CHRISTOPHER X. SHADE
Introduction: I teach poetry and fiction at The Writers Studio, where we use models and techniques to help writers discover a unique voice and style for their material. One of my favorite models to teach is Annette Sanford’s “Nobody Listens When I Talk," a short story in which a 16-year old girl feels alone in the drama of growing up. It has an entertaining tone, with moments of humor, and of poignant aching. This excerpt is an early chapter from the novel that served me as a voice and character study of Corey, the youngest of the Americans in the novel The Good Mother of Marseille, who feels very alone in the drama of discovering who he is and why he has ended up where he has. This was both a pleasure to write and a moving way into understanding Corey's pain. I found it to be a compelling voice in first person, and a very engaging read. Though this could not stay, as I eventually discovered and designed for the novel a third-person, compassionate narrator, a shape-shifting storyteller who knows the world these Americans have lost themselves in.
Deleted from The Good Mother of Marseille
Never Thought To Look There
Locate me on a hill. There is the hill under the hot Marseille sun and a long road up the hill to a church. I am spending the summer. My twenty-second, but the first I have spent overseas. I could say I’m here because I have this research phase of a doctoral program to do, or a claustrophobic fear of high library stacks, or siblings who want to murder me for getting more than my share. I could say I like to be in a place where the language barrier prohibits much talk of anything, that I’m doing important work, that all of our futures depend on a closer look at this gateway of cultures, this Detroit of France, this capitol of North Africa. I could say a lot of things, but nobody understands when I talk, so I don’t. Not often, anyway. And it worries people.
My mother, for instance. She hovers on Skype. She rings periodically to stare at me from that glowing bluish box lying on my desk among a clutter of books and papers; she’s like a deity gazing from Her perch in a bluish sky. She wears yardwork clothes and has less time to tend to her tomato plants because there are no sons left at home to mow the grass, pull weeds, deadhead the roses. Sometimes she rings me with a spade in hand and stares at me like I’m a giant weed.
“Corey,” she says, “a young man your age shouldn’t be working so hard.”
She says a young man like me shouldn’t be a transplant. I should be back where everyone supposes I belong. I should be swimming at the Spring Brook club pool and taking tennis lessons. I should be rubbing elbows with wives of city commuters, wives whose husbands are entrée and daughters are, respectably, prey. I should be on the patio perfecting how to cook dead things in the smoker. She’s trying to say these things. She longs to know why I eat vegetarian couscous at the blue-tiled La Kahena off the vieux port. Why do I practice my petanque tirer au fer? Why did I ask Samira what would’ve happened if they’d arrested her at the Prefecture when she applied for citizenship? What would’ve happened to her son? Why am I on a hill under a searing sun with a shirt wet and heavy on my back?
My father rings in the evening. He has taken the Morris & Essex line in from Penn Station. All day, he suffers the whining of CEOs as old as his sons. He works with them to pull apart what they’ve built and put it back together in the spirit of big media family accord. It must be exhausting because when he gets home he has nothing left for us.
“Corey,” he says, “a young man like you ought to know how lucky he is.”
Lucky to him is to have opportunities in business. The opportunity to let one’s connections make one’s career. If he were me, he would tool around in a muscle car with a well-heeled family’s beautiful girl in it.
Instead, I’m on a hill going up to a church whose paroisse rituals are unfamiliar to me, whose ex-votos incomprehensible, whose very way of being forever beyond me.
From time to time my friend rings. I put down the Walter Benjamin I’m reading; he opens a matchbook to light the cigar that looks on screen way too big for his face. He chews gum at the same time. Everything is easy for him.
“Dude,” he says, “young men like us need girls by the handful.”
He’ll hook me up with his cousin’s friend, a real looker, who happens to be in Nice at the moment, though he doesn’t realize how impossibly far away Nice is, in every way. He has girls who want to meet me back home. He says he has these girls by the handful. He says we’ll double-date to get me back in action.
It really has nothing to do with double-dating, but I try to explain to him what la double peine means in Marseille: if you’re an undocumented immigrant and you are caught doing a crime, then you must do both the time and also you are deported. Expulsion seems impossible to me. One would have to find a way back. There were probably ways. This was Marseille, where anything could be bought, traded, or sold.
He says there are young things filling out just for me. He’s seen them on upper Speedwell and on Pine Street by the library. He includes street names to help keep the town in my recent memory because he thinks I’m trying to leave it behind. He’s seen some really hot things at Burnham Park. We’d never thought to look there.
I stop listening and he can tell. So I tell him that I talked to one or two of the prostitutes in Marseille, the ones on rue Curiol. He exclaims brightly, “Dude!” I tell him they don’t speak English but they don’t need to. I knew he would ask for a picture of her. When I send the picture to him on-screen, I watch his eyes widen. He says, “Dude, is that—”
I tell him he can’t tell anyone what I’ve done with fifty euros, not any of our friends. If it gets back to my parents I will murder him with a blunt instrument. I wave the big Walter Benjamin book at the screen. He says, “I get it.” But he doesn’t. No one does.
There must be a hundred different ways up to the church, the highest point in Marseille, the Notre-Dame de la Garde, but I take the long road, the hill, under the hot sun. The Marseillais call this church la bonne mere, the good mother, because it has always watched over them. I arrive breathing hard and can barely make it up the last few steps to, first, the crypt, and then to what is called the upper church which is a great and opulent nave with neat rows of pews under three cupolas, red and white marble pilasters, and ex-votos. The ex-votos are ship replicas in miniature suspended by string from on high. The nave smells of burning coal and incense, something of a thurible. And then I go outside along the low stone wall, I take in the views on all sides of everything. It seems everything worth seeing can be seen. I watch the swooping mouettes. I notice that collisions do not happen in the sky. I reach out for them. I call to them. But they do not listen.
Christopher X. Shade is author of the novel The Good Mother of Marseille (2019) and the book of poems Shield the Joyous (2020). He is co-founder and co-editor of Cagibi, at cagibilit.com, a journal of poetry and prose. He teaches fiction and poetry writing at The Writers Studio. Raised in the South, he now lives in New York City. His debut book of poems Shield the Joyous (April 2020) is about the loss of loved ones to the disease of addiction. Visit christopherxshade.com.