A case of unconscious bias in this excerpt from my novel, The Runners, published in 1994 in Romania.
Mary parked in front of her apartment building and took the stairs to the second floor. The fresh snow lining the windowsills illuminated the living room. A modern sofa with a floral print, a table of light-colored wood, and a few chairs with chrome legs filled the space. A large bookcase crammed with books, records, and pottery took up a wall. Prints, posters in slender aluminum frames, and piles of art albums covered most vertical and horizontal surfaces. With her coat still on, Mary selected a record and music filled the room.
Her date with Felix was in a few hours. She had time to undress, shower, and put on her blue velvet dress with the wide sleeves and filigreed buttons. Her eyes shone with excitement, her smile was warm, and her golden curls gave her face a doll-like appearance. The white silk scarf, a recent gift from Felix, was hanging on the back of one of the living room chairs.
The beltway traffic was bumper-to-bumper. The bad weather did not help. Felix realized he’d be late, and he felt bad about it. It was cold and snowing and, worst, this was the third time he’d be late for a date with Mary. Mary didn’t complain. She lived in a different world, an artist, supported by her wealthy parents. Felix loved her, and all he wanted was for her to understand his career ambitions. He had left the office late and the elevator to the garage took an eternity.
As Felix accessed the ramp to Constitution Avenue, the cars in front of him slowed down and eventually stopped. He waited for a few minutes and got out. In his thin-soled dress shoes, he chose his steps carefully through slushy tire tracks. In the distance, he saw the hulking outline of the truck, perpendicular to the ramp, its front wheels stuck in a pile of snow. A dark liquid ran from the tank like from an open tap, steam rising. The wind brought the sound of approaching police cars.
Mary didn’t like driving in downtown D.C. and caught the bus to the Smithsonian. There were only a dozen passengers on the bus, but rather than taking a seat, she stood by the door. She did not want her dress to get wrinkled. Athletic and self-confident, Felix was always well dressed, and, in his company, she wanted to look elegant and stylish. When he talked about his job, about money, about their love, it was with enthusiasm and confidence. They talked sometimes about art, and, there, too, Felix had strong opinions and a pragmatic judgment.
She crossed the Mall in front of the Museum of Natural History and followed the street in the direction of the White House. The wind blew in her face. The few people who had gotten off the bus with her had scattered and disappeared in the dark. She could hardly wait to climb into Felix’s warm car, open her overcoat, and straighten her dress. They were supposed to have dinner downtown and then drive to a bar to meet a few friends. At the curb she stopped to wait for the green light. The strong wind chilled her face. A man emerged from behind a darkened building and approached the curb with slow steps. He stopped under the light, and Mary glimpsed his threadbare clothes and dark face, shining wet. His lips were moving and he seemed to be muttering something to himself. The light turned green. Mary crossed the street, feeling the presence of the man a few steps behind her. There used to be a good restaurant there where she and Felix had had dinner once. She reached the sidewalk and continued on a wooden walkway under the scaffolding of a building under repair. The stranger behind her was getting closer. She quickened her pace, left the wooden planks, and started to run. Felix would be waiting for her at the corner.
After trying unsuccessfully to move the truck, the police cleared the right lane of the beltway and directed the cars on the ramp to back up and drive to the next exit. With falling temperatures, the slush started to freeze. Behind Felix, a car swerved on the ice and caused all the cars on the ramp to stop again. The drivers sounded their horns. Snowflakes, falling obliquely, were swept back and forth by the wind, and the clock on Felix’s dashboard showed two minutes to seven.
Felix’s anger subsided. Mary would have figured by now that he was stuck in rush hour traffic and gone somewhere, to the restaurant where they had had dinner once, or to the bar where they were supposed to meet their buddies. He turned on Connecticut Avenue, reached 14th Street and parked. He raced across the street and found the meeting place deserted. He quickly walked to the restaurant. Over the treetops, the Washington Monument was bathed in light and fine snow, glinting. The gusts were chilling his face, and although he was running, he felt the cold rising from his soaked feet and gripping his body. From afar, he saw the wooden walkway in front of the restaurant, whose windows were boarded up. He was certain Mary wasn’t there, but he experienced an eerie feeling that compelled him to search the dark recesses under the scaffolding. A tall, slim figure was leaning against the railing, a black man, in ragged clothes, his head covered with a knit cap. His lips trembled, mumbling or chanting in muffled tones. Felix watched him carefully, then turned abruptly and departed, haunted by the sound of the lone man’s voice.
He returned to his car and drove along the avenue, passing by a hotel with a brightly lit entrance. A line of taxis was waiting at the next corner. He stopped at the bar. It was early and the place was half empty. The barman and the waiters hadn’t seen Mary. Felix concealed his worry. He got himself a drink, gulped it down, and drove to Mary’s apartment.
Her car was parked in front of the building, but her windows were dark. Felix had a key. Inside, he took off his wet shoes and socks. It was the first time he was alone in there. He let his eyes wander around the rooms, looking for tokens of his presence in her life. His thoughts were racing. Mary must have left their meeting point and caught the bus, which explained her not yet being home. Hungry and nervous, he paused in front of the bookcase. On the shelf was a large photograph of them hugging in front of a blooming magnolia bush. Behind the sofa, a pile of posters lay on the floor. Felix smiled. It was Mary’s habit not to throw out anything, and her work, in bundles and piles, filled the apartment. He turned on the light in the kitchen, fixed himself two sandwiches, and opened a beer. He took the food into the bedroom. Mary would be surprised to find him there.
The bed was covered with dresses thrown helter-skelter in all directions. Felix picked them up and draped them over a chair. The telephone was on the nightstand. He brought the sandwiches and beer to the bed and covered himself with a blanket.
He woke up drenched in sweat. His shirt had gathered under him and the side he had slept on was stiff. He jumped to his feet and inadvertently toppled the half-full bottle of beer. It was three in the morning. He turned on the lights everywhere and brought some paper towels from the kitchen. After taking off his shirt, he kneeled in front of the bed and mopped up the soaked carpet. Mary was always punctual. Something must have happened to her. Something terrible. He straightened the elastic of his underwear that cut into his hip. He needed to alert the police. Clearly. He took the wet paper towels back to the kitchen, his palm cupped under them, careful not to drip on the living-room carpet. “Good morning,” he mumbled to himself. “I would like to report a missing person. My name is Felix Cope. We were supposed to meet last night and unfortunately, with the snow…” Felix looked out the window. It had snowed again, the fresh powder glittered under the streetlamp. His car, parked next to Mary’s, had a pristine layer of snow on it. “Good morning. I would like to report a missing person…” At that hour the bars closed all over town. People were streaming out into the streets, starting their car engines.
He picked up the receiver and dialed.
A woman’s voice answered before he could hear the first ring. “Police emergency. Where’re you calling from?”
He was caught by surprise but recovered quickly. “Good morning. I would like to report a missing person. My name…”
“Where’re you calling from?” interrupted the woman.
“Whose address, mine or that of the missing person?”
“No. The address you are calling from.”
Felix gave her the street name and number.
“Business or private residence?”
“It’s an apartment building.”
“Floor and apartment number, please.”
“Second floor, I don’t know the apartment number.” He had been there so many times but for the moment he could not recall the number of the apartment.
“You don’t know it?” the woman asked.
“Is it important? I can go look.”
“No,” she said. “Do you know the zip code?”
“Yes, just a moment.” On the floor by the nightstand was a beer-soaked magazine, and Felix had noticed an address label on it. He picked it up and read off the zip code.
“Your telephone, please. Area code first.”
Felix gave her the number.
Felix was at a loss again. “Whose name?”
“Your name, sir.”
Felix was standing in his polyester briefs, flexing his arm muscles. He was getting annoyed. “I’m not the missing person,” he said.
“Your name, please,” she insisted. “We need your identification, since you’re reporting this.”
Felix spelled out his name.
“What’s your relationship to the missing person?”
“She’s my wife,” Felix said spontaneously.
“Name?” she said and quickly added, “the name of the missing person.”
“What kind of question is this?”
“Mr. Cope, please answer.”
“Age or date of birth.”
“Caucasian,” said the woman. She proceeded with questions pertaining to physical appearance: weight, height, eyes, and hair color. No longer paying attention to the logic of the questions, Felix gave the answers and imagined how they were entered into the police file.
“What was she wearing?”
“I don’t know.”
“Now, Mr. Cope, please relate the circumstances of her disappearance.”
“We had a date last night at six. Because of a traffic jam I arrived one hour late.”
“Last night at six?” the woman interrupted. “I’m sorry, but we can’t help you. The police step in only after the person has been missing for twenty-four hours.”
“You can’t do that!” screamed Felix. “Mary wasn’t there, it’s 3 in the morning and she didn’t come home.” He calmed himself adding in a grave voice, “May I please speak to your supervisor?”
“Mr. Cope, you certainly may, but rules are rules. And it will take a while as the sergeant is busy at the moment. Yours is not the first report I am taking down tonight. There are 16 telephone operators and whenever it snows, we’re in over our heads.”
“She may be lying in a ditch somewhere,” Felix cut in. “She might have been killed.”
“Mr. Cope, I’m sorry. I do hope that nothing of the sort has happened to your wife and if you call us tomorrow evening at six, we’ll start the inquiry immediately.”
“Tomorrow at six,” Felix repeated numbly. “Actually, you know what, I haven’t seen her in three days. Something could have happened to her several days ago. And that would make it long enough, wouldn’t it? If she was raped or murdered yesterday you could start the investigation.”
“You haven’t seen her in three days?”
“That’s right. And we talked for the last time two days ago over the phone.”
“Have you been out of town?”
“Has your wife been out of town?”
“Don’t you live at the same address?”
“But you’re married?”
“Yes, we are married.”
“Are you separated?”
“Excuse me, Mr. Cope, I don’t understand.”
“We recently married,” Felix said quickly. “We got married a week ago, and I haven’t moved over to her place yet.”
“Mr. Cope, please give me your home address.”
“Are you now in your wife’s apartment?”
“I’ll be here.”
“Then the officer on duty will contact you there tomorrow. Does your wife have a car?”
“Yes. It’s parked downstairs.”
“Mr. Cope, you said you were one hour late. Isn’t it possible that your wife had given up waiting and decided to go to a friend’s or a relative’s house? You know, considering the weather.”
“No,” Felix said.
“Does your wife have family in D.C.?”
“Yes, her parents. Although not quite in D.C., in the Maryland suburbs.”
“Did you call them?”
“I did,” he lied.
“She’s not there.”
“Does she have any other relatives?”
“Did you call him?”
“He doesn’t live in the area.”
“Where does he live?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know where your wife’s brother lives?”
“No, I don’t. Do I have to know?”
“One would expect you to know, but OK. Tell me, do you have any reasons to suspect that anything, how shall I put it…unpleasant could have occurred?”
“Yes. When I arrived at our meeting point and didn’t see her, I thought she might be waiting for me at a nearby restaurant. I walked over there, but the restaurant was closed and boarded up. Restorations. A black man was standing in front of it under the scaffolding. He was leaning on a railing, unperturbed by the downpour and talking constantly to himself.”
“Mr. Cope, eighty percent of the population in this city is black. I’m black. I’m asking you if you have any grounds to believe that something happened to your wife?”
“The man was a tramp, homeless…”
“Mr. Cope, I understand you’re upset, but I think we should end this conversation. I will forward your report to the officer in charge, and he will get in touch with you. Would you have a picture that would help us identify the victim, that is, uh, a picture of Mrs. Cope?”
“Yes.” Felix remembered Mary’s happy smile in front of the magnolia. “Yes, of course I do.”
“Good then. We’ll be in touch.”
His knees were shaking. The victim, he whispered. He would have loved a cigarette but didn’t have any.
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