“I know she cares about me. She knows what my last boyfriend did. She always has an eye out for me, warning me about people I don’t like, and people I want to like.”
Hannah Brown was awarded a $1000 prize for her novel-in-progress My Girl Harry, about a young person definitely on the spectrum. Read the winning excerpt below.
Chapter One: Why I Don’t Sing in the Choir
I think that gravity is the longing the earth has for your body. That the operating principle of the world is desire. And for me, desire has something to do with what goes in my mouth. Maybe because when I look at a colour, I taste it. A sensation in my mouth.
Lots of children put things in their mouths. When I was little, I concentrated on plants. On the way to school, I discovered wild clover in the cracks of the sidewalk, usually near front steps. Their small red stems were delicious, sharp and sweet. The best stems were those of timothy, one stem holstered inside the other, so you always had one or two more times to draw in and swallow the stem juice. In our own garden, I ate the tightly-furled artillery of the phlox flower buds. A little spicy.
Back then, it was the job of children to entertain visitors. I was expected to say a verse, or sing a song upon demand. I delivered. With hand gestures. I also delivered remarks that had chinless men furious and stout women blushing. My mother figured she needed help socializing me and signed me up for the local choir. The choir mistress ignored my personal remarks about her stomach going in and out because she liked my voice.
On Easter Sunday, at the end of each choir stall, the altar guild had placed large pots of white lilies, exultant and fragrant. As the youngest member of the choir, I had to sit on the front bench, closest to the congregation.
During communion, the congregation didn’t sing. Only the choir sang, the same anthem, over and over again, while people came up to the communion rail. I was adrift, drugged with the repetition of the anthem. Thou that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Over and over. I might also have been a little light-headed from not having breakfast. The idea was not to eat anything before taking communion.
I had really hoped that I would feel something the first time I had a communion wafer on my tongue. Like they said, material into spiritual. I thought I had somehow missed it, that change, or hadn’t recognized it. The communion wine, St. Augustine’s Elderberry, was more impressive. It made me feel as though, under my white surplice and black skirt, the boundaries of my body were swaying. And on that Sunday, congregants kept coming up to kneel at the communion rail, while the minister repeated, over and over—
This is the body of Christ. Take, eat, this is my body
that is given for thee, do this in remembrance of me,
— I was inhaling the perfume from the lilies beside me. Several blossoms on each stem, and gloriously open, all of them open. And in the centre of each blossom, surrounded by stamens, was the stigma, the female part, palest pale green, and trembling confidently on its tiny bulbous point, nectar. The scent was intoxicating. And I was hungry.
Usually church would be out by 11:30 and everyone home in time for mid-day Sunday dinner. But this was Easter Sunday. It was already 12:30 and there were still dozens of people lined up, women in hats with their left glove off, ready to receive the wafer. Old people with canes. Young men with all the hair on their heads damn near shaved off. The choir droned on.
Thou that takest away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer.
I thought to myself, slow as glass. I had learned, somewhere, that glass was not a solid, but a very slow-moving liquid. Slow as glass, I leaned towards the pot of lilies closest to me. It took about five minutes of infinitesimal inclination to the right, lower and lower, until I could lick that drop off the biggest stigma.
Hosannah, you lily.
The organ stopped its groaning. Father Tiller took the folded linen cloth and wiped the goblet we had all drunk wine from, and drained the cup of its dregs. Time for the last prayer. We stood to sing the recessional. First down the centre aisle went the altar boy, gripping a long pole, its brass cross high above everyone’s heads, followed by Father Tiller, and then from the stalls, the choir, two by two. My mother gave me an exasperated look as I went past, but that was nothing new and other people smiled right at me. Father Tiller stood at the church doors bidding goodbye to parishioners while the choir went down the stairs to the church basement, continuing to sing the recessional hymn until we each reached the bottom step and stepped onto the painted cement floor, and changed in silence into our regular clothes.
On the way home in the car, my mother said, “Maybe next Easter, Harry, if you decide to eat the Easter lilies, you could wear your surplice right side out. Everyone could read your name tag as you went past.”
At the next choir practice, the choir mistress told me she needed me to sing alto, as Hilda Blundell had to go to Bowmanville to look after her mother, and that left only two altos, the teenagers Alana Marks and Karen Pike. They back-combed their hair and laughed at things that were not funny, but could really hold onto the not-melody— which made the sopranos sound good.
The altos sat in the second row screened by the raised pulpit, so they were able to amuse themselves by teaching me how to roll a pretend cigarette out of my hymn list, as they did, to languidly blow imaginary smoke, as they did, and to try to quickly stand on the skirt of the girl closest when she kneeled, so that when she stood, she fell over. An Anglican service has a lot of kneeling and standing, so it was a game they were really good at. On my last Sunday in the choir, they both stood on my skirt, so when we rose to sing, my skirt was pulled right down, past my girl’s garter belt and ribbed brown stockings, and the tenors in the choir stalls opposite burst out laughing.
My mother had picked the Anglicans originally because their services were completely scripted. No shouting or individual testimony. “And,” she said, “they read.” But after that Sunday, she gave in to my pleas to avoid church, though she added, “I worry about you, Harry. I think sometimes you are going to end up in the Mercer Reformatory for Wayward Girls.”
On Sundays, from then on, I packed my lunch and rode my bike to the woods. Sometimes I sang, loudly, but not anthems. I was singing to desire, wayward and unreformed.
Chapter Two: You’re Not Listening to All I Say
There she is, shaking her shoulders and her hips, her whole skinny-ass self. With that crooked tooth grin. She’s doing a fast version of the Philly shuffle in those low-rise high heels of hers. At least they were clean. She had scraped them carefully this morning on the first step of the school bus in case some mud— or worse— was on the sole, or was riding up the instep.
Right now, it’s late on a Friday afternoon, and we’re at the Spring Concert practice. Harry is adding another fast move into the routine. At the mic, the two girls on either side of her are going nuts, trying to get her to stick to what they had rehearsed in the washroom. They’re all in tight harmony on ‘If you wanna know’ and they all wear the same dress, but Harry is moving so fast the fringe on the hem of her dress snaps. She can out shoop-shoop anybody.
Except for one class in civics, we are in separate programs at school. We don’t even have the same lunch period. But we always sit together on the bus. It’s a long ride into town, so we spend a couple of hours together every day. Friends by geography. Bus friends.
Harry’s little, but fast, and she can get in real tight on the basketball court, annoying girls who are a foot taller. That’s why she made the team. At least for the first couple of months. I had heard some gossip this week, and I had to ask.
“What did you get kicked off for?”
“I yelled something out the window and they took it the wrong way.” She was laughing so hard her eyes were full of tears.
“What did you say?”
“I asked them where they bought their tits.” She hauled a red-striped ankle sock out over the top of her shirt, laughing out loud at her huge left side, and her tiny right side. “Seriously, Anna, whatever they’re using is better than these gym socks.”
Her mother does her hair up in rags, so it comes out coiled, in ringlets that look like they are going to bounce right off her head. She is always late for the bus, running down that long farm lane, whooping, “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!”
I don’t want to kiss her. But I am in love with her. This afternoon in civics, she got the hall pass to go to the washroom. Just before she went out of the classroom, she put one arm up along the door frame and let her head fall back as she kicked one heel backwards. And she was gone. Out of view. We could hear those low-rise high heels of hers clicking all the way down the hallway, and then the clicks picked up speed. Everyone kept quiet. We knew what was going to happen. She was going to do one of those running dance leaps, dragging one foot and with both arms up in the air like Bolt when she turned the corner. Someone around the corner always yelps. Today it was the principal who yelped and then we could hear him laughing. She still got a detention slip.
I know she cares about me. She knows what my last boyfriend did. She always has an eye out for me, warning me about people I don’t like, and people I want to like. She doesn’t care if anyone likes her, and it’s a good thing our bus is the last one to leave because she gets so many detentions the teacher sometimes leaves her in charge of the detention room.
We live about two miles from each other, but she’s never invited me to come over to her house, and my mother has heard how bad she is. But we have complete privacy to talk every morning— a school bus is the biggest percussion instrument known to teenage men. If you’re happy and you know it, they howl, hit the bus. Like they are huge kindergarten kids, full of harm and promise. They thump the bus the way those New Zealand guys with the tattoos thump their chest. In winter, they hit the bus with the top of their black-taped hockey sticks. Harry and I can talk under the cover of their noise. If you’re happy and you know it, hit the bus.
I always save her a seat. Usually, Harry drops down beside me on the school bus seat like she arrived by parachute, and then kneels to stretch over the back of the seat to call out to Mikey Brumwell. All she ever says is, “Hey, Mikey! Hey, Mikey!” Mikey’s response is to grin and blush and duck his head towards his left shoulder. Wave at her without looking up. But this morning was different.
Wednesday, I had told her stop to kissing the cheek of the old bus driver every day just before she left the bus, but she laughed at me and did it again anyway. Fat Ron owns the bus and is always looking up in his mirror to see what people are doing.
Yesterday, Thursday, we were lined up for the bus, and Donny was at the wheel, instead of Fat Ron. Donny is about thirty maybe and listens to the radio and ignores us. He doesn’t open the door of the bus until four o’clock on the dot.
Then who pulled up behind the bus but Fat Ron in a little sports car. I don’t know what kind, it looked old, but cool, and he asked Harry if she wanted a ride home. She hopped in, and ignored the boys in the line who made unhhh-ohhh sounds. I had to ride home by myself, and I was kind of mad at her. And also, kind of worried. Neither of us can talk freely on our home phones, and anyway, we don’t call each other. Like I said, we’re bus friends.
Today Donny was driving the bus again, and I was worried he wouldn’t wait for Harry. He’s like that. But for the first time ever, Harry was not running down the lane. She was not at the side of the road, either. She was standing in the little shelter her dad built for her near the mailbox. She has always refused to stand inside it. She said it made her feel like a Portuguese lawn saint, like the ones we saw in Toronto when we went in the Dufferin Gates to the Royal.
We both go to the Royal Winter Fair every year on Exhibitor passes. My dad’s shorthorns and her dad’s horses are there but on different days. The horse people set up little liquor bars and fancy chairs near their stalls upstairs. I always think some little schoolkid is going to get flattened by one of the Clydesdales trotting down the steep ramp to the arena rings. City teachers, man. They have no idea that animals who have nothing against you can hurt you.
Harry and I both like to tell each other insider Royal jokes. I pulled up the hem of my skirt and said, “I showed my calf at the Royal and got second place.” I had waxed my calf’s legs and tugged up the fur to make them look a little more substantial for the moment when the judges tell you to lead your calf around the ring. It’s a big deal, the Royal, if you raise purebred shorthorns, to place second in the judging.
But Harry knows how to deliver a line, or top one. She said, “I got a blue ribbon for showing my Fanny.” Fanny is her Welsh Mountain pony. That breed shares bloodlines with Arabians, so Fanny is pretty but she cribs— she hooks her upper teeth on the top board of her pen and pulls down. There’s more than one U on the top boards of her stall. When she cribs, she makes the dirtiest burp you ever heard. Unless you heard one of Harry’s.
So this morning, Friday, Donny was at the wheel, holding the door open for Harry. She climbed up the steps like she’s ascending to the throne of Egypt. She ignored Donny’s wave and came down the aisle. Cleopatra at her coronation, or whatever those ancient Egyptians had for ceremonies. And then she burped. The bus engine roared, protesting the way Donny shifts gears, and the boys in the back seats protested Donny’s choice of music. Lots of cover to talk. She leaned over to hang up the bag with her costume, and checked to make sure no one was listening.
“So, Anna, listen. This is what happened. The old fool stopped his car half-way up the lane to my house and his eyes were closed and his lips were fluttering like gills.”
“Oh my god. What did you do?”
“I wobbled my index finger up and down on his lips, blblblbl. The motorboat sound.”
“What happened? What did he do?”
“He laughed because I was laughing. I hopped out of the car and took off. I told my mom but she said she didn’t want to hear about it. Big surprise. Listen, I need your help. On the last day of school, I’m going to pour brake fluid in the gas tank of this bus, and you have to help me and distract him while I do it.”
“Wait, are you going to blow up the school bus?”
“No! It will take two days for everything, the engine, the gears, everything to be all fucked up.”
That’s how I know how much she actually hates Fat Ron. Harry never swears. Or hardly ever.
And now, besides being on time for school bus, waiting in her little shelter, there’s something else new, besides the brake fluid plan. She just sat down beside me in the auditorium to watch the boys on the gymnastics team do their routine and tells me that when she gets out of high school next year, she’s going to go to the University of Pennsylvania.
“You mean, ‘west Philadelphia, born and raised’?”
“Yeah, that, sure. But I’m going to study Latin.” She says the new French teacher who gets stuck with detention duty all the time has promised to tutor her in Latin, so Harry can take the AP exam in the spring.
“Latin is the most efficient language, Anna.” Harry sighs. “It takes so long to say the same thing in English.”
She leans back and says she thinks Americans will like her old-school, girl-group singing. “But I want to be the lead, this time, not back-up, like now. You know, in case I want to annoy the musicians. I can start singing in 5/4 time and within two bars, everybody will be confused about when to come in.”
“I’ll be popping my fingers,” she says, “and they’ll be lost.”
Don’t leave me, I think. Don’t leave me.
Chapter Three: Return to YYZ
When Max asked me to drive him to the airport, it didn’t occur to me to tell him I didn’t have a driver’s license. I knew how to drive. My brother Lamont tossed me the keys to the Chrysler when I was twelve and told me to stay out of the ditch. I drove around the empty roads of our farm until I felt that lyric groove when you don’t have to think, you just wheel around the corner.
Max said I could use his car until he got back. I realize now that he wanted to save money, no taxi fares, no parking fees. Once he was in Chicago, he called me every night and complained that he was spending so much on phone calls, it would have been cheaper to buy me a ticket to go with him. I’d never been on a plane, but I wasn’t going to ask. I never ask if I think the answer is going to be no.
I didn’t drive the car while he was gone. I had my mom’s Flying Pigeon. Ned Jacobs said the only way he could have one for himself was to order a hundred from China. All the Toronto lefties bought them. A no-speed bicycle, fifty pounds of steel, with a basket, a back rack, and a little leather toolkit. Mom said that during the Vietnam war, an insurgent could drape war matériel over the crossbar, walk the bicycle in, and then whack the seat back on and pedal the hell for the China border.
I adored the bike for its long, elegant lines. In the city, I loved feeling the wind, riding around the empty streets of the rich people, like Teddington Park, or the streets of the dead in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. If I rode out early enough for the moon to still be in the sky, I felt a kind of triumph, and if it was a crescent moon, lying on its back, unafraid, I was seized, thrilled, an upward tightening in my body. I could have entered any street in the city, sure of hosannas.
In late August, yellow-butterflies-at-the-town-gate time, Max called to say he was flying in from Chicago that day and to come and pick him up at Pearson. I pictured him swimming through the sky with his backpack rather than shifting around in his seat on a plane. Max had a long back like the pedlar in the Chagall painting who floats in the night sky over Vitebsk. How, I wondered, did that sky pedlar ever arrive anywhere, how did he move through that dark air? Maybe big sweeping gestures— like the ones I made in my aquafit class which made me happy to be startled, suddenly half-way across the pool.
Max made his large gestures and they took him somewhere. Sometimes to Chicago. He was calm when those gestures brought him to people and then away from them. He unpacked what he had made himself carry, his ideas, his sorrow, and then moved on. He didn’t choose where he went. People invited him.
Earlier, I had made some wide gestures of my own, and we had moved into each other’s arms. I wanted to be there, in his bed, and I was, most nights. I had school, and I had Max, and otherwise I was free.
Sometimes, if he was invited to a nearby city, I went with him. The first time he introduced me, he said, “This is my associate, Harry.”
Max didn’t think me saying, ‘You want I should lean on him a little, Max?’ was funny. I thought the idea that someone as spare as I am could be muscle, a gangster accomplice in a too-tight suit was hilarious. I shrugged and said, “I’m not gonna hurt him.” Max glared. He didn’t want to have to admit he cared about how the guy could do his career good, so he didn’t say anything. But he didn’t introduce me that way again, ever.
In the car, Max liked it when I sang. Especially Mon Canadien Errant. His face would go all soft, as if he was getting ready to be worried. He thought ‘errant’ meant someone who had made a mistake. Banished from the door, like a pedlar. I’m good at languages, but why correct him when he was so moved? And me, too. Like the wandering Canadien, I missed my friends from the country. Someone go tell Anna que je me souviens ma blonde.
I drove the long way to Pearson Airport, along Eglinton, then north on Kipling to Dixon and the airport road. I wasn’t sure how long it was going to take. I didn’t want to be late. I wanted to see the moment that sad face burst into a smile. Max had broad shoulders, better for carrying that pedlar’s bag, and a dark beard. When I had taken him to the airport, he really looked like that Russian sky pedlar. He had packed clothes, books, and inexplicably to me, a frying pan, a kettle, and a fork. At the last minute he tossed in a small chipped red enamel pot to heat cream for coffee, all stuffed into a huge khaki backpack. The straps dug into his lined jacket. It was summer, but Chicago can be cold in the summer, or any time.
His head and his body were deceptive in appearance. From the front, his beard disguised a small, ball-like, wistful face only clearly seen later in mug shots. From the side, his head looked huge— a well-proportioned big nose, a chin made shapely by the beard, heroic hair rising up from his forehead in waves, dark brown, almost black in winter, oaky sun-streaked in summer. But small hands, smaller than mine. My hands are elongated. Me and Lincoln.
When I asked what part of Russia his family came from, he was surprised and asked how I’d guessed. He was always being surprised, how had I heard of Chaim Potok, as if knowing Jewish writers was restricted to Jews. How did I know what plotz meant.
“Oh, please,” I said, but he didn’t get the joke.
He defined himself by opposition to what he had been born to, like someone keeping a rope taut. His perfectionist parents ran a high-end clothing store, but he wore jacquard knit t-shirts which disintegrated into fringes of thread hanging below the hem, below the sleeves. He had piles of books, and no towels.
“Maybe he is just Russian,” my Aunt Pamela said. “They enjoy being depressed.” She said there were lots of Poles in Minneapolis, where she was from, and according to her, Russians and Poles were the same thing.
Max had already begun to acquire the credentials of power, he liked to drop names, boast a little about who he knew. Not cool. In my family, my uncle was the wealthiest, a Quaker from Philadelphia. You know, bonds with Standard and Poor. He drove a taxi because he didn’t want to take advantage of anybody except the other Americans he played poker with. His kids grew up in second-hand clothes from Yellow Ford Truck, ate vegetables from the co-op, and tried in the middle of that striving city to not be pushy. Quakers, man. Caroline, one of the Red Hawk sisters from Alberta said his kids tried to act like grandmothers, but they were too young.
“Too young and too white,” her daughter Charlene said. First Nations humour, always on time. I was hanging out at their place on Birch Avenue. Someone had thrown “apple” at Charlene for being friends with me. Charlene said she didn’t care, and asked if she could borrow my boots.
That’s where I met Max, at a house party Caroline and Charlene threw after a demonstration to free Leonard Peltier. I had gone with some community literacy workers. One of them, generous with party invitations like all the Trotskyists, had told Max to come along, so he did, standing off to one side in the back yard, rocking and flexing his knees, wary. Parties made him anxious. All that commonality, all that easy connecting with others.
I was two hours early. I walked around the airport. Sat in a chair in one of the rows. Read an abandoned Globe and Mail. Watched the experienced travelers, people who knew exactly what to do in airport terminal, come in with their luggage, raincoat neatly over the left arm holding the bag, necessary ticket at the ready in the right hand. Hand over the suitcase. Walk directly to the bar. The bar. A drink. People had a drink while waiting. When Max arrived, if he asked had I been waiting long, I could say, off-hand, “Oh, no. Not long. I had a drink in the bar while I waited for you.” Like a person who had done this many times, instead of never. From the movies, I knew that a gin and tonic was something seedy people ordered. People in the movies who knew what they were doing, who had things on their mind, ordered a scotch. “On the rocks,” I added.
I thought my gums were shrinking. Now I knew why people sipped at scotch. There was only so much awfulness you could take at one time. I didn’t want to flinch and shudder after each swallow it would take to finish it, so I drank it all at once and left a tip on the bar.
It was time to make sure I looked good. I headed for the airport washroom. My hair was auburn— hennaed— and I had lots of it. My clothes were rust-coloured and the only shoes I owned, high-heeled Cubans, were Montmorency cherry red. In the airport washroom mirror, my cheeks looked flushed for some reason, and my eyes were a little glassy. I remembered a time when I had coughed so hard my face went red and I had tears in my eyes and Max said he liked how my face looked. There was no one else in the washroom, so I put a quick dab of lipstick above each eye, to match my red cheeks. Then I had to rest my forehead against the cool mirror.
The next time I looked, it seemed to me my cheeks had paled, so I dotted more lipstick on my face and blended it in. The light in the washroom was dim but I thought I looked good. I cantered down the escalators and up to Arrivals. I was ready. The sound of my hooves on the marble floors of the airport made me feel brave, and I moved. Whenever I walk towards my Tia Magaly, she always says, “Harry, tienes swing.” Her and her Cuban slang.
There he was. That pleasure after pain smile. I was flooded with so much electric pleasure that I felt myself grow taller. But he didn’t gather me in his arms and hug me. Maybe because of the backpack. Or, now that he was here and didn’t miss me anymore, maybe he wasn’t sure he liked me. Maybe I wasn’t what he had in mind. Probably he had experienced some success in Chicago with a young activist or two, or three, and had ideas about possibilities, the upper reaches of womanhood he might tie up with. Or it might have been the lipstick.
We began to walk out of the terminal. Max looked over at me. “Why is your face so red?”
“I don’t know,” I said airily.
He didn’t like it.
“Maybe because I had a drink at the bar.” Playing my last card. “Scotch on the rocks.”
He wasn’t impressed. “What row did you park the car in?”
“Row? I parked it over there.”
“You don’t know where you parked the car. Great. We’re going to be here for hours.”
“No, we’re not. I know where it is.” I set off, in what he later said was my cocky walk. He only said two lovely things to me, don’t cover your mouth when you laugh, it’s one of your best features. And, he liked how I walked. When I want someone, I play Joe Henderson’s “Mamacita” in my head. When I’m afraid, I play “Road to the Isles” and swing my legs out, ready to walk a hundred miles to fight the English, and make them think again.
When I glided up in the car two minutes later, a young couple with many suitcases was looking at him, worried. A little guarded. Max swung his backpack into the backseat, and as if it were a joke on him, told me how he’d been complaining to them about how incompetent I was, how he was going to have to wait for hours, and. And.
I loved the pedlar for his principles and for his sorrow, and for how he made love, when he was with me, marooned temporarily by desire. It was no accident that he was happiest with me when we were isolated, in his car, or in his bed. Out in the world, he wanted his sorrow, not me. A pedlar, more than anything else, needs the weight of the sorrow he carries. His beloved, wretched past is ballast, his assurance that he can move safely. No moorings for a pedlar if he wants to be himself in that great wild lagoon of the rest of us.
In the rear-view mirror, my eyes glittered in a bright red face, and I drove home on the 401, an eight-lane highway, bagpipes all the way.