The Lermontovs often came to our house for Thanksgiving dinner and other holidays. The parents were both distinguished scientists--more successful and recognized than our father, Mom told us.
They were also urbane and bawdy. I remember Dr. Lermontov (the father) telling a story at dinner about being interrupted by a phone call while he was in the bathroom. His lazy kids weren't at home, he made sure to point out, or else they would have answered it instantly, if they weren't already talking on it. So he had to stop what he was doing in the bathroom and run to get the phone. It was a woman working for a survey. ``What television program are you watching?'' she asked him. ``I'm not watching television,'' he said. ``What magazine are you reading?'' ``I'm not reading a magazine.'' ``What newspaper are you reading?'' she persisted. ``I'm not reading a newspaper,'' he said, his patience dissolving. ``Then what are you doing?'' she wanted to know. ``I'm trying to take a shit!'' he shouted, and hung up. Everyone else at the dinner table laughed, kids and parents alike, while Dr. Lermontov took a swig of beer.
Vicky and I always loved it when the Lermontovs came over because we had so much fun with their kids. Vera was three years older than me, Nick a year younger than Vera, and little Anna was several years younger than Vicky. Vera and Nick were both brainy and good-looking, Nick blonde and athletic, Vera dark and bosomy. Once, at the Lermontov's house, Dr. Lermontov (the mother) bragged at the dinner table about Vera's large bra size. She described how Vera's devoted boyfriend picked her up every morning in a huge Cadillac that was a particularly hideous shade of pink. ``It makes you want to vomit!'' exclaimed Vera's mother the famous scientist, laughing, as she put out her cigarette and took another piece of candy. Vera was not so amused by these stories.
Vera and Nick were popular though not the least bit pituh--a unique combination of attributes--and Vicky and I both looked up to them. It would have been natural for us to resent them, since Mom was always telling us what brilliant students they were, so athletic, attractive, articulate and so on. But we couldn't help liking them anyway (though Vicky would often scream at Mom to shut up about them). Vera and Nick also clearly enjoyed spending time with us on these family occasions, though we couldn't really be friends with them at school, since they were older and hung out with a different crowd.
It was the Lermontov kids who taught us to play ``I Doubt It.'' The game required two complete decks of cards, which were thoroughly shuffled together and then all dealt to the players. The basic objects of the game were to get rid of all your cards--and to cheat.
The first player began with aces. ``Two aces,'' he would say, placing the cards face down in the center of the table. The player to the right was supposed to put down only twos, the next player only threes, and so on up through the deck, and back around to aces again. Often a player might not have the particular card he was required to put down on his turn. In that case he would lie, putting down a five and a six, for instance, but stating ``Two queens.'' You wanted to get rid of your cards fast. Because there were two decks, it was harder to tell from your own hand how many of a particular card another player might have. But if you suspected him of lying, you shouted, ``I doubt it!'' You had to say this before the next player took his turn. Then the player who had just put down the cards had to display them. If he had been lying, he had to take the entire pile. If he hadn't been lying, the player who doubted him had to take the pile.
Tension mounted when the pile of cards in the center grew larger. It became riskier both to lie and to doubt, because in either case you might end up collecting a huge number of cards. At the same time lying became unavoidable, because you had only certain cards left. And doubting increased as the balance of cards shifted; it became easier for certain players to tell from their hands that someone else was lying.
It was at this point in the game that you graduated to another form of cheating. Say you only had one card left, a seven, but it was your turn to put down queens. Your only chance to win was to lie and get away with it. But since it was highly unlikely that your last card would be a queen, it was almost a certainty that someone would doubt you. The solution was to make a whispered deal with the player to your immediate right. This was possible if that player had a lot of cards in his hand and no chance of winning. Then you might be able to coerce him to make his move so quickly, the instant after you had put down your last card, that there would be no time for anyone else to scream ``I doubt it!''
If little Anna was sitting to your right, you could take this even further. You could often bribe her to help you out even if you still had quite a few cards in your hand. ``Fifteen queens,'' you would quickly mutter, getting rid of all your cards, and if lightning Anna moved fast enough no one would have a chance to doubt your blatant lie. The great thing about the game was that you could still win even if everybody knew you had cheated; you were disqualified only if you were actually caught. There were many moments during ``I Doubt It'' when you'd try to scream furiously at somebody but couldn't manage it because you were laughing too hard.
The Thanksgiving I was in seventh grade we couldn't play ``I Doubt It'' because many of the cards had disappeared. Danny, who was four, denied any knowledge of them. (We discovered what remained of the missing cards when Mom made Vicky change Tycho later that evening. Confronted with this palpable evidence, Danny admitted that he had fed them to him.)
And so instead of playing ``I Doubt It'' on Thanksgiving, Vicky and I and the Lermontov kids sat around in my third floor room complaining about adults in general, and our parents in particular. The topic turned out to be as inexhaustible as our enthusiasm for discussing it.
Though both sets of parents, by their very existence, had certain defects in common, kids from each family were fascinated to discover the many inventive, insidious, and previously unimagined crimes that the other set of parents routinely inflicted on their children. ``They really do that?'' a kid from one family would gasp in wonder. ``You mean yours don't?'' a kid from the other family would reply. Vicky and I were particularly surprised and gratified to find out that the Lermontov parents did not think their kids were as perfect as our mother did--far from it.
Vera, who was efficient, well-organized and sexy, began to make a list of our parents' various sins against us. She was the oldest, and the most practiced at taking notes in school--no one else could have written fast enough to get the increasingly rapid outpouring of grievances down legibly.
It was a very long list. Even so, we soon began to realize that we were barely scratching the surface; Vera's copious notes represented only two measly sets of parents as primary sources of data. The list grew longer when we began to contribute secondary knowledge acquired from friends about their parents' offenses. We marveled at the wealth of first-hand information these kids would have provided if they had been here in person. A whole new world was waiting to be discovered!
It proved to be a lot more fun--and more deeply satisfying--than ``I Doubt It'' ever could have been.
Mom found the list of parental outrages the next day when she went up to my room to make my bed, unavoidably dragging Danny and Tycho along with her. She was not in the best mood, since she and Vicky had just had a screaming fight, and Vicky was sulking in her room. Mom caught sight of Vera's notes on my bedside table, two wailing toddlers pulling and clawing relentlessly at her as she struggled to plump my pillows and straighten my sheets. I was reclining on the couch downstairs at the time, reading a wonderful book of horror stories Mom had recently given me, enjoying the rich aroma of the turkey soup which had already been simmering on the stove when I got up that morning.
I was so engrossed in Lovecraft's ``The Dunwich Horror'' that I didn't even notice Mom's approach, despite the pervasive stench of Tycho's loaded diaper that inevitably accompanied her. Only when Mom said, ``Is this Vera's handwriting?'' did I look up.
She was standing above me, holding Tycho against her hip with one arm and Vera's notes in her other hand. My first response, when I realized an already irate Mom had read the list, was chillier than anything evoked by the Lovecraft story.
``Vera's handwriting?'' I said stupidly. ``Oh, um . . . I guess . . . I mean . . .''
But Mom chuckled. ``This has got to be one of the funniest things I've ever seen in my life. Listen to this.'' And she read, ``'In the privacy of their home the parents drop their artificial public behavior and reveal their true natures: disgusting slobs who laze around the house, brutally reprimanding their kids the instant they are not industrious, engaged in constructive behavior, or impeccably groomed.''
``Nick said that, not me or Vicky,'' I quickly pointed out.
``Of course you dumbells didn't,'' Mom said. ``The Lermontov kids are clever enough to come up with something that has a real comic punch to it--and they do chores around the house.''
I had finally realized she wasn't angry; now I was insulted. ``But I was the one who said parents are always telling their own kids how inferior they are to other people's children.''
``I know you have a talent for inventing imaginary situations, Billy. But that remark just isn't as witty as Nick's. Sorry.''
I didn't know what to say.
``Take Tycho and clean him up,'' she told me. ``I want to look this over again.''
``You've . . . already read the whole thing?''
``Uh huh.'' She thrust Tycho at me. He started screaming the instant I lifted him, gingerly, from Mom's hip. She sank down on the couch with Vera's notes as I bore him away.
I worried only briefly that the Lermontov kids might get in trouble as a result of Mom finding the list. Mom was not the kind of unscrupulous person who would cause trouble by reporting anything from the notes directly to the Lermontov parents. Her discovery of the list had quite different--and unexpected--repercussions.
I don't remember whose idea it was to turn the notes into a play about the horrors inflicted by parents onto their children. What I do know is that Mom was the driving force behind the entire production. She worked harder on it than anybody else, even though she had a full-time job, and Danny and Tycho to deal with.
The first official meeting took place the next day, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The industrious, well-groomed and witty Lermontov kids were there, of course. We also invited Albert, who was Vera's age, and Vicky's friends Ann and Emily, and my friends Nicole and Bart and Matilda. I was still buddies with Frank at the time, though he had recently started going to private school. He was a particularly essential participant, since his mother was regarded by all as a very special example of extreme parental foulness.
The initial brainstorming session did not begin well. The Lermontov kids, surprisingly, were not perturbed that Mom had found the list; they seemed to trust her implicitly. But the other kids were understandably constrained by Mom's presence--she was a member of the enemy camp, after all--and did not dare to express themselves freely. Mom attacked this problem by reading the list aloud herself, praising much of it, and contributing her own creative and constructive suggestions for improvement. It became apparent to everyone that Mom was being completely objective, and not taking any of the material personally.
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.
Frank, growing more and more perturbed, finally spoke up. ``Are you saying you think this play should be a comedy?'' he asked her.
``But it can't be!'' he objected, looking around at the rest of us. ``I mean, this is life and death stuff we're dealing with here.''
``Think about it for a minute, Frank,'' Mom said carefully. ``If we try to make this a serious drama, it will just come across as petty. But if the adults in the audience are laughing they'll enjoy themselves--and be in the right frame of mind to pay attention to some of these gripes.''
``Makes sense,'' Nick agreed. Vera and Albert, the oldest and most influential, also nodded their approval.
``How about the rest of you?'' Mom asked.
The others could not disagree with Mom's logic--except for Frank. ``I didn't realize parents were going to be invited,'' Frank said bleakly. He didn't speak for the rest of the meeting.
But eventually the other kids began loosening up. Mom 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 Lermontovs, as any other parent would have done. It also helped that our house was a popular hangout, a familiar place where kids were already comfortable, mainly because Mom was so easy-going and unconcerned about things like hygiene, foul language, and personal appearance--matters other parents were so unreasonably fussy about.
Still, most of the kids didn't loosen up enough to come up with anything really meaty about their own parents, and Mom did not make the mistake of trying to coerce them. It was only the Lermontov kids who volunteered truly gross and personal material, partly (we thought) because they were the most outspoken and self-confident--and partly because they in particular had proof that they could trust Mom, who was so interested in what they had to say about their parents. 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. That would give us plenty of time for rehearsal over Christmas vacation. We also wanted to invite the audience of parents and friends well in advance, so they could mark it on their calendars and be sure to be there.
Frank dropped out after the first session. The rest of us 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 and their antagonists. 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 play to their parents, they would have heard about it. And she hadn't had a chance to say more than a word or two to the Lermontov adults since Thanksgiving--they were both very busy scientists--and our parents wouldn't be seeing each other over Christmas, since both families had other plans this year.
It seemed quite natural that Mom became the director; everyone had to admit that she was essential to the production. It wasn't only that Mom participated with such vitality and spirit, stimulating enthusiasm in the cast, or that her lyrics were so inventive and trenchant. Paradoxically, her most essential contribution was being a parent herself. Because she could see things from a parent's point of view, she was able to come up with inspired dialogue and action for the parents that exposed levels of profound baseness in their characters that we, in our innocence, would never have imagined. There was no denying that Vera and Albert had the juiciest roles.
And 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 Parkview Freedom Fighters'' gave it significance.
It was not until the final rehearsal that Vera Lermon-tov casually dropped the information that their parents couldn't come to the performance after all. It seemed that they had been called upon to present papers about their new research at an extremely prestigious scientific conference on the same day as the play.
Mom was aware of this particular conference; she had known months ago that Dad had not been invited to attend. ``But why didn't you say so before?'' she asked Vera. ``You must have known about this when we set the date. It's too late to change it now.''
``They don't bother keeping us informed about their plans,'' Nick said. ``It's too bad. We were really, uh, looking forward to them seeing the show.'' He sighed, sounding almost regretful.
I could tell Mom was suspicious. Since the roles of the mother and father in the play had been essentially shaped by grisly personal details from the Lermontov kids about their mother and father, it seemed more than coincidental that they had waited until the last minute to mention that their parents would be busy the day of the show.
Still, we had no choice but to go ahead with the performance on the original date--we couldn't ask everyone else in the audience to change their plans just because of two people. The show went on. The Lermontov kids sailed through their parts with breezy aplomb. The rest of the cast, knowing their parents were watching, were a little more self conscious about their performances.
My role gave me more opportunity than the others to observe the reactions of the audience. It was clear right away that Bart's parents and Matilda's mother were not amused. They didn't crack a smile, despite the fact that hardly any of the material in the play pertained directly to them at all. I wondered what Bart and Matilda would have to go through when they went home.
But the rest of the audience--teenage friends of the actors, more enlightened parents of the cast, and other adults whose children were not in the show--roared with laughter, just as Mom had predicted. The applause at the end, the repeated curtain calls, were intoxicating. But the euphoria was almost immediately followed by a feeling of loss--after all those weeks of hard work and increasing anticipation, suddenly it was over.
For the next few days our phone never stopped ringing. We were beseiged by calls from children as well as adults who had not seen the show but had heard about it, begging us to do a repeat performance. We called the rest of the cast to try to arrange it. Most of the actors were eager--the thrill of performance had been irresistible. Even Matilda and Bart managed to get grudging permission from their parents to do it again.
It was too bad that Vera and Nick Lermontov were now inextricably tied up with school activities and didn't have a free minute for the next several months.
Then a reporter called from the local paper, very eager to do an article about the show. The pressure on Vera and Nick became intense, not just from the rest of the cast, but also from their own parents, who were back from the conference and very curious about the play--especially after Mom just happened to mention to them that it had attracted the attention of the press.
Vera and Nick had no choice but to give in. The performance was repeated the following Saturday for an SRO audience. The best seats in the house were reserved for the reporter--and the Lermontov parents.