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Authors: William Sleator

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BOOK: Oddballs
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“For Matilda … Ah, yes, fame and glamour lie in store for this fortunate creature,” intoned the tape. “She will marry an illiterate and gluttonous multimillionaire, and the two of them will spend the rest of their lives watching soap operas on TV and devouring candy. By the age of thirty, she will be as grotesquely obese as her husband.”

“Perfect!” Matilda crowed, laughing just as hard as the others.

“For poor Dave, the future is not so bright,” predicted the voice. “His sheer lack of talent will make him a failure at all ‘serious' musical pursuits. He will become a poorly paid salesman at a flea-bitten record store catering to the tastes of moronic adolescents. He will spend his days listening to the raucous blare of popular idols and at an early age will grow deafened by the sounds and end his life in poverty.”

Dave wasn't so thrilled by this—he and I were intensely competitive. He grunted and muttered, “Thanks a lot, Bill.” Everyone else was chuckling, though.

Bart and Nicole—two of the most brilliant kids in the school—came last; their prediction created the most satisfying reaction of all. “Ah, for these two the future is so hideous that it pains even me to utter it,” droned the voice. “For them, only thankless, unceasing toil and drudgery lie in store. Due to their extreme mental incompetence, their career opportunities will be limited indeed. They will spend the rest of their lives cleaning the toilets at Westgate Junior High.…”

By this point, not only Bart but almost all the others were happily hooting and guffawing. I glanced over at Nicole. Of course, she wasn't insulted by her future, as Dave had been. No one could take this particular prediction seriously. But there was something about Nicole's smile that indicated cleaning toilets was exactly the kind of thing she had known I would come up with for her all along.

It would be cute if I could now surprise the reader by saying that these predictions unexpectedly came true. But of course, they were intended to be farcical and ironic, the most highly unlikely futures I could come up with for everyone. Naturally, Matilda became an erudite professor and an author, not an obese TV addict. Bart is a successful scientist, not a cleaner of toilets. And though Dave dropped in and out of college for awhile and had various jobs, he never worked in a record store and is now seriously studying musical composition.

Nicole spent part of her high school senior year as a foreign exchange student in Italy. Previously an atheist, like many of my friends, in Italy she had a deep religious experience, a calling. She lost a lot of weight. And after college, to Matilda's horror, Nicole entered an order of nuns.

It is not a teaching order, as one would have expected of brilliant Nicole, but a more radical group. Though not missionaries, the sisters in her order live with the poor, in the same housing conditions, some in the bleakest projects in the United States, others in the most poverty-stricken developing countries. They support themselves by doing the same kind of menial work as the people they live with.…

Nicole, the smartest person I ever knew, has spent much of her life working in factories, operating steam-pressing machines in non–air-conditioned industrial laundries in the tropics, giving bed baths in inner-city hospitals—and cleaning toilets.

Of all my childhood friends, she is the happiest and the most genuinely satisfied with her life.

The Pitiful Encounter

As teenagers, Vicky and I talked a lot about hating people. At the dinner table, we would go on and on about all the popular kids we hated at high school. Dad, who has a very logical mind, sometimes cautioned us about this. “Don't waste your hate on them,” he would say. “Save it up for important people, like the president.” We responded by quoting the famous line from
: “Loathing is endless. Hate is a bottomless cup; I pour and pour.”

What Dad did not understand was that hate was not exactly what we were talking about. We had something a little different in mind; that was why Vicky and her two best friends, Avis and Eleanor, had coined their special term,
. There was no word in the English language that specified all the particular characteristics that made someone pituh. Though it was pronounced something like the first two syllables of
, the term certainly did not mean that the person was pitiful or pathetic in the sense of being an outcast. On the contrary, most of the people our group considered to be pituh were members of the popular clique: the girls with perfectly groomed beehive hairdos who giggled and flirted and were always fixing their makeup; the arrogant guys they flirted with, athletic types who rarely opened a book and who considered me a nonentity because I was lousy at sports. It was these slaves to peer pressure whom we considered the most pituh of all—somehow they did not seem to understand that we, as oddballs and deliberate nonconformists, were far superior to them in every way.

We were the first hippies at our high school. We wore ancient sandals, carried our books in cloth sacks, and let our hair grow long and untamed. Vicky and Avis were the most daring. They pried discarded gum out of the school drinking fountains and casually popped it into their mouths to chew—making sure, of course, that pituh-people were observing them. The resulting expressions of bafflement and awed disgust were a joy to behold. Vicky and Avis insisted they weren't just doing this for effect. They claimed that ABC gum (“Already Been Chewed”) had a far more subtle depth of character than the unripened fresh stuff.

The pituh-people at school were not the only ones we took pleasure in bewildering. There was also the general public. Avis had spent a year in England when her father was on sabbatical there and had returned with the ability to speak, when she chose, in a gratingly intense Cockney accent. “‘Ave yuh gawt inny boiros?” she demanded of drugstore clerks, who had no idea she was asking for a ball-point pen. But the best use of her accent was a game we called The Pitiful Encounter, which the three girls played frequently on streetcars.

In order to explain The Pitiful Encounter, it is necessary to point out that Avis was not as attractive as the other two. She was not unpretty, but she was overweight, with a fleshy face and mousy hair. Physically lazy, she carried herself with a slump. Eleanor, in contrast, was tall, thin, delicately featured. There was an elfin quality about her. And Vicky was a real beauty, earthier than Eleanor, with huge blue eyes, prominent dimples, and thick strawberry blonde hair. Her looks were so stunning that, had she not consciously chosen otherwise, she could have been a member of the popular pituh-group at school.

On the day The Pitiful Encounter was born, the four of us had gone shopping downtown on a Saturday and were waiting for the streetcar home. Vicky and Eleanor and I—for some reason I now forget—looked almost like normal people, in clothes that actually matched, our hair neatly groomed. Vicky and Eleanor were even wearing makeup, in which they would never have been caught dead at school. Avis was dressed in one of her typical outfits—a discarded mud-brown sweater of her father's, moth-eaten and far too big, which emphasized her plumpness. It looked particularly hideous with an olive green skirt she had found at a thrift store, frayed at the hem and unfashionably long, which she wore with thick black knee socks. As usual, her hair was a mess, falling into her eyes.

Vicky and Eleanor and I boarded the streetcar first and took a long seat together. The only other empty seat was two rows ahead of us. Avis, who was not timid, asked the icily prim-looking woman sitting in a single seat directly across the aisle from us if she would mind moving so that Avis could sit with her friends. The woman sighed irritably but began gathering her parcels together.

And then Vicky, aware of how outrageously dowdy and bedraggled Avis looked in contrast to us, was struck by sudden inspiration. “Don't bother moving,” she told the woman. “We don't want to sit anywhere near

The woman frowned, rolled her eyes, and sank back into her seat, shaking her head.

Avis was momentarily nonplussed. Then, responding to Vicky's subtle but significant nod, she caught on. “But I thought we might, yer know, 'ave a little chat,” she said to us with a sad, hopeful smile, laying on her Cockney accent.

“Go away!” Vicky said, loudly enough for the other passengers to hear. “You can't sit with us!”

“But I jist want t'be yer friend,” Avis faltered.

The woman Avis had asked to move was looking back and forth between them. The other passengers had fallen silent, listening. I was a little embarrassed, but not Vicky. “Well, you
be our friend! You talk funny. We don't like you!” Vicky savagely retorted.

“Just leave us alone,” Eleanor added, finally getting the idea.

Avis cringed away and took the seat two rows ahead.

“Can you believe she actually thought we would let her
with us?” Vicky asked us, bristling with indignation, her voice clearly audible throughout the car.

Avis sank lower in her seat, staring straight ahead, wiping her eyes.

The unfriendly woman who Avis had asked to move got up and walked over to her. “Just ignore those nasty kids,” she said gently. “You're a better person than they are. Remember that.”

Avis struggled to suppress her giggles, to press her lips together and maintain her miserable demeanor in front of the now kindly woman and the other outraged passengers. Only when we got off the streetcar could she let it out, explosively, as the girls clung to each other, bent over in mirth.

That was the only time I played The Pitiful Encounter; somehow, the reactions of the other passengers made me too self-conscious to get a kick out of it. But the three girls loved it. The game worked even better the next time they played it: An old man gave Avis a dollar and on his way out told Vicky and Eleanor they should be ashamed of themselves. Another time, a woman with a little girl comforted Avis and told her child she hoped she would
grow up to be like those horrible girls. Such responses were irresistibly entertaining to Vicky and her two friends. They rode the streetcar now with no destination in mind, continuing to play The Pitiful Encounter. They practiced and honed it—though it often required an almost superhuman effort on Avis's part not to ruin it all by bursting into laughter in front of some compassionate stranger.

But on one memorable occasion, The Pitiful Encounter had unexpected consequences, as they described to me in detail.

Avis was sitting by herself in a double seat, across the aisle and one row behind Vicky and Eleanor. The other passengers didn't seem to be noticing them that day—no kindly person stepped forward at the usual moment. Perhaps their role-playing had grown routine after so many performances. To get things moving, Vicky and Eleanor had no choice but to become more brutal, adding special twists to their usual insults.

“You'd think she'd at least go on a diet,” Vicky said. “And all those hideously disgusting pimples! You think she ever washes her face?”

“She doesn't take too many baths or brush her teeth too often,
for sure,” Eleanor said, wrinkling her nose and fanning the air in front of her.

“And the way she talks is so
!” Vicky said vehemently. “She should learn that
don't talk that way in America.”

“Can't 'elp the wy I tawk,” Avis mumbled, her lip quivering.

Vicky rolled her eyes in a brilliant imitation of pituh-behavior. “How can somebody so pathetic even stand to
?” she asked, shaking her head in wonder.

“You have a very charming accent. Where do you come from?” said a male voice.

Vicky and Eleanor spun around. Because of the lack of response, they were farther along the streetcar line than usual now, where the tracks passed the university. None of them had noticed the three boys who had gotten on at the university stop. But now the boys were standing in the aisle, and one of them had his hand on the back of Avis's seat.

Avis hesitated. Nothing like this had ever happened before. All three of the boys were extremely good-looking and not the least bit pituh—especially the one leaning over her with his hand on the back of her seat.

“Um, I'm from, uh, London, England,” Avis finally said.

“That's very interesting. Do you mind if we join you?”

“Er, uh, no,” Avis said, fighting the impulse to glance over at Vicky and Eleanor.

The especially good-looking boy slid in beside her; the other two took the seat behind. Vicky nudged Eleanor, who was openly staring at them. Eleanor quickly turned back; the two of them did their best to look straight ahead and pretend indifference—to listen to, and not watch, what was happening to Avis.

“You must be pretty sophisticated, coming from a cosmopolitan city like London,” the boy was saying. “How long have you been here?”

“Since, uh, the beginning of term,” Avis improvised.

“Funny we haven't noticed you around campus before,” another of the boys said.

“Oh, I ain't at university yet,” Avis said in her richest Cockney, finally beginning to relax and enjoy herself. “I'm in 'igh school.”

“You seem much more mature than that,” the third boy said. “Probably because you've traveled so much.”

Vicky and Eleanor glanced at each other, not smiling. This was getting a little tough to take—these were college boys!

“You must find the attitudes around here pretty provincial,” the boy beside Avis said. “Especially among high school students. Those little kids can be pretty narrow-minded—and too ignorant to know it.”

“You should really be hanging out with people more on your own level,” another boy said.

“Vicky, what are we going to do?” Eleanor whispered.

“I don't
!” Vicky muttered grimly.

“Listen, uh … What's your name?” the boy beside Avis said.

BOOK: Oddballs
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