Once upon a time long, long ago—in the 1960’s—a little girl named Suzi saved a small part of her lunch every day to feed it to her new friend, Tony, the pony who lived in a grassy lot between two tall houses on the city block between her school and her happy little house on Azalea Avenue.
In a lot surrounded completely by a farm fence exactly as tall as Little Suzi was a tiny grey barn. For a long time, Suzi thought it was an empty barn left over from the olden days of the town. She often imagined the pigs, goats, and chickens that must have lived there years ago. Little Suzi wished the animals were there still and that she could feed them and take care of them in the barnyard.
In her mind, Little Suzi saw pigs wallow, baby goats jump up on their mothers’ backs, and sheep dogs herd lambs back to the pen. All these things she had seen in books her mother read to her when she was even more little than now. All these things she saw in her imagination.
While she stood at the fence beside the sidewalk, Little Suzi absent-mindedly took a red apple from her lunch bag and began to take small bites. She hadn’t had time to finish her lunch at school because Albert, her invisible friend, wasted too much time putting up their paints and glue. Of course, Albert never actually ate any food. He kept Little Suzi company while she ate quickly so that she could sit up close in front of the teacher for story time. That’s why she often had an apple left over from her lunch. Apples take a long time to eat.
It was exactly the apple from her lunch on this particular day that Little Suzi was eating when she first met ‘Tony’ the pony. Of course, he did not introduce himself to Suzi and Albert when he came clip-clopping slowly out of the shadow of his small barn. Suzi and Albert waited excitedly by the fence.
“I wonder what his name is?” Little Suzi said to Albert.
Maybe it’s the same as the pony in the book your teacher read to us.
“What was it?”
Tony, Albert remembered . . . Tony the Pony.
“Oh, yeah,” Suzi said with delight, “Tony the Pony!”
But then Suzi didn’t know what to do next, because the pony just stood quietly by the fence with one big cloudy eye turned toward her.
“What do we do now, Albert?” Little Suzi asked her friend.
Let’s ride him! Albert suggested with enthusiasm.
“We can’t,” Little Suzi whispered. “He’s far too old.”
How do you know he’s old? Albert queried.
“He has short grey hair on his neck, see? And I think he’s blind and a little deaf, too.”
Blind and deaf? Albert was curious now.
“He only looks at us with one eye. See how his head turned when he got close to the fence?”
“He didn’t raise his ears like my dog Chico used to do when we talked to him.”
Oh!, Albert said with some amazement, you’re pretty smart.
“I know,” Little Suzi responded with pride in her voice. “Mommy always says I hear too much and remember too much.”
In the story book, the children feed Tony a carrot, Albert recalled for her. Maybe he likes apples too.
So Little Suzi offered her apple to ‘Tony’, who reached his long nose far out over the fence, curled back his thick lips from his big yellow teeth as long as piano keys, and slowly and carefully picked the rest of Suzi’s apple from her outstretched little girl’s hand.
He likes it! Albert said with satisfaction. See, he likes it!
After that, Albert and Little Suzi stopped by after school almost every day with an apple for Tony.
“My, you really like apples,” Suzi’s mother exclaimed one morning. “I’ll have to buy a lot more from the farmer’s market if you eat them every day.”
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” Little Suzi told her mother with a gleaming smile. “That’s what teacher says.”
But one day, right before the end of the school year, Tony the pony did not come out from the barn for his apple. And the next day, he didn’t come out again. After a week, Suzi became sad at home and at school. When her teacher asked why, she just said ‘nothing’ because she didn’t know how to explain it to her teacher. And at home, she just said ‘nothing’ because she didn’t know how to explain it to her mother.
He must be sick, Albert offered one day.
“But he can’t be sick,” Little Suzi told her friend. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
The little girl became sadder and sadder when Tony the pony did not show up again for two more days. Then Albert convinced her to ask her mother about their new friend.
“I left him an apple by the fence and it was gone each morning as I passed by, but Tony won’t come out to see me,” Suzi sadly explained to her mommy. “Doesn’t he like me anymore?”
“Well, sweetheart, I don’t think Tony is eating the apples you leave by the fence,” Suzi’s mommy told her. “I think other animals like possums or raccoons may be eating them.”
“Oh,” Little Suzi replied with a pouty lip, but she felt a little better that Tony might still be her friend.
“Time for your bath and bed,” Suzi’s mommy told her. “I’ll read you a story tonight.”
“And Albert too?” Suzi asked.
“Albert too,” her mommy agreed. “You both have school tomorrow.”
The next day, while Suzi was at school, her mommy visited the tall house next door to the empty lot and barn. She met a kind, grey-haired lady who explained that after her husband died, she sold or gave away their animals—“All but the pony our children rode when they were young.”
“The children’s pony was too old to sell and I just couldn’t bear to part with him,” the kindly lady explained, “but poor Tony died last week and I hired a man to take him away in a cart.”
“Wait,” Suzi’s mother interrupted. “Did you say his name was ‘Tony’?!”
“Why, yes,” the lady continued. “My children named him after a book I read to them when they were small. I think it is still in the bookcase of children’s books I’m saving for my grandchildren.”
“That’s the same name my daughter calls . . . called . . . your pony.”
“Well, dear that’s how we got the name—from the book I read to my little ones. Why don’t you bring Suzi here to visit after school tomorrow and we’ll all read it together. And then we can explain to your daughter what has happened to poor old Tony?”
“Yes, that’s very kind of you. I will.”
The next day, Suzi’s mommy waited until Little Suzi came up the sidewalk on her way home from school.
“Mommy,” Suzi asked. “Did you find Tony the pony?”
“I’m afraid not, dear, but we are having cookies and milk with the lady who lives in the house next to Tony’s barn, and I think she can tell us where Tony is now.”
Inside the house, the sweet lady first gave Suzi and her mommy gingerbread cookies in her cozy sitting room.
Hey, how ‘bout some milk with these cookies? Albert protested.
And while Suzi and her mommy enjoyed their cookies, the sweet lady picked up a thin book with a gold spine and held it up where they could see the cover.
Hey, that’s the same exact book your teacher reads to us! Albert exclaimed in Suzi’s little ear.
“Tony the Pony!” Little Suzi exclaimed.
“Yes, dear,” the lady began. “My children named their pony ‘Tony’ and he lived in the barn until he became too old and blind and sad, so he had to go away to pony heaven to be with all the other animals that children have loved.”
“Like Chico?” Suzi asked her mommy.
“Yes, like Chico,” her mommy answered, then quietly aside to the lady: “Her little dog was run over by a car last year.”
Poor Chico, Albert whispered.
“I can’t bring ‘Tony’ back for you, dear,” the lady continued. “But I have something for you to take home to keep.”
As she spoke, the kind lady gave Little Suzi a photograph in a frame—a photograph of Tony the pony in his younger days, surrounded by excited children feeding him apples and petting his nose and long mane. He was beautiful and happy.
And Little Suzi held the photograph in her lap the whole time while the lady read “Tony the Pony” to her, Albert, and her mommy.
How can a little girl understand
When her new friend disappears
Without saying ‘goodbye’?