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Authors: William Sleator

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BOOK: Oddballs
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It
was
a little disconcerting that Mom had to stop reading at frequent intervals because she was laughing so hard. Unlike the rest of us, she seemed to consider our list a source of hilarity, rather than a cause for righteous indignation. “
This
line will have them rolling in the aisles,” she said, more than once.

Mom also made it clear that she would not say a word about the play to any of the other parents. Her statement had credibility because everyone knew she had not mentioned the list to the adult Greenbergs, as any other parent would have done. Anyway, it was obvious that Mom did not take the list very seriously. She seemed to think it was mostly invention or exaggeration—even the parts about her, oddly enough, things that Vicky and I knew she had done. But because of her relaxed attitude, all the kids soon began loosening up. It helped that our house was a popular hangout, a familiar place where kids were already comfortable, mainly because Mom was so easygoing and unconcerned about things like hygiene, foul language, and personal appearance—matters other parents were so unreasonably fussy about.

Again, Vera took notes. Before the session was over, we had so much great material that we knew already we had a show. We decided on a date for the performance, a Saturday in January, at this first meeting.

We met once a week. A series of scenes began to develop. We didn't write out the dialogue word for word; we would set up a situation and then let the actors improvise within it. Vera and Albert, being the oldest and most mature in appearance, took on with relish the villainous roles of the parents. The others, except for me, mostly played the heroic children. I was the pianist—this was turning out to be a musical production—and I represented the Spirit of Childhood. I was something akin to a Greek chorus, reflecting in my music and demeanor the emotional states of the protagonists. I was also the stagehand, turning the lights on and off to indicate scene changes.

By now, all the kids knew that Mom had kept her promise—if she'd said one thing about the contents of the play to their parents, they would have heard about it. It seemed quite natural that Mom became the director; everyone had to admit that she was essential to the production. She participated with such vitality and spirit, stimulating enthusiasm in the cast, and her lyrics were so inventive and trenchant.

It was Mom who came up with the name of our theatrical group, The Parkview Traumatic Club—Parkview was the name of our suburb—and also the title for the production itself. The courageous and ultimately doomed Hungarian Freedom Fighters were big news at the time, and so calling our show
The Freedom Fighters of Parkview
gave it significance.

The stage was the front hall of our house. The piano was there, and the front hall had direct access to the kitchen, which functioned as the dressing room. The hall was also the only room in the house that had an overhead light fixture and could be darkened or illuminated by the flick of a single switch. The audience—teenage friends of the actors, parents of the cast, and other adults whose children were not in the show—sat on rows of chairs in the living room.

My role gave me more opportunity than the others to observe the reactions of the audience.

The play began with Vicky seated at the breakfast table, neatly dressed in a skirt and blouse, her hair impeccably groomed (for the first and last time in years). A huge stack of barely thawed pancakes towered on a plate in front of her, and next to it sat a gallon container of milk with a straw protruding from the top. She was trying to eat her way through this gargantuan meal.

Vera, as her mother, lounged at the table in curlers and a dirty bathrobe, smoking and nibbling candy. “Another slow day, I see,” she said, looking at the height of the pancake pile. “Marylou Pinsky always cleans her plate right away. But
you
force me to sit here and remind you that you're not getting up from this table until you finish your breakfast down to the last drop and crumb.”

“Mother, I can see the school bus coming,” the daughter nervously whispered—she had choked down only half the pancakes. “If I miss it, I'll get in trouble at school for being late again.”

“Excuses, excuses.” The mother studied a piece of candy for awhile. “And don't bother asking
me
to write you a note for being late. You have to learn to take responsibility for your actions.”

At the end of the scene, the daughter waddled from the table, her stomach grotesquely distended. (The pillow stuffed into her blouse had been invisible to the audience while she was seated.) I switched off the ceiling light with a mournful expression. There was a lot of applause. The set change took several minutes, but the audience was still laughing when we had finished. I glanced curiously at the Greenberg parents. Mrs. Greenberg seemed a little self-conscious.

In every scene, the children were angelic, the adults inhumanly cruel. As Mom had predicted, the audience loved it. But despite the continued enthusiastic applause after each episode, I was a little nervous about the next-to-last scene, an evening at home. This scene was almost entirely based on material from the Greenberg kids—material that Mom assumed was grossly exaggerated, if not imaginary.

The two children, Nick and Vicky, sat at the table doing their homework. They were neatly dressed and perfectly groomed.

The mother, still in curlers and bathrobe, sprawled on the couch, watching TV and chain-smoking, picking sullenly at candy between cigarettes. The father, in a dirty undershirt, sat at the other end of the couch, swilling down beer. The parents had a bitter conversation about how inferior their children were to the brilliant, good-looking, and well-behaved children of their friends. The mother got on the phone and complained about her children to several of her friends, while the father read a cheap paperback novel with a lurid cover.

Suddenly the father exploded—he had noticed his daughter was reading a book of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Filthy trash!” he shouted, as he tore the book in half and threw it to the floor.

And then he peered more closely at the daughter for a long, tense moment. “Oh, my God,” he said in a choked voice. “Is it possible? And yet … I see it.”

“See what, Father?” the daughter said, obviously afraid of what was coming next.

He closed his eyes and swallowed deeply, as though speech were almost beyond him. “A
pimple
!” he breathed.

Mrs. Greenberg laughed so loudly and so long at this point that the action had to be delayed. This time, I noticed, it was Mr. Greenberg who seemed a little embarrassed.

“No, Father, please. You must be mistaken,” the daughter protested, turning her head away from him in an automatic response of self-protection. “I checked my face really carefully, right after I washed the dishes and mopped the floor. There was nothing, I promise.”

“You expect me to ignore the evidence of my own eyes?” cried the father, whipping a magnifying glass from his pocket. “And don't cringe!” he ordered her. He lifted her head roughly by the chin, bent over, and scrutinized her face through the powerful magnifying lens as she tried not to squirm. “There it is, just as I thought.” He jabbed her cheek with one finger. “Right there, in the upper left quadrant. What have I told you about proper hygiene? Upstairs, to the bathroom,” he pronounced in righteous tones. “Do not come out until you've spent the next hour with your pimple soap and pimple pads and pimple creams and pimple powder—and all your other pimple crap!”

The daughter hid her head in her hands and ran from the room.

I staggered over to turn off the light, my face a mask of pain. This time the laughter went on for so long that I had to stand there, waiting for it to die away, before I could switch on the light. But when I did, I stood up straight again, radiating health, smiling benignly. Things had begun to change.

It was a revolutionary cell, where the children were hard at work cleaning and loading guns, moving sandbags (represented by bed pillows), and checking and rechecking lists. Devoted comrades, they shared equally in the work, hurrying to help one another whenever it was necessary.

Vicky was the revolutionary leader, in a quasi-military beret and oversized boots. Though her character had suffered more at the hands of parents than any of the others, she was also the most temperate, cautioning her comrades to base their cause on empathy and reason rather than crude emotion. “We can't allow ourselves to sink to their level,” she urged the other freedom fighters. “Remember to shoot into the air. Our object is not to kill or maim, but to achieve our rightful independence. The weapons are just a means of gaining control. Only through nonviolence can true justice prevail.”

“Even though they have perpetrated such gross abuses of human rights?” someone objected.

“Remember, they too must once have been human beings like ourselves, hard as it is to believe,” Vicky said gently. “Our goal is not to repeat their mistakes, but to guide them by our own example. Only through education will they learn the error of their ways.”

“But exactly what will we do with them once we
are
in power?” the others wanted to know.

“Nursing homes, of course,” Vicky said.

Again, Vicky had to wait for the audience to stop laughing. Finally she had to shout to be heard. “The time is at hand!” she announced. “To your battle stations. Soon victory will be ours! Remember, we have nothing to lose but our chains.”

The freedom fighters briefly clasped hands. Then they separated and moved to crouch in various positions about the stage. They waited, their eyes all on Vicky. She checked and rechecked her watch.

At last she lifted her arm in preparation to give the signal to begin their heroic struggle for liberation.

At that moment, the mother rushed on. “So there you are!” she cried shrilly. “You're late for supper again! You'll pay for this. And don't snivel!” She grabbed Vicky by the ear and pulled her off the stage, toppling the revolution before it had even begun.

I barely managed to crawl from the piano to turn off the light, ending the show.

While we were taking our bows, Nick darted unexpectedly into the kitchen and pulled a protesting Mom, who had helped with the costume changes during the show, onto the stage. Vera produced a large bouquet of roses.

“We would all like to express our heartfelt thanks to Dr. Esther Kaplan Sleator,” Vera said, smiling warmly at Mom as she presented her with the flowers. “Without her inspiration and tireless effort, none of this would have been possible.” (It was, Mom told us later, exactly the kind of thoughtful gesture she would expect the Greenberg kids to come up with.)

The audience applauded appreciatively after Vera's little speech. The Greenberg parents clapped just as much as the others—though I also noticed that they were whispering together, their eyes on Mom.

We had dinner at the Greenbergs' house a few weeks later. Mrs. Greenberg smoked and described how Vera's devoted boyfriend picked her up every morning in a huge Cadillac that was a particularly hideous shade of pink. “The color makes you want to vomit!” exclaimed Vera's mother, the famous scholar, laughing as she put out her cigarette in a full ashtray.

She also talked about how Nick, who was on the swim team, always made sure to do his body-building exercises immediately before appearing in public in his swimsuit. Nick quickly left the room, ostensibly to get his father another beer. He had a very noticeable patch of some kind of cream on his forehead, and his skin looked a bit raw.

Mom was unusually quiet at the Greenbergs' that night, as though puzzled about something. She was, I seem to remember, almost silent as we drove home. For the first time in my memory, she did not go on and on about how great the Greenberg kids were.

But it only lasted that night. The next day she was back to normal again.

The Hypnotist

When Danny was in grade school, his best friend was a boy named Jack. They seemed to be total opposites.

Danny was a rapid-fire talker, full of nervous energy, always doing something with his hands. Jack was dreamy and vague. Whenever Mom picked him up at his house, she always had to wait interminably for him to make his way down the front walk to the car. “Good old Jack, slower than molasses in January,” Mom would say, resignedly turning off the ignition.

It took Jack so long to answer a question that you wondered if he'd even heard it. And when he finally did respond in his flat, toneless voice, there were such prolonged gaps between words, even between syllables, that he might have been speaking in a foreign language. He spent a lot of time staring vacantly into space.

But he wasn't stupid. It was Jack who noticed the advertisement in the back pages of a comic book:
Teach yourself hypnosis. Complete course in one simple, easy-to-read pamphlet. Only twenty-five cents. Money-back guarantee. Enclose self-addressed stamped envelope with each order
. It was Jack who addressed and mailed the envelope. It was Jack who read the pamphlet from cover to cover, learning the instructions.

And it was Jack who tested it out—on Tycho.

Geneva, the cleaning woman, was busy downstairs. Mom and Dad were at work, I was at my summer job, and Vicky was somewhere with friends. Jack's mother had dropped him off at our house after lunch; Mom would take him home when she got back from work.

Tycho was eight, two years younger than Danny and Jack, and he felt honored to be included by the older boys in one of their activities. More important, he knew that Danny would not leave him alone until he agreed to whatever Danny wanted. And Danny, of course, relished the idea of Tycho being the guinea pig.

Jack gently ushered Tycho into Danny's room. It was a rare privilege for Tycho to be allowed into this room at all. Danny usually kept him out, for fear that he might accidentally damage one of Danny's projects, such as the delicate and complicated model airplane Danny had been working on for weeks and had just completed that morning.

BOOK: Oddballs
11.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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