Why are Human Beings So Terrible?

Lines stretched from 512 to 718.

The phone rang at 4:45 am. I came out of sleep between the first and second ring, got out of bed, checking the red LED of the alarm clock as I picked the handset up, in one long motion (as I am tall), on the third, and said, bleary, “hello.”

“I'm broke,” she said, “and fucked. I'm broke. I did all this work and then I called and asked when they were going to pay me, because I have to get all this dental work done, and they said they were waiting for funding, and I said, but I can't wait for that, you hired me, and they're going to go out of business and they owe me six thousand and I can't lose that money or I'm totally fucked, and over.”

“Where are you?”

“Still Austin. Are you with that same girl?” I looked at the caller ID box, area code 512. She paused. I heard her breathing.

Awkward, like admitting infidelity: “Yes.”

“Is she there?”

“Don't worry about that.” I looked a few feet over, the width of the apartment, to Nicky's thin body, abstracted by thick blankets into topographic lumps, a bare sleeping breast and closed eyes pushing into the half-heated air, above the line of the duvet. I sat naked in my desk chair, the false-leather surface sticking and sliding, mouth close to the microphone, trying to speak as quietly as I could without whispering.

“I took a lot of pills.”

“That's okay.”

“A little while ago. Clozamapam. And a good one from my sister.”

“Clonazepem. You can't drink on that.”

“Don't lecture me. I know that. I've been taking it for a while. But I'll probably have to stop the prescription now that I'm broke. I'll be a mess. Watch out.”

“Please, I'll help you pay for medication. There's still work out there.”

“Not down here. And I did the work. And they waited until months, and he told me that all the work I did was shit, and they were unhappy with it, and they wanted to not pay me, and that I could get in line, that there wasn't any money, that none of them are getting paid. This guy.”

“Did you have a contract?”


“That's okay. You can call a lawyer. It's a verbal contract.”

“I don't want to call a fucking lawyer. I don't want to be in this. I am sick of it. I have like 390 emails in a folder from this project and he tells me I messed it up 3 months later. I want to just live quietly and not have to be told I'm a piece of fucking shit and work in my garden. I want to kill myself, this makes me.” She sobbed, which brought back her sobbing in this apartment, wearing one of her rough green sweaters, or, when there was no disaster, siting at the blue card table, sewing little dolls to mail to her cousins or old boyfriends. “It's expensive to live here. Nearly as bad as the city. I have to move. I have to live in Beeville and flip burgers.”


“In Bee County.”

I laughed at her. “You don't have to move to Bee County. Don't let it in like this.” Impossible; it would always get her. In the morning she swore to be tough and at night she cried over what someone said. “E, you don't have to move, or die. I know you, what you did for them was fine. They're broke and don't know what to do, and clearly whoever you spoke to was an asshole.”

“Maybe it was shit, my work. Why did he wait to tell me? Can you tell me, why are human beings so terrible?”

“I don't know.” I called back to my mind her brown leather handbag, over the shoulder on her right side everywhere we went, filled with wind-up toys, scraps of paper, colored pencils, used paperbacks she chose by the covers.

Leaving the apartment for dinner was a complex equation. She needed lucky crystals and superstitious toys to leave the house, and presents for everyone we'd see - origami turtles and doves made of phone wire, wrapped in tissue paper, all dropped in the brown bag, everything imbued with magic. I could never be as generous; and after months I saw all the giving as a pathology, the generosity underlined by eternal fragility, baking whole pies for new acquaintances, dropping quarters so that someone could find them. No one could return enough to even the balance, and I yelled, told her to toughen up, stop expecting everyone to be as good. When my voice raised, her body, her face - a cartoon of brown eyes with big lashes, and bow-shaped lips - shrank until she was the size of a tulip bulb, receding into the earth, and after accumulating hundreds of these moments, she cringed when I spoke. When she left for Texas I was glad.

Now, few minutes before 5am, jolted out of bed, from within an infinity of tiny thoughts (What if she's sleeping with the man who isn't paying her? Who does she live with? What recursive interactions loss, need, and breath form the root from which stems her shivering voice?) I delivered a confused conception of human evil: “I used to think it was because they're ignorant. But now I just think that most people are small and selfish. E, that man probably has a wife, and imagine what it's like for her, and his kids. The best you can do, the best revenge, is to ignore their pettiness, be always polite, and give them no space in your head, no room in your life, and get away, stop trusting.”

“I think of my grandmother saying to always believe the best about people, making cakes. And it always turns out, that people are shit.” Am I in this array of shit people? “Racist stupid ignorant lying misogynist shit. And why is it me in tears? On the phone? Why not him? He's the one doing the wrong.”

“No answer,” no path to take with answers at the end, unless you are willing to finally say that the human form masks cruelty and unkindness, save for very few. (Could I believe this, even as I said it to myself?) “Your grandmother,” whose funeral I had attended, “knew that people were cruel. She wasn't rich. She didn't lie to herself, did she? She decided to believe the best. And this made her good. It was a strategy. I know you never tried to hurt anything. I know you don't deserve this.”

“I don't deserve this,” she cried out, loud enough through the tiny speaker to make Nicky's eyelashes flutter. E's breathing was hysterical for a moment, and then quieted, and she said, “Look, it's not right to call up after such a gap and I just totally flipped out and I was here and I couldn't sleep. I know that you don't want to hear -”

“E, I'm glad you called--”

Nicky murmured, twisting under the blankets, then said my name, loud, annoyed. I felt a quick, deep silence on the other end of the phone. E had heard.

“I should go,” she said.

Her tone carried familiar cold, from the innocent girl who didn't know why the world was so cruel. Thousands of miles away, she calls the old boyfriend for comfort's illusion, yet there is somewhere else for him to be, inches away, allegiance sworn to a local body. Life coils up and strikes her yet again, through the thousands of miles of wire between 512 and 718.

That same range of frequencies, rendered through her larynx as a husky whine, had been used with smiling to pull me out of bed on icicle mornings, to fetch coffee from six blocks off; combined with watery eyes, it had forced me into apologizing when I had no idea what I'd done wrong, and now, it brought forth two sensations, one the red longing, a powerless desire to put things right, to send checks and check airfare on the web - How much are your flights to Austin? - but also a repeat of the indifference that characterized the end of things, a distant sense that this was not my problem anymore, and onto that beach washed a wave of guilt and shame, because I wished to pull out the you-don't-fuck-me-anymore card, put it on the table between us and go back to bed.

Such integral moments are the operands of character, my father had told me. Yet the conversation would end before my character could be fully tested: “You don't have to go.”

Resolve clumped in her throat. “What time is it? Way too late, Jesus. Especially out there. I didn't think. I do, I really need to. And you need to work. I'm so sorry. To dump this on you.”

“I quit. I haven't worked there in months.”

“Good for you. Listen, goodbye.”

I pulled the longing out of my voice, as it tried to creep in, modulated the tone, in case Nicky was listening. “E, don't just--”

The other end of the line was a long, thoughtful silence.

“Don't be so far off,” I finished.

“Overall, I'm doing pretty well,” she said, and hung up.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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