We met Shirley soon after we’d moved into our apartment. We liked her quite a bit, along with her syrupy Texan drawl and Betty Boop eyes. She smoked cigarettes and was given to wearing straw hats that were floral extravaganzas. She walked everywhere and devoted a lot of time to helping out during voting season, and she made time to care for her older brother, who’d gotten his brains mashed during the Korean War.
We’d begun to realize that Pat, the apartment owner, nursed a vicious temper that could flare without caution. And Pat hated cats deeply, but some of the older tenants like Shirley had pet exemptions that had been grandfathered into their leases. Pat couldn’t get rid of those cats unless one of them died.
Shirley’s old cat took sick, and a few weeks later it passed away. Pat heard about it, and he was jubilant knowing that one less cat would be living here at the complex. But he hated them so thoroughly that he was never able to distinguish one cat from another, and when the feral cat population grew, he was beside himself with anger. You learned to avoid going in the office on Monday mornings because Pat would arrive and begin shouting, finding fault with the manager and stomping around until he marched off across the complex and made someone else’s life miserable.
One morning, another cat appeared, looking as though it had been dumped by a tenant who’d been hiding it and then simply abandoned it. Shirley saw the cat and looked up at me on the second floor. Who’s cat is that, she asked. What cat, I said, I don’t see a cat. I think you should pick up that cat of yours and take it into your apartment, because Pat can’t tell one cat from another. Understand?
I snatched up the cat, hauled up to her apartment, and gave it to her. Looks like the cat you always had, I said, and to this day she still owns it.
But it wasn’t just cats that irritated Pat. I passed the office one morning while Pat was there. He came flying out of the office and began screaming at the maintenance man, Raoul, a slender Mexican who worked himself into exhaustion every day. Evidently, Pat could spot dirt where no one else could. That dirt right there, he shouted, and he grabbed Raoul by the neck, forced him down on his knees and began bellowing at him, his eyes blazing and his jaw trembling with anger. Stick around, dear reader, because the story is just beginning to unfold.