Main > Series > Chapters > Fame Book 2 > Chapter 3

'Forget it,' Leroy said as he practised a few warm up stretches on the barre before the dance studio mirror. 'I don't want no part of it.'

Danny tried to catch his eye in the reflection, but Leroy was too mad to let himself be caught. 'But you promised!' Danny insisted, but Leroy wasn't going to agree to that.

'No,' he said, 'you promised. I was just an innocent bystander at the scene of the crime. Remember?'

'I can't do this alone.'

'I know that.'

'Where's your heart?'

'I left it in San Francisco. Now get off my case.' Leroy tried to shake Danny off by moving down the wall to another part of the barre, but Danny moved right along with him.

'What about the alumni show?' Danny persisted. 'Miss Grant said we had to do this, or we're out on our tails.'

'There's lots of shows,' Leroy said with uncharacteristic stoicism. 'I can skip one. Catch up on my reading.'

Danny stepped back and watched him for a while. Leroy ignored him for more than a minute, but then he couldn't help noticing that Danny was looking less disappointed than he might.

In the end, it was more than he could take. 'So, what's the matter now?' he said.

Danny glanced around. The rest of the kids in the dance class were starting to arrive; the bell couldn't be more than a few moments away for the start of the afternoon session.

'Oh,' he said airily, 'I've just got this feeling that I'll be seeing you at practice today.'

'Not if my life depended on it.'

'Well,' Danny said, 'in case you change your mind, it's at four o'clock in St. Charles' gym. Bring sneakers.'

Leroy's only reply was a long, mean look that carried enough smoulder in it to roast a pound of chestnuts. Danny gave him a friendly wave as he backed off, and he got out of the studio just before Lydia Grant came sweeping into the room like five feet of hurricane.

She didn't even wait for the babble to subside. 'People,' she said, 'I have an announcement to make,' and kids all around stopped their warm ups and left off the unpacking of their dance bags to listen. Leroy had been hoping to catch her before things got started so that he could explain about the basketball business, but it looked like that was going to have to wait until the end of the period.

'People,' she went on, 'I want you to be thinking fierce, fierce, fierce for this alumni show, because it looks like there's a chance you're going to be working with one of our more famous ex-students. I just got a call from Johnny Willcox, and he's asked if he can be counted in one of our routines. Now how about that?'

How about that, indeed. Willcox had been hoofing along in a revival of A Chorus Line at the Desert Inn, Las Vegas, when a talent spotter out from Los Angelses had seen him and signed him for a guest spot in a Liza Minelli special. More guest work had followed, and a year later his name had become well enough known for him to return to Vegas and pull in good crowds with his one-man show at the Hilton. The latest word in Variety was that the show was being reworked for TV; the Willcox name wasn't exactly common coinage as yet, but another six months and an upcoming part in the next Paul Schrader movie ought to change all of that.

The kids on either side of Leroy were applauding like crazy. Leroy was feeling dull and slow and slightly out of synch. Passing up on a country dance number wouldn't have been much of a loss, but the country dance number had suddenly become something of real interst and importance. Johnny Willcox! How could Leroy afford not to be in on this?

Behind Lydia Grant, somebody was looking in through the glass panels in the door. It was Danny Amatullo, and he was grinning at Leroy. He must have heard the news as soon as they got back to the school, but he hadn't passed it on. Leroy probably wouldn't have believed him anyway; but he could hardly ignore the news when it came like this.

Danny held up four fingers. Four o'clock, he mimed.

Yeah, Leroy thought resignedly. With sneakers.

Elizabeth Sherwood was a worried lady.

She'd known right from the beginning that teaching English would never be a simple matter of assembling the facts and getting them across; if anything, that side of it took the least out of her. Most of her energies were taken up by the need to be psychologist, psychiatrist, mother-figure, welfare worker, and tyrant to kids who were at an age where life could sometimes seem too difficult and complex but the ways around these were rarely to be found in the grammar books.

But this one . . . this one really had her worried. It had begun when she'd found a book that had been left behind in her classroom after a particularly hectic lesson in which she'd divided the kids into groups and had them push the seating around so that they could conspire over their assignments. The book had been nothing special, just a selection of American short stories with an introduction and annotations, but her eye had been caught by some ink smudges on the edge of the bindings. There was nothing unusual in that, but when she'd picked it up she'd found that the smudges went all the way around the edges of the paper and seemed almost to make a pattern.

When she'd opened the book, she'd found out why.

On page after page, all the way through, words and sentences had been carefully blacked out. In some places, it was entire passages. There were also some pages missing completely, removed with a razor. The book was a travesty.

Her first reaction had been to assume that it was vandalism, but that thought didn't last for long. This was too careful, too studied. And a book was just an object, after all; the real offence here was in the strangling of ideas, the attempted suppression of thoughts. For Elizabeth, this was more than a crime; it was a sin.

The disarrangement of the classroom made it impossible for her to tell who had left the book behind, but there was an easy enough way to find out. All school textbooks were numbered on issue, to forestall anyone who might lose their book and get ideas about taking someone else's to replace it. All that Elizabeth needed to do was to get the record book from the stock cupboard and check the listing against the cover serial number. At least that hadn't been inked over.

Jenny McClain. The book belonged to Jenny McClain, one of her most promising students. This made it even harder to understand. Jenny was a careful, diligent worker; she'd contributed some poems to the school's twice-yearly magazine, and she'd once told Elizabeth that she'd made a start on the writing of a play. It made no sense at all. Perhaps there was a mistake in the numbers.

But there had been no mistake. Elizabeth made a point of cruising the aisles between the desks during that morning's lesson, and she'd seen for herself; whilst others were doing their best to hide comic books inside their Melville texts, Jenny McClain had tried to use some pages of notes to cover a bowlerised version of Moby Dick.

At the end of the lesson, when all of the others had made a dash for freedom out of the classroom Jenny McClain had still been at her desk.

Her head was down in shame; she knew that Elizabeth had seen. She was close to tears.

Elizabeth had gone down to her and sat on a nearby chair. 'Jenny,' she'd said, 'look at me. Jenny, you must believe me. Whatever the explanation is, it's going to be all right.' And then she'd placed the short story text where Jenny could see. 'Is this yours?'

The girl had nodded, slowly. She was small for her age, and she was dark and fairly quiet. The poems that she'd written for the school magazine had reflected some of her shyness and reticence, but they'd also been evidence of a much deeper sensitivity.

'Why did you black out the pages?' Elizabeth had pressed on. 'I don't understand.'

'I didn't black them out.'

'Was it another student?'

A shake of the head.

'Jenny, I have to know who did this

Whatever was going to come next, it obviously wasn't easy for Jenny to say. 'It was . . . it was my stepfather,' she'd managed finally. 'He believes they're dangerous.'

'He believes what are dangerous?'

'The words. He believes that words are dangerous.'

So there it was. Something that you might expect down in the bible belt, but this was New York; into parents who sent their kids out with blinkers on into a city environment might as well send them swimming in a shark pool with a rubber harpoon. Now, in the free speech environment of the teachers' lounge, Elizabeth made sure that everybody would get to know what she thought of the practice.

'Apparently, it's not just books,' she explained, 'it's music, television, films - he censors everthing before it gets to her. Everything. I just don't understand it.'

'Oh, I understand it,' Dave Reardon said. He was sitting with his butt hitched onto a tables edge, drinking coffee from a styrofoam cup. 'It's exactly why I left home sweet home. To get away from people who think they've got a lock on right and wrong.'

Shorofsky, who was sitting a short distance away, said quietly and to no-one in particular, 'April seventeenth, nineteen thirty-eight.'

Lydia Grant looked over her shoulder at him. 'Excuse me, Mister Shorofsky? Did you say something?'

He turned to face them. 'The last time I heard a discussion like this was April seventeenth, nineteen thirty-eight, in Germany. I remember the date; it was my sister's birthday and each of us kept trying to change the subject, hoping the problem would just go away. It didn't.'

'Well,' Elizabeth said, 'I'm going to say something. I have to say something.'

Lydia Grant shrugged, and started to return to the notebook in which she'd been jotting some ideas for a way that the country dance number could be built around an appearance by their newly announced Alumni Day guest. She said, 'Sounds like you oughta keep your nose clean and stay out of it.'

If the truth were known, Lydia hadn't thought to deeply before she'd spoken; now, seeing the waters of indignation building up behind the dam of Elizabeth's temper, she could only add meekly, 'Well, that's what I'd do.'

'Like hell that's what you'd do.' Elizabeth said. 'Believe me, girl, if it was Leroy Johnson whose feet were glued to the ground because of a problem at home, that home would be shaking right down to its foundation and you know it. That's the way it should be, because Leroy's special for you the same way Martelli is special for Mister Shorofsky and David will find his special student. Well, I finally have mine and I'll be damned if I'm going to "Keep my nose clean and stay out of it".'

She looked around. She'd managed the impossible; she'd blasted the teachers' lounge into silence. Every face was turned towards her, and she could feel herself starting to blush.

'There,' she ended lamely. 'I said it.'

Lydia Grant was looking at her without resentment. 'And I'm glad you did,' she said.

Four o'clock came around, and the top of the hour found Danny and Leroy together at St. Charles' gym. Danny had found them a couple of chrome referee's whistles from the school's props department, whilst Leroy's contribution was a dog-eared book entitled The Basics of Basketball from the school library. He'd glowered at Danny, daring him to gloat or show any sign of triumph, but Danny knew better than that.

Then the kids all arrived, full of enthusiasm and ready to knock 'em dead. Lucas Boyd was the first one in, and he brought the basketball; with him was at the morning's meeting, name of Andy Parachek. They and the others all gathered around, waiting eagerly to be instructed in their first step on the road to glory.

Leroy frowned over The Basics of Basketball as Danny got the kids into two lines on either side of the basket.

'It says here,' Leroy said, reading aloud, 'that somebody from that line is supposed to shoot; then somebody from this line snags it and passes it to that line as he goes to the end of the shoot line . . . '

Leroy was lost already, but Danny seemed full of confidence. 'Don't worry about it,' he said. 'I've seen the Knicks do it before a game, it's easy. Okay, here we go.'

Lucas and Andy each headed up a line. Andy threw for the basket, and missed. Lucas made an energetic leap to catch the ball on the rebound, and missed. Andy and Lucas collided, and hit the floor like a parcel of newspapers leading on a sidewalk.

Leroy studied the ceiling for a while. 'Okay,' Danny said with forced enthusiasm, 'that was a start. Gives us something to build on.'

Lucas and Andy got to their feet. Neither was hurt, but both were looking sheepish. even so, it was nothing to laugh at.

Danny looked around, to see where the sound was coming from. There was a big guy standing in the open doorway to the gym, and there was a grin on his face that wouldn't have been out of place in a toothpaste ad if only hadn't contained such a definite trace of malevolence. He was wearing a tracksuit with an unzippered top over a sweatshirt, and he looked as if his neck probably measured a couple of inches more around than his head.

'Hey,' he said, holding the door back, 'when are you guys going to be out of here? I've got the gym after you. Don't take too long.'

'Who're you?' Danny said. Neither he nor Leroy was particularly thrilled by the man's tone; they hadn't been here for more than five minutes, and he was already trying to hustle them out.

'Name's Jordan,' he said. 'I coach St. Jane Frances.' He nodded towards the team. 'Those your guys?'

'Yeah,' Leroy said, and there was a note of challenge in his voice that Danny recognised to mean danger.

If Jordan noticed this, he paid it no attention. He just grinned more broadly, and shook his head. 'This is going to be even more fun than last year,' he started to get annoyed.

'Come on,' he said, trying to usher Jordan out of the gym, 'this is our session, okay?'

Jordan seemed to over-react slightly; it wasn't so much that he was intimidated by the sight of Danny and Leroy coming towards him, rather that he seemed to be uneasy at the idea of being touched. As he moved, a loose-leaf notebook fell from the waistband of his tracksuit.

Leroy reached for it. 'I'll get that!' Jordan said sharply, but Leroy already had his hands on it.

'I got it,' he said, but before he'd finished Jordan had already snatched it from him.

Leroy couldn't believe what he was seeing. 'What's the big deal?' he said.

Jordan tucked the notebook safely away inside his tracksuit top. 'It's our playbook,' he said.

'What's that?'

Jordan took a little time to realise what Leroy had said. 'You guys don't even know what a playbook is?' he said at last.

Danny could see that a major gaffe was in the process of being committed, and he wondered if it was too late to save face. 'Hey,' he began, 'we didn't say that,' but Jordan had already seen through them.

'Look,' he said, and his manner was now condescending. 'Why don't you guys take a little free advice and get out of this thing while you can. I'm sure you've got better things to do with your time, and it's safe to say you're in way over your head.'

It was a mistake. Condescension was not a technique guaranteed to get the best response out of Leroy Johnson. He'd sensed that Jordan was somebody to be disliked on first sight, and every time the guy opened his mouth he only increased Leroy's certainty.

'I don't know how safe it is to say that, mister,' he said, and Jordan shrugged.

'Suit yourself,' he said. 'Just remember, we've got the court at four-thirty. Look on it as a friendly reminder.'

Jordan turned to go, and left the gym door swinging. Nearly half of their practice time had already gone.

Danny reorganised the lines, and left them to it. He and Leroy sat on a bench and watched the boys work; they were scoring no more than one basket in three.

'Let's face it,' Danny said dispiritedly, 'this isn't happening. And this is their last shot at it.'

'What are you talking about?'

'You take a real good listen to Lucas' voice?'

'No. Should I?'

'It's changing, man,' Danny said. 'He's going from soprano to foghorn, and once it goes for good, so does he. Out of the choir, out of the team.'

Leroy watched the lines for a little while longer. Danny was right; out of all of them, Lucas and Andy were the two strongest and most likely athletes. What they lacked was the intelligent organisation that a good coach could give them; or, failing that, some kind of strategic edge.

'Like the guy said,' Leroy said gloomily, 'we don't even have a playbook.'

'You got any ideas?'

Leroy considered for a while. 'Matter of fact, I do.'

'Is it legal?'

Now Leroy wouldn't look at Danny, but the indifference of his manner was too studied to be credible.

'Okay,' Danny said, 'so it's not legal.'

When the going got as rough as this, you had to grab at any opportunity you could find.

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