Salsa Verde


Inside her newly purchased Beverly Hills home, Kathy O’Leary squints at her television screen.  Squints not as if she can’t see correctly but as if she is bothered, although she isn’t.  More like she is confused.  Or skeptical.  Interested—you might even say enthralled—but also somewhat disoriented.  Why is this show on?   How could it be on?  Didn’t it end like decades ago?  Is it possible that Nickelodeon just keeps showing and showing and showing its old television series in perpetuity?  But if that’s true, how would it have room for any new ones?  Wouldn’t all the spaces in its schedule eventually fill? Like some ancient, overpopulated cemetery?  And then what good is it?  It would be like a Top 40 radio station that filled its entire broadcast day with hits from fifteen years ago.  Would such a Top 40 radio station even need to exist?  And, in this case, does Nickelodeon?

She turns her head to the side and squints, harder.  Interested.  Enthralled.  Skeptical.  Confused.  Worried.   This isn’t just one episode either, but the third in a row.  This, apparently, is an all-day marathon.  Just like that first time.   She shivers.  She frowns.  She begins to worry.  She is afraid she might never be able to leave her home now and make that production meeting for her next, long overdue album.  She might have to call in sick.  Or say something else came up.  She might have to say she has a date.

Because in a way she does.

When The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius first aired in 2002, Kathy O’Leary had just left her childhood home in San Diego, as well as the tutelage of her born-again Christian parents; parents who had refused to allow any television in the house or any music that was not an expression of love for Jesus Christ.  As a result, child and adolescent Kathy had not known Scooby Doo or He-Man or Beavis and Butthead or the Ninja Turtles or Rugrats or Hey Arnold! or the Powerpuff Girls—or anything.  She only discovered cartoons for the first time as an eighteen-year-old failed gospel singer living on her own in a seamy if barely affordable LA apartment.  A singer who had made the grim choice to abandon the shelter of easy San Diego comfort, and of gospel singing, because she was determined not to let her voice go down under the weight of bad music; because she was determined to choose music that would really let her voice sing.  Even if it meant not singing about Jesus Christ.  But such a significant life change could not be limited to new musical selections; such a life change necessitated a whole series of discoveries, including different friends and novel neighborhoods and foreign foods and daring films and goofy cartoons on networks like Nickelodeon.

And what, on that very first day of exploring animated television, had she happened upon first but the first season of The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.  What kind of weird alternative reality was this?  Is there a place in our country, our culture, where kids have hair as big as that, and functioning labs?  And no bibles?  She watched not one episode but several—it was an all-day marathon—and what she found with each successive episode, and what she could not ever admit to a single soul, is that she grew increasingly fascinated with the character of Carl Wheezer.

Okay, so yes, even at eighteen, even as a complete newcomer to animated cartoons, Kathy understood that Jimmy was the central figure, the sympathetic character; the one with adorable hair, a cute voice, a wide smile, and a good heart.  He might have been a “boy genius” with a 200 IQ or whatever, but that wasn’t really what he was.  What he really was, at heart, was a clean-cut, all-American kid with the best of intentions, an innate sense of fairness, and a lot of can-do spirit.  When, six years later, a lot richer and long since having left that terrible apartment, she caught an ancient episode of Dennis the Menace on TV Land, she immediately thought, He’s just like Jimmy Neutron, except stupider.  Jimmy was the good kid.  Quirkily good-looking.  A nerdy girl’s heartthrob.   Heck, on the show he already had a girlfriend, or a potential one, the appropriately blonde and perky-nosed, if a little bitchy, Cindy Vortex.

This is all to say that Kathy knew she was supposed to like Jimmy.  Even as a complete neophyte to the world of cartoon television, this fact was obvious to her.  She was supposed to like Jimmy the best.   But she didn’t.  Jimmy, in fact, did nothing for her.  Jimmy was too easy to like.  Too obviously made to like.  Way too white bread, way too goody-two-shoes.  No, the character she kept watching and watching and watching was Carl Wheezer.

Carl stirred something in Kathy O’Leary she did not understand but in no way could contain.  He was so tightly wound, and so without a clue as to his own nature.  Just like her.  Just like her!  Just like she had been not even six months before.  After about the fourth straight episode, she wanted to tear off his glasses and rip away his shirt and yank his pants down to his knees; she wanted expose his pale, blubbering, greasy bulk to the world; she wanted to kiss that bulk and lick it, starting at his naked quivering shoulder blades, then his orangey fruit-tipped nipples, then his freckled belly, then his tiny  little—

Wait a minute, Kathy O’Leary thought to herself.   What am I thinking?  What am I feeling?  I’m still a virgin.  And what the heck?  Carl Wheezer?

Be careful little mind what you think.  Be careful little mind what you think.

Inside that tinny, shabby, seamy, barely tolerable and overpriced LA apartment in 2002, Kathy began to pace; she began to shudder; she began to yearn for ways to dispose of this new, never-before tension—or simply make her forget it. Unfortunately, there were no distractions of note in the apartment.  As a failed gospel singer and no one—yet—with a hit single on her resume, she could afford little in the way of household accoutrements.  Nor did she drink.   Not yet.  What she had in her bedroom was an air mattress.  What she had in her closet was a vacuum cleaner.  What she had in her living room was a television, a couch, a box of—mostly gospel—CDs, and a Sony Discman.  What she had in her kitchen cabinets was a box of Cheerios and some unsalted saltines.  What she had in her refrigerator was a cartoon of eggs, three apples, a bottle of yellow mustard, and a barely touched jar of salsa verde.

Okay then.

On that day, Kathy O’Leary, née Katherine Marie Caldwell, in order to distract herself, to punish herself, to try for a desperate, waning second just to return to the person she thought she was, turned off the terrible computer-generated cartoon and inserted her failed gospel CD Kathy Caldwell into her Discman.  She put the headphones over her ears.  She had not listened to this CD for months.  Because it was so bad.  She had learned the fact too late, but learned it she had.  Kathy Caldwell was just bad.  But she forced herself now, once again, to listen.  And while she listened, she ate spicy salsa verde on top of unsalted saltines.  She ate until her lips began to burn and her tongue began to fester; she ate and listened long past that point, in fact; until she’d completed suitable penance for a whole variety of unnamed but actual, consequential sins.