daniel-mccullough-yJj-x3bBSao-unsplash.jpg

ALPHONSE DUDA, THE MOST FAITHFUL HUSBAND IN THE WORLD

September 10, 2022

by Jared Billings

 

Alphonse always called himself the most faithful husband in the world, but I didn’t believe him until I met his mistress. In the middle of a room full of grotesque swirling bodies, she touched my face and said, “You must be Chuy.” I recoiled; she must’ve had the softest hands on this side of South America. “The Professor told me you’re entrenched in seminary,” she said. “Is that so?”

I nodded and tried to smile, something I was convinced would never happen when thinking about the Priesthood.

“I’m very spiritual myself,” she said. “Can you tell me my future?”

“I haven’t gotten there yet in my training,” I mumbled. A partygoer bumped into me and pushed us closer together. “Excuse me,” I said, out of habit, or maybe out of ambition.

She smiled and brought her face close to my cheek, whispering into my ear, “I can’t help but wonder, I’m wildly curious, does the church still perform castrations?”

I saw Alphonse over her shoulder, ordering a drink at the bar and looking back at us with his eyebrows raised. “We’re celibate by choice, not force,” I said. “Unless one chooses a woman over God.” A half-joke, but I said it with deadly seriousness.

“That would be the highest compliment imaginable,” she said with a laugh. Her good eye refused to look away from me and I wondered if her other eye, the one under her eyepatch, was able to see into my soul. “You must be as faithful as Alphonse.”

Like an apparition, Alphonse’s head appeared over her shoulder. “An apartment full of drunk academics is worse than a labyrinth of hungry Minotaurs,” he chuckled.

“Hello, Professor Duda,” I said.

“Hello Chuchu,” he replied. “Beatriz, I hope you’re talking about me.”

“Of course we were,” she said. “Chuy here was singing your accolades.”

“Let’s her hear it!” shouted Alphonse. A few of the partygoers whooped in blind response.

If anything, I should’ve said he was quite possibly the only successful writer whose wife actually loved him. I shouldn’t have praised him. After all, I knew he’d heard it all already. I should’ve begun the long, slow process of breaking his ego down bit by bit, a grueling phase every poet eventually went through, most when they grew old and impotent, but I didn’t have the balls.

 “I think your middle years were more productive than they should’ve been,” I said. I figured those types of backhanded compliments flattered him, made him feel less like us, the masses. Alphonse laughed and I pushed back against the throbbing crowd to put some distance between myself and Beatriz.


“Chuy, I heard a hilarious rumor about a propane explosion at the church blowing a Priest’s brains out the back of his head,” said Alphonse. “Is that true?”

I looked at Beatriz and tried to smile, but no words came out.

“Better be careful,” he said. “Even Priests can’t escape God.”

I nodded my head. What else could I do?


“I’ll see you back at home, my friend,” he said with a smile.

“Please tell Miss Anouk I say hello,” I said.

I threaded through the crowd and out the door while Alphonse proposed a toast, with a special thanks to the benefactors of the university, the same people he called bastards, whoremongers, terrorists, and critics on ecstasy in his private lectures.

On my walk home in the humid Buenos Aires air, as thick as perfume, I saw the police pulling a body out of the dump with a small crane jig and placing it down on the road with as much care as a rubber traffic cone. My eyes were drawn to the white collar encircling the cadaver’s neck, a beacon in the night.  The cops looked around at each other in an embarrassed and terribly condescending manner, trying shift the blame in a sick kind of mental game, and I shook my head at their innocence. As a priest, or at least a priest-in-training, I knew it was the whole world’s fault for these kinds of things, not any individual. The real travesty was that the body’s smell was masked by the dump, and the victim didn’t even get the chance for his death to disrupt the world, which is all anyone could want, to follow in the steps of God himself.

A few hours later, Alphonse shook me out of the dead of sleep. “Isn’t she beautiful?” he said.

I shrugged my shoulders and I could have sworn I heard God and Alphonse laughing together in response. “Have you slept with her?” I asked.

“No,” he said, his red drooping eyes looking off into the distance.  “I’m the most faithful husband in the world.”

 He left shortly thereafter, but I couldn’t fall asleep again. Amid the darkness of my room, where fleeting tricks and temptations dipped in and out of the eternal expanse of night, I longed to open up my anthology of Bukowski, or at least a student chapbook, anything to help me ease my mind, but I couldn’t help think that if Alphonse could deny Beatriz for the sake of his marriage, then it had to be possible for me to deny myself for the sake of God. In that moment, I was determined not to be the first to break my commitment.

The next day, I came up from the basement to join Alphonse for drinks, and I found him in a horrible mood, doubled over in pain. It looked like a nasty patch of writer’s block. His typical remedy was unusual, but effective: Miss Anouk cooked him something spicy, which annihilated his sensitive stomach and gave him torrid cases of indigestion and diarrhea. In the chaos of his sickness, his eyes were opened to his own humanity and then the words began to flow again. In a strange way, it made perfect sense, there was a disgusting symmetry of the brain and the body. After his second trip to the bathroom within a half an hour, he sat down next to me on his leather smoking couch and winced.

“You’ve beaten this before,” I assured him. We clinked glasses and I drank the entirety of my mezcal while Alphonse swirled his liquid around the glass. “Writer’s block must happen a million times when you’ve had a career like yours.”

He nodded and grimaced.

“Why’re you so downbeat, then?” I asked.

“This is different,” he said. “Diarrhea won’t do any good at all, as far as I’m concerned. I’m lovesick over this mistress of mine.”

“What about Miss Anouk?”

He ignored me and stared into his glass. “Chuy, when are you going to give up this priestly nonsense?”

“It ebbs and flows,” I said. “But I’m committed.”

“Come audit one of my classes. I bet I can convince you to take up the literary mantle again.”

“No, I don’t think so. God is literary enough for me.”

Alphonse smiled and shook his head. “You know, maybe seminary is right for you since you see God in everything.” As he finished speaking, he shot up from the couch and began to duckwalk towards the bathroom. “My young friend, do you know what makes me the most faithful husband in the world?” he asked without turning back.

I told him I had no idea.

“I’m a coward,” he said as the bathroom door slammed shut.

Beatriz called my apartment later that night. As soon as I heard her voice, I strung the phone into the shower and threw a towel over my heard to mute the sound.

“He’s relentless,” she said.

I laughed and told her all poets were.

“You’re right, we are,” she said. “But how do you know anything about poetry, my holy friend?

“A past life,” I said. “Though I still read some Lugones here and there.” As soon as I said it, I vowed to myself that I would ask God to forgive me for lying.

“A priest who reads poetry,” she whispered. “How fashionable.”

“I’m not sure there’s anything I can do about him,” I said, trying to turn the conversation back to Alphonse. “You may just have to break his heart.”

“There’s no need,” she said, followed by a pause. “Why don't you come out with us tomorrow night, my dear? Alphonse invited me to Area 503.”

I thought there was no way he would allow me to come along, but against my better judgment, I agreed to at least throw out the idea. Beatriz was delighted. I felt like a I was being molded for a singular, mysterious, inevitable purpose, akin to the terror of a breeding horse or the inescapability of a key, with my shifting desire, Alphonse and Beatriz’s forceful whims, and God’s vacuous and uninterpretable pretensions mixing together into a murky metaphysical stew.

A sudden thud of footsteps directly overhead interrupted my thoughts, and then I heard Alphonse grunting through the floorboards. “I need to go,” I said.

“But may I ask you something?”

“Anything at all.”

“What happened to your eye?”

She laughed and said it wasn’t a horrible accident like everyone assumed, it was something normal, something that happened to everyone, but she couldn’t tell me anything more. “The mystery is one of the only advantages I have in this world,” she said before hanging up.

That night, before I went to sleep, I prayed to God for dedication and faithfulness and I apologized to him for my dishonesty and then I asked him if the world would really end in a rain of ash and fire. The silence of my room spoke volumes. When I finally did fall asleep, my dreams swarmed with interchangeable angels and demons fighting in classic wartime uniforms, the types I remembered from grainy footage in grade school. Napoleon governed the demons, at least the side I thought was evil, and Teddy Roosevelt laid charge to the side of the Light. I couldn’t tell who won, despite my position as the all-knowing dreamer, but that was how war always ended up and then I realized it wasn’t just war. Life had a funny way of doing the same thing.

Alphonse loved Beatriz’s idea of including me in their night out. I told him about it as we walked to campus together in the morning, and he practically skipped, something I didn’t know he was capable of at his age, but love makes one do the damndest things. He called me the perfect lure and I wished he would’ve shit himself there on the street. He told me I had everything he needed – youth, a sense of untouchability, and the sensitivity of a male ingénue. I asked him about his faithfulness, which he had described over and over again as the most steadfast in the world.

“Would you take her?” he asked, almost as if it was a challenge.

“I’m celibate,” I said. Although technically true, I promised myself to figure out whether God required penitence for ambiguity.

“Aha!” said Alphonse. “We’re both confident in speaking of our past, and certainly the present, but let’s not pretend to know the future.” He opened his mouth like he meant to speak and then he ate his words and walked forward a few steps before speaking in a hushed tone, “I’d like to put myself to the test.”

“And what about Miss Anouk?” I asked for the second time in as many days.

Alphonse shook his head and stopped walking, turning to me and wagging his finger as he spoke. “I’ve been loyal to her for my whole life, I dare you to doubt it. She’s my second marriage and even in my first marriage I was devoted to her.” He began to walk again and then shouted for all the students and passersby to hear: “It was never consummated!”

We walked a few blocks in silence until we passed by a small square of trees in the middle of the city’s brutal concrete landscape. I thought this green patch looked like a pee-pad for a rodent-dog and, almost immediately, I chastised myself. Where were these wretched thoughts coming from? What had I done to let them into me?

Alphonse, like he could sense my vulnerability, turned to me. “Come with me and my mistress, Chuy,” he said. “Your false innocence will look pathetic next to my desperate, full-frontal desire.”

 

In my divinity class, I completely ignored the day’s lesson on the apocalyptic throughline connecting the Psalms and the book of Revelation. Instead, I daydreamed about what it would be like to meet Alphonse for the first time again, but all the conversations went the same way, more or less:

Hello, Professor Duda, it’s an honor to hear you read out loud.

Thank you, it’s always pleasant to meet a fan, or even just someone who enjoys poetry. Some think it’s a dying breed, but I call it a fledgling language.

I never thought I would find myself in your class. In fact, I never thought I’d find myself in university at all. 

Don’t flatter yourself, it’s much ado about nothing. You’d be smarter if you left as soon as you got here.

But then I’d never hear you again.

Maybe that’s the best thing to ever happen to you.

I doubt it.

No, really. Once these words get in your head, you’re fucked. They may sound beautiful, and they may feel beautiful, but you can never escape them. It’s torture. They degrade you and turn you into some amazing creature.

 Really?

Yes. You’re better off doing the complete opposite, becoming truly honorable.

What would that be?

Taking up the cloth, of course.

Later that night, I rode my motorbike to dinner and purposefully left twenty minutes late, just so I could tease Alphonse into thinking I wasn’t coming. I would’ve left even later, but I could hear Miss Anouk putting the children to bed, singing Frere Jacques to them in a lonely voice, and it infected me with an existential sadness I never thought I would get rid of.

I had gone to Area 503 a few times before, accompanying Alphonse and Miss Anouk. The food at the restaurant was never anything special, the real draw was the after-show, where the crowd was ushered to a gorgeous outdoor veranda with strand upon strand of rose garlands and hanging daffodils, and a group of women in bouffant dresses sang various covers of doo-wop songs from the Fifties. I think, upon hearing these songs, the crowd attained some sort of pseudo-nostalgic high which buoyed them for the rest of the night, or even for days in the future. I hated the possibility of my remembrance of those lovely evenings being marred by this night’s coming unpleasantness, everything devolving into just another fucked up trip down memory lane.

Alphonse yelped at the top of his lungs when I walked in to the restaurant and he shuffled me over to the table before I could take off my jacket. Beatriz wore red lipstick and it matched Alphonse’s red suit, blending him in to the mahogany décor surrounding us. I had never seen a color look so beautiful on one person and so hideous on another.

I seemed to have entered at a point of emptiness in the conversation, if there had even been any prior conversation at all. Alphonse only repeated my name over and over again under his breath, “Chuy, Chuy, Chuy.” He drank from a miniscule espresso cup, with his body arched over the table, ominous and deathly, like a gargoyle in disguise. “Chuchu, Chuy, Chuchu,” he repeated.

In a surge of bodily protection and pride, I turned at Beatriz. “He knows I hate that name.”

“Why is that?” she asked, with a skip of energy.

“I’m American,” I said. “It’s just wrong.”

“He’s afraid of being something he’s not!” Alphonse laughed. “Chuy, Chuy Chuy,” he said, in the same rhythm as if he was tsking his tongue.

“How mysterious,” said Beatriz.

“Nonsense,” said Alphonse. “America is the least mysterious place on the earth.”

“I didn’t say America was mysterious, Professor. You’re right, it isn’t. Americans, on the other hand...” She smiled at me as I chewed on a hunk of bread like a horse.

“He’s Chuy because it’s a nickname for kids named Jesus and this kid is in Seminary,” said Alphonse. “Any other name wouldn’t do.” I noticed his words were starting to run together out of excitement and it gave me a headache. “He’s an excellent Seminarian, you know.”

“Sure, an example to us all,” said Beatriz.

“Name your piety. I bet he’s conquered it.”

“Selflessness,” offered Beatriz.

“No, no, no.” Alphonse slammed his hand down on the table and I buried myself deeper into the bread basket. “Selflessness feels too good, it can’t be virtuous. Everything that feels good is actually bad for you. Like a warm shower.”

“And sex?” asked Beatriz. I felt her foot graze against me under the table and I swung it back with my leg.

“Now that is very good for you,” said Alphonse. “But only if you’re miserable when it happens, as with all righteous things. Remember that.”

I slumped down in my chair enough so my eyes were almost level with the table, and I tried to look at both of them through my empty wine glass, but the off-kilter light dropped down by the chandelier above us made the glass impenetrable, like it was made of sand. Beatriz looked at me and I looked at Alphonse and Alphonse looked at Beatriz as he sipped his espresso in his crouching vulture posture. I couldn’t remember a time in my ex-patriacy when I felt more out of place, and I desperately wished to be back in my childhood room in Miami, writing terrible sonnets for my own enjoyment, and then walking by myself to the center of the closest park to get high at midnight.

Alphonse smiled and squinted his eyes at me, his lilting finger pointed at my face, slowly drooping down to the table. “I think he’ll be the first brave pope and maybe the last intelligent one, or at least the first one to see right through the Penitent.”

 I sat up with the intention of leaving, but before I could untie my legs from Beatriz’s under the table, Alphonse excused himself and sprinted to the bathroom.

“Third time he’s gone tonight,” Beatriz said.

“Writer’s block,” I replied, lying again.

“Thank you for coming,” she said, her hand on my leg.

“Do you know he calls you his mistress?” I asked.

“He’s an old man. He does what he wants and there’s no one in the world to tell him otherwise.”

“He’s a living, breathing paradox. An altruist with no moral code. An idiot with all of the luck in the world. I can see it all now.”

“Where does such a man come from?”

“He was a child actor in El Topo,” I said with a shrug. “He says that’s where his creativity spurted. I think it only perverted his manners into some surrealist relationship with the outside world. That’s why he’ll never rid you of himself. He has no sense of self whatsoever.”

“Then it will be us three until he dies,” she said with a smile.

Alphonse sat down gingerly a few moments later, wiping his brow with a cloth napkin before pulling a piece of paper from his pocket. “I’ve been writing a poem about you while I’ve been on the shitter,” he said.

“Professor, you shouldn’t have,” said Beatriz.

“No,” he smirked, turning to me. “About my friend Chuy.”

I felt terrified of his words and wondered if anyone in the history of the world had been killed by poetry. Murdered by haiku, they would carve into my gravestone, as Alphonse stood next to Miss Anouk and stared at Beatriz during my eulogy.

“It’s called The MechaChrist,” said Alphonse.

“What does that mean?” asked Beatriz.

“Nothing and everything,” he said. “Maybe it means anything you can think of. That’s all poetry is, isn’t it? There’s nothing behind the words, they are as they are. The world happens as it is and it’s told that way. It’s enough work to describe the world as it is, it’s impossible, maybe even irresponsible, to imbue meaning onto senselessness.”

“I don’t agree,” said Beatriz. “I think there’s an intense meaning behind poetry. All of these letters put into made up words that attempt to describe indescribable feelings. It’s only worth anything if there’s some intention behind it.”

“And what do you think, Chuy?” asked Alphonse.

“I think is like prayer. It doesn’t matter what words we use or what order they’re in,” I whispered. “Our subconscious always wins out and reveals our sincere intentions despite any efforts by our minds to mask or prevent them. Our true nature is inevitable.”

Alphonse stared at me for a few long seconds and then laughed, before looking down at his scribblings. “My poem is about the afterlife thoughts of a worker-priest as the police pull his body out of a dump...”

Beatriz tensed her grip on my thigh and Alphonse stopped to look at me, unable to control his anticipation for the next words to come from my mouth. In that horrible instant, the Maitre'd rang a bell and pointed to a doorway obscured by red velvet curtains.

Alphonse slapped his hands together as he stood up. “It’s time for the opera,” he said. He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out four tickets, a deranged magician revealing his last trick. “One for myself, one for the beautiful lady to my left, one for the Saint to my right, and one for the Ghost of God himself.”

He insisted we take each other hand by hand by hand as we walked under the curtains and into the darkened hallway. Eventually we reached a spiral set of stairs, and instead of heading upstairs as I remembered, we headed below ground, descending into a dark pool of mystery where it felt like the outside world had been frozen and stored away. Our footsteps echoed with soft thumps against the wall and I pictured demons desperately trying to burst out at me, or maybe I had it backward and it sounded like my conscience trying to escape Alphonse’s funhouse.

The basement was lit by a few candles on the wall and I could barely see the sole row of four seats implanted directly in the center of the floor. The stage sat empty and my mind drifted from wondering what kind of show would happen in this evil doppelgänger theater to wondering if there was even a show at all, which gave me chills as I considered the world evaporating around us, leaving only myself to be the one to stare into God’s eyes.

I almost wept with joy when I saw a man take the stage.  The show was simple, yet disturbing; his voice was deep and strong and reached my soul. He sang an acapella bel canto about a farmer who found a rabbit stuck in a thicket and had to cut off its leg to free the poor animal. Alphonse swayed with the music and Beatriz fell asleep with her hand rested on mine. In the last stanza, the man confessed his love for the rabbit and described it as strange, addictive, and impossible to quit, like a birthmark on your ass or a phantom stalker, and then he strangled the rabbit to death. As the performer walked off the stage, the maître d', now donning rose-tinted rectangular glasses, told us we had reached the intermission. Alphonse bounded towards the bathroom and I told Beatriz I would go check on him.

“This love is a serious thing,” he mumbled to me as I stood outside of his stall while he made a mess of himself. “Or maybe I've been poisoned.”

The maître d' offered me a cigarette as I leaned against the porcelain-tiled wall, and I accepted without hesitation.

Alphonse looked at me through the slit in the door. “Since when you do you smoke?”

“I don’t,” I said as I hung the unlit cigarette from my lips.

“Just remember, a devil in your mouth is the seed to a devil in your soul.”

I rolled the cigarette with my tongue and looked down at the floor. “I think he was singing about me.”

“Of course not,” said Alphonse in between splashes of water. “You always think the world is speaking to or about you. Maybe that’s the religion talking. You should go home and rest.”

I looked into the stall and saw Alphonse’s head sitting in his hands. “You want me to leave?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “You’re out of your element and it’s done me well.”

I thought about Beatriz sitting with Alphonse by herself, his withered hand brushing against her hair. “I can’t go.”

He laughed and my cigarette fell down on to a slice of toilet paper on the floor. I felt the urge to run away and hurl myself over the mezzanine wall.

“You’ve been magnificent, Chuy.” He stood up and wiped his ass like he was cutting through a loaf of old dried bread, and then he pushed open the stall door and stood in front of me, tenderly inching close enough that our stomachs touched. “I’ll be out late tonight, as late as the laws of the universe allow.” His breath infiltrated my pores and I silently prayed my body would reject his parasite. “Go home and distract my wife,” he said before spinning and lunging back into the toilet stall.

“But what happened to being the most faithful husband in the world?” I whispered after Alphonse’s straining died down.

“Chuy, my boy, we all would like to pretend there’s an inflection point to our selfishness, but, if we’re honest with ourselves, desire is an imprint of being human, and it’s only a matter of time until it gains a complete hold.” He slowly lifted his head and tilted his face until his mouth lined up with the vertical slit in the door. “It’s inevitable that our lives are destroyed. I’d rather be the one to do it than have it ruined by someone else.”

I abandoned Alphonse in the bathroom to say goodbye to Beatriz, and she told me she didn’t care if I stayed or left. “I think you’ve made him jealous, my secret American hero,” she said while she patted my head like I was a small cat.

“Will you stay?” I asked.

“I love the opera,” she said. I looked down at the row of seats and noticed that mine had been removed, and then I looked back to Beatriz and she flipped up her eyepatch and winked at me.

On my ride home, I saw the body of another priest being pulled from a dumpster, this time with no police, only paramedics. Maybe the world had given up on itself and God had left us to clean up his mess. I looked up to the sky, terrified I would see the face of God himself looking down, but heaven and all of its holdings seemed to be absent, only an empty dark vacuum staring back at me.

When I came in through the back door, Miss Anouk was sleeping in her nightgown on the living room couch with a book cradled in her lap. My steps made her eyes gracefully twitch open and I was convinced I could see her pupils swell at the sight of me. There, in Alphonse Duda’s own living room, his wife laid me bare with two words: “Hello, Hank.”

“Good evening, Miss Anouk,” I said. She patted the couch next to her and I sat down an arms-length away.

“What do you pray about before you go to sleep?” she asked, without looking up, as she smoothed out the front of her nightgown.

I told her that prayer didn’t come easy to me, like she may have thought it would for a novitiate. I said, “Most of the time, I can’t think of a damn thing to talk to God about until after I say Amen.”

“That’s beautiful,” she said with a smile. “I think that may be the universe trying to express itself through you.”

She sounded crazy, but I realized I would do anything to see her smile again. “What do you pray about?” I asked.

“Oh, lots of things.” She turned to look at me in the eyes. “Revenge, destruction, justice, and long and healthy lives for me and my children. Then I say Amen and want to take it all back, but it’s too late, because God has already heard it.” She opened her book and turned the pages with a swift violence while she let out a murmur, like her body was rejecting the words while her consciousness devoured them whole.

I watched the grandfather clock next to the wall strike midnight and imagined Alphonse squatting over a paper bag in an alley way, with Beatriz listening in, the two of them mentally composing poems of the moment, Alphonse ruminating on his ersatz beatnik existence and Beatriz forming a memoiric jolt about a man tying himself to a horse and being dragged through the mud until he becomes an unrecognizable golem.

“Everyone is used to teach lessons or to achieve selfish purposes,” said Miss Anouk, jarring me back from my awful thoughts. I turned to her and waited for the rest. “Even God is no exception,” she said.

I nodded.

“Would you like me to read to you?” she asked.

 I looked down at her book and then into her brown eyes. “What happens?”

 “No one dies and no one disappears,” she said. “The characters linger on, just a bit different, a little changed, possibly for the better, but most likely neither worse nor better, just plain changed, an inevitable evolution, the simple grammar of time. Just the way God sees things.”

I thought that sounded poetic, and I followed her into her room.

 

JARED BILLINGS

Jared Billings is an emerging writer from Hilltop, OH, where he lives with his wife and two sons. His work can be found in Blood Orange Review and is forthcoming in BULL and this summer's Bullshit Anthology. He enjoys riding the bus, listening to songs with no words, and watching movies in languages he doesn't understand.