The great lady of Monte Carlo knows when she is needed. Her host family is practicing verbs at the table. They are loyal to the French language but will work with any verb they can get their hands on.
Only the mother and daughter are left now.
The great lady knows the mother is in trouble from the moment they first meet in Monaco. She tries to warn her, pointing to the mother’s boyfriend. He is all wrong for you, she says in French. The mother understands the gestures of the great lady, and at once she looks on her boyfriend with new eyes. She buys the Frenchwoman a plane ticket back home to America. Carrying two big shopping bags from Galeries Lafayette, the great lady boards a massive 747.
Through the years the great lady tries to meet the needs of each family member. Dépêche-toi!, she tells the daughter, who never gains anything by taking her time. The mother does not need more verbs. What she needs is an extra hand at the right time, offering dish towels and bottle openers, lost keys and little white pills. The great lady waits in the hall when the mother marches, alone, into parent-teacher conferences. She appears around midnight, bedside, with an array of helpful devices.
I can’t live like this!, the boyfriend screams.
In the morning there is a note taped to their door. It is from the Home Owners’ Association, critiquing the variety and volume of their household verbs.
Things improve when there are only three women in the apartment. The verbs come easily, fat drops of nectar flowing from a mature flower.
Courir!, the great lady shouts. The mother and daughter rush, gleefully, to produce the correct past participle.
Rays of non-Mediterranean light grace the floorboards of the apartment. Outside the neighboring buildings are covered in the circus tents that signal an exterminator’s visit. It is unclear if the great lady understands the purpose of the tents, but she gazes at them for hours, humming the music she remembers from the puppet shows of her childhood.
A little more coffee, please? This is a phrase she likes to use. Good coffee rarely appears but English can be useful. It helps her with the boyfriend, who claims the mother cleans too much. He says the mother behaves like a Joan Crawford character on overdrive. He prefers Grace Kelly. He wants the mother to do other things with her hands, things that don’t involve cleaning. When the great lady hears this, she nudges the mother’s ribs and uses another favorite phrase: See? What did I tell you?
What is she saying?, the boyfriend asks the mother. I can’t understand her English.
The great lady inspires strong emotions in the boyfriend, but he is proud of his self-control. He likes to flaunt his French verbs and he takes the verb dictionary with him when he moves out. Perhaps he is trying to establish himself as a verb expert. Perhaps he can’t function without that dictionary.
The three women live on in peace.
Allez!, the great lady cries. She waits to see what the mother and daughter will do. After a brief consultation they run to the window, and then they shrug and run back to the table. The great lady prefers to be selective when it comes to verbs. Verbs are powerful. You can make a sentence out of a single verb, like when you tell your lover “Go!” or “Stay!” You can make a whole new life.
Hey Mom, the daughter says. I found a Latin verb written on the bathroom wall. It means renew. Novare.
That’s fantastic, the mother says.
Novo, novas, novat, the great lady recites.
The mother and daughter are so pleased by this little burst of renewal that they clap. As their applause echoes in the cool emptiness of the apartment, they throw back their coiffed heads and laugh.
They have such love for the great lady of Monte Carlo, this old woman of few words, this true heroine, whose past is rich and unfathomable, a lost novel. She is constantly surprising them. She is their salvation. The mother congratulates herself for buying that plane ticket all those years ago, in that other world.
They all chant together: Novo, novas, novat.
This is the best, the daughter says.
The great lady of Monte Carlo chuckles and shifts in her favorite chair. Her shopping bags, stashed in the pantry, make a merry, rustling sound. She never looks inside of them.
Jan Stinchcomb is the author of The Blood Trail (forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks). Her stories have appeared in Gravel, Gone Lawn, matchbook, Atticus Review and Monkeybicycle, among other places. She is featured in The Best Small Fictions 2018 and is a reader for Paper Darts. Currently living in Southern California with her husband and children, she can be found at janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb.