Authors: Richard Scrimger
“Don’t start yet,” he says.
“Sorry,” I say.
I hear him move away. “Start … now,” he says.
“One, two, three, four,” I say. Frieda is shivering against me. If she’s counting, she’s doing it awfully quietly.
“Louder!” he calls, from farther away.
“Five six seven eight,” I say. “Nine ten eleven twelve.
“I’m on seven hundred and thirty-eight when I hear panting next to my ear.
Ready or not, here I come!
I open my eyes slowly, one at a time. The car with the pink tassel on the aerial is gone. Apart from trash, and us, the alley is empty.
Sally is licking Frieda’s face. Frieda has her arms around the dog’s neck.
“You found us!” I say. “Hey, great!” I pat the dog on the back. “Way to go, Sally!” I say. “Good tracking.”
. Norbert sounds petulant.
“Good for you too,” I tell him. “Did you guys have a tough time finding us?”
. Norbert doesn’t elaborate.
Say, Frieda, where’s your chair?
“We can’t go yet. We’re supposed to count to a thousand,” I say.
That’s some serious game of hide-and-seek
, says Norbert. Is it safe? Are they gone? I stand up, cramped from all my time on the ground. Away down at the end of the alley,
traffic is passing. A car backfiring sounds like a gunshot. Frieda screams. I drop to the ground and close my eyes.
“Seven hundred and thirty-nine,” I say in a loud voice.
“Seven hundred and forty. Seven hundred and forty-one.”
Enough with the counting! Anyone would think this was math class
I stay down. Nothing happens for a couple of minutes. It seems silly to keep my eyes closed. I open them in time to see a dog trot around the corner, stop, and then come towards us, growling softly. A really big dog, brown and black, with proud shoulders and a heavy head. A boss dog. An emperor among dogs.
Sally jumps away from Frieda and stands as tall as she can. Her tail, which has been moving back and forth like a fan, is still.
, says Norbert.
The boss dog trots forward. One of his ears is gone. His teeth are all there though. He shows them. Sally stands her ground, bristling and growling.
Come on, now, girl
, says Norbert.
We don’t want another scene like the one with the poodle on the way here, do we?
Sally growls. The boss dog growls. I don’t think they’re happy to see each other.
“Do you think that big ugly dog will hurt Sally?” Frieda asks.
“I don’t know.”
“Shouldn’t we be doing something? Shouting? Getting between them?”
“I don’t want to get between them,” I say.
You know, anyone who invents a breath mint for dogs is going to make a ton of money
, Norbert comments.
Hey, there, big boy, how about backing out of range, if you get me. Ten feet or so would do the trick
The dog puts his head on one side. Not coyly. More like he’s deciding when to jump.
Now then, I wonder what your name would be
, says Norbert.
Could it be – Cuddles? Bubbles? No, too friendly. How about Marjoribanks? Featherstonaugh? No, too hard to spell. Oh, dear, I’m afraid we’re left with stereotypes. Rex? Not quite. Something a little more patrician. Maybe – no, wait, I’ve got it. Caesar. Down, Caesar!
says Norbert. The dog, who has been sniffing at Sally, takes a step back and sits down.
Good dog. I guess Caesar is your name. A dumb name it is, too
, says Norbert.
The dog growls.
Caesar! That’s no name for a dog. It’s a name for a salad.
The dog barks.
Quiet, you little bowl of lettuce! Quiet, or I’ll pour some more dressing on you. And while we’re on the subject of personal appearance, has anyone ever spoken to you about drooling? It’s not required behavior, you know It’s optional. You don’t have to – hey!!
He’s interrupted in mid-insult. Caesar jumps right past Sally, and keeps moving. I turn and see something out of a nursery rhyme. There’s a cat running down the alley away from us. And in the cat’s mouth is a rat. I don’t know if there’s any cheese in the rat’s mouth.
Caesar moves fast towards the cat, who notices him at the last moment, jumps for the fence and, in her panic, drops the rat, who sits there in the middle of the alley. The dog stops in front of the rat, then decides he’d rather get the cat, so he leaps for the fence. He misses the cat, then takes off after the rat, who is disappearing quickly down the alley. Everybody’s safe.
“What happened with the poodle on the way here?” I ask.
You don’t want to know
, says Norbert.
“If we’re going to get to my place,” says Frieda, “we’ll have to get to the street.”
I help her to her feet. She sways like a poplar in a high wind.
What happened to the wheelchair?
“They took it,” I say. “And left us.”
Wait until you tell the police!
I catch Frieda’s eye. I know what she’s thinking. I’m thinking the same thing. No police. We don’t say anything about it. “Come on,” I say. Frieda puts her arm around my shoulders, and we hobble forward.
It’s slow going. Sally runs ahead, turns around, stops. We hobble some more.
Is this our best plan?
Because at this rate, by the time we get back to Frieda’s place, she’ll be old enough to vote
We hobble on. I trip Frieda, and catch her just in time. “Sorry,” I say.
“Uh-huh,” she says.
“Caught my foot in your cuff. I’m afraid your pantsuit is going to need to go to the cleaners.”
“Uh-huh,” she says.
Strangely enough, I think she looks better now. More real, somehow, in her wrecked pantsuit, without her sunglasses and cell phone and with her hair all messed.
“Imagine Veronica working with Slouchy,” I say.
“I know. She was so helpful before the flight, with the chair and all. It makes me mad.”
Aren’t you done playing with that, yet?
Put it down, Sally It stinks
I look over. Sally is carrying the piece of brown wrapping paper in her mouth. I reach down, awkwardly, take the paper away from the dog, and stick it in my pocket. An automatic gesture.
We keep walking. I never realized laneways were so long. I can see the street up ahead, but it’s not moving closer.
We’re approaching an intersection – another laneway cuts across ours. Frieda tightens her grip on my shoulder. “How’re you doing?” I ask her. Norbert answers.
Fine, thanks. I’m having a little trouble keeping up to you guys. I think I’ll put in a phone call to the Olympic committee. See if there’s an opening for the fifty-foot hobble
“How about you?” I ask Frieda.
“Fine,” she says in a little voice. “Thirsty, maybe.”
“Boy, do I wish you hadn’t said that,” I say.
“You too, huh?”
“Well,” I say, “I’m not unthirsty.”
“You’re getting the hang of this,” she says. “Not bad for you.”
Sally stops dead. Her big bat ears are perked forward.
“What’s that noise?” asks Frieda. Wheels rolling unevenly towards us, with a squeak every second or two. One of the axles needs some oil. Sally dashes ahead to the intersection, then comes trotting back to report.
A wagon full of junky
The sound of the wheels gets louder. We wait. Around the corner of the laneway comes a teenager, pulling a wagon. He’s a bit bigger and older than I am. He has baggy pants like the kids uptown, but his pants are ripped and there’s no sportswear logo anywhere. His sunglasses wrap around his head. His cap is flat and square with no brim, like an upside-down sandwich container, only it’s not made of plastic. His T-shirt has lightning bolts on it. He’s smiling.
“How you doing?” he says.
“Fine,” I say. I recognize the voice. “You were here a while ago. We were in the truck.”
“Shew-ah,” he says. He doesn’t mention Slouchy warning him off.
I introduce us. “And Sally,” I say, pointing at the dog.
He tells us his name: Boyd. He doesn’t say if it is his first name or last name. He nods to each of us, including Sally. Acts completely unsurprised to see us.
“Hi, Boyd,” I say.
“Hi, Bird,” says Frieda.
Bird, not Boyd. He just pronounces it
. I blush.
, says Norbert.
Bird doesn’t blink. He nods. “Talkin’ dog,” he says.
“Nice wagon,” I say.
“Shew-ah,” he says. “Found it round a corner from here. like I found my shoes.” He’s wearing a pair of nearly new trainers. He gazes off into the distance as he talks, like he sees things that aren’t there.
“Um, Bird,” I say. “We need your help. Frieda can’t walk. She used to have a wheelchair, but she lost it.”
He looks at her. “Red-haired guy with the truck?” he asks. She nods.
And the cologne
, says Norbert.
Don’t forget the cologne
Bird smiles. “Funny talkin’ dog,” he says.
“Could Frieda ride in your wagon?” I say. “Not for very long. Just until …” and then I stop. I was going to say, “Until we get a cab.” But I realize we don’t have enough money for a cab. We don’t have enough money for a phone call. We have just about enough for a drink of water at a fountain. Of course, there’s no fountain around here. I swallow. “Not for long,” I say.
Bird shoves some small metal pieces – of what: engine? radio? skateboard? – out of the way, to make room for
Frieda. She sits uncomfortably, with her legs splayed out. She hangs on tight to the sides of the wagon.
Bird is frowning. “You’ll be wantin’ a lift uptown,” he says. “A cab, maybe.”
“Maybe,” I say.
“Be expensive.” Frieda coughs, and opens her mouth, but before she can say anything, Bird continues. “I don’t got much money,” he says. “What I got is
. Cabs don’t take things. They want money. I can’t give you much.”
Frieda shuts her mouth tight.
“You know, I never been uptown,” says Bird. His eyes are faraway again.
Today is Wishday. Come with us
, says Norbert.
Around the corner of the alley, we find a big bottle of water. The seal is unbroken. Drops of condensation bead on the clear plastic sides of the bottle. Bottled water, resting there, waiting for us. Just like Bird’s wagon.
Everyone takes a drink. I pour some water into a metal dish from the wagon. The dish smells of oil, but Sally laps thirstily. Now I can’t believe how hungry I am. I must have been hungry all along, but I didn’t pay any attention to it. If your hair is on fire, you don’t care that you’re running down Main Street in your underwear. Once the fire is out, you feel embarrassed.
I’m walking beside the wagon, helping Frieda to stay in. I offered to pull, but Bird wouldn’t let me. “My wagon,” he said.
We come around the next corner and onto the street. Is there a picnic waiting there, just for us? There is not. What there is is a minivan, with New Jersey licence plates and a flat front tire. Inside the van is a woman with her head in her hands. We crowd around her window. Sally jumps up and down. “Can we help?” I ask.
The lady is wearing a kerchief and sunglasses. She takes one look at us and screams.
With a jack that he finds in his wagon-load of scrap metal, Bird has the tire off the van in no time flat – ha-ha – and the spare – the little one, like a baby tire – out from under the back. Frieda hands him tools.
The street we’re on has potholes and manholes and hoardings. Also stores with roll-down shutters, people walking in a hurry, seagulls eating trash. Two bridges take up a lot of the sky. One of them floats in the air, looking like it’s going to take off any minute. In the distance, more people, bigger buildings. It’s a hard busy landscape, even with the floating bridge. Not a tree, not a shrub, not a blade of grass.
“Where are we?” I ask Bird.
“Home,” he answers, tightening bolts.
“Do you know where we are, Norbert?”
This is still Earth, isn’t it? The sign over there says
“Really?” I was kind of hoping it would be another famous road, like Broadway or Fifth Avenue. There’s a Market Street in Cobourg, right behind Victoria Hall. You can get pretty good sausage there on Saturday mornings, when the farmers sell from the backs of their pickup trucks. Good vegetables too, my mom says, but who cares about vegetables? The best brussels sprouts in the world are still pretty bad.
“Do you know Market Street?” I ask Frieda.
She shrugs. “Lower East Side, isn’t it?” she says. “I’ve never been down here before.”
Bird smiles. “I never been anywhere else.”
The lady in the van is warming up to us. She waves at us from time to time. When the spare tire is on, and the bolts are tightened, she drives away, still waving. I’m obscurely disappointed. Frieda is cast down too. Bird seems philosophical, picking up the handle to the wagon, stepping forward.
Norbert is not philosophical.
That’s the thanks we get?
I can’t resist. “We?” I say. “What did you do?”
hope she runs over broken glass
, he says, as the van turns a corner.
Or giant spikes. I hope she runs over spikes and pops all her tires at once. I hope she gets a speeding ticket. I’ve never seen such narrow selfishness. She’s from New
Jersey, isn’t she? Typical I could tell the moment I saw her, those beady little New Jersey eyes. Everything from New Jersey is little. Little eyes, little ears, and teeny-weeny hearts
He stops at the sound of a tentative honk. The van is back. It must have gone around the block, then returned to our side. The lady opens the sliding side door with a flick of a driver-side button. Her smile is small and apologetic, like a puppy that’s made a mistake on the living-room carpet. She asks if we need a lift anywhere.
We all say thank you, one after the other, like a row of parrots. Even Norbert murmurs something. The lady thanks us for changing the tire, and apologizes for her bad manners. “I’m just so scared of driving in the city. I usually come here with my husband, but he’s away on business; this is my first time by myself. I got lost coming off the Manhattan Bridge, and then I got the flat tire. After you fixed it, all I wanted to do was find the Holland Tunnel and get home. I drove away, but I was too ashamed to keep going.”
Ah, New Jersey. The generosity state
, Norbert says.
She frowns at us, unable to figure out who is speaking. “I think we call ourselves the Garden State,” she says.
Generosity is a plant that should be in every garden
, says Norbert.
Bird and I lift Frieda into the middle seat. “Oh, my dear, I didn’t see you were hurt,” says the lady. “I’m not,” says Frieda.
Bird’s wagon fits into the well by the side door. He climbs into the front seat. The lady from New Jersey is
nervous with him beside her, a teenager with ripped ragged clothes. I sit with Frieda. Sally is in the back.
Frieda gives her address on West 84th Street – our destination for the past four hours. The New Jersey lady asks how to get there. Frieda doesn’t know.
“What?” I ask. “But it’s where you live.”
“I know it’s off Central Park West. But I’ve never had to get there on my own from way down here. I get driven most places.” She looks down at her legs.
“Sorry,” I say.
“What about you?” the New Jersey lady asks me. “Do you know how to get there?”
“Sorry,” I say again.
“Don’t mind the apologies. He’s from Canada,” Frieda explains.
Bird, of course, is no good to us. He’s never been out of the neighborhood. He knows that Central Park is somewhere up that way. He points vaguely ahead.
A van full of people, and none of us knows the way.
“I’m from Jersey,” says the lady. “I wouldn’t be here, except that my sister is finally getting a divorce from her no-good husband, and wanted a shoulder to cry on.”
“Central Park is the biggest green space inside city limits anywhere in the world,” says Frieda.
“Maybe we’ll be able to find it then,” says the lady, putting the van in gear. “If we go too far, we can take you home to Canada,” she says to me. She has slick dark hair and bulging eyes. Her clothes are mostly green. She looks
like a worried frog. “And, please,” she adds, “children, keep your eyes open for gas stations. The spare tire is only a temporary replacement.”
“So this is Park Avenue,” I say, after we’ve been on it for a quarter of an hour or so. “When do we get to the park?”
“I don’t know.” The lady – whose name is Mrs. Amboy – drives slowly among the limousines and yellow cabs and buses, which seem to make up most of the traffic. We see a lot of different tail lights as they pass us, one set at a time.
I stare up ahead. Blocks and blocks of tall buildings, blotting out all of the sky except a narrow blue strip. Park Avenue seemed like the right street to turn onto. Back then the cross streets had numbers like 15 and 16. Now we’re up to 65, and still no sign of a park. Mind you, we passed streets named Canal and Mulberry without seeing water or fruit.
“Turn left,” says Frieda suddenly. “I’ve been here before.”
A left-pointing arrow directs us right through the middle of Central Park. On the other side of the park is a street I recognize from Ted’s bus ride. We must be nearly there.
“Keep going,” says Frieda. “Then take the next right. There’s construction on Central Park West.”
“Oh, yeah,” I say.
Ten minutes later we’re in front of Frieda’s house.
Actually, we’re four doors down, in the only empty parking spot on the block. Mrs. Amboy turns around to stare at Frieda. “You live here?”
“A real Manhattan brownstone,” she says. “I must tell my husband.”
“Uh-huh,” says Frieda. She’s not paying attention, I can tell. She frowns up at the house, and then back at Sally.
I don’t understand why Mrs. Amboy is so excited about the houses. They’re not brownstones – not now. They’re sooty dirty graystones. And what’s so impressive about them? Big old places with no front yards, on a noisy street. A kid in my class at school lives in a house like this – and we feel sorry for him. Frieda’s is the one with the wooden ramp zigzagging up to the front door.
Sally is first out of the van. She disappears around the back of a car parked half on the sidewalk. We thank Mrs. Amboy again as we get out. She waves, closes the door with a click of her button, and drives off. The faster traffic parts and flows around her like a swiftly moving stream around a boulder.
I’m so relieved I could faint. We’ve made it. Made it.
Frieda’s frowning. “Alan, we need to have a plan now.”
“Why? We’re home. You live here. I can call my dad. We’re safe,” I say. “Aren’t we?”
“Safe? I suppose so. We have to make a plan about Sally. My mom will hit the roof if I bring a dog home. We’ve got to find a way to hide her.”
“The first question is, do we tell Beatrice? That’s my nanny.”
I think a minute. “Was she supposed to meet you at the airport?”
“And I guess she’s the older lady who takes you for ice cream?”
“Then don’t tell her,” I say.
“Because she doesn’t make you laugh. A secret like this is something for people who make you laugh.”
She raises her eyebrows. “That’s pretty good,” she says. “You’re not always as stupid as you look, kid … I mean, Alan.”
“Thanks. I think.”
“But what am I going to do? I really … oh, I
want to keep her.”
Sally slouches up to the wagon. Puts her head in Frieda’s lap. Frieda puts her arms around the dog and squeezes hard.
“Where were you?” I ask. “What was so exciting behind the car there?”
, says Norbert curtly.
Bird stands in the middle of the sidewalk looking up and down and all around. The street is cleaner than the one he is used to; the buildings are better kept, the cars are nicer looking. The same steam pours out of the manholes.
Frieda looks up from the dog to stare at me. “What’ll I do?” she asks, a girl with a dirty face and ripped clothes, sitting in a wagon heaped with junk.
I don’t have a real answer. “Wait and see,” I say.
“Do you think
could hide Sally in the house?” she asks me. “Hey! There’s an idea! I’ll distract Beatrice, and you find a place for the dog.”
“Me?” I say.
“My mom’s Tutankhamen Society will be meeting in the living room. Don’t try there. Or the kitchen. Beatrice is usually there. Try my bedroom.”
“You mean me?”
“Yes, my bedroom will be the best place. It’s the third-no, the fourth – room on the left. Don’t make any noise, though.”
“You’re still talking about
She frowns. “And sometimes you are every bit as stupid as you look.”
Bird pulls the wagon along the sidewalk, towards the ramp. “You okay?” he asks her.
“Fine,” she says. Her mouth is closed in a thin line.
The lady who opens the front door is short, chubby, and tearfully happy. She wears an apron over plain dark clothes, and smells of furniture polish. All of which lead me to suspect that she is not Frieda’s mom.
she says, or something like that, running the words into one and clasping her small red chapped hands together. “It is you, my little one.” She runs forward, ignoring me and Bird and the dog and the dirty wagon, bending down to throw her arms around Frieda.
Even though I have a mission, hiding Sally, and even though I’m not the one being hugged, I find myself relaxing. The immediate threat is over.
Pssst, Dingwall. Let’s go!
Norbert knows what I’m supposed to do.
Beatrice is still weeping into Frieda’s shoulder. Frieda makes angry shooing gestures at me behind her nanny’s back. Bird watches the whole thing with the biggest smile on his face. I grab the dog and walk into the house.
A large square hall with flowers and statues and wood paneling. A smell of sweet smoke coming from somewhere. Stairs off to the left. Voices off to the right. A high-ceilinged corridor ahead of me. I don’t have much time. I run down the corridor counting doors, feeling like a burglar or a secret agent. The fourth room has two glass doors. A big room. I open the doors. Sally runs past me.
It can’t be a bedroom – too many chairs and no bed. A lot of books on shelves running all the way along one wall. A marble table in the middle of the room, with chairs grouped around it and a huge stone planter in the center. A photograph of the Sphinx on the wall.
The smell is stronger. Sweet-smelling smoke spirals up from a brass doodad on the floor. The lights are low. The drapes are closed.
I look around for Sally, but she’s gone. I go out in the hall. She’s not there either.
“Sally!” I hiss. A good name for hissing. “Norbert! Where are you?”
Well, I was told to hide the dog, and I’ve hidden the dog. I can hear voices from the front hall. Time to go.
Beatrice has her hands on her hips. She has big dark soft eyebrows, which arch downwards now. Her eyes are wet. Her lipstick is smeared. Frieda is rubbing some off her cheek.
“But how did you get here?” Beatrice is asking. “Your plane was early? You look untidy. And
…” she shakes her head in utter incomprehension “…
is your chair?”
“Early?” I say, joining the group. “What do you mean, the plane was early? It was right on time.”
Beatrice stares at me without seeing me. Then she returns to Frieda. “You are all right? You are safe? Tell me you are safe.” In Beatrice’s black eyes, the tears look like treacle.
“I’m okay,” Frieda tells her.
“Are you sure, little one?”
“Of course I’m sure. I’m home now, aren’t I?”