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Authors: Alix Ohlin

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BOOK: Signs and Wonders
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She went home and cooked shrimp scampi, which she ate while listening to Terence hold forth on Shakespeare and the irrelevance of canonical literature in today’s digital world. When she glanced outside, a cardinal was sitting on the branch of an elm tree, looking back at her. She thought of the parakeet, trapped in the hallway
of the Humanities Building or, alternately, flying around the campus, making its yellow way through a world it had never before seen. She felt remorseful, but also still corked with hate. Not a single thing had been exorcised from her soul.

At that moment, she understood—how belatedly!—that she detested not Fleur but herself, her own life, and most particularly her husband and his relentless occupation of that life. And that she’d hated all of this for a very long time.

“Terry,” she said.

He cocked his head at her, birdlike, chewing. Sometimes conversation seemed like something he’d read about in a magazine, never experienced firsthand. To him, her preferable role was that of mute audience. Anything she said in response, even her agreement, was liable to piss him off, and he’d storm away from the table, never clearing or washing the dishes, to scour the cable channels.

“Never mind,” she said.

For days she kept this knowledge to herself, clutching it to her body like a money belt.
I hate my husband.
She’d been fighting it for so long! Now that she knew, her relief was tempered only by the dread of telling him, then leaving him. She could picture so perfectly the scenario of her escape: she’d buy a little condo and furnish it simply but cozily, in reds and yellows, and she’d have fresh flowers and no stereo system or flat-screen TV, none of the consumer electronics Terry spent his weekends shopping for. But it was hard, if not impossible, to imagine how to get from here to there. His anger was scorching, and his speeches long-winded; she’d have to budget days, more likely weeks, to let him get it all out.

Then, one Sunday afternoon, Steve called to say he’d received a job offer in California—head turtle-keeper at a large municipal zoo—and was moving across the country to take it. Both Kathleen and Terence were happy for him, and not a little surprised that he’d managed to do so well.

“It’s weird,” Terence said when he got off the phone, his face thoughtful. “It’ll just be the two of us now.”

“It’s been the two of us for a while,” Kathleen pointed out.

“I know, but now it seems like he doesn’t really need us anymore. He doesn’t need”—Terence’s gesture encompassed the house, the living room, the framed photographs, all the archival, institutional memory of the family—“any of

And from the way he said
—because, after all, as a professor of literature, she paid attention to the placement and nuance of words—she knew Terence was every bit as miserable as she was. So she spoke, for the first time in years, with genuine affection.

“Honey,” she said, “let’s get divorced.”

They stayed up late making plans, more excited about this stage of their lives than anything since their honeymoon, practically. They couldn’t stop expressing surprise and joy at these revelations; the discovery of shared misery was nearly as thrilling as that of mutual love had been. Terence said he wanted to take early retirement and drive a motorcycle to Central America.
What a cliché,
Kathleen thought. Then, realizing his behavior no longer implicated her, that she didn’t need to be concerned, she told him it sounded like a great idea.

Because it was still the middle of the semester, because they wanted to sell the house and each buy a new one, because the start
of a new life was a luxury that ought to be relished, they decided not to rush it. They spent spring break with their real estate agents, looking at houses in different neighborhoods. They stopped eating dinner together, and sometimes Kathleen just had a bowl of cereal and read a magazine, while Terence went out for a burger with his friend Dave. Dave had never been married, started drinking at noon on Saturdays, had false teeth, and believed himself irresistible to women. What Terence saw in him was a mystery, but she no longer—thank God—felt required to plumb its depths.

The week after spring break, Kathleen was at home grading papers when the phone rang. A man identifying himself as a police officer asked for her by name.

“What’s this about?” she said.

“I’m afraid there’s been an accident,” he said. “Your husband is at the hospital.”

“What kind of accident?”

“It’s hard to say,” he said.

“What do you mean? Is he okay?”

“He’s not able to give us a statement at this time. I think you’d better come down right away.”

When she got to the hospital, the officer was standing outside the room she’d been told was Terence’s, along with a doctor and a rail-thin young man in a dirty hooded sweatshirt whose connection to the situation was unclear. They all started talking at once, and Kathleen stood there unable to understand any of the cacophony—questions, explanations, complications—until finally her teacher instincts kicked in and she said, “Stop. All of you.” She pointed at the cop. “You first.”

“Your husband appears to have been the victim of a crime,” he said. The guy in the hoodie tried to interrupt, but Kathleen shushed him. “From what we understand, he was waiting at the stoplight by the Everton Mall when an individual wearing a ski mask entered the vehicle and asked Mr. Schwartz to exit. Mr. Schwartz appears to have refused. An altercation ensued.”

“You’re saying Terry was carjacked? At the mall?”

“As you know, there has been an escalation of violent crime in this area,” the officer said gravely, “linked to the increased presence of illegal drugs.”

The guy in the hoodie could no longer be contained. “I’m coming out of Sears and I see this guy dive into your husband’s car. He’s yelling ‘
Pterodactyl! Pterodactyl!
’ and grabs your husband and pulls him out and starts beating him and then he leaves him in the middle of the road and screeches off in the car and he actually, uh, runs over your husband when he drives away.”

“Pterodactyl?” Kathleen said.

“I think he was hallucinating—you know, tripping?” the man said. “My theory is that in his mind he was being pursued by this, like, animal, and getting away from it was the top priority?”

“Your husband’s injuries are quite severe,” the doctor added. They were in a rhythm now, this information committee, filling in the picture for her. “He’s nonresponsive at this time.”

“You’re saying he’s unconscious?”

“He’s in the state you might know as a coma,” the doctor said.

“Jesus,” Kathleen said. “Can I see him?”

All three men nodded, as if giving her their collective permission.

Inside the dim, white room, Terence lay swaddled in tubes and gauze. Between the bandages, his skin looked bloated, purple,
etched with rupture. He was Franken-Terry, a monster version of himself.

“Dear God,” she said out loud. The machines beeped. She couldn’t bring herself to touch him or even say his name.

The department gathered round. Everyone came to the hospital bearing flowers, cards, audiobooks. Lots of audiobooks. It seemed to have been universally agreed upon that the sounds of literature would bring Terence back to consciousness, a notion that Kathleen found both touching and ridiculous. She herself pictured his brain as rotten and pulpy, fruit that had been dropped on the ground. Playing books on tape seemed hardly adequate. It would be like reciting Beckett to a flesh wound.

But she thanked everyone and accepted the gifts with all the graciousness she could muster. Still, she couldn’t help feeling she was just playing a part. She and Terry hadn’t told anyone of the impending divorce. For one thing, they’d wanted to wait until the semester was over; for another, knowing that the gossip would rise in the halls to storm force, they each wanted to enjoy the secret knowledge of this surprise for a little while before unleashing it. The desire to spite their colleagues was one goal they still shared.

In a gesture meant to be kind, the department arranged for someone to take over not only Terry’s classes but also hers. Kathleen called both real estate agents and told them they had to stop looking at condos. Her world shrank to the house and the hospital room, an orbit of two planets. At the hospital, she played Terry tapes—who knew, they might help—that were mostly, it turned out, of Shakespeare plays. Everyone had taken his profession of love for Shakespeare seriously. So Kathleen lost herself in the recitation
Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida,
leaning back in the room’s only chair, her eyes closed. Sometimes she forgot where she was, but then she would open her eyes and see this broken, silent mummy entombed by machines. It was impossible to know how much of him was still there. The doctors said there was some brain activity but couldn’t specify what this actually meant or how long the coma would last.
It’s a waiting game,
they liked to say, to which Kathleen always responded, “Game?” They’d smile wryly, then leave the room.

She’d kept the news of the accident from Steve at first, because she was afraid of what might happen to his recovery if he were shaken too badly. The twelve steps were his only navigational tool through the world, and she didn’t entirely believe they’d keep him on course. And indeed, when he came, he was a mess—red eyed, ashen. He was six foot four and two hundred pounds, her son, yet still managed to be the most fragile human being Kathleen had ever known. No wonder he’d been drawn to turtles; he too should’ve been born with a shell. Overly sensitive to the world, he had had to swathe himself with drugs so as not to feel it too much. Now, sober, he was unsheltered, exposed. One look at his father and he burst into tears, shuddering against Kathleen, his spine curling. If he could feasibly have crawled into her lap, she knew he would’ve done so. Cradling his huge shoulders in her arms, Kathleen cried too. His grief was the knife that sliced through her own numb skin.

“It’s going to be okay,” she murmured to him, over and over.

“It is?” Steve said wildly. “How? When?”

“We just have to wait,” she said. “It’s a waiting game.”

He wanted to know if he should put off his move to California, to the better zoo with more kinds of turtles. She forbade it. She
told him Terry would want him to go. Which, if he had any brain activity inside the sleeping carapace of his body, he did.

The car was recovered in a wooded area off the interstate. Its windows had been left open, and the interior was colonized by raccoons—Terry had thought that patronizing McDonald’s made him a man of the people—and soaked by rain. As a crime scene, it was less than pristine. Because the pterodactyl-seeing man had been wearing a ski mask; because the sole witness, the guy at the hospital, had been drinking; and because even violent crimes are just passing deeds in a world overflowing with them, the carjacking case did not get solved. At first the police called Kathleen regularly; she went to the station, reports were filed. Gradually she found herself calling them; eventually they stopped returning her calls. At night she sometimes dreamed of the hallucinating carjacker, and he was always riding the pterodactyl, hanging on to its leathery neck, laughing as it flew him up and away.

Steve loaded his possessions into a U-Haul and drove west, calling every day, then every other day, to report on his progress and new life. Her departmental colleagues, initially so solicitous, stopped visiting, and then their calls dropped off too. “End of the semester,” they said apologetically. “You know how crazy it gets.”

She was left alone with the breathing, silent body of her at-one-time-soon-to-be-ex-husband.

Only one person, of everyone she knew in the world, didn’t seem to forget her, and this, horrifyingly, was Fleur Mason. She’d been part of the first departmental visit, and in that flurry of conversation
Kathleen had been able to ignore her, though she suspected her of having left behind the white teddy bear holding a mug that read
Get well soon!
But she was unavoidable when she came alone, a week later, with a box of chocolates and basket of specialty teas. She stood next to the bed and said cheerfully, “He doesn’t look so bad, does he? I think he looks better than last week.”

Kathleen missed her job, her students, her son, and, most of all, the sense of a future without constant irritation opening up before her, a future that—like Tantalus and his grapes—seemed to have been ripped away just as she was about to grab it. But of everything she’d gone through, being alone with Fleur Mason in a hospital seemed the most intolerable. And while she’d realized that her irritation was merely a substitute for other hatreds, that didn’t mean she liked the woman any better. She still found her presence, her clothing, her voice, her manner—in short,
as intensely aggravating as before.

So she didn’t say much when Fleur showed up, just glared—figuring it was her prerogative to be rude. And she also figured that it was better to discourage Fleur now, based on the same principle she used as a strict, even harsh grader on the first paper of the semester, so the students would know she wasn’t a pushover.

If Fleur got the message, she didn’t show it. She cocked her head and spoke in a high, chirping voice apparently meant to be sympathetic. “You’ll get through this, Kathleen,” she said. “I know you will. You’re a very strong woman, and you’ll prevail.”

Kathleen said, “Whatever happened to that bird of yours? Did anybody ever figure out who took it?”

“Um, no,” Fleur said, clearly rattled. She looked down at the ground and fiddled with the fringed edges of her beaded, ruffled scarf.

“Maybe no one took it,” Kathleen said. “Maybe it just escaped.”

Fleur was looking at Terence now, at the cage of his body. If Kathleen wasn’t mistaken, there were tears in her eyes. “Stranger things have happened,” she said.

Each week, Fleur came back. Sometimes she came to the hospital, during visiting hours, but more often, as time dragged on, she came to the house, dropping in on Kathleen on Thursday afternoons after classes were over. She brought a book, or brownies, or departmental gossip, and also, sadly, she brought the annoying gift of her personality and her chortling, exasperating laugh.

BOOK: Signs and Wonders
10.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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