'Rendezvous'

Third-place winner

Françoise herded the three girls into the conversion van. No one took the front seat; all the girls headed to the back. Françoise, in the driver's seat, said, "No one wants the front? You girls always used to fight over it."

Poupette rolled her eyes at the rearview mirror. "That was like a long time ago." Poupette's eyebrows were thin and intense. When she was in a bad mood, they set like concrete, low on her eyes.

Simone got nervous. Poupette sounded bratty and petulant, and this was George Glass's birthday dinner. "I'll take it," Simone announced. I'll just duck if anyone sees me in it, she added silently, and gave Poupette a dirty look.

Dinky heard this and thought it could be a fight, if Poupette took it a step further and commented on how dorky Simone looked in the front seat of a conversion van. Or if Françoise asked why the girls were acting strange. Or if Simone told Françoise why Poupette didn't want the front. It could all turn bad. But it was George Glass's birthday, and they all knew it.

George Glass occasions brought a sort of telepathy. Simone knew what Poupette had been like with George Glass, and Poupette knew what Dinky had been like, and Françoise knew, and so on. All the combinations possible, centered around the dead dad, and they didn't speak about him. It was only a few days after the funeral when they'd stopped. How could they speak about him, why should they speak about him, how could they rally around him, it felt so cheap to use his dying as an excuse for TV movie family togetherness. Better to use the telepathy that soaked George Glass occasions, the assumption that everyone was sad, everyone was thinking the same sad thoughts, and let him rest. Let them rest.

Françoise looked grim as she smiled. While driving, she always had a faint smile: her screen-saver face of concentration. Simone looked like she had a tummy ache. Poupette looked mean and unapproachable. Dinky hoped there would not be a fight. Or crying. What if they all started to cry. They hadn't done that since right after. The crying-together time had stopped as suddenly as it had started. Dinky knew everyone still cried, but Simone in her bunk, Poupette in her room, Françoise in hers. Dinky sniffled often, but saved tears for the closet. When Simone wasn't there, Dinky would move the white hamper out of the bedroom closet to create a space for herself. She would sit on the carpet, pinker and puffier than the trodden carpet outside the closet, hug her knees, and cry into her forearms, smelling her skin. Even if Simone were to come in the room, she wouldn't see Dinky exposed in her open bottom bunk cave; she'd have to open the closet doors and by the time she got to the closet Dinky would make her face dry and pick up a book and even if she were caught, she wouldn't be found out.

They pulled into the lot, and then a space, but "Mom, that's handicapped" and Simone's voice sounded far away and hoarse and Françoise said French things in whispers and she backed up and almost hit another car even though it was so early for dinner and who would even be here, they would be alone in the restaurant probably, and Françoise finally pulled in crookedly to an acceptable spot and turned off the van. Poupette unbuckled and left the fastest, Simone followed right after, and Dinky climbed over the opposing seat to reach the door as she heard Françoise taking loud, deep breaths.

Outside in the cold air Dinky's face felt wet and raw, but her eyes dried. She wiped her sensitive skin on her rough nylon parka sleeve and the girls all breathed or did whatever they did in order to enter the restaurant, cool and bored.

The hostess seated them and they looked at the menus, which were green. Only four menus, and only four seats. Last year they had come for the same occasion but had sat at the table by the window, the round one. This year they fit into a booth table.

The hostess came back too quickly and asked what they wanted to start with.

"Crab rangoons, please," Dinky said confidently. That was something she knew absolutely for sure, which was that crab rangoon was delicious and they got it every time.

"No, please, we will not start with this. We need some minutes, please." The hostess left and Françoise coldly looked at her back until she was out of hearing range. Dinky said, "But we always get crab rangoons!"

Françoise pinched her lips together and the girls knew she was serious and Poupette said, "Can we at least get cokes?"

Françoise sighed and looked, again, like she was going to lose it.

"But what do I get here?" Dinky asked plaintively.

"You can get the crab rangoons as your main meal," said Françoise. She refused to use entrée in the American sense of main dish, as it was a bastardization of the French word, she had once cried out, last year, at that other table, and they had all been shocked.

"Fine," said Dinky, and began tucking her paper napkin into her collar, as she had seen done in cartoons.

"Can I get soup to start?" asked Simone.

"What kind of soup? Where is soup?" asked Françoise, scanning her menu.

"Under Soup – lobster bisque."

Françoise's eyes found it. "No," she said flatly.

"Why not?" asked Simone. "Last year we got cokes and soup, and crab rangoon as an appetizer."

Françoise said entrée under her breath but it was a small table and they all heard her. She did not respond to Simone.

"Maybe you're too fat for creamy soup." Poupette laughed meanly and Dinky, who hadn't been paying attention, joined in.

"Poupette! Dinky!" Françoise hissed. "Shut your mouths!"

Dinky said, "But I didn't do anything" and picked at her paper napkin bib.

"Asshole," said Simone, but Françoise said nothing. There was an option on the menu to get soup as a part of a combination platter for not very much money, but it wasn't lobster bisque, and she sullenly did not ask for it.

"I'm getting Crispy Chicken and fried rice," Poupette said definitively.

"Crispy Chicken means more fat than lobster bisque, fatass." Simone was triumphant.

"Yeah, but I'm not fat." And she wasn't, and Simone wanted to strangle her and shove an entire Crispy Chicken, oily and boiling hot, into her stupid pointy face.

"Well, you have a double chin, anyway." It was a weak retort. Poupette didn't even have a double chin.

"What's a double chin?" Dinky had read the phrase but had never seen a person with two chins.

Françoise cut through their snipes loudly with, "Taisez-vous!" They knew it meant shut up and they knew she almost never said it. "You girls will shut your mouths and be nice to each other because tonight is your late father's birthday and you will shut up or I will leave this restaurant and make you walk home. Last year you had Cocas, yes, I know this, and this year you will not. We do not have the luxuries we once had, and I want you to shut your mouths and think about your father because we are here to honor him."

The words immediately faded, like steam from a cup of soup, but at the mention of George Glass they did shut up, until they ordered. Françoise's face went from red to normal and by the time the food arrived, Simone ventured a "Sorry" and Poupette and Dinky muttered it after. They were sorry, after all, and this table felt so much smaller than the other round table, they had fewer places to angrily stare at. It was better to start to eat, and to give up the staring, and whatever they had been trying to prove. It was easy to give it up, once they had finally been asked, and they breathed in the food smells and they didn't even want to hold on to having a bad time anymore.

The waitress brought the food out with silver covers, like a fancy restaurant, and placed each one on the paper place mats. Poupette poured spicy rooster sauce onto her Crispy Chicken, partly so no one else would want any. Simone had the fish special, which was served in the exact kind of gelatinous sauce Simone had tried to avoid. It looked like a piece of meat preserved in agar, that gel stuff they'd used in biology class. But it was okay with soy sauce. Dinky ate her crab rangoons slowly, savoring them and trying not to burn her mouth. Simone asked, "Can I trade a piece of fish for a rangoon?"

Dinky smiled and said, "I touched them all. And the fish looks yucky."

"Why do you always order the worst thing on the menu?" Poupette stuck a piece of chicken in her mouth and made enthusiastic mmm sounds.

"Very mature." Simone dug at her fish with a fork and ate a piece of parsley.

Françoise had ordered fried shrimp with fried rice and offered Simone some of hers, but wouldn't touch the fish either. Simone always ordered a different thing here. The fried stuff looked so boring on the menu, but sitting on the table with the fragrant sweet and sour sauce, it looked so much better. Simone said "No thank you" politely to Françoise's offer and trudged on with the gelatinous fish. It might be tolerable with a coke, but the water she drank just amplified the bland gelatin flavor.

The others looked pleased with their food and they did not talk much, until Françoise cleaned her fingers with her paper napkin after eating a negligible amount of fried food and said, "The word of the day is French."

Dinky cut her off and said, "It means comes from France," and grinned, but not even Françoise laughed.

"Maladroit." Françoise said it mal-a-dwah. "What does it want to say, maladroit?"

The girls looked at each other. When George Glass did Word of the Day, they always had English words. Françoise had never, ever suggested a French one. Simone's theory was that Françoise didn't want to ruin Word of the Day for George Glass, because he really liked it; maybe he never saw all the eye-rolls they'd given him. Even Françoise used to roll her eyes. George Glass wanted to improve their vocabularies and their respect for the big words he had to use for his academic work. Also maybe he wanted an excuse to teach Françoise words the girls already knew, like militant or culpable. Maybe he just wanted an excuse to correct Françoise's Franglais. He called it Franglais, using the cute word, and then corrected her mercilessly. "What does this word want to say?" Qu'est-ce que ce mot veut dire? George Glass would never have allowed it. And now what was this? But they knew, an attempt to honor him, like this dinner, but how obvious, how fake, how could she, how could they.

"I think it's maladroit," Poupette said flatly. She said it the American way, with all hard consonants. Mal-a-droyt.

"It's a French word, Poupette," said Dinky eagerly. "It's clumsy, right? Mal-a-DWAH," she said with relish.

"No, I'm pretty sure, it's mal-a-droyt." Poupette leaned back in her chair, tilting it back onto two legs. Another thing George Glass would not stand for. Would not have stood for.

Françoise forced a bigger smile than her screen-saver one and looked like she wanted to vomit her meal and use all her blood now occupied with complacent digestion and fight, fight with her own daughter, fight with flying limbs and hair and teeth. "I think, Poupette, that it's a French word, used in English. The French way to say it is mal-a-dwah."

"Whatever," said Poupette, very quietly, so that even two feet away Simone barely heard it.

"I know another. Can we have two?" Dinky asked. "Rendezvous. I know it. Rendezvous." She said it phonetically, ren-dez-vuss.

Simone looked at Françoise, whose brow was set almost like Poupette's. Poupette was staring at her food. Simone laughed unspontaneously. Then Poupette guffawed, but didn't look up from her plate. "It's ron-day-voo," said Poupette.

"Ah, rendezvous! Oh la la la la," said Françoise, and she laughed, and Dinky pouted briefly but put away the pout because it was so much better to be silly, and she loved the rare "Oh la la" and anyway she knew rendezvous meant "meeting," and anyway who cared.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest, 'Rendezvous', Kerri Mullen

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