FROM THE CHAPTER 16 ARCHIVE: This essay originally appeared on December 17, 2019.
He appeared at my threshold late one night, uninvited: a hideous ceramic figure in biker regalia, about a foot tall — not that size mattered. What did matter was his most outstanding anatomical feature: a long, skinny cactus reaching skyward from a gaping-pants-shaped planter. The succulent, as it were, made the man.
At the time, it wasn’t unusual for odd things to turn up outside my bedroom door. I shared a big brick bungalow on Gale Lane in Nashville with three of my Ultimate Frisbee teammates, and “Gale House” was celebration HQ for the city’s tribe of Frisbee folk during the late 1990s. Anything could happen there and usually did. That weekend, on the drive home from a tournament in South Carolina, one carload got off at a garish fireworks emporium to browse the kitsch. Someone paused at a prurient Hell’s Angel cactus planter and said to the others, “We have to buy that for Kim.”
I struggled to rid myself of Cactus Man, as he would eventually come to be called. But every time I stuffed him into a closet or left him in the yard to rot, he’d pop back up by the bedroom door with a note stuck to his cactus: “Don’t deny me,” one note said. I could not quit him. Maybe some secret part of me didn’t truly want him gone. I tried sneakier methods to cut ties: At a Gale House Halloween Party, I awarded him as first prize for the costume contest, but the winner stiffed me, declining to claim his trophy.
Finally, at Christmas, I devised a winning strategy: wrap up Cactus Man and put him under the tree for the Gale House Dirty Santa gift exchange — which, given our competitive tendencies, could get rather Machiavellian. By law and by honor, presents could not be refused and ranged from things you might actually want to comical objects to lewd items with purposes we didn’t care to imagine. Cactus Man fit into most of those categories.
I don’t remember who “won” him that first Christmas, but it doesn’t matter. What did matter was that I was finally free … or so I thought. For the next decade, he reappeared every year under the tree at the Ultimate Christmas party. Even after we all moved out of Gale House, after we twenty-somethings turned into thirty- and forty-somethings, familied up, and bought houses, one thing held firm: Cactus Man Christmas. He had ceased to torment only me; now, he menaced an entire community.
Phil, a Nashville attorney and retired Frisbee player, remembers a dramatic tension that would rise to a crescendo at those parties and the “adrenaline rush you would get” when your turn came to choose a gift. “You always worried that you were gonna end up getting Cactus Man,” he recalls. Suddenly, size did matter: Large packages lurked until late in the game, deemed high-risk by contestants who drew early, impregnating the night with foreboding. “There’s definitely a fear factor,” says Jon, a veteran of NightWatch, Nashville’s first professional Ultimate team. “And when you get [Cactus Man], you can’t just give him back. He is yours. He picked you, you picked him, and you’re stuck. And you can wait till next year and plot your revenge.”
It was Jon who raised the stakes forever in December 2000, with a stunning gambit that shook the Frisbee tribe to its core: Under the tree, he placed a small, flat box — seemingly, a safe pick. Inside was a Polaroid picture of Jon holding Cactus Man, with the words “Gotcha! See me later…” written in Sharpie. A roar of blended rage and triumph rose from the crowd. CM’s new owner slunk away in defeat, with a full year ahead of him to mastermind a reprisal.
From that year forward, no package was safe. Each owner was under immense pressure to dream up a more elaborate Cactus Man transfer method than all that came before. One year, CM came as a Christmas ornament; another owner had a holographic image of him placed into a light-up keychain at a mall kiosk. Those years, the lucky winners took home both the gift-proxy and The Man Himself.
The glorious climax of all Cactus Man Christmases past, present, and future took place at Phil’s house in the late 2000s, the year Phil served as both event host and outgoing CM custodian. Late in the drawing, a young player opened a box and found a cordless phone inside. When it rang, he stared at it in bewilderment, then answered with a wary “Hellooo?”
“Merry Christmas, Braxton!” said Phil, calling from the next room on his mobile. “You’ve got Cactus Man.” Braxton looked devastated. The place went to pieces.
Soon afterwards, Cactus Man receded into history, at least for me — along with Gale House, Dirty Santa galas, and tournament weekends that dissolve into a blended haze of sunshine, sweat, and cold beer. My erstwhile teammates are fifty-somethings now, parents and stepparents and mid-career professionals who live all over the world. We don’t see each other as much, but they’re my teammates evermore. I grew up with them. Many of us had little in common besides athletic proclivities and shared history, but those things were enough then, and still are, even as we gather for the more difficult rites of passage that come in midlife.
What’s the point of a story as ridiculous as the Cactus Man saga, except as part of that shared history? No in-joke can withstand an attempt to explain it to an outsider. But mention Cactus Man to a veteran of the late-90s club Frisbee scene in Nashville, and she’ll get a faraway look in her eyes. She’ll probably tell you some version of the story above, with a half-smile on her face and zero concern about whether you “get it.” Her chosen family gets it, and that’s what matters. Every team needs its lore — the more half-cocked, the better. Because sure, the big life events and traumas we share are what bind us most securely. But in between, it’s the practical jokes and embarrassing stories that make a group an “us” and light up the wintriest of winter nights with guilty laughter.
Meanwhile, Cactus Man has passed through many hands, endured numerous cactus replantings, and become the stuff of myth — a sleazy Ghost of Christmas Past. I’m not sure where he’ll spend this holiday season, but rumor has it he’s currently tended by a twenty-something player named Sam. (Partial sun, Sam, and light on the water.)
I’m glad to know CM is out there somewhere, standing ready to scandalize a new generation of disc nerds or to provide them with the shared mythology they need to truly cohere as a unit — as well as a holiday rite no one else will understand. In that sense, Cactus Man abides, like the Christmas spirit itself, which comes wrapped in many guises and arises when and where it’s needed. When I ask Jon what it all means, this Legend of Cactus Man, he gets a faraway look in his eyes. “He means everything,” Jon says, a half-smile rising to his lips, “and yet, not much.”
Copyright (c) 2019 by Kim Green. All rights reserved. Kim Green is a Nashville writer and public radio producer, a licensed pilot and flight instructor, and the editor of PursuitMag, a magazine for private investigators.