Alice and Juno in Hell | By Mary Duquette
The first call came on Thursday over the landline. It rang ten minutes after Alice got home from her new job as Kitchen Assistant at Jacque’s. She sat in her apartment in front of the television set with her coat on and her feet stretched out over the ottoman and picked up the phone on the second ring.
“Hi, Alicia.” The voice was low and seductive – a kind of sepia tone, if it could have been a color, she thought. “What are you wearing?”
“My coat,” Alice said, fingering her collar.
“What else, Alicia?”
“Why…why do you keep calling me Alicia?”
“That’s your name, isn’t it?”
“No. It’s Alice.”
“Alice?” The voice sounded puzzled.
“Yes. Like, in Wonderland.”
“You must have the wrong number,” Alice said.
“Is this 328-5446?”
“Yes, it is.”
“I don’t know how I got the name wrong. I was so sure it said Alicia.” The voice sounded forlorn and flattened.
“How did you get this number?”
“The white pages.”
“You just called a random number from the white pages? To any old Alicia?”
“Yes. I know that sounds…”
“It’s okay,” Alice said after a moment. “Listen, maybe you want to know what else I’m wearing, or something.”
“Sure.” The voice brightened.
“Okay.” Alice looked down at her clothes. “I’m wearing my tan jumper with a white t-shirt under, and black stockings with green sneakers, the lace-up kind. Oh, and under that, a pair of pink cotton underwear, and a white bra that fastens in the front.” She leaned further back in the chair. “I added the last part especially. I thought you’d appreciate that.”
“Yes. That’s good.”
“I’m about to make dinner,” Alice said. “I was thinking a meatball Stromboli. I might put on an apron for that. It’s a red apron, with ruffles at the bottom.”
“Can you take off all your clothes and just wear the apron?”
Alice paused. She looked down at her tan jumper, which had absorbed into the chair, the chair’s tan blandness blending into the beige carpet almost seamlessly, as if chair and carpet were one flat mass – an illusion she hadn’t noticed before. “It might get splattery,” she said slowly. “But, okay.” She stood up and took off her coat and slipped off her shoes and stockings and underwear. She put the phone on speaker.
A week later, he called a second time. She stood at the stove with the phone on speaker, naked except for a neat pinafore-type apron with the words, “Kiss the Cook,” scrawled on the front. The pinafore made her feel somewhat like a sexy French maid, sans feather duster – but it had a back, which really didn’t seem French-maid-ish at all.
“The mushrooms,” she said. “I’m going to slice them until they’re indecent. Strip them down.”
“How indecent? Really indecent?”
“Yes. So they’ve surrendered. So they’re laid out, ready but not ready, submitting. So they’re helpless. Do you like that?” She was becoming irrepressibly aroused. It was not what she had expected or intended but there she was. It occurred to her that she was losing her mind, being seduced by fungus. It was a kind of desperation that she’d rather do without. She pulled her shoulders back, shaking off the spell that had taken her over, a mushroom-spell causing her to forget the steps for the Bourguignon. She melted a pat of butter in a sauté pan and added the chopped mushrooms, stirring them vigorously. She placed the phone in front of her.
“A slap of butter is sizzling in a pan. A firm slap.”
“Tell me about the butter.”
“It’s creamy. Creamy and yellow and drenching the mushrooms. They’re sopping wet with it. Next, I’m going to take the Clafoutis out of the oven and spread cherries on top.”
“You’re going to spread them?”
“I’m going to spread them, lay them so the juice drips down the sides. So they’re lush and peaking, debased. Like nectar, like honeycomb. Bees buzzing around.”
“It’s going to drip all over the sides and probably on the floor. It’s going to be a complete disaster. A five-star, ten alarm.”
Alice dipped her finger in the bowl of cherries and sucked it, the juice running down a corner of her mouth. The thought of him entered her head, his voice soft over the phone like his edges were smoothed over, and she lingered on the headiness of the smells, on the sweet liquor of cherry juice, and her breath caught as she held onto the edge of the kitchen island. She melted into the hard thickness of the laminate countertop, pressing her hips into it, opening her legs. She was as earthy as the mushrooms in the pan at that moment, rubbing herself into the cabinet handle, spread against it, the light from the hallway chandelier luminescent and the scent of dirt and sweetness and salt filled her as the motion of her hips quickened and dissolved.
She waited until her breathing became regulated. “Yes. Same time next week?”
“Sure. What will it be?”
“I think soufflé,” she said, and wiped her hands on her apron.
The calls came weekly, sometimes twice a week. Alice found herself falling into a routine with him like he’d always been her lover, had always been the voice on the other end, but she still had no idea why he called her in the first place – why he had tried to call a girl named ‘Alicia.’ After three separate instances where she cooked a cassoulet, a gratin, and a pot-au-feu in the nude with aprons of various colors and styles, she finally brought it up.
“So, why Alicia?” she asked.
“Alicia is a trigger name for me.”
“What’s a trigger name?”
“A name that gets me horny.”
“Oh.” Alice felt oddly hurt. “Don’t you like Alice?”
“I do now.”
“What’s your name?”
He was silent for a moment. “I’d rather not,” he said. “If you don’t mind.”
“But I should call you something. What should I call you?”
He paused. “Call me Juno.”
“Juno. Okay. You can call me Alicia.”
“That’s generous of you. But you know, I’d rather call you Alice.”
“Oh…” She didn’t know what to say, so she pulled off her shirt, and unhooked her bra. “I’m topless,” she said. “I have no top on.”
He breathed out. “What are you cooking?”
“I’m not cooking,” she said, and fell on the bed.
Alice often ate alone. Since Billy left, she’d eat in the kitchen, standing at the counter. Eating was irrelevant – necessary but trivial, a waste of a moment, when she could instead be watching “America’s Most Hilarious Bloopers,” or sleeping, or playing “Crossword Madness” on her phone. Eating brought a kind of relentless annoyance, like a whiny toddler pulling at her pant leg. It was petulant. She would have liked to kick it away.
Since Juno, though, she had a flicker, a sudden luminosity – in ways she’d never guessed. She cooked in nothing but aprons and sometimes her tall black boots, if she felt peppy. She braised, poached, roasted, sautéed, flambéed. She chopped, julienned, blended, pureed, whipped – appetizers, entrees, cocktails, desserts, the off-the-cuff amuse bouche. Juno’s soothing voice blossomed over the speaker on her phone, and she picked up a knife and slid it into celery stalks and sweet potatoes and plump, ripe olives stuffed with juicy garlic cloves. She inserted large forkfuls of crispy, tender Apple-Cinnamon Bostock into her mouth. She told him what kind of apron she had on, if it tied in back, if it had ruffles, if it covered her breasts in front, if it tied at the waist, or if it fell below her nipples – which was hazardous, particularly if she was cooking bacon. He liked it when her nipples were uncovered, so she managed it as much as possible, but sometimes she said they were showing even when they weren’t, so he’d be happy.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked one day while she simmered a Coq au vin. “Why are you talking to me?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, don’t you have a life? Don’t you have a boyfriend?”
“I had a husband.”
“Oh.” He was silent for a moment. “Divorced?”
“Separated. But, yes. Divorce is imminent.”
“Oh, you know. Things.”
“No, I don’t. What things?”
Alice tied and untied her apron. “It’s of no consequence,” she said. “It doesn’t concern you.”
“I think it does.”
She picked up a wooden spoon from the counter and set it in a bowl. “And that,” she said, “is why trysts like this come to an end.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Too many questions,” she said. “I’m not happy with that. I don’t do questions like that.”
“I’m just trying to connect with you,” he said. “I want to know you.”
“Aha,” she said. “But, you see, I just want to have an orgasm.”
He called her Missy Chicken Legs. It was true she had skinny legs – but even so, the words hurt. He’d flick ice chips at her face. “Don’t blink,” he said. “I dare you not to blink. If you blink,” he said, “we do it my way.” She tried not to blink. She forced her eyes open. She imagined it was her superpower, the amazing non-blinking woman. But she had about as much control over that as she did over anything, as it turned out. She ended up being human, with reflexes and self-protective devices such as eyelids that opened and closed.
Billy’s “way” was to take out a belt and hit her with it. She hated belt nights. After, he cried and held her. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I don’t know why I hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Yes, you do,” she said, and he wept harder against her rigid shoulder, her raw bones, which felt brittle and unsubstantial. He fingered her hair and wove it between his knuckles, and she was numb, a gigantic nobody, his body on hers heavy like a child. He fell asleep, and she maneuvered him off her, ducked out from under his arms and curled up on the edge of the bed so he couldn’t touch her. He laughed in his sleep, and reached for her, and she skirted further away but he found her and pulled her to him again.
“Baby,” he said. “Baby. You’re a baby. You’re just a girl.” And he rolled his arms around her so tightly she couldn’t think about moving away and she felt his erection and prayed for an escape, even though she wasn’t sure if there was a god listening, or if there was even a god at all, and anyway, it didn’t matter because she couldn’t escape and he did it to her again, this time without the belt but with name-calling (the usual unimaginative diatribe he liked, bitch, slut) and tugging of hair and grabbing and pushing around – and after, further tears and assertions of remorse and she closed her mouth firmly against her teeth and her bones hardened against him once more.
“I want to see you,” Juno said. “Send me a picture.”
She brushed back her hair. “You wouldn’t like it.”
“I’m too skinny.”
“I doubt it.”
“It’s too soon.”
“We’ve been doing this for almost two months. Don’t you want to see me?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t.”
“I think I love you,” he said. “I’ve never felt this way.”
The butter in the pan turned dark brown, a nutty fragrance navigating the room. “The butter is burning,” she said. She didn’t turn down the heat.
He texted her a picture – a sort of far-away shot of him sitting at a table, his arms crossed, smiling but not looking directly at the camera. He looked as if he had just seen someone enter the room and was pleasantly surprised. It was a dreamy expression, but also unsettled, like he was unprepared for something.
“I want you to have this,” he texted. “This is me at Humphrey’s Diner. I thought you’d like it, since I’m eating a cassoulet.”
She looked at the picture. He was smiling, straight, white teeth. Mouth turned up at the corners. His hair was wavy and tucked behind his ears. He looked to be in his late twenties, maybe early thirties. He did not look as if he needed to have phone sex. He looked as if he could have had real sex.
She texted back, “Thanks.”
He called an hour later. “‘Thanks?’” he said. “That’s all you can say, is ‘thanks?’”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I don’t know – love the picture, I like your smile, great hair, nice cassoulet….”
“The cassoulet was nice.”
He laughed in a non-humorous, sarcastic way. “Okay.”
“Question. How many women did you call before me? Two? Three? Fourteen?”
“Why does that matter?”
“Because it does. How many? Do you still call them? Or am I the only one?”
He was silent, which she took as an implication.
“Why do you do it, Juno?”
“Why do you call women you don’t know and ask what they’re wearing? Why do you do that?”
“I don’t know.” His voice altered in tone, as if somehow released. “I’ve never been really close to anyone. I’ve never felt like I belonged anywhere. No one has ever really seen me. Not really. Is that what you wanted to hear? My sad story?”
“So, you call women you don’t know because no one’s ever really seen you?”
“Yes. No. You’re making it sound so…” He breathed out, an intimate sound she imagined on her skin. “Look, the fact is, most women don’t want to talk to me.” He sniffed. “You’re the only one who took a chance. You know? It means something.”
“The only thing it means,” she said, “is that I might be a supreme idiot. With a cataclysmic assortment of aprons. And too much time on my hands.”
“I like your aprons.”
“You’ve never even seen my aprons!” she yelled. “I could be wearing sweatpants, for all you know. I could be wearing a ski parka, or an evening gown with a feather boa and combat boots. I could be wearing a woolen nightie and a ratty beige cardigan, cooking franks and beans. I could be eighty years old, for Christ’s sake!”
“I don’t think you’re eighty years old.”
“That’s not the point.”
“I don’t care if you’re eighty years old. I love you.”
“I’m not eighty years old!”
“I knew it.”
She put her head in her hands. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“Please don’t say that.”
“I have to go.”
She hung up. He didn’t call back.
A month went by, and he didn’t call. She sat by the window and looked out, imagining he was near, maybe peeking in her windows, maybe stalking her. Maybe trying to figure out a way to break in. She found herself wanting him to stalk her. She watched for signs of him up and down the street, but the only thing she saw was Mr. Jansson’s cat, Hercules, trot across the front yard and up the stairs, and a delivery man park near the corner and lift three packages from his truck, carrying them to the Wallace’s door, number 38. She felt like the guy in that Hitchcock movie, scrutinizing the comings and goings of everyone on the block – except he had witnessed a murder, whereas she was just surveying the festival of daily life that she did not partake in, a parade of errant felines and men in delivery uniforms with brown rectangular boxes and trucks that thundered like awakening monsters when the keys were turned.
She went to sleep, and he didn’t call, and she woke up and went to work and came home for lunch, and he didn’t call, and she watched “America’s Funniest Dating Moments,” and he didn’t call, and she went to see a movie – “Grand Flats,” about a Vegas tycoon in the 40s who lived and died alone – and sat by herself in the second to last row and ate popcorn with neon yellow butter, and he didn’t call, and two days went by and she walked through the grocery store searching for Thai red chili paste, and he didn’t call, and she cooked a whole chicken and some mashed potatoes, naked except for a purple apron that she had purchased online, with big fuchsia pockets and appliqued daisies, and he didn’t call. She ate a piece of chicken and one helping of potatoes, and gave the rest to her upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Harriman, who was a shut-in and visited by her daughter once a month, and he didn’t call.
She picked up the phone to call him zillions of times, and zillions of times she hung up.
She didn’t know his real name.
She dreamed about touching him.
She walked to Jacque’s one mid-afternoon, down Wentworth Avenue, and crossed at the park. The man ahead of her strolled between the muted lampposts on either side of the walkway, through the birches and sycamore – long black coat and black boots, wavy hair – and she hurried ahead, almost to his side. He turned, glancing back at her in profile, white beard and glasses, and she slowed and stopped. She found it difficult to breathe, and sat on a bench, her hands curled under on her lap. She wasn’t sure she would know him, anyway, if she saw him. The picture he sent could have been of anyone. He could have a white beard. He could have straight hair and a pinched, closed face. He could have one long braid trailing down his back.
The next day, she texted him a photo of herself. It was the best shot she could find – a sunshiny picture on her cousin’s boat last summer. She had a hat and sunglasses on, and she was smiling. Her legs were covered with a white caftan. She had on a rainbow scarf. She looked happy – that was why she chose it. She closed her eyes briefly and hit Send.
The phone rang five minutes later. She let it ring twice before answering.
“Can I see you?” was the first thing he said.
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Why not? Why?”
She cursed herself. She didn’t know why she had sent him the picture. It was a misrepresentation. She should have just dropped the whole thing. “You’ll be disappointed.”
“I’m telling you right now that I won’t.”
“You probably will.”
“I know your address. You’re listed in the white pages.”
She felt a lurch in her chest at the realization.
“I could come over right now. Do you think I won’t?”
She pressed her fingers together in her lap. “I have a new apron,” she said. Her voice sounded tinny and off-pitch.
“I want to see it in person.”
“It’s purple, with pockets. Wait, I’ll put it on.”
“I’ll come over and see it.”
“If you hold on a minute, I’ll bring the phone in the kitchen and make an etouffee. I’m going to sauté the onions until they’re…”
“Shh. I’m coming over.”
“I’ll be gone.” She hung up and sobbed briefly and ran to the window and looked out. It was raining, and the drops shingled down the glass in tiers.
The buzzer to the lobby rang. She had put on the purple apron and wore her blue and white slipper-socks. It rang again, and she stared at the “talk” button on the panel in the kitchen before pressing it.
“I’m here. Please let me in.”
She leaned on the wall. “Go home.”
“It’s just me. You know me.”
“No, I don’t,” she said. “That’s the point. And anyway, if you knew me, you’d know that I’m hard. I’m not happy. I’m not sunshiny. I’m a fossil. I said I was eighty. I meant it.”
“You’re pretty uninhibited on the phone. On the phone, you’re not a fossil.”
“The phone is safe. It’s detached. It’s Switzerland.”
“Have you heard of Orpheus and Eurydice?”
“I don’t know. Do they sell sectionals on TV?”
“No. So, the story goes, Orpheus comes to release his love, Eurydice, from Hades. The stipulation is, she has to walk behind him, and he can’t turn around to look at her or he’ll lose her forever.”
She was silent, her fingers grazing the buzzer.
“Does he what?”
“Does he look back at her?”
“Does she turn to stone? Does she die?”
“She goes back to hell.”
“And what does he do?”
“He has to leave her behind.”
“Ah.” She smiled, but it wasn’t really a smile. “You see? Meeting in person is a bad idea. Very bad. Terrible things will happen. Rotten, terrible things.”
“I haven’t looked at you yet.”
“But you want to.” She gazed down at her slipper-socked toes. “I’m too skinny,” she said softly. “I’m sort of like a chicken.”
“I don’t mind,” he said. “I like chicken.”
She laughed and pressed her cheek against the wall. “Why did you tell me that story? About Orpheus? Why did you mention it, if whatshername ends up in hell? If he leaves her? What’s the point?”
“Because sometimes you have to take a chance. You might end up in hell, or you might escape hell, but you don’t really know, do you? And if you do go back to hell, at least you lived, at one point. At least you did something. You had your feet in the dirt. You felt a feeling. The sun shone hot on the top of your head. You did something.”
She counted the seconds, measured and fleeting. “What if it hurts?”
“What if it doesn’t?”
Her finger hovered over the buzzer. “You can’t look at me. If you do, I’ll shrink to nothing. I’ll disappear.”
“I’ll close my eyes.”
“Until I say.”
“I made vichyssoise.” she said.
“My name is Julian,” he said.
She pressed the buzzer.
About the Author:
Mary Duquette holds an MFA in Writing from the University of New Hampshire. Her short story, “Masterpieces,” was published in the anthology, Murder Ink 3, and poems, “My Affair with the Early Morning” and “Untitled” were published in Ginosko Literary Magazine. She has recently completed two novels, a short story collection, and a poetry collection. Mary is currently at work on another novel.