A mouse was looking at Mario.
The mouse's name was Tucker, and he was sitting in the opening of an abandoned drain pipe in the subway station at Times Square. The drain pipe was his home. Back a few feet in the wall, it opened out into a pocket that Tucker had filled with the bits of paper and shreds of cloth he collected. And when he wasn't collecting, "scrounging" as he called it, or sleeping, he liked to sit at the opening of the drain pipe and watch the world go by — at least as much of the world as hurried through the Times Square subway station.
Tucker finished the last few crumbs of a cookie he was eating — a Lorna Doone shortbread he had found earlier in the evening — and licked off his whiskers. "Such a pity," he sighed.
Every Saturday night now for almost a year he had watched Mario tending his father's newsstand. On weekdays, of course, the boy had to get to bed early, but over the weekends Papa Bellini let him take his part in helping out with the family business. Far into the night Mario waited. Papa hoped that by staying open as late as possible his newsstand might get some of the business that would otherwise have gone to the larger stands. But there wasn't much business tonight.
"The poor kid might as well go home," murmured Tucker Mouse to himself. He looked around the station.
The bustle of the day had long since subsided, and even the nighttime crowds, returning from the theaters and movies, had vanished. Now and then a person or two would come down one of the many stairs that led from the street and dart through the station. But at this hour everyone was in a hurry to get to bed. On the lower level the trains were running much less often. There would be a long stretch of silence; then the mounting roar as a string of cars approached Times Square; then a pause while it let off old passengers and took on new ones; and finally the rush of sound as it disappeared up the dark tunnel. And the hush fell again. There was an emptiness in the air. The whole station seemed to be waiting for the crowds of people it needed.
Tucker Mouse looked back at Mario. He was sitting on a three-legged stool behind the counter of the newsstand. In front of him all the magazines and newspapers were displayed as neatly as he knew how to make them. Papa Bellini had made the newsstand himself many years ago. The space inside was big enough for Mario, but Mama and Papa were cramped when they each took their turn. A shelf ran along one side, and on it were a little secondhand radio, a box of Kleenex (for Mama's hay fever), a box of kitchen matches (for lighting Papa's pipe), a cash register (for money — which there wasn't much of), and an alarm clock (for no good reason at all). The cash register had one drawer, which was always open. It had gotten stuck once, with all the money the Bellinis had in the world inside it, so Papa decided it would be safer never to shut it again. When the stand was closed for the night, the money that was left there to start off the new day was perfectly safe, because Papa had also made a big wooden cover, with a lock, that fitted over the whole thing.
Mario had been listening to the radio. He switched it off. Way down the tracks he could see the lights of the shuttle train coming toward him. On the level of the station where the newsstand was, the only tracks were the ones on which the shuttle ran. That was a short train that went back and forth from Times Square to Grand Central, taking people from the subways on the west side of New York City over to the lines on the east. Mario knew most of the conductors on the shuttle. They all liked him and came over to talk between trips.
The train screeched to a stop beside the newsstand, blowing a gust of hot air in front of it. Only nine or ten people got out. Tucker watched anxiously to see if any of them stopped to buy a paper.
"All late papers!" shouted Mario as they hurried by. "Magazines!"
No one stopped. Hardly anyone even looked at him. Mario sank back on his stool. All evening long he had sold only fifteen papers and four magazines. In the drain pipe Tucker Mouse, who had been keeping count too, sighed and scratched his ear.
Mario's friend Paul, a conductor on the shuttle, came over to the stand. "Any luck?" he asked.
"No," said Mario. "Maybe on the next train."
"There's going to be less and less until morning," said Paul.
Mario rested his chin on the palm of his hand. "I can't understand it," he said. "It's Saturday night too. Even the Sunday papers aren't going."
Paul leaned up against the newsstand. "You're up awfully late tonight," he said.
"Well, I can sleep on Sundays," said Mario. "Besides, school's out now. Mama and Papa are picking me up on the way home. They went to visit some friends. Saturday's the only chance they have."
Over a loudspeaker came a voice saying, "Next train for Grand Central, track 2."
"'Night, Mario," Paul said. He started off toward the shuttle. Then he stopped, reached in his pocket, and flipped a half dollar over the counter. Mario caught the big coin. "I'll take a Sunday Times," Paul said, and picked up the newspaper.
"Hey wait!" Mario called after him. "It's only twenty-five cents. You've got a quarter coming."
But Paul was already in the car. The door slid closed. He smiled and waved through the window. With a lurch the train moved off, its lights glimmering away through the darkness.
Tucker Mouse smiled too. He liked Paul. In fact he liked anybody who was nice to Mario. But it was late now: time to crawl back to his comfortable niche in the wall and go to sleep. Even a mouse who lives in the subway station in Times Square has to sleep sometimes. And Tucker had a big day planned for tomorrow, collecting things for his home and snapping up bits of food that fell from the lunch counters all over the station. He was just about to turn into the drain pipe when he heard a very strange sound.
Now Tucker Mouse had heard almost all the sounds that can be heard in New York City. He had heard the rumble of subway trains and the shriek their iron wheels make when they go around a corner. From above, through the iron grilles that open onto the streets, he had heard the thrumming of the rubber tires of automobiles, and the hooting of their horns, and the howling of their brakes. And he had heard the babble of voices when the station was full of human beings, and the barking of the dogs that some of them had on leashes. Birds, the pigeons of New York, and cats, and even the high purring of airplanes above the city Tucker had heard. But in all his days, and on all his journeys through the greatest city in the world, Tucker had never heard a sound quite like this one.CHAPTER 2
Mario heard the sound too. He stood up and listened intently. The noise of the shuttle rattled off into silence. From the streets above came the quiet murmur of the late traffic. There was a noise of rustling nothingness in the station. Still Mario listened, straining to catch the mysterious sound ... And there it came again.
It was like a quick stroke across the strings of a violin, or like a harp that has been plucked suddenly. If a leaf in a green forest far from New York had fallen at midnight through the darkness into a thicket, it might have sounded like that.
Mario thought he knew what it was. The summer before he had gone to visit a friend who lived on Long Island. One afternoon, as the low sun reached long yellow fingers through the tall grass, he had stopped beside a meadow to listen to just such a noise. But there had been many of them then — a chorus. Now there was only one. Faintly it came again through the subway station.
Mario slipped out of the newsstand and stood waiting. The next time he heard the sound, he went toward it. It seemed to come from one corner, next to the stairs that led up to Forty-second Street. Softly Mario went toward the spot. For several minutes there was only the whispering silence. Whatever it was that was making the sound had heard him coming and was quiet. Silently Mario waited. Then he heard it again, rising from a pile of waste papers and soot that had blown against the concrete wall.
He went down and very gently began to lift off the papers. One by one he inspected them and laid them to one side. Down near the bottom the papers became dirtier and dirtier. Mario reached the floor. He began to feel with his hands through the dust and soot. And wedged in a crack under all the refuse, he found what he'd been looking for.
It was a little insect, about an inch long and covered with dirt. It had six legs, two long antennae on its head, and what seemed to be a pair of wings folded on its back. Holding his discovery as carefully as his fingers could, Mario lifted the insect up and rested him in the palm of his hand.
"A cricket!" he exclaimed.
Keeping his cupped hand very steady, Mario walked back to the newsstand. The cricket didn't move. And he didn't make that little musical noise anymore. He just lay perfectly still — as if he were sleeping, or frightened to death.
Mario pulled out a Kleenex and laid the cricket on it. Then he took another and started to dust him off. Ever so softly he tapped the hard black shell, and the antennae, and legs, and wings. Gradually the dirt that had collected on the insect fell away. His true color was still black, but now it had a bright, glossy sheen.
When Mario had cleaned off the cricket as much as he could, he hunted around the floor of the station for a matchbox. In a minute he'd found one and knocked out one end. Then he folded a sheet of Kleenex, tucked it in the box, and put the cricket in. It made a perfect bed. The cricket seemed to like his new home. He moved around a few times and settled himself comfortably.
Mario sat for a time, just looking. He was so happy and excited that when anyone walked through the station, he forgot to shout "Newspapers!" and "Magazines!"
Then a thought occurred to him: perhaps the cricket was hungry. He rummaged through his jacket pocket and found a piece of a chocolate bar that had been left over from supper. Mario broke off one corner and held it out to the cricket on the end of his finger. Cautiously the insect lifted his head to the chocolate. He seemed to smell it a moment, then took a bit. A shiver of pleasure went over Mario as the cricket ate from his hand.
* * *
Mama and Papa Bellini came up the stairs from the lower level of the station. Mama was a short woman — a little stouter than she liked to admit — who wheezed and got a red face when she had to climb steps. Papa was tall and somewhat bent over, but he had a kindness that shone about him. There seemed always to be something smiling inside Papa. Mario was so busy feeding his cricket that he didn't see them when they came up to the newsstand.
"So?" said Mama, craning over the counter. "What now?"
"I found a cricket!" Mario exclaimed. He picked the insect up very gently between his thumb and forefinger and held him out for his parents to see.
Mama studied the little black creature carefully. "It's a bug," she pronounced finally. "Throw it away."
Mario's happiness fell in ruins. "No, Mama," he said anxiously. "It's a special kind of bug. Crickets are good luck."
"Good luck, eh?" Mama's voice had a way of sounding very dry when she didn't believe something. "Cricketers are good luck — so I suppose ants are better luck. And cockroaches are the best luck of all. Throw it away."
"Please, Mama, I want to keep him for a pet."
"No bugs are coming to my house," said Mama. "We've got enough already with the screens full of holes. He'll whistle to his friends — they'll come from all over — we'll have a houseful of cricketers."
"No we won't," said Mario in a low voice. "I'll fix the screens." But he knew it was no use arguing with Mama. When she had made up her mind, you might as well try to reason with the Eighth Avenue subway.
"How was selling tonight?" asked Papa. He was a peaceful man and always tried to head off arguments. Changing the subject was something he did very well.
"Fifteen papers and four magazines," said Mario. "And Paul just bought a Sunday Times."
"No one took a Musical America, or anything else nice?" Papa was very proud that his newsstand carried all of what he called the "quality magazines."
"No," answered Mario.
"So you spend less time playing with cricketers, you'll sell more papers," said Mama.
"Oh now now," Papa soothed her. "Mario can't help it if nobody buys."
"You can tell the temperature with crickets too," said Mario. "You count the number of chirps in a minute, divide by four, and add forty. They're very intelligent."
"Who needs a cricketer-thermometer?" said Mama. "It's coming on summer, it's New York — it's hot. And how do you know so much about cricketers? Are you one?"
"Jimmy Lebovski told me last summer," said Mario.
"Then give it to the expert Jimmy Lebovski," said Mama. "Bugs carry germs. He doesn't come in the house."
Mario looked down at his new friend in the palm of his hand. Just for once he had been really happy. The cricket seemed to know that something was wrong. He jumped onto the shelf and crept into the matchbox.
"He could keep it here in the newsstand," suggested Papa.
Mario jumped at that idea. "Yes, and then he wouldn't have to come home. I could feed him here, and leave him here, and you'd never have to see him," he said to Mama. "And when you took the stand, I'd bring him with me."
Mama paused. "Cricketer," she said scornfully. "What do we want with a cricketer?"
"What do we want with a newsstand?" said Papa. "We got it — let's keep it." There was something resigned, but nice, about Papa.
"You said I could have a dog," said Mario, "but I never got him. And I never got a cat, or a bird, or anything. I wanted this cricket for my pet."
"He's yours, then," said Papa. And when Papa spoke in a certain quiet tone — that was all there was to it. Even Mama didn't dare disagree.
She took a deep breath. "Oh well —" she sighed. And Mario knew it would be all right. Mama's saying "oh well" was her way of giving in. "But only on trial he stays. At the first sign of the cricketer friends, or if we come down with peculiar diseases — out he goes!"
"Yes, Mama, anything you say," said Mario.
"Come on, Mario," Papa said. "Help me close up."
Mario held the matchbox up to his eye. He was sure the cricket looked much happier, now that he could stay. "Good night," he said. "I'll be back in the morning."
"Talking to it yet!" said Mama. "I've got a cricketer for a son."
Papa took one side of the cover to the newsstand, Mario the other, and together they fitted it on. Papa locked it. As they were going downstairs to the trains, Mario looked back over his shoulder. He could almost feel the cricket, snugged away in his matchbox bed, in the darkness.CHAPTER 3
Tucker Mouse had been watching the Bellinis and listening to what they said. Next to scrounging, eavesdropping on human beings was what he enjoyed most. That was one of the reasons he lived in the Times Square subway station. As soon as the family disappeared, he darted out across the floor and scooted up to the newsstand. At one side the boards had separated and there was a wide space he could jump through. He'd been in a few times before — just exploring. For a moment he stood under the three-legged stool, letting his eyes get used to the darkness. Then he jumped up on it.
"Psst!" he whispered. "Hey, you up there — are you awake?"
There was no answer.
"Psst! Psst! Hey!" Tucker whispered again, louder this time.
From the shelf above came a scuffling, like little feet feeling their way to the edge. "Who is that going 'psst'?" said a voice.
"It's me," said Tucker. "Down here on the stool."
A black head, with two shiny black eyes, peered down at him. "Who are you?"
"A mouse," said Tucker. "Who are you?"
"I'm Chester Cricket," said the cricket. He had a high, musical voice. Everything he said seemed to be spoken to an unheard melody.
"My name's Tucker," said Tucker Mouse. "Can I come up?"
"I guess so," said Chester Cricket. "This isn't my house anyway."
Tucker jumped up beside the cricket and looked him all over. "A cricket," he said admiringly. "So you're a cricket. I never saw one before."
"I've seen mice before," the cricket said. "I knew quite a few back in Connecticut."
"Is that where you're from?" asked Tucker.
"Yes," said Chester. "I guess I'll never see it again," he added wistfully.
"How did you get to New York?" asked Tucker Mouse.
"It's a long story," sighed the cricket.
"Tell me," said Tucker, settling back on his haunches. He loved to hear stories. It was almost as much fun as eavesdropping — if the story was true.
"Well, it must have been two — no, three days ago," Chester Cricket began. "I was sitting on top of my stump, just enjoying the weather and thinking how nice it was that summer had started. I live inside an old tree stump, next to a willow tree, and I often go up to the roof to look around. And I'd been practicing jumping that day too. On the other side of the stump from the willow tree there's a brook that runs past, and I'd been jumping back and forth across it to get my legs in condition for the summer. I do a lot of jumping, you know."