Authors: Alix Ohlin
Tags: #General Fiction
Alix Ohlin is the author of
The Missing Person,
a novel, and
Babylon and Other Stories.
Her work has appeared in
Best American Short Stories, Best New American Voices,
and on NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” Born and raised in Montreal, she teaches at Lafayette College and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.
ALSO BY ALIX OHLIN
Babylon and Other Stories
The Missing Person
A VINTAGE CONTEMPORARIES ORIGINAL, JUNE 2012
Copyright © 2012 by Alix Ohlin
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Contemporaries and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
These stories originally appeared in the following publications: “Signs and Wonders”(as “Stranger Things Have Happened”) in
“Forks” (as “Midnight, Tuesday”) in
The American Scholar;
“Robbing the Cradle” in
“The Stepmother’s Story” in
The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Contemporary Women Writers on Forerunners in Fiction,
eds. Jacqueline Kolosov and Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum (Lewis-Clark Press, 2008); “The Idea Man” in
“Who Do You Love?” in
“The Teacher” in
“Vigo Park” in
“The Only Child” in
“You Are What You Like” in
“The Cruise” in
World Literature Today;
“The Assistants” (as “These Foolish Things [Remind Me of You]”) in
and “Fortune-Telling” (as “Chinese Restaurant”) in
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data:
Signs and wonders : stories / by Alix Ohlin.
“A Vintage contemporaries original.”
1. Short stories. I. Title.
Cover design by Abby Weintraub
Front cover photograph © Tony Tilford/Nature Picture Source
Author photograph © Michael Lionstar
So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world—a world intense and strange, complete in himself. Let it be added that this lover about whom we speak need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring—this lover can be man, woman, child, or indeed any human creature on this earth.
The Ballad of the Sad Café
So the important thing to know from the start is that she was miserable. She hadn’t always been, of course. She’d gotten married in a flurry of sex and promises, wearing a white dress so hideously confectionary that she felt like a parody of herself, a joke told in crinoline and lace, and even that made her happy, because it was silly and she knew they’d laugh about it later. Which they did. Then they had a baby, who was beautiful and perfect, then later on became less beautiful, less perfect, in fact troubled, for a time Ritalin and methamphetamine addicted, but subsequently, amazingly, pulled himself together and managed, despite the rocky years, to graduate from college and find a decent job at a zoo, tending to the turtles.
Which brings us to the misery, twenty-six years on. On the day she discovered she was miserable, Kathleen was forty-nine years old and a tenured professor of American literature at a college in suburban Philadelphia. Her husband, Terence, was fifty-two, and also tenured, in the same department at the same school. Their son, Steve, had been clean for three years. The mortgage had
been paid. Financially, emotionally, and logistically, things were going pretty well. She and Terence were in a meeting, discussing whether or not to allow English majors to graduate without taking a course in Shakespeare. Tempers on this topic ran high, as they almost always did; the professors were a testy bunch, desirous of offense. Terence, the chair, argued this requirement was retrograde, absurd; everyone knew that English majors nowadays went on to marketing or advertising or law school.
“That’s true,” Kathleen said wearily, feeling obligated to support her husband. At one time, she’d worked hard to stake out her own positions, to be seen as objective and fair. She soon realized, however, that no matter what she said she would always be perceived as taking Terence’s side; even when she voted against him, this was interpreted as some kind of obscure but Machiavellian strategy the two of them had cooked up together. So she opted for the path of least resistance, which was to pretend, both at work and at home, that Terence was the most brilliant person she knew.
“Now, I love Shakespeare,” he said. Kathleen wondered if this was true. She hadn’t seen him read a book, any book, for pleasure, in the last decade. What he truly loved was reality television. He liked to root for the schemers and alliance forgers, praising them for their cunning amorality.
Play the game,
he would urge them out loud in the den, his voice tight with drama.
“I could happily spend the rest of my days,” he went on, “reading the plays and sonnets over and over again. But I’m a scholar. And we’re not preparing scholars, by and large, after all.”
“Surely you don’t mean to suggest that only literary scholars need to read Shakespeare?” Fleur Mason said. “Surely
hostile to literature?”
hung in the room’s ensuing silence. In this group
there was no such thing as a passing remark; each one was noted, parsed, enshrined. Fleur Mason looked right at Terence and didn’t flush. Young, square-shouldered, and passionate, she wore ruffled skirts and lace blouses and a gold cross on a chain; she seemed like someone who’d spent her childhood alone in a room, writing poems about trees. She didn’t belong to today’s world but refused, violently, to admit it.
“Surely even you, Fleur, aren’t so defensive and small-minded as to think that questioning literature’s practices is the same as being hostile to them,” Terence said smoothly.
It was almost five, and the others looked indiscreetly at their watches, anticipating blood-sugar crashes, child-care crises, cocktails tragically delayed.
“Maybe this is more than we want to get into right now,” Kathleen said diplomatically, for which she received a few grateful glances. But not from Fleur and Terence, both of whom were breathing hard.
Another half an hour passed, with no resolution reached on the Shakespeare requirement. Finally, after some in the room progressed from stuffing papers into their bags to standing up and moving to the door, Terence tabled the issue and adjourned the meeting, promising that next month they would communally endure the punishment of having to discuss it again.
Kathleen went back to her office, hoping to wrap up a few things, but all she could think about was her feverish irritation with Fleur Mason. It was ridiculous for her to be so difficult, so adamant. She obviously had to know that letting Terence have his way was the easiest course of action for everyone. Fleur had, in fact, always driven Kathleen crazy. She was single and thirty-seven and appeared to have no life outside of her job. She had a
laugh like a demented clown’s; it rose too suddenly and lingered too long. There was also the profound and unforgivable stupidity of her name.
By six thirty everyone else had left, including Terence, who played squash with his friend Dave on Tuesday afternoons. Fleur’s office had once been Kathleen’s, and she still had the key. She walked down the hall, let herself in, and stood there for a moment, energized with hate. The room smelled like dust and Yankee Candle. There were framed
cartoons with literary jokes on the walls. And there was this: Fleur kept a bird in her office. God only knew why this was allowed but she’d brought in the bird—it was a parakeet—one semester when she was, she said, spending more time here than at home, and didn’t want it to be lonely. Now the bird was a permanent fixture, chirping all day long. Fleur put a blanket over the cage before leaving, and the bird went to sleep. Or so she said. When Kathleen lifted up the blanket, it wasn’t sleeping, just staring back at her with tiny, waxy, jelly-bean eyes. She opened the office door—there was no one around—and then the cage. She reached in and grabbed the bird in her hand, and in the instant before she threw it out into the hallway, where it confusedly took flight, its yellow wings scraping the walls, she could feel the frenzied, angry beating of its miniature heart against her palm.