“Reception Theory” by Nathan Alling Long: Read the story that won the 2017 OWT Short Fiction Prize 2

Nathan Alling LongProfessor Max Ludlow has been losing hair for some time, and not being a person oblivious to style —unlike some of his colleagues who groomed their remaining strands into a semblance of a youthful do—he has begun to shave his head.  This gives Ludlow a clean, meditative look, cosmopolitan and ageless—his grey hairs now nearly invisible—but it also exposes a star-shaped scar over his right ear, of which he is self-conscious.  Or perhaps more accurately, of which he is self-aware—that is, not embarrassed, but cognizant that it is there, though he can only see it when looking in a mirror and turning his head to the left.

When he does see the scar, he often thinks how much it resembles an asterisk, which makes him imagine that in his head is a thought and that the scar is marking an informal footnote, offering a caveat or explanation, there at the bottom of the page—or, in this case, literally at his feet.  Sometimes he even glances down at his toes when he thinks this, to see if an explanation might be there. But of course there is never any explanatory note, which he always feels is unfortunate.

Each time Ludlow does all this with a bemused acknowledgement that he has done it before—how tenacious are the habits of the mind!  It is not infrequently, in fact, that he might go on to contemplate what it means that this asterisked scar seems to be a signifier which has no signified—that is, a symbol without corresponding meaning.

Such are typical ruminations of Max Ludlow, who is, appropriately, a professor of semiotics.  In fact, at this moment, with a glass of mediocre Cabernet in one hand, and the other brushing his newly shaved head, Professor Ludlow is walking through the opening reception of The International Forum on Philology, this year held at the Hyatt in Denver.  He has just come from the bar and is now meandering through the crowd of professors and graduate students looking for someone of interest with whom he might strike up a conversation.

And how fortunate that Ludlow has just spotted Aneta Łysik, the Polish linguist who, if he remembers correctly, studied conjugations and democracy—the correlation between how many states of ‘being’ (is, am, was, had been, will be, etc.) there are in a language to how democratic the people who speak it tended to be.

At least, that was what she had been studying almost ten years back, when he met her at that conference in Budapest.  She was just a graduate student then, at the University of Warsaw, and he was a young professor, not yet tenured and with a full head of hair.

As Ludlow draws near, he sees that she looks exactly as he remembered her—young and graceful and slim—though she is dressed in a less Bohemian style than she had been a decade ago, with her pressed skirt and white blouse.  He wonders if she is a professor somewhere, but, being tall and with aging vision, he does not want to draw his head down too close to her chest at this moment to read the name of the university written in small letters on her conference name tag.

“Aneta,” Ludlow says instead, raising his glass in greeting.  He is interrupting a conversation she was having with another male professor, but senses it is not of much significance, though the professor appears unhappy about the interruption.

Aneta looks up at Professor Ludlow and tentatively says, “Yes? Hello?”

“It’s Max Ludlow,” he explains. “From the Budapest conference.” Though he does not show it, he feels hurt that she seems not to recognize him, that she has forgotten what they had been through—what he had been through—that last full day in Budapest.

“Oh yes,” Aneta says. “Forgive me.  It’s been a busy day, and I just landed here this morning.”  She gestures to the man she’s been talking to and says to Ludlow, “Do you know Professor Gratz from the Institute of Berlin?”

Ludlow nods instead of offering his hand, a nod that simultaneously acknowledges Gratz and dismisses him, as one might a butler whose service one no longer needs.  Yet Gratz stays on, even when Aneta turns to Ludlow and asks, “How is your head?”

“My head!” Ludlow says.  He’s relieved that she does remember. For it was she who was walking with Ludlow on the street in Budapest ten years ago, from the conference hotel to a lunch arranged a half mile away, talking excitedly about her dissertation, The Semiotics of Democracy, when Ludlow, his eyes attentively on Aneta, hit his head on the corner of a street sign.

He fell to the ground and instantly blood gushed out from the wound.  The other participants gathered round offering advice and commenting on the situation in several languages.  “Krov’! Krov’ vezde!” one said.  Blood everywhere, Ludlow found his mind translating, having learned rudimentary Russian. Another countered in English, “Injuries to the head look worse than they are.”

Ludlow remembers most of all how quickly Aneta took charge, perhaps feeling that the accident was her fault.  While the others offered words of advice, she withdrew a cloth handkerchief from her purse and pressed it to Ludlow’s wound.  It instantly was soaked with blood.

His blood was literally on her hands, he thought, and Ludlow felt then a sudden connection to Aneta.  Perhaps, he thought, this event was no accident.  Yet, had Ludlow been able to reflect clearly, he would have admitted that there had been a hundred moments like that in his life—between him and grad students, or colleagues, or complete strangers—where he sensed there was some bond, maybe even an attraction, but he had never determined what the other person was thinking.  As always, he waited for a clearer sign, a stronger signal, but it never appeared.

And so, even now, a professor in his late fifties, Ludlow is still single, in one sense a solidified self, an expert of semiotic spaces; in another sense, an object floating in a sea of words that never reveal their meanings to him fully.

“My head is fine,” he says to Aneta, there at the reception.  He pauses, at which point Gratz reluctantly bows and turns to leave, finally acknowledging, it seems, that Ludlow and Aneta share a history of which he has no part.  Ludlow then bends down for a moment, so Aneta can see the star-like scar.

“I’m so sorry,” Aneta says.

Ludlow straightens back up to his full height. “But it wasn’t your fault,” he says, “and it was years ago.” He smiles and takes a sip of wine.  “I think of that day now as a great adventure.”

Aneta smiles back a sad smile, a dutiful one. “No, I mean, I’m sorry that I didn’t recognize you at first.  It’s just that with your shaven head…”

“Ah,” Ludlow says.  “Yes, I see.  And of course I’m no longer covered in blood.” He laughs, but she does not. Her expression looks pained, as if she is seeing the gory image of his wound before her now.

Curiously for Ludlow, the accident did not feel gory at all, as one’s own injuries rarely do.  After contact with the street sign, time became a series of disconnected impressions, a smear of images and words that he had difficulty sticking together coherently.  There was the grimy granite curb and the tire of a parked car on the street in front of him.  And then the many faces, faces of so many linguists, circling overhead, like curious children observing an injured bird.  Ludlow felt disempowered, dismantled, lost.  He felt no longer himself.  He looked up and saw the overcast sky, which seemed to plague all European cities, and he wondered if he would die there on the street beneath that blanket of cloud.

He did not know what had happened—had he been hit by a car? a rock? a bullet? All he knew was that he had been walking and listening to Aneta, then he was on the ground, blood coursing through his hair, over his forehead, and down his face.  But in the moments afterwards, lying there on the sidewalk, he’d heard enough words in various languages to piece together an understanding: he’d run into a street sign, although one German had phrased it, “A street sign hit him,” as though the sign had agency, a will of its own.  Ludlow remembers almost laughing at that, and in the chaos of the moment, his mind managed to amuse itself, imagining a newspaper headline: “Hungarian sign attacks pedestrian, gets 1-3 year sentence.” (It took him a moment to realize even the word ‘sentence’ was a pun.  How well the subconscious works, even when the conscious mind and body are in a state of shock.)

Ludlow remembers, too, a particular heat emanating from the wound when Aneta pressed her hand to it and how he wondered if it came from his body or hers. Mostly, he remembers Aneta asking, “Can you stand?” And then several participants gingerly helping him up, not wanting, it seemed, to get blood on their academic clothes.

Ludlow almost blacked out as his legs straightened, but then the buildings across the street came into focus, and though his head kept bleeding, he felt infinitely better standing—more in control and no longer a mere spectacle on the sidewalk.  He was again a part of the pedestrian world, even if he needed help standing.  He would not die on the streets of Budapest.

He recalls all this in a mere second, then looks again at Aneta. “You were such an incredible help,” he says.  “Who knows what would have happened to me without you there.”

Aneta blushes.  He sees that he has agitated her Polish sense of modesty by embarrassing her with a compliment.  He has forgotten how cautious and polite Polish women are.

“I did nothing,” she says.  “Anyone could have helped, but I felt so responsible, since I had distracted you by blathering on about my dissertation.”

“Not at all,” says Ludlow, then notices that Aneta’s glass is empty.  “In fact, won’t you let me buy you a drink?” He smiles at this, as it is a joke—the reception has an open bar.  He has used this joke often at conferences, though he wonders if his American sense of humor might have offended Aneta, who looks confused by the offer, and so he smiles some more.

“Alright, another glass of wine,” she finally says.  “It will help me recover from the lag of the jet.”

As they make their way to the bar, Ludlow smiles at her quirky turn of phrase.  This is why foreign women are so charming, even when they are, say, angry.

“Do you remember Drubzne?” Aneta asks from behind.

“The Hungarian?” Ludlow says. He recalls how, ten years ago in Budapest, the painfully thin-framed man, one of the conference organizers, had told Aneta that the city ambulances were expensive, corrupt, and slow.

“Yes,” Ludlow adds, when Aneta says nothing else.  “What of him?”

“I saw him in the elevator. He’s here in Denver.”

“Is he?” Ludlow said, uncertain how interested he should appear.  Drubzne had offered to help take Ludlow to a hospital, just four blocks east.  At that, everyone else on the street agreed to walk on to lunch, which they had paid for in advance and would miss if they did not arrive by one o’clock.

But once Drubzne was certain that the hospital staff spoke adequate English, he left Ludlow and Aneta, to make sure that all went well for the other participants at the restaurant.

The hospital staff worked diligently to take care of Ludlow, washing the wound and the blood off his face and applying endless fresh gauze.  He sat on a hospital table a little slumped, staring in the general direction of Aneta, who sat in a hard plastic chair across from him.  He felt like a pet at the veterinarian, passively being mended, as the staff around him chattered in Hungarian, a language he didn’t know.

It was not unlike the feeling Ludlow has now, at the reception, surrounded by conversations in a dozen languages, so complexly woven together that they are incomprehensible. As he waits for their glasses to be refilled—he’s trying the Zinfandel this time—he smiles at Aneta, remembering then a particular moment before the doctors began to stitch up the wound, a moment he has not recalled in years.

His shirt and undershirt were ruined; the doctors had removed them and, with his permission, thrown them away.  He was then shirtless and relatively cleaned up, although his hair was still matted with blood.  Aneta sat with a gentle smile on her face, one that seemed equal proportions of sympathy and regret.  It was such a soothing countenance to gaze upon that he suddenly felt an inexorable love for her, this woman who had seen him at his weakest, wordless and bleeding, and who still remained steadfastly loyal.  Was she simply being dutiful, or was she communicating to him a signal of love, in some subtle and modest way that a Polish woman might?

The bartender hands Ludlow the wine, and he turns to Aneta, handing her her glass and offering a toast. “To Budapest,” he says, smiling, for now that weekend seems one of the most memorable in his life. He rubs his hand over his head nervously tracing the contours of the scar, as though it were Braille.  To the day that literally marked me! he thinks as he takes a large sip of wine.

“And where are you now?” he then asks, leaning in as though to read her name tag.

“University of Wroclaw,” Aneta says. “I have a lectureship in American Literature.”

“Not linguistics?” He raises his brow kindly.

“No,” she says.  “Those jobs are very rare in Poland.”

“I understand,” says Ludlow, though in truth he has never fully understood the various European academic systems.  He is not even sure if a lectureship is something to congratulate her on, after what must be eight years since finishing her dissertation, or if it is something of an embarrassment.

And so instead he says, “And what are you working on?”

As Aneta describes her new work, with more reserve than she had done ten years before, Ludlow half listens and half reminisces.  One of his happiest moments of that day was walking back through the streets with Aneta, though his hair was still a rosy tint, and he wore an unflattering hospital gown for a shirt.  He felt, as the cliché goes, fortunate to be alive, to simply be walking and taking in the world through all his senses.  And he was fortunate to have Aneta with him, who prevented him from feeling completely demoralized and alone in a foreign country.

He offered to take her to lunch, for they were both now starved, having missed the meal they’d paid for.  Back at the conference hotel, he changed into clean clothes while she waited in the hall. Then they went to the café across the street.  The clouds had miraculously broken up and sunlight intermittently hit their outdoor table.

Ludlow was still light-headed from the impact and loss of blood.  He remembers saying very silly things, unacademic things, like “Maybe this will knock some sense into me,” and “It seems like a bad joke, a semiotician being hit by a sign!”  Aneta smiled throughout lunch and ate her food gracefully.  She must have asked a dozen times how he was feeling, and at the end of the meal twice refused his offer to pay before giving in.  That Polish modesty!  How he’d always found it too conservative, a burden of excessive politeness and a repressive patriarchy, but now how charming it seemed.

Something about that memory reminds Ludlow of a question he’s pondered about that day in Budapest, one that has haunted him for years—for so long in fact that he had given up ever thinking he would find an answer.  But now in the Denver hotel reception he realizes that Aneta, standing right before him, still talking about her work on the language of post-9-11 American literature, is likely the only person to know the answer.

Ludlow listens distractedly and when she is finished, says “That sounds fascinating,” a phrase he has learned to say to all graduate students since he learned that really all they want—or need—is approval.  (Eventually, he came to use that phrase on colleagues as well, who, after all, really only want the same thing.)

After he asks a few questions about her project, Ludlow brings the conversation back to that day in Budapest.  He brushes his hand over his scar once again, this time consciously, as he says, “So, I have to ask—you know that damn sign I gashed my head on? Would you happen to know what kind of sign it was, what it said?  I don’t imagine you speak Hungarian, but I thought maybe Drubzne might have told you.”

Ludlow looks down at his wine glass then, surprised to find it empty. Only then does he realize it has loosened his speech a great deal and can’t help but show what seems like an unexplainable giddiness.  He looks up and sees Aneta smiling.

“It’s funny,” she says, “because I do know what was on the sign.  It didn’t have words.  It was just a picture of two people walking, a man and woman. It was what I think you call a pedestrian walking sign.”

A man! Ludlow thinks, incredulously. And a Woman!  Walking!  That is what he had been hit by ten years ago?

How clear the sign now was to him, depicting exactly what he and Aneta had been doing the moment of the accident, like it was a caption written for a photo in a newspaper.

Ludlow nods, taking all this in.  He is quite drunk now, but feels a great clarity as well.  So, the sign was above them, he thinks, and he and Aneta, the signified, were below.  Except, they were not just the idea of the thing (pedestrians walking), but the thing itself (actual pedestrians walking).

Ludlow sees now how everything at that moment had been aligned.  It is so clear to him here at the reception, though he did not understand it fully at the time, even when it came up and hit him in the head!

Ludlow feels a rush of excitement, like the one he remembers feeling at the hospital, a sense that he could fall in love, or is falling in love, with this woman standing before him, though he hasn’t seen her in ten years and she barely remembered who he was.

But here he is, vulnerable before her, again, as though his head—or heart—were gushing forth blood at this very moment. It is now or likely never.

“Aneta,” Ludlow says. “Will you marry me?”

Aneta stares at Ludlow with an unreadable expression on her face. Is she considering? Is she in shock?  Has she not heard his words?

Ludlow twitches.  Surely, it was the wine talking, as they say.  He is about to take it back, say something funny, anything to fill the silence between them, but he stops himself.  Instead, he simply looks away from her, down at his feet, as though they might have an explanation.  He thinks of asterisks, then of signifiers, but remains silent, waiting for an answer.

Nathan Alling LongNathan Alling Long lives in Philadelphia (USA) and teaches creative writing and literature at Stockton University.  His fiction and essays appear in over a hundred publications, include Tin House, Glimmer Train, Story Quarterly, and Crab Orchard Review; his collection of flash fiction, The Origin of Doubt, will be released in March 2018 by Press 53.  He is currently seeking publication for his new collection, Everything Merges with the Night.  For more information, other stories, or essays, please visit http://wp.stockton.edu/longn/.

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