Fallout Fridays – A Kick in the Head

Oh great! So she’s dead? Now what?

Back away everyone! Let me get a better look at her.

Oh shit! Did she lose an eye? Is that an exit wound or an entrance?

Does it matter? There’s no way she’s alive. That monster ripped her helmet right off.

Check for a pulse! She might still be breathing!

How the hell are we supposed to even get her out of this thing?

Oh god oh god oh god I promised we’d get there I promised I promised I promised.

She’s not dead yet, this is The One who’s going to change everything. I’ve Seen it.

You mean you hallucinated it while you were stoned out of your gourd, you old fraud!

Easy now, easy! Who has a stimpak? Med-X? Some spare gauze? Anyone?

Preston, turn that valve and let’s get a better look at her.

Let’s just see if she’s got anything on her instead.

We are not robbing her! And I can’t even turn the valve until we get this thing off and turn her over on her side. Everyone give me a hand!

I’m not doing that! It’s bad luck to touch a Deathclaw!

Only when they’re alive. Don’t be such a coward.

I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.

You’ve got to be strong kid. There’s more to your destiny. You’re a woman out of time. But all’s not lost. I can feel your son’s energy. He’s alive.

Mama Murphy, now is not the time.

It’s okay Preston, not everyone understands The Sight. But I don’t need you to believe me, I just need her to listen.

I can’t believe it! She’s got a pulse!

Get her out of that thing.

See if she’s got any caps.

That’s not funny! And you’re not helping. Stand back.

Give me a clean shirt and a knife. The bullet’s gone clean through but we’ve got to stop the blood loss.

What’s her type? I’ll donate mine!

She’s not a Gunner, and you don’t even know your own. Stop trying to be a hero!

I’ve got the bleeding to stop at least, but she’s gonna have a hard time pulling through.

Let ole Mama Murphy give her a boost.

What the hell is in that?

The last of my stash. Jet with a Psycho chaser and a little boost of Mentats. Nothing that’ll kill her. Trust me.

What a surprise, chems! That’s her solution for everything!

Careful there, Mama.

It’s gonna be fine, quit your fussing.

Okay everyone. Let’s see if we can carry her to that place Mama Murphy knows about.

She knows about it? You mean she ‘saw” it while she was high on chems, as usual.

You got a better idea? Anybody? Well alright then. Let’s get going before nightfall.

You were right, Dogmeat. This one’s a keeper.

We’re gonna make it we’re gonna make it we’re gonna make it we’re gonna make it.

“Well here she is already. The least resilient woman in the Commonwealth.”

I try to turn my head but there is nothing to see. In fact I’m not even sure I can feel my body or tell it what to do anymore. There is only darkness and the voices inside my head have drowned out the ones outside.

“What’s happening? Where am I?”

I know that voice. But he can’t be here, can he? Not inside my own head.

“People always hope for something better. They usually end up with something worse. This world, this life? Pain and suffering. Death is its only escape.”

Am I already dead? Is this my own personal hell? Is hell actually real?

“Who said that?”

He laughs and hacks in a way that might make my skin crawl if I could even feel my skin anymore. But there is no skin anymore. No pain. No body. Only the sick knowledge that somehow, The Man With The Scar is my only company.

“I’m the one who helped you understand what happiness really felt like. It’s only looking back, by comparison with what comes after, you ever really understand. You know you were the worst thing that ever happened to them. If it wasn’t for you, they never would have met me. But you can still try to catch me if you think you can.”

“I’m gonna murder you, you son of a bitch.”

“That’s the spirit. Better hurry, Shawn ain’t getting any younger.”

Fallout Fridays – A Kick in the Head
{advertisement}

Fallout Fridays – The Battle of Concord

October 24, 2277. A date which has become known as The Battle of Concord. At least for the new residents of Sanctuary.

It was never my intention to kill anyone except The Man With The Scar. The Man who killed Nate. The Man who took Shawn. But The Wasteland has a way of changing who you are, and what you will or won’t do, rather quickly.

After shooting a few rounds into the Mr. Handy robot-butler somehow still trimming our irradiated hedges, eventually he helped me salvage supplies and a holotape with Nate’s handwriting. “Hi Honey!”

That holotape became my only way to remember the sound of Nate’s voice. Or Shawn’s. I play it every night through my Pip-Boy like a lullaby. Proof that The World That Was was more than a dream before this waking nightmare. Hope and Happiness truly existed, once upon a time.

Codsworth gave me a direction to point: Concord. And the lone radio station within range told me where to go after that. Diamond City. “The Great Green Jewel of The Commonwealth.”

I spent the first night in an abandoned Red Rocket, clearing the place of gigantic vermin and befriending a German Shepard who looked as though he wondered out of Ms. Rosa’s backyard. I asked him if he had an owner, but he didn’t object when I locked up the station for a rough night of half-sleep.

As soon as I got to the center of the seemingly abandoned town, I could hear the ricochet of bullets and the twang of lasers. I only had a moment to decide my fate. And so I gave my aid to the man who asked for mine, although one of the men in leather managed to get away.

Sometimes I wonder how life might have gone differently if I’d refused. But once you’ve made a decision, there’s not much use in guessing what the other might have brought you.

The Museum of Freedom was now only chaos. But with their attentions diverted I managed to creep through the remnants of American History and slaughter the men I would later learn are called “Raiders”.

When my bullets got low, I used a switchblade to slit throats as the dog throttled limbs in gurgled silence. Better than using their crude pistols made out of pipes and spare bits of wood. There was no time to think between the pounding of my heart and the ceasing of theirs. Only the time to act before they could. Six lives ended in the span of three minutes.

As I approached the uppermost room I could hear the last two goons arguing about how to proceed. I pulled out the strange “laser musket” tossed down to me by the man in colonial garb moments ago. I gave the handle a crank, and the digital number behind the breech counted up to 1-2-3. I braced myself by the door to the main hall, ready to unleash whatever this weapon was capable of.

That’s when I noticed the frag grenade by my feet.

If it hadn’t been for Preston Garvey, I might already be dead. Then again, he says the same about me. I suppose that’s how relationships get started out here in The Wasteland. The ones who keep you alive, the ones who want you dead, and the ones who can afford to pay you to kill or get killed. Everyone else is just a scavver.

As the stimpak brings my vision from a dark red to a sickly brown, I begin to register who I risked my life for. An old lady high on chems. A mechanic with a greasy pompadour. A young man in the throes of a panic attack with his less-than-comforting wife. And Preston, who introduces himself as a “Minuteman”.

They say my dog is called Dogmeat. They simply call me The Vault Dweller before informing me, “Death is coming. And it is angry.”

I have less than five minutes to get into this rusted old Power Armor before a man who calls himself “Gristle” breaks down our barricades. I remind myself what’s truly important, because I know there may come a moment when I have to walk away and let the others die.

Stay Alive. Avenge Nate. Find Shawn.

Stay Alive. Avenge Nate. Find Shawn.

Stay Alive. Avenge Nate. Find Shawn.

Fallout Fridays – The Battle of Concord

Fallout Fridays – Prepared For The Future

Last Known Date. Last truly known date: October 23, 2077.

The Day which has become known as The Great War of 2077. The Day my country and another country destroyed The World That Was in less than a dozen hours. After years of fighting over territories and ideologies. Through mutually assured nuclear annihilation. It’s like my late husband said, “War never changes.”

But The World That Was, and my life, forever changed on The Day. And for every day I’ve spent in this Brave New World, affectionately known as The Wasteland of The Commonwealth by the people who inhabit it, the more difficult it becomes to remember What We Lost.

Sometimes, when the nights are quiet and still, and the illusion of safety creeps into my bed, I still dream about The Last Known Date. Because everything before that has become elusive as its relevance disappears. A story I recite like a prayer, but not one which I can truly say I faithfully remember anymore.

I was still a lawyer for JAG when we met, putting in for my career change to Psychoanalytics at CIT when we met in the lobby for his own court-martial mandated therapy appointment. We struck up a conversation, and within six months we were married so he could avoid immediate redeployment to Anchorage.

Thanks to the Sanctity of Marriage Act, we had one year after our wedding night to lead a Congressionally Mandated “Normal Life” before he returned to Anchorage. A year to settle and begin a family. And so we did, with the hopes we would eventually develop our new relationship into one worthy of the lifelong commitment we made before the United States Government.

We always knew we were living on borrowed time. But we never knew Fate would come calling in a trench coat and hat, holding a clipboard.

Would I have done anything differently if I had known this would be our last breakfast together? Would I have studied his eyes a little deeper? Told him any secrets we ran out of time to share? Or would I proceed as though it were a Normal Day, and savor that feeling of safety and certainty, rather than the details of the man I did my best to love while he was mine?


First Unknown Date. Possibly October 23, 2277.

Nate is dead. Shawn was taken. By a bald white man with a scar across his left eye. These facts are all I have now. Everything else is dead. Everything else is gone after a bright flash and a cold sleep.

I wish I’d never woken up. I wish we never made it to The Vault. I wish we just died in each others arms like the rest of the world. I wish I was dead. I wish Nate was the one left alive, avenging my own death and rescuing our son.

But that’s not what happened.

I was the one who got us into the vault. I was the one who wasn’t holding Shawn when we went into the pods. And so I became “The Backup”. That’s what the man with the scar who took my son and killed my husband called me.

The Backup for what?

The Vault doesn’t have any of the “creature comforts” that were advertised to us in the brochures that pushy salesman kept leaving with Codsworth.

There are no food replicators. No community centers. No media libraries. (Unless you count this copy of the Red Menace video game.) There’s nothing here. Nothing. They lied. Because they knew there would be nobody to answer to once the bombs actually dropped.

Nate is dead. Shawn is gone. Vault-Tec lied.

All of our neighbors are dead inside their pods. It doesn’t look like anyone has lived here for a very long time. And I’m not sure how long I can survive out there on my own. But there’s nothing here.

Except giant cockroaches. Working water fountains. Empty Nuka-Cola bottles. And thankfully, a 10mm handgun. With a Pip-Boy 4000 Mark IV, only slightly used.

My name was once Dorian.

Now I am the Sole Survivor of Vault 111.

Fallout Fridays – Prepared For The Future

Harriet the (Gender) Spy

Harriet M. Welsch is a childhood friend of mine. She’s been in my heart since 4th grade, when I began my own habit of carrying notebooks to “clear my brain like a laxative” as her Ole Golly instructs her from the age 8.

It’s because of this brutally honest portrayal, of a genuinely flawed child on the brink of puberty, that Louise Fitzhugh’s ever-popular book still winds up on Banned Book lists every year.

Often cited as a “bad example” that will encourage nastiness, lying, and sneaking. As though these are qualities children would never posses if someone did not dangle them like a carrot in front of their pure angelic souls.

There’s no question that Harriet is at times nasty, sneaky, and manipulative. The notebooks she marks “Private” are labeled as such with good reason. Harriet already knows many of her thoughts are only for herself. That’s why they’re so unabashed and even, as she describes her own thoughts at times, ugly.

Harriet the Spy is ultimately a story of learning how to be true to oneself while also bending your overly rigid moral code. But it is not Harriet’s development as a child that brought me back as a thirty-something reader. Rather, it is her own unfiltered take on other girls, women, and femininity itself.

Especially after I gained the knowledge that her own author was an out lesbian from an upper-class background not unlike her protagonist. And I believe Harriet M. Welsch is already written to follow in her creator’s footsteps.

Yes, I believe Harriet the Spy is a baby lesbian, regardless of her complete lack of any mention of attraction throughout the book. (Besides jokingly referring to her best friend, Sport, as her husband.)

Now I have already waxed poetic on my own take on lesbianism being intentionally socially separated from “womanhood,” right down to the words themselves. And in previous essays I have also pointed out how utilitarianism over fashion has been a reliable “visual cue” for sapphic women seeking out our own kind, regardless of whether we consider ourselves to be “butch” or “femme” or neither.

Yet little is ever said about how sapphic women develop as girls, or how our views of (compulsory heterosexual) womanhood, as a looming inevitability, may shape our own views of ourselves as children. It doesn’t help that girls are trained from the cusp of puberty, and arguably even younger, to see other girls as competition rather than peers and confidants.

For some girls, like Harriet, this becomes a rejection of feminine expression or interests in favor of more “serious” masculine pursuits. It is no mere coincidence that Harriet wears an old pair of her father’s eyeglasses in order to feel more intelligent while spying, or that she quotes the works of male literature even after Ole Golly no longer dispenses then.

She even insists on rescuing well-worn clothes her mother has expressly forbidden her to wear. The description of her “spy clothes” is so detailed it takes up nearly two full pages of text, and nearly every article of clothing is coded as male. Including an actual Boy Scout knife, which surely must have also belonged to her father. She carries these tools, while admitting they serve no needed purpose, and make her rattle. But they complete her as a Spy.

She already sees masculine items as useful, while viewing feminine pursuits as frivolous. According to Harriet, her father works in television and her mother plays bridge. She already shouts this distinction to the Cook before school begins:

“I do not go out to PLAY, I go out to WORK!”

This is a defiant rejection of how she already views upper-class womanhood. By choosing to work as a spy from the age of 8, in her mind she has already deliberately set herself apart from her intended role models, especially Marion Hawthorne and Rachel Hennessey.

IF MARION HAWTHORNE DOESN’T WATCH OUT SHE’S GOING TO GROW UP INTO A LADY HITLER.

I DON’T KNOW EXACTLY IF I LIKE RACHEL OR WHETHER IT IS JUST THAT I LIKE GOING TO HER HOUSE BECAUSE HER MOTHER MAKES HOMEMADE CAKE.

However, she also disparages even her own best friends for their seemingly shared social (and gendered) deviance:

SOMETIMES I CAN’T STAND SPORT. WITH HIS WORRYING ALL THE TIME AND FUSSING OVER HIS FATHER, SOMETIMES HE’S LIKE A LITTLE OLD WOMAN.

WHO DOES JANIE GIBBS THINK SHE’S KIDDING? DOES SHE REALLY THINK SHE COULD EVER BE A SCIENTIST?

This theme of gendered contempt can also be found throughout her relation to her mother and other grown women, especially compared to others (mostly men) she considers more worthy of her admiration:

“Bridge. What a bore. How can she play that fink game so much? And those finks she plays with!” He muttered away to himself. Harriet loved to hear him jabber on like this. She knew he wasn’t talking to her, so it was fun to listen.

Ole Golly and her somewhat renegade style of “parenting” has become increasingly at odds with what Mrs. Welsch believes to be most important to instill in her own daughter’s success. Namely, charm and grace befitting her upper-class background.

But Harriet only wishes to be a spy and “know everything.” Ole Golly does her best to encourage Harriet to learn how to blend in, specifically by invoking Mata Hari, but nothing can dissuade her from seeing expressive femininity as anything short of a waste of time.

Her competing models of womanhood come to a head when Harriet’s parents unceremoniously fire Ole Golly for taking Harriet out to the movies without express permission. A turn of events which absolutely crushes Harriet’s previous sense of order and predictability.

(You don’t keep your room “just so”, have tomato sandwiches every lunch, followed by cake and milk every afternoon, and follow the same Spy route every week, without a need for dependability.)

But courageously, she presses on without much disruption to her routines. It is only when she begins to practice being an onion for the school play that she begins to think about herself as something different from who she already happens to be.

I WONDER WHAT IT WOULD BE LIKE TO BE A TABLE OR A CHAIR OR A BATHTUB OR ANOTHER PERSON. I WONDER WHAT OLE GOLLY WOULD SAY TO THAT. OLE GOLLY LOOKED LIKE A BIRD WITH TEETH, BUT I THINK I REALLY LOOK A LITTLE LIKE AN ONION. I WISH SHE WOULD COME BACK.

Disaster strikes when she becomes caught in the dumbwaiter of Mrs. Plumber, right before practicing her “onion dance” with Janie and Sport, and she has a true crisis of identity:

SPIES—SHOULD NOT GET CAUGHT. THAT IS THE ONE ESSENTIAL THING ABOUT SPIES. I AM A ROTTEN SPY.

In her foul mood she immediately dumps on her best friends. As Janie and Harriet have previously been united on all fronts, particularly against the dreaded “dance classes”, a sign of impending expectations.

This begins the foreshadowing of Janie’s ultimate betrayal: the public reading of Harriet’s notebooks. Which leads to a new kind of feminine power Janie has never experienced through her science, the power of domination over someone she once trusted:

“Harriet, go over there on that bench until we decide what we’re going to do to you.”

The campaign against Harriet that week is the kind of bullying only children can devise. They pass notes about her developing body (Harriet M. Welsch smells. Don’t you think so?) and disgust at her well-known habits, they use the “class priss” to pull faces when the teacher isn’t looking, and when she is too busy taking notes on her way to lunch, they even steal her ritualized tomato sandwich.

This is the ultimate betrayal that has her write, in the same block letters she feels she has grown out of:

EVERYBODY HATES ME.

It is only after “playing sick” for three days that Harriet is taken to the “kindly old family doctor,” who just so happens to be Carrie Andrews’s father, a connection she’s never made. When he brings up the subject of The Notebook, her mother attempts to explain how her actions have affected others, but still she disparages her mother’s emotional labor:

THAT WAS ALL VERY NICE BUT IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH MY NOTEBOOK. ONLY OLE GOLLY UNDERSTANDS ABOUT MY NOTEBOOK. I WILL ALWAYS HAVE A NOTEBOOK. I THINK I WILL WRITE DOWN EVERYTHING, EVERY SINGLE SOLITARY THING THAT HAPPENS TO ME.

This is immediately followed as she wakes with:

WHEN I WAKE UP IN THE MORNING I WISH I WERE DEAD.

And:

THEY PUT ME UP HERE IN THIS ROOM BECAUSE THEY THINK I’M A WITCH.

Which she realizes even as she closes her notebook, isn’t actually true. But as a channel for her emotions, these notes don’t have to be truth as Harriet sees them. They are simply her “private” thoughts, to Harriet.

When Rachel Hennessey, second in command to Marion Hawthorne, attempts to tease Harriet about still writing, Harriet makes herself physically threatening:

Harriet felt it necessary to become menacing. She slid slowly off the bench and in two steps was almost nose to nose with Rachel. “Listen here, Rachel Hennessey, just what do you mean by that?”

Rachel immediately backs down, which vindicates Harriet’s feelings toward her as a doormat and therefore inferior. Harriet uses might to make right, which is not a typical feminine quality, and is part of why she sticks out among her developing female peers. The same day, however, we see Sport’s new masculine identity: a carried toolbox.

Although Sport had been reduced to tears and could not even bear to read his own notebook descriptions out loud, now he assists Carrie Andrews (gifted in drawing) in leading the construction of the Spy Catchers Club in Rachel Hennessey’s backyard. Chosen for her mother’s well-known homemade cake.

These are three children who had previously been powerless, but through their united cruelty, have become valuable among their peers. They even fly the infamous Purple Socks as their chosen flag.

It is peculiar, dare I even say queer, that Harriet attempts to overcome this peer hostility through the type of stoicism normally reserved for male coming of age stories. She even quotes Rudyard Kipling’s “If—,” no doubt once heard from Ole Golly. This poem is, of course, about what it takes to be a man, not a woman.

After this critical moment, her own bodily autonomy becomes violated through the pouring of blue ink all over her body, and the traumatic “help” of her classmates, all rubbing and touching all over her body in derisive torture, while her teacher remains oblivious.

Once Sport and Pinky begin rubbing her legs, she catapults herself out the school and out into the street and doesn’t stop until she gets home, despite leaving a trail of blue behind her the entire way:

I’m the blue monster of East End Avenue, she thought as she careened across Eighty-sixth Street and up the block to her house.

Surprisingly Harriet writes no other notes about this incident, even though the only thing she carries from school is her notebook. It could be that something so monstrous was not even able to express itself through her thoughts. I will add that for me, as a child and an adult, this particular bullying scene was the most horrific. And I believe blue, rather than black ink, is a deliberate masculine choice by her peers (and her author).

The next day she learns the name of the Spy Catchers Club, but she remains ever stoic and defiant:

I HAVE NEVER HAD TO GO THROUGH SOMETHING LIKE THIS. I WILL HAVE TO BE VERY BRAVE. I WILL NEVER GIVE UP THIS NOTEBOOK BUT IT IS CLEAR THAT THEY ARE GOING TO BE AS MEAN AS THEY CAN UNTIL I DO. THEY JUST DON’T KNOW HARRIET M. WELSCH.

As she becomes more isolated her writing becomes truly detrimental, as she completely disregards her own school work and family life and even self-care. I feel Mrs. Welsch deserves a lot of credit for her own bravery as a parent, because she takes on the thankless task of removing Harriet from her notebook at this time:

“I’m not playing. Who says I’m playing? I’m WORKING!”

Again, she distances herself from traditional womanhood by calling what she does Work. But her mother attempts to put her writing into its appropriate perspective:

“Look, dear, at the moment you’re in school, so your work is school. Just like your father works at the office, you work at school. School work is your work.”

“What do you do?”

“A lot of unseen, unappreciated things.”

Damn. That’s a helluva feminist punch hidden behind Harriet’s nastiness and indignation. And her mother still keeps a cool head.

The truth is, whether Harriet (or her father) actually see or appreciate it, Mrs. Welsch does do a lot for her family. She oversees their hired help, maintains the upper-class social network her family takes for granted, and it’s hinted she’s sacrificed quite a bit of her own cleverness to keep up appearances.

Even though she also loves math, which is traditionally seen as masculine, because Harriet has no talent for it she only sees this as another frivolous quality of her mother:

“What are you studying?”

“Math.”

Harriet made a terrible face. Mrs. Welsch came into the room and leaned over Harriet’s chair. “What fun, darling. That was always my favorite subject in school.”

Well, there you are, thought Harriet. Ole Golly wouldn’t have said that.

I feel I never gave Mrs. Welsch enough credit as a child. Yes, it is quite easy to paint her as a neglectful socialite who foists her child onto her hired nurse. (Although so does her father, and he revives no flak despite often disappearing from his family into his study with a drink.)

However this is what was expected of The Welsches in order to maintain their family’s social clout. And while the matriarchy of Manhattan may seem like a bunch of finks to Harriet and her father, it is her conflict with that feminized power which completely flattens her, because she does not understand or respect it.

And only when she has no emotional outlet do we see a much nastier and violent side of Harriet. Again, violence is a form of emotional outburst generally reserved for boys, especially by the age of 11. But Harriet trips and pinches and terrorizes without her notebook. She causes wails and tears and yelps:

SOMETHING IS DEFINITELY HAPPENING TO ME. I AM CHANGING. I DON’T FEEL LIKE ME AT ALL. I DON’T EVER LAUGH OR THINK ANYTHING FUNNY. I JUST FEEL MEAN ALL OVER. I WOULD LIKE TO HURT EACH ONE OF THEM IN A SPECIAL WAY THAT WOULD HURT ONLY THEM.

We can infer much about her classmates’ lives during this time, although some is alluded to earlier. Rachel Hennessey has no father. Beth Ellen is often starved for food and reacts strongly to being hit. Pinky Whitehead’s known problem is his mother. Sport reads cookbooks because nobody else will care for him or his father. And Janie’s planned revenge, breaking a finger, is the most violent of all.

But some revenges may appear humorous to young readers. Marion Hawthorne, the ultimate priss, is afraid of frogs and snakes. Harriet cuts a huge chunk of Laura Peters’s hair without her noticing. These are not dissimilar from what is often waved off as “boyish pranks,” but in a 11-year-old girl, they are strongly pathologized.

Mrs. Welsch (the unsung hero who has no first name, even though we know Harriet is named after her father Harry) must then leave her hairdresser’s to control the massive damage of her own distraught child’s behavior.

It is Mrs. Welsch who ultimately convinces her angry husband that Harriet needs to see a psychologist. And it is Mrs. Welsch who eventually smooths things over with Harriet’s school and presumably the mothers of Harriet’s peers.

Harriet never expresses gratitude for this unseen labor, but she does sleep blissfully when her mother tucks her in that night. Yet the next day she only washes when her father says so, and only agrees to see a different doctor because of his begrudging approval:

“He’s not a fink like most doctors.”

Of course the actual task of bringing Harriet to see the psychologist falls on her mother, presumably because her husband has work. And Harriet still views the task of seeing Dr. Wagner as being “fussed at,” the same phrases she disparages her mother with at times:

This was the dumbest thing Harriet had ever heard of. To come all this way to play a game. She bet her mother didn’t know this.

She questions her mother’s wisdom in taking her to see Dr. Wagner, until she is given a notebook, and again her mother has the thankless task of taking it away when their session is done.

While Harriet sees this as a betrayal, it does cause her to eventually attempt to make up with Janie and Sport. Her relationship with Janie remains tense, despite their bond of resisting dance class and having professional ambitions. For the first time without her notebook, Harriet finally understands her feelings:

She began to reconsider the idea of going to Sport’s house. A tear ran down the side of her nose. Janie was one thing, but Sport had always been her best friend. Suppose he acted like Janie?

It is here Sport is seen in the middle of a celebration for his father’s writing, something Harriet has been dreaming of for herself and which Sport has seen as a waste of his father’s time. Sport can’t help but briefly share his joy with Harriet, even though his anger soon returns when his father and Harriet begin to bond as writers:

“Hey, listen, Sport, get a clean shirt on. I’m taking you out to dinner.” Sport ran into his room. “How ’bout you, Harriet? Want to go to dinner with us?” Before Harriet could say anything, Sport opened the door to his room and shouted “NO” as loud as he could. Then he slammed the door again.

After this Harriet again has no tools to handle such emotions, expressed in a nightmare which begins as a pleasant dream about being rocked by her nurse:

Harriet’s mother came into the room. Harriet was still in her dream, screaming at the top of her lungs, “Ole Golly, Ole Golly, Ole Golly.” She kept on crying softly even after her mother was holding her.

Harriet rejects her mother still. And at this point my adult heart genuinely aches for her because there is nothing left she can do but humbly call on Ole Golly for her help in raising her child, after she also consults the psychologist she convinced her husband to hire. And she still returns Harriet’s notebook to her, against her own better judgement.

Harriet becomes joyously distracted catching up on her Spy Route, and before long she yearns to return to school. Here we see the true unsung heroism of Harriet’s mother and teachers, but only if we look for it between Harriet’s own disparaging views of her foes’ attempts to emulate their own bridge-playing mothers:

They walk like old ladies, thought Harriet.

“Rachel, don’t you think it would be nice if we could play bridge in the afternoons?”

Marion had a kind of cawing voice, like a crow.

Harriet has her peer-endorsed victory, the right to be published in the school paper. She has usurped Marion Hawthorne from her place of supreme power, and can now feel vindicated. But not before Ole Golly’s letter arrives (thanks to Mrs. Welsch) offering her two final pieces of advice:

1) You have to apologize.

2) You have to lie.

Of course, Harriet is immediately successful as the paper’s editor, given that she’s had years of practice. And while her published musings become kinder (sometimes), she still gloats to herself in her notebook about what she see as her Work:

I AM GOING TO WRITE A STORY ABOUT THESE PEOPLE. THEY ARE JUST RATS. HALF OF THEM DON’T EVEN HAVE A PROFESSION.

But while Harriet basks in the glory of printing stories from her Spy Route, eventually her writing takes on a different tone as Harriet begins to actually listen to what her mother and father talk about at dinner. For once, both parents are shown to be active agents in shaping their child’s life:

“I really don’t understand Mabel Gibbs. She starts out with this big thing about the kids going to dancing school—you’d think from the way she talked that they would be absolute apes in the drawing room if we didn’t send them—and I told her at the time, of course, that I thought Harriet was too young.”

Soon followed by her father:

“That better be from the Times. If they don’t print that retraction tomorrow I’m going to be mad as a hornet.”

This becomes Harriet’s inspiration to print her own “lie” in the form of a contraction, combining her advice from Ole Golly into knowledge learned from her father’s work. And finally, the gossip of her mother’s social goings as they relate to her peers also make it into the paper:

JANIE GIBBS HAS WON HER BATTLE. THIS SHOULD BE A LESSON TO ALL OF YOU IN COURAGE AND DETERMINATION. IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT, THEN ASK HER.

Harriet, for once, does not hold her father above all others:

MR. HARRY WELSCH ALMOST LOST HIS JOB LAST WEEK FOR BEING LATE. HE IS ALWAYS SLOW IN THE MORNING.

The story ends with the dissolution of the Spy Catchers Club, in Sport’s own victory over his few male peers:

“This has gone far enough,” said Sport and looked at Pinky and The Boy with the Green Socks. “I can’t imagine what you MEN think you’re doing here.”

And Janie backs him up as well, contending that while men do play Bridge, they only do so in the evening when they are forced by their wives, playing directly into compulsory heterosexuality and masculinity:

Marion and Rachel finally sat alone. They looked at each other and then looked away.

“I guess,” said Rachel with some embarrassment, “that I’ll go see if the cake is ready.”

She was getting up rather forlornly when suddenly Laura and Carrie came back.

“We decided that there wasn’t anything else to do anyway, so we might as well play bridge,” said Laura.

“Besides,” said Carrie, “I’m rather fond of it.”

By now, Harriet and her best friends have navigated their adolescent emotional growths relatively unscathed. Janie has avoided dance class in favor of her science experiments for another year. Sport has become the king of his small masculine court before he must leave Gregory School for a different co-ed education. And Harriet is recognized for her relentless dedication. The three friends silently meet at the park, and walk along the river after Harriet offers a final thought:

NOW THAT THINGS ARE BACK TO NORMAL I CAN GET SOME REAL WORK DONE.

She still focuses on her Work as what sets her apart. And likely this will not change. Harriet feels superior to the likes of Marion and Rachel and their socialite heterosexual mothers, but she has also learned to make allies rather than enemies of her own gendered deviants, Janie and Sport.

It is with this greater wisdom and humility that she walks forward into the inevitable process of puberty and higher feminine expectations. But we can always hope she does so as the Spy she has always known herself to be.

Harriet the (Gender) Spy

Backyard Boys

CN: Sibling Abuse, Homophobic Slurs

I ride my new green bike around the neighborhood and try to think of it as my own. I can hear boys shouting and laughing as I turn the corner of Sunnydale, and I creep closer to investigate.

There’s five boys total, and they’re all older than me except for maybe the smallest one. Three of them are shirtless and the others wear t-shirts tight with sweat. Backs glisten as they wrestle each other to the ground over a football, rubbing grass and dirt into their knees and chests. The smallest boy has long black bangs he constantly pushes from his face as it drips with sweat. I like watching him the most.

Continue reading “Backyard Boys”

Backyard Boys

Numbers

Aunt Jantha is waiting for me when I get home from school, hanging out of her open-top Jeep in cutoff shorts and a tied-up t-shirt with dirty-blond braids sticking out of her baseball cap. Mommy says Jantha is an “overgrown hippie”, and she’s totally the coolest relative on Daddy’s side of the family.

“Hey kiddo. How was school?”

“Fine.” Boring. Like every day of school.

“Any homework?”

“No.” I already finished it during recess.

“Well good!” She follows me into the house and then into Papa Phil’s study, where I set down my backpack, “I was wondering if you’d like to go hiking with me today?”

“Hiking? Like in the woods?”

I think the last time I went hiking I was 6 and Cloud was 3. Daddy took us up a mountain and then spent the whole time going back down laughing at me because I had an accident waiting for the bathroom.

“Sure! I used to go hiking all the time when I was your age,” I have a hard time saying no to my own reflection in her perfectly round purple sunglasses.

In a few minutes we’re cruising down Race Street. Past the churches. Past the Sonic and the Dairy Queen. Past the middle school, the junior high, and even the high school. All the way back into the woods and out of town. We pull into a road with signs pointing left for “Camp Wyldewood” and right for “Riverside Park”. We pull right and park in front of a bright red caboose and a small wooden playground.

“Hey I know this place,” I realize slowly, “I think Papa Phil took us here when we were little.”

Aunt Jantha pulls her own backpack out of her Jeep as I jump down onto the gravel.

“Yup. But you’ve never been past the playground I bet! But I’d say you’re old enough for a little adventure. Just don’t wander too far and neither one of us will get into trouble.”

We follow the chain-link fence around the edge of the playground until we reach a wide concrete trail that crests into a steady hill, declining deeper into the wilderness.

“Think how much fun this would be on a bike!” Jantha says, and I can already feel the breeze through my hair and rushing past my face.

“Did you and Daddy ever ride your bikes down here?”

She laughs, “Well I did, but your Daddy was always ‘too busy’ by the time I was old enough. Back then he only cared about going outside if he could go swimming.”

The deeper we go the quieter it gets until all I can hear is the rustling of leaves, the chirps of birds, and the faint babble of the river next to us.

Mommy always says she hates hiking, camping, and wild nature in general, but I wonder what she would say about this place. Even the air seems cleaner, with just a touch of green as it shines through the canopy. Eventually the trail curves and dips sharply, and Aunt Jantha calls up for me to wait.

“Before we wander too far, we better find some good walking sticks to keep our balance. You’ll want a dry branch that’s about as thick as your arm and about as tall as you. There’s one right there!”

She pulls a large stick off the ground and brushes it free of dirt before she unhooks a pocket knife from her belt loop and opens it before handing it to me by the handle, “Here, smooth out anything on the top where you’re gonna hold onto it. Just make sure you always cut away from yourself, never the other way. Okay? If you get stuck ask for help. I’ll be right back.”

To my surprise it’s very relaxing, slicing off imperfections and bits of dirt and bark until I have a clean, white, smooth handle. Once Aunt Jantha finds her own and does the same, we march slowly along the river bed with me still taking the lead. It feels very grown up. Exploring through the woods and off the walking trail.

We reach a spot that Aunt Jantha calls “The Basin,” a big clearing next to the river full of dried mud and rocks at the bottom of a steep cliff.

She stands proudly on top of a big log next to what must have been an old campfire, “See? This is where the river floods, that’s why there aren’t any trees here. Lots of kids have cookouts here when the weather is nice. I used to do that all the time.”

“This place is pretty cool, Aunt Jantha.”

“You don’t have to call me Aunt.”

“I know.”

“So don’t do it then. It makes me feel old.”

“Okay.”

After an awkward pause she clears her throat and says, “Hey, you know what might be fun? Let’s spell out our names with rocks and see if we can read them at the top of the cliff!”

“Yeah! And anyone else who walks by can see our names too,” Jantha always has good ideas. Her and Aunt Bobby. They’re the only grownups besides Mommy who understand me without asking a lot of stupid questions or telling me what to do all the time.

Lucky for us The Basin is full of smooth, white rocks, and it doesn’t take us long to spell our names out in a space that must have been cleared for an even older campfire. Two rows of logs are lined up like church pews, and we use the aisle between them as a canvas before settling down on one of the logs to catch our breath.

“So, how do you like Searcy so far?”

“It’s okay,” I tell her, except I hate it.

“Have you made any new friends yet?”

I’ve heard all these questions already from everyone else, but I’m okay answering Jantha, “I used to be friends with Elizabeth and Amy, but they won’t talk to me since the fight with Trent. And there’s a couple of boys in my Connections class that I hang out with, but they’re kind of dumb. Their names are Ricky and Clay.”

Jantha gets up and begins to lead me to another path up the side of the cliff, “You’ve had a pretty busy couple of months, huh? Do you like your new teacher as much as you liked Miss Funk?”

“Not really,” I shake my head, “She’s kind of mean. She’s making me teach myself cursive because she says I was supposed to already know it in third grade, instead of fifth grade like they did in Little Rock. And she gets mad when I read in class, even if I’ve already finished all my work.”

Jantha laughs, “I used to get in trouble for that all the time too. How is your Mom? Do you like her new house?”

I lean heavily on my walking stick up the steep slope.

“It’s a nice house. It’s got big rooms and wood floors with a big climbing tree in the front yard. But I don’t really like the other lady who lives there. She has two boys and they’re always loud and always rough and always breaking things.”

“Yeah, some boys are like that. Lucky you’re different, huh?”

I hate that word. Different.

Jantha gives me a strange look, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I’m trying not to cry, which seems stupid because there’s nothing I feel sad about right now, “I just wish I was normal sometimes.”

She leads me to the edge of the cliff and points down to the very bottom:

“DORIAN & JANTHA

Peace & Love”

“Wow! I didn’t think it would be so easy to see. It’s so far down.”

We stare into The Basin for a long time, not saying anything. I dangle my toes past the edge dangerously, imagining what it might be like to slip and fall, even if it was only an accident.

“Being normal is boring,” Jantha finally says, emptying her backpack of sandwiches and a canteen of water, “Only weirdos make a difference because only weirdos change the world from what it already is.”

That makes me smile. Maybe she’s right. Maybe it is better to be weird.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, Dorian, but how are you holding up these days?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, what with your mom and dad and the move and everything, it just seems like you’ve been really quiet lately. You know you can always talk with me if you need to, right?”

It’s only then I realize this isn’t a spontaneous idea, but a planned outing while Cloud starts her new dance classes. I’m not sure if that makes me feel angry for being tricked, or happy to have time alone with Aunt Jantha like before Cloud was born.

“I don’t know. It’s all so different. Home. School. Everything. We hardly see Mommy except for the weekends, but Daddy’s never awake anyway, so I don’t know why we don’t just go live with her. Cloud would cry less, although then I would have to deal with those boys, so I wouldn’t really like that either. It doesn’t even matter because grown-ups never listen to you anyway.”

“Boy ain’t that the truth. That’s why I don’t consider myself a grown-up, just a big kid. You know, this used to be my favorite reading spot during the summer?”

My ears perk up, always eager for good books, “Really? What did you read?”

“Fantasy. Science Fiction sometimes too. Anything with fairies or dragons or wizards. What about you?”

“I just finished Harriet the Spy and I think it might be my new favorite. She spies on all her friends and neighbors and writes all their secrets in a private notebook and she lives in New York City.”

“I’ll have to start lending you books. I bet I have a few you might like. Have you read The Color of Magic yet?”

We thankfully avoid further discussion of my parents or their divorce or anything else serious. After our snack we continue to wander until we find a pasture surrounded by trees draped in white and yellow flowers.

Jantha says they’re called Honeysuckle because you can suck the nectar right out of them, and we pick and suck enough of them to make crowns of flowers around both our heads to wear. It’s silly and they’re hard to wear, but that’s why she’s my favorite relative on Daddy’s side.

The orange sky looks beautiful through the green leaves as we begin to make our way back to the playground and the Jeep. As we crunch up the gravel she nudges me playfully and points to the caboose.

“You see that caboose?”

“Uh-huh.”

“When I was growing up, we would sneak out at night and climb up in there so we could kiss!”

And then she plants a wet loud kiss on my cheek before racing me the rest of the way to the Jeep.

I wish I could tell Jantha about Ryan and his treehouse. But I don’t want to go to Boot Camp. And if I can’t tell Jantha, then I can’t tell anyone. But it’s hard to think about that when she cranks up her radio and pulls out of the parking lot to get us two big Blue Ocean Slushes from Sonic on our way back home.

My lips and tongue are still blue when I fall asleep.

Numbers