Souris - Patricia Abbott
by Patricia Abbott
Ben slides open his bedroom door and steps out into the California sunshine. Clamping a bony arm over his eyes, he grimaces. The pool’s blue-green water shimmers in the sunlight. Ben searches for the word that describes its shape: kidney. Living in Portland with his mother, he has no need for such words. Ben’s chest loosens incrementally when he sees his father and the Frenchies have disappeared. That’s what his father calls his stepmother’s family, “the Frenchies.”
They arrived last night at dinnertime. Through the window, Ben could make out a large limousine idling at the curb while the uniformed driver unloaded suitcases. Claudia hurriedly began clearing plates as Frank prepared for their imminent assault by wolfing down the last of his swordfish. It was left to Ben to answer the door, which rang with a repeated bleat till he got there.
“Bin, Bin,” a woman he’d never seen before said, pushing by him. The room grew loud with their greetings. Claudia flew around, bestowing kisses. It was never clear which ones were coming—whether it might be the difficult Suzanne or the gregarious Bernard. Whether it would be the women who used up all the water in the house. Or the men who used none.
The Frenchies can never be pinned down on an arrival date either, showing up whenever the mood strikes them. It pisses Frank off that they spend the thousands of extra francs necessary to come on the spur of the moment and then don’t contribute a dime to the household coffers.
“Frunk, jou never change,” the Frenchies say when he mentions it. “Jou say the same sing every year.” The men shrug, the women exchange glances. Scarves in place, freshly perfumed, none look like they’ve just completed a twelve-hour flight. The baby’s eyes are wide with excitement.
Ben’s been in LA a week. Two days ago, he put on his swimsuit and was struck dumb by the bulges at his crotch. Parts of him have grown without his knowledge. He doesn’t dare put it on now that the Frenchies have arrived. He will claim he has gone off swimming should they ask. Ben is endlessly amusing to the Frenchies. He particularly dreads hearing his name roll off their limber tongues. If he were Tom Ripley, he’d already be planning their deaths, plotting what means might work best on a crowd of unwanted visitors. Perhaps Ripley would pump poisonous gas into the pool.
“They’re your family now,” Claudia says if he complains. “Families tease each other.” But he can’t imagine his mother mentioning his genitals under any circumstance—joking or not. He especially can’t picture himself tunneling out of her vagina twelve years ago; would she have made way for him or crossed her legs in a fit of stubbornness?
Six Frenchies have come to spend the summer—same as him. Last year when the Frenchies came, Fabienne, Claudia’s daughter, and Ben drifted from room to room, untethered for the entire stay. This year, after a barrage of off-season complaints from Fabienne, the pool house has been expensively remodeled and most of the Frenchies are housed there.
Only a teenaged girl will sleep inside with Fabienne. She doesn’t speak English at all and dresses in black, an oddity in southern California. Her patent leather boots, thick headband and cinched-waisted coat excite Ben when he can bring himself to look at her. Fabienne cannot take her eyes off of the girl either and has altered her dress already, tossing her orange swimsuit in the garage trashcan, hunting in her closet for more suitably hued clothes. Ripley might permit this French girl to live, finding a way to send her away when the mass murder takes place.
When Ben looks out the window, the Frenchies have returned. The tall one is wearing a suit even skimpier than his own, and every few minutes his soft, white hand slips into his suit where he makes a leisurely adjustment. Ben can see a flash of purplish flesh. His mother has told Ben repeatedly that he cannot adjust in public, but Bernard, at seventy, is untroubled by this dictum. The women continue to talk to him as he pointedly sets things right. The women’s bikinis are scanty, too, and they tug repeatedly at the fabric covering their bottoms and breasts. The older woman’s undulating belly glistens as she laughs. The unblinking navel at her center seems deeper than Benedict Canyon. She’s over sixty-five, Ben discovered. Just another damned French thing—this willingness to expose themselves—his father would tell him if he were here, which he never is.
The Frenchies may not get dressed today. They wake up late, put on their suits, and spend the day poolside. Le petit dejeuner, eaten at two, is mostly bread soaked in evaporated milk and sweet, milky coffee. Sometimes Bernard or his son-in-law picks at a chicken leg. Occasionally, the younger woman sucks on an orange slice that she absentmindedly leaves behind for an unsuspecting person to find. Sometimes, they buy strange cheeses with marbled blue veins and lumpy olives swimming in spicy brine. Emptied wine bottles festoon the tabletops.
The Frenchies sit down to a meal late at night. Ben and his father don’t participate in these feasts, although Fabienne and Claudia, French themselves and released from their obligatory American regimen, join in. Frank continues to go to bed at eleven, sleeping with the air cranked up, a white-noise machine blocking the clamor. Ben stays up watching horror movies until he can’t keep his eyes open. His father owns every horror movie ever put on video, and Ben watches them uncensored, one a night for the sixty nights of his visit. Occasionally, there is a grainy pirated tape that hasn’t even made it to the theater yet. Whole days go by and Ben doesn’t utter a word, but no one seems to notice. Probably he will direct horror movies some day. He will leave Jane and Portland behind and move to California to make films about zombies.
Sometimes, the Frenchies are still in the pool at midnight, and last summer, Ben regularly drifted off to sleep watching them float by various windows on brightly colored rafts. More than once, his last waking sight has been one of them perched energetically on the diving board. The diving board is directly opposite his bed this year, and it occurs to him that a misplaced dive could practically send them through his window. He can imagine the glass cascading inward, the body, sliced in half in the fall, staining the white sheets. Or perhaps, the water coming into the pool might be poisoned by too much chlorine. The six of them might float about on their rafts for hours before anyone knows they’re dead. Did he see that in a movie? Ripley would know what to do.
Last night, Ben smelled pies baking. He woke up early and sneaked into the kitchen where three cherry pies were sitting on the counter. He bit into one to find no one had removed the pits. Is it possible the French eat pies this way?
He hasn’t caught the name of that girl yet (he’s calling her Marge in his head) and it would be death for him to ask.
“Bin is in love,” they’d probably say. “Bin has a girlfriend.” Ben wonders why the French murder rate isn’t higher. It is just as well they have strict gun laws because nearly every Frenchie deserves to be murdered.
“Looking for Sandrine?” Fabienne says, coming up behind him.
He jumps, eliciting her giggle. She’s wearing her mother’s favorite amber earrings, which look too big on her tiny earlobes. Seeing his pointed stare, she claps her hands to the sides of her head. “Don’t tell!” she pleads, raking her short, dark bob over her ears. Ben shrugs, offering no assurances. Grabbing the swimsuit Claudia has started for him from the sewing table, Fabienne rolls her eyes and pokes a pinky through the fly. “Not even big enough for my finger! Sandrine will be so disappointed.” Saying this with a French accent, she makes a face, and throwing the suit down, leaves the room.
One night last summer, she crawled into his bed, stuck her hand down his pajama bottoms and yanked at his chain. “Too bad,” she said after a minute. Before he could move, she was gone. So the girl’s name is Sandrine, he suddenly realizes. Sandrine will be spared, but Fabienne has joined the ranks of the soon-to-be victims.
A car door slams. Looking out the window, Ben sees Fabienne has hijacked Frank’s Crown Vic. She backs down the driveway in the shuddering style of driving she’s learned somewhere. The car stalls in disapproval in the center of the street, and she hops out barefoot to beg help from a passing motorist.
Ben wonders if he’d find Fabienne pretty if she weren’t such a fat, French bean grower. That’s what her name meant; he had looked it up. She has a new boyfriend this summer, a lifeguard at Venice Beach. He’s Honduran, and both Spanish and French fly excitedly through the house when he visits. Ben has decided to begin Russian in school next year. No one speaks Russian in California or Oregon. Communism is ending, but Russian will probably be offered in his school.
In the kitchen, Claudia is making soup. She tosses ingredients into the blender with abandon: tomatoes, garlic, cucumbers, carrots, scallions, black pepper, and white wine. From the rear, she looks like his mother, small waisted, an erect posture, long necked. But when she turns around, Jane disappears. Claudia’s face is small, catlike. His mother has larger features with no sharp edges. He wonders if his father married his stepmother for her front or her back.
“Gazpacho,” Claudia informs him. “Your mother called again.” She looks at him quizzically. Jane’s called every day since his arrival.
Ben watches as the ingredients turn into soup. Claudia pours a glass. Tasting it, she shivers in appreciation, handing him the remaining inch. He swallows. V-8 juice with a kick. She refills the glass, and he sits down to drink it. A plate of bread and cheese, a sliced apple, appear magically, and he realizes this is lunch. Before he can thank her, she is gone.
No one acknowledges that it’s Claudia’s job as a set designer that supports the family, but Jane, waving papers from her attorney last year, filled Ben in. When Claudia leaves for the studio, Frank pretends it’s a whim of hers, that it’s a hobby like Jane’s decoupage in the seventies. Frank fusses, over which car she will take, how long she will be. He gives her a list of special foods he wants picked up, a dry cleaning tag, and then calls her at the studio with other errands to perform.
Ben can hardly remember what it was like to live with both his parents. Both his siblings remain unmarried, living in identical apartments in a complex in Pasadena. Once of twice during his visit, Ben will journey there and eat on their glass-topped tables. Afterward, he will sit on their hard, unforgiving sofas and listen to them shout. They are usually angry with both Frank and Jane. In all of their stories, Frank is aloof, Jane is smothering. Ben is curiously absent from their tales.
“Don’t you remember the time…” his sister begins.
“He wasn’t born yet,” his brother reminds her. “That’s when we lived in the bi-level near Disneyland.”
“Oh, right. But I could have sworn….” Ben turns on the TV.
* * *
A Frenchie appears, carrying the baby. The baby’s face is flushed and he’s crying. Ben wonders when his crying will begin to sound French. Right now, it could be any language.
“Oh Bin,” the man says, his voice squeaky with worry. “The baby is stung! Do you have ice?”
Claudia keeps ice packs in the freezer. Joseph holds the blue bag to the baby’s neck, and the crying grows more frantic. In seconds, Frenchies overrun the kitchen, the women fussing over the hysterical child, Bernard seizing the opportunity to forage in the refrigerator for beer. His long, preternaturally thin thighbones, on display now that his torso has momentarily disappeared, are covered with layer upon layer of long, fine hairs. There is so little flesh and so much hair, the effect is startling. He is a wolf man. Ben’s own legs remain nearly hairless and only a small tuft of fuzz grows in his armpits.
Covering his ears, Ben goes into the living room. Sandrine stands silently in front of the wall-sized collection of videos and CDs, her back to Ben. Her black swimsuit, partially covered by Fabienne’s terrycloth robe, dribbles spotty drops of water on the parquet floor. Her heels make little sucking sounds as she inches along, lost in surveying the collection. Her right hand wrings the dark blonde hair that hangs down her back. Finally, she makes her selection and drops it into the pocket of the robe, adjusting the remaining CDs to close the gap. A second later, a greedy hand darts out again. Ben backs out of the room. Sandrine will be a good companion for Ripley.
His father’s collection of videos and jazz CDs is enormous. Frank likes music, but loves movies even more. Between wives, when there was no one to supervise Ben’s visits, he took Ben to the movies almost every night. Before he was five, Ben had seen Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Eraserhead. Once or twice, Frank nearly got into fistfights with movie managers or patrons accusing him of child abuse.
“Does he look scared?” Frank asked the lady in the manager’s office of a theater screening Halloween. She looked at Ben doubtfully, finally allowing him to pass. It’s not that Frank was anxious to share his interest. He just can’t leave Ben home alone in case Jane calls.
In the garage, Ben finds his father watching a Dodgers game with the sound turned down. Sandwiched between his old MG, which is covered with tarp and up on blocks, and his woodworking shop, Frank hisses “shhh,” waving him over. He’s stretched out on a green and white nylon webbed chaise that Claudia will not allow on the patio. His ass nearly swipes the floor and the chair squeaks its dismay.
Ben hates baseball, and normally Frank does, too. They’re not a family that watches sports on TV, and Ben’s surprised Frank even knows what channel the game’s on. During the Super Bowl last January, Frank held an Anti-Super Bowl party, projecting classic zombie movies on the back wall of the pool house. He sent Ben a picture of the packed patio.
“Californians know who the real zombies are!” he wrote cryptically on the back of the snapshot. After that postcard, Ben nearly discarded zombies as his favorite monsters.
“Is Garvey still on the team?” Franks asks him.
Even Ben knows Steve Garvey retired last year and shakes his head.
“Are they still out there?” Frank asks, eyes glued to the screen.
“The baby got stung.”
“No shit! Is he crying in French?”
Ben is startled that his father has echoed his thought. “Want to go to a movie?”
His father shakes his head. “If I put one toe out the door, I’ll be stuck with them.”
Frank isn’t in the mood to talk and discourages conversation by letting his eyelids flutter closed. Ben can’t think of anything to say. It’s hard to talk to his father, and most of Frank’s conversation goes over Ben’s head. Literally. Sometimes Frank asks Claudia questions he could just as easily direct to Ben. Things like, “Do you think the kid likes red snapper?”
Maybe in Frank’s book, Ben’s a Frenchie, too, especially now that he lives in Oregon. Frank has never been in Oregon, even though it’s only one state away. He’s never seen Ben’s house, Ben’s school, the town Ben lives in.
Ben begins to tiptoe toward the door when Frank sits upright.
"Hold it right there!" Ben waits patiently as his father drums a beat on the metal arm of the chair. “Mice,” Frank finally says, triumphantly. “Can’t ya smell them?”
Ben sniffs. "What do mice smell like?"
“Just like that.” Frank gets out of his chair and begins to prowl around the room. “What do you smell? Come on,” he says impatiently as if Ben’s naming it is part of the problem.
Ben sniffs obligingly. “Wood, gasoline, I guess, something for lawns. Maybe fertilizer?”
“It’s mice. I bet the place is overrun with them, especially with Claudia keeping her goddamned cat food out here.” His voice rises as he holds up the feed bag triumphantly. A stream of food pellets runs out the bottom. Frank puts the bag down disgustedly, hiking up his beltless pants. Searching around for his flopflops, he says, “Well, let’s go then.”
Although it isn’t clear where they’re going, Ben follows his father toward the door.
“Where are you two off to?” Claudia’s standing in the way. She’s wearing clothes suitable for a dinner in Malibu. Her hair is poufy, she smells good. “Everyone’s getting changed, Frank. Are you going out to dinner like that?”
Frank sighs heavily, hiking up his pants again. “Look, they’re your family. I don’t have time to….”
“They’re my family!” Frank begins to tell her about the mice, but even Ben can see it’s a feeble excuse and Claudia breaks right in. “Frank, neither you nor Ben have been out of this house all week. Would it hurt you to…?”
“Ben and I are going out to get some mouse traps at the hardware store,” Frank says. Claudia’s eyes soften for a minute. “Maybe some poison too. We’ll see what the fellow recommends. Joe’ll set us right.”
“Ben, wouldn’t you like to go with us? You can kill mice tomorrow.” Ripley himself could not resist her. Ben looks at his father, who’s trying to appear busy by moving boxes around. He lifts one and the entire bottom falls out. “Will you look at this!” Frank says, offering his evidence with glee. “Something’s been chewing at it for weeks. Some lousy critter…..”
Claudia's eyes remain riveted on Ben.
“Well if Dad needs me here…” He thinks of going to the hardware store with his father. Of perusing the poisons and traps and other methods of murder that might be available. Killing rodents might be just the thing to get him through this summer. It might turn out to be his apprenticeship.
“We’ll do something fun tomorrow,” Frank promises Claudia’s disappearing back. “Once the mice are under control.” He smiles at Ben as the door clicks shut, then walks over to the workbench where he removes a dozen mousetraps from a drawer. They are bound together with a large pink rubber band, and he throws them at Ben.
“Ever set traps?” he asks, settling back down in his chair. “No. Well, be careful of your fingers.” He switches on the TV set where a horse race is about to begin. Above the patter of the television announcers, he shouts out. “Better wait till the Frenchies leave before you bait them, Ben. I always use peanut butter.”
Ben nods disappointedly. There will be no trip to the hardware—no perusing poisons today. When this admonition appears to be the end of the conversation, he returns to the kitchen and stands in front of the center island, holding the mouse traps in his hands. His father has told him to wait until the Frenchies leave. He hears fading laughter, a barrage of French.
"They only speak English when they have to," Claudia told him once. "It is very tiring, you know. Even the listening hurts after a while." He knows what she means; he is tired of hearing French.
Soon, he hears Claudia start up the van. He could still join them. He could take his place in his new French family. Sandrine might be willing to sit next to him.
There is a picture on the back of each trap, illustrating how to set it. He follows the instructions, loading each trap with peanut butter. On one or two, he adds some of the smelly French cheese. One trap springs as he loads it, but his fingers dart away in time. When he's finished, he starts back to the garage, but then thinks better of it. Probably the mice are everywhere. Why put a dozen traps in one place?
He places a trap in the refrigerator, back behind the beer. Another goes in the middle of the row of CDs in the living room, where there's a gap. Several go near the pool. He puts one in Fabienne's room. The rest he scatters, omitting only Claudia’s workroom.
Apparently, at some point, mice have learned to stay out of harm’s way, to spend their lives on the periphery because the directions advise placement along walls. Mice make no diagonal moves. He’s only practicing today. With these cheap traps, what harm can come to anyone—even mice. Perhaps later the problem of mice will require more lethal solutions.
Finished, Ben sits down on the vacated chaise lounge and turns on the television. The local news tonight is about fires and drought. Someone has deserted a minivan in the passing lane of Interstate 405. Passing drivers rush the abandoned car, pummeling it with whatever’s handy. All the windows are broken, the driver’s seat sits on the embankment. It looks like a scene from a movie.
Soon a trap springs somewhere. Then another one.
BIO: Patricia Abbott has published stories in literary and crime publications such as Plots with Guns, The Thrilling Detective, Beat to a Pulp, Pulp Pusher, Murdaland, Thuglit, Spinetingler, etc. She lives and works in Detroit, Michigan.