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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Watching the Human Race


To mark publication of my anthology of stories and plays, Girl Stories & Game Plays, I'm sharing one story from the collection. Although I wrote it many years ago as a manifestation of my ongoing effort to soften my own judgmental nature, at this time when our culture has devolved into accusing "sides," this seems more applicable now than when I wrote it.


(Two other stories from the collection are also available on this site: Jakey, Get Out of the Buggy and a video of me reading Pose Please at the botton of Girl Stories & Game Plays book page.)


Watching the Human Race


Marla barely tolerates people. They make unreasonable demands, lie when it is to their benefit, and, worst of all, behave irresponsibly. Irresponsibility Marla cannot stomach. She hoped a Sunday walk across Central Park and an afternoon of shopping would distract her from her desire to murder the woman on the 35th floor at work who seems to take pleasure in upsetting Marla's orderly habits, and in whose presence, seemingly intelligent men's brains turn to mush. It is this mush factor that's kept the woman employed no matter how many days off she takes, how many rules she flaunts, or how, despite the five years Marla has personally handed her a paycheck, the woman cannot remember Marla's name and persists in calling her Maria!


That woman has everyone but Marla bamboozled. She wears Laura Ashley dresses, speaks in a studied throaty voice, and has unruly waist-length blonde hair that falls into her eyes at orchestrated moments of vulnerability. Friday, she suggested to Marla's boss that that idiot Selma handle payroll, knowing full well that this is Marla's job—a job that makes Marla feel powerful. Marla wishes to kill this woman, but since that is not realistic, she went shopping.


Marla can't breathe. The air is so thick with the impending storm, it's like sucking on wet fuzz. And she's stuck. The one thing Marla loathes most is physical contact with strangers, and here she is, body-to-body in an ever-growing crowd of pedestrians at the intersection of 72nd Street and West Drive in Central Park. It is a race day, which means no street crossing until thousands of runners have rounded the corner east. Marla checks her watch for the sixth time in six minutes and mumbles, "Shit."


She isn't bad looking. She has good hair and teeth and a nice figure, so men occasionally ask her out. She accepts the dates, then dismisses them at the first sign of a flaw: too shallow; too conceited; too bossy. She's had more single dates than most 35-year-olds and far less pleasure.


She squints up West Drive, and as far as she can see it's solid people. She doesn't have a pressing engagement; she just resents having to wait. To pass the time, she analyzes the runners. There's a bare-chested, older man, coughing and spitting loudly. It's 50 degrees and everybody else has a shirt. In one glance Marla deduces that he is assessing his impression on all the other runners as well as the onlookers, and he rates himself superior. Probably an actor. A bad one. The kind who believes nobody can see the insincerity behind his eyes as he emotes intensely and listens to the sound of his own voice. Marla hates him.


Next are three women jogging slowly in tandem, chatting happily, oblivious to the people trying to pass them. "What's the big deal?" they would say if somebody pointed out that this is a race and some people actually care about their speed. Marla wishes them dead.


A man with sunken cheeks runs curbside. His complexion is pasty white and his toothpick legs seem to plea, "Somebody take care of me!" As his hungry eyes bore into Marla's, she scowls. People like that make her want to run for the nearest shower.


But they aren't nearly as bad at the ones who never look at you. Those are positively evil. They force you to take care of them whether you like it or not. They make it impossible to avoid them. Lord, she hates that woman on the 35th floor. She's always having some emergency and making everybody wait for her timesheets, thereby forcing you to write a special check. She gets sick, or her apartment is burglarized, or her mother dies—it's always something. Marla's heart feels like a fist and her stomach spouts acid as she thinks how she'd love to, just once, make that woman taste her own medicine by holding up her paycheck. Marla loves her job in personnel.


"Go!" shouts a man behind her, and the crowd surges forward. Elbows poke, shoving, pushing, and Marla glares as she sidesteps up on a grassy bank and watches people try to rush through a sudden tiny opening in the race.


"Hey!" yell irate runners, "Watch out!"


"Racers coming through. Clear the road!" yells a man on a megaphone. Several people curse, and the hostile crowd of New York City locals heaves backwards onto the sidewalk.


Marla brushes their fingerprints off her sleeves and folds her arms in front of her shapely, untouchable breasts. She's just come from the East Side where she bought bras. She intended to spend the afternoon trying them on in front of the mirror, imagining what a man might think, if only she could meet one who didn't turn out to be a jerk. Marla is a virgin. A 35-year-old virgin. It is her deepest, darkest secret.


"Runners coming through!" yells the man on the megaphone. "Please be decent and respect the race!"


Marla studies the man. A take-charge guy with chiseled, perfect features. Probably president of his senior class, went to college on a football scholarship, joined the Peace Corps after graduation. A do-gooder, certain that he is on the right side of things as he gently, yet patronizingly, directs an old woman back up on the curb.


The old woman looks familiar. She has the ramrod straight posture of a much younger person, which is belied by her wobbly gait. Her fists clench and rigid jaw ripples as she obeys the megaphone man. . . . It's her mouth! That's what's so familiar. Marla scrutinizes the woman's perfect tight-lipped smile as she thanks the megaphone man for his assistance, her hateful eyes wishing him trampled flat by the rude runners who won't pause for an old woman who will never admit she is desperate to get home before she has an accident. Very familiar, this old woman who will not admit to any loss of control, let alone that of her bodily functions; this woman who simply refuses to wear the bulky undergarments that would spare her embarrassment in the event of a delay. Marla sees the woman's lips purse as she tries to find her balance after the step up. She bumps into a young punk, then recoils as if burned. And in one sickening flash, Marla realizes who this old woman is: it's herself 40 years in the future.


"Hey, Grandma, get your mitts off me," snarls the young punk, his gold-capped teeth flashing.


The old woman looks disdainfully at the young man and answers, "You are garbage."


Marla gulps. The young punk fingers the old woman's sleeve. "What did you just say? I can't hear you, Grandma."


The old woman jerks away, looks him up and down, and repeats, "You are garbage. You should learn to respect your elders."


The punk smiles menacingly.


Oh, god, no, thinks Marla combing the crowd for a cop.


And as the young punk raises his brass-knuckled fist to smash the old woman, Marla panics. Electricity shoots through her, all her pent-up rage turned to fear, and she prays. She prays this isn't real—she didn't really wish anybody dead. She prays this is a dream and she'll wake up. She prays, "Make it stop."


Crack, goes the thunder. Then lightning. Then boom! The crowd freezes, and for one heavenly long moment, everything seems to go into slow motion. Marla looks at the punk and sees his smooth, round, cherub cheeks surrounded by golden hair that matches his teeth. Then she looks at the hundreds of men, women, children, and wheelchair racers and sees a procession of bodies in meditation. Thousands of people in motion, yet nobody stepping on anyone else. Yes, there are a few who are sizing up the competition, but mostly they are deep within themselves, running the best they can. Some are slow, some fast, some spastic, some bouncy. They are fat, skinny, muscled, and flabby. There are people so oddly built one wonders how they get out of bed in the morning. There are lean, long-limbed black men—professional athletes who run like the wind. There are middle-aged white women who have never lost their pregnancy fat. Women with T-shirts dedicating their runs to cancer research or AIDS awareness. A woman with waist-length blonde hair flying out behind her like a train. Is it— but she's gone before Marla can see her face, followed by a running club—a whole team of top-heavy Latin men in green uniforms with short, stubby legs whose bodies never should be able to perform so effortlessly, so gracefully. They run with serene expressions, in pairs, in one piece. They run like a heartbeat. Hearts with legs. And as the last pair—a blind man linked by a spring cord to a seeing partner's wrist—as they turn the corner, the blind man twists his head. Clearly he can't see, but he looks directly at Marla, and, touching his palm to his mouth, he blows her a kiss.


Boom, goes the thunder!


And the young punk stops his fist just short of the old woman's head, and the old woman shakes so hard she urinates all over her elegant leather pumps, and everywhere people cower. Lightning rips through the sky. Boom, goes the thunder. And as the heavens crack open, letting loose a torrent, so does Marla's knotted heart. Because she suddenly sees. She sees herself—a beautiful 35-year-old woman who judges others mercilessly. She sees that she doesn't mean to be so awful. She's just scared. Scared of her own imperfections. She is a frightened person who longs not to be so frightened . . . just like the rest of the human race . . . running in perfect precision . . . running the best they can . . . running like hearts on legs.


* * *


© 2005, 2020 Betsy Robinson
Girl Stories & Game Plays: An Anthology of Stories and Plays, available in paperback and Kindle


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