The Writing Disorder


New Fiction


by Jessie Aufiery

      Jen and her five-year-old son, Maurice, heard the faint but unmistakable mewling of newborn kittens through their open window, eleven stories up, and decided to find the source. Outside, in the far back corner of the eight-car parking lot they called Cat Town, a man was hunched in the shade of a gingko working a patch of soil. Maurice ran in with a shout. The man spun around, and, seeing Jen, called in French:
      I’ve planted parsley. So far—no results!
      He was wearing a white Disney sweatshirt that looked like something plucked from a Secours Populaire bin, seemed in his thirties, and had a hipster’s modified mullet—the kind of guy Ludo would instantly dismiss as marginale, bizarre.
      Iranian? Jen thought. Algerian?
      The man moved closer—he was quite good-looking in a grungy way that would be totally incomprehensible to Ludo—and began to speak to Jen about climate change, farming, and the Slow Food movement. An earthy, not unclean smell wafted from his body each time he shifted to elucidate a point. He was currently being treated, he mentioned, at the day clinic on Blvd. Francois Mitterrand.
      The mental health place, Jen thought.
      Maurice shouted: I found them! and dropped to his knees in front of a hedge, cooing ecstatically.
      Fifteen minutes went by. A half-hour. Listening to the stranger—and she was mostly listening: the guy was a little manic but actually very cute—was like stepping outside Paris, away from its bitter, emotionally shuttered population. Jen pictured her neighbor taping her hot- and cold-water readings to her door so she wouldn’t have to let the meter-reader in. The stranger, though, was wise to the mainstream lie.
      See that low-income bâtiment? he said, pointing to Jen’s building. Rooftop garden. Get people planting, harvesting their own potager? You’ll see people keeping things nice, clean. Fierté. Pride. None of this trash everywhere, people pissing in the street.
      I say the same thing! Jen cried. I live there, you know. That roof has so much potential. I just don’t know if people would—hey, she said. Are you by any chance planting coriandre?
      Cilantro, in supermarkets, was always swathed in Styrofoam and plastic film, and Jen had yet to locate any with the bio label.
      In a few weeks I’ll have parsley, carrots, cilantro, green onions … Ca va péter! he said. Herbs everywhere! If the cats don’t get to them first ... The land just needs a few seeds, water, and boom! The owners of the lot gave me permission, the man continued, waving towards a stone house with a gate wreathed in blossoming blue wisteria, a birdfeeder in the yard. Nice couple. Communists. Lived there thirty-five years. Actually, he continued, circling an Adidas-clad toe in the dirt, smiling up at her. Speaking of pissing. They’re out and I left my keys inside. Would you mind...?
      Jen smiled into the man’s amber eyes. A boy at school, she now recalled, used to hand around his lithium tablets at parties. Wasn’t he a musician now? The stranger was the most interesting person Jen had met in months, maybe years. Of course not! she said. Pas de souci! No trouble at all.
      Maurice! she called. Let’s go!
      The three of them walked over to her building. Jen swiped the magnetic card at the gate, swiped it again at the door, and they rode the elevator up to eleven. At her door she fumbled with her keys. They slipped out of her fingers and onto the doormat, the souvenir keychain of Jen and Ludo in front of the Statue of Liberty landing face up. The stranger stooped and placed the keys back in Jen’s hand.
      T’as veçu à New York? he said. I’ve always wanted to go there!
      Almost, Jen said, smiling. New Jersey, actually.
      She got the door open. The apartment smelled of last night’s fish fry. Maurice darted off to a chair by the window.
      Mama! he said. I think I see the kittens!
      It’s right down the hallway, Jen said, pointing, to the stranger. To the right.
      She stepped into the kitchen, stood by the sink in a posture she hoped implied she was about to wash a dish or peel a carrot. But she had no dish or carrot. She flipped a cookbook open, Mastering the Art of French Cooking—a wedding present—and stared abstractedly at the instructions for blanching brains. The sound of urine striking porcelain echoed dimly from the WC.
      Jesus! Jen thought, cheeks prickling. Sounds like a pony in there!
       It went on for a minute, then the toilet flushed, and Jen heard the rattle of the WC door handle, the click of that loose rectangle of parquet she had yet to glue. Footsteps—water running. Ah. Washing hands. Good boy. Suddenly, the stranger’s face an inch from her own.
      Brains? he whispered, his breath brushing her ear. I didn’t know Americans liked that sort of thing. Jen stepped back, blushing.
      Is he mocking me?
      Thank you, the stranger said. I feel much better.
      Of course, Jen said, her face burning.
      She walked him to the door and stood at the apartment’s threshold as he pushed the button. The elevator rattled noisily up the shaft, sounding like it could grind to a halt at any moment. He stepped inside.
      Hey—what’s your name? Jen started to say, but the doors slid shut before he could answer.
      She sprinted inside to the window, next to Maurice. Five minutes later the stranger finally emerged—Jen had convinced herself he’d forgotten something, was on his way back up—and headed north, away from the garden, towards the 15ème.

      When Maurice went to the local daycare—a reprieve of precisely ten hours a week—Jen “worked.” She set up the easel and the paints, cut squares from the bag of rags, poured a few fingers of expensive Parisian turpenoid into a small glass yogurt container, and lined her brushes across some pages of folded newspaper. She forced herself to find a subject, to focus. At the edge of her imagination leaves unfurled—black jungle stretching to light—but when she tried to paint the vision it eluded her.
      There were times—many times—when she understood the impulse to cram paint into one’s own gullet. Not that she compared herself to Van Gogh, who ate so much paint a spray of bullets couldn’t have put more lead in him, though she understood that kind of fury. But for Jen, whose recent canvasses glistened with primary-color snakes squirted straight from the tube, fury meant annihilation.
      On a ‘good’ day Jen painted because ordinary objects like lamps and pencils and faces became surreal, then real. Time slowed and then quickened and ran like water. Clumsy, chemical, carcinogenic, paint made dark and light. Eyes were tricked into seeing, really seeing, like a baby sees, a painter sees—in wonderment. Jen was beginning to doubt she’d ever seen that way. And she didn’t call herself “a painter.” Not anymore.

      There were a hundred thousand SDF’s in Paris. Homeless people. A family of three couldn’t apply for an HLM apartment with an income greater than four thousand Euros, but Ludo had pulled some strings through a friend.
      The day they signed a bureaucrat in pearls ushered them into her small office, and Jen and Ludo sat with necks bowed, matching amenable expressions.
      I see Madame has no employment? the woman said in French, her voice, a clarion trill, distinctly unlike Jen’s nasal American mumbling.
      I paint, Jen responded, then added, I’m an artist, lest the poor office-bound creature think she painted walls.
      Do you have income? the woman insisted in her flute-like falsetto. I see nothing about income for Madame…
      Jen turned to Ludo, who was smiling fixedly and staring at a snow globe with a miniature Eiffel Tower. Getting the apartment was contingent, in part, upon Jen’s not earning, but she found herself perversely reluctant to admit that her painting brought zero monetary compensation.
      I’m working on a group, Jen stuttered. A cohesive collection … for a show…
      Femme au foyer, the woman sang.
      She penned it in lilting cursive—housewife—next to Jen’s married name. Then she stamped the document and slid it across to Ludo, who signed and passed it to Jen. Jen grinned as if to say: Isn’t it ironic? But Ludo and the civil servant were distinctly avoiding her gaze. The woman unlocked a drawer, rifled through some keys, and placed their two sets into Ludo’s waiting hand.

      Jen had opted to reveal the facts before Maurice blurted them out, and she now found herself in a circular conversation with her husband.
      He was nice! she explained yet again. Educated! Interesting!
      This is not a conte de fées! Ludo bellowed. This is the city!
      What was I supposed to do? Jen shouted. Say ‘sorry, no, you’ll have to urinate on your fucking vegetables’?
      Yes! Ludo cried. Fucking yes! Let him piss outside like everyone else in this putain de ville! Tu fais expres? You’re not in New Jersey anymore! I work all day—I can’t be your nounou too!
      New Jersey was no fairyland, but Ludo was right. Jen realized with a shock of recognition she had not only felt an ulterior motive in the gardener’s hot breath, but craved it.
      She’d been very stupid indeed.
      I have a meeting early tomorrow, Ludo said, so don’t put the reading light on. And, please, he added, tocking her on the nose—think before you do something this ridiculous again.
      Later Jen privately rejoiced that she hadn’t brought the ‘mental illness’ thing into it: Ludo would have her changing the locks!

      The next morning Jen’s friend, Simona, Italian, married to a French pianist, came over for coffee.
      The prize jar of Polish sauerkraut Jen had recently ‘scored’ in the foreign foods section of Uniprix sat plunked on the table between them.
      No vinegar, Jen said and shifted Maurice, who was absently fingering her earlobe, to the other knee. See? It’s fermented.
      Simona sighed heavily, black curls springing around her brow, and said in her slightly accented French:
      I don’t like Poles.
      This wasn’t the response Jen expected from an amateur of home pickling, though Simona always found a way to make Jen feel small. She smiled quizzically. Simona laughed.
      I’m kidding! she said, then went on, sighing once more:
      Poland’s next to Chernobyl, which means Polish cabbage—like all their produce—is perhaps irradiated. Did I tell you I stood in the rain the jour of the désastre? My mother wouldn’t let us in the house. You’ll waste a beautiful day! she said. My mother is, of course, une grande imbecile! So I played cache-cache with my sisters all afternoon, toxic waste drizzling onto our heads!
      Jen imagined rows of cabbages growing in rocky irradiated soil. Cabbage worse than cigarettes. Why, then, had she bothered to quit? To allow her son—swimming then like a fish in the ocean of her insides—to thrive. And here she fed him carcinogenic sauerkraut. Which he hated. There was no end to the things she didn’t know.
      As she was preparing to leave Simona placed a finger on Maurice’s chin and said: Si mignon! What a cutie! And how’s your Mama’s painting going, petit bonhomme?
      Maurice looked up at her, Jen’s earlobe grasped gently between his thumb and forefinger.
      Mama’s painting? he said.
      It’s good! Jen said, smiling, nodding. Great!
      Simona squinted. Good! she said. That’s so wonderful! When can I see?
      Soon! Jen said. Soon! I want to finish my group...

      Later, Jen turned her paintings from the bedroom wall and stood them in a group. She imagined photographing them, sending the images to a gallery. Running into the gardener, saying:
      By the way, it just occurred to me—would you like to see my work?
      The problem was her canvasses in no way resembled her vision—jungle growing from rot, pushing toward the light—and she was, in fact, incapable of creating anything meaningful. How could she show this work to Simona, or the gardener, or anyone? Looking at the thick, saturated paint Jen was filled with sudden rage.
      How can I do anything, she said aloud. How can I paint without a studio!
      She flipped the paintings, smudging the wall, then kicked a painting with all her force, cracking the stretcher. In the kitchen she cleared the coffee cups, smacking them into the sink. One of the cups shattered, and Jen turned to see Maurice standing at her hip.
      Get your coat on, she told the boy.

      The elevator was broken again, must have conked out some time that morning, and the stairwell was black and smelled of poured concrete, dampness, dust and…
      Jen’s fingers groped along, flicked the switch, and the stairwell turned a flickering yellow.
      Dear God.
      Someone had taken a foul black shit right there on the landing.
      Let’s go, Jen said, not wanting to discuss the shit with Maurice, not wanting him to see her face. Let’s race to the bottom!

      Standing by the Day-Glo mailboxes was a janitor. He was fat and very young, beard barely in, with small weak-looking hands.
      Excuse me, Jen said, as he swiveled a rag mop in dispirited circles.
      There’s a problem … on the eleventh floor… in the stairs…
      The man turned his glistening beardless face to Jen.
       I saw, he spat. I won’t clean it. The people in this building are animals.
       Jen had the powerful urge to strike the man in his smooth sweating face.
       Drugs, he continued. Used préservatifs. And now this.
       Right, Jen said. Well, maybe you can signal the problem to the gardien—
       Oh no, the fat janitor said. Pas de question. Not my problem. And you can tell it’s not from a chien…
       Jen pulled Maurice outside.
       What a repulsive creature, she muttered, furious and unaccountably ashamed.

       On the way to the quincaillerie—leave it to the French, Jen thought, to have an elaborate word for ‘five-and-dime’—they passed the Catholic Church, whose bell chimed seven times.
       Seven already, Jen thought. Another hour until Ludo gets home. We’ll have burgers. Have to stop at the butcher…
       Maurice was tugging at Jen’s sleeve. He’d said something, and was staring at Jen with his head tilted.
       What? Jen said.
       Maurice sighed.
       You don’t listen, he said, and sagged melodramatically. I repeated myself ten times.
      Okay, Jen said. What.
      Maurice rubbed his earlobe between thumb and forefinger and pointed to the church. Is Jesus in there? he said.
      That fall, in a burst of good intentions, Jen had taken Maurice sightseeing. Saint Eustache, Notre Dame, Saint Sulpice, Sacre Coeur. Maurice had surprised Jen by fixating on the stone Jesus strung up like a rabbit at market.
      Why is he nailed Mama? he’d said.
      Let’s see … Jen had murmured, bending amidst the flickering of votives. Some people—Christians—believe a man named Jesus—Jesus Christ—was the son of God. God’s son.
      Oh, Maurice had finally said. But who is God?
      Yes dear, Jen said now. There probably is a statue of Jesus in the church. Would you like to go in?
      Maurice shook his head no. Jen squeezed his small hot hand. As they walked past the stained glass depiction of the ascension, Maurice stepped in a squiggle of dog shit.
      Fuck, Jen said under her breath.
      Maurice looked up at her.
      People should clean up, he said.
      Jen laughed. The kid was constantly parroting her.
      You got that right, she said. Damn straight.
      Damn straight!
      They found a puddle by the curb. Maurice worked his little shoe back and forth.
      We’re besieged, Jen thought.
      She remembered an article she’d read at the US Embassy while waiting to renew her passport. For the privilege of not eating, the clients at a desert retreat paid five grand a week and left slimmer and ‘spiritually’ cleansed. Turned out, the article explained, the intestines were adept at retaining waste. After a week of enema purges, a Chicagoan expelled a penny she’d ingested whilst a kindergartener in 1962. Her parents had half-heartedly ‘watched’ for it, but the thing never came out. (Now they knew why.) In another story a man ‘released’ a matchbox racer after a coffee enema flooded him with bile, and he remembered his real father (the one who took off on his second birthday). Jen’s favorite was the story of an eighteen-year vegetarian—a yogi from California—who expelled dozens of rubbery twelve-inch strips, which looked and smelled like bacon.
       Bacon! Jen now mused. That is a true mystery!
       And she began to wonder, Maurice’s hand wiggling in her grip, was the dismal offering in the stairwell, on a karmic level, telling her something? Ludo had been so angry, informing her that morning as he dressed for work that he seriously questioned the judgment of a woman who would invite a strange man in to pee.
      Hoo-oo, hoo-oo!
      Jen looked up from her reverie.
       It was Simona, two girls in tow, hallooing from across the street.
       Salut! Jen called, waving, over traffic.
       Simona’s curls gusted in the breeze. Her girls, wanting to move, yanked at her sweater.
       Sauerkraut! Jen shouted, deciding in that instant it was her current mission. You inspired me to make my own!
       Simona grinned and gave the thumbs-up, then the ‘call-me’ sign.
       Jen had moved to Paris because she couldn’t imagine spending the rest of her life in Jersey. But what occurred to her now, walking away from Simona—Maurice’s shoe wet but relatively ‘clean’—was that the New Jersey Jen had always complained about was a construction. Jen was inadequate—half-formed, really. She might as well be in New Jersey now.
      A white cat with the crusty ass of a creature too fat to clean itself was waddling from under a car.
       Nice kitty, Maurice crooned, ruffling between the cat’s ears so it arched its back and sneezed.
       Pet it like this, Jen said, showing Maurice to go in the direction of the fur. You like that, don’t you! Oh! You’re a friendly one!
       Jen’s high school boyfriend, Robbie, had a thing about cats.
      Dude! he’d say whenever the subject came up. They do nothing but eat, sleep and fuck! Cats are awesome!
      She pictured Robbie naked, stoned, sprawled across the wall-to-wall of his parents’ refurbished attic. Always wheedling for money or sex, he’d once pealed out in a V-8 fury in front of Jen’s parents’ house three consecutive times. I’m going to break that kid’s neck, Jen’s father said after the third circuit, and went to stand on the porch.
      Jen, on the other hand, had once locked herself in a closet just to see if she could, then sat there for two hours—stuck—until her parents got home. Always a strange, dumb girl, making strange, dumb choices. Why would her selection of boyfriends—or husbands, she now thought bitterly—be any exception?
      Painted above the quincaillerie were the words STARZ: le Plaisir d’Offrir. The Pleasure of Giving.
      The owner was perched on a stool behind the register, his large pockmarked face hovering a razor’s edge between friendliness and rank suspicion; the store smelled of floral incense, scented erasers, and inner tube.
      Sweetie, don’t touch! Jen called to Maurice. The last thing she needed was a broken Rastaman ashtray. Go look at the toys!
      Maurice trailed off and Jen checked her watch. Seven-fifteen. Forty-five minutes until Ludo got home. Unless he decided to kick off early, get a start on the weekend.
      Jen had ‘forgotten’ her cell phone on the kitchen counter. Ludo had been such a pest about the gardener—calling in the middle of the day to leave a chastising message—she didn’t care if she didn’t speak to him for a week. In fact, the phone felt like a tracking implement, Ludo able to locate her anywhere, anytime. Probably why he’d bought the thing. Not to mention it was probably irradiating her! Jen hoped that the elevator, at least, had been repaired. Ludo was certain, she was now sure, to make a nefarious connection between the gardener and the shit.
      Jen stopped in front of a rack of aprons featuring apple-cheeked cartoon pigs in the throes of smutty heterosexual love. Leery of appearing puritanical, she checked the impulse to shake her head at the pigs’ repellant cheesiness, their glistening stomachs and joyful grins. In the kitchen-articles section of the store, Jen suffered a quick bout of nausea: what if it was the gardener?
       Fingers trembling she picked up an ace-of-hearts juice glass. One-Euro-fifty.
       So what if it was? she thought, returning the glass to the shelf. It’s just shit!
       She spotted a row of jars on a bottom shelf, and squatted to get a better look. 2-litres. Yes. She checked her watch. Eight-ten. Ludo was back by now, unless he couldn’t find a parking spot. Sometimes he circled for an hour. Jen imagined meeting him outside the door and taking the stairs together. Confronting the shit together.
      Dinner! Fuck!
      She picked up two jars and marched to the register, Maurice tailing after with the fake GI Joe: Jen paid for that too.

      How the French hated gypsies! There was one now, head bowed, hair hanging over his face, on his knees in front of the supermarket. Anti-Semitism was also thriving, but that at least was given a modicum of lip-play by the talking heads on TV. Gypsies were like a subspecies—dogs or insects.
      Mama! Maurice said. It’s that man!
      What man? Jen said.
      Maurice was staring at the gypsy, who’d raised his head and was looking at Jen.
      Was it? The gardener? Similar trousers, same greasy black mullet—
      Jen’s heart started to pound; her hands dropped to her sides like lead weights.
      Suddenly, she knew: the gardener had dropped his pants, squatted, and shit on the landing. Probably broken the elevator too. Tweaked the doors or something. Pissed on the electrical circuits. Ludo was right. Jen’s judgment had been off since she moved to France. She’d wanted intimacy and let in a madman, a vagrant … The gypsy coughed and spat. Jen saw missing teeth, graying sideburns … It wasn’t him … It wasn’t the gardener!
      I’m losing it, Jen thought, flushing and pulling her son into the supermarket. I’m losing my fucking mind!

      When they returned home at nine, Jen found a note. Headache, it said. Not hungry. Don’t wake me.
      She boiled eggs, cut bread into strips, and ate with Maurice in front of a Simpson’s rerun. The voix of Marge was affreuse.
      Hush—Papa’s sleeping, Jen said when the show ended and Maurice started chattering about the white cat.
      He loved the way I petted him, Maurice said. Did you see that? How he loved it?
      Yes, baby, Jen said. Hush now…
      He may not know god, Jen thought, but at least the kid knows cats.
       She carried him to bed and tucked him into his duvet. Two minutes later, earlobe between thumb and forefinger, he was asleep. Jen put on her shoes and coat and slipped into the hall. The elevator was working, as it had been when she’d returned with Maurice: the thing had a mind of its own. Calamity averted. She didn’t bother checking the stairs—the shit would be there—but rode to the first floor and walked outside.
      Two stars strained against the electric night, and Cat Town’s eight slots were filled now with cars. Spring was half over, summer almost upon them. The most hopeful time of year, Jen thought. She needed to retrace her steps—needed to see for herself.
      Allo? she said. Y a quelqu’un?
      She walked through the cars, back beneath the gingko tree. The stranger’s trowel lay next to a 2-foot-square patch of turned earth. Had he actually ‘planted’ something? Jen dropped to her knees and sniffed the earth. She imagined the stranger, in his madness, tucking a piece of broken-off tar under the soil.
      As she picked her way back through cars, bits of glass, she saw a small form lying motionless at the foot of a Citroen. It looked very natural and for a long moment she thought it was asleep. Just sleeping, thank goodness. But then the clouds shifted, and the moon shone strong, and she saw the dark blood at its mouth, and something else—a thing that made the roots of Jen’s hair stand up, the evening breeze whisper along her scalp. The poor creature, in its final moment, had shit itself.

      Jessie Aufiery lives with her husband and two daughters in Paris, France. She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s low residency program, and is an editorial reader for The Literary Review. Her work has been listed in Glimmer Train’s Top 25, won first prize in Perigee's 2008 Fiction Contest (judged by Thomas E. Kennedy), and appeared in Prick of the Spindle.

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