The Man From Mars

FROM Dancing Girls And Other Stories by Margret Atwood

A long time ago Christine was walking through the park. She was still wearing her tennis dress; she hadn’t had time to shower and change, and her hair was held back with an elastic band. Her chunky reddish face, exposed with no softening fringe, looked like a Russian peasant’s, but without the elastic band the hair got in her eyes. The afternoon was too hot for April; the indoor courts had been steaming, her skin felt poached.

The sun had brought the old men out from wherever they spent the winter: she had read a story recently about one who lived for three years in a manhole. They sat weedishly on the benches or lay on the grass with their heads on squares of used newspaper. As she passed, their wrinkled toadstool faces drifted towards her, drawn by the movement of her body, then floated away again, uninterested.

The squirrels were out, too, foraging; two or three of them moved towards her in darts and pauses, eyes fixed on her expectantly, mouths with the ratlike receding chins open to show the yellowed front teeth. Christine walked faster, she had nothing to give them. People shouldn’t feed them, she thought; it makes them anxious and they get mangy.

Halfway across the park she stopped to take off her cardigan. As she bent over to pick up her tennis racquet again someone touched her on her freshly bared arm. Christine seldom screamed; she straightened up suddenly, gripping the handle of her racquet. It was not one of the old men, however; it was a dark-haired boy of twelve or so.

“Excuse me,” he said, “I search for Economics Building. Is it there?” He motioned towards the west.

Christine looked at him more closely. She had been mistaken: he was not young, just short. He came a little above her shoulder, but then, she was above the average height; “statuesque,” her mother called it when she was straining. He was also what was referred to in their family as “a person from another culture”: oriental without a doubt, though perhaps not Chinese. Christine judged he must be a foreign student and gave him her official welcoming smile. In high school she had been president of the United Nations Club; that year her school had been picked to represent the Egyptian delegation at the Mock Assembly. It had been an unpopular assignment-nobody wanted to be the Arabs-but she had seen it through. She had made rather a good speech about the Palestinian refugees.

“Yes,” she said, “that’s it over there. The one with the flat roof. See it?”

The man had been smiling nervously at her the whole time. He was wearing glasses with transparent plastic rims, through which his eyes bulged up at her as though through a goldfish bowl. He had not followed where she was pointing. Instead he thrust towards her a small pad of green paper and a ballpoint pen.

“You make map,” he said.

Christine set down her tennis racquet and drew a careful map. “We are here,” she said, pronouncing distinctly. “You go this way. The building is here.” She indicated the route with a dotted line and an X. The man leaned close to her, watching the progress of the map attentively; he smelled of cooked cauliflower and an unfamiliar brand of hair grease. When she had finished Christine handed the paper and pen back to him with a terminal smile.

“Wait,” the man said. He tore the piece of paper with the map off the pad, folded it carefully and put it in his jacket pocket; the jacket sleeves came down over his wrists and had threads at the edges. He began to write something; she noticed with a slight feeling of revulsion that his nails and the ends of his fingers were so badly bitten they seemed almost deformed. Several of his fingers were blue from the leaky ballpoint.

“Here is my name,” he said, holding the pad out to her.

Christine read an odd assemblage of Gs, Ys and Ns, neatly printed in block letters. “Thank you,” she said.

“You now write your name,” he said, extending the pen:

Christine hesitated. If this had been a person from her own culture she would have thought he was trying to pick her up. But then, people from her own culture never tried to pick her up; she was too big. The only one who had made the attempt was the Moroccan waiter at the beer parlour where they sometimes went after meetings, and he had been direct. He had just intercepted her on the way to the Ladies’ Room and asked and she said no; that had been that. This man was not a waiter though, but a student; she didn’t want to offend him. In his culture, whatever it was, this exchange of names on pieces of paper was probably a formal politeness, like saying thank you. She took the pen from him.

“That is a very pleasant name,” he said. He folded the paper and placed it in his jacket pocket with the map.

Christine felt she had done her duty. “Well, goodbye,” she said. “It was nice to have met you.” She bent for her tennis racquet but he had already stooped and retrieved it and was holding it with both hands in front of him, like a captured banner.

“I carry this for you.”

“Oh no, please. Don’t bother, I am in a hurry,” she said, articulating clearly. Deprived of her tennis racquet she felt weaponless. He started to saunter along the path; he was not nervous at all now, he seemed completely at ease.

Vous parlez francais?” he asked conversationally.

Oui, un petit peu,” she said. “Not very well.” How am I going to get my racquet away from him without being rude? she was wondering.

Mais vous avez un bel accent.” His eyes goggled at her through the glasses: was he being flirtatious? She was well aware that her accent was wretched.

“Look,” she said, for the first time letting her impatience show, “I really have to go. Give me my racquet, please.”

He quickened his pace but gave no sign of returning the racquet. “Where you are going?”

“Home,” she said. “My house.”

“I go with you now,” he said hopefully.


Published in: on January 10, 2010 at 11:59 AM  Leave a Comment  

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