“Besancon” – Mark D. Baumgartner – An Excerpt

Chad’s father is long dead by this point. Mugged and shot twice, arm and chest, in a far suburb of Cleveland. We have no way of knowing this yet; the murder occurred late at night Eastern Standard Time, early morning in France, and we wouldn’t hear anything for some time. It’s the heart of winter, and around the university all anyone can talk about is politics and American foreign policy. The French are obsessed by a war gathering in someone else’s desert. The wind is unseasonably cold, ice everywhere. Chad thinks we brought it with us from the Midwest, the war, the foul weather, but I’m certain I know better—these are not things that can be carried by men.

At seven on this particular morning Chad and I stand in the foyer of our host family’s house, up in the hills surrounding Besançon. We’ve been in France for two weeks now, out of contact with friends and family save for the odd postcard now and again. We look and smell awful, hung-over to the point of imminent disintegration. Chad has on this ridiculous t-shirt, red with black lettering, which depicts Victor Hugo in the style of a porn star from the late seventies. It was a gift from his homely, bookish girlfriend and he wears it everywhere—to class, to the pub, to bed. I keep pleading with him to take off the shirt, but he is unrelenting. Chad is studying to be an EMT, he is a distinctly American blend of confidence and blithe indifference. He fancies himself an emissary of sorts; he loves to talk politics and has a few carefully prepared phrases he likes to try out on the locals. His French is mangled and incomprehensible, as is mine, but this doesn’t keep him from trying. We care nothing for war, Chad insists to all who’ll listen, we are Americans trying to escape the wayward drift of our own history. There are many ways to call someone an idiot in French, and with the aid of my journal and a pocket dictionary I have deciphered at least six. Even Chad seems to have picked up on the sense that we are not wanted here.

Our hostess is firing off a series of complex, interrelated questions at Chad and I. I’m not certain, but I believe she’s asking where her husband has gone. She’s worried because she hasn’t seen him since he went out for his morning walk. Chad does not catch this, thinks he hears something about breakfast.

Dos huevos, si vous plait,” answers Chad.

Our hostess looks at him, then at me.

I don’t know enough French to field the question about her husband, so instead I correct Chad. “It’s an oeuf,” I say. A fucking oeuf. I am tired of being asked questions for which I have no answer; I am tired of Chad. I am a little bit in love with the wife, and France as a whole, and Chad has become a stone around my neck.

She looks at me for a long moment, then walks into the kitchen to start the stove. I apologize and move to intercept her—I can make the eggs myself. There’s a note in French tacked to the icebox which reads, essentially: CHAD CALL HOME. He doesn’t…

This is an excerpt from Mark D. Baumgartner’s short story “Besancon.”  The remainder of this story can be read in the complete book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1Click here to find the book on Amazon.  E-books are also available from all major digital retailers.

Mark D. Baumgartner lives in Johnson City with his wife and son, where he is an assistant professor at East Tennessee State University. His work has been featured or is forthcoming in magazines such as Yemassee, Bellingham Review, The Southern Review, Phoebe, Tampa Review and Wisconsin Review, and he has worked as a fiction editor at Mid-American Review, River Styx and Witness. He earned an M.F.A. degree from Bowling Green State University in 2005, and a Ph.D from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in 2010, where he was a Schaeffer/Black Mountain Fellow in creative writing. Excerpts of his first novel, Mariah Black, are currently forthcoming in Confrontation and Silk Road.