Authors: Emily Cheney Neville
"Sure," Hilda says. "He was in the Washington Square College for about a year and a half. He lived in a dormitory uptown, but I used to see him in the restaurant, and then fairly often we had dates after I got off work. He has people out in the Midwest somewhere – a father and a stepmother. He was always sour and closemouthed about them, even before he got thrown out of NYU. Now he won't even write them."
This is a lot of information to take in all at once and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The first one that comes into my head is this: "How come he got thrown out of NYU?"
"Well, it makes Tom so sore, he's never really told me a plain, straight story. It's all mixed up with his father. I think his father wrote him not to come home at Christmas vacation, for some reason. Tom and a couple of other boys who were left in the dormitory over the holidays got horsing around and had a water fight. The college got huffy and wrote the parents, telling them to pay up for damages. The other parents were pretty angry, but they stuck behind their kids and paid up. Tom just never heard from his father. Not a line.
"That was when Tom began coming into the restaurant looking like thunder. The college began needling him for the water-fight damages, as well as second-semester tuition. He took his first exam, physics, and got an A on it. He's pretty smart.
"He still didn't hear anything from home. He took the second exam, French, and thought he flunked it. That same afternoon he went into the office and told the dean he was quitting, and he packed his stuff and left. I didn't see him again till a week ago. I didn't know if he'd got sick of me, or left town, or what.
"He says he wrote his father that he had a good job, and they could forget about him. Then he broke into that cellar on a dare or for kicks.
"So here we are. What do we do next?"
Hilda looks at me – me, age fourteen – as if I might actually know, and it's kind of unnerving. Everyone I know, their life goes along in set periods: grade school, junior high, high school, college, and maybe getting married. They don't really have to think what comes next.
I say cautiously, "My pop says a kid's got to go to college now to get anywhere. Maybe he ought to go back to school."
"You're so right, Grandpa," she says, and I would have felt silly, but she has a nice friendly laugh. "I wish I could persuade him to go back. But it's not so easy. I guess he's got to get a job and go to night school, if they'll accept him. He won't ask his father for money."
"You two got my life figured out?" Tom has come up behind us while we were lying in the sand on our stomachs. "I just hope that sour grape at the filling station gives me a good recommendation so I can get another job. The way he watches his cash register, you'd think I was Al Capone."
We talk a bit, and then Hilda gets up and says she's going to the ladies' room. She doesn't act coy about it, the way most girls do when they're sitting with guys. She just leaves.
"How do you like Hilda?" Tom asks, and again I'm sort of surprised, because he acts like he really wants my opinion.
"She's nice," I say.
"Yeah." Tom suddenly glowers, as if I'd said I didn't like her. "I don't know why she wastes her time on me. I'll never be any use to her. When her family hears about me, I'll get the boot."
"I could ask my pop. You know, I told you he's a lawyer. Maybe he'd know how you go about getting back into college or getting a job or something."
Tom laughs, an unamused bark. "Maybe he'll tell you to quit hanging around with jerks that get in trouble with the cops."
This is a point, all right. Come to think, I don't know why I said I'd ask Pop anyway. I usually make a point of not letting his nose into my personal affairs, because I figure he'll just start bossing me around. However, I certainly can't do anything for Tom on my own.
I say, "I'll chance it. The worst he ever does is talk. One time he made a federal case out of me buying a Belafonte record he didn't like. Another time playing ball I cracked a window in a guy's Cadillac, and Pop acted like he was going to sue the guy for owning a Cadillac. You just never know."
Tom says, "With my dad, you
Hilda comes back just then. She snaps, "If he's such a drug on the market, why don't you shut up and forget about him?"
"O.K., O.K.," says Tom.
The beach is getting filled up by now, so we pull on our clothes and head for the subway. Tom and Hilda get off in Brooklyn, and I go on to Union Square.
After dinner that night Mom is washing the dishes and Pop is reading the paper, and I figure I might as well dive in.
"Pop," I say, "there's this guy I met at the beach. Well, really I mean I met him this spring when I was hunting for Cat, and this guy was in the cellar at Forty-six Gramercy, and he got caught and . . ."
"Wha-a-a-t?" Pop puts down his paper and takes off his glasses. "Begin again."
So I give it to him again, slow, and with explanations. I go through the whole business about the filling station and Hilda and NYU, and I'll say one thing for Pop, when he finally settles down to listen, he listens. I get through, and he puts on his reading glasses and goes to look out the window.
"Do you have this young man's name and address, or is he just Tom from The Cellar?"
I'd just got it from Tom when we were at the beach. He's at a Y in Brooklyn, so I tell Pop this.
Pop says, "Tell him to call my office and come in to see me on his next day off. Meanwhile, I'll bone up on City educational policies in regard to juvenile delinquents."
He says this perfectly straight, as if there'd be a book on the subject. Then he goes back to his newspaper, so I guess that closes the subject for now.
"Thanks, Pop," I say and start to go out.
"Entirely welcome," says Pop. As I get to the door, he adds, "If that cat of yours makes a practice of introducing you to the underworld in other people's cellars, we can do without him. We probably can anyway."
Cat hadn't got me into anymore cellars, but I can't honestly say he'd been sitting home tending his knitting – not him.
One hot morning I went to pick up the milk outside our door, and Cat was sleeping there on the mat. He didn't even look up at me. After I scratched his ears and talked to him some, he got up and hobbled into the house.
I put him up on my bed, under the light, for inspection. One front claw was torn off, which is why he was limping, his left ear was ripped, and there was quite a bit of fur missing here and there. He curled up on my bed and didn't move all day.
I came and looked at him every few hours and wondered if I ought to take him to a vet. But he seemed to be breathing all right, so I went away and thought about it some more. Come night, I pushed him gently to one side, wondering what I better do in the morning.
Well, in the morning Cat wakes up, stretches, yawns, and drops easily down off the bed and walks away. He still limps a little, but otherwise he acts like nothing had happened. He just wants to know what's for breakfast.
"You better watch out. One day you'll run into a cat that's bigger and meaner than you," I tell him.
Cat continues to wait for breakfast. He is not impressed.
But I'm worried. Suppose some big old cat chews him up and he's hurt too bad to get home? After breakfast I take him out in the backyard for a bit, and then I shut him in my room and go over to consult Aunt Kate.
She sets me up with the usual iced tea and dish of cottage cheese.
"I had breakfast already. What do I need with cottage cheese?"
"Eat it. It's good for you."
So I eat it, and then I start telling her about Cat. "He came home all chewed up night before last. I'm afraid some night he's not going to make it."
"Right," says Kate. She's not very talky, but I'm sort of surprised. I expected she'd tell me to quit worrying, Cat can take care of himself. She starts pulling Susan's latest kittens out from under the sofa and sorting them out as if they were ribbons: one gray, two tiger, one yellow, one calico.
"So what you going to do?" she shoots at me, shoveling the kittens back to Susan.
"I – uh – I dunno. I thought maybe I ought to try to keep him in nights."
"Huh. Don't know much, do you?" she says. "Well, so I'll tell you. Your Cat has probably fathered a few dozen kittens by now, and once a cat's been out and mated, you can't keep him in. You got to get him altered. Then he won't want to go out so much."
"Fixed. Castrated is the technical word. It's a two-minute operation. Cost you three dollars. Take him to Speyer Hospital – big new building up on First Avenue."
"You mean get him fixed so he's not a real tomcat any more? The heck with that! I don't want him turned into a fat old cushion cat!"
"He won't be," she says. "But if it makes you happier, let him get killed in a cat fight. He's tough. He'll last a year or two. Suit yourself."
"Ah, you're screwy! You and your cottage cheese!" Even as I say it I feel a little guilty. But I feel mad and mixed up, and I fling out the door. It's the first time I ever left Kate's mad. Usually I leave
house mad and go to Kate.
Now I got nowhere to go. I walk along, cussing and fuming and kicking pebbles. I come to an air-conditioned movie and go up to the window.
The phony blonde in the booth looks at me and sneers, "You're not sixteen. We don't have a children's section in this theater." She doesn't even ask. She just says it. It's a great world. I go home. There's no one there but Cat, so I turn the record player up full blast.
Pop comes home in one of his unexpected fits of generosity that night and takes us to the movies. Cat behaves himself and stays around home and our cellar for a while, so I stop worrying. But it doesn't last long.
As soon as his claw heals, he starts sashaying off again. One night I hear cats yowling out back and I go out with a bucket of water and douse them and bring Cat in. There's a pretty little tiger cat, hardly more than a kitten, sitting on the fence licking herself, dry and unconcerned. Cat doesn't speak to me for a couple of days.
One morning Butch, the janitor, comes up and knocks on our door. "You better come down and look at your cat. He got himself mighty chewed up. Most near dead."
I hurry down, and there is Cat sprawled in a corner on the cool cement floor. His mouth is half open, and his breath comes in wheezes, like he has asthma. I don't know whether to pick him up or not.
Butch says, "Best let him lie."
I sit down beside him. After a bit his breath comes easier and he puts his head down. Then I see he's got a long, deep claw gouge going from his shoulder down one leg. It's half an inch open, and anyone can see it won't heal by itself. Butch shakes his head. "You gotta take him to the veteran, sure. That's the cat doctor."
"Yeah," I say, not correcting him. It's not just the gash that's worrying me. I remember what Aunt Kate said, and it gives me a cold feeling in the stomach: In the back-alley jungle he'd last a year, maybe two.
Looking at Cat, right now, I know she's right. But Cat's such a – well, such a
. How can I take him to be whittled down?
I tell Butch I'll be back down in a few minutes, and I go upstairs. Mom's humming and cleaning in the kitchen. I wander around and stare out the window awhile. Finally I go in the kitchen and stare into the icebox, and then I tell Mom about the gash in Cat's leg.
She asks if I know a vet to take him to.
"Yeah, there's Speyer. It's a big, new hospital – good enough for people, even – with a view of the East River. The thing is, Mom, Cat keeps going off and fighting and getting hurt, and people tell me I ought to get him altered."
Mom wets the sponge and squeezes it out and polishes at the sink, and I wonder if she knows what I'm talking about because I don't really know how to explain it any better.
She wrings the sponge out, finally, and sits down at the kitchen table.
She says, "Cat's not a free wild animal now, and he wouldn't be even if you turned him loose. He belongs to you, so you have to do whatever is best for
, whether it's what you'd like or not. Ask the doctor and do what he says."
Mom puts it on the line, all right. It doesn't make me feel any better about Cat. She takes five dollars out of her pocketbook and gives it to me.
I get out the wicker hamper and go down to the cellar and load Cat in. He meows, a low resentful rumble, but he doesn't try to get away.
Cat in the hamper is no powder puff, and I get pretty hot walking to the bus, and then from the bus stop to the animal hospital. I get there and wait, and dogs sniff at me, and I fill in forms. The lady asks me if I can afford to pay, and with Mom's five bucks and four of my own, I say Yes.
The doctor is a youngish guy, but bald, in a white shirt like a dentist's. I put Cat on the table in front of him. He says, "So why don't you stay out of fights, like your mommy told you?"
I relax a bit and smile, and he says, "That's better. Don't worry. We'll take care of tomcat. I suppose he got this gash in a fight?"