Authors: Emily Cheney Neville
"I got my answer all right."
Pop looks at the letter and I see his foot start to twitch the way it does when he's about to blow. But he looks at Tom, and instead of blowing he just says, "Your father left town? No forwarding address?"
"I guess so. He just left. Him and that woman he married." Tom's voice trails off and he walks over to the window. We all sit quiet a minute.
Finally Pop says gently, "Well, don't waste too much breath on her. She's nothing to do with you."
Tom turns around angrily. "She's no good. She loafs around and drinks all the time. She talked him into going."
"And he went." There's another short silence, and Pop goes on. "Where was this you lived?"
"House. It was a pretty nice little house, too. Dark red with white trim, and enough of a yard to play a little ball, and I grew a few lettuces every spring. I even got one ear of corn once. We moved there when I was in second grade because my mom said it was near a good local school. I lived there till I went to college. I suppose he sold it, or got a loan, and they lit off to drink it up. Soon's they'd got
off their hands."
Tom bites off the last word. Suddenly I can see the picture pretty clear: the nice house, the father Tom always talked down and hoped would measure up. Now it's like somebody has taken his whole childhood and crumpled it up like a wad of tissue paper and thrown it away.
Mom gets up and goes into the kitchen. Pop's foot keeps on twitching. Finally he says, "Well, I steered you wrong. I'm sorry. But maybe it's just as well to have it settled."
"It's settled, all right," Tom says.
Mom brings out a tray of ginger-ale glasses. It seems sort of inadequate at a moment like this, but when Tom takes a glass from her he looks like he's going to bust out crying.
He drinks some and blows his nose, and Dad says, "When are you supposed to check in with the Youth Board again?"
"Tuesday. My day off. And I wind up the filling-station job the next week, right after Labor Day."
"Labor Day. Hm-m. We've got to get moving. If you like, I'll come down to the Youth Board with you, and we'll see what we can all cook up. Don't worry too much. I have a feeling you're just beginning to fight – really fight, not just throw a few stones."
"I don't know why you bother." Tom starts to stand up. But while we've been talking, Cat has been creeping up under the side table, playing the ambush game, and he launches himself at Tom just as he starts to stand. It throws him off balance and he sits back in the chair, holding Cat.
"You've got nothing to worry about," Pop says. "Cat's on your side."
Cat may be on Tom's side, but whether Pop is on Cat's side is something else again. I worry about this all the time we're planning the vacation. Suppose the motel won't take cats? Or suppose he runs away in the country? If he messes up the vacation in any way, I know Pop'll say to get rid of him.
I practice putting Cat back in the wicker hamper to see if I can keep him in that sometimes, but he meows like crazy. That'd drive Pop nuts in the car, and it certainly wouldn't hide him from any motel-keeper. So I just sit back and hope for the best, but I got a nasty feeling in the bottom of my stomach that something's going to go haywire.
Pop's pretty snappish anyway. He's working late nearly every night, getting stuff cleared up before vacation. He doesn't want any extra problems, especially not Cat problems. Mom's been having asthma a good deal lately, and we're all pretty jumpy. It's always like this at the end of the summer.
Tuesday night when he gets home, I ask Pop what's happened about Tom.
"We'll work something out," he says, which isn't what you'd call a big explanation.
"You think he can get back into college?"
"I don't know. The Youth Board is going to work on it. They're arranging for him to make up the midyear exams he missed, so he can get credit for that semester. Then he can probably start making up the second semester at night school if he has a job.
"Apparently the Youth Board knew his father had skipped – they've been trying to trace him. I don't think it'll do any good if they find him. Tom had better just cross him off and figure his own life for himself."
You know, I see "bad guys" in television and stuff, but with the people I really know I always lump the parents on one team and the kids on the other. Now here's my pop calmly figuring a kid better chalk off his father as a bad lot and go it alone. If your father died, I suppose you could face up to it eventually, but having him just fade out on you, not care what you did – that'd be worse.
While I'm doing all this hard thinking, Pop has gone back to reading the paper. I notice the column of want ads on the back, and all of a sudden my mind clicks on Tom and jobs.
"Hey, Pop! You know the florist on the corner, Palumbo, where you always get Mom the plant on Mother's Day? I went in there a couple of weeks ago, because he had a sign up, 'Helper Wanted.' I thought maybe it was deliveries and stuff that I could do after school. But he said he needed a full-time man. I'm pretty sure the sign's still up."
"Palumbo, huhn?" Pop takes off his glasses and scratches his head with them. He looks at his watch and sighs. "They still open?"
They are, and Pop goes right down to see the guy. He knows him fairly well anyway – there's Mother's Day, and Easter, and also the shop is the polling place for our district, so Pop's in there every Election Day. He always buys some little bunch of flowers Election Day because he figures the guy ought to get some business having his shop all messed up for the day.
Dad comes back and goes over to the desk and scratches off a fast note. He says, "Here. Address it to Tom and go mail it right away. Palumbo says he'll try him out at least. Tom can come over Thursday night and I'll take him in."
Tom comes home with Pop Thursday about nine o'clock. They both look pretty good. Mom has cold supper waiting, finishing off the icebox before we go away, so we all sit down to eat.
"Tom's all set, at least for a start," Dad says. "He's going to start Tuesday, right after Labor Day. Palumbo can use him on odd jobs and deliveries, especially over the Jewish holidays, and then if he can learn the business, he'll keep him on."
"Never thought I'd go in for flower-arranging." Tom grins. "But it might be fun. I'm pretty fair at any kind of handiwork."
Remembering how quick he unlocked the padlock to get Cat out in the cellar, I agree.
He starts for his room after supper, and we all say "good luck," "have a good time," and stuff. Things are really looking up.
I get up early the next morning and help Mom button up around the house and get the car loaded before Pop gets home in the afternoon. He hoped to get off early, and I've been pacing around snapping my fingers for a couple of hours when he finally arrives about six o'clock. It's a hot day again.
I don't say anything about Cat. I just dive in the back seat and put him behind a suitcase and hope he'll behave. Pop doesn't seem to notice him. Anyway he doesn't say anything.
It's mighty hot, and traffic is thick, with everyone pouring out of the city. But at least we're moving along, until we get out on the Hutchinson River Parkway, where some dope has to run out of gas.
All three lanes of traffic are stopped. We sit in the sun. Pop looks around, hunting for something to get sore about, and sees the back windows are closed. He roars, "Crying out loud, can't we get some air, at least? Open those windows!"
I open them and try to keep my hand over Cat, but if you try to hold him really, it makes him restless. For the moment he's sitting quiet, looking disgusted.
We sit for about ten minutes, and Pop turns off the motor. You can practically hear us sweating in the silence. Engines turn on ahead of us, and there seems to be some sign of hope. I stick my head out the window to see if things are moving. Something furry tickles my ear, and it takes me a second to register.
Then I grab, but too late. There is Cat, out on the parkway between the lanes of cars, trying to figure which way to run.
"Pop!" I yell. "Hold it! Cat's got out!"
You know what my pop does? He laughs.
"Hold it, my eyeball!" he says. "I've been holding it for half an hour. I'd get murdered if I tried to stop now. Besides, I don't want to chase that cat every day of my vacation."
I don't even stop to think. I just open the car door and jump. The car's only barely moving. I can see Cat on the grass at the edge of the parkway. The cars in the next lane blast their horns, but I slip through and grab Cat.
I hear Mom scream, "Davey!"
Our car is twenty feet ahead, now, in the center lane, and there's no way Pop can turn off. The cars are picking up speed. I holler to Mom as loud as I can, "I'll go back and stay with Kate! Don't worry!"
I hear Pop shout about something, but I can't hear what. Pretty soon the car is out of sight. I look down at Cat and say, "There goes our vacation." I wonder if I'll be able to catch a bus out to Connecticut later. Meanwhile, there's the little problem of getting back into the city. I'm standing alongside the parkway, with railroad tracks and the Pelham golf course on the other side of me, and a good long walk to the subway.
A cat isn't handy to walk with. He keeps trying to get down. If you squeeze him to hang on, he just tries harder. You have to keep juggling him, like, gently. I sweat along back, with the sun in my eyes, and people in cars on the parkway pointing me out to their children as a local curiosity.
One place the bulrushes and marsh grass beside the road grow up higher than your head. What a place for a kids' hideout, I think. Almost the next step, I hear kids' voices, whispering and shushing each other.
Their voices follow along beside me, but inside the curtain of rushes, where I can't see them. I hear one say, "Lookit the sissy with the pussy!" Another answers, "Let's dump 'em in the river!"
I try to walk faster, but I figure if I run they'll chase me for sure. I walk along, juggling Cat, trying to pretend I don't notice them. I see a drawbridge up ahead, and I sure hope there's a cop or watchman on it.
The kids break out of the rushes behind me, and there's no use pretending anymore. I flash a look over my shoulder. They all yell, "Ya-n-h-h-h!" like a bunch of wild Indians, but they're about fifty feet back.
I grab Cat hard about the only place you can grab a cat, around one upper forearm, and I really run. The kids let out another war whoop. It's uphill to the bridge. Cat gets his free forepaw into action, raking my chest and arm, with his claws out. Then he hisses and bites, and I nearly drop him. I'm panting so hard I can't hardly breathe anyway.
A cop saunters out on my approach to the bridge, his billy dangling from his wrist. Whew – am I glad! I flop on the grass and ease up on Cat and start soothing him down. The kids fade off into the tall grass as soon as they see the cop. A stone arches up toward me, but it falls short. That's the last I see of them.
As I cross the bridge, the cop squints at me. "What you doing, kid? Not supposed to be walking here."
"I'll be right off. I'm going home," I tell him, and he saunters away, twirling his stick.
It's dark by the time I get to the subway, and most of another hour before I'm back in Manhattan and reach Kate's. I can hear the television going, which is unusual, and I walk in. No one is watching television. Mom and Pop are sitting at the table with Kate.
Mom lets loose the tears she has apparently been holding onto for two hours, and Pop starts bellowing: "You fool! You might have got killed jumping out on that parkway!"
Cat drops to the floor with a thud. I kiss Mom and go to the sink for a long glass of water and drink it all and wipe my mouth. Over my shoulder, I answer Pop: "Yeah, but if Cat gets killed on the parkway, that's just a big joke, isn't it? You laugh your head off!"
Pop takes off his glasses and scratches his head with them, like he always does when he's thinking. He looks me in the eye and says, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have laughed."
Then, of all things, he picks up Cat himself. "Come on. You're one of the family. Let's get on this vacation."
At last we're off.