I and sproggy, p.1

I and Sproggy, page 1


I and Sproggy

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I and Sproggy






  I and Sproggy

  Constance C. Greene


  It was a slow, hot Saturday in September. Heat shimmered in the shadows. Boats pushed their way through the oil slick coating the river. The leaves on the trees lining East Eighty-eighth Street lay limp and exhausted in the breathless air.

  Adam decided to walk over to Gracie Mansion to see what was going on. With any luck at all, the Mayor might be having a party. Adam had rubbernecked at many of the parties the Mayor of New York threw at Gracie Mansion. Generally speaking, they looked as if, as Charlie would say, a fun-filled time was being had by all. Charlie was not only the handyman in Adam’s apartment house, but also Adam’s friend. Adam planned to attend some of the functions at the Mayor’s when he was a celebrity. It was necessary to be someone special to get an invitation. The Mayor didn’t fool around with just anyone.

  The place looked closed. No sleek black limousines disgorged famous folks, no striped tents set up on the lawn rang with music and laughter. The guard at the mansion’s entrance, ordinarily a cheerful sort, looked surly.

  “Nothing going on, huh?” Adam said.

  The guard shrugged. “Everybody’s at the ocean or lolling around their swimming pool,” he said. “What’s the matter with you?”

  “Lost my water wings,” Adam said and went on his way.

  The park was as bad. Two old ladies who might have been twins, dressed in identical lavender pants suits which matched the color of their hair, sat on a bench, pigeon-toed, bulging shopping bags clutched to their bosoms like life preservers, elbows sharp and vigilant against marauders.

  “I don’t care what his IQ is,” one said angrily. “He’s dumb. To me, he’s dumb.”

  “You can’t say that,” the other protested.

  “I just did,” came the reply.

  It might have turned into a fight worth hanging around for, but Adam doubted it.

  As a last resort, he headed for home. He lived between York and First avenues with his mother and their dog, Rosalie. On a day like this the lobby of their apartment building wasn’t a bad place to be. It was gray, nothing but gray. Gray walls, gray floor, gray curtains. A lady on five who said she was an interior decorator had volunteered her services for nothing.

  “I figure that’s about what they’re worth,” a thin, haughty person from 3-C had sniffed when she got a look.

  Every time Adam walked into that lobby he felt as if he were walking into a dense fog, a sensation he sometimes enjoyed. When Charlie saw the new decorations, he said, “It’s like a blinking British pea souper, that’s what.” Charlie had been stationed in England during World War II and knew about English fogs.

  Charlie had wavy gray hair, bright blue eyes, and large hands and feet. “When I was a kid,” he’d told Adam, “they got in my way. Didn’t grow into ’em until I was a man.” And up until last week Charlie had had sideburns. He’d spent some time growing them to please his wife Millie. On the day they were complete, he’d shaved them off. “Every time I got a look at them burns out of the corner of my eye,” he’d confided to Adam, “I felt like I was being followed. Millie like to have cried.”

  As Adam opened the apartment-house door, Charlie was down on his hands and knees, searching diligently for discarded cigarette butts. Charlie himself had given up smoking a year ago January 18. He didn’t miss it except with his morning coffee, he’d told Adam more than once.

  “People are such slobs,” Charlie said when he caught sight of Adam. “It’s on days like this I wish I was the Shah of Iran.”

  Adam sat down cross-legged on the cool floor.

  “Why?” he asked.

  “That guy has it made. You ever see his uniform? Gold braid, medals, ribbons that won’t quit. Plus money and power.” Charlie sighed. “Moola. The guy has it all. But all the medals and gold braid in the world isn’t going to do any good without the moola. I understand the Shah eats off gold plates and wears diamonds in his teeth.”

  Adam frowned. “I don’t think that’s such a hot idea,” he said irritably. “Suppose he forgets and takes out his teeth at night the way my grandmother does. What then?”

  “I don’t know. What?” Charlie asked, sitting back on his heels.

  “Once my grandmother got up in the middle of the night when she was staying with us and almost drank her own teeth. She was thirsty and it was dark and she forgot where she’d put them and she almost swallowed them. That was close. She remembered just in time, just as they were going down. Otherwise she might’ve had a problem. How would it have looked in the newspaper? WOMAN STRANGLES ON OWN TEETH. That might’ve been very embarrassing for my mother if that’d happened.”

  “Not to mention your grandmother,” Charlie said with feeling.

  “It’s on days like this that I wish I was the Bionic Man,” Adam said. “I’m practicing walking in slow motion. I’m getting pretty good. Want to see me?”

  But Charlie got up and wielded his broom slowly, lazily, like a man sweeping sand off a beach and into the ocean.

  “The Bionic Man is here today, gone tomorrow,” he said. “The Shah is forever. When the old man passes on, his son takes over. They never run out of Shahs in Iran. It’s that generation thing that counts.”

  Charlie had often boasted that he never missed reading The Wall Street Journal. That and the eleven-o’clock news, he’d said, were what raised him up from the rest of the crowd, opened up his mind to new ideas, made him different from your ordinary, everyday person.

  “You want to see the generation thing, stick around,” Adam said.

  “How so?”

  “My father’s coming tomorrow,” Adam said gloomily, staring at his shoes.

  “Hey, what’s the long face for?” Charlie asked. “I call that an occasion. What you looking so sour for?”

  “It’s great that my father’s coming,” Adam said. “I haven’t seen him for almost two years, you know. It’s just that he’s bringing his new wife and her kid.”

  “Is that right?” Charlie said, smiling. “It sounds like a festive, fun-filled time will be had by all. All of you getting together like that. No hard feelings between your mom and dad. One big happy family. You’re a lucky boy, Adam. You get a nice little stepsibling in the bargain. What kind did you get, a boy or a girl?”

  “It’s a girl,” Adam said glumly. “She’s English.”

  “I figured as much,” Charlie said, “seeing as how you told me your daddy married an English lady. It’s music to my ears, the way those folks talk. Soothing, it is. Maybe with the new air fares me and my wife Millie can swing a trip to the U.K. next year. My wife Millie’s never been there. I can taste the fish and chips now.” Charlie smacked his lips.

  “You won’t catch me hanging around when they get here,” Adam said. “I’m splitting.”

  “What’s got into you? What kind of talk is that?” Charlie sounded sore. “You got a nice little stepsister coming all the way across the ocean and you take off. What kind of thing is that?”

  “It’s easy for you to say,” Adam told him. “How’d you like it? A total stranger practically related to you and everything coming to your house and you have to be polite and act like everything’s peachy when it isn’t? That’s not the easiest thing in the world, Charlie. Put yourself in my shoes. It’s darn tough. I’m not sticking around here, that’s for sure.”

  He got up and stalked around the lobby. “I thought, you being my friend and all, you’d understand. But you don’t.”

  Charlie laid his huge hand on Adam’s shoulder.
  “I’m trying, kid,” he said. “I’m also thinking about your dad. Thinking about how he’d feel if you take off when you know he’s coming to visit. You can’t do that to your poor old daddy, Adam.”

  “He’s not old,” Adam said indignantly. “He’s nowhere near as old as you are, Charlie.”

  “I never told you how old I was,” Charlie said, drawing back. “I never.”

  “Once you said, ‘Guess how old I am,’” Adam reminded him, “and I said, ‘About forty-five or fifty, I guess,’ and you got sore because you weren’t that old. So I guess you’re about, oh, around thirty, maybe?” Adam didn’t want to offend Charlie a second time.

  “You think I look about thirty, eh?” Adam could tell Charlie was pleased. He knew Charlie was vain about his physique. In his youth he’d been a light heavyweight boxer, and he stayed in shape by lifting weights, working out at a gym, and jogging in the park on his day off.

  “O.K., Charlie.” Adam gave in. “I’ll stick around to see my father, but that’s all.”

  “You’re all heart, kid,” Charlie said, spitting on the doorknob, giving it an extra shine. “All heart.”


  “What’d you say that girl’s name was?” Adam asked his mother. He noticed with pleasure that in his new shoes he was almost as tall as she was in her sneakers.

  “Sproggy,” she said.

  “That’s not a name!” Adam protested. “I never heard it before. Did you?”

  “No,” she said. “But just because neither of us has heard it doesn’t mean it isn’t a name. Anyway, it’s probably just a nickname.”

  Rosalie inched her way over to Adam, tongue hanging out. She hated the heat worse than anyone else. To make her happy, he rubbed behind her ears.

  When Adam had been small and Rosalie a puppy, he’d shaved off part of her fur with his father’s electric razor. Luckily for Rosalie, his father had come into the bathroom just in time to save her from instant baldness.

  “She’s off her feed today,” his mother said, scooping out yolks of hard-boiled eggs into a bowl. “Hasn’t eaten a thing all day. Her nose is out of joint.”

  “She heard somebody named Sproggy was coming over. That’s enough to put anyone’s nose out of joint,” Adam said.

  Why couldn’t her name be Jane or Sally or Susan? He knew girls by those names. There were three Susans in his class alone. Although as far as he was concerned, all three of them could go jump in the lake. He would have been happy to hold them underwater for a while.

  “If there’s one thing I can’t stand,” Adam told Rosalie, “it’s a dog who sulks.” Rosie stared at him, pretending she didn’t know him, pretending he wasn’t there.

  “I do hope this isn’t a mistake.” Adam’s mother sighed. “This getting together. Sometimes I get carried away.”

  “Yes,” Adam agreed, “you do.” Without warning, his thoughts flashed back to the night four years ago when his father and mother had told him they were getting a divorce. He had been six, almost seven. He could see the three of them sitting in the living room, windows open to let in a breath of air. It had been this same time of year and very hot. The sound of taxi horns bleating and a fire truck going by had been very loud.

  His father, standing straight, unmoving, hands behind his back, had said, “Your mother and I are getting a divorce. We want you to know, Adam, it has nothing to do with you.”

  He knew lots of kids whose parents were divorced. The thought that he might have had anything to do with the divorce would never have occurred to him, but it interested him that his father said that.

  “It has nothing to do with anyone but us,” his father continued. His mother, he remembered, had worn a pink dress and a faint, faraway smile. She almost never wore a dress. It must be an occasion.

  “We think it would be better if we lived apart. As it happens, I have to go to England for my magazine for a couple of years, so this seemed like a good time.”

  A good time?

  “What’s the matter?” Adam had asked. Even now, after all that time, he could hear himself say, “Do you have a girl friend?” He knew a kid whose father had a few girl friends.

  That was the only time in his life Adam had seen his father blush. He didn’t know fathers did blush. The color rose from his father’s neck into his face and made him look younger than usual.

  “No,” he’d said in even tones, “I don’t have a girl friend. Your mother is still my friend and you are my child and I love you very much.” He didn’t say, “I love you both very much.” He’d said, “I love you,” meaning Adam.

  “That’s O.K., Dad,” Adam had told him, watching his mother’s face. Her eyes glittered and she nodded, as if in agreement. She left the room then, and Adam and his father had sat quietly, eyeing each other, not talking, listening to the street noises.

  He’d gone to visit his father in England once. Two years ago he’d flown the Atlantic by himself except for a blond stewardess who was supposed to look out for him, see he got off at the right stop. She had paid much more attention to the man sitting next to him, though. The man had asked her if she’d ever been a model or in the movies. She didn’t look like any movie person to Adam, and he’d examined her very carefully after the man went to the lavatory.

  “Buzz off, sonny,” the stewardess had hissed out of the corner of her mouth as the man came back down the aisle. Adam spent the rest of his trip looking out at the darkness, figuring out how he’d inflate his life raft if the plane had to ditch in the ocean, wondering what his chances were for tripping up the stewardess as she went back and forth. He would have liked to have caught her with a full tray. Like so many of his plans, it didn’t work out.

  “How come you and Dad are still friends?” Adam asked now. “If you’re such big friends, why didn’t you stay married?” That had always puzzled him.

  She wiped her hands on the sides of her pants. “I told you, Adam. I like your father. As a matter of fact, I like him better now that we’re divorced than I did when we were married. We make better friends than we did lovers, you might say.”

  She closed her eyes and, clasping her hands in front of her, sang a song about being just friends and lovers no more that made Adam wince at the silly words.

  She opened her eyes. “That’s all I can remember. My mother’s uncle used to play that on the piano when I was a little girl.”

  “Nobody would listen to that kind of junk these days,” Adam said in a sour tone.

  “You’ve got to be kidding,” she said. “Some of the junk I hear nowadays makes that sound like Shakespeare.”

  Then she hugged him. “Our marriage wasn’t a total loss, though. I got you out of it.”

  He didn’t mind her hugging him. He liked it. But, “You didn’t answer my question,” he said, pulling away. “If you like Dad so much, why didn’t you stay married?”

  She considered. “I don’t really know,” she said finally. “We fell out of love, I guess. People fall in love and, if they’re lucky, they stay that way. It doesn’t always happen, though.”

  “Now that Dad got married again, does that mean that you might too?” Adam asked. Harry Carter took her to the theater and other places. Once he’d taken Adam, just the two of them, to the Central Park zoo on Sunday. Harry was all right. There was just one thing. He hadn’t known what an aardvark was. Adam forgave him, but he felt, in his heart, that his father would have recognized an aardvark immediately.

  Other than that lapse, though, Harry was all right.

  “Your father’s new wife is named Arabella,” Adam’s mother said, pursing her lips as if she hadn’t heard his question. “Very English, that. Don’t much care for it myself, but then the English have different ideas. They like their toast cold and their mustard hot. Maybe it comes from owning India all those years. Who knows?”

  “Mom,” Adam said patiently, “I asked you a question.”

  “Yes, you did. Well, I’m thinking.” She looked at him a long time.

  “Not without checking with you first, I wouldn’t,” she said.

  “You wouldn’t have to do that,” he said, although he thought privately that it would be a good idea. “How old did you say she was?”

  He couldn’t bring himself to say that name. He also knew the answer, but it was like biting down on a sore tooth. He wanted to make it hurt again and again.

  “Two months older than you. They’re thinking of sending her to your school if they find an apartment near us.”

  “If she was only a boy,” Adam said, lying down on the floor next to Rosalie, putting his cheek against the cool linoleum. “A boy about two years younger than me. Then if the kid looked at me cross-eyed, I’d work him around the head and shoulders.”

  “What a lovely, kindhearted, charitable boy you are,” his mother said. “It warms the cockles of my heart to hear you.”

  Rosalie sniffed at Adam. Her moods were subject to rapid change. She licked him fondly. Adam sat up.

  “You have bad breath,” he told her. “You have such halitosis it’s a wonder you have any friends.”

  “You’ll hurt her feelings,” his mother said. “Poor Rosie.” She patted her. “If only you could talk you could tell him off.”

  “I think she can talk. I think she talks to herself at night when we’re asleep. I bet she has a big, deep voice.”

  “Oh, no,” his mother said. “I imagine her voice is high and dainty, like a lady at a tea party. ‘Will you have one lump or two?’” his mother said, imitating Rosie’s voice. They both laughed. Rosalie went out to the living room and lay under the couch. She knew who they were laughing at.

  “Should we have cole slaw or potato salad?” Adam’s mother asked. “Or both?”

  “Both,” he said.

  “All right. Would you run down to the corner and get me a half pint of cream for the dessert?” She gave him a dollar.

  Adam lifted his feet inch by inch, as if a brick were tied to each shoe. The Bionic Man had taken over. Keeping his elbows close to his sides, lifting his feet high and slow, he left the building and crossed the street. The heck with Sproggy. If he concentrated on perfecting his Bionic Man imitation, she and all other mortals would fall before his superior power. The world would be his. The wind rushed through his hair as he raised his chin and made his eyes mere slits to cut down on any fallout particles. A taxi rounded the corner and nearly nailed him. The driver leaned on his horn and shouted. Adam made it to the store all right. Then he had to get change for the dollar to call home and ask his mother what it was she’d sent him for in the first place.

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