The Patron Saint of the Arbors

I.

There’s a handsome young gentleman who lives in my apartment complex who, the first year or so that I lived here, I thought was not a he but rather a she. This is a mistake many of us make when presented with a non-human creature: too often we address the cool, tough, intense, or energetic creatures as he, while the softer, gentler, more demure ones we call she. When we see a hawk or a bad-ass dog or a cartoon of a fierce dinosaur, we say, “Whoa, look at that guy!” With pretty birds and adorable pups it’s always, “Who’s a pretty girl?” This is crazy, though, and it reveals how deeply held our prejudices are.

So this gentleman in my complex, for over a year I referred to her as Honkers, a name drawn from her meow that is only barely deeper and bolder than a squeak. It’s a soft little Owmp, which in its pitifulness matches the cat’s scrawny size. Honkers is only seen at night, hanging around outside the apartment of one of our neighbors on the floor below us. She sleeps out there just outside the door, on a bed that her person put there for that purpose. But more often Honkers can be seen about ten feet down the way, sitting erect and looking out through the little wrought iron fence that blocks the walkway from the courtyard below. Always sitting there, Honkers just looks out on the nighttime world. When we come up from the car, she greets us with her little noise, honking and bonking and rubbing and purring. For a stranger, Honkers is the perfect cat.

Once or twice, I’d be talking to Honkers about what she’d seen and done since the last time we’d seen each other, when her owner would crack the door to see who was out there. Acting more skittish than the cats, I would dart away for fear of getting caught being the weirdo that I am. Eventually, though, I did get caught. On that occasion, my wife was standing there with our groceries — I had set my bag down, knowing that Honkers was, wisely, afraid of shopping bags — and she was patiently indulging me as I pet the cat. Then the door opened too quickly for me to gather my groceries and run away, so I tried chatting a bit with Honkers’ owner.

As friendly and chatty as Honkers is, her person is the opposite. But I was able to learn from her that Honkers’ real name is Tiggs — presumably short for Tigger, a terrible and obvious name for a cat — and that she is a boy cat. More accurately, she’s a grown-ass man cat. Tiggs just showed up at the person’s door one day and has been attached to her ever since.

After my conversation with Tiggs’ person, I still take time to say hello to him whenever I can, and avoid her at all costs. Also, while common sense suggests his name is short for Tigger, I assume it’s actually an elision of Taye Diggs, so that’s what I call him. I don’t work nights anymore so I don’t see him as much, and besides I think he’s usually allowed to sleep inside when it’s below freezing, as it has been lately. But still, on warm nights sometimes he’s outside when I’m leaving for my pre-dawn run, and at the risk of disturbing his slumber I still usually exchange good mornings with him. Recently I saw him on the opposite side of the apartment complex, an area to which he rarely strays except for those occasions when he’s feeling so sociable that he follows my wife and I to our door. When he follows us, he usually lays outside our apartment for an hour or two, driving our cat Puss — full name Hunter Paxton Pusserton — absolutely crazy as he spies from the window.

On this occasion, though, Taye Diggs was on the landing half a flight of stairs up from the laundry room, pacing distractedly. I said hello, of course, and scratched him a bit behind the ears. Then I continued to the laundry room, to do those things that people do there. Then it became clear why Taye was just a half-flight of stairs away: his person was doing her laundry, and he had chosen to accompany her. We all always knew Taye Diggs was a true gentleman.

II.

Next door to us lives the first cat we met in this complex, a middle-aged señora named Yuzi. (This is a good time for a legitimate language question. Is a middle-aged, unmarried woman still called a señora, or is that term strictly for married women? I’m not sure.) Yuzi drives our dear Mr Pusserton absolutely mad, even though it’s been months upon months since she’s visited. She’s a gorgeous tabby, the color of straw, with a perfectly cat-shaped head, which truly is a desirable quality in a cat but not in other animals.

Yuzi’s person wisely has a cat door out to her porch, where she keeps the litter box. With two other cats in addition to Yuzi, I imagine that’s a necessary quality-of-life precaution. Our litter box is indoors, and with just one cat it can be frightfully smelly. Of course, young Puss is pretty lazy and usually fails to actually clean up after himself in the bathroom. (Meaning he doesn’t bury the poo.) Given free access to the balcony, Yuzi frequently used to hop up on the banister and poke her head around to our side. Slowly she’d creep over and, basically, just stare into our apartment. This may have happened more often, but we only noticed when we’d be watching TV in the living room before bed. Cats are crepuscular, so it makes sense.

Why Yuzi’s brothers never did the same, I’m not sure.

When Puss noticed Yuzi creeping along the railing, he’d be enraptured. His thin tail would go thwap thwap thwap against the floor as he pressed his head against the glass door to get a better view. If she moved at all he’d follow her around. He’d run up and down the living room, into the kitchen to get on the table to look at her from the other window, and then back into the living room. Meanwhile Yuzi would just sit haughtily and watch him. She knew she was driving him crazy, and she was doing it willfully.

All this happened when we first moved into this apartment, when I was working two jobs to save up for our wedding and start paying down some debt I’ve been carrying for years. I wasn’t home as often as I would have liked. So on Sunday afternoons after I finished a long run, I’d usually open up the balcony so that my good friend Puss and I could enjoy the warm California sun. Not having any children now, it’s pretty obvious that I will be a lenient father. I figure Puss is a capacious creature, dynamic and capable of reason — while he’s consistently proved himself to be none of those things — so I don’t monitor him very closely when he was outside. It’s his time, I should let him enjoy it. Every time I do that, putting my trust in his good behavior, he just laughs at me and does whatever he wants. Love can make us blind to bad behaviors, and we get betrayed again and again.

Often when I’ve allowed him some outdoor time, when I finally remember that I own a cat and that I haven’t seen him in a while and that I should check on him, it turns out that he’s just decided to come inside. This is why I trust him: he can be very prudent for a cat. Once, though, he wasn’t inside and I couldn’t find him anywhere. As my panic increased, I looked outside again and saw some movement on the neighbor’s side of the balcony. Not yellow Yuzi-colored movement, but movement the same dirty grey as Puss. He had finally built up the courage to pursue Yuzi.

Being a cat, he failed to heed my requests to return to his own side of the balcony. I had to knock on my neighbor’s door to go through her apartment to get him. That’s when I first met our neighbor, a woman about our own age who works in hospitality in the city. It’s also when I first met Yuzi, who had to be picked up and cuddled to distraction because of Puss. For all her aloofness, when actually presented with the reality of Puss , she was unable to sustain the charade. To think, all that time she had been driving him crazy, he had been doing the same to her.

And Yuzi’s two brothers lurked in the corners, distrusting the whole affair.

That’s the last time Puss got unmonitored balcony time, and also the last time I saw Yuzi. My wife recently suggested that maybe Yuzi had moved out (or, worse still, passed on), but sometimes if we’re up late and still awake when the neighbor gets home from work, we can hear her cooing over Yuzi. The brothers, presumably, still just lurk in a corner somewhere.

III.

These are some of the cats we encounter regularly in our apartment complex. There also used to be Roger, who was walked on a leash outside. The newest addition is a beautiful young thing that I’ve named Princess Pretty Pants. She sits on a shelf by the window overlooking the outdoor walkway and watches with a judgmental eye as the world passes by. But none of these are the most important of our complex’s cats. That most important and illustrious cat is the grand headmaster, the royal feline (or is it feline royal), the Lord and mayor of all the creatures, the Patron Saint of the Arbors Apartments, who rules over his domain with an aloof and dignified condescension, with love and pity for all his lesser subjects. He is the great Aslan, King Tut-of-the-Suburbs, the ruling furrball himself.

Aslan is a large, quiet and regal figure. On first brush, it may appear that his role as the ruler of all the Arbors’ kitties descends from a base application of Hobbesian absolutism. Hobbes’ thinking is indeed best demonstrated in the animal kingdom, where the greatest rights and leading role is bestowed upon the male among the pride or school or community who is best able to subjugate his inferiors through force and ferocity. In these packs the alpha’s reign is often short, as younger, stronger, hungrier rivals challenge his rule. This is not the case with Aslan, who has never been forced to prove his authority through force; though the largest in his community and certainly able to command fear through his strength, he instead gains his authority from his goodness and inherent regality.

(And in fact, there is a very real chance that, just as Taye Diggs was assumed to be a she but is instead a he, Aslan may indeed be a she-cat. If that is the case, that would only further prove the problematic nature of what was discussed in Part I, paragraph 1. Still, without contact with Aslan’s person, the humans in the Arbors refer to Aslan as a he, problematic as that is.)

The community of cats is not a democratic one, in the Arbors Apartments or elsewhere. The old adage about herding cats is indeed a true one, so gathering Taye Diggs, Yuzi and her brothers, Princess Pretty Pants, my own Hunter P. Pusserton, and the rest of the complex’s cats together for a caucus is impracticable. Without opposable thumbs, it’s folly to expect them to complete mail-in ballots. Cats do not have the social needs of humans, though. Even our most anti-social cord-cutters and off-the-grid survivalists rely more upon their fellow humans than the average cat will ever need its peers. Not entering into contracts with each other and having neither obligations toward nor expectations of their fellow cats, their needs for protections, regulations, and administration are minimal. They have no need for democracy, and appear to be perfectly content investing a largely symbolic authority in Aslan.

Like all cats, Aslan appears to live his life according to the whims of his person. But like all great rulers he turns that supposed weakness into the enduring source of his strength. Allowed to leave his bailey at the most important hours for a cat — as the sun waxes and wanes at dawn and at dusk — he stands watch outside the protected fortress of his ground-floor apartment and looks out over his province. In the summer, as the semi-arid California clime suffuses the cats of the Arbors with an even greater proportion of that essential feline laziness, he can be seen lounging in the sun idly.

The peace with which the great cat silently lolls speaks to the calm and prosperity of his regime. Long live Aslan, patron saint of the Arbors!

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