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Authors: William Sleator

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BOOK: Oddballs
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“It's okay, isn't it?” I asked her. “Maria told us to bring more people. She said the more the better.”

Leah lifted her chin. “Thanks, but I don't need a ride,” she said. “Russ is picking me up in the Rolls.” It wasn't
his
Rolls now; it was “the Rolls.”

“I know this is going to be boring,” Avis kept saying grumpily all the way downtown. She stopped complaining when she saw the Rolls-Royce, parked grandly in the same spot it had occupied the week before. Since Leah wasn't with us now, we took our time examining it, peering through the smoked windows at the lush leather and teakwood interior, stroking its flanks, murmuring words of awe. It was a while before we tore ourselves away and clomped up the stairs.

Again we arrived in the middle of a dance. But this time some of the dancers—though not Leah—turned and looked when so many new and unfamiliar faces appeared at the door. Russ Davidson, I noticed, rapt though he was, glanced several times at Eleanor, who was strikingly pretty, without missing a step. And when the dance was over, he zipped right over and actually articulated an entire sentence to us, his eyes on Eleanor.

With more of our friends there, we had an even better time than we had the week before. Russ was very patient about teaching us steps to dances that the old hands already knew, focusing his attention on Eleanor, who learned quickly and was quite graceful, with her slender body and long, pale hair.

Leah made it clear, by looking the other way and tapping her plump foot, that
she
already knew these dances perfectly. She also spent more time talking to the other people there than to us. It briefly occurred to me that she must have enjoyed her unique position as the youngest member of the group—a group that had clearly accepted her, as no group of her contemporaries at school did. But I never got around to mentioning this thought to Nicole; I was too preoccupied with other people to think much about Leah.

Leah was pleasant enough to us afterward, smiling and waving when she got into the Rolls with Russ and Maria. As Russ pulled away, he looked back several times at Eleanor.

We brought more people the next week; now our friends outnumbered the others. We also began to get to know some of the original dancers; holding hands and jumping around with them broke the ice quickly. Afterward, Maria suggested going to a coffeehouse in a hip nightclub area in the city. Eleanor, Avis, and Vicky rode in the Rolls, though Leah made sure to claim the front seat. Maria was happy to ride with us.

We had fun at the coffeehouse, where there was a folk singer. Eleanor's older brother, Sid, who was taking a semester off from Harvard, borrowed the entertainer's guitar and played a few songs himself; the rest of us—except for Leah—sang along with him. Leah seemed bored by the singing, preferring to fill me in on Neville's latest theories about Wittgenstein, but Maria was very impressed with Sid's skill.

Russ sat next to Eleanor, speaking little himself but listening closely to everything she had to say. It was flattering that these wealthy, lively, and Bohemian adults seemed to enjoy spending time with us. It became a pattern to go to the coffeehouse with the Davidsons after folk dancing. Now we couldn't wait for Friday nights.

After this had been going on for a month or so, Maria telephoned and invited Vicky and me to come to their house for dinner on Saturday—she had invited Sid and Eleanor, too. “But, uh, maybe you better not say anything about this to Leah,” Maria cautioned us. We assured her we wouldn't. We were thrilled by the invitation and couldn't wait to see what their house was like.

It was not the mansion we had anticipated, but a spacious modern split-level in a subdivision. We sat in the living room before dinner; Russ played folk-dancing records. Batik prints and other folk art hung on the walls; bright woven rugs were scattered over the oak floors. The furniture was modern, the kind you'd see in expensive magazines. Unlike our parents, who furnished their houses with secondhand stuff, the Davidsons had obviously been able to buy exactly what they wanted, whatever the price.

The evening was very informal and relaxed. Maria didn't go to a lot of trouble over the food. We had overdone steaks and baked potatoes with margarine and frozen vegetables. Russ, as usual, didn't say much, but Maria was a lively conversationalist. We talked about folk music and movies and novels, and Maria asked us about our families and friends.

It was Maria who brought up the subject of Leah. “What did Leah tell you about us?” she asked casually, adjusting her shawl.

Vicky, Sid, and Eleanor turned to me. I was the only one who knew Leah very well. I wasn't sure what to say. I wanted the Davidsons to like me and find me witty, and it would be easy to put Leah down in an amusing way. But they were apparently friends with her; if I was critical of Leah, it might offend them. “She told us how much fun folk dancing was. And she did mention Russ's family business—and the Rolls-Royce.”

Maria leaned forward with what seemed to be a conspiratorial smile. “Did you believe her?” she asked me in her soft, breathy voice.

It would have been an odd question—about anybody other than Leah. I remembered that Maria had specifically asked us not to tell Leah they had invited us here. Maybe I
didn't
have to be too careful, after all. “I didn't believe a word,” I said.

Maria laughed. I seemed to have said the right thing. “You'd already heard all about Ze'eva, then?” she said, imitating Leah's pronunciation of the apostrophe perfectly.

I nodded. “Then I asked a friend who was in what Leah
said
was Ze'eva's high school class. She'd never heard of her—and there was no Ze'eva in any of her yearbooks.”

Maria glanced at Russ, then back at me. “It's interesting that you found actual proof. We just
assumed
that Ze'eva inhabited the same world as Neville Asquith-Smythe.”

“Were we ever surprised when it turned out that you two, and folk dancing and the Rolls-Royce, actually
existed
,” I said.

This time Russ laughed, too. Maria shook her hair back. “Well,
we
couldn't believe it when you guys started showing up either. We were beginning to suspect that Leah had no friends at all outside that imaginary universe of hers.”

“How did you get to know her?” Eleanor asked.

“She just showed up at folk dancing, almost a year ago, I guess. She found out about the group somehow. She seemed interesting—the things she told us about herself were a little more subtle at first. But then her stories got wilder, and we began to put two and two together. You have to admit, she
can
be entertaining.”

There was a certain edge to Maria's voice now; I wondered if there might be any truth to Leah's remark about Russ making passes at her. But later, Maria did not seem the least bit concerned at how close Russ was sitting to Eleanor, his arm along the back of the couch, almost touching Eleanor's shoulder. On the way home, Sid mentioned that he was sure Maria had been flirting with him. If Maria had some gripe against Leah, it didn't seem to have anything to do with jealousy over her husband.

We didn't tell Leah that, more and more often, certain of us had dinner at the Davidsons' or that the Davidsons began showing up at parties of ours that Leah was not invited to. She didn't need to have it spelled out for her. It was obvious, simply from our chumminess at folk dancing, that the Davidsons had become part of a group that had never included Leah.

The Davidsons got to know our parents. Mom thought Maria was interesting and intelligent enough. She was baffled by Russ, who hardly ever said anything, and when he did, it was always about folk dancing. “All that money,” Mom said, wistfully shaking her head, “and all he can think of to do with it is buy that car and run a folk dance group.”

There were now so many of our cronies at folk dancing that the downtown loft room was no longer big enough. It was also inconveniently located for the majority of the participants. Russ made arrangements with a Jewish community center in our suburb, which was more attractive and a lot larger.

After the move, even more kids began to show up. The pituh-people had always gone to something called Wigwam on Friday nights, where they danced to rock music; now we oddballs had our own equivalent. It was in my junior year that folk dancing became an official high school club, with a very crowded picture in the yearbook. Leah did not come to be photographed.

It was Eleanor these days, not Leah, who was driven to folk dancing in the Rolls (as we referred to it now). Russ was fair and gave everyone a chance to experience it at one time or another; Eleanor was the constant. He even began picking us up at school; it was intensely satisfying that all the pituh-people like Steve Kamen, hanging out in front of the building, often saw us getting into that car. Leah never seemed to be around when this happened.

It was the smoothest and most silent car any of us had ever ridden in. The seats were wonderfully plush. We loved opening the teakwood bar in the backseat and pretending we were actually drinking as we floated along—though Russ, who had no interest in alcohol, never bothered to keep it stocked. He had no interest in his executive position at the chemical company either, though he dutifully appeared there and made the motions five days a week. Folk dancing was his single passion.

Leah still came to folk dancing, though she was now only a minor participant, no longer included when we went out afterward. We didn't discuss folk dancing with Leah, and she never brought it up. When Bart and Nicole and I had time to talk to her, she regaled us with increasingly elaborate stories.

We heard about her cousin, the wealthy and critically acclaimed novelist (whose books were only published in Hebrew, of course, and not available in this country). We heard how Neville had proposed to her, wanting to make her Lady Asquith-Smythe, despite his parents' objections that she was an American and a commoner. But Leah was keeping him dangling; she wasn't sure she wanted to live in England because of the climate. Anyway, she told us, she had taken advanced placement tests and had already been admitted, with large scholarships, to Radcliffe and Smith and Stanford, though she was only a junior. Once Leah disappeared for a week, telling us afterward that she had been in Israel at Ze'eva's wedding to a famous Israeli film star and director. She then mentioned that a long poem she had written had been accepted by a prestigious literary magazine and would be published at some undisclosed point in the future.

Now I was able to report these stories to Maria. Her laughter was always unusually brittle when we spoke of Leah. I did comment on this reaction to Nicole. “I think the Davidsons must have gone out of their way to be friendly to Leah at first,” she said, somewhat pensively. “Like maybe they trusted her in some way, and now Maria feels insulted that Leah kept feeding her these lies. You can sort of understand it, in a way. Poor Leah.”

“Leah doesn't feed them to her now,” I said. “I get the feeling the Davidsons hardly ever talk to her at all anymore.”

“Poor Leah,” Nicole said again. She took a long time adjusting her glasses.

Naturally, no one believed Leah when she said she had decided to accept Stanford's offer and would be going to college a year early. But when the rest of us began our senior year, Leah wasn't around—though it took a while for anybody to notice. I checked with the guidance counselor, who confirmed that Leah had in fact placed out of her senior year in high school and was now at Stanford. We were all amazed—not because Leah wasn't smart enough, but because she had been telling the truth.

“Silly of her to rush things like that,” Mom said. “Your high school years are important. You might as well take the time to enjoy them while you can.”

There are more stories about the Davidsons and some wild parties we had, stories about Russ and Eleanor, and Maria and Sid. But they seem less important to me now than Leah's stories.

I wrote to Nicole, who was then a foreign student in Italy, about Leah's sudden departure for college.
I think she'll be happier there
, Nicole wrote back.
No wonder she wanted to get away. She had only one good thing in high school
—
and she lost it
.

Pituh-plays

The first true pituh-play was created and always performed by Vicky, for an audience of Danny and Tycho and me. The play's title was
Vanya, the Insane Pianist
.

Danny and Tycho were always begging Vicky to do
Vanya, the Insane Pianist
, which was funny, though (we thought) totally meaningless. None of our friends knew about Vanya, which Vicky performed only for our own family. But Vicky and I and our friends did put on other little skits at parties, which we called pituh-plays. The skits were often inspired by real people or situations or by popular movies and books.

Of course, we had always made fun of certain books. When we were younger, we used to invent Dick-and-Jane stories, based on the elementary reading series: “See Dick. See Jane. Hear Baby Sally cry! See Jane put the knife in Baby Sally's neck. Baby Sally is very quiet now.”

The telephone game was another early precursor of the pituh-play. Vicky would call a number at random (I listened on the extension), and when someone answered, she would say in a babyish voice, “Can you come to my party?”

“Who is this? Who do you want?” the stranger on the phone might say.

“It's … it's my birthday,” the childish voice would answer. “My mommy and daddy forgot. I'm all alone. I want to have a birthday party, but I don't have any friends. Will
you
come to my party?”

Often people hung up at this point. But sometimes they fell for it. “Your mommy and daddy left you all alone? You don't have a baby-sitter?”

“All alone. And it's my
birthday
.”

The voice on the other end would pause, then say something like “I'm sure your mommy and daddy really love you. I bet they're planning a surprise for you. And remember,
I
care about your birthday.” One woman even sang “Happy Birthday” over the phone, as we tried to stifle our giggles.

BOOK: Oddballs
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