Knock-knock. A dog barks inside, and a gruff male voice shouts, "Down, Bear! Get back!"
BEAR? Poor Mr. Kitty. I start hearing the theme from Silence of the Lambs.
But the man who emerges is not Hannibal Lecter. He's Jerry Tucker, 55, stooped in a threadbare T-shirt, peering up pleasantly from behind pop-bottle glasses. Invites me to sit in a lawn chair at the little round table outside his door.
The doorway of each unit on the ground floor of the courtyard has a little table like this outside, festooned with ashtrays and empty glasses. Little dishes of cat food everywhere. Amazing how quiet it is. I imagine evenings, people sitting across the narrow courtyard from each other half-hidden by the huge, gently moving leaves of the elephant ear plants.
"Most of the people who live here are cat lovers," Jerry tells me. "Animal lovers."
As we sit and talk, I see half a dozen other people come and go, all late-middle-aged men, most of them with small dogs on leashes or cats in arms.
Jerry explains he doesn't know Johnny at all but had been told a certain story about him by another tenant. When Johnny moved out, Jerry was told, he didn't take Mr. Kitty with him.
His words softened by a few missing choppers, he tells me the story. "He took his things with him but brought the cat back and abandoned him here. And you have to understand, this cat has a long history of medical problems."
He says the cat has gone through several owners in the building over the years, where he was originally known as Morris the Cat.
Jerry tells me the apartment manager had asked him to take in the cat. He agreed but couldn't get the cat to come to him. One day Johnny showed up and agreed that Jerry could keep Mr. Kitty/Morris. It wasn't an abduction. It was an adoption, Jerry says.
I speak with another tenant, Larry Gilliland, who provides additional detail. Johnny agreed that Jerry could take the cat, according to Larry, but just as Jerry was disappearing into his apartment with Mr. Kitty, Johnny heard a dog growl inside Jerry's apartment.
"That's when he locked his brakes up, turned around and got crazy-acting," Larry says.
Believing he had surrendered his cat to a dog person, Johnny demanded the cat back. Jerry, believing he was rescuing the cat from a bad cat person, locked his door and refused to surrender Mr. Kitty.
Oak Lawn Standoff.
In between my several visits, a police detective does show up to investigate the theft charge. He and I speak briefly later on the phone. He is perplexed, but in a nice way. He agrees everybody here means well. But he must tell them all that this is not a police matter.
That leaves journalism, I guess.
I'm not at all sure about the abandonment story. I get the feeling Jerry may have been fed a line by people in the complex who are mad at Johnny over other business. But it's clear that Jerry means well by...whatever the cat's name is.
On one visit he shows me inside his apartment. In spite of multiple cats and Bear (a kindly old Chow), the apartment is neat as a pin and odorless. The cat is taking a nap in the back room. He looks up and blinks lazily at me.
"He's a great cat," Jerry says, smiling happily. "Last night my Chow and the cat--I call him Rex, now--they were lying about four inches from each other."
Jerry went next door to get Larry and his partner, Gary, to show them how well Mr. Kitty/Rex/Morris had adapted to Bear. "I said, 'Come see how much harm this cat is in.'"
On my final visit, Jerry tells me that he is HIV-positive. He believes firmly that the love he gives his animals and the love they give him in return are what keep him alive.
But I'm still getting the phone calls from Los Angeles, where Johnny is living now, bereft. My assurances that the cat is well cared for are of small comfort. He was unprepared for the pain of his loss, even if he gave up the cat voluntarily. Especially if he did?
"I feel like one of those people, when you look at a milk carton and you see a missing child," Johnny tells me. "I have never experienced or felt this ever before, but suddenly I so truly identify with people who don't know if their child is alive or dead. I can't imagine being in that hell with a child. It's hard enough and it's painful enough just with my cat."