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Authors: William Sleator

Oddballs

BOOK: Oddballs
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Oddballs

William Sleator

To my family: Please forgive me!

Games

The best presents our parents ever gave to my sister, Vicky, and me were our little brothers.

I was nine and Vicky was seven and a half when Danny was born. We had been looking forward impatiently to his arrival, especially Vicky, who loved playing with dolls. She had always enjoyed making the dolls fight with each other; when the dolls wore out, she ripped off their arms and legs. Now she is a nurse.

We tried to be more careful with Danny. But it didn't take us long to discover that a human baby with a brain was a lot more fun to play with than a stupid doll.

Before Danny came along, Vicky and I had invented a wonderful game to play on car trips. We pretended we were BMs. We'd wrap ourselves up in an old brown blanket in the back of the station wagon and tell each other our life stories as excrement.

This game had begun on a trip to Canada in 1952, when everybody was celebrating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. Like most little girls, Vicky idolized the young queen. And so, in the BM game, she usually began her existence as an Oreo cookie or a Hostess cupcake, eaten by Queen Elizabeth at a royal banquet in Buckingham Palace. Vicky always claimed to remember exactly what it had been like in our mother's womb, and she was equally vivid about her metamorphosis from cupcake to BM inside the queen's glamorous intestinal tract. Vicky also described in detail the marble palace bathroom, bigger than our living room at home, and said that being flushed down the queen's toilet was
utterly
more fun than riding the Tilt-a-Whirl.

My adventures were less ritzy. I had been sick from overindulgence two times in my life: Once I had eaten several pints of freshly picked blackberries at our grandmother's house; another time I had devoured too much tzimmes, a Jewish meat-and-carrot stew that was a specialty of our aunt Miriam. My stories tended to begin with these two items, eaten at the same time, making me a purple-and-orange-striped BM. “That's not fair!” Vicky would scream. “BMs aren't striped!” And I would point out that just because
she
had never seen a striped one didn't mean they didn't exist.

But once Danny was born, and Vicky and I were often required to change his diapers, the subject of BMs lost a lot of its charm. We needed a new way to amuse ourselves in the car. And there was Danny. The game we came up with we called Babaloo Bum.

It started on a trip out West when Danny was about six months old. We were in the back of the station wagon with Danny and all the boxes and suitcases, traveling on a bumpy road. Danny loved to be bounced and rocked, which got tiring after awhile. It occurred to us to let the car do this for us. We put him on top of a suitcase. His shifting weight, combined with the bouncing of the car, made the suitcase rock back and forth. But we didn't try to steady it. Danny was enjoying himself; he had no idea that anything might go wrong. It was a total surprise to him when the suitcase tipped over and slammed him onto the floor. He howled.

Chuckling, we set the suitcase on end to make it a little more unstable, balanced a smaller suitcase on top of it, and perched Danny on that. Danny immediately stopped crying and began to smile adorably, comforted by being rocked. The suitcases toppled; Danny hit the floor again and wailed. We shrieked with laughter. Mom and Dad, knowing we would
never
hurt Danny, were amused by our merriment.

The next time we set him up there, we chanted “Babaloo Bum! Babaloo Bum!” He clapped his hands and beamed at us, still oblivious to his danger. Soon our stomachs were sore from laughing. Amazingly, Danny didn't catch on for a long time, and the game entertained us for most of the trip. In fact, it's the only thing I remember about it.

When Danny was about fifteen months old, Mom got pregnant again. We tried to explain to him what was going to happen. We would show him a picture of a baby in a magazine and say, “See this cute, adorable baby, Danny? Aren't we lucky because soon we're going to have a cute, adorable baby in our family, too.” We knew he understood when he tore the picture out of the magazine, flung it to the floor, and screamed, “No baby!”

The new baby was
not
as cute as Danny. His head was too big; he looked bald because his hair was so blond; he had a disproportionately large mouth and ears that stuck out Whenever Aunt Ronnie saw him, she would remark, with a self-satisfied cackle, “He looks just like Uncle Arnold.” Uncle Arnold was a mental incompetent who had spent most of his life in institutions.

But Aunt Ronnie's opinion was not a serious problem for the baby. Danny was. From Danny's point of view, the baby was a usurper who had taken too much attention away from him. The baby, who had a sweet and gentle nature, adored his older brother. Danny accepted this affection on good days, helping him build things with blocks and other toys. On bad days, he slapped him around.

Then there was the problem of the new baby's name. As our parents had decided not to have any more kids, this was their last opportunity to name a human being, and they wanted to make a truly creative statement. They came up with lots of interesting names—so many that they couldn't decide which one they preferred. There were also several relatives they felt it would be nice to commemorate by naming this kid after them, but how could they name him after one and not the others?

So they didn't name him anything. Our father referred to him as “that other kid.” Vicky and I called him the new baby, which soon evolved into “Newby.” And for the first years of his life, while our parents continued to put off the decision, Newby was his name.

When Newby was about two, even Dad, who tended to procrastinate, realized they had to do something about his name. But they still couldn't decide. The only solution was to name him
everything
. And so in the end, the name they put on his birth certificate was Tycho Barney George Clement Newby Sleator.

Now that his official, legal first name was Tycho, Mom and Dad decreed that we should all start calling him that. And so Newby became Tycho. It wasn't easy to remember at first, but Vicky and I liked the novelty of this game and persisted until it became natural to us. The only person in the family who did not enjoy the situation was, of course, Newby, who refused to answer to Tycho for weeks, pouting and looking the other way whenever we said it. We thought this response was very funny.

Having an often abusive older brother, and the fact that everybody in the family started calling him by a completely different name when he was two, were probably the seeds that resulted in Tycho's first great act of independence: He refused to be toilet trained. It was a brilliantly simple and effective method of asserting his control; in spite of being the youngest, he was able to put us all at his mercy. His third birthday came and went, and then his fourth. He was still wearing diapers.

Our parents didn't worry about this. But Vicky and I had to change him a lot. “Tycho, will you
please
do it on the toilet,” we would beg him as we cleaned him in the bathtub.

“When I've five,” he would obstinately insist.

“Big boys don't do this, Tycho, only disgusting little
babies
,” I told him.

“No one will want to play with you if you have smelly BMs in your pants,” Vicky added, dumping bubble bath into the tub. “The other kids will hate you and make fun of you.”

“Four-year-olds who go in their pants get a horrible disease and
die
, Tycho; it says so in Mom's medical books.”

“Please just do it on the toilet, and we'll give you all the candy you can eat for the rest of your
life
.”

He remained steadfast, unyielding, true to his principles. “When I've five” was his constant refrain.

As Tycho's fifth birthday approached, our relief was tinged with uncertainty. It would be wonderful if he kept his promise, but what if he didn't? Would he be able to go to school? Would he ever have a girl friend? Would we spend the rest of our lives changing him?

On his fifth birthday, Tycho very calmly and skillfully went on the toilet, as though he'd always done it that way. He's been using the toilet ever since.

Without Tycho's messes to clean up, car trips became a lot pleasanter. By this time, Danny and Tycho were both too old for Babaloo Bum, so we made up more sophisticated games to play with them in the car. In one game, Vicky and I would ask Danny and Tycho to choose which one of us they liked better. They greeted this question with groans, but they were trapped in the car and couldn't get away from us. “If you choose me, I'll give you my dessert tonight—and if you choose Billy, I'll throw you out the window,” Vicky would coolly inform Tycho. At first he believed her and would burst into tears. But this game didn't last very long. The marvelous rewards and terrible retribution each of us promised for being chosen or not were never carried out, and Danny and Tycho grew bored. Since the game no longer had an emotional effect on them, it had lost its appeal.

The best car game was called What Would Be Worse? At first it was pretty easy; we would merely ask them to choose between two fates. Even Tycho had no problem coming up with the answer to “Would you rather inherit a huge mansion and be insanely rich for the rest of your life or die without any money at all in a sewer among rats?”

But questions like that weren't much of a challenge, so we quickly began making them more difficult. “What would be worse?” we asked. “To be impaled on a bed of nails and take three days to die or to have all your arms and legs cut off and live?” Or “What would be worse? To spend the rest of your life in jail for a crime you didn't commit or for everyone else in the world to die except you?” Danny and Tycho would become quite bothered by these questions, brooding and sighing gloomily over them for miles, while Vicky and I tried to suppress our chuckles.

BOOK: Oddballs
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