The Long-Distance Runner by Grace Paley

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Faith explains that one day in her early forties, she became a long-distance runner, because she wanted to travel around the county, including the old neighborhood streets. One day Faith kisses her sons goodbye and travels to her childhood neighborhood, now populated primarily by African Americans. As she jogs through the area, she is suddenly surrounded by a few hundred African Americans, and there occurs a surreal, at times humorous, discussion of a number of unrelated subjects between Faith and the large crowd. A Girl Scout named Cynthia volunteers to take Faith to Mrs. Luddy, who lives in the apartment where Faith spent her childhood.

As they approach Mrs. Luddy’s residence, Faith becomes apprehensive and states that she no longer wants to see her old home. She lies to Cynthia, telling her that she does not want to see her mother’s house right now because her mother has died. The idea of her own mother dying terrifies Cynthia. She becomes lachrymose and reveals that her mother is her protector, who will not let the pushers and other dangerous people get her. Trying to reassure her, Faith tells Cynthia that the girl can come live with her and her two nearly grown-up boys if her mother dies. Apparently Cynthia has been warned by her mother that white boys have sinister sexual intentions, and she assumes that this “honky lady” has some perverse scheme in mind. She begins screaming for help, fearing that Faith plans to kidnap her. Hearing the voices of large boys coming to rescue Cynthia, Faith runs in fear to Mrs. Luddy’s door. Mrs. Luddy allows the unknown white woman to enter her home. She orders her son, Donald, to hide the white lady under his bed; when someone knocks on the door, the boy sends him away.

Faith lives with Mrs. Luddy and her family for three weeks and helps her take care of three little girls and befriends Donald. She develops some rapport with Mrs. Luddy, and they discuss a number of matters, including the problematical relationship between the sexes. One morning Mrs. Luddy wakes up Faith and informs her that it is time for her to return home, to which Faith agrees. Near home, Faith jogs through a playground and sees a dozen young mothers handling their children carefully and says to them, “In fifteen years, you girls will be like me, wrong in everything.” She does not say it maliciously but to prepare them.

Faith’s boyfriend, Jack, and her sons, Richard and Anthony, do not seem particularly concerned about her three-week absence. Anthony leaves to visit his friends in various institutions, a task that often occupies him into the evening. When Faith explains to Richard that she has spent a few weeks in her childhood apartment, he responds by asking her what she is talking about. When she tries to explain her experience to Anthony and Jack, they cannot understand what she is talking about either.

Having failed to communicate her experience to her boyfriend and her sons, Faith ends the story by appealing to the reader for understanding: “Have you known it to happen much nowadays? A woman inside the steamy energy of middle age runs and runs. She finds the houses and streets where her childhood happened. She lives in them. She learns as though she was still a child what in the world is coming next.”

Summary

(Short Stories for Students)

When “The Long-Distance Runner” begins, Faith Asbury is preparing to leave home for a longdistance run. She leaves her two sons and a neighbor friend, Mrs. Raftery, watching television. Faith takes the train to Brighton Beach, changes her clothes in a locker, and runs along the boardwalk for a mile or more. Then she cuts away from the beach and heads into her old neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Almost immediately, Faith is surrounded by a crowd of African Americans who comment on her presence and appearance. She is undaunted by them, engaging them in conversation and commenting back in their language. She points out to the crowd her old apartment, and the Girl Scout Cynthia suggests that Faith go inside...

(The entire section is 1,136 words.)