A Man, a Wife, and an Old Maid Walk Into a Short Story

My Review of Man & Wife by Katie Chase

Katie Chase’s stories tell us that inequity strikes the human condition.

Old Maid conveys not belonging. We’ve all felt it. Felt like an outsider in our own community, neighborhood, group, whatever we call the collection of people we live and work with. No matter how long we have been there and done good, they have their doubts, their suspicions and resentments. We do not fit in.

That’s Old Maid’s narrator, a middle-aged urban professional with an active sex life. She lives a ferry ride from the city in a suburban neighborhood next door to the Cleavers and across the street from the Huxtables. Women envy her freedom, men have their fantasies, and children their nightmares.

Chase constructs this short story of twenty pages, using the observations of a wise old maid, a crone. Her old lover has moved in next door, he’s married now to a younger, tighter model. She’s shocked that he’d end up next door to her:

But it was. I recognized A by his back, broad but gently sloped, in a dress shirt, not a flannel. He poured a drink at the counter, and when he spun to hand it off — to a bottle blonde, much younger woman, ring clinking the glass — our eyes glanced. You never would’ve known the jolt that passed through us, all the careful rearranging we had to do on the inside. I tried to picture what he glimpsed. My former self, the one a decade back, he had first met, superimposed on the present.

But the Old Maid has her ways. Basketball shorts and a car accident bring her back to her lover and then apart. She has her grief too, but the neighbors won’t let her have that. She’s a witch, a characterization she embraces. She’s cast a spell, and in way more delicate than Cotton Maher, they cast her out:

Cloaked in curtain against the cold, I blew a breath, with my finger scrawled a name and sleeved it off. It doesn’t matter if it was mine or his or one that might’ve been. I told myself once before and knew I’d never tell again: if it was to be a long life, the motions ought at least to keep the semblance of starting over.

Starting Over

Chase’s stories in Man & Wife take on the themes of male dominance and women’s destructive intra-competition. Some of the stories take place in a parallel world that asks what if — what if women never got suffrage, what if Detroit bulldozed neighborhoods to create urban farms or what if everyone who defaulted on their mortgage went to refugee work camps. Chase’s stories are a little longer than most, allowing the reader to slip into her dystopian worlds.

The dystopian worlds include a society that marries off girls by contract while they play with Barbies, another one marries women by kidnapping, and in the last world the last matriarch commands her children to leave town, never get married and do not have kids. In these stories the family house, a family feud, or a pick-up basketball game take on the macabre.

In our time, Hot Chocolate and Tic-Tacs communicate subjugation better than wage stats or boardroom demographics. Thought leaders can marshal stats into self-serving narratives, but stories speak for themselves. Dystopian fiction, like science fiction, reflects our time more than it predicts our future or analyzes historical what-ifs. Chase shows us fiction can be more persuasive than fact.

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