The Good Mother of Marseille (book excerpt)

Christopher X. Shade is a co-founding editor of Cagibi. His debut novel The Good Mother of Marseille will be published in April 2019 by Paloma Press. This excerpt “Noémie in Marseille” is the opening chapter. It appears here after a description of the book from the publisher.

From the publisher: “It’s the summer of 2013 in Marseille, in the year of its designation as the European Capital of Culture. Americans wander and sightsee this dangerous, impoverished yet seductive city. Noémie, a central character and an anthropology student, wants to stay. She wants to make the gritty graffiti-covered neighborhood of Cours Julien her home, but she’s running out of time, money, and her university sponsor’s patience.

Noémie watches over Corey, from New Jersey, who is an earlier version of her: also an anthropology student, he’s just getting started. But what he wants is very different. He searches the Marseille streets for someone to love. In the old port, the wife of a small-town Alabama couple presses to see all the sights while her husband is losing his vision to an eye disease. Noémie intersects with everyone—has she stolen the couple’s passports? A Colorado man with late-stage cancer and fear of the unexpected falls in love with a French woman he meets at a café. In Marseille and then in Paris, a woman helps her journalist husband figure out what is happening in his head as he experiences a peculiar stress disorder. Hovering on the fringe are the Marseillais, the shopkeepers, artists, café waiters. Who among them will save Noémie?

To the rhythm of European street life, each American puts a Marseille experience in the context of their own histories. It’s a love letter to the turbulence of Marseille, and to the turbulence to be found under the surface of each of us, the pounding hearts and jarring fears.”

Noémie in Marseille

Three years in, and Noémie still couldn’t get a good night’s sleep in Marseille’s train station quarter. She couldn’t leave the windows open because there was too much street noise. When the windows were closed, her bedroom was too hot. All night she was opening and closing the windows.

A Québécoise, she couldn’t get used to the heat. The heat kept her awake. The night air outside was the same as inside. Lying awake, she worried that the next day would be hotter than the day before. Marseille, a bouillabaisse stew left on simmer. Distasteful, but it was hers. Young people at all hours of the night drank in the streets, cajoled each other, threw insults, sang, shouted declarations of love up at the windows. None of those shouts were for her. It was only a trick to get a woman, any woman, to come to a window. Traffic congestion on the boulevards sputtered and growled, and emitted the suffocating odor of exhaust.

A noise machine in the room broke ocean waves again and again. It was supposed to lull her to sleep. Instead all night she lay awake trying to parse the noise of the machine from the noise of the quarter.

An oscillating fan pushed warm air at her. Where the fan did not push air in the room, the air did not move. She could not leave the bedroom door open. If she left the door open, her hot dog Chinelo would stick his nose in the room, wander in, and then jump up on the bed but she would not have a dog on her bed, not even Chinelo.

Noémie took Chinelo out for walks in the quarter, day and night, on the narrow streets around the Jardin Labadié. On this night, there seemed to be no one else out. But she could hear the noise of people inside their apartments. It was a constant clamor that rose to an uproar and then broke, like an amplified version of her noise machine, with the agitation of a people who are discontent but at least have found one another. The noise was distinctly of this place. Montreal had not been like this. Noémie was tense, walking these streets. She could see these other people of Marseille in low windows, always together, like new friends in each other’s company, carousing. Probably they didn’t know that they could be seen as they were by her, that they were regarded with the bitterness that Noémie felt. For them, everything was working out. For them, everything was easier. She felt angry whenever she saw them in their windows as she walked, as Chinelo went ahead on the leash and paused to sniff things and was pulled and seemed annoyed of the leash. She called him Chino as they walked, sometimes Chi-chi, sometimes Choo-choo because he looked like a little train.

On this one-way street, some cars were parked facing the wrong direction. This was the way of Marseille. No one followed the rules. Noémie had come to expect this after hard years of daily melees. Money was hard to come by. She scraped together a living by translating technical documents from French to English for big French companies, work that came to her through recruiters. This work was dull and tedious because it had to be precise. It got in the way of what she was there to do, her dissertation. When she fell behind on bills she begged recruiters for more work. Sometimes she could get them to pay in advance. Hard seemed to be the way for everyone she knew in Marseille. Hard was simply the way of Marseille, in every way, big and small. But it was worth it. She felt this way and was sure that every other resident felt this way. There was no other place for her. She had made Marseille her place now.

In all of the noise, Noémie heard a peal of church bells that made her anxious about the late hour. She did not feel in danger for any reason other than the late hour. She could take care of herself. She was tough as nails, a man had once told her. He was a Michigan man she’d dated here in Marseille for a short time. He’d pulled away from her, more quickly than she’d expected, and then it wasn’t long before he’d left Marseille and was absent from her life. She didn’t think she was tough as nails. She hurt. She bled as easily as everyone else. A knife could cut her the same as anyone else. A strong man could physically overpower her, if she wasn’t careful. Only she could outsmart them all. She was aware that this was not the safest place to be walking at night, on this street where lights did not do enough to dispel shadows, for anything might happen in Marseille. Anything might happen, just when one least expected it.

Also on this street there was an occasional parked van in which a prostitute worked, probably, for this was not uncommon, and it seemed to Noémie that some of tonight’s street noise came from these vans. But she could not be certain of it. It was possible that all of the prostitutes were alone, like her, on a night like this.

Noémie rounded a corner and was going past an apartment building when glass shattered at her feet. As if her step had somehow made a glass thing explode. In the next instant more glass exploded at her feet. She didn’t grasp what was happening. It startled Chinelo, too. At the end of the leash Chinelo leaped in surprise and yipped.

A bottle fell close to her face, and shattered at her feet. Bottles were falling from high up. Someone was dropping beer bottles from a fourth story window. She couldn’t see who it was. If one hit her on the head, it might kill her. If one hit Chinelo, it might kill him.

Another bottle fell.

Noémie shouted in French up at the windows, “What are you doing? Stop! We are down here! What do you think you are doing?”

This way, this attitude, of not giving a thought to how it might be for others, was what Noémie had come to expect in Marseille. She believed that the people up at those windows had no intention of hurting anyone. It simply did not occur to them that they might be in the wrong. They were drinking and tossing empties out the window. In the moment, it meant nothing to them. It could not possibly be of any consequence, and later they would not even be able to recall what they’d done.

After she shouted up at the windows, no more bottles fell. Broken glass was all around so she picked up Chinelo. Then she saw blood at her feet. And blood on her hands. And blood on Chinelo. A shard of glass had gone into Chinelo’s neck. Chinelo was bleeding badly.

She had to get him to the animal hospital, the clinique vétérinaire. It was several blocks away, and there was nothing to do but run as fast as she could with Chinelo in her arms through the streets up rue Jean de Bernardy for some blocks and across rue Louis Grobet for more blocks to the corner of the boulevard. She kept pressure on Chinelo’s neck as well as she could with her wet hands. He was making a noise as she ran, a sad whine. He was in pain and afraid. He might be dying. She wept, “Chi-chi!” and held him tight. She pushed her way through the doors of the clinic, shouting for help. The workers broke away from sports on the TV. They took Chinelo out of her arms and treated him. The glass shard had just missed the artery. Chinelo had very nearly been killed.

It was the middle of the night when Noémie returned, with a bandaged Chinelo in her arms, to the place where the bottles had been dropped. When glass crunched beneath her shoes, she looked up at the fourth story window. Chinelo began to whine quietly in her arms. She called up, not unpleasantly, for the one who’d dropped the bottles. She tried not to sound as furious as she was feeling. She called up a few times, and at the building door she rang apartments, pushing the buttons again and again, but no one answered. She shouted up at them that they’d almost killed her dog. And it had cost a lot of money. It had cost her more than a month’s rent to save him. They had almost killed him. And what then? What if they had killed her Chinelo? She said the police would come. She said she would call the police. She kicked at the broken glass.

She went straight home. Chinelo went to his place on the sofa and crawled under the blankets so that only his nose could be seen. Noémie phoned the police. She told the man on the other end what had happened, how she and her dog had almost been killed, and how she had rushed her injured dog to the hospital. Was that a TV she was hearing? Was he watching TV? Was he even listening to what she was saying? She and her dog had almost been killed.

He noted that she was Canadian. He explained that he could tell from her French that she was Canadian.

“I am American,” she said, “on a doctoral program from a major American university.”

“A student,” he suggested.

She said they had almost killed her dog.

Another man came on the phone. “There is a match,” he said.

“A what?”

“A football match.”

“I have no patience for this,” she said. Those people at the window had broken the law. It was a fourth story window. They had almost killed her dog. If a bottle had hit her, it would’ve killed her. A falling bottle might kill someone. Someone must make the people at the window understand that they cannot do this.

She said all this to the police, and she gave them the location. She said they must come to the place where it had happened and do something. They asked for the location. She told them, and told them again, because she did not believe they were writing it down. She said, “These people at the window committed a crime. It is a violence. You must do something.”

She arranged to meet the police there. She went with Chinelo in her arms and waited. A light was on. Whoever did this was still there. She went around to some vans on the street and knocked on the doors. She could not see inside the vans. She could not hear anything happening in the vans, but she felt sure that prostitutes were in there, in at least some of these vans. She called out to the prostitutes: “Did you see? The police are coming. Will you tell them what you saw?”

Chinelo whined in her arms. No one else answered.

In Montréal it had been the same: neighbors did not open their doors. Most of the time no one was there to help them. Sometimes police came, and sometimes the police took her father away. Her father never came back sober. He never remembered what he’d done. He was not violent when he was not drinking. The drinking brought out the worst of him. One night her father walked out of the house and did not come back because that night somewhere along the way when he was drinking he punched a man who fell, hit his head, and died. The newspapers told a different story: the deceased had been dragged some distance, and had been found with the blow to the head and also a broken arm and gashes on the shoulder and face where the flesh had been torn away with teeth. Her father was incarcerated.

Then she and her sister were alone with her mother. Noémie was a teenager, her sister an early teen. It wasn’t long before her mother began to sour things. Her mother’s drinking made it worse: when there was no man to push away, she said hateful things to her daughters.

Her mother now lived alone outside of Montréal in one of the apartment houses along the St. Lawrence river. Noémie could only imagine how the apartment must be after her mother’s years there alone, how much in disrepair the apartment would be, how musty, how empty, how foul with resentment. There would be no family photos on the walls. No sign of others. But really Noémie could not know. It had been years since she’d visited her mother—how many years? Many years, but not enough. Noémie would not go back. She did not expect to ever go back.

Noémie’s younger sister lived near the neighborhood where they’d spent their childhood, on an edge of Plateau-Mont-Royal. Noémie didn’t talk to her now. They’d had too many arguments. Their views on men had forced them apart. With men, her sister had always been giving and hopeful. Noémie had always been telling her, I told you so. Her sister was now a single mother, with the father of her child in prison, that man also unable to control the violent animal of himself that raged within. Noémie did not know if he was now in or out of prison, the same as their own father. These had been angry and violent drinking men, more angry when drinking, drinking more when angry, not unlike all the other men in the world as Noémie saw it.

Even her adviser back at the university was like this, the one American male she had phone calls with, her doctoral program adviser. She would not use the word mentor, she preferred the word adviser. He was an older man named Joe Gray. She did not use the word doctor with this man as all the others did, as was the way of these people who populated universities, these people, these people who competed against her and who never expected her to succeed but really all of her life had been this way and she showed them all, every time. Once on the phone with him she’d heard ice knocking in a glass. It was a sound that she knew well and would always recognize in the instant that she heard it. After that, she did not trust that he would be sober on the phone. Sometimes he raised his voice, shouting at her, trying to be stern. He didn’t understand all that it meant to raise his voice in the ways that he did. It was a form of violence. And so she had no respect for him. But for now, he was useful. To stay in the doctoral program, she needed someone in the department on her side, and Gray would do.

Gray told her that she’d been working on her doctorate for too many years. Her research phase had been completed years ago. He told her there was no reason for her to be in Marseille. She wouldn’t have all these money concerns if she returned to the university, to the United States, where she could live on campus and finish it.

But she wouldn’t leave Marseille now, not for Montréal, and not for the university. Not for the university’s green lawns and old trees. Not for Montreal’s summer terraces in the Plateau, or for its winter ice skating at the Old Port. No, she wouldn’t leave Marseille now, not for any of those places that others told her to live. Not even for the glow of Paris. Noémie had given up everywhere else. Marseille would be hers. She expected it to be. Already, she acknowledged it to be so. Marseille was her bouillabaisse stew. She could contend with its simmer, its daily threats of eruption.

Still Noémie waited just down the street from where there was the broken glass all over the sidewalk. For a while she held Chinelo in her arms, but then put him down, away from the glass, and with the leash did not let him go far. The police never came, and it was not long before the light went out at the fourth story window.


Christopher X. Shade’s novel, The Good Mother of Marseille, is available online to purchase.

This excerpt appears with permission of Paloma Press. Copyright 2019 Christopher X. Shade.

About the Author

eChristopherShade052518_175cBSheehan square 200w.jpgChristopher X. Shade is a co-founding editor of Cagibi. His stories and book reviews have appeared widely, and he has won story awards including the 2016 Writers at Work fellowship competition. He teaches fiction and poetry writing at The Writers Studio. Raised in the South, he now lives with his wife in New York City. His website is

Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan.

Appears In

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