Authors: Emily Cheney Neville
"What's a species?" says Ben.
"I don't know. What's a life cycle?"
We both scratch our heads, and he says, "What animals do we know?"
I say, "Cat. And dogs and pigeons and squirrels."
"That's dull. I want to get some animal no one else knows about."
"Hey, how about a praying mantis? I saw one once in Gramercy Park."
Ben doesn't even know what it is, so I tell him about this one I saw. For an insect, it looks almost like a dragon, about four or five inches long and pale green. When it flies, it looks like a baby helicopter in the sky. We go into Gramercy Park to see if we can find another, but we can't.
Ben says, "Let's go up to the Bronx Zoo Saturday and see what we can find."
"Stupid, they don't mean you to do lions and tigers. They're not native."
"Stupid, yourself. They got other animals that are. Besides, there's lots of woods and ponds. I might find something."
Well, it's as good an idea for Saturday as any, so I say O.K. On account of both being pretty broke, we take lunch along in my old school lunchbox. Also six subway tokens – two extras for emergencies. Even I would be against walking home from the Bronx.
Of course there are plenty of native New York City animals in the zoo – raccoons and woodchucks and moles and lots of birds – and I figure we better start home not too late to get out the encyclopedias for species and life cycles. Ben still wants to catch something wild and wonderful. Like lots of city kids who haven't been in the country much, he's crazy about nature.
We head back to the subway, walking through the woods so he can hunt. We go down alongside the pond and kick up rocks and dead trees to see if anything is under them.
It pays off. All of a sudden we see a tiny red tail disappearing under a rotten log. I push the log again and Ben grabs. It's a tiny lizard, not more than two or three inches long and brick red all over. Ben cups it in both hands, and its throat pulses in and out, but it doesn't really try to get away.
"Hey, I love this one!" Ben cries. "I'm going to take him home and keep him for a pet, as well as do a report on him. You can't keep cats and dogs in Peter Cooper, but there's nothing in the rules about lizards."
"How are you going to get him home?"
"Dump the lunch. I mean – we'll eat it, but I can stab a hole in the top of the box and keep Redskin in it. Come on, hurry! He's getting tired in my hand I think!"
Ben is one of those guys who is very placid most of the time, but he gets excitable all of a sudden when he runs into something brand-new to him, and I guess he never caught an animal to keep before. Some people's parents are very stuffy about it.
I dump the lunch out, and he puts the lizard in and selects some particular leaves and bits of dead log to put in with him to make him feel at home. Without even asking me, he takes out his knife and makes holes in the top of my lunchbox. I sit down and open up a sandwich, but Ben is still dancing around.
"What do you suppose he is? He might be something very rare! How'm I going to find out? You think we ought to go back and ask one of the zoo men?"
"Umm, nah," I say, chewing. "Probably find him in the encyclopedia."
Ben squats on a log, and the log rolls. As he falls over backward I see two more lizards scuttle away. I grab one. "Hey, look! I got another. This one's bigger and browner."
Ben is up and dancing again. "Oh, boy, oh, boy! Now I got two! Now they'll be happy! Maybe they'll have babies, huh?"
He overlooks the fact that
caught this one. Oh, well, I don't want a lizard, anyway. Cat'd probably eat it.
Ben takes it from me and slips it in the lunchbox. "I'm going to call this one Big Brownie."
Finally he calms down enough to eat lunch, taking peeks at his catch between mouthfuls. As soon as he's finished eating, he starts hustling to get home so he can make a house for them. He really acts like a kid.
We get on the subway. It's aboveground – elevated – up here in the Bronx. After a while I see Yankee Stadium off to one side, which is funny because I don't remember seeing it when we were coming up. Pretty soon the train goes underground. I remember then. Coming up, we changed trains once. Ben has his eye glued to the edge of the lunchbox and he's talking to Redskin, so I figure there's no use consulting him. I'll just wait and see where this train seems to come out. It's got to go downtown. We go past something called Lenox Avenue, which I think is in Harlem, then Ninety-sixth Street, and then we're at Columbus Circle.
"Hey, Ben, we're on the West Side subway," I say.
"Yeah?" He takes a bored look out the window.
"We can just walk across town from Fourteenth Street."
"With you I always end up walking. Hey, what about those extra tokens?"
"Aw, it's only a few blocks. Let's walk."
Ben grunts, and he goes along with me. As we get near Union Square, there seem to be an awful lot of people around. In fact they're jamming the sidewalk and we can hardly move. Ben frowns at them and says, "Hey, what goes?"
I ask a man, and he says, "Where you been, sonny? Don'tcha know there's a parade for General Sparks?"
I remember reading about it now, so I poke Ben. "Hey, push along! We can see Sparks go by!"
"Quit pushing and don't try to be funny."
"Stupid, he's a general. Test pilot, war hero, and stuff. Come on, push."
I got to watch out for these lizards!"
So I go first and edge us through the crowd to the middle of the block, where there aren't so many people and we can get up next to the police barrier. Cops on horseback are going back and forth, keeping the street clear. No sign of any parade coming yet, but people are throwing rolls of paper tape and handfuls of confetti out of upper-story windows. The wind catches the paper tape and carries it up and around in all kinds of fantastic snakes. Little kids keep scuttling under the barrier to grab handfuls of ticker tape that blow to the ground. Ben keeps one eye on the street and one on Redskin and Brownie.
"How soon you think they're coming?" he asks fretfully.
People have packed in behind us, and we couldn't leave now if we wanted to. Pretty soon we can see a helicopter flying low just a little ways downtown, and people all start yelling, "That's where they are! They're coming!"
Suddenly a bunch of motorcycle cops zoom past, and then a cop backing up a police car at about thirty miles an hour, which is a very surprising-looking thing. Before I've hardly got my eyes off that, the open cars come by. This guy Sparks is sitting up on the back of the car, waving with both hands. By the time I see him, he's almost past. Nice-looking, though. Everyone yells like crazy and throws any kind of paper they've got. Two little nuts beside us have a box of Wheaties, so they're busy throwing Breakfast of Champions. As soon as the motorcade is past, people push through the barriers and run in the street.
Ben hunches over to protect his precious animals and yells, "Come on! Let's get out of this!"
We go into my house first because I'm pretty sure we've got a wooden box. We find it and take it down to my room, and Ben gets extra leaves and grass and turns the lizards into it. He's sure they need lots of fresh air and exercise. Redskin scoots out of sight into a corner right away. Big Brownie sits by a leaf and looks around.
"Let's go look up what they are," I say.
The smallest lizard they show in the encyclopedia is about six inches long, and it says lizards are reptiles and have scales and claws and should not be confused with salamanders, which are amphibians and have thin moist skin and no claws. So we look up salamanders.
This is it, all right. The first picture on the page looks just like Redskin, and it says he's a Red Eft. The Latin name for his species is
, or in English just a common newt.
"Hey, talk about life cycles, listen to this," says Ben, reading. "'It hatches from an egg in the water and stays there during its first summer as a dull-green larva. Then its skin becomes a bright orange, it absorbs its gills, develops lungs and legs, and crawls out to live for about three years in the woods. When fully mature, its back turns dull again, and it returns to the water to breed.'"
Ben drops the book. "Brownie must be getting ready to breed! What'd I tell you? We got to put him near water!" He rushes down to my room.
We come to the door and stop short. There's Cat, poised on the edge of the box.
I grab, but no kid is as fast as a cat. Hearing me coming, he makes his grab for the salamander. Then he's out of the box and away, with Big Brownie's tail hanging out of his mouth. He goes under the bed.
Ben screams, "Get him! Kill him! He's got my Brownie!" He's in a frenzy, and I don't blame him. It does make you mad to see your pet get hurt. I run for a broom to try to poke Cat out, but it isn't any use. Meanwhile, Ben finds Redskin safe in the box, and he scoops him back into the lunchbox.
Finally, we move the bed, and there is Cat poking daintily with his paw at Brownie. The salamander is dead. Ben grabs the broom and bashes Cat. Cat hisses and skids down the hall. "That rotten cat! I wish I could kill him! What'd you ever have him for?"
I tell Ben I'm sorry, and I get him a little box so he can bury Brownie. You can't really blame Cat too much – that's just the way a cat is made, to chase anything that wiggles and runs. Ben calms down after a while, and we go back to the encyclopedia to finish looking up about the Red Eft.
"I don't think Brownie was really ready to lay eggs, or he would have been in the pond already," I say. "Tell you what. We could go back some day with a jar and try to catch one in the water."
That cheers Ben up some. He finishes taking notes for his report and tracing a picture, and then he goes home with Redskin in the lunchbox. I pull out the volume for C.
, including lions and tigers. Species,
. I start taking notes: "'The first civilized people to keep cats were the Egyptians, thirteen centuries before Christ. . . . Fifty million years earlier the ancestor of the cat family roamed the earth, and he is the ancestor of all present-day carnivores. The Oligocene cats, thirty million years ago, were already highly specialized, and the habits and physical characteristics of cats have been fixed since then. This may explain why house cats remain the most independent of pets, with many of the instincts of their wild ancestors.'"
I call Ben up to read him this, and he says, "You and your lousy carnivore!
salamander is an amphibian, and amphibians are the ancestors of
the animals on earth, even you and your Cat, you sons of toads!"
Columbus Day comes up as cold as Christmas. I listen to the weather forecast the night before, to see how it'll be for the beach. "High winds, unseasonably low temperatures," the guy says. He would.
I get up at eight-thirty the next morning, though, figuring he'd be wrong and it would be a nice sunny day. I slip on my pants and shirt and go downstairs with Cat to have a look out. Cat slides out and is halfway down the stoop when a blast of cold wind hits him. His tail goes up and he spooks back in between my legs. I push the door shut against the icy wind.
Mom is sitting in the kitchen drinking her tea and she says, "My goodness, why are you up so early on a holiday? Do you feel sick?"
"Nah, I'm all right." I pour out a cup of coffee to warm my hands on and dump in three or four spoons of sugar.
"Davey, have you got a chill? You don't look to me as if you felt quite right."
"Mom, for Pete's sake, it's
out! I feel fine."
"Well, you don't have to go out. Why don't you just go back to bed and snooze and read a bit, and I'll bring you some breakfast."
I see it's got to be faced, so while I'm getting down the cereal and a bowl, I say, "Well, as a matter of fact, I'm going over to Coney Island today."
" Mom sounds like it was Siberia. "What in the world are you going to do there in the middle of winter?"
"Mom, it's only Columbus Day. We figured we'd go to the aquarium and then – uh – well, fool around. Some of the pitches are still open, and we'll get hot dogs and stuff."
"Who's going? Nick?"
"Nick wasn't sure – I'll stop by his house and see." I'd just as soon steer clear of this "who's going" business, so I start into a long spiel about how we're studying marine life in biology, and we have to take some notes at the aquarium. Mom is swallowing this pretty well, but Pop comes into the kitchen just then and gives me the fishy eye.
"First time I ever heard of you spending a holiday on homework. I bet they got a new twist palace going out there."
I slam down my coffee cup. "Holy cats! Can't I walk out of here on a holiday without going through the third degree? What am I, some kind of a nut or a convict?"
"Just a growing boy," says Pop. "And don't talk so sassy to your mother."
"I'm talking to you!"
Pop draws in a breath to start bellowing, but Mom beats him to it by starting to wheeze, which she can do without drawing breath.