Dave, Cat, and Nick running on the beach.
Nick and I have been friends pretty much since I can remember. Our mothers used to trade turns fetching us from kindergarten. Nick lives around the corner on Third Avenue, upstairs over the grocery store his old man runs. If anyone asked me how come we’re friends, I couldn’t exactly say. We’re just together most of the time.
Neither of us is a real whiz at sports, but we used to roller-skate and play a little king and stickball and ride our bikes around exploring. One time when we were about ten, we rode way over to Twelfth Avenue at the Hudson River, where the Queen Mary docks. This is about the only time I remember my mom getting really angry. She said Pop ought to take my bike away from me, and he did, but only for about a week. Nick and I still ride bikes a lot. Otherwise we sit and do our homework or play chess and listen to records.
Another reason we’re friends is because of this creepy little kid who lived down toward the corner, between me and Nick. He always tagged along, wanting to play with us, and of course in the end he always fouled up the game or fell down and started to cry. Then his big brother came rushing out, usually with another big guy along, and they figured they were entitled to beat us up for hurting little Joey.
After a while it looked to me as if Joey just worked as a lookout, and the minute me or Nick showed up on the block, one of the big guys came to run us off. They did little things like throwing sticks into our bike spokes and pretending it was just a joke. Nick and I used to plot all kinds of ways to get even with them, but in the end we mostly decided it was easier to walk around the block the long way to get to each other’s houses. I’m not much on fighting, and neither is Nick—’specially not with guys bigger than us
Summers, up in the country, the kids seem to be all the time wrestling and punching, half for fun and half not. If I walk past some strange kid my age up there, he almost always tries to get me into a fight. I don’t get it. Maybe it’s because sidewalks are uncomfortable for fighting, but we just don’t do much scrapping for fun. The only couple of fights I ever had, I was real mad.
Come spring, Nick and I got restless hanging around the street, with nothing to do but stickball and baiting the super at Forty-six. It was so easy to get him sore, it wasn’t even fun. Cat stayed out of that basement, but I wanted to get him really out in the open, where he could chase squirrels or something.
One day we rode our bikes up to Central Park. I put Cat in a wicker hamper and tied it on the back of my bike. He meowed a lot, and people on the street would look at me and then do a double take when they heard him.
We got up to Central Park and into a place they call The Horseshoe, because the parking area is that shape. I opened the lid a crack to look at Cat. He hissed at me, the first time he ever did. I looked around and thought, Gee, if I let him loose, he could go anywhere, even over into the woods, and I might never catch him. There were a lot of hoody looking kids around, and I could see if I ever left my bike a second to chase Cat, they’d snatch the bike. So I didn’t let Cat out, and I wolfed my sandwich and we went home. Nick was pretty disgusted.
Then we hit a hot Saturday, the first one in May, and I get an idea. I find Nick and say, “Let’s put Cat and some sandwiches in the basket and hop the subway out to Coney.”
Nick says, “Why bring Cat? He wrecked the last expedition.”
“I like to take him places, and this won’t be like Central Park. No one’s at Coney this time of year. He can chase around on the beach and hunt sand crabs.”
“Why do I have to have a nut for a friend?” Nick moans. “Well, anyway, I’m keeping my sandwich in my pocket, not in any old cat basket.”
“Who cares where you keep your crumby sandwich?”
So we went. Lots of people might think Coney Island is ugly, with all the junky-looking booths and billboards. But when you turn your back on them and look out at the ocean, it’s the same ocean as on a deserted beach. I kick off my shoes and stand with my feet in the ice water and the sun hot on my chest. Looking out at the horizon with its few ships and some sea gulls and planes overhead, I think: It’s mine, all mine. I could go anywhere in the world, I could. Maybe I will.
Nick throws water down my neck. He only understands infinity on math papers. I let Cat out of the basket and strip off my splashed shirt and chase Nick along the edge of the water. No need to worry about Cat. He chases right along with us, and every time a wave catches his feet he hisses and hightails it up the beach. Then he rolls himself in the hot, dry sand and gets up and shakes. There are a few other groups of people dotted along the beach. A big mutt dog comes and sniffs Cat and gets a right and a left scratch to the nose. He yelps and runs for home. Cat discovers sand crabs. Nick and I roll around in the sand and wrestle, and after a while we get hungry, so we go back where we left the basket. Cat is content to let me carry him.
Three girls are having a picnic right near our basket. One yells to the others, “Hey, look! The guy went swimming with his cat!”
Cat jumps down, turns his back on them, and humps himself around on my sweater until he is settled for a nap. I turn my back on the girls, too, and look out at the ocean.
Still, it’s not the same as it would have been a year ago. Then Nick and I would either have moved away from the girls or thrown sand at them.
We just sit and eat our sandwiches. Nick looks over at them pretty often and whispers to me how old do I think they are. I can’t tell about girls. Some of the ones in our class at school look about twenty-five, but then you see mothers pushing baby carriages on the street who look about fifteen.
One of the girls catches Nick’s eye and giggles. “Hi, there, whatcha watching?”
“I’m a bird watcher,” says Nick. “Seen any birds?”
The girls drift over our way. The one that spoke first is a redhead. The one who seems to be the leader is a big blonde in a real short skirt and hair piled up high in a bird’s nest. Maybe that’s what started Nick bird-watching. The third girl is sort of quiet-looking, with brown hair, I guess.
“You want a couple of cupcakes? You can have mine. I’m going on a diet,” says the blonde.
“Thanks,” says Nick. “I was thinking of going after some cokes.”
“Why waste time thinking? You might hurt your head,” says the redhead.
The third girl bends down and strokes Cat between the ears very gently. She says, “What’s his name?”
I explain to her about why Cat is Cat. She sits down and picks up a piece of seaweed to dangle over his nose. Cat makes a couple of sleepy swipes at it and then stretches luxuriously while she strokes him. The other kids get to talking, and we tell each other our names and where we go to school and all that stuff
Then Nick gets back on the subject of going for cokes. I don’t really want to stay there alone with the girls, so I say I’ll go. I tell Nick to watch Cat, and the girl who is petting him says, “Don’t worry, I won’t let him run away.”
It’s a good thing she’s there, because by the time I get back with the cokes, which no one offers to pay me back for, Nick and the other two girls are halfway down the beach. Mary—that’s her name—says, “I never saw a cat at the beach before, but he seems to like it. Where’d you get him?”
“He’s a stray. I got him from an old lady who’s sort of a nut about cats. Come on, I’ll see if I can get him to chase waves for you. He was doing it earlier.”
We are running along in the waves when the other kids come back. The big blonde kicks up water at me and yells, “Race you!”
So I chase, and just as I’m going to catch up, she stops short so I crash into her and we both fall down. This seems to be what she had in mind, but I bet the other kids are watching and I feel silly. I roll away and get up and go back to Cat.
While we drink cokes the blonde and the redhead say they want to go to the movies.
“What’s on?” Nick asks.
“There’s a Sinatra thing at the neighborhood,” the blonde tells him, and he looks interested.
“I can’t,” I say. “I’ve got Cat. Besides, it’s too late. Mom’d think I’d fallen into the subway.”
“I told you that cat was a mistake,” says Nick.
Put him in the basket and call your mother and tell her your watch stopped,” says the redhead. She comes over and trickles sand down my neck. “Come on, it’d be fun. We don’t have to sit in the kids’ section. We all look sixteen.”
“Nah, I can’t.” I get up and shake the sand out.
Nick looks disgusted, but he doesn’t want to stay alone. He says to the blonde, “Write me down your phone number, and we’ll do it another day when this nut hasn’t got his cat along.”
She writes down the phone number, and the redhead pouts because I’m not asking for hers. The girls get ready to leave, and Mary pats Cat good-bye and waves to me. She says, “Bring him again. He’s nice.”
We get on the subway and Cat meows crossly at being shut in his basket. Nick pokes the basket with his toes.
“Shut up, nuisance,” he says.