Authors: Richard Scrimger
“Lock the chair,” Frieda says, from behind a mouthful of dog fur.
I fumble around helplessly.
“There’s a brake pedal at the back. Push it down,” she says.
I keep fumbling.
“And turn the water back on.”
I’m down on my knees. I lock the wheelchair, reach up and turn on the fountain. Water hits Sally in the muzzle and sprays everywhere. Including on me. I hear laughter. I scramble to my feet. Sally’s going crazy. Frieda is hanging on grimly.
The laughter comes from a group of little kids standing nearby. They keep laughing as Sally drinks. They’re holding hands; and they all have bright yellow hats. A day care. A woman with a matching hat – and doesn’t she look
tired! – counts heads every few seconds. Half of the kids have sunglasses, even though the day has turned cloudy.
Sally finishes drinking, shakes her head, and leaps off Frieda’s lap. I take the brake off Frieda’s chair. She rolls herself away. The kids applaud. The tired lady starts shepherding them into line beside the fountain.
An old man in Bermuda shorts shuffles past. He looks like a tortoise – slow, wrinkly, and disapproving. The velcro flap on one of his walking shoes is loose. “Disgusting!” His lipless mouth snaps shut on the word, then opens again. “Absolutely disgusting!” He bends down to pull the velcro tight. The ring on his finger catches my eye. Big and gold. “People use that drinking fountain,” he says.
He’s right. People do use the fountain. The day care is using it now. Not to drink from, though. They’re turning the fountain into a sprinkler. A very orderly group. They take turns spraying each other. I wonder if their thumbs are cleaner than the dog’s tongue.
“Disgusting!” says the old man again, standing up slowly and shuffling away. When he stands up, a piece of litter falls out of his pocket. Crumpled paper. It skitters towards me in the wind.
I hate litter. “Hey!” I say. I grab the piece of paper and run after the old man. “Excuse me,” I say, “but this is yours. Do you want it?”
Stooped as he is, he’s about my height. He doesn’t look at the piece of paper. He looks straight at me. His mouth turns down naturally. “You keep it,” he says, “if you care so much about it.” He turns around and shuffles off.
I go back to Sally and Frieda.
“Where’d you get that?” Frieda asks.
“The old guy dropped it. He said I could keep it. What a grouch.”
“What’s grouchy about giving away money?” asks Frieda.
I examine the litter for the first time. It’s a five-dollar bill. I’m not used to American money. It isn’t very colorful. I’d recognize a blue Canadian five-dollar bill right away. I look up for the old man, but he’s vanished into the crowd.
“What’ll we do with the money?” I ask.
“He told you to keep it, didn’t he?” says Frieda. “So let’s keep it. With five dollars we can take a cab to my place.”
Lots of cabs pass by the park gates, but none of them wants to stop for us. I’m waving my arms. Frieda and Sally wait nearby. Sally has her head in Frieda’s lap. Frieda’s stroking the dog’s head, pulling her ears, crooning to her. The dog turns her head on one side, and licks Frieda’s hand, then sneezes gently.
“The thing is,” Frieda says quietly, “that I won’t be allowed to keep you. No way Mom is going to be happy with a dog in the house.”
You don’t know that
, says Norbert.
Frieda sighs, and strokes. Her designer outfit is a lot dirtier than it was a half hour ago.
“I know,” she says. “Trust me, I know.”
No, you trust me. After all, on Jupiter tomorrow is Trustday. “Trustday?” I say.
A motorized wheelchair pulls up near us. A bulky man inside, with huge arms and no legs. Friendly guy, with a big smile for Frieda and a smaller one for me.
“Should be along any minute now,” he says.
“What should?” I ask.
“Why, the bus of course,” he says. “Takes you right up Central Park West.”
We’re waiting by a bus stop. I hadn’t noticed. “Oh,” I say.
Sally is sniffing around a lamppost.
“That your dog?” the man asks. “Should be on a leash, you know. Most dogs’ll dash out into traffic and get themselves run over. Big city’s no place for a dog unless it’s awfully smart.”
“Sally’s pretty smart,” says Frieda.
That’s what you think
, says Norbert.
Get back from that, Sally, it’s disgusting!
The man frowns at Frieda, then at Sally. A bus pulls up and stops. Regular-looking bus, except that it has extra-wide middle doors. The driver stops so that these doors are near us. Then the strangest thing happens. With a sigh of escaping air, the bus – all ten tons of it – sinks down until the doors are level with the sidewalk. There’s something old-fashioned about the gesture, like an elephant going down on its wrinkly knees before a rajah. The wide middle doors open, and the bulky man wheels himself onto the bus. The driver is there to help. He beckons.
And, in a kind of dream sequence, we get on the bus too.
“Cash or card!” the driver shouts. We’re almost the only ones on the bus. The bulky man takes out a plastic card. “Three dollars!” the driver shouts at us. He’s got the name TED stitched on his shirt pocket. “Three dollars for the two of you. Not my fault – I don’t set the rates.”
The bulky guy wedges himself near the middle doors and hangs on to a handrail. I hold out our money. “No change!” shouts the driver. “Not my fault – they won’t let me carry any.”
“I’ve got change,” says the bulky guy. He pulls some bills from a wallet in his shirt pocket. “Let me see that Lincoln there.”
I don’t know what he’s talking about. “Lincoln?” I say.
Frieda sighs. “The five-dollar bill,” she explains. “It’s got a picture of Abraham Lincoln on it.”
No kidding. I take a quick peek as I hand it over. Hairy guy with a beard. I get five one-dollar bills. Another hairy guy on them, only this guy has no beard. Ted the bus driver takes three of the bills and jogs up to the front of the bus. “Next stop, 62nd Street!” he shouts over his shoulder. I sit down near Frieda.
The bus starts forward with a jerk. Frieda rolls into the bulky guy, who grabs her chair with his free arm. Sally lets out a startled yip, and slides backwards along the floor. Behind us, other drivers jam on their brakes and hit their horns. Ted waves out his open window. “Stupid transmission. Not my fault!”
The sun peeps from behind a cloud, as if unsure if it’s safe to come out yet. We crawl uptown, horns honking around us. Time passes. People get on and off the bus. Some of them stare at us. Some don’t. I begin, slowly, to relax. We’re on our way now. Soon we’ll be at Frieda’s place. I’ll find out what happened to Dad this morning. I hope he’ll be proud of me. I hope he’ll be ashamed of himself.
The bulky guy reaches down to stroke Sally behind the ears.
“I have a dog, at home,” he says. “A Jack Russell terrier. I’m teaching him tricks. Does your dog do tricks?”
“Not really,” says Frieda.
“My little pooch will roll over when I tell him, and fetch a ball. I’m working on getting him to bark on command. Maybe your dog isn’t as smart as mine.”
Frieda doesn’t say anything.
“Speak!” says the man, snapping his fingers in front of Sally’s nose.
Ted shouts, “78th Street,” and swings the bus towards the curb. I haven’t been paying attention for a while. Last intersection I remember was 72nd. Anyone who can count can get around in New York. There are buildings on both sides of the street now, smaller and somehow friendlier buildings than they were a few blocks ago.
“Speak!” says the man again.
Sally puts her head on one side. Norbert sighs.
Yes, what is it? Normally I don’t like to be interrupted in my studio. Piero della Francesca felt the same way
The bulky guy grips the arm of his chair. Hard.
Though, now that I think of it, maybe you can help me. What color hair does the sky have today?
“What on earth …” the man begins. Norbert goes on.
That’s just the point. On Earth. Now, on Jupiter, where I come from, the sky is usually a blonde or brunette, depending on the weather. Today, for instance, would be dark brunette weather, with a chance of ringlets
The man stares at Sally in horror.
The instructions on my paints say the product is suitable for summer treated color – but summer color could be anything from beach bangles to a tornado bouffant. Just last year I saw a redhead before Labor Day. Would you believe it? You never used to see redheads until Thanksgiving. Probably something to do with cosmetology or global warming
“What’s he talking about?” Frieda asks me in a low voice.
“I have no idea.”
The bulky guy takes out a magazine from a pouch at the side of his chair. He holds it up in front of his face. The pages tremble.
The bus comes to a sudden stop. Traffic looks like a plate of gloppy spaghetti. “Hey!” says Ted, leaning out the window and honking on his horn. “Let’s get a move on here!” Nothing happens, except the driver beside Ted calls him a bad name.
“Oh, look!” Frieda points behind us, on the far side of the road. A corner restaurant with a patio. “I know that place,” she says. “They make the best ice cream there. It is
not bad. But … it’s not on Central Park West.” She slides up her sunglasses to see better.
not on Central Park West,” she says.
Ted hears her, and turns round in his chair. “This is Amsterdam,” he says. “Didn’t I call it out? There’s construction at the top end of the park. They’re routing everyone over this way. That’s why the traffic is so bad.”
And that’s why there are buildings on both sides of the street.
“Do you want to get off?” he asks.
“Let’s,” says Frieda. “Come on, Alan.”
The bus kneels again. Sally jumps out on her own. I help Frieda. Traffic isn’t moving at all. Ted shakes his head at it before closing the middle doors. “What a mess!” he says.
, says Norbert.
It’s not your fault
Frieda is right. It is the best ice cream in the world.
We’re sitting at an outdoor table, under the sign that says
. Frieda is sitting in a plastic chair, her wheelchair pushed over against a railing. I’m in a plastic chair too. Sally is resting underneath the table, gnawing tiredly on the end of a sugar biscuit. The sun is out, for now. Still lots of clouds in the sky.
My two dollars, plus the money in Frieda’s purse, was just enough to buy us each a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. Cinnamon is her favorite. The ice cream came in a silver bowl, with a big sugar biscuit. I didn’t want to give my biscuit to Sally, but Frieda insisted.
The waitress sees what we are doing, and comes back outside with a plateful of sugar biscuits in her wrinkled hand. “For the doggie,” she says.
I’m feeling almost happy – a combination of the sun, and the ice cream, and the fact that Frieda’s place is only a few blocks away. We can walk it easily.
“Won’t they be surprised to see me with you!” I say.
She’s twiddling one of her earrings. She doesn’t answer.
“You sure you don’t want to phone?” I ask. “There’s a phone here.”
She shakes her head. “I phoned from the airport, on my cell,” she says. “But I couldn’t get through. It’s Monday – my mom’s Tutankhamen Society day. The phone never stops ringing on Mondays.” She grimaces.
“Tutankhamen – I remember him,” I say. “He was a pharaoh, right? Egyptian, I mean. like your earrings.”
“Yeah.” She doesn’t sound that excited.
Parked on the side street next to us is a truck. I guess it was white when the paint was fresh. Now it’s dust colored. A small truck with two back doors, both swung wide open, and a long narrow ramp down to the street.
I remember Tutankhamen too
, says Norbert.
Uncle Nathan told me about him. A nasty little boy
“Tutankhamen!” Frieda’s face hardens. She swings her feet under the table. She has to concentrate to make them work. Sally whimpers.
Hey, watch it!
“Oh, sorry!” Frieda bends down. “Did I kick you? I didn’t mean to.”
Yes, you did
“Well, I meant to kick something, but not you.” Frieda strokes the dog’s head. The dog licks her hand.
“Oh, I wish I could keep you,” she says. “I wish I wish I wish.”
Her sunglasses prevent me from seeing her eyes, but she sounds like she’s about to cry.
Maybe you can
, says Norbert.
“I can’t. I know I can’t. Mother hates dogs.”
This is Wishday
, says Norbert.
“Monday,” Frieda says.
On Jupiter, Monday is Wishday. You never know what can happen on Wishday
“You mean Washday,” I say. “Isn’t that how the rhyme goes?”
Wishday. Make a wish on Monday. Trust it on Tuesday. Nerissa and I met on a Wishday
, he says, with a sigh.
“You never told me this stuff before,” I say. “What other days of the week do you have?”
Let’s see. Wishday, Trustday, and Restday are early in the week. Standday, Greenday, and Happyday are later. Fearday is an unlucky one; no one likes it. No one gets married on Fearday. You’d call it Fearday the thirteenth
“You could phone again,” I say to Frieda. “You might get through this time.”
It’s rude to arrive unannounced. My mom told me that. She hates it when I bring a friend home and don’t warn her.
“Call again,” I say. “Please? Or you could leave a message. Does your place have an answering machine?”
She stares at me like I’ve asked if they have a toilet. “The memory holds only twenty messages. After twenty, you get a voice telling you to hang up and try your call again.”
“Oh.” I can’t imagine anyone having twenty messages at once, before they can call back.
She snorts. “You are such a yokel, you know that, Alan?”
“I…” I stop. “Yokel?”
“You know.” She rolls her eyes. “Bumpkin, rube, hayseed.”
“These are insults, right?” I just want to be sure.
Nonsense. They’re vegetables
. Norbert sounds nostalgic.
Ahh, the vegetables of Jupiter. I remember eating pickled rubes and buttered hayseeds when I was a little snifter
Sally has finished the biscuits. She yawns, showing some pretty nice-looking teeth. Frieda sputters.
Mmm good. And then for dessert, my favorite: bumpkin pie. My mom makes a great bumpkin pie
. Norbert sniffs. Sally sneezes. Frieda laughs and laughs.
The waitress comes up to our table. “So nice to see young people laughing together,” she says. “How was your ice cream?”
“Wonderful!” I say.
“I’ve seen you here before,” the waitress says to Frieda. “You usually come with an older lady. But, you know, I think this is the first time I’ve seen you laugh.”
Frieda looks embarrassed.
The waitress smiles. She’s an older lady herself. Wrinkles all over her face, from the double chin all the way up to the hairnet. Her legs are bowed. She’s wearing a stained apron. For a moment I think she’s going to pinch my cheeks. Instead, she nudges my arm with her elbow. “She is laughing because she is with a young man like you. Heh-heh. Today she leaves her mother at home, and you make her laugh!”
My turn to be embarrassed.
Frieda isn’t laughing now. “I don’t come here with my mother,” she says.
The waitress picks up our silver bowls and shuffles away.
A couple of kids go skateboarding by. One of them runs right up the ramp and into the parked truck. The ramp is metal, and makes a clatter. The kid skates back down. The other kid laughs.
They’re both wearing baggy jeans and floppy hats and sunglasses. Their shirts ride high. The logo of a famous running shoe company proclaims itself from the waistband of their underpants. The kids skate down the street, heels high as they kick off.
I shrink inside my own clothes.