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Authors: William Sleator

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BOOK: Oddballs
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“Avis.”

“Hi. I'm Art, and this is Bob and Gary. I think Bob's right; you're wasting your time with those high school children.” He looked up at his friends. “What do you think? About Friday night, I mean.”

“Great idea,” Bob said.

“Friday night?” Avis asked, unable to control her curiosity.

“We're having a party on Friday night,” Art told her. “Why don't you come? I mean, if your parents wouldn't mind. We'd like to get to know you better. And you'd meet lots of interesting people.”

“We'll make sure you have a great time,” Gary added encouragingly.

“Come on, Eleanor,” Vicky said, standing up with determination. “Enough is enough.” They moved across the swaying streetcar aisle. Vicky smiled charmingly at the boys. “Hi,” she said. “I'm Vicky, and this is Eleanor. We're really Avis's friends.”

The boys turned reluctantly away from Avis and regarded Vicky and Eleanor with silent hostility.

Vicky brandished her dimples. “Uh, you know, that was just a game,” she explained. “Avis really
is
our best friend. Right, Avis?”

Avis said nothing.

Eleanor pushed back her long, white blonde hair. “We do this all the time, just kind of for laughs,” she said. “We're all in it together, aren't we, Avis?”

Again, Avis said nothing.

“For laughs, huh?” Bob said, not sounding at all amused.

“Pretty juvenile sense of humor,” Art remarked.

“It's a sign of deep insecurity, putting another person down to try to feel good about yourselves,” Gary pointed out.

“Anyway, we were in the middle of a conversation,” said Art, the gorgeous one beside Avis. “Would you mind letting us continue it?”

“Avis,
tell them
!” Vicky insisted.

“Tell them what?” Avis asked her, sounding completely innocent. “That you two walk around with yer noses in the air, treatin' me as if I was dirt? And then these three young men start treatin' me like a 'uman bein', and suddenly yer all cozy and sweetsy?” She folded her arms across her chest.


Avis
!” Vicky cried out in furious, powerless frustration. “The game is over! Stop it! Just tell them the
truth
!”

Art sighed, giving Vicky a disgusted look, and turned back to Avis, who smiled sweetly at him. “This is our stop,” he said. He tore a page out of his notebook and wrote on it. “Here's our address and phone number. Call us if you need a lift on Friday.”

The three boys got up, brushing rudely past Vicky and Eleanor. “Bye, Avis. See you on Friday,” they said, grinning engagingly at her, and dismounted the streetcar with casual college-boy aplomb.

Now Avis was the only one laughing. “I just couldn't
resist
,” she gasped, barely able to get the words out. “I mean … when … when would another opportunity like that ever come along?”

“Avis, we are
never
going to forgive you,” Vicky said, fuming. “Will we, Eleanor?”

“Never,” Eleanor agreed. “What's their address, Avis?”

Leah's Stories

When I was in high school, I got to know a strange, smart girl named Leah Moses. She had coarse black hair, an oily complexion, and thick glasses. Though she had independently styled her appearance like the girls in our group—long hair, no makeup—she was never accepted as a member of our circle. Most of our friends couldn't stand her because she was such a pretentious intellectual snob.

Bart and Nicole and I were the only ones who ever spent any time with Leah at all. Partly, the three of us felt sorry for her. Leah was truly an outcast, not one by choice, like Vicky. Nor were her shabby clothes an affectation, as ours were: Leah's family was poor; she could not afford to dress any other way. But we didn't associate with her only out of pity; we were entertained by the outrageous things she said.

Leah claimed she had a serious and physically intimate relationship with a wealthy and titled English athlete—scholar named Neville Asquith-Smythe. She was always telling us how handsome and well built Neville was. He was a brilliant college philosophy major. Leah often attended classes with him at the university, and she went on at length about his explanations of Hegel and Kant. But she was never able to produce Neville. When I mentioned him to a friend of my parents who was a philosophy professor, he said there was no English philosophy major at the university.

Leah bragged a lot about her older sister Ze'eva (she never neglected to pronounce the apostrophe), who had been three years ahead of us in high school, was recognized by all as the most brilliant and beautiful student in her class, and now lived on a kibbutz in Israel and fought in the Israeli army. Beginning to be suspicious, I asked Vera Greenberg, who had been in that class, about Leah's sister. She said nobody named Ze'eva Moses had been in her class, or in any classes for several years before or after hers, and proved it by showing me her yearbooks.

On the few occasions when Bart and Nicole and I invited Leah to do something with us on a Friday evening, she always refused. Leah said she was a member of an advanced folk-dancing group that practiced on Fridays and often performed in public. She couldn't miss a single rehearsal. The director of the group, she told us, was an exceptionally attractive man in his twenties named Russell Davidson, who was independently wealthy because his family owned the Davidson Brothers chemical company. Russ, as Leah called him, was married, but he was always making passes at her anyway when he picked her up in his Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. Of course, he never picked her up in his Rolls-Royce at school, or anyplace else where we might actually lay eyes on it.

Nicole, whose opinions about people I always trusted, said that Leah was a pathological liar. But she wouldn't let Bart confront her with our proof. She pointed out that to do so would have been cruel and—even worse—embarrassing. It might have been different if Leah's stories were destructive to others; in fact, the only person they hurt was Leah herself.

But once, after we'd been hearing about folk dancing and Russ and his Rolls-Royce for several months, Bart couldn't resist saying, “Gee, this Friday folk-dancing thing sounds like fun. You think we could ever come, too?”

“I doubt it,” Leah said with predictable haste. “It
is
a very exclusive and professional group. They're extremely selective about who they allow to participate; they have to be.”

Privately, the three of us wondered what Leah
really
did on Friday evenings. If she didn't stay at home alone, we figured she was probably forced by her elderly parents to attend religious services or visit even more elderly relatives.

But two weeks after Bart had asked Leah if we could go to folk dancing, Leah phoned me on Friday afternoon to say that Russ had generously granted her permission to invite three of her more mature and sophisticated friends that night—just this once, of course—and she felt Bart and Nicole and I were the only ones who would prove acceptable.

I was very surprised that Leah had invited us; she had never suggested introducing us to her nonexistent boyfriend or showed us photographs of her imaginary sister. Why would Leah volunteer to expose her lies and humiliate herself in this case? I told her I'd think about it, hung up, and called Nicole and Bart, who were both at Nicole's house.

Nicole's interpretation was that Leah probably knew we were going to a party that night to which she had not been invited. Asking us to her imaginary folk-dancing group was safe, since she certainly did not expect us to skip the party to go with her. Leah's phone call was nothing but a feeble attempt to improve her credibility.

“What do you think she'd do if we
did
agree to go?” I wondered.

“It might be interesting to see what kind of excuse she'd come up with,” Bart said. “Why don't you tell her we accept?”

I was reluctant to put Leah on the spot, but I was also curious. And it wouldn't be so embarrassing to do this to her over the phone. I called Leah back and nodded knowingly to myself when she said that unfortunately Russ was not picking her up in his Rolls that night, after all. It was so irritatingly predictable that I couldn't keep from saying, “So you weren't really inviting us?”

There was a long silence on the other end of the phone, as I expected. But I was not prepared when Leah asked if one of us could get a car tonight. She didn't have access to a car, but she knew the way. I said sure and slowly hung up, wishing I hadn't accepted. We would miss the party. And probably all that would happen was that Leah would pretend to get lost, and we'd just drive around aimlessly, listening to more of her stories. Nicole and Bart felt the same way. But it was too late to back out now.

We didn't get lost; Leah gave Bart excellent directions. We could hardly believe it when she pointed out an old warehouse downtown and told him to park at the next space he could find. As we walked back toward the building, there was no need for her to draw our attention to the gigantic and gleaming Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud reposing majestically in front of the shabby, unlit doorway. No one could
not
have noticed that car. We exchanged glances of amazement. None of us had ever seen a vehicle like that in our lives.

Lively ethnic music in a minor key grew louder as we climbed the four dingy flights of metal stairs. Leah pushed open a door on a landing lit by an unadorned light bulb and stepped inside. We shyly followed her into a large room with bare walls and a scuffed wooden floor. Unfamiliar instruments tooted and trilled rhythmically from a phonograph equipped with two large, expensive-looking speakers.

A group of about a dozen people, college age and older, danced in a line holding hands. The women had long hair and no makeup and wore bright peasant skirts and blouses. Many of the men had beards, and all wore jeans and T-shirts—except one, who stood out from the rest in black trousers and turtleneck. He was tall and very lean, with short hair and no beard or mustache, and he danced at the head of the line, leading the others along.

Their feet moved in complicated patterns, hopping occasionally, jumping back and then forward again, as the line snaked around the room. Sometimes the leader would lower his head and glide underneath two other dancers' joined hands, pulling the line around and through itself. Everyone was sweating and smiling. The leader never missed a beat, one arm held above his head, his face lifted almost ecstatically as his feet breezed through the intricate steps. Some of the others, I was relieved to see, stumbled at times, losing count, looking down at their feet, their mouths moving silently as though repeating instructions. They were too involved to pay any attention to our arrival. Leah ran out onto the floor, grabbed the hand of the person at the end of the line, and plunged skillfully into the dance—though she wasn't particularly graceful.

When the music ended, they all dropped hands and began talking and laughing, wiping their brows and catching their breath. Leah introduced us to Russ, the leader, and his wife, Maria.

Russ wasn't nearly as handsome as Leah had described him, but he was good-looking enough, with a narrow face and a long jaw. He didn't say much; he was clearly eager to get on with the next dance and hurried back to the phonograph. Maria, who had thin brown hair and a round face and wore a knitted shawl, was very gracious. She said in a gentle voice that she was glad to meet Leah's friends and was happy we had come and that it was really easier than it looked and she hoped we'd have a good time.

“Do
Mayim
next, Russ,” she called over to him. “That's the best one to get people started on. It's an Israeli dance about water,” she said quietly again to us. “You'll catch on right away. Come on.”

Though we were awkward and self-conscious at first,
Mayim
did turn out to be pretty easy. You did a few simple steps around in a circle, then ran into the center and back with your arms raised during the chorus, chanting “
Mayim
” along with the singers on the record. We felt breathless and invigorated when it was over and even more invigorated at the end of the evening, after stumbling through, and eventually learning, more complex dances.

“Please come back,” Maria said, as though she meant it, and even Russ nodded encouragingly in his inarticulate way. “Feel free to bring other friends, too—the more people, the more fun it is,” Maria urged us.

It occurred to me to ask Leah why she had told us this group was so exclusive and that the leaders were reluctant for her to bring anybody, when in fact they were clearly eager for more participants. But I was in such high spirits that I didn't feel like pinning Leah down—especially because she did not seem to share our ebullience, but was strangely distant on the way home.

Vicky was intrigued when I told her how much fun folk dancing had been and described to her the seemingly far-out, counter-cultural people who had been there—not to mention the incredible Rolls-Royce. Vicky was also somewhat incredulous that dumpy
Leah
, who pathetically invented all those stories about herself, would actually be involved in anything so interesting. But she was free the next Friday and decided to give it a try. She asked Avis and Eleanor to come, too, as insurance in case it
did
turn out to be boring. I invited Dave, and Nicole asked Matilda to come.

It didn't occur to me to mention any of this to Leah, though I was thoughtful enough to ask her, at school on Friday, if she needed a ride that night.

“A ride?” she said, as though she didn't know what I meant.

“Yeah. To folk dancing.”

“You're coming
back
?” she said, a funny expression on her face. “All three of you?”

“Sure. You saw what a good time we had. And Vicky and Avis and Eleanor and Dave and Matilda are coming, too.”

“But …” Leah's eyes swam around behind her thick glasses. She didn't know what to say.

BOOK: Oddballs
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