Harriet was trying to explain to Sport how to play Town. “See, first you make up the name of the town. Then you write down the names of all the people who live in it. You can’t have too many or it gets too hard. I usually have twenty-five.”
“Ummmm.” Sport was tossing a football in the air. They were in the courtyard of Harriet’s house on East Eighty-seventh Street in Manhattan.
“Then when you know who lives there, you make up what they do. For instance, Mr. Charles Hanley runs the filling station on the corner.” Harriet spoke thoughtfully as she squatted next to the big tree, bending so low over her notebook that her long straight hair touched the edges.
“Don’tcha wanta play football?” Sport asked.
“Now, listen, Sport, you never did this and it’s fun. Now over here next to this curve in the mountain we’ll put the filling station. So if anything happens there, you remember where it is.”
Sport tucked the football under his arm and walked over to her. “That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”
“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” Harriet looked up into his face.
Sport moved back a pace. “Looks like an old tree root,” he muttered.
Harriet pushed her hair back and looked at him seriously. “Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”
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“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”
“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” Satisfied, she turned back to her town.
Sport put the football gently on the ground and knelt beside her, looking over her shoulder at the notebook in which she scribbled furiously.
“Now, as soon as you’ve got all the men’s names down, and their wives’ names and their children’s names, then you figure out all their professions. You’ve got to have a doctor, a lawyer–”
“And an Indian chief,” Sport interrupted.
“No. Someone who works in television.”
“What makes you think they have television?”
“I say they do. And, anyway, my father has to be in it, doesn’t he?”
“Well, then put mine in too. Put a writer in it.”
“Okay, we can make Mr. Jonathan Fishbein a writer.”
“And let him have a son like me who cooks for him.” Sport rocked back and forth on his heels, chanting in singsong, “And let him be eleven years old like me, and let him have a mother who went away and has all the money, and let him grow up to be a ball player.”
“Nooo,” Harriet said in disgust. “Then you’re not making it up. Don’t you understand?”
Sport paused. “No,” he said.
“Just listen, Sport. See, now that we have all this written down, I’ll show you where the fun is.” Harriet got very businesslike. She stood up, then got on her knees in the soft September mud so she could lean over the little valley made between the two big roots of the tree. She referred to her notebook every now and then, but for the most part she stared intently at the mossy lowlands which made her town. “Now, one night, late at night, Mr. Charles Hanley is in his filling station. He is just about to turn out the lights and go home because it is nine o’clock and time for him to get ready for bed.”
“But he’s a grown-up!” Sport looked intently at the spot occupied by the gas station.
“In this town everybody goes to bed at nine-thirty,” Harriet said definitely.
“Oh”–Sport rocked a little on his heels–“my father goes to bed at nine in the morning. Sometimes I meet him getting up.”
“And also, Dr. Jones is delivering a baby to Mrs. Harrison right over here in the hospital. Here is the hospital, the Carterville General Hospital.” She pointed to the other side of town. Sport looked at the left root.
“What is Mr. Fishbein, the writer, doing?”
Harriet pointed to the center of town. “He is in the town bar, which is right here.” Harriet looked down at the town as though hypnotized. “Here’s what happens. Now, this night, as Mr. Hanley is just about to close up, a long, big old black car drives up and in it there are all these men with guns. They drive in real fast and Mr. Hanley gets scared. They jump out of the car and run over and rob Mr. Hanley, who is petrified. They steal all the money in the gas station, then they fill up with gas free and then they zoom off in the night. Mr. Hanley is all bound and gagged on the floor.”
Sport’s mouth hung open. “Then what?”
“At this same minute Mrs. Harrison’s baby is born and Dr. Jones says, ‘You have a fine baby girl, Mrs. Harrison, a fine baby girl, ho, ho, ho.’ ”
“Make it a boy.”
“No, it’s a girl. She already has a boy.”
“What does the baby look like?”
“She’s ugly. Now, also at this very minute, on the other side of town, over here past the gas station, almost to the mountain, the robbers have stopped at a farmhouse which belongs to Ole Farmer Dodge. They go in and find him eating oatmeal because he doesn’t have any teeth. They throw the oatmeal on the floor and demand some other food. He doesn’t have anything but oatmeal, so they beat him up. Then they settle down to spend the night. Now, at this very minute, the police chief of Carterville, who is called Chief Herbert, takes a stroll down the main street. He senses something is not right and he wonders what it is. . . .”
“Harriet. Get up out of that mud.” A harsh voice rang out from the third floor of the brownstone behind them.
Harriet looked up. There was a hint of anxiety in her face. “Oh, Ole Golly, I’m not in the mud.”
The face of the nurse looking out of the window was not the best-looking face in the world, but for all its frowning, its sharp, dark lines, there was kindness there. “Harriet M. Welsch, you are to rise to your feet.”
Harriet rose without hesitation. “But, listen, we’ll have to play Town standing up,” she said plaintively.
“That’s the best way” came back sharply, and the head disappeared.
Sport stood up too. “Why don’t we play football, then?”
“No, look, if I just sit like this I won’t be in the mud.” So saying, she squatted on her heels next to the town. “Now, he senses that there is something wrong–”
“How can he? He hasn’t seen anything and it’s all on the other side of town.”
“He just feels it. He’s a very good police chief.”
“Well,” Sport said dubiously.
“So, since he’s the only policeman in town, he goes around and deputizes everybody and he says to them, ‘Something is fishy in this here town. I feel it in my bones,’ and everybody follows him and they get on their horses–”
“Horses!” Sport shrieked.
“They get in the squad car and they drive around town until–”
“Harriet.” The back door slammed and Ole Golly marched squarely toward them across the yard. Her long black shoes made a slap-slap noise on the brick.
“Hey, where are you going?” asked Harriet, jumping up. Because Ole Golly had on her outdoor things. Ole Golly just had indoor things and outdoor things. She never wore anything as recognizable as a skirt, a jacket, or a sweater. She just had yards and yards of tweed which enveloped her like a lot of discarded blankets, which ballooned out when she walked, and which she referred to as her Things.
“I’m going to take you somewhere. It’s time you began to see the world. You’re eleven years old and it’s time you saw something.” She stood there above them, so tall that when they looked up they saw the blue sky behind her head.
Harriet felt a twinge of guilt because she had seen a lot more than Ole Golly thought she had. But all she said was “Oh, boy,” and jumped up and down.
“Get your coat and hurry. We’re leaving right now.” Ole Golly always did everything right now. “Come on, Sport, it won’t hurt you to look around too.”
“I have to be back at seven to cook dinner.” Sport jumped up as he said this.
“We’ll be back long before that. Harriet and I eat at six. Why do you eat so late?”
“He has cocktails first. I have olives and peanuts.”
“That’s nice. Now go get your coats.”
Sport and Harriet ran through the back door, slamming it behind them.
“What’s all the noise?” spluttered the cook, who whirled around just in time to see them fly through the kitchen door and up the back stairs. Harriet’s room was at the top of the house, so they had three flights to run up and they were breathless by the time they got there.
“Where’re we going?” Sport shouted after Harriet’s flying feet.
“I don’t know,” Harriet panted as they entered her room, “but Ole Golly always has good places.”
Sport grabbed his coat and was out the door and halfway down the steps when Harriet said, “Wait, wait, I can’t find my notebook.”
“Oh, whadya need that for?” Sport yelled from the steps.
“I never go anywhere without it,” came the muffled answer.
“Aw, come on, Harriet.” There were great crashing noises coming from the bedroom. “Harriet? Did you fall down?”
A muffled but very relieved voice came out. “I found it. It must have slipped behind the bed.” And Harriet emerged clutching a green composition book.
“You must have a hundred of them now,” Sport said as they went down the steps.
“No, I have fourteen. This is number fifteen. How could I have a hundred? I’ve only been working since I was eight, and I’m only eleven now. I wouldn’t even have this many except at first I wrote so big my regular route took almost the whole book.”
“You see the same people every day?”
“Yes. This year I have the Dei Santi family, Little Joe Curry, the Robinsons, Harrison Withers, and a new one, Mrs. Plumber. Mrs. Plumber is the hardest because I have to get in the dumbwaiter.”
“Can I go with you sometime?”
“No, silly. Spies don’t go with friends. Anyway, we’d get caught if there were two of us. Why don’t you get your own route?”
“Sometimes I watch out my window a window across the way.”
“What happens there?”
“Nothing. A man comes home and pulls the shade down.”
“That’s not very exciting.”
“It sure isn’t.”
They met Ole Golly waiting for them, tapping her foot, outside the front door. They walked to Eighty-sixth Street, took the crosstown bus, and soon were whizzing along in the subway, sitting in a line–Ole Golly, then Harriet, then Sport. Ole Golly stared straight ahead. Harriet was scribbling furiously in her notebook.
“What are you writing?” Sport asked.
“I’m taking notes on all those people who are sitting over there.”
“Aw, Sport”–Harriet was exasperated–“because I’ve seen them and I want to remember them.” She turned back to her book and continued her notes:
MAN WITH ROLLED WHITE SOCKS, FAT LEGS. WOMAN WITH ONE CROSS-EYE AND A LONG NOSE. HORRIBLE -LOOKING LITTLE BOY AND A FAT BLONDE MOTHER WHO KEEPS WIPING HIS NOSE OFF. FUNNY LADY LOOKS LIKE A TEACHER AND IS READING. I DON’T THINK I’D LIKE TO LIVE WHERE ANY OF THESE PEOPLE LIVE OR DO THE THINGS THEY DO. I BET THAT LITTLE BOY IS SAD AND CRIES A LOT. I BET THAT LADY WITH THE CROSS-EYE LOOKS IN THE MIRROR AND JUST FEELS TERRIBLE.
Ole Golly leaned over and spoke to them. “We’re going to Far Rockaway. It’s about three stops from here. I want you to see how this person lives, Harriet. This is my family.”
Harriet almost gasped. She looked up at Ole Golly in astonishment, but Ole Golly just stared out the window again. Harriet continued to write:
THIS IS INCREDIBLE. COULD OLE GOLLY HAVE A FAMILY? I NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT IT. HOW COULD OLE GOLLY HAVE A MOTHER AND FATHER? SHE’S TOO OLD FOR ONE THING AND SHE’S NEVER SAID ONE WORD ABOUT THEM AND I’VE KNOWN HER SINCE I WAS BORN. ALSO SHE DOESN’T GET ANY LETTERS. THINK ABOUT THIS. THIS MIGHT BE IMPORTANT.
They came to their stop and Ole Golly led them off the subway.
“Gee,” said Sport as they came up onto the sidewalk, “we’re near the ocean.” And they could smell it, the salt, and even a wild soft spray which blew gently across their faces, then was gone.
“Yes,” said Ole Golly briskly. Harriet could see a change in her. She walked faster and held her head higher.
They were walking down a street that led to the water. The houses, set back from the sidewalk with a patch of green in front, were built of yellow brick interspersed with red. It wasn’t very pretty, Harriet thought, but maybe they liked their houses this way, better than those plain red brick ones in New York.
Ole Golly was walking faster and looking sterner. She looked as though she wished she hadn’t come. Abruptly she turned in at a sidewalk leading to a house. She strode relentlessly up the steps, never looking back, never saying a word. Sport and Harriet followed, wide-eyed, up the steps to the front door, through the front hall, and out the back door.
She’s lost her mind, Harriet thought. She and Sport looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Then they saw that Ole Golly was heading for a small private house which sat in its own garden behind the apartment house. Harriet and Sport stood still, not knowing what to do. This little house was like a house in the country, the kind Harriet saw when she went to Water Mill in the summer. The unpainted front had the same soft gray of driftwood, the roof a darker gray.
“Come on, chickens, let’s get us a hot cup of tea.” Ole Golly, suddenly gay, waved from the funny little rotting porch.
Harriet and Sport ran toward the house, but stopped cold when the front door opened with a loud swish. There, suddenly, was the largest woman Harriet had ever seen.
“Why, lookahere what’s coming,” she bellowed, “looka them lil rascals,” and her great fat face crinkled into large cheerful lumps as her mouth split to show a toothless grin. She let forth a high burbling laugh.
Sport and Harriet stood staring, their mouths open. The fat lady stood like a mountain, her hands on her hips, in a flowered cotton print dress and enormous hanging coat sweater. Probably the biggest sweater in the world, thought Harriet; probably the biggest pair of shoes too. And her shoes were a wonder. Long, long, black, bumpy things with high, laced sides up to the middle of the shin, bulging with the effort of holding in those ankles, their laces splitting them into grins against the white of the socks below. Harriet fairly itched to takes notes on her.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Copyright © 2014 by Louise Fitzhugh. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.