A Dirty, Dirty Place
Élodie Delaflote lived in the apartment next
door to me in a complex called Palm Breezes. She was my neighbor
from France, and she had a pretty face, clean skin and green eyes,
and curly hair that always looked wet, like she’d just come in from
I was turning in my rent on the first of the
month when I met her in the doorway of the apartment office. She was
moving her hands and speaking to the high school kid who worked the
desk on Saturdays. The hem of her skirt barely grazed some
soft-looking loafers. She was trying to explain that her garbage
disposal wasn’t working, but she kept using the phrase “the machine
in the kitchen for the food” and then making a kind of grinding
noise from the back of her throat. She shook her head a little bit
when she made the noise and her hair fell over her eyes.
“The refrigerator?” the kid asked. He had
piercings in the cartilage of his ears; they looked like actual nail
heads, like someone had actually hammered them into his ears.
Otherwise he was clean-cut and preppy.
“No,” she said and looked frustrated. When
French people spoke, it sounded like singing to me, even when they
were speaking English badly.
I had a boyfriend in college who had spent some
time in Dijon studying abroad,
and when he returned he spoke very prettily. I didn’t know much more
then than the greetings or how to order food in restaurants, but I
asked him to speak French to me in bed. He’d cuddle and rub my back
and kiss my neck while whispering this one sentence, “Mon
compagnon de chambre déteste pour effectuer le travail de papier et
pour faucher l'herbe.” I only found out later that it meant, “My
roommate hates doing paperwork and mowing the grass.”
“Her garbage disposal,” I said to the kid
behind the desk. “Her garbage disposal is broken.” I was trying to
“Oui. Yes, yes,” Élodie said and
repeated, “the disposal,” moving her lips very slowly to form the
The kid said he’d fill out the maintenance
request on the computer, and Élodie and I walked out of the office
together. Workers had just finished affixing vinyl siding and green
shutters to the outside of our building. They’d worked for two
weeks, hammering and making a big racket. I thought it looked worse.
I said this to Élodie, after I asked her if she
liked the fix-ups, but she seemed confused by what I was trying to
“I don’t know,” she said and bit her lip and
paused a little bit before she asked if I liked cranberries.
“Cranberries?” I repeated.
“Yes,” she said. “We are famous for them in the
town where I come from. I make a sweet bread with them. I would
share it with you if you tell me where I can get some cranberries
here. I couldn’t locate them at the market.”
isn’t big on cranberries,” I told her. “Or at least I’ve never seen
them on sale except at Thanksgiving, but I’ll try to find some for
described them to a man, but he gave me a carton of raspberries,”
she said. “I looked the word up when I got home.”
I asked her what she was doing in town and she
told me she worked for a French hotel company; they were building a
casino and she was helping to oversee it. I’d heard about the
casino. It was a big deal, in the paper all the time. It was her
first time in the United States,
I told her we would get dinner some night and
she should knock on my door if she needed anything.
I had been back in Mississippi
for two years. I’d grown up there but had moved off for college and
then lived in
for a few years though I never really got my life in gear there. I’d
worked as a secretary in an office with a bunch of old Cuban ladies
who gossiped all the time and drank tiny shots of espresso called
cortaditos in the break room and never once invited me to have
lunch with them. I never made any friends, so it was no big deal
that when I got tired of the traffic and the girls in the tight
white pants and the hair gel and laser hair removal and all the
stuff attached to “presenting myself,” I came back home. Still,
since moving back I hadn’t exactly felt like I’d gotten my life
going in Mississippi.
My apartment did have a lot of space; the complex had a pool and
tennis courts, washers and dryers in each unit. I’d landed a good
office job where they gave me flex time and vacation days and a
decent salary, but I still spent most of my time alone. It occurred
to me that this was my fault.
never knocked on my door like I told her to, but I figured she must
be lonely, and of course would want to do some American things so I
invited her to go to a minor league baseball game. I went every once
in a while by myself because even though the games were boring, you
never knew if one of the players might get called up one day and
you’d get to watch him on TV and remember seeing him play at the
dumpy little stadium in town. The teams were made up mostly of kids
right out of high school, and every once in a while there’d be a
short-stop in his thirties and each time he was up to bat, he’d just
sort of swat at the ball and trot to first base and wait for these
young kids to throw him out.
I bought Élodie a box of Cracker Jacks because
she wanted to try them.
“You probably won’t like them,” I said. “They
make me choke.”
She crunched on one and smiled. “Good!” she
They were playing “Who Let the Dogs Out” over
the PA system. A guy dressed up as a big furry squirrel was slinging
t-shirts into the crowd with giant pink rubber bands. I asked Élodie
if she missed
“It must really be culture shock,” I said. “The
Wal-Marts and the ugly beaches and the fast food restaurants on
“No, no, why do you say that?” she said.
“Don’t you miss being able to get cranberries
and good coffee and whatever? And have people that speak your
“No, no,” she said. “I can go back to that any
surprised. I thought she must have hated it. I thought how weird it
was to have a European dropped in the middle of the deep south.
She said, “I met a black woman yesterday. She
took my food order, and she said, ‘Here or to go?’ and I didn’t know
what she was talking about. I get confused when they leave words out
of sentences. But it didn’t bother me. Everyone is patient. They
It was the seventh inning stretch and Élodie
and I stood up. The big squirrel was down on the third base line
with three kids doing wacky dance moves.
“This is fun,” she said.
At the end of the night, I drove both of us
home. It was dark and Élodie turned the radio to the classic country
station. They were playing Tennessee Ernie Ford, “Sixteen Tons.”
“You don’t want to listen to this station,” I
said and reached for the button.
“Oh, I always listen to it,” she said and
stopped my hand.
When I said goodbye at the door, she gave me
some chocolates in gold wrappers that had the French flag on them.
“We have these in bowls all over my office. My
company buys them for everyone. Tell me if you like them and I will
get you more.”
I opened the paper and bit in. “It’s very
good,” I said.
“I believe they’re Hershey’s,” she told me.
“You can order them in the special wrappers. Come tomorrow, I will
bring you more.”
The next day, I saw Élodie by the mailboxes.
She said she was going to the mall for a haircut.
“You can’t go by yourself,” I said.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“Because. Because of your language barrier.
What if you tell them something and they misunderstand? If they do
it the wrong way?”
“Oh, that’s no big problem. I’ll have a new
haircut. It will grow.”
“Élodie,” I said, “they will cut your hair
wrong. It could look awful.”
“I will be okay. You don’t need to go.”
“Tell me what you want and I’ll tell you how to
say it. I’ll write it down and you can give it to them. I’ll put my
phone number on it and they can call me if they need to.”
“This is silly,” Élodie said. “You’re very
nice. You worry too much.”
My apartment was gross. Big plaid couch, fake
flowers on the coffee table. Matching prints of a farm scene above
the couch. A TV with ugly wires sticking out where it connected to
the VCR and DVD
player and digital cable. Old carpet that had been soaked when the
apartment upstairs had a leak. They’d put big fans in to dry it out
and for two days, the fans blew a sour smell all over the place. I
hated it in there.
I drove to the beach to get out and saw the
casino that Élodie’s company was building. They had a billboard
about the project with sketches of what it would look like when it
was done. It was going to be a replica of the Titanic, fifteen
stories high, with seven different restaurants and a mall on the
My father always had an obsession with the
Titanic. In his office, he had framed old newspaper articles about
the Unsinkable Molly Brown. He’d bought a fork that a surviving
passenger had taken on the lifeboat. It cost him three hundred
dollars. We had a fight the night he bought it.
“What a waste,” I said. “It probably isn’t even
I called him provincial.
“You’re really turning into a little bitch,” he
When my parents both died, I sold the fork to
some guy on eBay for a thousand dollars.
I walked around the beach next to the fenced-in
site. Two teenagers were making out on a wooden chair under a green
umbrella. A fat kid was crying while his mother packed their stuff
back into a gym bag. I thought the world was an ugly place. I
thought Élodie was beautiful and perfect.
Élodie started dating another Frenchman who her
company had sent over. She knew him already from France
and had apparently dated him before; they’d rekindled something. His
name was Romain.
They dated for a month and I hadn’t been
formally introduced. I saw him on the walkway when he came to pick
her up for dinner. He seemed only ever to wear beige linen pants and
loafers without socks.
Élodie invited me to dinner one night when
Romain was going to be there. And some people from her work.
“Just for socializing,” she told me.
I wore a nice black skirt and dressy sandals,
and took along some brie I’d tried to bake inside a crust. I’d never
made it before, and it looked kind of gross. I think the crust was
undercooked and grease seemed to be seeping out underneath. I
brought it anyway because I didn’t have anything else.
“Come in and merci
¾ you didn’t have to bring anything,” she said when
she opened the door and I handed her the plate of brie. I was the
last one there. I’d waited to leave until after I heard her front
door open and close a couple of times. I hate being the earliest one
In Miami, people showed up an hour late to
events as a matter of routine, and I didn’t know that at first, so
once when I arrived on time, I got stuck in a conversation with an
architect, the only other person there. I started babbling about
Frank Lloyd Wright. He cut me off by saying, “Only non-architects
like his work. At my university, anyone who wrote an application
essay about his work was automatically rejected.”
I’d thought about him before Élodie’s dinner
party. I read Le Monde, the French newspaper, online and
practiced pronouncing the name of Simone de Beauvoir.
This was the first time I’d seen the inside of
Élodie’s apartment, beyond what I could see from her doorway. She
had the same floor layout as me, but hers got more light. On the
wall was a poster with different old-looking illustrations for
children’s fairy tale books. One square showed a big ape-looking
creature bowing and giving roses to a blonde woman in full Victorian
There was a man on the couch facing the door.
He was tall, wearing brown corduroy pants with high-tech looking
Nikes, the kind with a ton of silver straps. Next to him was a woman
with frizzly gray hair. Romain was in an oversized armchair to the
side. I moved a pillow so I could sit next to the woman.
I turned to her and asked, “Are you from
“No, we’re all from around here,” she said. She
patted the shoulder of the guy next to her and said, “This is Doug.”
He half-waved at me and I nodded. I didn’t ask
any more. They talked about their jobs. Romain mentioned the chef
they were going to hire for one of the restaurants in the Titanic
“From New York City,”
he said. “He makes a fabulous steak.” Romain’s English was perfect.
I got up to see if Élodie needed help in the
kitchen. Everything was arranged so neatly and brightly, I felt like
I was going to trip over it all in my dumb sandals.
She smiled at me. “I love this apartment,” she
said. “There’s so much room. You must love yours, too.”
She almost did make me like my apartment. I
liked talking to Élodie. With most people, I felt like I didn’t know
what to say to them, like every conversation had some kind of
propulsion and people knew how to do a back and forth, but I didn’t.
But with Élodie, if there were gaps in the conversation, she’d fill
them in just to say words in English.
We were talking about her new patio furniture
when she touched my arm, pointed to a roll of paper towels behind
me, and said, “Will you hand me those pudding pops?”
“Pudding pops?” I said.
“Isn’t that how you say it? The things you wipe
with?” she said. She made a circular motion with her hand.
“You mean paper towels?”
“Are they also called pudding pops?”
“No, who told you that?”
“Romain’s friend. Doug.”
I craned my neck toward the living room. Doug
was talking to Romain, who was laughing at something Doug had just
finished saying. Romain was probably around for the pudding pop
routine. I’d never get along in another country. This is exactly the
kind of thing that would happen to me and I wouldn’t know how to
“I wish he wouldn’t have done that to you,” I
“Oh, no, he was just having fun. I know I speak
funny sometimes.” She held up a black plastic spatula. “You probably
don’t call this a sparkler, either, do you?” she said.
After the party wound down, I was still angry.
Élodie was putting dishes away in the kitchen while Romain and I
stood outside on her patio. The other guests had already left.
Romain smoked cigarettes and drank wine and told me about Élodie’s
life back in France.
“Did she tell you about the child?” he asked.
There was a cricket by his shoe; it looked like a tiny wheelbarrow.
“She has a child?” I said. I didn’t understand.
She hadn’t mentioned anything.
“No, no,” he said. “The child she killed.” He
puffed on his cigarette.
I looked blankly at him.
“She hit a child with her car,” he said. “It
was a great accident. The child was on a bicycle. A little African
girl from Senegal.”
“That’s really none of my business,” I said.
“You should keep that to yourself.”
That night I thought about the African girl. I
envisioned her on a red bicycle with a brown basket on the front. I
imagined the girl wanted to get hit by Élodie’s car, that it
was dark and she had darted out on purpose, that Élodie slammed the
brakes and jumped out and pulled the girl’s body from under the car.
The girl’s face all cut up, eyes drooping. Élodie held the girl in
her arms, hugged her close to her chest.
I felt like I needed to tell her that I
understood, about the little girl, about how the world was. I looked
at the clock. It was after one in the morning. Late, but I picked up
the phone and called Élodie anyway.
I could tell I woke her. “Sorry, I know it’s
late,” I said. “I wanted to see if you need to talk to anybody.”
“No, I am actually sleeping.”
“Sorry, I had you on my mind. I know you’ve
been through some rough times. I was calling to be a friend.”
She mumbled something and I thought I heard
Romain in the background.
“Is this how it will always be with you?” she
asked. She laughed as she said it, but I could tell I had done the
wrong thing. I apologized for waking her and asked her to apologize
to Romain also, and then I hung up the phone. I felt horrible for
myself and for Élodie. People were always messing things up around
her, getting in her way, and this time it was me.
That must be what happens, I thought, when
you’re someone like Élodie, when you’re too good for this world.
When there is no one here for you. You just have to squat in the
mess that other people make for you. Élodie was too good for all of
us. She was cleaner and purer than anyone. She was too good for
Romain and his perfect English. She was too good for the baseball
game and the dancing squirrel. And she was too good for me. My
father was right when he said I was turning into a little bitch. He
was dead now and I didn’t care. I sold his fork to someone on the
internet. I didn’t even pack it right. My father was a good person.
He never did anything wrong. If he found a dollar bill on the
ground, he would find someone to turn it in to. I was a horrible
person in an ugly, ugly world and I was lucky that Élodie even
existed and would talk to me.
I thought about the question she had asked.
“Will it always be this way with you?” I realized that, yes, this
was how it would always be with me and there was nothing I could do
about it. But at least I knew it, and I would try to deal with it
from then on.
work will soon be out in the anthology
Online Writing: The Best of the First Ten Years, and has
been published in McSweeney's, Black Warrior Review,
Georgetown Review, Beloit Fiction Journal,
Nightsun, Center, and many other magazines. She teaches writing
and literature at Auburn University.