(Excerpt from Chapter 2)
Nemi and I became friends in the third grade because he didn’t want to play Baby Bear. It was near the end of the term and our teacher, Ms. Lowenthal, told us that for the annual class play we would be doing Goldilocks and the Three Bears and that the main parts would be: Goldilocks, Mama Bear, Papa Bear, Baby Bear and the narrator.
“Who can tell us what a narrator is?” Ms. Lowenthal asked. “Becky?”
“A narrator is someone who tells the story,” I said hurriedly. “But Ms. Lowenthal, if there are only five big parts, what is the rest of the class going to do?” Note that I said “the rest of the class” and not “the rest of us,” automatically assuming I would be playing one of the lead roles.
“That’s a very good question, Becky,” Ms. Lowenthal said. “The rest of the class will be in the band and the chorus.”
There isn’t any band or chorus in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I wanted to tell her, but I didn’t.
Then Nemi piped up. “When are the auditions?” he asked.
Now, up until that time, I’d barely noticed Nemi. He was small–the smallest kid in the class, as a matter of fact–and dark and fairly quiet. But when he asked his question, I–and the whole class–turned to look at him. Auditions? What were auditions? What was this smart-ass kid talking about?
Even Ms. Lowenthal looked stunned. “Ah, well, Nemi, that too is a good question. There…um…won’t be any…ah…auditions. I will pick people for the parts.”
“Oh” was all Nemi said.
“Ms. Lowenthal, what are auditions?” Kathy Flaherty asked, blinking her big blue
eyes and flicking back her long blond curls.
“Well, Kathy, auditions are…well, why don’t we let Nemi explain what they are.”
“They’re when people try out for parts in a play and the best people get the best parts,” he answered.
“Who decides who’s best?” Jimmy Biaggi asked.
“The director. Usually. But sometimes other people. Last year in my other school we put on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and we had auditions before the whole class. Then the kids got to pick who would play the parts.”
“What did you play?” I asked.
“The Prince,” he answered with a straight face.
And everyone oohed and ahhed.
“Well, I think that’s a dumb way to do things,” Kathy said. “Ms. Lowenthal, you’re the director, aren’t you?”
Ms. Lowenthal, by now totally speechless at this group of Equity-card-carrying actors she hadn’t known she’d been harboring all year in her classroom, merely nodded.
“Well, then you see,” said Kathy, “you already know who’s best for each part. Don’t you, Ms. Lowenthal?”
Ms. Lowenthal cleared her throat and said, “Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I do believe…I…yes…I think I do.”
There was a silence, and then Jimmy said, “So, tell us who gets the parts.”
Ms. Lowenthal looked at her watch, cleared her throat again and said, “After lunch.”
The class groaned and trooped off to the cafeteria.
I immediately grabbed a seat next to Nemi. “How do you know so much about plays?” I said.
“From my mother.”
“She’s an actress?” I said, getting excited.
“No. She used to be a dresser.”
I must’ve looked blank because Nemi said, “She used to help actors get into their costumes.”
“Aren’t they old enough to dress themselves?” I said.
Nemi laughed. “Ha-ha. That’s very funny.”
But I hadn’t meant it as a joke. I thought maybe she dressed child actors or something.
Finally, Nemi explained that actors often have complicated costumes they have to get in and out of fast and need a dresser to help them.
“Oh,” I responded. “Did she like it?”
“Yes. She wants to go back to doing it when my sister is a little older.”
“What does your father do?” I asked.
“He’s a dentist.”
“Ugh,” I said, then clapped my hand over my mouth in embarrassment.
“That’s okay. Everybody says that.” Then he asked. “What do your parents do?”
“My mother’s an Avon Lady,” I said. “I get lots of free perfume and soap and nail polish and lipstick and things.”
“You wear that junk?”
“Just for play.”
“What about your father?”
I turned a little red. I never really knew what my father did. Something about figuring out whether or not things will work right in a business. It took me until I was thirteen to learn he was a systems analyst. It will take me another twenty years to understand what that means. “He does stuff with numbers,” I said.
“You mean he’s an accountant?”
“Something like that,” I said. Then I changed the subject. “Nemi, what part do you want to play in the play?”
“The narrator,” he said. “It’s the best part.”
“How do you know that?”
“It was the best part last year in Snow White.”
“How about you? What part do you want?”
I wanted to play Goldilocks, but somehow I was embarrased to admit it. “Mama Bear,” I lied.
“Baloney,” Nemi said. “You want to play Goldilocks. But you won’t get it.”
“Why not?” I asked before I could stop myself.
“Because that teacher’s pet Kathy Flaherty will.”
“How do you know?”
“Wait and see.”
So then we trooped back to class and sat very straight and very eager in our seats. There was an air of expectation in the room. Ms. Lowenthal looked more composed than she had before lunch.”
“Well, I’ve made my selection,” she said. “Grace, what does selection mean?”
Plump Gracie Shapiro said, “It means you’ve made your choice,” in a crisp, clear voice.
“Good. For the part of Goldilocks, Kathy Flaherty.”
Nemi looked at me with a grin. I turned my head away from him and looked at Kathy. She had a big smirk on her face and was twisting one golden lock around her finger just the way she had twisted Ms. Lowenthal.
“For Papa Bear, Jimmy Biaggi. Mama Bear, Grace Shapiro. For Baby Bear, Nemi Barish. And for the narrator, Becky Weiss.” She looked up with a smile.
Some of the class were grumbling and some were relieved. Jimmy was growling and clawing the air. Grace was beaming–it was her first speaking part in a play. The year before, she’d had to be the rear end of a donkey in The Bremen Town Musicians. And then I looked at Nemi. His face was kind of pale for him and his eyes looked funny, like he was about to cry and didn’t want to.
“May I be excused, Ms. Lowenthal?” he sort of choked out.
“Not right now, Nemi, wait a few minutes…Now class, the rest of you will…” Ms. Lowenthal went on to explain what the rest of the class would be doing. And while she was talking, I watched Nemi bite his lip and blink his eyes. I don’t think anybody noticed but me and maybe Jeff Carter, who sat next to him.
When Ms. Lowenthal finished talking, Nemi said, “Now may I be excused, Ms. Lowenthal?”
“Yes, you may,” she said.
He nearly bolted out of the room.
I knew I couldn’t use the same line, so I said, “Oh, Ms. Lowenthal, I left my book in the cafeteria.”
“Well, go get it, Becky.” She sighed.
And I ran out and down the hall and caught up with Nemi at the Boys’ Room door. Tears were streaming down his face and his lip was bleeding from biting it. “What is it? What’s the matter? Are you mad because I got the part you wanted?”
He shook his head.
“Well, what’s wrong, then?”
“Nothing…It’s…I…just don’t want to pl-play that st-stupid part, is all.”
“What stupid part? Baby Bear? That’s a good part.”
“No, it isn’t…it’s st-stupid.”
I looked at him and knew he wasn’t telling me the truth, but I didn’t know why.
And then he blurted it out. “I’m sick of getting the baby parts. In second grade, I didn’t play the Prince. I played Dopey. In first grade, I played Tiny Tim. And now it’s Baby Bear. I hate being the littlest one in the class!” And he started to cry so hard, his thin shoulders shook.
I didn’t know what to do. I put one hand out, then took it back. “Hey. Hey,” I said helplessly. “Listen, you’ll grow,” I said.
But that only made him cry harder.
I sighed. What could I do to help my new friend? And then I knew. “Nemi, I’ve got an idea,” I said. “Look, I wanted to play your part the most–next to Goldilocks, that is.”
“And Mama Bear,” he sniffled.
“And Mama Bear. And you want to play my part. So why don’t we switch?”
He looked up at me and sniffled. “W-we can’t do that. Ms. Lowenthal w-won’t let us.”
“How do you know? We’ll just tell her we like each other’s parts better.”
“It w-won’t work.”
“It’s worth a try,” I said. “You wash your face and I’ll see you back to class.”
After class, Nemi and I told Ms. Lowenthal that we wanted to switch roles.
“But why?” Ms. Lowenthal said.
“Because…uh…because…Nemi’s allergic to fur,” I said.
“The costumes won’t be made of fur,” Ms. Lowenthal said.
“And because I can play the drum and it would be good for the narrator to lead the band, don’t you think?” Nemi put in.
Ms. Lowenthal looked puzzled, but she said, “Well, that is a nice idea…Well, if you two really want to switch, I suppose it’s all right with me.”
“Thanks, Ms. Lowenthal,” Nemi and I said.
When we got outside, Nemi looked at me and grinned his lopsided grin. “You and me are gonna be some swell actors, Becky Weiss.”
I grinned back and knew that even if he wasn’t right about that, Nemi Barish and I were going to be good friends for a long time to come.