“Aubade (The Messenger)” – Short Story
As a writer, I find myself constantly engaged in conversation with literary and artistic traditions. In that spirit, I post this recent short story of mine titled Aubade. Read carefully and you might find some of my broader biases and opinions on public art (another justification for the story’s presence on this site). I won’t comment much here on it, aside from noting that an “Aubade” is a song/poem/literary work that is set at the moment of the morning parting of lovers. Its a title I’ve used often before in different ways (paintings, sonnets, poems, etc.), chiefly because I find the spirit of the theme to be so poignant by nature that many opportunities present themselves. Enjoy!
Aubade (The Messenger)
Alan knocked on his boss’s door once. He paused to cough into his fist. He always coughed when he was nervous, but this was a hazy morning thick with atmosphere. It made the coughing seem more justified. A smell of distant cigarettes caught his attention.
Perry opened the door before Alan could resume knocking, which caught him off-guard. He was further thrown-off by Perry’s appearance- he wore a terrycloth bathrobe, a cornflower blue washcloth casually slung over his shoulder, his black hair freshly slicked back in a hurry. He smelled profoundly of aftershave. Alan felt a tickle in his throat and turned away for a minute to clear it. Around the corner of the house, he noticed a tuft of smoke and the cigarette smell grew more imminent. Alan thought he heard someone else coughing from that direction.
“Sir.” Alan finally addressed his boss. He leaned in closer to him, and spoke beneath his breath, “sir, I believe someone is smoking by the side of your house. Or there is smoke. And someone is nearby it.”
“I’m not too worried about it, Alan.” Perry’s response was sympathetic, but his position as Alan’s boss always made him feel somewhat self-conscious about not sounding imperious or condescending. Alan was significantly older than him, having been with the company nearly as long as Perry’s 33 years.
“Sir, your… your company doesn’t need to wait outside like that. She’s welcome to…”
“‘Company?'” Perry laughed loudly, interrupting the awkward flow of Alan’s inferences. “Al, look, does it look to you like we’re in the hour of formality?” He smiled at Alan warmly, acknowledging the deficiency of his dress for the occasion of speaking with his second-in-command. Alan smiled back, clearly relieved.
“Anyway, I saw my company off already.” Perry reported it, but Alan knew that already. He had come earlier, before dawn. He’d halted at the door. Through the window he saw the sleek silhouette of a woman inside pulling a dress around her waist by a dim light in the pre-dawn darkness. It embarrassed Alan intensely. He decided to drive around, waiting until the girl had definitely left to return. It took that time to quell his anxiety about the incident.
“Annette. She’s some kind of public-works conservator, looking at that hideous sculpture downtown” Perry continued.
“You don’t like the sculpture?” Alan poorly concealed an affronted taste.
“It’s the worst. Absolutely the worst.” The “sculpture” Perry referred to was a square contrived and executed in the past year on the margins of downtown, across from the courthouse.
“You would have preferred a Memorial to one of our luminary statesmen?”
“No- oh no you don’t. Don’t you try to peg me a conservative. It’s just this ‘Official Surrealism,’ this bourgeois brand of politely paraphrasing De Chirico I see all over the place now. Four plain, milk-white marble spheres ‘lyrically’ scattered like marbles across an empty white plaza, a slightly off-kilter cube pointing skyward, a fountain disabled from spouting water… If you’re lucky, you get a hand half-submerged in grey concrete, pointing suggestively this way or that. It’s all so cynical. Like we’re going to believe we’re in the Age of Enlightenment, the intellectual era, just because we built some inscrutable-yet-suggestive monuments. Look, nobody gets the thing because there is nothing to get!”
Alan was definitely hurt by this tirade. He hadn’t got the square, but he certainly had hoped someone else- someone with more imagination- had got it.
“Perry. I’m not here to discuss art and the State. But then, you know that.” Perry nodded, feeling at his freshly shaven jaw and staring at the cheery doormat at his threshold.
“You won’t be coming in then, Alan?”
“We got a call from your father in Paris about an hour ago. We’ve got to get an early start today. He thinks so, at least. And yet, it looks like you’ve got quite a bit on your mind right now.” He noted the central tendency of Perry’s expression towards a dreamy smile. He seemed so preoccupied with an internal amusement, he didn’t know how to get through to him. Alan felt the sharp sting of envy.
“Ok. That’s fair, Alan. Lovesick Perry is lovesick. How will he get in the game? I tell you what though, c’mon. Let’s take care of this.”
Perry stepped past Alan briskly into the yard. The pervasive smell of his aftershave made Alan a little nauseous. Perry pulled the long razor he had just been shaving with from the pouch at the front of his bathrobe. He considered a few different plants that were blossoming in the beds along the sidewalk of his house. When he had made his selection, he sliced quickly at the delicate stems of a a few puffy yellow flowers.
“Here, hold this.” Perry unceremoniously shoved the flowers at Alan, who was clearly uncomfortable around this level of spontaneity. He pondered some additional flowers, fretting for long moments at a time. Feeling around the inner breast pocket of his robe, he asked Alan if he had a lighter. No sooner had he asked Alan, he drew two cigarettes from the pocket and lazily pointed one at Alan in a half-hearted offering. Alan declined- he had never smoked. Technically, Alan had never responded to his boss’s question about the lighter- not that he had one.
“Alphonse! Alphonse!” Perry yelled. He fidgeted with the flowers in his hand. “Yeah, this is good. I just need Annette to know where I’m at. I can get my mind off last night. I just need her to know though- I’m not gonna stop thinking about it otherwise.” He looked Alan in the face as he spoke now. “I just want her to know, I’m not some jerk. I’m a good guy, I really am. I want to see her again, I really do. She’s just so… man, she’s just special.”
Alan was touched by Perry’s sentimentality. He could tell how genuine he was being, and that was something quite different from the way people in their world operated. One rarely knew what a colleague in their business really thought. Perry always played tough at work, but Alan had known from day one that it was all for show. Perry was a reluctant captain.
“Hey Al, could you go get Alphonse from around the house?”
“Um, Alphonse, sir?” Alan was puzzled.
“Yeah, I need a light. Plus, I’m going to have him get these flowers over to Annette- she’s working in the square today. God knows, it’s the one thing -ok, one of two things- that Alphonse is good for.”
“Oh. Ok.” Alan was thoroughly nonplused. He was incredulous Perry was employing someone he’d never even heard of. Then again, he was getting the idea that there was a lot more to Perry than he’d assumed.
Somewhat impatiently now, Perry nodded at Alan, noting his reluctance. With a reasonless trepidation, Alan rounded the corner of the house to the side yard. He remembered the puff of smoke and the coughing. Perry started to shout “Alphonse” once again. Just as Alan entered the side yard, he nearly ran full-speed into a dove. The dove was a full eight inches taller than Alan. He was not alone with him either, which filled Alan with alarm. There were three other doves, even taller than the one he stood face to face with. One of them scrambled to cover a pair of dice in the dirt. Another tucked a small pile of dollars beneath a purple hydrangea with his claw.
Alphonse stared with expressionless black eyes at Alan. His friends were also staring, their expressions more clearly apprehensive. They were caught playing dice, something that was not done at this early hour. One of the pigeons surreptitiously stamped out a cigarette. Alphonse made a move to walk around Alan who appeared frozen with fear. He nearly jumped as Alphonse moved past him into the front yard.
Perry waved Alphonse towards him, signaling for a light of his cigarette. Alphonse casually flicked the lighter with his claw and handed it over. Perry sized him up as he lit the cigarette. “Buddy, you don’t look so good” Perry started. “I think you gotta get more rest.” He paused. When he resumed, he spoke very slowly and annunciated each syllable with purpose: “Alphonse, I need you to find this girl. You give her these flowers- my friend Alan over there has some for you as well. Annette. You can’t miss her- petite, enormous smile, full laugh, amber hair in long curls. Short black dress. She’s fucking beautiful.” He laughed. Alphonse was apparently laughing too.
The dove gave a confident nod of acknowledgement and walked back over to Alan. He put out his claw to collect the yellow flowers, and carefully bundled them all together as Alan cautiously extended them.
Alan had been severely put off by Alphonse’s friends, who were still staring dumbly at him. There was no real way for them to understand each other, but it hadn’t needed to be this weird. They clearly felt sheepish for having been discovered gambling with Alphonse when he was supposed to be working, or at least on-call for work.
Without stepping away from Alan, Alphonse launched into the air with a flurry of sudden motions. Alan felt the stiff feathers brush his arms and his cheek. He saw Alphonse spit something carelessly from his beak as he rose above him. He seemed to hover just above for a moment, looking down at Alan below with an indecipherable expression.
Terror and confusion finally overwhelmed Alan. The strangeness of the entire morning caught up to him all at once. He began an involuntary, unpolished scream that was both shout and cry at once. The shrieking was clearly not well conceived and executed, as his voice was breaking awkwardly at random intervals. He kept screaming though. He could not stop.
Having walked across the yard towards Alan, at first Perry looked at him in the face with disgust. His lack of composure was so out of the realm of acceptability, he had the notion to fire him on the spot. He’d kept the well-seasoned company man around to avoid this kind of indulgence- is it not unreasonable to assume thirty-plus years in the Corporate realm would instill deeply the virtue of decorum? His disgust turned to amusement, if not pity, after a long moment. His colleague seemed to have left the corporeal world for another place, never stopping his unseemly expressions of shock. He patted Alan- who was now shaking visibly- on the back as he addressed him.
“Heh. Al, tell me something- who’s distracted now?”