Joan Wilking ~ I Run

I’m Mo, the girl who for the brief time, when I still tried to feel like a girl, nev­er felt like I fit that descrip­tion, nev­er felt like a boy either, felt like some­thing else. How was I sup­posed to get my head around that?

The answer is: I didn’t.

Instead, I whacked a field hock­ey ball, or a soft­ball, or a vol­ley­ball, any damned ball I could find to whack. I let my sis­ters curl my hair and smear make­up on my face and paint my nails. Now my hair is cut short. I wear shorts and t‑shirts when I run, khakis and oxford cloth but­ton-downs the rest of the time.

I lis­ten to our moth­er say, “You could be such a pret­ty girl, Maura.”

I wince at that name.

My old­er broth­er is the only one who got me ear­ly on. He called me sweet pota­to. Once, when were both lit­tle, I let him butch­er my bangs. Our father was still around then.

You’re an attrac­tive lit­tle dyke,” my broth­er said one day, long after our father was gone. I was four­teen and he’d just start­ed hear­ing Jesus talk to him through TV com­mer­cials although nobody knew it yet.

I’d nev­er heard the word used that way before. So I looked it up in the dic­tio­nary. I tried “dike” before “dyke.” The def­i­n­i­tion of the “y” ver­sion used the words les­bian and women who love women and deroga­to­ry. I knew what deroga­to­ry meant. I hoped he wasn’t mak­ing a pass at me. I remem­bered the fairy tale about the boy in Holland who stuck his fin­ger in a dike to pre­vent the city from flood­ing. My broth­er was the last per­son I’d ever let stick a fin­ger in me.


I run to get away from myself.

When I talked to our moth­er this morn­ing she said, “Maura. I hope you’re hydrat­ing prop­er­ly in this heat.” Right now I wish I’d tak­en her advice and brought a big­ger bot­tle of water with me to pour over my head because August in Philadelphia is end­ing with humid­i­ty that feels like it’s a hun­dred and ten per­cent. Beads of sweat spray off the fore­heads of oth­er run­ners as I pass them. The riv­er is still, except for the over­lap­ping wakes of the shells on the Schuylkill, six quads, the coxswains yelling, “pull, pull, pull,” as cars hur­tle along the East River Drive.

I fol­low my usu­al route, the Penn boathouse to the art muse­um. I’ll jog up the steps, cir­cle the foun­tain in the cen­ter of the plaza, and run back again. I wipe my hair out of my face. I’m the one with the hair that won’t do any­thing and skin that’s blotchy. High col­or our moth­er calls it. Cheeks the hue of raw ham­burg­er when I’m hot, a nose as red as Santa Claus when I’m cold. Kind of blotchy all over when I’m in between. Right now my cheeks and legs are burning.


I run a lot these mug­gy days. 

I just start­ed busi­ness school at Penn. Intramural sports don’t start until lat­er in the fall. My new room­mate is a jock. She’s at the law school. She’s got a girl­friend, so unlike the last one, she under­stands me.

I’ve always been a good stu­dent, dou­ble major, Magna Cum Laude, that sort of thing. I intend­ed to go to the busi­ness school at Berkeley, to get off the prig­gish east coast. Then there was the fire and I didn’t feel right leav­ing my moth­er and sis­ters to cope alone. Anyone can guess how that turned out? Mom eloped and moved in with Hal. Mimi dumped Jeremy. Mish has start­ed dat­ing a sta­tis­ti­cian. Martine is back in her own apart­ment and has a job to go to. I’m the one left in lim­bo. Talk about get­ting screwed out of my own well-made plans. The last cou­ple of months have been a muddle.


I run to clear my head. 

You’re the one who’s always been good with num­bers,” my sis­ters said, as they threw stacks of file fold­ers at me. “Here; you take care of mak­ing the insur­ance claim. And these papers need to be filled out before the com­mit­ment hear­ing. Make sure mom signs all these releas­es. They need Mick’s med­ical records. They need them now. Right now.”

It took some fan­cy foot­work to con­vince the insur­ance adjuster that the fire was acci­den­tal. Martine swears it was. Mick may have been fas­ci­nat­ed by the can­dle flame but nev­er intend­ed to set the fire. I think he was so entranced by the illus­tra­tion of the Virgin on the glass that he wasn’t pay­ing atten­tion when he lit it. What almost queered it was the police report.

A res­i­dent of the home, Michael Maloney, was found sit­ting on the lawn singing. When he was ques­tioned he stat­ed that he had invit­ed the dev­il in to eat the house. Other mem­bers of the fam­i­ly con­firmed that he has been a long-term vic­tim of men­tal illness. 

            I don’t think Mick would like to hear him­self referred to as a vic­tim.  Fortunately the fire depart­ment sent out one their inspec­tors, a skin­ny lit­tle guy with a clip­board and an atti­tude. He con­firmed exact­ly what Martine said; the fire start­ed at a sin­gle flash point: con­sis­tent with the touch­ing of a flame acci­den­tal­ly to a high­ly flam­ma­ble object. None of us will be string­ing crêpe paper up again any­time soon.


I run to escape the phone. 

When I’m out­doors and alone, I don’t have to answer ques­tions; I only have to answer to myself. Martine says she tried. She says she called Dad.

I told her, “You nev­er said any­thing to me.”

What was there to say?” she said. “All you had to do was look at him.”

Look at him I did, every day, my only broth­er. And still, I just want­ed him to go back into his room to talk to God or Christ or the Virgin Mary or what­ev­er game show host he was fix­at­ed on at the time and stay there.


I run along the river. 

It flows past the stat­ue of John Kelly, the Irish bricklayer’s son, who got rich and had movie star beau­ti­ful daugh­ters. In bronze, he’s a young man, larg­er than he ever was in real life, row­ing a shell. Grace mar­ried the prince of Monaco, a guy with a square head, bushy black eye­brows and a mus­tache that turns up at the ends. I don’t see the attrac­tion. Stonewalls and patios line the river­bank dot­ted with sculp­tures, six­teen of them. I know because I count them when I run. I’ve run this route so many times I’ve mem­o­rized the artist’s names. Only one of them, Sardeau, is a woman.

I pass the The Ploughman, The Miner, The Slave, and The Spirit of Enterprise. What an odd incon­sid­er­ate jux­ta­po­si­tion that is, The Slave with The Spirit of Enterprise. Eighty per­cent of this city is black and poor.


I run. And I run. And I run. 

And I won­der what those dark skinned lovers, and fam­i­lies, and old peo­ple, look­ing for a shady place to make-out, or play, or sit, and wait for a breeze to give them some relief from this heat, think of that. And I won­der; what is it like to sit in the shade of a work of art com­mem­o­rat­ing the human ini­tia­tive that result­ed in the slave trade, direct­ly across from a mon­u­men­tal stat­ue of a slave: kind of like liv­ing in a house where some­one is slip­ping away, some­one who is your broth­er. I walked past him, and around him, every day, and pre­tend­ed not to notice that across the hall, he was cov­er­ing the walls of his room with hand­writ­ten gib­ber­ish addressed to the Avenging Angel of Christ.


Joan Wilking’s short fic­tion has been pub­lished exten­sive­ly in print, and online. She was a final­ist for the 2010 Nelson Algren Prize. Her short sto­ry, “Clutter,” received spe­cial men­tion in the 2016 Pushcart Anthology. Her novel­la, Mycology, won the Wild Onion Novella Prize. It was pub­lished in 2017.