He was a tall, gangly man with an electric style of walking: sudden, large, bouncing steps, an occasional shuffle and a tendency to lurch from side to side. He used the wooden stick he carried to steady himself occasionally, but, more often, to point out sights of interest, a bird in a tree or a large pebble on the ground. He wore a cap inscribed with the logo of an out-of-town baseball team and a short jacket that said something good about the services of a moving company that delivered anywhere in the continental United States. The young woman with him was walking much more properly, even primly. She was young, indeed; in fact, she was six years old. She was dressed very nicely in a cardigan sweater and a ballooning skirt. A very small hat ornamented by two flowers was pinned to her hair. She carried a small purse. Without looking she reached up and took her grandfather’s hand.
It was the sort of warm Autumn afternoon one would expect living on a quiet Midwestern farm at a time when the harvest has been brought in, and when soft breezes move across the grass and stir the apple trees. But, as it happened, Alice and her grandfather were standing on a street corner on the East side of Manhattan, waiting for the light to change.
The light did change to green, and they both stepped off the curb. Grandpa waved his walking stick in the air as if to announce to the traffic waiting to turn the corner, “Attention! Warning! Small child crossing!” Once they were safely on the other side, they walked hand in hand along the stone wall that bordered Central Park.
“Now, remember, Alice,” Grandpa said as they turned into the entrance to the park, “don’t run away. I can’t run after you as fast as I could when you were a little girl. Besides, you have to watch out for the killer squirrels. There was a little boy who ran away from his parents once, and they found him the next day tied to a tree. All the killer squirrels were taking bites out of his fingers and toes.”
“Oh, Grandpa,” Alice said, sighing.
Also wandering through the park that Sunday afternoon were many of their neighbors: old couples, also holding hands, young couples lying on blankets on the grass, kids throwing a Frisbee or a baseball back and forth, and other, still smaller, children running after them and after each other. The well-dressed woman with the pair of Afghans on a leash was there, and the blind man playing the guitar. The street magician was there, and they stopped for a while while he turned balloons into giraffes and elephants and other exotic animals. Alice applauded when he took a penny out of her ear and gave it to her. Then there were the dueling steel drum bands. The music was so loud, Alice put her hands over her ears and squeezed her eyes shut too. Then Alice and her grandfather stopped for a while to watch the lady with the pet snake.
“Is that snake safe?” Alice asked her grandfather in a low voice, curling up against him.
“That snake is a heroic snake, not an evil snake. That old lady who is sitting there, half-asleep, was once a beautiful young lady. One day she was traveling down the Amazon River in a canoe carved out of a single tree trunk, while natives of the jungle sat in front of her and in back of her paddling as fast as they could to get away from an alligator who was chasing them. This alligator was as big as a small automobile, maybe a big automobile. Maybe it was as big as a bus. You couldn’t tell because it was half-underwater. But it was really big. And it had a mouth as wide as an open grand piano. And the teeth-the teeth were really something- each tooth was like a saw. And they made a grinding noise when the alligator chewed that was awful to hear. It sounded a little like Grandpa’s car does when it won’t start. Remember? And these teeth were dripping blood. So, naturally, the beautiful lady was really scared. Anyway, they paddled and paddled, when, suddenly, a huge tiger with big yellow eyes and a snarly expression jumped out of the jungle and started running alongside the canoe. And then a gigantic hippopotamus rose up out of the river and started chasing after the alligator, who was swimming as fast as he could to catch the beautiful lady before the tiger could jump on top of the canoe and eat everyone. Then suddenly, when they least expected it, that snake, the one over there, who was younger then and didn’t look so beat up, swung out of a tree and knocked the tiger into the water, where the alligator started chewing on him. The hippopotamus got tangled up with the tiger and the alligator; and all three of them went over the waterfall.
As a reward for saving her life, the beautiful lady took the snake home and promised to look after him forever, giving him ice cream and other tasty things. After a while, the
beautiful lady got old and not so beautiful. And the snake got old too and sleepy. So, that’s why that snake looks so tired all the time. But, all I know is, if a big, vicious tiger suddenly jumped at me from the museum over there, I’d want that snake by my side!”
Alice thought about that story for a moment, then took her penny-the one the magician gave her-out of her purse and put it in a little tin cup the lady kept on the park bench next to the snake. She did this very carefully.
“That’s to help the lady buy the snake something nice to eat,” she said to her grandfather.
They walked further down the path until they came to the sailing pond. Grandpa pretended to lead two of the small boats in a charge against a couple of ducks that were hogging one whole end of the pond. He waved his walking stick and shouted out directions. “Charge,” he exclaimed, pointing the way with his stick, and exhorting the tiny toy sailors aboard to drop the mizzen mast and make full-steam ahead. Alice started her own charge at the ducks. She ran along the concrete ledge that bordered the pond; and Grandpa ran after her to make sure she didn’t fall in. He was puffing by the time he caught up with her.
“Avast, young lady,” he said, trying to catch his breath. “I told you not to run away. Now, I have to sit down.”
He took her by the hand over to one of the benches fronting the pond and sat down next to her. Then he took a little pill from a small box and put it in his mouth. In a moment the pain he had felt in his chest subsided. Alice, meanwhile, stamped a foot when a squirrel, possibly one of the killer squirrels, approached too closely. She sat still fully twenty or thirty seconds more before deciding what she wanted to do next, which was to climb the statue of Alice in Wonderland that stood only a few feet away. She knew Alice’s story very well, especially because of the coincidence of their names, and always said she wanted to be like Alice when she grew up.
“Be careful,” her grandfather told her. He watched while she walked diffidently around Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the other stone figures, all of which were covered, almost entirely, it seemed to him, with swarming and squirming children twice her age and her size. She was pushed to one side or the other by children who didn’t seem to notice she was standing there. Probably, she would not have been able to climb the statues anyway, since she was still holding tightly onto her purse. She came back a few minutes later, her head held up, but pouting a little. Her grandfather thought that she was really very small. She climbed up silently next to him. He put his arm around her shoulder.
“They were too big,” she said in a soft voice.
“Those kids were much older than you, Alice. When you’re their age, you’ll be twice as big as they are, maybe three times as big.”
She didn’t say anything. Her grandfather looked down at her. This kid is too proud to cry, he thought. Maybe that wasn’t so good. One of these days…
“How would you like me to tell you a story?” he said. “Maybe about the time aliens from outer space landed right here in Central Park. They had ray guns and…”
“And they ate up all the pigeons. You told me. And that’s why there are no pigeons anymore,” Alice said, staring at a pigeon who was strutting back and forth in front of her and who looked back at her, first with one eye and then the other.
“All right, did I tell you about the time I walked along a tightrope stretched between those two tall buildings over there? It was windy and cold. I could hear the sounds of traffic far below. I inched forward, very carefully, swaying in the wind. If I didn’t have this walking stick with me, I think I would have fallen right over. Right then I looked up and I could see an eagle diving right at me…”
“Tell me a story. But I want it to have a happy ending.”
“Why does it have to have a happy ending? You know, Alice, sometimes bad things happen; and if you are a strong person, it doesn’t matter…”
“I want it to have a happy ending!” she said, turning her face up to him and giving him a fierce look.
“Okay, okay,” he said quickly. He looked up. Right then a little boy was passing by. The boy was trying hard to hold onto a dog leash, which had a small puppy pulling on the other end. They looked evenly matched until the puppy, who was running in place, started to gallop; and the two of them set off in the direction of the ducks.
“This is the story of a dog,” Grandpa said. “Not an ordinary dog. This dog had a lot of good qualities and some bad ones too. This dog was very smart, but sneaky a little. He was very brave, but he was also stubborn. He was very loyal, but sometimes it’s
possible to be too loyal, you know; and he had a wicked sense of humor.
“And this is a story about a family. There was a nice little girl in this family, like you. Her name was Edith. And she had an older brother named Timothy.”
“Like Tommy,” Alice said.
“No. Your brother is fifteen. Timothy was only ten, but he was clever, in some ways like he was 37 or 38, but in some ways like he was only seven. Sometimes he was a bad boy; and there was no one to stop him because his parents were fighting all the time; and they weren’t always paying attention. I guess you know the way that can be, Alice.”
Alice didn’t say anything. She seemed to be watching one of the sailboats, which had capsized just when it was about to capture a duck.
“And there was a grandfather in this family. He was very old, much older than I am. And he had a heart problem. And he was the kind of grandfather that worried a lot. He worried about what would happen to his grandchildren if something happened to him. That’s the kind of thing you worry about when you’re very, very old, like this grandfather was. If he wasn’t around anymore, who would go to their birthday parties? Who would be there to applaud when they graduated? Who would comfort them if somebody was mean to them? He worried about Edith especially. She was a very sensitive girl. She cried a lot. Like when somebody yelled at her. He wished there was something he could do to toughen her up. Now, I don’t have to worry about that with you. I know if somebody teased you, you wouldn’t pay any attention to them. You’re strong. If a bear came after you, you could just wrestle him to the ground.”
“No, I can’t,” Alice said, still looking far away.
“Not now. Of course not. You have to get a little bigger first. And you have to practice. I lost the first three or four times I wrestled a bear.
“Timothy was a different kind of worry. He didn’t do his homework. He didn’t listen to his grandfather or to anyone else. He was angry all the time. He didn’t even like Edith very much, and everybody liked Edith. Of course, deep down he loved her, but when you love somebody deep down, they might not realize you love them at all.
So, Edith was too sensitive and Timothy was irresponsible. There was only one obvious solution to this problem, their grandfather decided.”
“What?” said Alice.
“They needed a dog.
“So, one day, I think it was a Tuesday. Or maybe Wednesday. No, I think it was a Monday, as a matter of fact. One day they went off to the dog pound-Edith, Timothy and their grandfather- to see if they could pick out just the right dog. Timothy wanted a big dog, somebody who would scare away all the other dogs, big enough so he could ride on top of him if he got tired of walking. Edith, on the other hand, wanted a really small dog that she could put in a pocket and carry around with her if she ever felt lonely. When the dog pound attendant asked them which dog they wanted, they both pointed. He must have gotten mixed up because the dog he brought to them had been hanging around in a cage in between the other two dogs. He was middle-sized; and he had a hang-dog expression, world weary, disenchanted and disaffected. Disenchanted means disgusted and disaffected means distant. He was also dispirited and down-hearted, and, in general,
disappointed in life. This doggie had seen a lot before he was abandoned on a street corner in Queens. .
“ ‘Good choice,’ said their grandfather. And so they went home with this disgruntled dog, who was named Mephistopheles, or Marvin, for short.
“When Marvin got home, it took him a few days to realize that no one was going to throw a frying pan at him, or hold him upside down by the tail, or abandon him on a street corner in Queens. He began to settle in. This little kid, Edith, was a peach. She liked to sneak him tidbits from the dinner table when nobody was watching. Of course, she was always kissing him all over his nose and eyes, which he could just as well have done without. And she also unsettled him by trying to pick him up all the time. She was only strong enough to pick up one end at a time, usually the back end. Timothy, on the other hand, was always trying to teach him something or other, how to stand up on his hind legs and beg, or something even more demeaning, like rolling over. Forget it. Marvin didn’t sign on to work in a circus. This kid couldn’t even do his homework when he was supposed to, and still he expected him, a grown-up dog, to jump through hoops, or something. In fact, he showed him a hoop, pointing, clapping his hands and using body language to encourage him. Marvin, who had gotten the idea a long time ago, just sat there, sneering a little.
“Inevitably, whenever he got the chance, Marvin hung out with Edith. He slept on the foot of her bed, which made Timothy jealous-although he would not have admitted it.
One time, late at night, when Edith was asleep, he came into her room and carried Marvin off to his room and locked the door. That was how the war got started.
Edith, for one, didn’t know a war had started. As far as she was concerned, everything was going along swimmingly. Marvin went everywhere with her. When her grandfather walked the dog, she was allowed to hold the leash sometimes; and then Marvin never pulled too hard. Marvin was never afraid of the other dogs, no matter how big they were or how loud they barked. He would just give them a cold stare, and dominate them by sheer force of personality. Her grandfather was pleased to note that Edith seemed less frightened and even less sensitive-just as he hoped. And he thought-maybe this was a silly thought-that if something bad happened to him, Marvin would be there to keep Edith company and protect her. “But his plan for Timothy was not working out so well. Having to feed Marvin and walk him every day had not inclined him to be more responsible. And Grandpa didn’t know about the war either.
“Now, let me tell you something about war,” Alice’s grandfather said, putting his arm around her shoulder. She was still watching the ducks and the sailing boats, but he knew she was listening to him. “Just in case you ever think about starting a war. War is bad. Nobody likes war. People who remember the last war always agree that war is terrible. No one actually wants to start a war because all kinds of bad things can happen. But both sides in a war always think his side-or her side- is the right side, and if he-or she- explains himself-or herself- carefully, and maybe yells at the other side too, or barks, the other side is going to give in; but it never works that way. It’s a matter of pride. ‘Pride goeth before a war.’ You must have heard that saying.
“Well, Marvin wasn’t thinking about any of this when he found himself locked in Timothy’s room. He didn’t think that all Timothy wanted was more attention. What he thought was: who does this guy think he is? Don’t I have any rights? Another dog might have hid under the bed, but Marvin wasn’t that kind of dog. He let Timothy pick him up-after all, Timothy was bigger than he was-and put him on the end of his bed. Marvin made up his mind to bide his time. But all the while he was hatching a plot. He waited until Timothy was asleep and then, slowly, without making a sound, he got down on the floor, and then very, very slowly he pulled the blankets off Timothy. And then he climbed back on the bed and pretended nothing happened.
“A few minutes later, Timothy woke up shivering. He looked at Marvin, then he looked at the covers, then he looked back at Marvin, who was pretending to be asleep. Then he picked up the covers and put them back on the bed and crawled underneath.
“About a half-hour later, when Marvin was sure Timothy was asleep again, he slowly crept out of the bed and very slowly pulled the covers off all the way over to the bureau. Then he got back on the bed and pretended to go to sleep.
“When Timothy woke up shivering a second time, he looked at Marvin suspiciously. Marvin rolled over and faced the other way. He didn’t want Timothy to see him grinning.
“Timothy got up, got the covers and lay down on the bed again, this time keeping one eye open. Marvin rolled over and watched Timothy with one eye. For some time they both lay there staring at each other with one eye, until Timothy fell asleep once again. This time he woke up in time to watch Marvin tip-toeing away with the blankets in his mouth. ‘Gotcha!’ he said. ‘Enough of that.’ He picked up Marvin, unlocked the door, and threw the dog out into the hall. Marvin tried not to laugh out loud.
“The next day, Timothy stole Marvin’s bowl. Marvin found the bowl, finally, hidden in the bathroom after hunting for it nervously all morning. ‘All right,’ he thought to himself after gulping down his breakfast, which took exactly one minute and five seconds, ‘if that’s the way he wants it.’
“The following day Timothy couldn’t find his underpants. His undershirts were in their proper place. So were his socks. But his underpants were missing. He looked over to Marvin who was sitting on a chair and smirking.
“ ‘What did you do with my underpants?’
“Marvin didn’t say anything. He smiled innocently.
“The underpants were discovered two days later tucked behind a radiator.
“Well, the war picked up speed and ran down hill, which is often the case with wars. Soon the war spilled over into surrounding principalities. A principality is… let’s see, what is a principality? It’s sort of…well, I don’t know. It’s a little like a kingdom. Anyway…”
Alice’s grandfather frowned and stamped his walking stick on the ground. He hated it when he found himself at a loss for words. It didn’t happen very often.
“What I mean,” he said, “is that other people’s possessions began to disappear too. First it was the underwear, then the dog food, then other kinds of food, then the pillow Marvin liked to lie on when he wasn’t lying on Edith’s bed. Then the T.V. set and the bureau. No one else seemed to notice, but empty spaces began to appear all over the apartment. Briefly Marvin considered doing something really drastic, like eating Timothy’s homework; but he decided Timothy was already in too much trouble about his homework.
“Then came the really scary time. Timothy started it. He crept up on Marvin one afternoon when Marvin was taking his nap. And when he got real close, he yelled ‘fetch!’ in his ear. Marvin was so scared, he jumped way up and landed on top of a bookcase, just like a cat. What happened next was- let’s see, what was it? I think the next thing was Marvin pretending to foam at the mouth and bite Timothy’s nose. It was just a pretend bite, but it was very scary. Timothy was discombobulated. Discombobulated means very disturbed and distracted. Then came the time Timothy turned on a lot of spooky music and dressed up as Dracula. Things were getting out of hand. “Finally, Timothy decided to give Marvin a bath because he knew Marvin hated taking a bath. Marvin snarled at him, and Timothy snarled right back. And they both fell into the bath.
“Now, you should know, Alice, people can get hurt when there is a war on. And that’s what happened then. Timothy hit his head against the bathtub and was knocked unconscious. And the water level in the bathtub was rising.”
Alice’s grandfather paused for effect. He looked at his walking stick as if he had just noticed a crack in it.
“Well,” he said, going on, “Marvin stared at Timothy and wondered whether he should save him or not. He thought about his rights being violated, about being bathed against his will, and about all the petty things Timothy had done to annoy him. On the other hand, it was true that Timothy walked him every day, and fed him, and wasn’t really cruel to him. Marvin thought about this for a while and then decided to let Timothy drown. He climbed out of the bath, shook himself off and went into the other room to take a nap. Timothy drowned, and Marvin and Edith and the rest of the family lived happily forever after.”
“Nooooo!” screamed Alice . “That’s not a happy ending!”
“Why not? I just said they lived happily forever after.”
“The boy died!” Alice wailed.
“All right,” her grandfather said quickly. “That’s not the real ending. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. I’ll tell you what really happened. But, you know, Alice, you can’t expect everything in life to have a happy ending. Sometimes, if you know something bad is going to happen, you can prepare for it ahead of time; and then it doesn’t hurt so much.”
“I want a happy ending!” Alice yelled, waving her purse around.
“Marvin never left the bathtub,” her grandfather said. “He had to put his head under the water, but he took a deep breath and grabbed hold of the stopper in the bathtub with his teeth and pulled it out. The faucet kept running, but the water level dropped. Finally, a few minutes later, after Marvin licked Timothy on the nose a couple of times, Timothy woke up. Carefully, he climbed out of the bathtub carrying Marvin with him. He looked down at the stopper, and then he looked at Marvin, who was wearing an embarrassed and sheepish expression; and he realized that Marvin had saved his life. He gave Marvin a big hug; and Marvin didn’t even squirm around.
“And, you know, things got better after that. There was no more war; and Timothy changed too. He didn’t seem so angry all the time. And maybe his grandfather was right. Maybe feeding and walking Marvin every day made him more responsible, because he began doing his homework on time. Maybe he just realized that Marvin really loved him deep down, so he didn’t have to make himself into a pest. And, guess what: Marvin began to sleep on the end of Timothy’s bed, although, most of the time, he still slept on Edith’s bed. And so, they all lived happily forever after.”
That ending seemed to please Alice more. At least, she didn’t complain. She got up with her grandfather, and they started walking to the other end of the pond, and then up a hill.
“A few years after that,” her grandfather said, looking off into the distance, “the grandfather, who had a heart condition, was hit by a bus. And he died. But by that time, Edith had Marvin for a friend; and he was a big comfort to her.”
“You’re a meanie!” Alice shouted, hitting her grandfather’s leg with her purse.
“All right! All right!” he said, trying to stop her from hitting him. “I got mixed up. That wasn’t what happened. Edith’s grandfather didn’t die until he was very, very, very, very old. By that time Edith was 32.”
“Oh, look, Grandpa,” Alice said, pointing up the hill. “The ice-cream man.”
Alice was immediately in a good mood. She was frequently in a good mood, her grandfather realized, even right after something bad had happened. And that thought put him in a better mood.
“I feel like having some ice-cream,” Alice said.
“My sentiments exactly,” said her grandfather.
So the two of them made their way up the concrete steps to the top of the hill, the elderly gentleman waving his walking stick around expressively, and stopping to catch his breath now and then. The little girl was still walking primly and very properly beside him, although erupting in a little skip just every once in a while. Her grandfather stopped to point out the place where he met Mister and Mrs. Worm, and, later on, the place where the killer squirrels ganged up on a pussy cat that had been harassing them. Finally, just in time, they got to the ice cream man
Alice ate her ice-cream slowly because she didn’t want to get any on her nice, new sweater. By the time she finished, they had left the park and were walking along the street that separated the park from the avenue. They walked silently, each person lost for a moment in his, and her, thoughts.
“Grandpa,” Alice said after a while, “would you buy me a dog?”
“A dog, eh? That’s an idea… We would have to get your mother’s permission. But I think she would say yes, if you promised…if we promised to take care of it.”
“Yay!” Alice said, throwing her arms in the air. “Yay!” she said again, and again, skipping quickly down the street.
“Alice! Come back here. I told you not to run away. I can’t run after you.”
She came back quickly and hugged her grandfather’s leg. “I’m not going to run away,” Grandpa, she said, still holding on tight.
Her grandfather rested his hand on her head. One of the flowers on her hat had flopped over. He fixed it carefully. “Come on, Alice,” he said. “Hold my hand. We’re going to cross the street. Now, remember, always wait for the light to turn green.” (c) Fredric Neuman 2013