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Il Faut Ecouter Mac Doe



We move to France in September. I miss candy corn. I miss the bugs in Mom’s vegetable garden. Sometimes I ate the roly-polies. I miss Legoland. I had an accident in the Millennium Falcon. I miss baseball practice. Coach Griggs said good try when I fell down. I only know bonjour and merci and the French mistreat me on the playground. They form circles around me and hold hands. They push me into the urinal. They throw my marbles over the wall.

In October, I go in before the bell rings. I pull my feet through the prehistoric gates. I smell the wet pavement, I measure every stride, I avoid nuts and cracks and clementine peels. The French leave the ball bouncing under the pavilion. The tinny echoes sound like aliens laughing. They form a circle around me and hold hands. 

“What do you want to play, Julien?” 

“Wallball.” 

“Then we will play soccer.” 

I follow them. I pinch the inside of my coat pocket. Mom said to stop chewing on the lapel.

“I thought you wanted to play wallball.”

“Now I want to play soccer.”

“Then we will play wallball.”

Mom says you can’t buy your friends. “If you stop this,” I say, “if you stop this forever, I will give you all candy. Carambars.” 

Claude le chef comes forward. Claude lives two houses down. His scalp juts like a polygon, the wounds on his knees have turned black. He wears a special retainer. He grabs the first carambar and steps behind me. He puts his arm on my shoulder. He says they were just kidding around all along. 

We play soccer until the bell rings. I am on defense. I have trouble moving my foot in time to kick, but I save a goal. Pierre the bedwetter shoots the ball at my stomach, I fall down go boom. I hold my ribs so that the French understand my sacrifice. Claude says if it weren’t for Mac Doe—short for McDonald’s in French—our team would have lost. Briac le puissant says that I gifted them a sacré Big Mac. Pierre helps me up. 

In November, I lose my place during lecture. Dirty Louis yells, “Mac Doe cries,” and Madame Hello beats him instead of me. She uses the metal ruler on his fingertips. Outside, everyone puts their arms around me. We find Dirty Louis in the cat poop sandbox where he likes to make creations. 

“Dirty Louis,” says Claude, “What did you say on Mac Doe?”

“I said nothing,” says Dirty Louis. 

  “It’s not true,” I say.

Dirty Louis moves like a construction vehicle, like he controls his body from a cockpit. He drops his cheeks, he wants to affect blankness. Claude leaps and punches all over him. Dirty Louis faceplants in the sand. I remember when Madame Hello threatened to dismember the trees.

“Mac Doe,” says Claude. 

I take the caca from Pierre and put it where the white of the head shows through the grease-matted cowlick, but I do not press down. Louis shakes and squeals and the caca falls in the sand. Students crowd the sandbox. They whisper in protest.

Claude says, “One must press down on the caca so that it stays.” 

I wiggle my daddy toe. “One must stop.”

“One must listen to Mac Doe,” says Isabelle, who smells like olive oil and reads scary books. 

Claude looks at me. Tiny hands spring out of his granular blue eyes, twitching and grabbing. “One does not care what Mac Doe says.” He smears the caca across Louis’ neck. 

In December, we make Christmas decorations. Madame Hello stands over my shoulder. I want to draw a train but it looks like broccoli. “It’s not good,” she says. Her clogs echo like minotaur hooves. 

Victoria holds her cheek parallel to the table. Her thick brown hair spills across her art. She masters her every movement, her body says, “I can only control so much.” (My body never does what I tell it; no wonder I can only play defense. And I have freckles.) Victoria slaps boys. Every time I look at her, I imagine our life together—a château in Saint Jean de Luz, a clay flowerpot on the windowsill, our eleven sons fileting their own fish.

The mistress leaves the room, I drop my crayon so that it rolls under Victoria’s desk. The classroom smells like glue sticks and pencil shavings. I stand behind her. 

“Victoria?”

She swings around and returns to her drawing. “Yes, Mac Doe?”

“I have dropped my pen, Victoria.”

“It’s a shame, Mac Doe.”

I lose sight of things. 

Julien!” The concave cheeks, the vascular neck, the lines like raked soil at the corners of her mouth. For a moment I expect Victoria to save me. I tie my hands across my stomach.

“It’s okay, Maîtresse,” says Dirty Louis. “Mac Doe was only trying to make babies with Victoria.”

Madame Hello beats him instead of me. 

Outside, a second grader named Tanguy shimmies up the goalpost. He stands on the crossbar. He says that if he falls down and hurts himself, the teachers will confiscate soccer. Tanguy wears corduroys for little intellectuals, but he climbs like an orangutang. I jump to grab his leg and he spits on me.

“I do not like cheeseburgers,” he says. “They taste like detritus.”

Yassine reaches for Tanguy’s leg as if to pluck an apple. Yassine ranks premier de la classe in geography. He owns a cat named Pépito.

Tanguy spits all over himself. “Disgusting! Do not touch me, the Arab!” 

Mom says we have powerful spirits in our family: tigers, bears, rhinoceroses. I guess others have spirits too but theirs are more like hamsters, or roly-polies. When I am standing over Tanguy kicking his face, I know that even the adults would not punish me for hurting a racist. They would tell me good job. My sneaker leaves a muddy imprint on the cheek. Questions tingle in my gums, I want to affect blankness. I look around. 

  “I guess Mac Doe can really hurt someone when he decides to.” Claude puts his arm on my shoulder. Tanguy twitches his left eyebrow between sobs.

In January, we share stories about Christmas vacation. Claude shows a wooden ring with prehistoric carvings. He says the girl lives in Bordeaux. Yassine says Pépito fell off the roof, and now when he purrs it sounds like a broken tractor. Pierre sang karaoke at the holiday party, but Claude interrupts and says that Pierre ruined Christmas. “It’s not true,” says Pierre, and Claude says that Pierre’s mother drowned in his mess and that’s why she’s not around anymore. Pierre cries.

Claude puts his arm on my shoulder. In Minneapolis, we kept our hands to ourselves. “What about Mac Doe?” 

“I went to Paris.” I think for a moment. “At the bistro one of the Parisians said, ‘this is how we do it in Paris,’ and he put his middle finger out like this—”

“Woah.”

“—and I spoke on Paris Saint-Germain and he spoke on my mother, and then I’m on him like tah, tah, pah, and my father had to pull me off because—.”

“You were ready to kill him,” says Claude.

“When I get angry, I lose control. And when you speak on my mother, I get angry.”

“One must listen to Mac Doe,” says Claude, pacing. Everyone nods. Pierre wipes his eyes but I can tell he agrees too.

“I also have a guardian angel now.”

“A guardian angel,” echoes Claude, apparently deep in thought. 

In February, Claude invites me for déjeuner. His mother, Armelle, picks us up at the prehistoric gates. Armelle’s jacket comes centimeters short of the sidewalk. She steps in yuckminster because it blends in with the cobblestones. 

“But no!” she cries. “Look at what I’ve done!”

Claude squeezes a fistful of her jacket and stares at the upturned shoe. “What have you done, Maman?”

“But I am terrible, my Claude!”

“What will Mac Doe think of this?” 

“But I am so sorry, Mac Doe!”

Before lunch, Claude and I play upstairs. We use his air soft gun. We shoot a businessman in the neck and duck behind the window. The businessman screams, the bus doors gasp open. Armelle’s cooking shakes the house.

Claude scoots his eyes over the windowsill. “Are you in love with anybody?”

I take a moment. I wiggle a loose tooth. “Are you?”

Claude slumps against the wall and stares at the poster of Zidane. He crosses his legs at the ankle. “I am in love with Isabelle,” he says, as if citing a tenet. “She’s not perfect, I know, but I like her the way she is. Do you understand?” 

“Yes,” I lie. “I understand.” 

Claude’s father wears a suit to lunch. The mole on his temple bounces up and down like a happy flea. My dad calls him Jackie Chain because he ties a rusty chain across the road mouth to ward off trespassers. My dad prefers to leave the chain down.

“But Jackie,” says Armelle. “There are rillettes, mon cœur. In the fridge.” 

“But Armelle!” yells Jackie, imitating her. “First you step in shit, then you forget to buy my pâté? What will our little guest think?” He turns to me. “Mac Doe, c’est ça?” His smile evokes dinosaurs. 

Oui, m’sieur.

“And who had the brilliant idea to call him this, the poor boy!”

“It was Pierre,” says Claude.

“It’s not very nice, quand même! These sacré kids! Well, but it is funny, there’s no doubt about that! Pierre, you said! The fool! But funny, a clever boy! Bon, Armelle?”

“Yes, dear.”

Ces fameuses rillettes!” He indicates the lunch plate, beaming. “They will take the TGV?” 

“My father and I took the TGV,” I say. “To Paris. I ordered a Croque Monsieur.

Claude wags his head at the salade savoyarde.

“It’s like a sandwich,” I say. “With cheese and white ham—”

Jackie howls. “What does he take me for!” He throws his head back. “Armelle, did you hear? Ma chérie, pay attention quand même! This American boy—well, I don’t want to be rude!”

Now I am confused.

Claude glares at me. He traces his fingers along the extracted retainer. “We know what that is,” he says. “We are not connards.”

Jackie reaches across the table and smacks Claude in the cheek.

Ca va pas, non?

Pardon, papa.”

“Is this how we treat our guests?”

Pardon, papa.” Claude holds his face.

“Don’t apologize to me! Apologize to McDonald’s!”

Pardon, Mac Doe.” He begins to cry. I have never seen Claude cry before. 

In March, Victoria corners me in the sandbox during cops and robbers. She wears a brand-new red barrette—maybe a birthday present. I call her a dirty whore, she kicks me in the privates. I fall down go boom. She grabs my hand and drags me through Dirty Louis’ creation. I remember digging for sea anemones in my tidal pools. I discover a bump on her pinky finger. I rub it, almost forgetting that she can feel too. 

“Victoria,” I ask. “What is this bump?”

“These are warts,” she says.

“I see.”

“The swimming pool,” she whispers. “They come from the swimming pool.”

“That’s okay.”

“We have to go to the doctor about them.” I rub it again. Her hand loosens and we stand. “He freezes them with Q-tips and scrapes them with a blade.”

“It feels funny,” I say. We have to twist our heads to look at each other. A brown lock trembles in the wind, like a tightrope after the act. It brushes against her temple, where I see a web of blue, and I think of her brain and all the mush inside of her, and how fragile it must be, and how could the layer protecting it all be so beautiful.

“Victoria. You should not worry about your warts. Have you seen my freckles?”

Her eyes flash, then settle on the prehistoric gates. She digs a fingernail into my palm and either smiles or clenches her teeth. Isabelle and Claude pass us by, holding hands. Victoria yells in their direction. “I’m taking McDonald’s to prison.”

In April, Pierre invites me to his maison de vacances, a prehistoric château in the Côtes d’Armor. His father, Jean-Phillipe, picks us up. Jean-Phillipe lisps and wears overalls. His nose is red, wide, and bumpy, like a dirt road in Utah.

Donc Julien,” he says, “I imagine you flew the airplane to get here, from America to Rennes?”

Oui, m’sieur.

He shakes a finger at the steering wheel. “Ah non non non, c’est pas pour moi ça, it goes up it goes down, non non non. It vibrated, no?”

Pardon?

He gives a laugh. He lifts his palm parallel to the road and jerks it up and down. “Like ziss,” he scolds, in English. “It make like ziss?”

In Ploumanac’h, Pierre and I buy firecrackers from a bureau de tabac. “Be careful, children,” says the man. We explore the bourg. Cobblestone alleys run diagonal to the main road, and the village boulangerie contains worker bee women. Their backs slant like the village cathedral. They wear hairnets and scream bonjour when you come in wanting a croissant. 

We put the firecrackers in caca. The wick burns the top of my thumb; I use the lighter with my index. We throw a waterproof magnum in the prehistoric goldfish pond. The explosion soaks a family of aristocrats. We take turns kneeling on Pierre’s skateboard and speeding down the hill, toward the port. We roll off before the intersection. 

On the way back, I ask Pierre if he is in love with anyone.

Pierre lifts the skateboard and smacks it against the sidewalk. “No.”

“Is it true that you wet the bed?”

“Once, at a sleepover with Claude. His parents had a soirée. We drank cider.”

“Do you like Claude?”

He stares at me. “Do you?”

“Jackie abuses him.”

“You saw?”

“He spoke on you.”

“Jackie or Claude?”

“Both.”

“Claude spoke on you.”

I look at my mangled knees. I feel I have won something important. “Son of a whore.” 

On Saturday, Jean-François throws a surprise party for a colleague. We climb the haystack on the front lawn while the adults hide inside. The birthday man arrives in a silver BMW. He rolls the window down and complains about time. Jean-François complains about documents. I pick the burs off my socks and yell that I’m hungry for more foie gras.

Three hours later, the birthday man rides his birthday present—a motorcycle—back and forth through the front hall. A barefoot woman lies across his lap. “Dites donc!” cries the incredulous birthday man. “Dites-moi donc!” Pierre and I tiptoe to the basement. We charge the adults two euros each to use the renovated bathroom. We talk about Claude.

“Yassine feels this too,” says Pierre.

“What did he say?”

“Nothing.” Mom says Pierre is dickslexic because of his horrible grades. “No one can say anything.”

“You’re all scared.”

“Last year he said Yassine spoke on me, and he told Yassine I spoke on him.”

“And?”

“We fought in the sandbox.” 

I reconfigure my face.

“I lost but it barely hurt plus he yelled so loud I didn’t believe him, I knew he didn’t want to hurt me like he wanted to show Claude.” He pauses. “But Claude fears you.”

“Because I know how to fight.”

“Not exactly.

“Why, alors?”

Je sais pas, en fait. You take your time to speak.”

“I take my time to speak because I’m American. I thought that was obvious.” 

Every Thursday, Claude eats lunch at home. In May, before the coup d’état like Napoleon the war hero, I misbehave in the cafeteria. I roll my sleeves up and spit my monkfish skyward so that it falls on la bande like rain. I steal a third-grade intellectual’s crème brulée. The lunch lady tells me to eat my tomatoes.

C’est pour la décoration, les tomates.” I give her the upside-down middle finger.

C’est quoi, ça?

“Upside-down middle finger. It means nothing when it’s upside-down.”

The lunch lady snatches my tray and carries it to the preschool cafeteria where she says I belong. I follow her on all fours because I’m a baby now. The cafeteria erupts in laughter. I wave goodbye over my shoulder. The preschool cafeteria smells like grandma’s house—soiled diapers and dead mice. The preschool teachers take small sips of their waters. I give them the upside-down middle finger. The lunch lady grabs me by the ear and drags me into the hall. The black holes in her lower lip expand and contract before my eyes. I feel the urge to kiss her, so I do—a peck on the nose.

“Whore.”

She shoves me; the back of my head hits the impressionistic painting of Louis XIV. “Do I look like a whore to you? Do I look like I prance around in lipstick and miniskirts?” She pantomimes a whore—a strange, limp-wristed tango—and I realize I’ve made a mistake. I thought whores were the homeless anarchists in front of the supermarket, with piercings and ripped pants and German Shepherds. People like the lunch lady.

I lay a palm across my chest. “I thought that was something else. I’m still learning French.”

She begins to cry. 

We run into the schoolhouse and find Madame Hello at her giant cubic desk. She writes a postcard with a fountain pen. Her cursive letters remind me of the balconies in Paris. I imagine the correspondent to be another lonely teacher far away.

“She was beating Mac—I mean, Julien,” cries Briac le puissant. “We all saw. But not like you beat us, madame. With rulers and sticks? She was using her hands like this.” Briac le puissant flails like a drowning person.

“One must calm down a little,” admonishes Yassine.

Madame Hello fixes Briac le puissant, then me. She dips her head forward for my confirmation.

I begin to cry.

Ah là là,” says Madame Hello. “Stop this instantly.” She rises and hugs me, and I sob into her shriveled breast. She rocks back and forth, her clogs thud against the floor. She caresses the back of my head. “Allez,” she whispers, “stop this instantly.”  

(Last weekend, I found a purple sea anemone in my tidal pools—a brand-new species. I jammed my finger in the mouth and dug around to see if it would sting. I was sad when it died; I put the remains in my pocket. We held a funeral in the backyard. Dad laughed during the ceremony.)

We sit on the bench facing the prehistoric gates—me, Yassine, Pierre, Briac, and five or six others who matter less. We all wear band-aids; we all have warts. We put our arms around each other. We sing advertising slogans and replace the good words with bad words. We clap for roaming intellectuals—bravo, Ulysse!—and watch them squirm. When Claude approaches the bench, admiring his oversized Nikes, we go quiet. Jackie gives Claude two euros when he receives a dix sur dix

“Why are you all staring like that.” He laughs. 

We stand up. We say nothing. Claude extends his right hand to Yassine because we shake hands now. Yassine rotates his head and spits on the pavement through his teeth. I imagine two marbles clashing together: what a wonderful sound!

Claude lowers his trembling, unshaken hand and lifts his eyes at me. He kneads his sport jacket. I examine his features. The tiny white hairs beneath the Marie-Antoinette nose; the Pitbull neck; the sausage link fingers. The outstretched ears offset the tiny eyes. The outstretched ears make the face more sympathetic. He screws a foot into the pavement. I break the silence. “What do you want to play, Claude?”

Claude’s face sags like a lukewarm camembert. I want to savor it but the transition to the sobs is inscrutable, like a trompe-l’oeil through the window of a moving car. Claude cries and latches his eyes onto mine. 

“What do you want to play, Claude?” 

He turns around and sprints across the courtyard. We chant.

“What do you want to play, Claude?” 

We trail him to the stone wall behind the pavilion. We form a circle around him and hold hands.

“The American,” moans Claude. “I wish you and your guardian angel would return to—America!”

“My guardian angel is French, son of a whore.”

Silence. Claude fixes me, the tears subside. “This person tortured you,” I remind myself. I have left the cinéma and reunited with the sun; now I have to make use of the excess day. I hear the click of the jump rope, the clang of the prehistoric gate, the emotionless medley of screams. I remember my sleepover at Jimmy DiToronto’s. His dad made fried chicken. I took one bite and cried, and we had to call Mom to pick me up. 

I begin to laugh. 

“Leave me alone,” says Claude. 

The circle breaks. In Minneapolis, I won the sportsmanship award in baseball. I take my shirt off. It begins to rain. My brain summons fragments—the angel in the washing machine, the witch on the waterslide, the giant mouse stuffing me in the grandfather clock. I run to the cat poop sandbox. La bande follows.

Attention, Mac Doe.” The voice belongs to a different world. It calls me back. “I’ve worked hard on this.”

“We will not destroy it,” I announce. “We would like to help.” 

“That’s a beautiful story,” says Louis.

“I’m trying to be nice, Dirty Louis.”

“Is Mac Doe the new chef?” He drops his sand scooper and rises. “Is Mac Doe the nice new chef who likes to do nice things for the community, like help Dirty Louis with his sandcastles?”

I kick the sandcastle, praying for the bell to ring. 

Louis points his shoulders at la bande. “Mac Doe, chouchou de la maîtresse? Premier en conjugaison et mathématiques?” He faces me, spewing venom. His bottom lip flutters. The raindrops cling to his bulldozer sweater. “Petit connard, Mac Doe l’Américain, Mac Doe l’intello!” He towers over me. “I do not care about this sandcastle, Mr. intellectual Mac Donald! I will make another, and another, and another after that!”

On Friday, Claude stays home sick. On Monday, we need an eleventh for our match against the fifth graders, and Pierre suggests that we let Claude join under the condition that he play defense. The fifth-grade chef tells me to hurry; I sprint across the courtyard. I find Claude sitting on a bench with Isabelle and Victoria. They maneuver their eyes around me.

“Claude,” I say.

“Yes.” 

“We need you on defense.”

Isabelle extends a palm as if to liberate a dragonfly. “It’s not right to treat people like this.” 

“I said nothing.”

“You said something,” says Claude. “I heard you say lots of things.”

“You told me to return to my country.” 

“You turned my friends against me.” 

Victoria sweeps her gaze over the courtyard. “You should learn to get along with people who do not resemble you, Mac Doe.”

“I have considered my decisions.” 

Isabelle scoffs.

“I don’t care,” says Claude, shaking his head. “I want to play. Let’s play.”

I point to the sky. Confusion rushes to my lips. “Victoria. What have you done to your face?”

“These are freckles,” she declares.

“These are not freckles,” I say, imitating her. “This is—brown marker?”

“These are freckles,” she insists.

“You have not thought this through, Victoria.”

“She can do whatever she wants,” says Claude. 

She gives me the upside-down middle finger.

That day, Claude plays defense. The next, he says he will play defense but really plays offense. On Wednesday, things are back to normal because nobody wants to enforce the rules. We repeat the coup d’état on Thursday, but from that point forward Claude stands outside the prehistoric gates until the bell rings, like me in September with Mom. Part of me insists that Claude has rejoined la bande on my terms, but a quieter part knows that, while I am equipped to overthrow a chef, I am not equipped to be a chef, nor am I equipped to keep a chef from rising to power, and I tell myself it’s okay, Victoria likes me the way I am, but I only hear the words in Dad’s voice when he wants me to stop crying, and now the ensemble of conflicting narratives resembles la bande, each component with dreams loud and dreams quiet, one with a dead mother, one with a bad father, one with an enduring taste for God’s creations, because here’s what I never told you: I ate that sea anemone! Me and the guardian angel, we dug it up by moonlight. I shoveled it in, chewed, swallowed—there, I ate it. (But remember when I played that trick on you!) I told the French sky, the neighbors, the fallen nuts in their spiked oval green shells. En français, I said—and I really meant it too!—je suis le chef de la bande.


 

Ben Austin is a writer with roots in Texas, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Bretagne, France. His short fiction appears in Cleaver, Lotus Eater, Beloit Fiction Journal, and elsewhere. Ben is a lecturer at Texas State University in San Marcos. He enjoys hiking and chess in his spare time.




 


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