Listen to the story:
I adjusted my Army Surplus belt and made sure I had extra pencils in the canvas flap. The larger pocket was supposed to hold a metal canteen, but my diary fit perfectly. On the other side, the straps to tiny little kid fold-up binoculars were woven through the eyelets, and I had a snake bite kit in my rear pocket. Not that there were that many rattlers, but I liked the romance. Ready to go out and play and “take notes” on people in my neighborhood I caught my friend staring at me, the ice cream cone starting to drip in her hand.
“You better lick that,” I offered.
“You need to read Harriet the Spy,” Mary Garret volleyed back. She did, however, attend to her rocky road. “You’re just like her.”
Just like her. Those three words to an eleven year old could engender either wrath or coy self-confidence.
“You sure you don’t want to come and take notes?” I said, hefting the belt and cinching it a bit tighter around my waist.
“Read the book,” she said.
So I did. That weekend, and suddenly my world changed.
Here was a girl who wanted to be a writer. So did I. I had already written my own autobiography, wittily titled Ykceb (Becky backwards), a short novella about a gang of art thieves and the plucky woman Interpol agent who investigates them, and a sad clutch of over wrought poems about water pollution, my dog, owl pellets and smog. But more than that, Harriet did exactly what I did, except she named things. Harriet didn’t just “take notes,” she spied on people. She wrote in something she called a “notebook,” and she wore a “spy belt,” and she said things like “rat fink,” which I started using the moment I slammed the cover shut in what I hoped was a Harriet-like fashion. So I co-opted her language and suddenly my little adventures became a “spy route” and instead of just peeking in windows and hiding in people’s backyards hoping to hear a snatch of a fight, I was now a spy. A real spy.
Everything I did had a name, and with the name a purpose, and with purpose came, effortlessly, wild adventure. I read the book over and over. Focused intently on Harriet’s sublime confidence and then her decent into friendlessness, I ate the book up. This sounds clichéd, but I mean I actually ate the book. Like ardent people of faith who devour the Bible or Quran, tearing pieces of tissue thin paper and stewing the pages, drinking the ink and chewing the pulp seeking to have the spirit of the words in their bones, I ate the Harriet the Spy. I couldn’t help myself. I‘d bend over and bite the corners off as I read, swallowing, as if I were taking a host. The librarian at school finally asked me why the top corners of the pages were all chewed away. “My dog,” I said. “My dog just likes the ends.” Then the bottom corners began to fray.
The spy route, now named, became a place where risks could be taken. Before, when I called it “play,” as in “I’m going out to play,” I just sat and listened. Now I scampered down hillsides, found a poor old man sunning naked in the back yard, climbed into a car where teens were drinking beer, and listened to Gary and Martha Wiltweed talk about “making ends meet.” My most notorious exploit remains the Devenshires, however.
The Denvonshires were Jehovah Witnesses and looking back, living in the Southern California desert, I am sure they felt out of place. But they were having a rip roaring argument about whether or not to give medicine to one of their children. I strained to hear what they were saying from my perch on a rock under their bedroom window.
“Well why did you pick up the prescription in the first place?” said Mr. Devonshire.
I could hear his wife crying. When they left the bedroom, I lost them, and I was stumped. What would Harriet do? Harriet with her can-do attitude and fearless disregard for the manners of life, was a spy and I could take her lead. Harriet, I decided would go inside. If only there was a dumbwaiter I could climb in to.
Because all the homes were cookie cutter ranches, I knew I had to settle on hiding in the pantry in the kitchen. So I carefully opened the back door, crept into past the sink and slipped into their pantry keeping the door slightly ajar, and I could hear….everything.
My heart slammed against my ribs when Mrs. Deveonshire came into the kitchen, still crying. Mr. Deveonshire leaned against the sink and lectured her about the Bible. They shouted some more and then she put her hand on the door handle to the pantry. I held my breath. This was it. She would pull open that door and see some vaguely familiar girl in jeans and a red and white striped shirt, short wild curly hair, a notebook with writing, and some weird belt with stuff hanging off of it. Both horrified and exhilarated, I stood my ground.
Her hand dropped from the handle. Mr. Devonshire stopped yelling and rubbed the back of her neck with his hand and then they kissed. Right there. Grown up drama. It could not get better. Harriet would be proud. Harriet was proud.
Harriet saw me through high school, followed me to college and then from the west coast to the east coast. She watched my children grow up and became a part of their lives. I learned that naming things is critical and that with names can come purpose.
Years later, when my husband proposed to me, I said “yes” with two qualifiers: 1) I would keep my last name and 2) he would let me read him Harriet the Spy. He gallantly agreed to both. Now he is gone, but Harriet remains. Three ratty old copies of the book sit on my desk holding me fast to who I am and what I wanted to be. And, as it turned out, I am a writer.
R. A. Morean is a short story writer, essayist and novelist. We’ve Got This, an unapologetic beach read, debuts September 8th. Azimuths (December 1) represents a 20 year literary process. Both were satisfying to write. A professor at Sinclair College, she also serves as president of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop.