Fiction by Jared Yates Sexton — “Monsieur and Mademoiselle”

Hello hello from the NEAT. front. As a reminder that our deadline is fast approaching and maybe a little bit of an incentive, here is the featured fiction piece from our Spring 2014 issue: “Monsieur and Mademoiselle” by Jared Yates Sexton. You can check out the interview that Liz did with Jared here.

Monsieur and Mademoiselle

Jared Yates Sexton

Angry and hungover, she says We’ve got to stop this.

She’s on the living room floor scrubbing a stain. Behind her a trail of glass and half a dozen overturned books. This is her natural way of spending a Saturday afternoon, how she goes about once we finally drag ourselves out of bed. I’m tending to the bottle of Tylenol in the bathroom and gulping down handful after handful of water and hoping the thudding will slow down.

You always make a big deal out of it, I say between gulps. Everyone had a good time.

Nobody had a good time, she says. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, she says, but less and less people come every time we throw one of these things. Word’s getting around just how screwed up we are.

I give myself a good healthy stretch and then scratch all the right places. In the living room I stand in the doorway and watch her work that stain. I can’t remember if it’s wine or blood or both. I’m gonna make some breakfast, I tell her. You want some breakfast?

Terry, she says to me. God damn it. That’s always your answer. I’ll make some breakfast. Sometimes breakfast doesn’t cut it.

The kitchen itself is lined with empty bottles and the sink full of dishes. I open the fridge and look inside. Most everything is gone. We throw the kind of shindigs where people help themselves. They eat chunks of cheese, grapes, hell, the butter if they’re feeling up to it. There’s not much left except a pound of sausage and a roll of instant biscuits. I grab those and the bag of flour out of the cabinet next to the fridge. Then the phone rings.

Hello, I hear her say when she answers. She’s silent for a second and then starts in with the apologies. Oh god, she says, I’m so sorry. We’re so sorry, Pam. I mean it, we’re sorry. You know how it gets. People start drinking and things happen.

She’s apologizing to Pam, her friend from the book club. Pam always comes to these things and ends up getting offended. She’s got real sensitive sensibilities. Her husband’s no better. Last night I was giving him some shit about being from Oklahoma and he got so wound up he eventually stormed off.

No, I hear her say, Terry didn’t mean anything by it. He forgets what’s polite conversation. No, she says. No, I don’t think so. No.

I get the sausage frying in a pan on the stove and look out the window over the sink. Our deck is always the worst. People go out there and smoke and leave their butts and drinks. Sometimes they break the chairs or the rails. That’s usually where I like to go when it gets too stuffy or need a moment to myself. Last night there was a fine thing out there smoking these long, thin cigarettes by the woodpile. She came with this guy I know from work. We all call him Tiny. I’ll let you figure it out. Anyway, she came in with him and hung up their coats. Then she offers me her hand, the way women used to do, and waits for me to give it a kiss. She called me monsieur. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, monsieur, she said.

Mademoiselle, I said back to her.

Well, she says coming into the kitchen with the sponge she’d been using on the carpet, that was Pam. She said I’m not invited to the book club anymore. Are you happy?

Am I happy? I say. I’m looking out at the back porch, at a spot just over the rail. There’s a paper plate barely hanging on. It must’ve rained this morning because it’s turned soggy and frowns at the edges. Right there is where that woman was smoking her cigarettes. No, I say, I can’t say I’m happy.

Well, she says, you shouldn’t be. This is getting to the point of no return, you know. It’s getting to a place where something’s got to give.

In the frying pan on the stove the sausage is browned and I reach for the flour and get a nice and thick gravy going. Then I remember the biscuits and line them up in dots in the pan and set the oven up. Pam’s boring, I say. And her husband’s no better.

Terry, she says.

They can both go to fucking Oklahoma for all I care, I say.

You know, she says, fixing breakfast isn’t going to solve everything. You always think it will, but it won’t.

You want to put the coffee on? I say to her.

Are you listening to me? she says. I can’t be married to somebody who turns into a monster.

All right, I say, I’ll get the coffee going.

She storms off to the living room and stands there and huffs. That’s what she does. She’s like a child sometimes in how she gets her anger out. I kid you not, you get her upset enough and she’ll pound the table like an upset toddler. It’s a sight to see.

The coffee’s going now and the sausage and gravy are warming and the biscuits are in and I’m standing here feeling about a thousand times better. I’ve got to the point where I can shake a hangover in less than an hour. All I’ve got to the do is drink a shit-ton of water and focus on things. Right now it’s that spot out there. I walked out last night and that woman was smoking her cigarette and I said to her, smooth as I could manage, Well, hello there mademoiselle.

She turned and gave me a smile. I’d said the secret word, I think. I picked up on her code. Why monsieur, she said, fancy meeting you in a place like this.

That was that. What happened next was sealed from that point on. Looking at that spot, next to the woodpile, I can only imagine there’s probably a place where the grass has been pushed down. An imprint of her. Probably half of that cigarette she was smoking. I remind myself to go out there later and see if I can find it. It’s something I wouldn’t mind keeping around.

I’m sorry, she says, collapsing in a chair at the kitchen table. My head won’t stop pounding and I couldn’t feel worse. Didn’t mean to make a big deal out of it, she says.

It’s all right, I say.

The food’s pretty much done. The biscuits are a little undercooked, on the doughy side, but that’s how she likes them. I get a plate loaded up, split them long-wise, and ladle on the sausage and gravy. There’s steam rising up and when I set it in front of her with a cup of coffee she’s smiling.

Eat up, I say. It’ll help.

It will, she says. It always does.

I get myself a plate and grab some pepper. I’d prefer the whole thing spicier, stronger, but she doesn’t care for the heat. Sometimes you have to do things for other people. Once I’ve got it covered I grab my mug from the dishwasher and have a seat. She’s already digging in, forking big wads of biscuit into her mouth and swallowing happily.

Maybe later, she says, we can go to the movies.

Yeah, I say, still thinking about the woodpile. That’d be nice.

It would, she says. We haven’t been in a long time.

No ma’am, I say.

Maybe we can get gussied up, she says. Put on some nice clothes and grab some dinner and then go catch a movie.

I’d like that, I say.

Would you? she says.

I would, I say.

She gives me a look then like all is forgiven. Her plate is half-empty and I can tell the hangover’s starting to lift. She doesn’t care about Pam anymore. About that damned book club. And she sure as shit doesn’t care about the carpet in the living room or anything else. Everything that has passed has passed and we’re squared right away. She even stretches her leg under the table and traces my knee with the point of her foot. This is her signal she likes to give sometimes. It says, Let’s finish this up and start something else. I take a sip of my coffee and nod, let her know I’ve picked up her code.

And then, as we’re about to leave for the other room, the phone rings one more time.

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