She had a peeping Tom. Polly spotted the body gliding past her bedroom window. A man in a suit. Polly wrapped hard on the window with her knuckle. The man was the absentee landlord, and Polly would like a word or two, please! She rapped again. “About that contract,” Polly wanted to begin. However, the man’s Cadillac simply pulled away, a flash of sleek silver and disappearing fins.
“You’ll love your new apartment, Polly!” Just about a month ago, the young social worker named Theresa had smiled and smiled. “It’s a private, one-bedroom that will be affordable and easy to clean,” the pert Theresa had smiled yet again. “An apartment will be so much easier for you to take care of, and guess what? It’s got a patio!”
Unfortunately, Polly had discovered too late that the contract she’d not been able to see clearly when she’d signed stated NO PETS. Of course at her age, Polly had guessed she had to agree with Theresa. Polly had worked all her life, hadn’t she, and what did she have to show for it? A shabby house, her inheritance, in a “run-down” neighborhood. Also unfortunately though, Mrs. Salazar, or the landlord’s “enforcer” as Polly liked to call the complex manager, had been adamant.
The first few steps into Polly’s new first-floor apartment had been difficult for her to negotiate, but she and Sugar had managed to guide the movers in the delivery of her few pieces of furniture, her boxes. Meanwhile, the mature Mrs. Salazar, all teenage stretch pants and pointed glasses, was adamant as she repeated the order of “No pets!” again and again. How had the landlord and this “enforcer” found one another, was what Polly had wanted to know.
“Maybe you have some family, a daughter or a niece who could take him?” A kind mover had suggested on his way out.
Polly’s thoughts ran wild. She knew her one old friend left, Virginia, had asthmatic problems, but maybe Virginia could call around for her? However, Polly’s attempts at conversation with her friend had been unsuccessful. She was afraid she could understand almost nothing over the phone these days. Then Polly had strained to remember even the name of the college where the son or daughter of a long lost niece or nephew might live. Her brother had died so long ago, and even then, his wife had been an ex-wife. The nieces and nephews had married, and what were probably by now, their children very likely didn’t know Polly existed at all.
Meanwhile, the move had practically turned big, white Sugar into a kitten again. During unpacking, her cat had hopped in and out of boxes, green eyes wide open as belonging after belonging appeared. His little dishes. The fleece and flannel bed Polly had bought when she’d found Sugar as a kitten back in the alley years ago. Why Sugar had been so little, he could practically have been held in the palm of Polly’s hand back then! Having no idea how “the baby” had arrived, Polly had told herself story after story. These days though, her old cat preferred simply to sidle up next to her leg, his way of asking Polly to bend down and stroke his ears.
Salazar’s voice persisted in clanging in Polly’s ears. Salazar who’d told her when she moved in that the “spray man” would be “needing inside” the apartment once a month to spray for bugs, and also that the electrician would be calling on her for Polly’s evidently long-broken dishwasher. Not to mention, Polly was to be sure and call Building Maintenance, not outside plumbers, if her toilet got stopped up. “And don’t forget,” Polly had found the sparkling points of Salazar’s glasses menacing, “There will be regular inspections by myself and the landlord. We all have to come up to code here!”
During the first few days, one nice lady from across the way had appeared at Polly’s door. She’d told Polly about the nearby bus line. The bus could carry one down the hill to the supermarket and the adjacent strip mall. By then though, Polly already preferred spending her time in her favorite rocker, placed in front of her sliding glass doors. On this back side of the complex was the patio. Beyond it, a gentle hill rolled down a ravine, into a stand of trees. One afternoon Polly was sure she could see plenty of cats. The cats took on definite shapes. Yes, Polly would have sworn she’d spied orange cats, black ones, gray-striped tigers, and even the occasional flash of a calico.
Then Polly had felt a lift of the heart. Maybe she could just let Sugar outside? She’d at least be able to see her cat sometimes then. Polly wanted to believe maybe Sugar would be all right after all. She remembered that her mother had kept a cat or two outside in their old tool shed. Also, Polly had managed to spy an empty bowl now and then, a bowl left out on the patio of this tenant and that come dusk. An empty bowl snatched quickly back in by the next morning.
The plan hadn’t worked, of course. Sugar sat, time and again, outside the door, nose pressing against it, looking in. He’d cried. The feral cats had approached carefully enough, but then suspicious of an outsider, the cats would spit and pounce at poor Sugar who’d claw desperately, paws up against the door, and sometimes even screech until Polly came running. When one particularly fierce Tom approached, Polly was quick to let Sugar back inside. Also, she’d been sure someone had seen her—another tenant, a child playing outdoors, or even Salazar herself. Even imagining the manager’s smooth, unfeeling face made Polly feel jumpy.
Polly had cried then too. Cried and held to “her baby.” Cried as she sat and rocked her cat, who purred like a motorboat. Polly felt ashamed she’d ever tried to run Sugar off into the tangled woods. The wild cats had reminded her there would be even fiercer raccoons out there. Maybe even coyotes.
Meanwhile, Salazar kept popping up here and there. “We’ll give you a day or two, but that cat has to go. That’s the rule. No exceptions!” Invariably at such times, Polly would inevitably catch sight of the man in the gray suit gliding past her doors, or she’d spot his silver Cadillac circling the complex. The man gave her goose bumps.
Polly had once tried to take the van down to the grocery to buy supplies for herself and the cat. She’d made the bagger put the kitty litter inside of a paper sack, but still, she’d had to ask what she’d suspected was a young drug dealer from across the hall to help her inside with her load. Polly hadn’t been able to tell whether the young man had looked inside the bag and seen the cat litter or not. She’d worried about whether he would “tell” or not.
Then Polly suffered through a toilet repair, Sugar shut up in the bedroom under the bed. After that, the electrician had come calling, not about the broken dishwasher as had been promised, but about the necessity of putting Polly’s air-conditioner “to bed” for the winter. Polly’d had to stall, while pulse racing, she’d scooped up Sugar and thrown him in underneath her mother’s roll-top desk! Thank God, the cat had evidently only curled up and gone to sleep. Meanwhile, she’d had to stand stiffly and watch over the man’s shoulder until he’d finished, and until she’d finally gotten him out the door and on his way. Just last week then, she’d spotted a slip of paper shoved under the front door. The “spray man” was coming in for his monthly “genocide.”
Polly had managed to get Sugar inside his pet carrier, though her cat had actually scratched her, leaving a painful mark across her forearm. Then she’d also managed to pick up the carrier and heave it out onto the patio. Polly had been afraid the poison might seep out there too though, and so grabbing up the broom she’d been using to sweep cut grass and falling leaves away, Polly had held to its handle and used it as a cane to make her way across the patio and the small strip of grass to the edge of the ravine. She’d then set the carrier down lopsidedly in the tall weeds and thrown an old towel over it for camouflage.
Cold and dark coming on, Polly had kept Sugar outside for most of the day as she’d sat in a lawn chair out on the patio. One had to wait one’s turn with “the man.” Then afterward, broom in hand, Polly’d had to hobble back out to retrieve the carrier and then struggle back to heave Sugar in through her sliding glass doors. A short, but a long way, she sighed even now, for a woman her age to have to carry a baby! She felt haunted by the sound of the bristles from her broomstick as they’d caught along the cold brown grass.
Polly worried continually now about falling and breaking her hip. Hadn’t she always admonished her own aging mother with this fear? Also, there were the neighboring children who might dart around the corners at any moment, the noisy ones who called her an “old wrinkly.” Not to mention, any number of neighbors might be peeking through a curtain! Most of all, Polly breathed out hard, she realized more and more that she was simply sick and tired of worrying. Wasn’t worrying all she’d been able to do these past few years as first her parents, and then sibling after sibling, friend after friend had gone? Maybe it was all she’d been doing for the past few decades! Also, Polly missed having a home of her own. Space in which she and Sugar, if they could not thrive, could at least be — not afraid.
Then Polly had received the dreaded Notice of Inspection. She expected Salazar, the manager, and the mysterious landlord to inspect each appliance. The two would creep about and search every nook and cranny. Polly decided to bathe. She felt grateful at least, to have grab-bars to help her in and out of the tub now. She brushed the white, coarse hair she could hardly believe hers. The old mane was still thick though. Polly narrowed her eyes and smiled at her reflection before donning a colorful, flowered robe. Then she pocketed a flashlight in case she’d need it, and she supposed in case she lost her nerve, an old bottle of her mother’s smelling salts.
Then Polly fed her pet. She still had enough strength to snap pills in two with one of her mother’s antique silver knives. Polly mashed a tiny pill into Sugar’s fish, a pill hoarded back from the fatal and painful illnesses of both her mother and father. Polly who’d rarely been sick a day in her life—just a little high blood pressure in recent years—had hoarded back pills. Pills for a last supper. Who knew what dosage was too little? Could there be some unknown horror in taking too much?
Polly took a minute to cross over to her writing desk. She posted a note to her friend, Virginia. Polly need not explain to an old friend though, she knew, that death was no enemy now. That above all, what Polly desired was freedom. Polly swallowed her own “medicine.”
As the cat was sleeping by then, Polly was able to lift Sugar more easily. The act practically took the breath right out of her though. Then using her broom, again like a cane, Polly carried “her baby” toward the crisp, bright leaves. She actually laughed as she seemed to be gathering cats as she went—tiger gray cats, orange marmalade, black and calico cats. Once Polly reached the grove of trees she and Sugar had spotted through the windows, she relaxed. With no one watching, Polly felt comfortable murmuring to Sugar, rocking him as she, herself, rocked back and forth. The old woman held her cat and crooned while the moon rose.
Finally Polly lay down, her head pillowed against the hill. She felt absolutely not afraid at all. Rather she beckoned the feral cats to come toward her. Polly would have sworn she heard voices too. Voices from another side? Leaves aflame, she and the cat napped.
The story reported on an inside page of the local newspaper was brief, though the reporters and editors alike had considered it as somewhat bizarre. The story had, at first, spread like wildfire around the various journalistic desks and offices. Seems some old crone of a woman had been found dead in the woods. As she hadn’t been there all that long—indeed, a Building Inspection Team had gone searching for Polly when evening had come and the old woman had persisted in missing scheduled and rescheduled inspection appointments throughout the day. At any rate, the old woman’s body had remained pretty much intact. Polly had not yet been ravaged by wild animals.
In fact, the old woman had been found encircled by cats. Why, one tiger orange had actually been reported as having lunged at the brown-suited coroner who’d come for the body! Later, the story had grown. There’d been no sign of foul play, just one of “those kinds of notes” left behind. The county, then, had also been notified to come out to try and round up the wild cats. Of course, by then, the animals had long since scattered. Orange, white, black, and calico. The end of a life and the end of another day’s story.
The children, though, were not about to let the story die. As autumn evenings deepened, the stories flew around the apartment complex. There was talk of the woods being haunted. The red leaves dripped blood, and the excited children dared one another to dart down this path and that. At first, some of the tenants also swore up and down that the cats were “taking over.” Cats were everywhere! However, any fear turned to glee, as especially one particularly large white cat seemed to be stalking the hated Salazar throughout the apartment complex. Seems the cat often appeared like a specter to loom in Salazar’s office window, and some tenants even swore they saw the cat tracking the hated “enforcer” rooftop by rooftop as she served notices on especially the elderly tenants. The white cat screeched! Deaf or not, everyone could hear the landlord swearing as time after time, he found paw prints across the hood of his silver-fish Cadillac.
The wild white cat of legend, however, was nothing compared to the fear inspired by a young social worker who definitely was not smiling now. The story spreading was that the young Theresa had “peeled into the complex parking lot” one day, newspaper story clutched to her chest. Then after what seemed to be an unsatisfactory meeting with management, she’d “taken off” in order to chase down the landlord, various zoning officials, city council members, and any state senators and representatives she could find. Why she planned to carry the whole thing further if she could!
What the young woman, Theresa, told anyone who would listen was that she felt “absolutely possessed.” No one wanted an old cat, did they? No one wanted an old woman? Is that how people felt? Well, she’d see about that. In fact, she actually considered herself on the face of this earth to solve just such problems. Meanwhile, back in the complex, children rolled over, each deep in a cold night’s sleep. What each heard, as if in a dream, was the sound of a cat, purring warmly from deep in the heart of the woods.