THE NUMBER ROBERTA
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I'm sitting, working on that glazed look you wear like you're on tranks in a looney bin so no one will hassle you when I hear a shrill, “I’ll lay you Roberta to 1 you’re wrong.”
“Roberta to 1?” this guy comes back in a cross between a rasp and a whisper like he has laryngitis. And though I am still gazing straight ahead, I look towards the voices from the corner of my eyes, and I see this geezer and geezette standing together, each with a hand and elbow wrapped around the same pole, his above hers, and because we are rumbling around a curve they have one leg arcing off the floor like they’re ballet dancers looking in a mirror. He is wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt hanging out over jeans torn in the knees, and she has on a white miniskirt, white sneakers like right out of the store window, white gloves and a white blouse that looks fresh from the cleaners on a day when fifteen seconds waiting on the platform turns you into a soggy sponge. I cannot decide whose hair, hers or his, looks more like Einstein’s just before he passed on.
The woman turns up her nose and wrinkles it. “Roberta to 1.”
“You’re Roberta” he rasps, and they stop talking.
Well I am very curious what this is all about, but of course I cannot ask the old ditz or even look right at her because then she will know I am listening, so I am happy when her boyfriend or husband or whatever he is starts in again and asks, “Do you have any idea what you’re talking about?” He shakes his head a couple of times and I see in his free hand some kind of microphone, only he’s not holding it to his mouth but alongside his throat.
“I’m not talking about me Roberta, I’m talking about the number Roberta,” snaps the old babe while the two of them are letting their raised legs settle to the floor. Her elbow that is looped around the pole has a teensy white handbag swinging against raspy’s ribs, and without ever looking down, every time the purse has just finished whacking him he slaps the spot like he is hoping to nail a mosquito.
“Roberta is no number,” he says in that tone Father Preis used to use when we’d say something like “abominable” instead of “abdominal.” Though when you look back on it at least old Prissy cared, which is more than you can say for teachers today.
Anyway, the old broad comes right back and snaps, “This is how much you know or think you know. Roberta is too a number, and a very good number, since after all it is my own name, too.” For a moment she waves her free forefinger at the guy, but right away jams the glove on the top of her purse like she has forgotten she is protecting a diamond necklace she just bought at Tiffany’s.
We are now pulling into where I need to get off, but of course I want to know the rest of the story, although to tell the truth I am already wondering whether I am merely listening to another nutty biddy on the streets only this one happens to send her blouses out for cleaning. All around me there is much pushing and shoving because this is not only my stop but a major changing point and most of the passengers who were sitting down are now standing and jockeying to be the first one out. The doors open, and I stand up, too, but I linger near the two chatterboxes.
Now although she must be talking to raspy, I swear the old dame is staring straight at me even though I am keeping my face at right angles to her like I couldn’t care less if she exists, and I worry that she is wondering why the hell I am not exiting after standing up from a perfectly good seat which is now occupied as are all the other seats in sight. “In grade school,” she is saying, “we would stand in two rows at the school entrance waiting to go in and the teacher would count us to make sure we were all there.”
With all those people trying to push by me I am struggling to keep standing in one place while looking like I really want to leave, and of course people on the platform aren’t waiting until the car empties but are squeezing in the door already, so that between the two gossips on the pole and myself we are creating quite a bottleneck although I seem to be the only one of us who is noticing. But I figure it’s every man—or I guess I better say person these days—for himself so long as the doors don’t close before I hear the end of the story.
All this time, the old bag just keeps chattering away. “I could never keep still,” she is saying, “and this teacher, Miss Felafel or something like that, she would count ‘One, two’ and see me fidgeting and say, ‘Roberta control yourself, ‘one, two, three,’ and I would still be dancing around, ‘Roberta, settle down now! One, two, three, four, five, six—Roberta!’ And that’s how it would keep going. Of course I wasn’t always the only one being a nuisance, so you might hear, ‘Eighteen, nineteen, twenty—Melissa!’ too, or ‘eight, nine, ten, eleven, Humphrey!’ But mostly it was, ‘Twenty-three—Roberta!’”
She stops and I figure this is the end of the story though I am now sorry I wasted my time trying to hear it, especially as I can no longer move against the crowd coming in like King Kong or Godzilla is right behind them. I am using my elbows but getting practically nowhere when the old lady starts in again. “That Miss Farfel,” she is saying, “was something, let me tell you. Strict like you wouldn’t believe.” And now I am trying to yell to people to let me out but the doors are closing, and this is when a guy in overalls three sizes too big for him pops through like a champagne cork and falls against me so that mustard from his hot dog flies onto the tie that cost me 50 bucks and I am wearing for the first time ever.
But does Granny notice? No, she’s just prattling merrily on. “Slap you for chewing gum, passing notes, anything. Everybody was sure she was going to be an old maid because she must already have been in her thirties, and not a man in sight that any of us girls in the class could see, and little girls can sniff things out like that, don’t you doubt it for a moment”—and now we are starting to move again—“but then one day she comes into the classroom wearing this diamond ring and her face all red and tells us that pretty soon she is going to be Mrs. Something-or-other and how Mr. Something-or-other is the sweetest man you ever saw, and so smart, too, and one day he’ll be running the Coca Cola plant where he works, and he should already be vice-president except his boss is prejudiced against him.”
Now I am trying to figure out what to do next because the next couple of stops you can’t get off and reverse direction without paying again, but still I can’t help hearing the old broad say, “The next day we have this new substitute teacher, and the principal comes in and tells us what a tragedy it is that Miss Freeforall passed away the night before, and we all start howling and crying, you’d have thought she’d been our best friend all our lives. But then when I got home and told my parents about it, I could see them giving each other a funny look, so I stroll out of the living room and listen real careful from the corridor, and I hear them discussing how my teacher had actually been cut into a million pieces by her fiancé They say the autopsy showed she was pregnant and the police had found the man, who it turned out was about twice as old as her, sitting in the back of his delivery truck that was parked right out in front of her apartment prying the caps off Coke bottles and adding Miss Fishface’s blood with a funnel and then trying to seal the bottles back up. One bottle was fizzing around a finger with her diamond ring which wasn’t real still on it.”
By now we are at the next stop and I figure I am so late I’d better get off and pay the extra fare. Let me grab the sales charts from my office so we can get into the meeting before the boss has a coronary.