Ros Faber* didn't want to fret about her daughter, but she felt that familiar sense of uneasiness tug at her as she saw Leslie* running down the steps in her sweats. She's home from school ten minutes and she's leaving already, Ros thought.
"Where are you going, Les?" Ros asked.
"Shoot some hoops at the park," Leslie said without stopping as she detoured into the kitchen.
Ros watched her gulp down a glass of milk. She hesitated and finally said, "You know, if you're going to be late, you must call." Leslie was expected home at 5:30 on weekdays. That would give her time to help set the table for dinner.
"Don't worry," Leslie replied impatiently. She was seventeen, and she didn't want to be treated like a little kid. "You know I always get back on time."
Carrying her basketball and portable radio, Leslie opened the front door and started down the pathway to the street. "Bye," Ros called after her, trying hard to sound casual.
It was never easy for Rosalind to let her daughter go out alone. Leslie Faber was retarded.
To someone who didn't know her well, Leslie might appear almost normal: a friendly, outgoing teenager who loved sports. But Ros knew that Leslie's condition had left her impaired in a way that wasn't always visible. A lot of what people said in seemingly straightforward conversations went over her head and she was extraordinarily susceptible to suggestion and manipulation by anyone who seemed to like her.
In a big city, Ros thought, Leslie would have been vulnerable to the predatory stranger. But in 1989 Glen Ridge, New Jersey, retained the gentility of a more tranquil age; it remained a small, picture-perfect suburb where almost everyone knew everyone else. And that's what reassured Ros Faber. Today Leslie would be shooting baskets in the middle of the afternoon in a community playground that was a five-minute walk from her house. She had played in this park all her life. The other neighborhood children knew her well. They all came from respectable, well-off families like the Fabers themselves. The homes of many of the Fabers' friends were nearby. Strangers rarely passed through the sheltered streets of Glen Ridge. What could be safer than a couple of hours of healthy recreation in Cartaret Park?
The Fabers had moved to Glen Ridge fifteen years before and had never regretted it. When they learned that Leslie was retarded, it comforted them to know that they lived in the sort of place where the strong didn't prey on the weak. For Leslie needed protection, and the cruel streets of the city could inflict terrible injuries on a defenseless child. The Fabers believed that raising their daughter in Glen Ridge would keep her out of harm's way.
It was, in fact, just the sort of lovely, peaceful suburb many Americans dream about but few can afford. Many of the houses were neat and spacious, the streets were immaculate and picturesque, the schools were good, and the values of the community, Glen Ridgers would say with pride, were solidly planted in family, country, and the free enterprise system. On days when the urban swirl seemed overwhelming, Glen Ridge was the kind of place a New Yorker dreamed of escaping to.
Only 7,800 people lived in Glen Ridge. It was the second-smallest municipality in populous Essex County, consisting of just 1.3 square miles, and you could drive from one end to the other in five minutes. Set at the crest of a gentle slope rising from Newark Bay, the town seemed little changed in 1989 from when it was created in 1895. For the people who lived there, Glen Ridge remained a secure retreat in a contentious world.
A teenager walking the cobblestoned, leafy streets of Glen Ridge couldn't help feeling secure. Tranquility was so highly valued that the entire commercial life was limited to a couple of small stores housed in a single building near the commuter rail station. Indeed, when kids complained that it was boring to live in such a small, unexciting town, parents were quick to tell them that it was precisely the pastoral peacefulness of the suburb that made it a perfect place to raise children.
With her usual exuberance, Leslie trotted the short distance to the park. She was tall for her age, broad-shouldered, and somewhat overweight. Leslie was dressed in her play clothes: a West Orange High School shirt, purple sweatpants, and red-and-white sneakers. She was very proud of the radio she carried. It was about a foot and a half long, with speakers at each end. What made it special was its color-pink. It was a pretty radio, a feminine radio. That's why she had bought it. It was important to her because she had paid for it with her own money that she had earned mowing the lawn and raking leaves for her parents. She had plunked down the $35-her savings-at Crazy Eddie's about a year and a half ago; since then, the pink radio had been her constant companion whenever she went out to play.
Her walk to the park took her along Linden Avenue past the elementary school she had attended through the fourth grade. She walked one long block and turned left onto Cartaret Street, where she entered the playground. She had taken the same walk hundreds of times in her life.
Today the weather was cool and blustery, typical of the first day of March. The park was rectangular, about three hundred feet in length. Leslie headed for the basketball court in the southwest corner. She would remember later that as she walked toward the court, she noticed a stick in the grass. It was about a foot long, smeared with mud and flecked with red paint. She picked it up and threw it a few feet away. It was nicely balanced and carried well. She thought it would make a good "throwing stick" and decided to keep it.
Directly parallel to the basketball court, on the northwest side, was the softball diamond. At the other end of the park, the southeast corner, was the baseball diamond. Six rows of wooden bleachers, where spectators sat during Little League games, looked down on the first-base line.
At the baseball diamond a bunch of high school guys had formed two lines. The boys wore baseball gloves and cleats and trailed baseball bats behind them. Leslie, who was so devoted to athletics that she divided the year by the different sports seasons, knew what was going on. The guys on Glen Ridge's championship baseball team were going to have a preseason practice session, an easy drill without any adult coaches around. Loosen up, look sharp. The stars of the high school's other big-time teams, the wrestlers and the football players, also were there, hanging out, checking out the scene. This was very cool, Leslie thought. When she had left her house a few minutes before, who would have guessed that she was headed for jock heaven?
In a bigger town or in a city, most of these guys would be considered average athletes at best. But in the insulated world of Glen Ridge, they were the princes of the playing field. And that was the only world Leslie had ever known. These were the guys who acted as if they owned the high school. More than once, Leslie overheard girls saying they'd just die if the jocks didn't invite them to their parties.
It was a tough call to pick out the leader among all these handsome, popular guys, but Leslie guessed that it was Kyle Scherzer, although he wasn't her personal, true fave. Kyle, everybody said, would probably be picked as the best athlete in the senior class. Kyle was captain of the baseball team. He and his twin brother, Kevin, were co-captains of the football team. The Scherzers lived at 34 Lorraine Street, a white shingled house adjoining the park. From their backyard it was just a step onto the grass of Cartaret. Now, as she stood on the basketball court, Leslie could see Kyle on the back deck of his house, surveying the park as though it were his private kingdom.
Leslie knew that the deck was a pretty special place, although she had never stood on it herself. In whispers interspersed with giggles, her teammates on the girls' basketball and softball teams had explained the significance of being invited to a party on the Scherzers' deck.
For years now, Kyle and Kevin had invited their friends to deck parties after long afternoons of sports. Within the closed circle of jocks their spontaneous parties were famous. This was the closest thing the jocks had to a frat house. Here on the deck the guys celebrated a football or baseball victory, cooled out after a tough practice, or just gathered to goof around. Mostly, it was just the guys, but every once in a while one of the girls who trailed after the jocks would be admitted. The menu was usually soda and potato chips; occasionally, when no adults were around, there would be a few cans of beer. When the weather was cold or nasty, the guys would retreat downstairs to the Scherzers' semifinished basement to watch television or play Nintendo.
Leslie understood: If you got invited, it showed that you belonged. You were part of the gang. You counted. The teenage heroes of the town thought you were worthy of their attention. This honor had never been bestowed on Leslie. It wasn't because she was a newcomer to Cartaret or one of those kids who paid tuition to the high school and lived out of town. No, Leslie was as much a fixture in the park and in the town as the Scherzers.
She pitched for the girls' softball team and played guard for the high school girls' basketball team. She sold Girl Scout cookies door to door. In the spring she was there for the Memorial Day parade and in the winter she was there for the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. At all times of the year, except when the snow got too deep, she could be seen riding around town on her bike, her brown hair blowing back from her forehead, her shoulders hunched over the handlebars, a big smile brightening her face as she called out "Hi" to all the people she knew and to people she knew not at all.
That was Leslie's special attribute: her buoyant personality. "If you smiled at her, she'd give you the world," said Christine Middleton, who was Leslie's teammate on the basketball team. "All she ever wanted was to be accepted by the other kids, to be part of the gang. And the kids she always admired the most, because she herself was good at sports, were the jocks. She'd see the other girls mooning after them and she'd want to do that, too."
Although she traveled freely throughout the small community, her most frequent destination was Cartaret Park. From the time she was a toddler, Leslie had watched the boys of Cartaret grow up. As a child, Leslie had lived near the eastern boundary of the playground. Then when she was in middle school, her mom and dad moved to their current house a few blocks away.
When Leslie was very young, Rosalind would bring her to the shady incline at the western end of the park where all the other mothers gathered with their babies and preschoolers. Rosalind would push her daughter on the yellow and red swings or watch her clamber in the miniature playhouse constructed of logs.
From Leslie's earliest memories, the Scherzer twins were always around. Whenever she was playing, they were playing. Whenever she was just a kid, not a dutiful daughter or an obedient student, the Scherzers were also being kids. Leslie was generally accurate when she later said of Kyle and Kevin, "I knew them all my life." She knew them, but only from afar. Leslie and the boys had followed separate paths through childhood and adolescence-Leslie friendless and alone, the boys clustered in the most envied and admired teenage clique in the town. Up to that moment, their lives had never converged.
Today didn't seem any different from most of the days of her youth. She played by herself on the basketball court, firing up some three-point bombs from behind the foul circle. Then, avoiding the puddles caused by last night's rain, she practiced her drives to the basket, shooting left-handed and right-handed, just like the pros.
A hundred feet away, the elite teenagers of Glen Ridge reveled in their male camaraderie. How many afternoons had she ended, from her vantage point under the backboards or in the top row of the wooden bleachers, watching Kyle and Kevin and their friends trooping happily toward the Scherzer house? But she was never included in that group. Look at it the way the guys did: If you invited a cute cheerleader, that boosted your romantic reputation. If you invited a not-so-cute brain, that might at least help you pass history and stay academically eligible for athletics. But what was the advantage of befriending a plain-looking retarded girl?
Sure, she played on teams, but she wasn't any star. Sure, she'd been hanging around for a lot of years, but she wasn't part of any popular group in school. In fact, she didn't even go to school in Glen Ridge anymore. The district had transferred her out to West Orange, where she attended a class for retarded kids. No matter how cheerful and friendly she was, no matter how desperately she yearned for one sign of recognition from her heroes, Leslie Faber could never expect to break through this invisible wall that separated her from the coolest kids in the school. She could never imagine being invited to one of the famous parties given by the Scherzer twins. No way. "Up until that day, I was never invited to a party at the Scherzer house," Leslie Faber would say later.
During the next half hour the baseball players rapped grounders, pegged bullets at each other, and chased down fly balls. The guys who were on other teams stood nearby in small groups, laughing, jostling each other, throwing mock punches. Guy stuff. They didn't seem to pay any attention to the young woman who was faking out an imaginary Michael Jordan over on the basketball court.
The few patches of blue were obscured by thick gray clouds, the wind picked up, and it looked as if it could rain again. The practice was breaking up. A bunch of the baseball players began walking in the direction of the Scherzers' house. Today was a good day to party. The twins' parents were in Florida all week. Aside from an elderly grandmother, the boys had the run of the house.
From the corner of her eye, Leslie could see five or six of the other boys, who weren't on the baseball team, walking toward the basketball court.