Sunday Stories: “French Vowels that Make You Look like Goldfish”


French Vowels that Make You Look like Goldfish
by Jackson Bliss

1. Traître

As long as I’ve known my son, he’s had a thing for French and this obsession has driven my white husband insane, but now our son won’t speak to us in English.  It’s gotten so bad that after four months of nagging and fighting in two different languages, we’ve had to hire a French interpreter.  We don’t know what he’s saying otherwise.  Charlie doesn’t care.  He says, Fine, let the boy speak surrender monkey.  See if I care?  But I’m his mom and caring is literally my job.

2. Monsieur Je-Sais-Tout

In Junior High, when all the other kids were studying Japanese or Spanish, Shigeru wanted to learn French.  I told him no one spoke French anymore and he said:

—Well, the French do.  

—But you’re not in France, I said.  

—Mom, we’re not in England either.  

—I know that Mr. Smartypants, but English is America’s language, I asserted.  And Jesus’s too.  

He didn’t like that.  The Jesus comment, I mean.  Shigeru thought Jesus spoke French, claimed the Son of Man had a soft spot for fancy French vowels that made you look like goldfish.  Maybe that’s my fault.  When he was a boy, I didn’t teach him Japanese because I thought I was protecting him.  I also told him God spoke everyone’s language, but I insisted that Jesus preferred speaking English.  Shigeru didn’t talk to me for a whole week.  He’s sensitive like that.

3. Gymnopédie No. 1

His senior year at Clare High School, Shigeru drifted away.  He took advanced French classes at Mid-Michigan Community College.  He stopped listening to rap music on the radio and began singing along to Glee, Les Misérables, K-Pop, and Erik Satie on his iPhone.  Catchy music, gotta say.  Without rap music or football Saturdays, the house was quieter than an abandoned church.  Cleaner too.  But then Shigeru started wearing tight black jeans everywhere, he started smoked these musky cigarettes called Gauloises out on the rooftop, and wore scarves, even in the summertime.  He started reading highfalutin books about Habermas, the joys of Beaujolais, and living in Europe on a shoestring.  But he wasn’t getting in fights at school, he was getting straight A’s, and he hadn’t impregnated a girl down the block, so I never complained (even if I wished he’d join a judo team).  Charlie watched all of this with a hawkish eye.  I stopped him from breaking Shigeru’s heart by threatening to “accidentally” wash his white t-shirts with my pink scrubs and make nothing but kale smoothies for dinner for a whole month, so of course, I always got my way.  I worried, though, that Shigeru might be feel alone as one of the only mixed-race kids at school, that his sadness might be festering inside him, that he might already have left Michigan in his soul. 

4. Le Bain mortel

The day Shigeru disappeared was the worst day of my life.  It was more painful to me than when he passed through my birth canal (because there was at least joy and relief).  One day, when an ER doctor talked to me like I was an idiot and a migraine started gnawing at the electrical cords behind my eyeballs and I came home and burned the hell out of my meatloaf in a failed bid of multitasking, I just couldn’t take it anymore, so I disappeared.  I love my family.  I love my boys.  But I needed some time to myself that day, so I retreated into the bathroom to let Calgon take me away, and that’s when I lost my grip on my husband.  It was just one single moment, but that was all it took.  That’s all it ever takes with men.  Without me, this family felt apart.  The first thing Charlie did when he heard me splashing in the tub was march into Shigeru’s room and start attacking him really viciously like a police canine apprehending a criminal.  At least, that’s what Shigeru’s interpreter told me.  In the bathtub, as the bubbles slowly evaporated, leaving the water gray and dismal like a polluted river, I tried but couldn’t make out the two of them taking shots on each other, but I did hear the last thing Shigeru said, which was:  I don’t want a Philistine for a father.  And I also heard the last thing Charlie said, which was:  And I don’t want no French traitor for a son either.  So there!  Of course, Charlie thought he’d had the last word and he did.  In English.

5. L’Enfer et le canadien

After that, my family went to complete and absolute hell (and I don’t mean Shigeru’s two-month obsession with Dante either).  It all started with French and ended with the fishbowl.  Speaking French became my son’s protest against President Bush’s smirk, against our all-American Christian family, against Freedom Fry-eating Republicans in Congress, and against every gun-toting small town in Michigan.  It drove my white husband insane that we were forced to pay a French translator to understand our own son.

—Chiyo, listen to me, Charlie had said, enough is enough.

—What do you mean?  I’d asked.  —You don’t get to decide when enough is enough because you’ve already given up!

—Well, I ain’t gonna pay for some Canadian to translate my goddamn son anymore.  It’s fucking ridiculous.

—You don’t have a choice, Charlie.  

Sure, I do.  I’m choosing not to pay that stupid son-of-a-bitch.

—Jean-Luc is very nice.

—He’s an idiot.

—No he’s not, honey.  He’s just Canadian.

—The Canadians are fucking idiots.

—Just because they’re not American doesn’t mean they’re idiots.

—You sound like Shigeru, you know that?  And frankly, I’ve got no problem not understanding Shigeru.  In fact, I think it’s better that way.

—Charlie, we’ve been through this.

—I know and I still say:  if Shigeru wants to speak French, then he should move to fucking Gay Pair-ree.  There was no irony in my husband’s voice.

—He’s seventeen.

—Well that’s a perfect time to move.

—He’s a minor.

—Then we’ll ship him off.

—That will cost a lot more than paying Jean-Luc.

—Fuck Jean-Luc.  What kind of name is that?  Why does he have two first names?

—I don’t know, but your plan doesn’t make sense.

—It makes a hell of a lot more sense than paying some frou frou French Canadian to translate my own son, whose native language, in case you’ve forgotten, is ENGLISH, the language of the constitution, the magnificent mitten, and Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

—Don’t you raise your voice at me, I said, pointing my finger, —you want PINK UNDERWEAR again?

Okay, fine, he’d grumbled.  

I shook my and started putting plates into the dishwasher because it was the only thing I could do.  Sometimes, I was a terrible Christian.

6.La Sonnette

The doorbell rings.  Charlie sighs and rolls his eyes. 

—I’ll get it, I say.

—Damn right you will, he mumbles, I don’t want nothing to do with that Maple Leaf.

I open the door.  —Bonjour Madame Heeks, ça va? he asks, kissing me on both cheeks.  Jean-Luc is dressed in white jeans, loafers, and a blue Lacoste polo with a cream sweater tied around his shoulders.  He looks fancy like always. 

—Hi, Jean-Luc, I’m fine.  Thank you.  Please come in.

—Tank you.

—Shigeru!  I yell up the stairs, please come down here.  We have a visitor.

I lead Jean-Luc into the kitchen.  —Jean-Luc, do you want some lemonade?

—Uh, yeahs pulease.  Zat would be grate.

—One lemonade coming right up.  Charlie, will you call Shigeru?

—No way, Chiyo.  He’ll come when he’s goddamn ready to.

I pour the lemonade into a glass with thick orange contour lines forming a half circle around the glass where your fingers are supposed to go.  I pull the scoop out of the freezer and tinkle ice into the glass like a one-trick triangle player.  The ice cubes chime the same note.  I hand Jean-Luc his lemonade and then walk to the living room again.

—Shigeru Joseph Hicks! I yell, —this is the last time.  Do you hear me?

Shigeru’s door opens dramatically, the doorjamb vibrating like a didgeridoo.  Shigeru marches down the stairs and inside the kitchen and sits down, all pouty.  When he sees Jean-Luc, his smile is wider than the great state of Michigan and I know. 

7. Voie à sens unique

I open up the utility drawer, pull out a notepad, and sit down.  Flipping to page forty-seven in my “Questions for Jean-Luc,” I turn from Charlie to Shigeru.  Then, I give Jean-Luc a nod.  —Okay, I say, let’s begin.  Jean-Luc, first off, please ask Shigeru where my car keys are.

Jean-Luc nods and repeats the same question to Shigeru in French.

—Ses clés?  Shigeru asks, bah, shais pas.

—He doesn’t know, Jean-Luc says.

—Like hell he doesn’t know, Charlie says.

—Okay, Jean-Luc, then tell him I don’t believe him.  Last week, I discovered a large dent in the driver’s side door.

Jean-Luc translates my sentence.

—Mais, c’est de la foutaise! Shigeru shouts.  C’est pas moi qui a cabossé cette espèce de merde.

—He said he didn’t put zee dent zair.

—Goddamn it!  Stop lying! Charlie says, who else could have put it there?

—Mais, de quoi est-ce qu’il parle?  Shigeru says.

—He says, what arrr yew toe-keen abo—

—You know damn well what we’re talking about! Charlie shouts.

—Charlie, I say, calm down.

—This is stupid, Chiyo, he knows everything we’re saying.

—But we don’t what he’s saying, I explain.

—He’s a fucking teenager, Charlie says.  We’re not supposed to.

—C’est minable, Shigeru says, mon papa est un trou de cul et ma mère sait rien de rien.

—What did he say? I ask.

—He’s talking about me, Charlie says, right in front of my face.

—He says uh, well, zat mistair Heeks is uh, note uh nice . . . and zat you . . . don’t undair-stand heem.

—Well how the hell can we? Charlie screams.  —Our son’s a goddamn surrender monkey.

—Charlie, I say, you’re not helping.

—Il est fasciste, mon père, Shigeru hisses.

—What? I ask.

—He called me a Nazi, Chiyo.

—Non, Jean Luc says, actually—

—Oui, Shigeru says, nodding emphatically.

—You little fucker, Charlie says.  I oughta bop you right in the kisser.

—Charlie! I yell.

—Enough’s enough, Chiyo!

—C’est vrai, Shigeru says.

—Okay people, I say.  This is not helping one bit.  Forget the car!

—Chiyo, no.

—Cette famille est naze, Shigeru says, looking sideways and exhaling dramatically through his lips as if he were smoking an invisible French cigarette.

—Going on people, I say, going on!  I clear my throat.  —Okay, Jean-Luc, please ask Shigeru if he’s heard from colleges.  He hasn’t told us a thing and it’s almost April.  We’re getting worried.

—I don’t give a rat’s ass, Charlie blurts out.

—Well, I’m getting worried, I say, and worrying’s my job.

Jean-Luc repeats the question to Shigeru in French.

—Putain, ça? J’y vais jamais.  Jamais de la vie!

—Uh, Jean-Luc says, he does not uh know.

That’s not what he said, Charlie says, scrunching up his nose.

—How do you know?  I ask.

—I don’t speak surrender monkey, but I can tell the goddamn difference between I don’t know and no way, or whatever the hell Mr. Butter Croissant over there said.

Jean-Luc raises his eyebrows, wondering if my husband has said something racist.  Shigeru pats him on the shoulder gently.

—Jean-Luc, I say, my voice raised, is that what Shigeru said?

—Bah . . .

—Mais dis-lui, Shigeru says, je m’en fous!

—Madame Heeks, uh, he’s not go-een to ooh-nee-vair-sea-tay.

—What?  I ask.  He had a perfect verbal score on his SAT!

—See?  Charlie says.  I told you.  Surrender monkey.

—That’s unacceptable! I say.  I don’t care if he goes to college in Paris, but he’s going to college.

—Non, Shigeru says, jamais de la vie.

Jean-Luc pauses, turns to me and hesitates.  —He says—

—I know what he said!  I yell, and he’s going to college whether he likes it or not.

—That’s the spirit, Chiyo!

—Non, non, et non!  Shigeru screams.

8. Le Coup

The next thing I know, my karate hand is a flat weapon, slicing the air with great and mysterious speed.  I regret what I did.  That’s the truth.  I regret the strength and the desperation of that moment.  I regret the way I lost control of that situation, especially when everyone else was doing whatever they wanted.  I have always regretted it, in fact, since my hand made contact with Shigeru’s cheek, leaving a stinging red outline of India on his beautiful pale face, but I can’t reverse what happened in the kitchen:  I slap Shigeru with such shocking and mysterious wrath that I knock him out of his chair like Ralph Macchio in Karate Kid (II?).  Shigeru’s tight black jeans are sprawled out on the kitchen linoleum, covering patterns of square-shaped flowers dulled by years of baseball cleats and fancy French wingtips.  Jean-Luc looks up, terrified.  Charlie is incredulous.  But Shigeru, my little baby Shigeru, his eyes broken and glassy from months of protests and mistranslations, staggers to his feet and grabs Jean-Luc’s glass of lemonade and hurls it against the wall.  Then he turns to me, his face wrinkled and adorable like an angry Shar-Pei, and shouts:  —I hate you!

—Works both ways, Charlie mutters.

  —I’m moving to France, Shigeru continues.

—As long as you go to college, I say, I don’t care if you move to Patagonia!

—And Jean-Luc is coming with me.  

—Shigeru, I say, let’s talk about this.

—Jean-Luc loves me.  And I love him.

9. Le Sol collant

And that’s when Charlie’s mouth falls to the ground like a broken coo-coo clock.  Shigeru grabs Jean-Luc’s hand and walks upstairs to his bedroom.  Ten minutes later, he walks down the staircase and through the front door with two Gucci suitcases I’ve never seen before and his favorite attaché briefcase, Jean-Luc carrying his I-heart-Alsace-Lorraine duffle bag in one hand and Shigeru’s Goldfish bowl in the other—the orange fish making fancy, French vowels with their mouths as the water sloshes back and forth.  The front door shuts with a single click and then the house is insanely quiet, bruised by its emptiness.  Charlie walks over to the front door and locks it, shaking his head.  I pull out the broom and start sweeping the broken glass into a pile as the lemonade streaks the wall in vertical lines.  I try to spot-clean the mess, applying a little pressure to the sponge, but the floor is sticky in all the places Shigeru still hates me.


Jackson Bliss is the winner of the 2020 Noemi Press Award in Prose. He is the mixed-race/hapa author of Counterfactual Love Stories & Other Experiments (Noemi Press, 2021), from which this short story is excerpted, Amnesia of June Bugs (7.13 Books, 2022), Dream Pop Origami (Unsolicited Press, 2022), and the speculative fiction hypertext, Dukkha, My Love (2017). His short stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Tin House, Ploughshares, Guernica, Antioch Review, ZYZZYVA, Longreads, TriQuarterly, Columbia Journal, Kenyon Review, Witness, Fiction, Santa Monica Review, Boston Review, Joyland, Multiethnic Literature in the US, and Quarterly West, among others. He is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Bowling Green State University. You can follow him on Twitter: @jacksonbliss.

Image source: Cici Hung/Unsplash

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