The tenants all referred to Mrs. Chen as Dragon Lady because of her shrieking, vinyl raincoat, her nine red-lacquered nails filed to sharp stiletto points, the single thick, black, devilish nail of the ring finger, which they said proved she was betrothed to the devil. They cursed her because of the speed with which her minion, Mr. Onoji, thumbtacked eviction notices to their doors the day after an unpaid rent was due.
But never, until that day, on my door.
Mrs. Chen had two great weaknesses — French pastry and shoes — and she and I had become as good friends as possible between the powerful and the powerless.
“You’re late,” Mrs. Chen said, crisp and petulant. “Bad girl, what have you been up to?” She waited in her spidery library, in which each thing drew me in — the fire in its grate delicately crackling like foil being crushed, or bees in a hive; the velvet curtains half drawn, sheltering, against the dark, spitting afternoon outside.
“Sorry, but the store got hectic.” The fact of my unpaid rent no longer hung in the air, as bright and prismatic as the chandelier over our heads. We pretended it did not matter, not ever.
“Take the box,” Mrs. Chen ordered.
I handed a pink box tied bound with twine to Keiko, who bowed her way backwards out the door to heat water for tea. “That’s for the Birthday Girl later,” I called after her. It angered me, how despite her gray hair and lined face, Keiko was treated like a child, more like a slave than a servant. But I was too distracted by my own problems.
“You shouldn’t bring me pastry. You’ll make me fat.”