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Authors: William Sleator

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BOOK: Oddballs
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Another of Vicky's phone gambits was to call a random number and say, “Please help me. I'm lost. I can't find my mommy.”

“You're lost? Call home.”

“Nobody's home. My mommy went away on a bus and left me here.”

“Call the police.”

“Don't have any more money.”

“But …” If we were lucky, the voice on the phone would start to sound really worried now. “Can you tell me where you are?”

“I'm scared,” Vicky said when this happened, sounding tearful. “It's big and dirty here. There's all these buses. There's all these mean-looking men with whiskers and dirty clothes on, and they smell funny and talk funny and want to give me candy.”

“Are you at the bus station? Downtown? Your mother went away on a bus and left you there?”

“Uh-huh,” Vicky said, whimpering.

“Don't talk to anyone. Stay right there and I'll come and get you,” the person said, then hung up. We rolled on the floor.

When Vicky grew too old to sound babyish on the phone, we began doing real pituh-plays at parties with our friends. Sometimes Vicky made up names for the characters, such as Renaissance de McCarthy or Peristalsis van Weatherbiddington. One play opened with Vicky sitting on a bench with a brown paper bag over her head and me kneeling in front of her. I was just slipping a ring onto her finger. “Yes, darling, I
will
marry you!” Vicky cried, embracing me, the paper bag crinkling against my cheek.

I sat down on the bench beside her. “Now do you think you could, maybe, uh, take the bag off?” I hesitantly suggested. “I'd love to see what you look like, just once, before we get married.”

“No.” She shook her head.

“But why not?”

“I'm too ugly,” she said with a mournful sigh.

“You couldn't be
that
ugly. I'm sure I'll love the way you look, just like I love the way you are.”

“No, you won't,” she insisted. “As soon as you see how ugly I am, you'll hate me. You'll be embarrassed to be seen with me; you'll never get married to me or even stand to look at me again.”

“No. I promise,” I coaxed her. “I love you because you're such a wonderful person on the
inside
. It doesn't matter what you look like.”

“If it doesn't matter what I look like, why do you want to see my face?”

“How can you get married to somebody and never see her face? How can I kiss you? How can I look into your eyes?”

“Well …” She began to soften.


Please
, darling,” I urged her. “Do you think I'm so superficial that I'd change my mind about you because of your mere outward appearance? You know I'm not that kind of trivial person. I swear to God that I'll love and cherish you forever.”

“Well … all right.” Slowly Vicky lifted the bag from her head, her eyes squeezed shut, her shoulders hunched as though anticipating a blow.

“Why … you're
beautiful
!” I cried, placing my hands on her cheeks and gently turning her face toward me.

She smiled in relief. Her eyelids fluttered and lifted. She stared at me.

And then her mouth dropped open in horror. “My
God
! You're so
ugly
!” she screamed, jumping to her feet and backing away from me. “I've never seen anything so revolting in my life! What would everybody think if I got married to
that
?” She pulled the ring from her finger and hurled it at me. “I never want to see you again!” she shouted and ran from the stage.

Other pituh-plays were performed in public places. One summer evening, a group of us went to a fountain in the park, where there was always a crowd of people watching the patterns of colored lights on the falling water. Vicky had with her a small watermelon, carefully wrapped in a blanket and a frilly bonnet, no rind exposed, so that it resembled a very young baby. With the rest of us strategically placed among the crowd, Vicky cradled the baby in her arms, rocking it, murmuring to it about the pretty fountain. Bystanders smiled.

Then Vicky's voice grew louder. “You don't care about the pretty fountain, do you?” she chided the baby. “You don't care about anything but yourself. I'm getting kind of sick of that, you know?”

People were giving her funny looks. “I can't even go to the park without having to drag
you
along!” Vicky angrily accused the baby. “And your father never lifts a finger to take care of you. And all you do is make messes and scream and cry and keep me awake all night. I can't stand it anymore!” she cried, her voice becoming hysterical. “I just can't!”

People moved away from Vicky, murmuring. She stepped toward the fountain. “I can't stand it for one more second, I can't, I can't!” she screamed, lifting the baby over the water.

“No! Stop! Don't do it!” several of us shouted, running toward her.

But we were too late. With a demented shriek, Vicky hurled the baby into the shallow fountain, smashing the watermelon into a pulpy red mush. Then we got out of there, fast, before the stunned bystanders noticed the seeds.

The most elaborate pituh-play of all was Albert's brainchild. He had been reading about happenings, a new avant-garde art form. Happenings were often multimedia events in which the viewers were invited into a strange environment to interact with the artwork or the performers. In the most effective of them, Albert said, unexpected things actually
happened
to the surprised audience.

Vicky and I and many of our friends now took piano lessons from Alex Minkoff, one of the most highly regarded piano teachers in the city, whose studio was in our neighborhood. Mr. Minkoff, by his example, encouraged his students to rock back and forth while performing at recitals. He was rotund, and there was a rumor that he had once actually fallen off the piano stool in the middle of a concert.

It was Albert's idea that the happening should take the form of a recital of some of Mr. Minkoff's pupils, to which an unsuspecting audience of adults and peers would be invited. Mr. Minkoff, who had a great sense of humor, agreed enthusiastically to Albert's plan. The only restriction he imposed was to ask us not to invite any members of the professional musical community, which was fine with us—we weren't interested in shocking them. Four students were willing to perform pieces they had been working on with Mr. Minkoff. We mimeographed invitations and mailed them to several dozen people. Then we practiced—and made other detailed preparations, in and around Mr. Minkoff's studio.

On the day of the concert, one of the performers was too sick to play. We had no choice but to go ahead without him.

The audience arrived at what appeared to be a perfectly normal concert. Mr. Minkoff often did have recitals in his studio, and the chairs were set up facing the large grand piano just as usual. The friends, parents, other adults, and the few teachers in the audience were all nicely dressed and chatted quietly as they looked over their programs before the show.

Albert performed first, a sad little Chopin étude. The music sounded more poignant than usual tonight, since the piano was noticeably out of tune.

Next, a boy named Richard played a Beethoven sonata. The famous second movement was quiet and pensive. At the most moving and beautiful moment in the piece, Richard, in his best Minkoff style, was bent over the keyboard, hardly breathing, delicately articulating the sour notes.

The apartment buzzer bleated. People jerked in their seats, then turned to frown at the door. Vera Greenberg, as planned, clicked into the room on her four-inch heels and headed for a seat near the front, right in the middle of a long row of people. “I beg your pardon,” she kept repeating loudly as she squeezed past them, cracking her gum.

There was a lot of exasperated conversation during the interval before the next piece. People muttered irritably and looked over their shoulders at Vera and then at Mr. Minkoff.

I performed a Brahms intermezzo. I played on as though nothing were the matter when the grinding noises gradually began to emanate from the front of the room. (We had hidden the tape recorder behind a closed, floor-to-ceiling window curtain near the piano.) Soon the inexplicable wavering groans from the hidden tape recorder were clearly audible to everyone. Many people in the audience exchanged puzzled looks. I finished to scattered, tentative applause.

And then Vicky unexpectedly stood up. We were about to witness the first public performance of
Vanya, the Insane Pianist
.

Vicky sedately approached the piano, bowed demurely, and began to play a Chopin prelude. At first, her demeanor was very controlled. She sat bolt upright, her expression serious and withdrawn, her body motionless except for her fingers, tinkling daintily on the keys.

But as the music grew more turbulent, her torso began to sway. Her head dipped toward the keyboard, then lifted; her back arched, her chin raised, her eyes closed. She tossed her head, her long hair swinging more and more wildly, falling over her eyes. She began to moan. The music increased in volume. Now she was making glaring mistakes. The audience, suddenly dead quiet, watched Vicky in horrified astonishment. Her groans became wails; she convulsed on the bench, her open hands crashing with random violence on the keyboard. Finally she leapt to her feet in a disheveled frenzy and ran shrieking from the studio.

There was a long moment of utter, stunned silence. Then a confused, disorderly babble broke out. By now, most of the audience had finally realized that the whole thing was a joke. It was a telling test of character to see which people appreciated the humor of it (Mom and Dad were among the few who did) and which ones were highly offended.

For some reason, we stopped doing pituh-plays soon after this, moving on to more harmless pursuits, such as crashing suburban swimming pools late at night. Still, sometimes Vicky can be persuaded, even now, to do
Vanya, the Insane Pianist
, to the great amusement of her own children.

Dad's Cool

Would you like me to show you a dead body sometime?” Dad asked Vicky once when she was six. Vicky clasped her hands, breathing hard. “More than anything else in the
world
!” she cried.

Dad actually didn't show Vicky a whole dead body until years later, but we saw many other delightful things at his lab. The dreary old building where he worked at the university medical school was one of our favorite places. The large, ancient elevator had no walls, only a wire cage through which you could see the dusty cables creaking past as you rode up into the gloom. Invariably Dad scared us by jumping up and down in the elevator; the contraption would rattle and shake alarmingly. He also liked to scare us in the laboratory cold room, a freezer the size of a small kitchen, where chemicals and dry ice and often interesting portions of dead animals were kept. While we were examining them, Dad would suddenly step outside and slam the heavy metal door, which could not be opened from the inside. We never knew how long he'd leave us locked up in there, shivering happily.

One of the other scientists on the same floor kept several large boa constrictors in cages in his lab. It was a treat for us to watch the snake stretch its jaws at an impossible angle to swallow a whole egg—and then day by day observe the slow progress of the egg down through the snake's sleeping body.

Even more wonderful was to be there when live mice were put into the cage. We would watch enthralled as the three mice sat on a dead tree limb, seemingly unaware of the snake's silent, gradual approach. Then, so quickly we could barely see it happening, one of the mice would be wrapped in the boa's skillful, deadly embrace. The jaws would gape and the mouse would be gone. The remaining mice never seemed to be troubled by this; they would just go on sitting there on the limb as though nothing were the matter. Their apparent dopey placidity only increased our excitement as the boa's graceful upper body moved languidly toward them again. Soon the snake's body had mouse-sized bulges in three places.

We never visited Dad's lab without begging him to breathe helium. He usually obliged, inhaling the gas from a large metal cylinder. Helium has a peculiar effect on the vocal cords, making them vibrate more quickly than they do in an atmosphere of oxygen. When Dad started to speak after inhaling the gas, he sounded exactly like Donald Duck, and our delighted shrieks of laughter would echo down the long, dim corridor.

Once at Dad's lab, Danny, who was prodigiously mechanical but had problems learning to read, deciphered the word
pull
on a red object on the wall and followed this instruction, setting off the fire alarm. Dad handled the resulting uproar with unruffled efficiency. He was not the least bit angry; more than anything else, he was gratified by this indication that Danny might turn out to be literate, after all.

Dad always remained amazingly calm and logical in situations that would drive any other parent (even Mom) into a frenzy. “Don't get your shirt in a knot,” he admonished Mom when she got upset about something he considered to be trivial. He never lost his cool—or at least almost never.

One summer afternoon when I was thirteen, my friend Angela and I arrived at the lab with a bag of balloons. We went to the sixth floor of the new addition (Dad was working in the old building), where there was a water fountain next to a balcony directly above the main entrance. We filled a balloon with water, leaned over the balcony, and waited until someone was just walking into the building. Then we let the balloon fall. It wasn't a direct hit, but close enough so that the person leapt aside and dropped all his books and papers.

We did this again and again, never actually dousing anybody, but still laughing hysterically at the startled—and furious—reactions we produced. It was at least half an hour before Dad got to us. He didn't raise his voice; he just firmly told us to stop and made us mop up the muddy footprints on the floor. His red face was the only sign of emotion he displayed, and that was involuntary.

BOOK: Oddballs
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