Authors: Amy Fellner Dominy
Amy Fellner Dominy
Walker & Company
For Rachel and Kyle,
and in memory of my dad, Irving W. Fellner
I love to argue. I'll argue about anythingâschool uniforms, raising the driving age, or ear hair. I can be for something or against itâdoesn't matter. That's why my speech coach says I'm such a natural. Mom and Dad say I was born to argue. My first word was “no” and fourteen years later, it's still my favorite. That's how I knew something was different about Devon Yeats. I took one look at him and all I wanted to say was â¦ yes.
I met Devon the first day of the Christian Society Speech and Performing Arts camp. CSSPA is one of the best summer camps for incoming freshmen who want to compete on their high school speech and debate teams. When I got my acceptance letter, I was so psyched. Zeydeh, my grandpa, said I was
meshugah ahf toit
. Roughly translated, that's Yiddish for “crazy as a loon.”
“What Jewish girl goes to a Christian camp?” he ranted.
Speech and debate
camp,” I said.
“We've been arguing with Christians for two thousand years. You have to go to camp to argue more?”
I was watching him chop onions in the kitchen. Zeydeh has his own house down the street, but most nights he cooks for us. “It has nothing to do with religion,” I said. “The camp is held at Benedict's High School and it's open to anyone. The Christian Society is just the sponsor.”
He waved his knife in the air. “That's what they tell you, Ellie. Next thing you know, you're genuflecting and craving little wafers.”
“That's Catholic, Zeydeh.”
was Zeydeh's version of a sarcastic grunt. Combined with an eye roll, it was his standard answer when he had no answer. It meant, “I'm right because I say I'm right.” That's why I hated arguing with Zeydeh. It was like arguing with a crazy person.
arguing with a crazy person.
“It's an honor even to get in,” I told him. “I had to write an essay and get a letter of recommendation just to apply. Besides,” I added, “it's the only way I can get into Benedict's.”
His fingers were stiff and bent with arthritis, but he still worked the knife like an expert. “And Benedict's is such a good school?”
“The best,” I said. “Their speech team travels all over the country. This past year, they went to tourneys in Dallas and Chicago and at Harvard. They sweep State every year, and last year, they qualified sixteen students to Nationals. Sixteen!” I squished a piece of onion between my fingers. “That's huge, Zeydeh. Once you make Nationals, you're like a rock star for life.”
I wasn't sure yet what I wanted to beâfamous litigator, feared lobbyist, president of the worldâbut I was going to be
And it all started with Benedict's.
Officially, it was called Benedict's Conservatory of Arts and Academics. Just the name gave me goose bumps. I'd tried applying, but Benedict's was a private school and impossible to get into unless you were rich or connected. Which I wasn't. I'd registered to start my freshman year at Canyon View High in August, but I was praying I could still get into Benedict's. Camp was my one shot. Every year, one or two of the top finishers at CSSPA were offered a private scholarship. If I could kick butt at camp, I'd bypass the Benedict's waiting list and get full tuition.
“Even Mom and Dad think the camp is a great idea,” I said.
,” he grunted again. “Your parents think Cheez Whiz is a great ideaâwhat do they know?”
“They know everything is not about religion.” If they thought like Zeydeh, my parents wouldn't even have gotten married, since Mom is Jewish and Dad is Christian. “Forget it,” I said. “I'm not arguing with you.”
“Then wish me luck.”
“Don't I always?” His eyes flashed at me beneath his curly gray eyebrows. He had the same curly gray hair on his headâand poking out from inside his ears.
“This camp will help you reach your dreams?” he asked, his expression suddenly serious.
“If I do well, yeah.”
“Then you should go.” He set down the knife and wiped his hands. “Always you should follow your dreams.”
And Benedict's was my dream. Canyon View would be okay. But at Benedict's, I'd be with the best of the best. I'd
one of the best.
Zeydeh rubbed the back of one hand over my cheek. His skin was soft and papery. As familiar as my own. “Always remember, my Eleanor Jane. You can do anything. Be anything.”
I wrapped my arms around his waist until I felt the bony knobs of his spine and smelled the starch of his shirt and the vanilla scent that is Zeydeh. I squeezed him and pressed closer until there was no room for anything between us. “I love you, Zeydeh.”
“I love you, too,” he said. “But if men wearing purple robes try to sprinkle water on your forehead, run!”
Even as a kid, I knew Zeydeh was different. For one thing, we didn't call him Grandpa like a normal grandfatherâwe called him Zeydeh, the Yiddish word for grandfather. And he didn't act normal. Grandma and Grandpa Taylor, my dad's parents, took me and my brother, Benny, for pizza, read us stories about bunnies, and when I asked why the neighbor's dog had two tails, they told me to hush.
Zeydeh taught us to cuss in Yiddish, he baked cookies for breakfast, and when I asked about the dog, he demanded to see it. Then, he explained the dog had one tail and one penis. You're not supposed to say “penis” to kids, but Zeydeh didn't care. He'll say anything to anyone. He still talks to Bubbe, my grandma, even though she's been dead for eight years. According to him, why should death get in the way of a good conversation?
Zeydeh loves a good conversation. And I inherited his gift of gab. Jews have always been great orators, he saysâMaimonides, Einstein, Jerry Seinfeld. I'm following in their footstepsâanother Jew to carry on the tradition.
For Zeydeh, being Jewish isn't just a religion. It's life and death. Bubbe lost an uncle, an aunt, and three cousins in the Holocaust. So that's big. It haunts Zeydeh. And I get it, I really do. But sometimes he forgets: This isn't Nazi Germany. This isn't the 1940s. This is boring, hotter-than-jalapeÃ±os Phoenix, Arizona. It's the twenty-first century. It's a four-week, six-hours-a-day speech and performing arts summer camp.
And Zeydeh was worried for nothing.
The morning that camp began, I woke with my fingers clenched around my sheets. My mind was still fuzzy from a too-real dream. Me on stage at a speech tourney. I wore a blue suit with shiny red boots. Sitting across from me was Jesus. He had a crown of thorns on his head and when he crossed his legs, his white robes rode up his calves. He wore Nike high-tops with rainbow laces. Then he opened his mouth to talk, but Zeydeh's New-York-Jew accent came out. “So, you want to argue?”
I shuddered and sat up in bed.
I screeched, then realized it wasn't Jesus standing at my bedroom door with a cup of coffee. It was my mom in a long white bathrobe. “How long have you been there?” I asked.
“Only a minute,” she said in her scratchy morning voice. “I was going to wake you, but you had such a strange look on your face.”
“A dream,” I muttered. I ran a hand through my hair, which wasn't easy with all the knots. It made me crazy. During the day, my hair was completely straightâit hung halfway down my neck and refused to hold a curl. But at night, it tangled into knots only half a bottle of conditioner would unravel.
“Want to tell me?” my mom coaxed.
“It was a speech tournament and I was competing against Jesus.”
The corners of her mouth twitched up as she sat down beside me. “Was he any good?”
“He had hairy legs and he sounded like Zeydeh.”
“Really?” She sipped her coffee. “You should tell Zeydeh you're dreaming about Jesus.”
“You want to kill him?” I laughed at the look on her face. “Don't answer that.”
Mom likes to say Zeydeh is her cross to bear. She says it even though she's Jewish, even though crosses are a Christian thing. She's just trying to make Zeydeh mad. He thinks our home should be more Jewish, even though the only thing Christian in it is Dad. Zeydeh raised Mom as a heavy-duty Jew, but Mom rebelled, and then she fell in love with Dad. A Christian. Or, as Zeydeh says, a goyâa non-Jew. As in, “Oy, she married a goy.”
“Be nice to him today,” I said. “He's been looking kind of pale.”
“Is he drinking his juice every morning?”
“He says he is.”
She sighed. “As if we can trust him. When your brother wakes up, I'll send him down to check on Zeydeh. Maybe I'll make an appointment with the doctor.”
“Don't tell him I said anything.”
She smiled and rubbed my arm. “Don't worry. He'll be fine.”
I glanced over at a gray velvet jewelry box on my bedside table. “He gave me Bubbe's necklace to wear to camp.”
“Her Jewish star?” Mom's eyebrows lifted. “Wow. Be careful with that. He rarely parts with it.”
“Probably thinks it'll ward off evil.”
We both grinned.
“I'm so excited for you, Ellie,” she said, her eyes shining. Mom has great eyesâhoney brown, thick lashes, and a beautiful oval shape. I got the honey brown color and thick lashes, but instead of oval, mine are round. I always look surprised.
“You're going to have an amazing experience,” she said. “You'll meet kids from all over the state.”
“The best of the best.” I sat up, the mattress squeaking under my hands.
“And you'll make lifelong friends,” she added. “I met Sally Harris at a camp when I was your age.”
“I'm not there to make friends, Mom.” I rolled my eyes. “I'm there to demolish the competition and win a scholarship.”
“Isn't that friendly.” She made a face and swatted my hip. “You'd better get ready. The Swans will be here soon to pick you up.”
Megan Swan is my best friend. I met her in first gradeâthe alphabet brought us together. Swan followed by Taylor. If Mom had married someone named Applegate, I would have stood next to Hannah Arlen, who got expelled in third grade for setting a fire in the teachers' lounge. Instead, I lined up that first day and Megan lined up in front of me.
I call it The Year of No Hair. I had fallen asleep chewing a wad of gum and woken up wearing it on my head like a sticky pink helmet. Mom had to shave my head. She bought me a blond wig with curls that never moved. Not even when I stood under a ceiling fan on full blast. I wore my wig that first day and pretended I looked like a movie star, not an alien.
Then the girl ahead of me sucked in a breath through crooked teeth and asked, “Is your hair fake?”
I balled up my hands and glared at her the way Zeydeh had showed me, with squinty eyes and thin lips. But she didn't look like a bully. She had thick glasses, a pointy chin, and frizzy hair the color of dirt that seemed to grow out, not down.
“It's Twinkie yellow,” she said, looking enviously at my wig. “I love Twinkies. Do you think I could get one with braids?”
I like to say I recognized a kindred spirit. Mostly, I recognized someone with hair problems nearly as bad as mine. From that day on, we were best friends.
Megan loves theater the way I love speech. She's good, too; she has a way of disappearing into her characters so you forget it's even her. She registered for Benedict's but she says she'll go wherever I go. Megan doesn't have to worry about a scholarship or getting accepted. Her parents already got her in the old-fashioned way: with tons of cash.
I was waiting outside when Mr. Swan pulled into our driveway. I climbed into his car with a little sigh of happiness. Megan's dad drove a gold Lexus with leather seats, tinted windows, and surround-sound speakers. Plus, he traded in his cars every nine months, so the leather always had that new-car smell.
We'd go home at the end of the day Taylor-styleâstuffed in the backseat of my dad's pickup truck. Dad owns a landscaping business, which usually means bags of potting soil around our feet and nose plugs in September when he stocks up on fertilizer for the winter grass. Mom drives a VW wagon. It loses points for style, but at least it's comfortable. Unfortunately, she teaches summer school to fifth graders, so Dad has pick-up duty in the pickup.
“Nice,” Megan said, looking me over. “Professional with a dash of sexy.”
I'd worn a blue tank that met the three-finger rule (tank-top straps must be wider than three fingers), with white crop pants and sandals that showed off my pink toenails. Megan, on the other hand, was obviously going for something different.
“What do you call your look?” I asked. “Homeless Chic?”
I shielded my eyes from her shirt and she laughed. It was neon yellow, three sizes too big, and hung over hideous green doctor pants. She wore gray Converse sneakers with yellow laces. Her hair, which turned into a cloud of frizz if it grew past her ears, was too short to put up. But she'd stuck three yellow clips through her bangs. Megan didn't have great beauty, but she did have great style. You just never knew which style it would be.
Sunlight caught the wires of her braces and the orange rubber bands glowed like a jack-o'-lantern. I'd finished with braces more than a year ago, but Megan had to wait for jaw realignment. She actually liked the bracesâsaid they added to her “persona.” Megan was all about personaâshe was constantly recreating herself, just like a character from a play.
“I think you misunderstood when Coach said you should get into character,” I told her. “He didn't mean permanently.”
She ignored me, adjusting two bracelets of yellow beads. “Speaking of Coach, you remember what he said?”
Coach was Mr. Joyceâthe speech-team adviser and drama teacher at our middle school. He'd written the letters of recommendation for us to get into camp. We hadn't asked for his “keys to success” but Coach couldn't resist.
“What are you going to do, girls?” I barked in my best gravelly Coach voice.
“Stand up! Stand out! Stand firm!” Megan barked back.
We laughed and slapped a high five. I settled back in my cushy seat. As Coach liked to say, nothing stood in our way but ourselves.
But Coach had never met Devon Yeats.