a black cover). Then for some reason I stopped being able to remember jokes at all. I've rarely told any in my adult life, though I like to think I've managed to keep a sense of humor anyway. The jokes were often quite long, with complicated stories leading up to a punch line. This is probably why, in time, I became unable to tell them. I'd remember the punch line but not the setup. I do know that some of my old jokes were rather inappropriate, especially for a child telling them. One involved a rip-off artist in a house of ill repute, an inflatable doll, and the punch line, "I bit her; she farted and flew out the window." Lovely, yes? Another joke was a political one that I loved to recite, despite not really knowing who all the players were. It had to do with the president, vice president, the "smartest man in the world"—who was supposed to be Henry Kissinger, as he himself was known to profess—and some kid with his backpack, all in an airplane with engine trouble. But here's the thing I remember now. It's not really a joke, just a crazy urban legend story with a sickly, kind of funny ending. I heard about this story from my mom, who saw it in the newspaper in Chicago, I believe, when we were living there (or else someone sent it to her, but I think not). After hearing it, disbelieving that it could actually be true as purported, it became a story I loved to tell, especially at parties and often to grown-ups, who must've gotten a kick out of my narration. I probably haven't told it in at least thirty years, but here goes: A woman decides she will host a winter-season dinner party. The afternoon of the party, she's preparing all the dishes and storing them in the refrigerator, until she runs out of room. For dessert, she has made a Jell-O mold (remember, it's the 1970s), and since it won't go in the fridge, she decides to keep it out on the fire escape where it will stay at least as cold. Guests begin to arrive, and she (or her husband) puts out their cat. As the evening wears on, everyone eats, drinks, is carrying on, and eventually it's time for dessert. The woman goes out to get the Jell-O mold, and sees that the cat has bitten into it, just a bit. There's no other dessert, so she scoops up the mold, brings it in to fix it up and serve it anyway, with no one the wiser. In fact, everyone compliments it. The party continues, a few people head home, then others, and eventually she and her husband are alone again, and they go to let in the cat. (Here I wonder: how cold was it really, and did it make sense to put the cat out in the first place? But at the time, it was a story taken at face value, most normal thing in the world.) The cat, however, is lying dead on the fire escape. The couple wonder what happened, what on earth they can do, and they feel panicky, because suddenly it's horribly clear that somehow the Jell-O mold poisoned their cat. And the guests, then? Feeling sick herself, the woman calls them up and explains what happened, recommending that they go to the hospital, which they do. The couple themselves go next. Later, after a most unpleasant stomach-pumping, convinced that nothing else could possibly go wrong, they go home and run into their neighbor. The neighbor looks forlorn and says, "I'm so glad you're home. I have to tell you, the most awful thing happened. I was out driving, when your cat ran into the road. I tried to swerve, but it was too late. I knew you were having a party and didn't want to disrupt you with such awful news, so I put the cat on the fire escape and waited to tell you. I'm so sorry." Naturally, the neighbor was not as sorry as the couple, or their guests, all of whom had ended their evening at the emergency room for nothing! Now, as I said, it's not exactly a joke, but I always told it like one. I told it much better then than I just have now, but I'm at least content that I remember it. True story? If you want to believe everything you read in the newspaper, maybe. Or maybe it's true despite the skepticism it provokes. I'll probably never know. As a side note, though, I don't think I've eaten much Jell-O since.

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