WRR 4.4 1 AUGUST 2007
When Jilted Alice Spoke
FIRST BYLINES: In many respects it’s easier to publish an established, even an award-winning writer, than it is to publish someone for the first time.
At forty-three, Jilted Alice finally decided to find her voice. She drove along the two-lane ribbon of road near Butte, Montana towards Basil’s house. Although it was her sixth Thursday date night at Basil’s, Alice was honored to have her protector, Stagecoach Mary, riding shotgun this time. Alice knew she’d have to be on her best behavior tonight.
Alice flirted with the possibility that she might be Basil’s first true love. Her mind and body were nimble enough to carry out this new relationship. In an act of puppy-love trust, Basil gave her a copy of his house key after their third date so she could let herself in before he got home from work. Alice would arrive early and surrender to the house’s majestic calm, longing for her own peace. Her routine consisted of gracefully preparing dinner with her nine fingers and mixing Basil’s special drink with her long toothpick. To commemorate that tonight was special, Alice had brought a freshly baked huckleberry pie. Under Mary’s approving eye, Alice cut the pie into five slices: one for each of the special men in her life.
Alice hadn’t spoken a word since she was eighteen when her bitter mother died. Alice’s father had run out on them years before and quickly remarried. Alice portrayed herself as mute to all she met. It’s what attracted Basil to her. It’s what attracted all the men to her. But these men, without fail, also assumed that she was deaf. They never bothered to ask; they just calculated that her signing and smiling equaled deaf-mute. Her expressive hands waved in the air, compelling her sign language to float across to her intended’s eyes. When she first started signing, Alice thought it was an odd way to speak: from her hands to their eyes: no lips, no ears.
The men she dated were full of assumptions. They all reasoned that she made up for her lack of hearing and speech by overdeveloping her sensual side, her tactile needs, and her risk in pleasure. In short, they presumed she was easy.
They would talk and talk to her as if she was a confessional with lipstick. They were attracted to her silent, unquestioning sexuality and implied lack of judgment. Alice intuited that she exuded these qualities to the world but she just didn’t believe it. It was like her restaurant job. She loved turning out dinners for others but she never ate her own food.
Mary turned to Alice and said, “Girl, look at you in that kitchen.” Mary was Alice’s best friend. She knew all of Alice’s secrets.
Last year, after her restaurant was burned down, Alice tried to start over in Montana. During her inspection of an old restaurant in Bannack, Alice discovered a sepia photograph of a large, severe black woman holding a shotgun and a bottle of whiskey. The inscription at the bottom, in thin, black letters, read, “St. Mary, 1865.” Taped to the back of the picture was a long toothpick. The picture enchanted Alice. An afternoon’s research at the library revealed to her that this was Stagecoach Mary.
Later that night, Alice went back to Mary’s drafty, old restaurant. The place was in complete darkness except for the streetlight pressing its face against the front window. Alice grew nervous as she felt the draft in the room change directions.
“I knew you’d come by,” said Mary. “Best huckleberry pie in these parts.”
Mary emerged from the shadowed carcass of the old bar. Alice was calm again. Somehow, she knew she was supposed to be here.
“Yeah, I know,” said Mary, “you don’t speak. All the better ’cause I talk too much. You see, Alice, we’re partners here. And we’re gonna’ get along like beans and bacon.”
Surrounded by the reverent darkness, Alice couldn’t help but smile as Mary delicately fed her a huckleberry with her fingers. After that intimate communion, without uttering a word, Alice completely accepted Mary into her life.
“Men,” said Mary, “put the ‘queasy’ in cuisine.”
Alice took a deep breath and snapped herself back to the present. A pang of guilt wafted in the air. She lit some candles and waited for Basil.
Alice peeked out of Basil’s front window and saw Basil bounce out of his old Jeep.
“So, that’s him,” said Mary unimpressed. “Child,” she continued, “that boy look like he won the lottery. I mean, look at him, smilin’ and thinkin’ of voluptuous you.”
Alice let go of the thin curtain. Basil had a tender manner. He reminded Alice of her father. That’s what had impressed her. He always handled her gently, like he was fitting a whisper-thin leather sandal on a child’s foot.
Basil opened the door, stepped into his house and smelled the air, knowing he’d find that glorious mix of perfume and tantalizing food. He knew the routine. Alice watched him eat and drink. She’d push his black hair to the side since it had the wonderful tendency to fall over his eyes while he ate. He would ask her to stop but that endeared him to her even more. It reminded her of her father’s hair when she was a child.
Alice made sure that Basil ate his slice of huckleberry pie. Afterwards, they went to Basil’s bedroom without a word. He had a single bed so they lay on their sides, face to face. Their bodies were only inches apart, their mouths, their lips, closer still. They almost never touched.
“That boy knows you’ll cause a world of trouble if he breaks into your space,” noted Mary. “Your rules entice him.”
Alice stared into Basil’s eyes. Believing Alice to be deaf, he would talk about his passions, his dreams, and his fears. About how his mother used to hit him. About how he had gone from being angry to lonely to lustful. Things he had never told anyone else. It was like therapy for Basil and Alice knew she could offer him release.
Alice listened carefully to Basil but as the night wore on, his speeches turned her eyes around, inward. She gave the illusion of listening by occasionally letting him caress her face while he spoke.
Instead, her mind drifted back to her own past like an anaconda swallowing its own tail. Back to her mother dying, still cursing Alice’s father. How Alice chose silence for all her coming days. She replayed how she ended up here in Montana, how she had lived and worked in the three greatest eating cities in the country with the help of men; how these men had driven her out of these cities just as fast; why she hated men; why she loved them; why she had decided to do what she was doing; why Stagecoach Mary was her best friend.
“It’s this simple,” Mary interrupted, “This boy, Basil, is still made of tomorrows. You, Alice, are made of yesterdays.”
Basil tried putting his hand on Alice’s waist but she winced. His hands were rough and not at all symmetrical. It made her think of Caesar’s hands. Alice slowly began to shake her head.
“He knows to back off and keep gabbin’” said Mary. Alice looked up and smiled at Mary.
Alice thought about what she was doing to Basil. She thought about forgiveness. Her childish thoughts came back to play in her head. Even her name: she was forever one letter away from being Alive.
Alice watched Basil’s expression but she was already fixated on something else. She’d never forgotten Caesar’s hands. It was five years ago in the elevator on her way to a sous chef interview in Manhattan where she made contact with Caesar’s hands. He became fascinated by her when he discovered she was a deaf-mute. Caesar asked her out and she nodded in agreement, her eyes swimming toward the shores of his hands.
Caesar rattled on that night in her apartment about how beautiful she was. All the while, she remained silent, entranced with his gorgeous hands waving around like a symphony conductor’s. She could tell the exact moment when it occurred to him that he could say anything he wanted to her and she couldn’t hear. It was clear that Caesar expected Alice for dessert. She got up, shook her head, and opened the front door, resting her right hand on the doorjamb. Caesar stopped at the doorway, daring her to refuse him again.
Alice sighed deeply and shook her head quietly and with purpose. The menace in his eyes surfaced quickly. Caesar slammed her front door and stormed off. The door crushed her right index finger, destroying her cooking promise and her beauty forever. She didn’t scream or curse. She walked the few blocks to the emergency room, losing her finger, but never uttering a word.
Alice blinked and was back in bed with Basil. Stagecoach Mary reached out to Alice and told her to put away the angry memories, to move on with her life. The connection between these two women, bridged over a century, was immediate and visceral to Alice. Mary loved telling the story of her long toothpick, so while Basil droned on about his job, Mary asked Alice if she wanted to hear it again. Alice was grateful for the distraction.
“Back in 1863 now, Julian Santos lands himself a job as bartender in Cyrus’ Saloon, a shady and disreputable bar in Bannack, Montana. His only possession was a guitar his Spanish grandfather made him.
“One night, Julian’s performin’ for some drunken miners with gold dust to spend when suddenly the noisy saloon goes quiet with a shudder. They’s all starin’ at a black stagecoach driver: two hundred pounds, a rifle in one hand, a pistol and a Bowie knife tucked away in my belt, puffin’ a cigar and wearin’ a scowl.
“Everyone knows not to cross me. Even from five counties away, people heard of Stagecoach Mary.
“I’s the only woman in town allowed to drink in the saloon. So I sits down alone, like I always did, opened a bottle of whiskey and began a deep and personal relationship with it.
“Now Julian comes up to Ol’ Mary and asks me to take a drink with him. I holds up my half-empty bottle of snake juice and tells him I’s plannin’ on killin’ the rest of the night by myself. But he jest looks at me, all serious. Leans over and tells me, all soft in my dusty ear, that he could drink my eyes in. Well, darlin’, Ol’ Mary nearly lost herself a lung in that saloon from laughin’ so hard. What the hell this crazy Spaniard be talkin’ ’bout? So this Julian’s pretty embarrassed right about now, especially since they’s all lookin’ at me laughin’ at him. Pretty soon, they starts to laughin’ themselves. Girl, it spread like wildfire on dry brush.”
Alice could never help but smile at this part of the story.
“Well, child,” continued Mary, “Julian walks off, all red-faced. A couple times later, you know, over a few weeks here and there, Julian tries to tell Ol’ ugly Mary that he loves me. Starts talkin’ ’bout my pretty eyes. I don’t know what the hell he’s goin’ on about except I keep tellin’ him that he’s got himself the wrong Mary or some kinda’ brain fever. This Mary here is black as burnt wood and got a face that’d make a horse get up on two legs and jump off a steep rock. So each time he comes for his courtin’, I sends him away like it’s all a big mistake and he heads away sulkin’.
“Now, one night while I’m delivering mail to Virginia City, I get word at one of the stops that Julian done hung himself to death, all on account of his lovin’ me and bein’ rejected. Well, all I could do was start to cry but the boys, they all start lookin’ at me. So I turned that cry into a mighty laugh for poor Julian.
“Them boys took up the laughter with me. I seen some poor, horrible sights in my day. Menfolk is the ugliest things.”
Alice motioned quietly. Basil stirred and got up to use the bathroom. Alice wondered if he’d be coming back. She thought about winding up alone in bed. She thought about being stood up at the altar, waiting for Reuben.
After Caesar in New York, Alice moved to New Orleans and met Reuben. She told herself she was never going to fall in love again. Pale, tall, pudgy, and a sloppy dresser, Reuben looked like a giant ear of corn that had been half-husked. He told her she was perfect and all her defenses broke down. She got a job as saucier at a trendy restaurant in the French Quarter next door to an old-time pharmacy. The pharmacist flirted with Alice several times until he realized that she was in love with Reuben. After a brief romance, Reuben kissed the stub where Alice’s tenth finger belonged and asked her to marry him.
One week before their wedding, Reuben confessed that he had cruel sexual intentions in store for her and Alice winced. When he realized she could hear him, he looked at her strangely, seeing her imperfections for the first time. Alice never saw Reuben again.
On the night of her cancelled wedding, Alice wandered into the church where she was to be married. One of the priest’s cats walked up to Alice, sensing her profound pain. The cat rubbed its long body against Alice’s ankles, circling them over and over, reminding her how she kept coming back to the same place in her life no matter how far she traveled, despite how much wiser she thought she had grown.
“You should have kept the cat,” she Mary, “they’re good when the blue demons come.” Then, after considering Alice a bit more, she added, “In fact, you should have taken two of them, like aspirin.”
From then on, Alice’s eyes turned cold and held the loneliness of a prairie moon. She would walk around and sign to no one in particular, cursing the heavens for creating this need of hers, this need for men. Like the opposite of a vampire, she would seek them out and give her lifeblood to them.
Briefly, and for reasons of her own, she dated the pharmacist next door to the restaurant.
Basil came back to bed, quiet as a prayer. Alice realized she was the closest thing that he would ever come to a church. This bed was the altar where he chose to make his confession. Alice wondered if she was capable of giving Basil absolution. In a way, his confessional to her was a fitting end to her relationship with men. This was the final excursion into their hearts before she launched towards uncharted waters. In her mind’s eye, she saw her own confession. She thought of mercy for Basil. Then suddenly, her past swept up and covered her present situation like a fine cotton bed sheet being stretched out for the first time. Her memories crept up in front of her every time she was at Basil’s.
After Reuben, Alice moved to San Francisco and bought a restaurant. Cooking became her life. Her lack of a right index finger kept her from top-quality work but she made do. And she continued not to speak. She would constantly be on the run from intimacy in her personal Witness Relocation Program from men.
Then, one day, Alfredo walked into her kitchen and swept Alice off her feet. His business card told her he was a vice president at a successful investment firm. His face told her he was handsome, romantically foreign, and younger than she. He was the first man she ever knew who didn’t talk incessantly. She thought he might be it: the one that would bring balance to her disturbed and uneven ledger. After three months of dating, looking for red flags, and finding none, she agreed to have him take care of her finances. He moved in and made sure everything was in both their names.
The week after Alfredo moved in, Alice was at her bank to make a deposit. The teller informed her that Alfredo had closed her account that morning. He had taken all her money and disappeared. The investment firm had never heard of him.
Alice pursued Alfredo, having worked too hard to save money in this savage world. When she finally confronted him, he told her the time he invested in their relationship was fair exchange for the money he had taken. That night, Alfredo burned her restaurant to the ground and collected on the insurance. And again, Alice stayed silent.
Basil shifted and Alice focused on what he was saying. His speech had not been affected yet. She glanced past Basil at Stagecoach Mary. Alice thought of her mother who died shortly after finding out that Alice’s father had sired a child with another woman while still married to her.
“I think someone needs to stop listening to this no-account pisspot dribble on ’bout his sad life and hear the end of my story,” said Mary.
Alice reflected for a moment. Ashamed at getting this sweet ghost upset, she looked up from Basil and her eyes pleaded Mary to go on.
“All right then. So, I gets back to town and, sure enough, everyone’s talkin’ ’bout poor Julian and how he done kill himself. Cyrus, his boss, hands me Julian’s guitar. Says Julian wanted me to learn to play it.
“Now I starts to feel bad for Julian and even think that I treated him wrong. Maybe, I’m figurin’, he seen somethin’ in me I can’t see myself, like maybe he had a special mirror. Cyrus goes on ’bout how he’ll teach me to play Julian’s guitar on Thursday night. Now, he knows that Thursday’s the night I deliver gold dust to the miner’s court over at Rockslide but Cyrus starts wailin’ ’bout how he ain’t gonna’ get into heaven on account he can’t fulfill a dead man’s last wish. I says fine. I’ll learn guitar Thursday night before I head out.”
Mary became quiet for a moment. The image of this black angel crackled in Alice’s eyes like a campfire.
“Mary here ain’t never been much for gettin’ attention but, I gotta’ say, for once it was nice. Too bad it was comin’ from a dead man. There ain’t never been anythin’ wrong with sweet Julian, I tells myself, except I kept sendin’ him away. Sent him to die is what I did. Well, Thursday night comes along and I park my horses and coach in the back of Cyrus’ saloon. Turns out Cyrus don’t know a damn thing about guitars. We’re in the back room of the saloon and he’s tellin’ me to hold the guitar like a cello and even I know better than that. Julian’s luscious instrument sounds like we doin’ surgery on a goat.
“Outside, I hear my horses gettin’ nervous so I go to see about them. I’m holdin’ the guitar in my left hand on account that my right hand is my shootin’ hand. I still remember what a cool, clear night it was. And I see Julian in my coach huntin’ through the mail. Huntin’ for the gold dust delivery.
“Julian looks up and sees me. He’s got a gun in his holster but he ain’t that quick. He didn’t give a damn about Ol’ Mary, just wanted her gold dust. Fooled the whole damn town, too. Cyrus and him probably plannin’ to leave tonight.
“Now, he’s nervous and holdin’ his gun all wrong like he’s cradlin’ a baby. He can’t hold a gun and I can’t hold his guitar which should make us about even. Only we ain’t close to being even. My only problem is I don’t want no blood getting’ on the letters. So, I walk real slow towards him.
“Child, I crashed that guitar across poor Julian’s face. Now I gotta’ tell you, Spanish wood ain’t too stable ’cause that wood splintered and shattered everywhere. I kept one of the long splinters of guitar wood as a souvenir. Used it as a toothpick. Julian talked kinda’ funny after that. I’d bring him a huckleberry pie every Thursday night when I’d visit him in jail and I’d ask him to tell me about my pretty eyes again.”
Alice breathed deeply and watched Basil. He was finally dead. She got up and padded over to the kitchen. From her pocketbook, she took out the small vial of meprobromate and observed it was half-full. She was glad that something productive came out of dating the pharmacist in New Orleans. He had told her how the meprobromate, if taken in extended, small dosages, would slowly turn your stomach to stone. It was her own recipe: meprobromate and scotch stirred with her guitar toothpick. She had made it for Basil on each of their Thursday night dates. She also added some to the huckleberry pie for good measure. Stagecoach Mary grinned and said, “Come on, girl. You know you did the right thing.”
She knew she did. Alice’s mother had died of a broken heart. Her father had run off and remarried. Alice hadn’t found her father yet. But she had found his son from his other marriage. Basil. He looked just like Alice’s father.
Alice thought of the stack of maps in her car. She looked at the huckleberry pie on the kitchen counterŅone slice down and four to go. Mary brushed the black hair from Basil’s peaceful face and caressed Alice’s hands.
“Let’s go now, child.”
And with that, Alice picked up Stagecoach Mary’s framed picture and left the house, locking the door behind her.
When Jilted Alice spoke, she said out loud, “Now where do the rest of them live?” She didn’t recognize her own voice. But she liked it. She got into her car and quickly drove down the road, eager to speak to the other men in her life.