Read It's Like This, Cat Online

Authors: Emily Cheney Neville

It's Like This, Cat (5 page)

I turn around to Tom again. "Say, how about you come up and I'll introduce you to Mom? Then she won't start asking me a lot of questions."

"You mean I
look
respectable, at least?"

"Sure."

We go up to the apartment, and Mom asks if we'd like some cold drinks or something. I tell her I ran into Tom when he helped me hunt for Cat around Gramercy Park, which is almost true, and that he sometimes plays stickball with us, which isn't really true but it could be. Mom gets us some orangeade. She usually keeps something like that in the icebox in summer, because she thinks cokes are bad for you.

"Do you live around here?" she asks Tom.

"No, ma'am," says Tom firmly. "I live at the Y. I've got a summer job in a filling station over in Brooklyn, starting right after Memorial Day."

"That's fine," Mom says. "I wish Davey could get a job. He gets so restless with nothing to do in the summer."

"Aw, Mom, forget it! You got to fill in about six-hundred working papers if you're under sixteen.

"Listen, Mom, what I came up for – we thought we'd make some sandwiches and go up to Inwood Park."

"Inwood? Where's that?" So I explain to her about the Indian arrowheads, and we get out the classified phone book and look at the subway map, which shows there's an IND train that goes right to it.

"I get sort of restless myself, with nothing to do," says Tom. "We just figured we'd do a little exploring around in the woods and get some exercise."

"Why, yes, that seems like a good idea." Mom looks at him and nods. She seems to have decided he's reliable, as well as respectable.

I see there's some leftover cold spaghetti in the icebox, and I ask Mom to put it in sandwiches. She thinks I'm cracked, but I did this once before, and it's good, 'specially if there's plenty of meat and sauce on the spaghetti. We take along a bag of cherries, too.

"Thanks, Mom. Bye. I'll be back before supper."

"Take care," she says. "No fights."

"Don't worry. We'll stay out of fights," says Tom quite seriously.

We go down the stairs, and Tom says, "Your mother is really nice."

I'm sort of surprised – kids don't usually say much about each other's parents. "Yeah, Mom's O.K. I guess she worries about me and Pop a lot."

"It must be pretty nice to have your mother at home," he says.

That kind of jolts me, too. I wonder where his mother and father are, whether they're dead or something; but again, I don't quite want to ask. Tom isn't an easy guy to ask questions. He's sort of like an island, by himself in the ocean.

We walk down to Fourteenth Street and over to Eighth Avenue, about twelve blocks; after all, exercise is what we want. The IND trains are fast, and it only takes about half an hour to get up to Inwood, at 206th Street. The park is right close, and it is real woods, although there are paved walks around through it. We push uphill and get in a grassy meadow, where you can see out over the Hudson River to the Palisades in Jersey. It's good and hot, and we flop in the sun. There aren't many other people around, which is rare in New York.

"Let's eat lunch," says Tom. "Then we can go hunting arrowheads and not have to carry it."

He agrees the spaghetti sandwich is a great invention.

I wish the weather would stay like this more of the year – good and sweaty hot in the middle of the day, so you feel like going swimming, but cool enough to sleep at night. We lie in the sun awhile after lunch and agree that it's too bad there isn't an ocean within jumping-in distance But there isn't, and flies are biting the backs of our necks, so we get up and start exploring.

We find a few places that you might conceivably call caves, but they've been well picked over for arrowheads, if there ever were any That's the trouble in the city: anytime you have an idea, you find out a million other people had the same idea first. Along in mid-afternoon, we drift down toward the subway and get cokes and ice cream before we start back.

I don't really feel like going home yet, so I think a minute and study the subway map inside the car. "Hey, as long as we're on the subway anyway, we could go on down to Cortlandt Street to the Army-Navy surplus store. I got to get a knapsack before summer."

"O.K." Tom shrugs. He's staring out the window and doesn't seem to care where he goes.

"I got a great first-aid survival kit there. Disinfectant and burn ointment and bug dope and bandages, in a khaki metal box that's water proof, and it was only sixty-five cents."

"Hmm. Just what I need for survival on the sidewalks of New York," says Tom. I guess he's kidding, in a sour sort of way. If you haven't got a family around, though, survival must take more than a sixty-five-cent kit.

The store is a little way from the nearest subway stop, and we walk along not saying much. Tom looks alive when he gets into the store, though, because it really is a great place. They've got arctic explorers' suits and old hand grenades and shells and all kinds of rifles, as well as some really cheap, useful clothing. They don't mind how long you mosey around. In the end I buy a belt pack and canteen, and Tom picks up some skivvy shirts and socks that are only ten cents each. They're secondhand, I guess, but they look all right.

We walk over to the East Side subway, which is only a few blocks away down here because the land gets so narrow. Tom says he's never seen Wall Street, where all the tycoons grind their money machines. The place is practically deserted now, being late Saturday afternoon, and it's like walking through an empty cathedral. You can make echoes.

We take the subway, and Tom walks along home with me. It seems too bad the day's over. It was a pretty good day, after all.

"So long, kid," Tom says. "I'll send you a card from Beautiful Brooklyn!"

"So long." I wave, and he starts off. I wish he didn't have to go live in Brooklyn. 

You can't really stay sore at a guy you've known all your life, especially if he lives right around the corner and goes to the same school. Anyhow, one hot Saturday morning Nick turns up at my house as if nothing had ever happened and says do I want to go swimming, because the Twenty-third Street pool's open weekends now.

After that we go back to playing ball on the street in the evenings and swimming sometimes on weekends. One Saturday his mother tells me he went to Coney Island. He didn't ask me to go along, which is just as well, because I wouldn't have. I don't hang around his house after school much anymore, either. School lets out, and there's the Fourth of July weekend, when we go up to Connecticut, and pretty soon after that Nick goes off to a camp his church runs. Pop asks me if I want to go to a camp a few weeks, but I don't. Life is pretty slow at home, but I don't feel like all that organization.

I think Tom must have forgotten about me and found a gang his own age when I get a postcard from him: "Dear Dave, The guy I work for is a creep, and all the guys who buy gas from him are creeps, so it's great to be alive in Beautiful Brooklyn! Wish you were here, but you're lucky you're not. Best, Tom."

It's hard to figure what he means when he says a thing. However, I got nothing to do, so I might as well go see. He said he was going to work in a filling station on the Belt Parkway and there can't be a million of them.

I don't say anything too exact to Mom about where I'm going, because she gets worried about me going too far, and besides I don't really know where I'm going.

Brooklyn, what a layout. It's not like Manhattan, which runs pretty regularly north and south, with decent square blocks. You could lose a million friends in Brooklyn, with the streets all running in circles and angles, and the people all giving you cockeyed directions. What with no bikes allowed on parkways, and skirting around crumby looking neighborhoods, it takes me at least a week of expeditions to find the right part of the Belt Parkway to start checking the filling stations.

I wheel my bike across the parkway, but even so some cop yells at me. You'd think a cop could find a crime to get busy with.

On a real sticky day in July I wheel across to a station at Thirty-fourth Street, and nobody yells at me, and I go over to the air pump and fiddle with my tires. A car pulls out after it gets gas, and there's Tom.

"Hi!" I say.

Tom half frowns and quick looks over his shoulder to see if his boss is around, I guess, and then comes over to the air pump.

"How'd you get way out here?" he says.

"On the bike. I got your postcard, and I figured I could find the filling station."

He relaxes and grins. I feel better. He says, "You're a crazy kid. How's Cat?"

But just then the boss has to come steaming up. "What d'ya want, kid? No bikes allowed on the parkway."

I start to say I'm just getting air, but Tom speaks up. "It's all right. I know him."

"Yeah? I told you, keep kids out of here!" The guy manages to suggest that kids Tom knows are probably worse than any other kind. He motions me off like a stray dog. I don't want to get Tom in any trouble, so I get going. At the edge of the parkway I wave. "So long. Write me another postcard."

Tom raises a hand briefly, but his face looks closed, like nothing was going to get in or out.

I pedal slowly and hotly back through the tangle of Brooklyn and figure, well, that's a week's research wasted. I still don't know where Tom lives, so I don't know how I can get a hold of him again. Anyway, how do I know he wants to be bothered with me? He looked pretty fed up with everything.

So long as I got nothing else to do, the next week I figure I'll get public-spirited at home. I paint the kitchen for Mom, which isn't so bad but moving all those silly dishes and pots and scrumy little spice cans can drive you wild. I only break one good vase and a bottle of salad oil. Salad oil and broken glass are great. In the afternoons I go to the swimming pool and learn do a jackknife and a backflip, so Pop will think I am growing up to be a Real American Boy. Also, you practically have to learn to dive so you can use the diving pool, because the swimming pool is so jam-packed with screaming sardines you can't move in it.

Evenings Cat and I play records, or we go to see Aunt Kate and drink iced tea. One weekend my real aunt comes to visit and sleeps in my room, so I go to stay with Aunt Kate, and I pretty near turn into cottage cheese.

I've about settled into this dull routine when Mom surprises me by handing me a postcard one morning. It's from Tom: "Day off next Tuesday. If you feel like it, meet me near the aquarium at Coney Island about nine in the morning, before it's crowded."

So that week drags by till Tuesday, and there I am at Coney Island bright and early. Tom is easy enough to find, pacing up and down the boardwalk like a tiger. We say "Hi" and so forth, and I'm all ready to take a run for the water, but he keeps snapping his fingers and looking up and down the boardwalk.

Finally he says, "There's a girl I used to know pretty well. I didn't see her for a while till last week, and we got in an argument, and I guess she's mad. I wrote and asked her to come swimming today, but maybe she's not coming."

I figure it out that I'm there as insurance against the girl not showing up, but I don't mind. Anyhow, she does show up. It can't have been too much of an argument they had, because she acts pretty friendly.

Tom introduces us. Her name is Hilda and a last name that'd be hard to spell – Swedish maybe – and she's got a wide, laughing kind of mouth and a big coil of yellow hair in a bun on top of her head, and a mighty good figure. She asks me where I ran into Tom, and we tell her all about Cat and the cellar at Number Forty-six, and I tell them both about my Ivy-League haircut, which I had never explained to anyone before. They get a laugh out of that, and then she asks him about the filling-station job, and he says it stinks.

I figure they could get along without me for a while, so I go for a swim and wander down the beach a ways and eat a hot dog and swim some more. When I come back, I see Tom and Hilda just coming out of the water, so I join them. Hilda says, "Come have a coke. Tom says he's got to try swimming to France just once more."

I don't know just what she means, but we go get cokes and come back and stretch out in the sun. She asks me do I want a smoke, and I say No. It's nice to be asked, though. We watch Tom, who is swimming out past all the other people. I wish I'd gone with him. I say, "Lifeguard's going to whistle him in pretty soon. He's out past all the others."

Hilda lets out a breath and snorts, "He'll always go till they blow the whistle. Always got to go farther than anyone else."

I don't know what to say to that, so I don't say anything.

Hilda goes on: "I used to wait tables in a restaurant down near Washington Square. Tom and a lot of the boys from NYU came in there. Sometimes the day before an exam he'd be sitting around for hours, buying people cokes and acting as if he hadn't a care in the world. Some other times, for no reason anyone could tell, he'd sit in a corner and stir his coffee like he was going to make a hole in the cup."

"Tom was at NYU?" I ask. I don't know where I thought he'd been before he turned up in the cellar. I guess I never thought.

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