The stage was the front hall of our house. The piano was there, and the front hall had direct access to the kitchen, which functioned as the dressing room. The hall was also the only room in the house that had an overhead light fixture, and could be darkened or illuminated by the flick of a single switch. The audience sat on rows of chairs in the living room.
I have to admit that Nick and Anna--and especially Vera--were real troupers. Though obviously not as comfortable as they had been the last time, they nevertheless threw themselves into their roles like true professionals, performing as well as they had the week before.
The play began with Vicky seated at the breakfast table, neatly dressed in a modest skirt and blouse, her hair impeccably groomed (for the first and last time in years). Her face was partially hidden by a stack of barely thawed pancakes that towered above her head, devoid of butter or syrup, and a gallon of milk with a straw protruding from the top. She was hurriedly trying to work her way through this gargantuan meal, continuously sawing off hunks of dry pancake and quickly shoving them into her mouth, gulping at the milk. She would stop eating only long enough to take an occasional fast glance at her watch and utter a forlorn little sigh--until Vera, the mother, shuffled yawning into the room, at which point Vicky immediately stopped sighing and smiled brightly at her. ``Good morning, mother,'' she said sweetly.
The mother grunted. She wore a slatternly bathrobe, a pair of fluffy pink bedroom slippers, and had large curlers in her hair. She slumped down at the table and began idly picking through a box of expensive bon-bons, while her daughter cheerfully and diligently applied herself to the pancakes and milk--the stack was an inch or so lower now.
The mother finally chose a piece of candy and bit it in half, then grimaced at the enterior with a loud snort of disgust, returned the uneaten half to the box and spit the goo in her mouth out onto the tabletop.
She reclined in her chair. ``What's the matter with your manners?'' she reproved her daughter. ``It's rude to slouch at the table. Sit up straight!'' The child obediently sat up even more erectly, though her eating slackened somewhat.
The mother coolly assessed the height of the pancakes. ``Another slow day, I see. Something the matter with your appetite again?'' she chided her. ``Why can't you be like Marylou Pinsky? Her mother was just telling me the other day that she always cleans her plate right away and asks for more. But not you. Oh, no! You force me to sit here and remind you that you're not getting up from this table until you finish your breakfast down to the last drop and crumb.''
``But mother . . . it's so much,'' the daughter meekly dared to suggest. ``I'm so full already. If I try to eat any more, I'm afraid I might get sick.'' She had managed by this time to get the pancakes down to the level of her chin.
The mother rolled her eyes--giving the daughter a chance for a surreptitious peek at her watch. ``Do I deserve this?'' the mother asked, with a hopeless gesture at the sky. ``I work my fingers to the bone to provide her with healthy, nourishing food, and all she does is complain and malinger. I ask you.'' She lounged back in her chair, legs spread, and began pawing through the box of bon-bons again, while the daughter went on eating with renewed, desperate vigor. ``And on top of everything else, half of these things are creme de menthe,'' the mother moaned. ``I can't stand creme de menthe.''
This line got an even bigger laugh than it had the week before. I glanced curiously at the Lermontov parents. The father was grinning at the mother.
``Mother, I can see the school bus coming,'' the daughter nervously whispered--she had choked down only half the pancakes. ``If I miss it, I'll be late for school again. I . . . I don't want to get in trouble for being late another time.''
``Excuses, excuses.'' The mother studied a piece of candy for awhile and then moved it rather suspiciously toward her mouth. ``And don't bother asking me to write you a note for being late. It's your own fault for playing with your food. You have to learn to take responsibility for your actions.'' The daughter nodded in agreement as she raced to force down more pancakes.
The mother bit into the candy. ``Now that's more like it,'' she she said to the piece of chocolate with a self-satisfied burp, and popped the rest of it into her mouth. She stretched. ``Guess I'll go turn on the TV. Not that there'll be anything except boring news shows for the next hour or so.''
I switched off the ceiling light with a mournful expression, and the scene ended. Furniture was quickly shuffled around in the half darkness. It took several minutes, but the audience was still applauding when we had finished.
The next scene was a schoolroom. Students bent over their notebooks, scribbling frantically, while Albert, the teacher, reclined with his feet on his desk, leafing through The National Enquirer. There were shrieks from the audience when the daughter from the first scene, her stomach grotesquely distended, tried to waddle unnoticed into the classroom.
The instant she appeared the teacher slammed down his paper and jumped to his feet. ``Late again!'' he roared, pointing an accusing finger at her. ``What kinda dumb, lamebrained excuse are you gonna try dumping on me this time?''
``Excuse me, sir. My . . . my mother made me eat two to the sixth pancakes and drink 3.5 liters of milk,'' the girl faltered. ``It . . . took so long I missed the bus and had to walk all the way to--''
``If it was your mother kep' you home, then she woulda written you a excuse, now wouldn't she of?'' the teacher interrupted, tilting his head to the side with a crafty smile. He extended his hand. ``Lemme see it.''
``I'm sorry, sir. But . . she was unable to write me an--''
``Shut up!'' bellowed the teacher. ``I'm sick of hearing you blame your poor hard working mother for your own lazy-assed stuff you do. It's disgusting. Another F for the day.'' He pointed. ``To the principal's office for a lot more discipline stuff this time. When you get back, you'll just sit on that there stool at the front of the class--if you can sit, I mean,'' he added with an evil smirk, ``and the whole class'll fix their eyes on you while you meditates on your sins.'' He swung around to the other students. ``You hear me, class?''
The other students, who had not dared to look up from their notebooks during this entire conversation, now instantly stopped scribbling, lifted their heads and chorused, ``Yes, sir!'' in unison.
``Now get!'' the teacher ordered the late girl, who wobbled miserably from the room, clutching her bloated stomach.
The teacher glared at the other students. ``The minute that fat kid gets back in here, the rest of you gotta hand in your 40-page essays on the history of colonialism butchery atrocities. Like I already told you, one spelling or grammarial mistake, one wrong date or amputation death statistic, or one unlegible word will get you a automatic F.'' He smiled again. ``I have people who check your papers. I bet you're all hoping the principal will discipline that fat kid for as long as he needs to learn her a good lesson, so you'll have a lotta time to work on your essays. Well ain't you?''
``Yes, sir!'' the students chorused again.
``Well? Ain't any of you enough a devoted student to want some more time than that much?'' the teacher asked them in a coaxing tone of voice, drumming his fingers on the desk, while fixing his gaze on each student in turn. ``If any one of you can gimme some reason for another student to get some discipline, you'll have that much more time to fix up your short little essays.''
The students peered furtively around at each other, naturally reluctant to cause any of their fellows pain, even though it would result in more time to complete their impossible assignment.
``Well?'' crooned the teacher. ``If nobody ain't gonna say nothing, I'll just send another one a you in there myself, just pick somebody, like.''
Finally, Bart started to lift his hand, brought it back, then finally managed to lift it again.
``Well, I . . . I don't know about anybody else,'' Bart said in a weak voice. ``But I . . . well, I looked up one word in the dictionary when I was doing the 20-page take home test you gave us last night,'' he nobly admitted, volunteering to be punished for the benefit of the rest of the class.
The teacher was not pleased. ``That ain't what I was asking you--I was asking for you to tell me about what somebody else done, you lamebrain. Something the matter with your ears? They're sure big enough so you oughta hear better.''
Bart blushed. (He did have big ears.)
``Can't the rest of you hear either?'' the teacher gently asked.
The other students pretended to laugh at the teacher's witty remark about Jimmie.
The teacher swung back to Bart, who was still blushing. ``I don't like what you done. And I knows you got the hots for that cow Susie over there. Your mother told everybody at the PTA meeting the other night how long it takes you to build up the guts to phone Susie up, how you sweat and pace. We all got a real hoot out of it.''
Bart blushed more deeply. The Lermontov mother, I noticed, was looking down at her lap.
``So Susie--you're the one's gonna go to the principal's office, on account of what Jimmie here done,'' the teacher continued. ``And while you're in there getting it, you can think about how it's all Jimmie's fault. How about that, Jimmie?''
``No. Please. Not Susie!'' Jimmie piteously begged him.
``Shut up and write your colonialism butchery atrocity essay. Get going, Susie!''
Susie (Nicole) slunk from the room. I was limping slightly now as I went to turn off the light. The applause was even more enthusiastic.
Scene three: an emporium. Vera was the salesperson, chewing gum, her elbows on the counter. Diminutive Anna, chosen for this role because she was the youngest and smallest, was the single shopper at the counter as the scene began. Neatly though somewhat shabbily dressed, the tiny child waited patiently, change purse and purchase in hand, for the saleswoman to notice her.
Vera, her jaws deliberating on the gum, stared vacantly into space as though Anna were invisible.
``Excuse me, Miss,'' Anna politely tried to catch her attention. ``If you don't mind, I would like to buy these earrings as a gift for my mother. I have the exact change all ready.''
The saleswoman blew a large bubble, popped it with a finger, and went on chewing obliviously away.
An adult, (Matilda in high heels), marched up to the counter and carelessly pushed Anna aside. ``May I help you?'' the salesperson said at once.
``Yeah, I want this scarf,'' the woman said. ``Or no, maybe I want this other one. Gee, I can't decide . . .''
``Take your time, honey,'' the saleswoman said. ``I'm stuck here all day anyway.''
``Excuse me,'' Anna tried again, after watching Matilda for awhile and waiting courteously for her to try to make up her mind about the scarves. ``May I please buy this pair of earrings?''
Vera still couldn't seem to hear her.
Another adult stepped up to the counter on the other side of Anna and shoved her further out of the way. ``You have any Coral Blush lipstick?'' she demanded.
``Coral Blush? Let me see now,'' Vera said, immediately checking the merchandise. ``No, I'm afraid we're all out of that particular shade. How about Tropical Sunset? Believe me, it's the same stuff. They just give 'em different names to fool you.''
``No, it has to be Coral Blush,'' the woman said petulantly. ``Coral Blush is the only shade that's subtle enough for my delicate complexion.''
``But I think Tropical Sunset would look perfectly lovely on you,'' Vera coaxed her. ``Just take a look at it and see if you don't agree. Take all the time you need.''
``Well . . .'' the woman murmured, studying the lipstick with intense concentration, as though her life depended on it.
Little Anna managed to wedge herself delicately between the two indecisive adults at the counter. ``Please, Miss,'' she piped up. ``It will just take me a second to give you the exact change for these earrings.''
Vera had suddenly become blind and deaf again. Anna didn't exist.
Vicky attacked from the rear, grabbing Anna by the shoulder and thrusting her behind the others. ``Is that your entire collection of earrings over there?'' she asked Vera incredulously. ``Such a limited selection! There's not a single pair I'd be caught dead in.''
``Perhaps Madame didn't notice these,'' Vera said, leaning over the counter and reaching past Vicky to pluck the earrings directly out of Anna's hand in one skillful and accurate movement. She held them up temptingly for Vicky's perusal.
``But, excuse me, Miss,'' Anna tried to protest from behind the others. ``I had already chosen those as a gift for my mother who--''
``Why, these are gorgeous!'' Vicky exclaimed. ``Exactly what I was looking for. I'll charge them.''
``But I forgot my charge card,'' Vicky said.
``No problem at all, Madame. I'll just have to fill out three forms and check them with my supervisor.'' She reached under the counter.
``Please,'' Anna begged her, with courage born of desperation. ``I had already chosen that pair. And I have the exact--''
Vicky turned on her. ``Don't bother us, little girl!''
``Stop annoying the real customers or I'll report you for shoplifting, you obnoxious brat!'' the saleswoman threatened, addressing Anna for the first time.
Anna quietly turned away and left the store with downcast eyes. My back was bent now, weighted down by the woes of the children of the world, as I hobbled over to turn off the light.
Despite the continued appreciative applause, I was a little nervous about the next scene, an evening at home. This section was almost entirely based on material from the original list--supposedly very accurate material about the Lermontov parents.
The two children, Nick and Vicky, sat at the table studiously taking notes as they pored over thick encylopedia volumes. They were of course neatly and conservatively dressed and perfectly groomed.
The mother, in curlers and bathrobe, sprawled on the couch watching TV and chain smoking, picking sullenly at her bon-bons between cigarettes. The father, in a dirty undershirt, sat at the other end of the couch reading a cheap paperback novel with a lurid cover. He swilled down the last of a can of beer, tossed it onto the pile of empties on the floor beside the couch, and snapped his fingers. Silently, the son rose from the table, left the room, and returned with another can of beer, which he handed to the father. The father accepted the beer with a belch, not glancing at his son, and went on reading. The son sat down to his studies again.
The father looked up from his book. ``Children! I want you to stop that busy-work for a minute and listen to this,'' he announced, scratching an armpit. ``I'm going to give you an example of truly great and profound literature that I hope might improve your undisciplined little minds.''
The son and daughter immediately lifted their heads from their tomes and folded their hands, focusing all their attention on the father.
He cleared his throat and read, ``'Gallagher tightened his large, muscular hands around her blushfully pink, delicate neck. ``You're lying!'' he accused her in loud, angry, vibrant tones. ``No one lies to me and lives to tell about it.'' ``No, darling, I'm speaking the truth in all honesty and you must believe me!'' she pleaded huskily, though her large, periwinkle blue eyes were shifty as she muttered the words. Gallagher lifted one virile hand to tenderly stroke her long, thick, wavy, golden hair. ``Gee, I'd like to believe you, toots,'' he said in his deep, earthy, masculine voice. And then he pulled out a knife and began to slash, starting at her . . .'''
The daughter, thinking she was momentarily safe, glanced down at the large volume in front of her and then smiled faintly to herself. But the mother, whose eyes had appeared to be glued to the television screen, a cigarette dangling from her lips, instantly noticed her daughter's disobedient lapse and silently nudged the father.
The father pounced so quickly that the brother had no time to warn his sister, the daughter no chance to protect herself. ``Aha!'' the father cried triumphantly, lifting the thin paperback the daughter had hidden inside the encyclopedia volume. ``What is this garbage? Selected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay!'' he read, and shook his head in pity and contempt. ``Don't think I haven't heard about that slut. So this is the kind of prurient trash you prefer to real literature with some guts to it. Not assigned by the teacher, I bet, was it?''
``Well, no father,'' she truthfully admitted. ``It's just that . . . well, some of these poems are so beautiful.'' ``'Some of these poems are so beautiful,''' the father nastily mimicked her. ``I don't want to hear it!'' he said in disgust. With one dramatic gesture he tore the slim volume in half and hurled the pages to the floor. ``That's what I think of your obscene taste in . . .''
His voice faded. He peered more closely at the daughter for a long, tense moment. ``Oh, my God,'' he said in a choked voice. ``Is it possible? And yet . . . I see it.''
``See what, Father?'' the daughter said, looking down at herself, afraid of what was coming next.
He closed his eyes and swallowed deeply, as though speech were almost beyond him. ``A pimple!'' he breathed.
The Lermontov mother laughed so loudly and so long at this point that the action had to be delayed. This time, I noticed, it was their father who seemed a little embarrassed.
Finally Vicky was able to continue with her role. ``No father, please. You must be mistaken,'' the daughter protested, turning her head away from him in an automatic response of self-protection. ``I checked my face ever so carefully, right after I washed the dishes and mopped the floor. There was nothing, I promise.''
``You expect me to ignore the evidence of my own eyes?'' cried the father, whipping a magnifying glass from his pocket. ``And don't cringe!'' he ordered her. He lifted her head roughly by the chin, bent over and scrutinized her face through the powerful magnifying lens, as she tried not to squirm. ``There it is, just as I thought.'' He jabbed her cheek with one finger. ``Right there, in the left quadrant. What have I told you about proper hygeine? A pig wallowing in its own filth, that's what you are!''
``Ugh!'' the mother said, shuddering, as she lit another cigarette.
``But father, I promise you, I never stop working on it, three times a day, just like--''
``You expect me to share the same house with someone who has no respect for hygiene and decent health habits?'' He pointed at the ceiling. ``Upstairs, to the bathroom,'' he pronounced in righteous tones. ``Do not come out until you've spent the next hour with your pimple soap and pimple pads and pimple creams and pimple powder--and all your other pimple crap!''
The daughter hid her head in her hands and ran from the room.
I staggered over to turn off the light, my face a mask of pain. This time the laughter went on for so long that I had to stand there, waiting for it do die away, before I could switch on the light. But when I did I stood up straight again, radiating health, smiling benignly. Things had begun to change.
It was a revolutionary cell, where the children were hard at work cleaning and loading guns, moving sandbags, and checking and re-checking lists. Devoted comrades, they shared equally in the work, hurrying to help one another whenever it was necessary. In a moment they broke into a rousing song--the lyrics had been suggested to Mom by the Boy Scout Manual.
Be prepared! That's the children's marching song. Be prepared! As through life you march along. Be prepared to fight your parents without fears. Just remember how we've suffered all these years. Be prepared! Though they don't seem very spry Don't be fooled, For the old things still are sly. And if their appeals for mercy Ever touch your tender heart, Just remember they've been fakes and frauds Right from the very start, And it's only for themselves they've ever cared. Be prepared!
``Go to it!'' a kid in the audience shouted above the applause for this number.
It soon became apparent that Vicky was the revolutionary leader. Though her character, the daughter, had suffered more at the hands of parents than any of the others, she was also the most temperate, cautioning her comrades to base their cause on empathy and reason rather than crude emotion. ``We can't allow ourselves to sink to their level,'' she urged the other freedom fighters. ``Remember to shoot into the air. Our object is not to kill or maim, but to achieve our rightful independence. The weapons are just a means of gaining control. Only through non-violence can true justice prevail.''
``Even though they have perpetrated such gross abuses of human rights?'' someone objected.
``That is not our way,'' Vicky said gently. ``Remember, they too must once have been human beings like ourselves, hard as it is to believe. Our goal is not to repeat their mistakes, but to guide them by our own example. Only through education will they learn the error of their ways.''
``But exactly what will we do with them once we are in power?'' the others wanted to know.
``Nursing homes, of course,'' Vicky said. Everyone in the audience knew that a local nursing home had recently burned to the ground as the result of gross neglect of the fire laws, immolating most of the helpless patients but none of the staff, who had all escaped unharmed. ``Yes, nursing homes,'' Vicky continued sweetly. ``They are such warm, such scintillating places.''
This line, suggested by Mom, drew an appreciative chuckle from the audience.
``The time is at hand!'' Vicky announced. ``To your battle stations. Soon, victory will be ours! Remember, we have nothing to lose but our chains.''
The freedom fighters briefly clasped hands, cheering one another on. Then they separated, and moved in silent stealth to crouch in various positions about the stage. They waited, their eyes all on Vicky. She checked and rechecked her watch.
At last she lifted her arm in preparation to give the signal to begin their heroic struggle for liberation.
At that moment the mother rushed on. ``So there you are!'' she cried shrilly. ``Late for supper again, you ingrate! You'll pay dearly for this. And don't snivel!'' She grabbed Vicky by the ear and pulled her off the stage, toppling the revolution before it had even begun.
I barely managed to crawl from the piano to turn off the light, ending the show.
While we were taking our bows, Nick darted unexpectedly into the kitchen and pulled a protesting Mom, who helped with the costume changes during the show, onto the stage. Vera produced a large bouquet of roses. ``We would all like to express our heartfelt thanks to Dr. Esther Kaplan Sleator,'' she said, smiling warmly at Mom as she presented her with the flowers. ``Without her inspiration and tireless effort, none of this would have been possible.'' (It was, Mom told us later, exactly the kind of thoughtful gesture she would expect the Lermontov kids to come up with.)
The audience applauded appreciatively after Vera's little speech. The Lermontov parents clapped just as much as the others--though I also noticed that they were whispering together, their eyes on Mom. When everyone was milling around afterwards, they told Mom, beaming, what a brilliant job she had done.
The newspaper reporter was very gracious. But for one reason or another, no article ever appeared.
We had dinner at the Lermontov's house a few weeks later. Their mother smoked and ate candy and talked about how Nick, who was on the swim team, always made sure to do his body-building exercises immediately before appearing in public in his swimsuit. Nick quickly left the room, ostensibly to get his father another beer. Anna, who was not even approaching adolescence and whose complexion was flawless, had a very noticeable patch of some kind of cream on her forehead.
For once, Mom did not go on and on afterwards about how great the Lermontov kids were. She was, I seem to remember, unusually silent as we drove home that night.