Excerpt: Man and Wife by Katie Chase

About the Book:

This bracing, intelligent debut tackles the strangeness of growing up, the joys and difficulties of breaking away from family, and our sometime absurd or downright dangerous rites of passage. The girls and women in these stories come up against the rules and roles that give shape to their worlds. As marriages are arranged over tea, blood feuds simmer beneath football games , and the rules of  a city burn, they struggle between holding onto their families and seeking out new ways to live and love. These stories ask, as our hands slip from the long line of tradition and we become refugees from home, what, if anything, is lost. And how is that what we thought we’d let go keeps finding its way back?

Read an Excerpt:

Featured in June/July 2016 Issue: Short Stories

“Don’t you want to hear what the big news is?” said Dad. My mother turned her back on us to the cutting board, where she was chopping a fresh salad. 

I a small voice I said, “Yes.” I tried to smile, but that feeling was in my stomach, made more fluttery by drink. I recognize the feeling now as a kind of knowledge. 

“Well, do you remember Mr. Middleton? From Mommy and Daddy’s New Year’s party?”

At the party I’d been positioned, in scratchy lace tights and a crinoline-skirted dress, at the punch bowl to ladle mimosas for their guests. Many of their friends introduced themselves to me that night: Mr. Baker, Mr. Silverstein, Mr. Weir. Some bent to my height and shook my hand. Mr. Woodward scolded me for insufficiently filling his cup, and his young wife, Esmerelda, my former babysitter, led him away. 

“Mr. Middleton—that nice man with the moustache? You talked together for quite some time.”

Then I remembered. As I served other guests, he lingered with a glass of sweating ice water, talking about his business. He directed his words to the entire room, looking out over it rather than at me, but he spoke quietly, so only I could hear. He offered figures: annual revenue, percentages, the number of loyal clients. And then: “My business is everything. It is my whole life.” I looked up at him curiously, and his face reddened; his moustache twitched. When he finally left, patting my shoulder and thanking me for indulging him, I was relieved. I’d had little to say in return—no adult had ever spoken to me that way—and I’d felt the whole time, on the tip of my tongue, the remark that might have satisfied and gotten rid of him sooner.

“That’s the good news,” Dad said. “He’s gone ahead and asked for your hand. And we’ve agreed to it.”

My mother put down the knife and finished off her champagne. I wanted no more of mine.

“Well, don’t be so excited,” said Dad. “Do you understand what I’m saying? You’re going to be a wife. You’re going to live with Mr. Middleton, and he’s going to take care of you, for the rest of your life. And, one day, when we’re very old, he’ll help out your mother and me too.

“Yep.” He smiled. “It’s all settled. Just signed the contract this afternoon. You’ll really like him, I think. Nice man. You seemed to like him at the party, anyhow.”

“He was okay,” I managed. It was as I’d feared, somewhere, all along: the toast, the party, everything. Now it was real: my future was just the same as any other girl’s. Yet none of my friends had become wives yet, and it didn’t seem fair that I should be the first taken. For one thing, I was too skinny. They say men first look for strength in a wife. Next they look for beauty, and even with braces and glasses yet to come, I was a homely little girl. It’s last that men look for brains. You may notice that I skipped over wealth. While rumors of sex spread freely at school, it wasn’t clear to me then just how money fit in. It was discussed only in negotiations, when lawyers were present and we were not. It was best that way, for our parents, who tried to keep such things separate. A girl shouldn’t have to worry over what a number said of her promise or worth. 

From Man & Wife by Katie Chase, A Strange Object, astrangeobject.com. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.  

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