ISSUE 3 · FALL 2009
Deena and William told him about their engagement at Bakerson’s over coffee and scones, William’s idea. They sat in the booth beside the drafty window. Alfonso removed his shades. He felt them looking at him. Everything smelled of icing and yeast.
Deena said, “We have news we want to share.”
Alfonso nodded. She sounded excited but not much. “News?” he said.
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” William said. He slurped coffee. “Where’d you go to college? Alfonso?”
“I didn’t finish college,” he said. “Where did you?”
“Will,” Deena said, almost whispering.
An old lady in another booth said her bear claw was stale. How was she supposed to eat a stale bear claw?
“No, it’s a fair question,” William said. He cleared his throat. “Washington University business school is where I went. Class of ‘93. Same year as the Great Flood.”
“Sounds important.” Alfonso picked up a scone, its texture hard and grainy. Before his relationship with Deena failed, they had eaten breakfast together here on Wednesday mornings at six o’clock, when the bakery opened. The draft curled around their legs. She brought cookbooks and read them aloud and annotated with a pen that made a smooth gliding sound on the pages. Carne asada, she had said. Jugo de Mango. Her Spanish tripped on the way out but she read anyway. In this very booth.
“It is important,” William said. “One of the students in my class was Mongolian. Isn’t that strange? How often do you see Mongolian graduate students?”
Deena whispered something to herself. Alfonso broke off a piece of scone. Crumbs tinkled on the plate. Some point was being made that had no relevance to Deena’s news. “Okay, so the guy was Mongolian,” Alfonso said.
“Will, can I tell him now?” One of her tiny hands smacked on the table. Her news had everything to do with the past.
“No, the Mongolian was female,” William said.
“Can you say something in Mongolian?” Alfonso asked. He held the scone poised and crumbling in his fingertips. A female Mongolian was unusual but how was she strange? Maybe she couldn’t afford the luxury of digression. Maybe Mongolians were people who got to the point.
“I never actually talked to her.”
Deena whispered fiercely now. She hadn’t changed. Alfonso opened his mouth to speak, and closed it again. The scone dropped to the plate. “No news is good news, I guess.”
“Alfonso,” she said, “William and I are engaged. We’re getting married.”
The old lady spoke again. She thanked someone, said yes, it’s nice and hot, fresher, much better, and thanked the person who had brought her another bear claw. Alfonso smiled. He felt her joy.
. . .
Before work the next day they discussed Alfonso’s peculiarities. Deena was showering. William was tweezing his eyebrows over the sink.
“Are you sure it was a good idea?” he said.
“I thought you liked Alfonso,” she called out. She squeezed cold shampoo into her hand.
“I can’t figure out what he wants is all.”
Deena lathered her hair. Alfonso had made love like an obsession, like an exploration of territory already covered. Hands like eyes. Fingers like eyelashes. She stood under the shower and it covered her.
“It was weird,” William said. “I got the feeling he could see me. Like he smells me or something. He smells me.”
Deena knew what he meant. Alfonso could smell her, too. The shampoo lather filmed from her hair and over the rise of her collarbone. William coughed. She heard him swear and wipe fog off the mirror. Lather continued down her body like feathers. Why couldn’t William take advantage of her? She wished he would intrude on her private moments once in a while. She finished rinsing and turned off the water. “Hand me a towel,” she said.
When he reached over the curtain rod with a towel, she sank a little in disappointment.
. . .
The wail of an ambulance woke Alfonso early in the morning. There was no other traffic noise and the birds were silent. The pillowcase smelled like hair. He had a hard time getting back into sleep. Earplugs were in the bathroom cabinet, by the floss. A temptation, earplugs. He liked to squeeze the soft foam. It grew back in his fingers. Then it grew back in his ears, blind to sound, and the only thing that could wake him was tear gas. The mattress gave little support, like damp clay. The temptation to wear earplugs to bed had been growing. Night was lonely. He thought about sleeping with the lights on just to laugh.
He sank for a long time in the mattress, until traffic rushed in the street. It irritated him, the traffic. During lulls finches chirped and carried on from the sill. The birds also irritated him. They were making a nest. They’d have eggs. The eggs would hatch and they’d have chicks. The chicks would beg with their fluttering chirps and the parents would retrieve food for them. The chicks would irritate him, eventually, after they hatched. Alfonso was hungry. He didn’t want to think about birds and traffic. He pressed a button on his clock. It spoke to him in monotone: The time is eight, fif-teen, a.m. He pressed the button a second time. It spoke to him again: The time is eight, fif-teen, a.m.
. . .
At work Deena couldn’t believe how much time she spent filling empty columns with dollar-figures, percentages, numbers. It was 10:15 and she wanted to go home. Her head drooped with secondary thoughts, the morning’s earlier disappointment. Showers were made for fantasies. A shower poured options all over you. Wash quickly if you need to be someplace. Take your time if you want to fantasize. Did William ever fantasize?
She pushed back from her desk. She rubbed her eyes, blinked away the glow, and looked at the crystal ball she had saved, no bigger than a rubber ball a child might buy from a vending machine. It rested in a curved cradle on a triangular base. A piece of curiosity from a jewelry store long out of business. Light opened through the window behind her and warmed the back of her neck, glared off the computer screen, shone through the crystal ball. She glanced up at the clock. The office was unusually quiet. Keyboards clicked. The photocopier hummed. A stapler bit. Deena forgot what she had been thinking about.
. . .
At Bakerson’s one Wednesday morning in July 1993, Deena read an article to Alfonso from the Southern Illinoisan about the Mississippi River threatening to spill over the flood wall in Cape Girardeau. The flood snuck up on people. Levees were being overrun along both sides of the river above Cairo. Alfonso wondered what all that water sounded like.
She stopped reading. “I’d like to help these people but I’ve got so much to do.”
Alfonso nodded. He had heard about the National Guard filling and piling sandbags. He just wanted to hear the water. The feeding from so many tributaries.
She folded the newspaper and placed it beside her cookbooks. “Do you ever think about volunteering?” she said, looking at his eyes. They were white clouds.
“If I did, nobody’d give me anything to do that’s worth doing.”
The draft curled around their legs.
Deena imagined moving in with him, how liberating it would be. She said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about something . . . but I’m afraid to ask. I’m afraid you’ll tell me no.”
“Don’t make me guess,” he said. They had been a couple for six months. He had no tolerance for guesswork. No substitute for exact quantities. Surprises were as repellant to him as whispering.
“It’s not that important,” she said. Alfonso seemed to stare directly at her. He was older than her by a decade and projected nothing, would be invisible if not for his handicap. But somehow the world grew dull around him, as if all experience flowed naturally into him. And he let everything in. When she experimented with recipes, he ate them. The undercooked pollo, the risky lengua, the inedible salsa suave that sent him dancing in a blind man’s grope to her kitchenette, where he banged his knee on a cabinet handle and drank down a quarter-gallon of milk, and afterward sweated for twenty minutes, smiling and shaking his head. It was important to her, but he never asked for anything. How could she ask to move in?
She opened a cookbook and flipped through the pages. Alfonso got up and walked around tables and chairs as if he saw them. At the counter he ordered coffee in a styrofoam cup. When he came back he said, “I’m ready to go. Are you coming?”
They went to his apartment, the upstairs of a jewelry store that had been going out of business the past six months.
“Let me know if you want me to go to the store for anything,” Deena said.
“I don’t need anything,” he said. “I’m not going out again today.”
In a corner she stacked her cookbooks and pens. The lights were off. Sunlight came in through a window. He owned no tables, no chairs. She sat on the floor and took the newspaper apart by sections. The apartment overlooked the main strip through town, northbound lanes of Highway 51. There was little noise aside from traffic. She heard him moving about in the dark. In the oblong stretch of sunlight she spread out the Help Wanted section. She began to read silently through the ads.
After a while, Alfonso said, “Are you by the window? Of course you are. Open it and look on the sill.”
She did so and found a small package, the first gift Alfonso had ever given her. Snowmen and holly leaves twirled on the wrapping paper. Smiling, she brought in the package. It made a liquid sound.
A moment later he appeared out of the dark carrying his cello and a wooden stool. “It’s something I hope you like,” he said.
“Well, the wrapping paper is wonderful.” The package was wrapped almost perfectly but she didn’t want to embarrass him by asking if he had wrapped it himself. He wasn’t a child.
He sat on the stool, the cello next to him. “Open it,” he said.
“Christmas in July,” she said and chuckled and felt foolish. She unwrapped the paper so as not to tear it. The liquid sound came from a plain white box with a flap at the top. She opened it and pulled out a bottle of perfume. The label read Blindness.
“Perfume,” she said.
He turned his head as though to stare into the dark. “Don’t put it on yet.”
“Wow. How much . . . I mean, did I forget something? Because I feel bad that I didn’t get you anything.”
He said nothing else and stood the cello on a point, nestled its curves between his legs. Deena thought he was smiling but the light fell short. A smile clad in shadows could be a sneer; he did either so rarely. The room tensed around him and he plucked a cello string, a note throbbing out. Another, nearly identical, hummed from his throat, wavering, an oscillation of air. The bottle in her hand had insignificant weight. She held it, and herself, still. With his other hand he adjusted a key in the cello’s head, and the wavering notes came together in stereo, and held there, then stopped. Alfonso leaned into the light. His hand followed the cello’s curving body.
Deena stayed all day and listened. The Help Wanted section lay on the floor beneath the window. The bottle of Blindness stood on top of her cookbooks. This expensive perfume, this gift out of nowhere, hidden on the windowsill of all places. Alfonso produced a bow and the cello sung mournfully. She felt as though she were being punished. How much closer could she listen? She took off her shoes and closed her eyes and leaned toward the sound.
They ate noodles for lunch on the floor by the window. They spoke little to each other. The noise of traffic filled the spaces between.
Alfonso practiced until early evening, always aware of Deena watching him, the little sounds she made, her polite coughs and the rustle of her clothes. She wasn’t reading as she usually did, which concerned him little. He didn’t understand her obsession with perfecting these Mexican recipes. If there was a problem, she would say something.
After practicing, he lay the cello in its hardcase on the bedroom floor. Deena said, “Do you want me to stay the night?”
“Do you want to?” The lid fell shut, and he secured the latches.
“I’d like to,” she said.
“What else would you like?”
What she wanted was to try on the Blindness but he had told her not to. She wanted to move in with him and find a job but was afraid to ask. For now she contented herself with staying the night, this would be the first time, and with not having to walk past the housing authority high-rise on the way to her own apartment.
. . .
In bed something overcame him. He began with her hair. He ran it through his fingers, between his palms like a flat iron. Something took over. He knew where he was going but not from where. She straddled him. He reached up, cradled her head, pulled her to him. The smell of her neck was its own smell, her skin its own taste, as licorice had its own taste. He consumed her, and through his hands and fingers, his inhalations, the cool spots where his tongue had been, she felt how he loved, how he made love, how he would always love, but when she emerged afterward, in his bed, his topography, how was a question whose answers were lost, and she was too tired to go off looking for them again.
. . .
The idea of Deena marrying William followed Alfonso for a week. He decided to stop shaving. After a few days his beard grew coarse. It pleased him because now when his hands itched, the beard could scratch them. He worked at the Wrecking Yard, a music store where he taught the electric bass to teenagers. No one at work said anything about his beard.
A week later, near the end of May, Deena called him. He was struggling to give a lesson to a boy in proper finger-position on the bass fretboard. You couldn’t tell a young student, an adolescent boy, to hold the instrument as you would hold a woman. A sales clerk knocked on the sound-room door and told Alfonso he had a phone call.
“Take a message,” he said, suspecting Deena.
“The lady says it’s important,” the clerk said.
A telephone had not existed in Alfonso’s apartment since 1987. “I don’t care. I’m teaching.”
After the lesson, he went to ask about the message. An electric guitar blared somewhere in the back of the store. The sales clerk read the message: “Deena wants you to come to dinner at her and William’s house on Friday, six p.m.”
“They’re getting married,” Alfonso said.
The clerk scratched his head. He was maybe twenty years old. “Do you want this?” he asked.
Alfonso imagined another discussion about Mongolians over a meal of burnt lengua, or something else equally distasteful. “Let them get married,” he said. “I don’t care.”
“I meant the paper I wrote the message on,” the clerk said.
. . .
Deena couldn’t sleep the first time she spent the night at Alfonso’s apartment. The kitchen light was on, a stark yellow bulb in the ceiling. She got out of bed and went to relieve herself. The bathroom cabinet had no door, the shelves inside almost bare. What was in his cabinet? Curiosity got the better of her. As soon as she finished, she turned the light on and looked. Aspirin, eye drops, a packet of white oval-shaped pills, an Ace bandage, anti-bacterial cream, toothpaste, and two boxes of ear plugs. Dozens of pairs of foam ear plugs. Years ago Alfonso had gigged and recorded with a jazz group, the Seemly Trails Band. He played the LPs for her once on a turntable he kept in his closet. There he was in the sleeve credits, upright bass, Alfonso Lake. Deena didn’t understand jazz music. It was too scattered.
The floor creaked behind her and she jumped. Alfonso stood in the hall. “You scared me,” she said.
“You got up,” he said. In the light his naked body was the color of fishbelly, with bruises and little puckered scars about his hips, knees, and shins. That he walked around like this, unaware of light or dark, struck her as absurd. She crossed her arms over her own bare chest.
“Are you done in there?” he said.
“I’m done,” she said.
. . .
The next day Alfonso was surprised when Deena said she wanted to stay, but had to go home for clothes. He didn’t believe her, but he might enjoy the company for a change. While she was gone he played the cello. When had he last restrung it? To his ear the tone had been turning to mud. Oil and dirt had built up on the strings. They gave too easily to pressure.
A few hours later Deena came back, heavily perfumed. “I bought a newspaper,” she said.
“How much perfume did you spray?”
“What? Just a few squirts,” she said. “I love the way it smells, it’s so delicate. Thank you.”
There was nothing delicate about Blindness. Alfonso felt a sideways sensation in his head. Dizziness. He tried to swallow, could not. A flood of stuff welled up in his sinus cavity.
A paper sack crinkled near the window. “I figured out why you gave me this perfume,” Deena said. “This was a six-month anniversary gift, wasn’t it?”
“Jesus,” he coughed out.
“What’s wrong?” Her tiny hand settled on his shoulder. “You’re so tense.”
He waved a hand in disorientation. Perfume shouldn’t have this power. Liquid ran from his nostrils. Tears popped in his eyes. The taste entered his mouth, as bitter as orange peels. Airlessness surrounded him, and he gasped. He felt as if he might pass out.
Deena moved back. “I’m sorry, I thought you wouldn’t mind.” Her voice cracked. “I didn’t know.”
“I’ll be fine,” he managed to say.
. . .
The perfume teetered in his brain, slowing eventually. Alfonso had never been on a boat. Was this the feeling of seasickness? By mid-afternoon the dizziness passed. Deena had showered off the Blindness. She was frying sausage now. The grease sizzled. A thunderstorm swept in hard and scoured the window. They sat on the bed to eat.
In his saliva the perfume lingered, but the spices blended in the sausage, fused with a pattern like music. Cumin, garlic, chili powder, paprika?, black pepper. “This is really good. I mean, this is wonderful,” he said.
Deena chewed, her mouth hurrying to acknowledge the compliment. “Thank you,” she said, and then, “I got you something today, a gift, for our six months. I waited to give it to you because you were choking. Too much perfume, huh.”
“You didn’t need to buy anything,” he said. His plate rested in his lap. He broke off chunks of sausage with his fingers. The sausage wasn’t meat so much as it was a sensual delight, like going to a movie.
“Hold out your hand,” she said.
“Deena . . .”
“Hold it out. Come on, hold it out. I want to give this to you.”
Alfonso held out his hand. In it she placed something cool and weighty. He closed his fingers around the thing, a spherical thing. A glass ball. He wondered what he was supposed to do with a glass ball. It rolled in his palm. He saw no use for it whatsoever.
“Do you like it?” she said.
“What exactly is it?”
“It’s a little crystal ball. It comes with a stand. I bought it in the store downstairs. Have you ever gone in there? They have all kinds of strange things in there. These clocks, crystal quartz, crystal balls, glass horses, these beautiful glass salukis. For a moment I thought about buying you a watch but then I thought, what use could he possibly have for a watch, you know?”
“It didn’t cost very much, did it?”
Deena was still. She said nothing more.
Rain continued to punish the window. Alfonso brought the crystal ball to his nose and sniffed. It smelled like sausage.
. . .
On Friday evening at six the Mobility Transit bus dropped him at Deena and William’s house at the edge of town. They lived between town and country, the air thick with hay and manure and mown grass. A cow mooed in the distance. William greeted him at the door.
“Alfonso,” he said. “Nice beard. Come on in, watch your step.”
“It was a joke,” William said.
Alfonso breathed in the scent of Deena’s cooking, her Mexican recipes. Barba coa and lemon, actual lemons, not the juice from lemon-shaped bottles. Beans and rice, tomatoes and garlic, nothing too heavy, nothing out of proportion. The house smelled outrageous and tempting. It smelled of art. They seemed to be doing well. He regretted having come here.
“Alfonso’s here,” William called out.
Her heels clicked across a hardwood floor. “Good to see you,” she said. “You’re growing a beard.”
They sat down to dinner. A violin pastoral, Vivaldi, played in the background.
“You made barba coa,” Alfonso said.
“I finally got it right,” Deena said.
A spoon tapped on a plate. A cork squeaked in a bottle, and popped out. William said, “Would you like some wine? Alfonso?”
“I don’t drink.”
A moment later Deena swished to his side––she was wearing a skirt––and set a plate before him. He leaned over it. Steam moistened his face.
She was wearing Blindness.
“Deena told me an incredible story about you,” William said. He sipped wine. “Well, more of an anecdote.”
Alfonso found the fork beside his plate and held it. She still wore that perfume. But did William actually like it?
Deena said quietly, “Will, don’t.”
Alfonso began to poke at the food. “No, no, I don’t mind,” he said. “Go on.”
“She tells me you saw the Halloween riots from your apartment back in the eighties.”
“So to speak, yes,” Alfonso said. He raised the fork to his mouth and could have melted to the floor in a quivering puddle of delight. It was perfect. If he choked on this food he wouldn’t mind.
“So you wear ear plugs when you sleep, even though you’re blind. I don’t get it. Why would you do that? I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but that would make you blind as a bat.”
“William!” Deena said. “For Christ’s sake.”
The food went down easy, as if it were not possible to choke on it. He put the fork on the table, and rested his hands in his lap. “Sirens, shouting, mob action all wake me up,” he said. “It used to be so bad even a car going by would do it. So I started wearing ear plugs to sleep. It’s no different than wearing a blindfold.”
“I’m sorry, Alfonso,” she said.
“I believe it’s called a sleep mask,” William said.
Alfonso ignored the comment. “I got used to wearing ear plugs through the winter, spring, and summer. They were a Godsend. I thought nothing of the college kids returning in the fall. This was 1986. I forgot all about Halloween. They got out of hand. I understand they flipped over cars, set a few on fire. Smashed windows. Threw rocks at police. This was going on right outside my window. I couldn’t have cared less. But the State Police fired tear gas. The window was shut but the gas seeped in. I couldn’t breathe. I woke up and thought I had glass in my throat. The ear plugs bottled everything in my head, like I was trapped in a room-inside-a-room. I didn’t know where I was. I jumped up, ran, collided with a wall and knocked myself out.”
He took a breath. He was tired of explaining himself. Violins echoed off the walls. He was surrounded by violins. Deena sighed.
“Come on, now,” William said. “What if the fire alarm had gone off? It could have been smoke instead of tear gas. What if a burglar was ransacking your apartment? You wouldn’t hear it.”
The paramedics had asked the same questions. The police officer who took his statement had asked the same questions. Deena had asked the same questions. Alfonso had wanted only to sleep soundly through the night. Dying in your sleep was the least painful way to go. This suited him just fine.
Alex Phillips is originally from southern Illinois, but lives currently in Mankato, Minnesota with his wife and daughter. He is editor of The Corresponder, a biannual review of books by Minnesota authors. “Strung” is his first published story.