Harriet Susan Clotkin is not the sort of name you'd imagine for the first lady president of the United States. That's just fine by me, as I never had designs on running for political office but planned instead on following in the family tradition: a career of incarceration. As soon as I was old enough, I was headed for the joint. First I had to have the required fourteen to sixteen years of rotten childhood. So far, I had only served eleven years and change.
Time was running out on my becoming a juvenile delinquent. The really impressive cons started their rap sheets by nine or ten. Unfortunately, I had a heart condition that needed fixing before I could begin a serious crime spree.
Yes, Fish, my heart was as lumpy and soft as a rotten tomato. I couldn't stand to see things hurt, especially anything weak and defenseless. Watching Jolly Roger and his road dogs pull the legs off a spider made me grind my teeth down worse than if I slept with a mouth full of sandpaper. When those boys clicked the little kids on the bus, I had to sit on my hands just to keep from breaking theirs.
In the joint, where I was headed, I'd need a heart filled with cement and covered in riveted steel. I was working on it. But so far, I wasn't making much progress.
Now, there's a thing or two you need to know if you want to do time with Harry Sue. First off, you got to keep it real. Most everybody I know, they just see what they want to see. Aside from my road dogs, the people I have to deal with--including my teacher, Ms. Lanier, and that bunch over at Granny's Lap--they just see my mask.
It's like my favorite book, The Wizard of Oz, which just so happens to be the last one my mom read to me before she was sent up. Most people, they have only ever seen the movie. But me, I read the book. Twenty-seven times. If you didn't read the book, then you think it's all about singing and rainbows and skipping down the Yellow Brick Road.
You don't know anything about the real story. In the real story, those horrible winged monkeys help Dorothy. They do! And the Tin Man murders forty wolves, and when Dorothy gets to Oz, the Munchkins think she's signifying because her dress has white in it and that's the color of witches. There's monsters in that book whose names you can't even pronounce right. And they're not in any dictionary, either, because I checked.
There's so much they don't tell you in the movie. And people don't think to ask afterward. They just take what they see as the real story.
Me, I'm a little like Dorothy myself, searching for my own Aunt Em. I don't care where I have to live when I find her. It's been six long years since I set eyes on my mom. Some days, it feels like she's as far away as Oz is from Kansas and like I'll never see her again. In the real story, they don't have any of that hokey-pokey crap where Aunt Em calls out, "Dorothy! Dorothy! We're looking for you!" from the magic crystal ball.
The real story is more like my life. You have to wonder what Aunt Em is up to while Dorothy's trying to get out of Oz. Is she going through the motions, milking the cows and shucking the corn? Or is she wrung out with grief, sitting paralyzed on the back step, her eyes fixed on the flat line of horizon?
Life at Trench Vista Elementary School was something like doing time. There was "the yard," what the principal, Mr. Hernandez, liked to call the courtyard. It sat next to a playground that pushed up against the wet edges of Marshfield's water treatment plant.
On days with a northeasterly wind, we were marched to the playground to play kickball, freeze tag, and other games designed to use up our energy. But on days with a southeasterly wind, when the smell from the treatment plant filled our nostrils and made more than one kid remember what became of lunch, he'd hustle us into the courtyard for jump rope and four square and tetherball.
That's when I felt the closed-in, clamped-down feeling of prison. I'd pace the edges of the yard, ducking in and out of the ragged lilac bushes and honeysuckle vines that were planted as a pathetic defense against the smell of Marshfield's liquid garbage. Our sixth-grade year was only thirty-eight days into a nine-month stay, but I knew things were heating up considerably. There are days when I can feel the trouble in my bones.
Violet Eleanor Chump was what we considered the lowest form of life in the joint: a snitch, a rat, a cheese eater. Old Violet would drop a dime as easy as batting her eyelashes. Since Mr. Hernandez was particular about keeping the students in alphabetical order--to line up for recess, to line up for chow, to line up for the buses--I spent more time around Violet than I'd've liked. I had to sit next to her, too, and there wasn't much chance of that changing unless an eleven-year-old with a name between Chump and Clotkin had the misfortune to enroll at Trench Vista.
Fish, don't make me say this twice. If you want to hang with Harry Sue, you got to learn to do your own time. It was hard to imagine anyone choosing to go to school at Trench Vista. Yet here we were by accident of birth--or maybe just plain accident, as in my personal case. But if you have to be here, stop messing around in other people's business and attend to your own.
Violet's problems were mostly due to her notion that she was special. She thought someone should care about how she felt. She thought her needs mattered. What kind of family did she grow up in? I wondered.
I was filing back in after recess, observing the rule of "closed lips, hands on hips," when Ms. Lanier put a bony hand on my shoulder and pulled me into the coatroom.
"I'm afraid those," she said, pointing to my soggy shoes and holding out a plastic Family Fare grocery bag, "will need to stay in here.
"It's possible we'll need to have a talk about personal hygiene, Harry Sue, and the importance of bathing on a regular basis. You are getting older now and your body is undergoing changes."
Ms. Lanier put one finger inside the tight collar of her blouse and pulled it away from her damp neck. I had a sudden image of Granny loosening jellied cranberry from the can with a long-handled butter knife. At Granny's Lap, we ate canned jellied cranberries as a fruit serving from December to March because it was cheaper than dirt and made most of the crumb snatchers want to heave. Whether you ate it or not, it still counted as one fruit serving for Granny to put on her federal forms.
Ms. Lanier's neck quivered in just the same way the cranberry did as she stood there contemplating my body undergoing its changes.
I kept my eyes to the floor. Somewhere in my chest my heart started to throb as I knelt to untie my shoes. They were cheap and worn, the kind you pick up in the bin next to the flip-flops at Value Village.
The pounding inside me was so loud it threatened to give me away. She would bathe regularly, it throbbed, if there wasn't always a baby in the bathtub. The shoes stink, it complained in its trembly way, because we had to haul Spooner from the pond again this morning.
I caught my breath, checking for the mask, letting it handle the damage control. My jaw set, I looked up at Ms. Lanier, imagining my gaze passing through an invisible magnifying glass, like sun does, heating it to the burning point.
It worked. Suddenly, we were just two conettes on the yard who didn't have permission to take it outside. Ms. Lanier looked away, but I kept the gaze on her, not bothering to glance down at the laces disintegrating between my fingers.
It was the best look in my catalog and I used it a lot. I called it "mad and dumb." You didn't want to appear too intelligent. What you wanted was a look that said: This dog bites.
"Violet has a very delicate constitution," Ms. Lanier said. "On bad days like these, what with her asthma and her allergies, she just can't take the added assault on her senses."
She removed the finger from the collar that was choking her and shook open the bag. I held the stare as I dropped the shoes into it.
"Socks, too," she squeaked.
Did she really expect me to spend the afternoon barefoot?
Before I could think what to say, she dipped down and picked up a pair of wool socks, man-sized, from the bench we used to remove our boots. Then she grabbed her can of Fruit Fresh Peachy Keen aerosol spray and proceeded to douse my new socks with the sickening-sweet scent of factory-made fruit smells.
I focused my stare. Little dewdrops of sweat formed in the tiny hairs above Ms. Lanier's mouth. Without breaking my gaze, I peeled off my soggy socks and dropped them into the grocery bag.
My temples were throbbing and the bone that ran between my neck and my shoulder, the one that never got straight since the fall, was pressing against a nerve. What was it about Ms. Lanier that always made things hurt worse? The pain made me think of a line from Mom's favorite fairy tale, "Jack and the Beanstalk," where the giant tears apart the kitchen looking for the kid who's been lifting his golden eggs.
I'll grind your bones to make my bread.
The entire class was twisting in their seats, straining to get a view of my entrance. I tried to look dignified with a pair of man's socks dragging at my ankles. A couple of busters in the back row covered their mouths and pointed.
"If anybody laughs, it's on," I hissed.
But then I told myself not to get distracted. What was most important was to find Violet. I needed to communicate with my eyes my look that said:
Somewhere, somehow, when you least expect it, I will exact my punishment.
Before we go any further, we have to go back. Way back. Seven years back, to the day of my accident. You can't fully appreciate the saga of Harry Sue unless you know the backstory. Every conette has a backstory. It's hard enough returning to the night that changed my life forever, but if it was up to my road dog, Homer, we'd go back even further.
You see, Homer would argue that my father, Garnett Clotkin, didn't just show up to our apartment that night swearing and spitting like a rabid dog for no reason at all. Not everybody expresses their anger with violence. Garnett had to be trained to it.
"Maybe your granny tied his shoes too tight," he'd offer, or, "Maybe it was her habit of dunking his head in toilet water when he sassed her."
I say, any way you slice it, it's still bread.
On the night that changed our lives forever, the man I called father was nursing a wounded pride by drinking up as much Motor City Ale as he could locate. He wanted my mother to take him back. She'd already been down to the police station to get a restraining order to keep him away from us.
To me, anyway, that meant, "I don't think so."
But to my father it was just a piece of paper. He was too much of a man, too lit on Motor City Ale, to use that restraining order for more than what kept his chewing gum from sticking to the bottom of Granny's wicker wastebasket.
To make a long story short, Mom threatened to call the cops when he barged in, so he dangled me out the window to get her to pay attention.
"I'm warning you, Mary Bell. Put the phone down."
People say I couldn't possibly have a clear memory of that moment. I was only five years old and barely conscious. He'd pulled me out of that little-kid sleep, the real satisfying kind that comes from not knowing the score.
But I do remember. I remember her crying, "Don't hurt my baby! And how the air felt, so wet it was like fingers pressing on my face. And how it smelled--both sweet and sour--like the garbage under our sink in summer.
I heard and felt all those things before I was yanked back inside.
After that, it's a blur, but I can tell it fairly from the way the neighbors whispered and from the trial. Mom connected to the Marshfield Police Station and started talking gibberish. My father, being a man of his word, picked me back up, pressed my knees to my shoulders, and shoved me out the window, using the chest pass that kept him in school until the ninth grade as first-string guard for the Trench Vista varsity basketball team.
That is the kind of detail Homer loves because it shows how everything, every action, affects what comes after. Homer likes to say if my dad had chosen baseball over basketball, he'd have to call some other dog his best friend, for I would be long gone from this world.
Because he was a basketball player, my father squished me into a ball and launched me out the window when his instincts took over. His anger was like rocket fuel, enough to catapult me into the branches of an elm tree. See, an elm tree is shaped like a vase, so instead of dropping seven stories to the brick patio, I began a long, slow-motion game of pinball, rolling toward the center of the tree. This is another detail Homer loves, because if it had been an oak tree, well, we've already touched on that possibility.
I do remember the sensation of wet branches grabbing me, of leaves slapping my face. I rolled all the way to the center of the tree before it let go just ten feet from the ground and dropped me onto a pile of wet leaves and soggy mulch.
In the time it took me to ride that leafy elevator to the ground floor, my father's head cleared enough to determine he'd just committed a capital offense. Who knows? Maybe he even felt bad about it, at least bad enough to lay me on the backseat of his truck and rush me to the emergency room, where I was diagnosed with a severe case of bruising, a dislocated shoulder, and two broken ribs.
Mom rushed out, too, but he'd copped the elevator and she couldn't match him for speed down seven floors. In all the confusion, she forgot to put away the toy chemistry lab she'd set up on the table to make crystal methamphetamine, or crank as it's called on the street, an illegal drug she mostly used herself to stay awake while working the swing shift at the auto glass factory.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Harry Sue by Sue Stauffacher. Copyright © 2005 by Sue Stauffacher. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.