We’re heading to the castle, the Hudson river passing by smooth as glass. The guy in front of us is playing a machine-gun video game with the sound loud because he thinks his headphones are plugged in. Doesn’t matter, all I can concentrate on is my leg touching Alice’s leg. It could be seconds or minutes, who knows, where I’m moving my thigh back-and-forth, not connecting with her, then connecting with her.
“Are you okay?” she asks, moving her leg from mine. “Too much coffee?”
She shifts over in her seat. “When you drink too much coffee you’re weird.”
“Not too much coffee,” I say holding a coffee, “just didn’t sleep much.”
“So?” Her demeanor changes. “Does that give you the right to put your body on my body?”
What year Alice is this? What I mean—is this her at the beginning of our relationship, how it felt last night when she appeared, or is this Alice toward the end, which, based on what she just said to me is here now. She puts her hand on my leg and turns to the side in her seat, facing me. Through the window a motorboat is spraying a wake and struggling to keep up with the train. It’s not a race but it feels like one. Boats aren’t faster than trains. The guy playing the video game is using a flamethrower now. “Don’t shut down, be present with me,” says Alice. “You need to be aware.”
“You always say that. I know what you mean, but also, I don’t. How can I be talking to you right now and not be here?”
“I know what you mean,” she mimics slack-jawed, “but also, I don’t.”
Do not control the gate.
Let the gate guide you.
We’re walking the winding path toward the castle. Some people ride the shuttle because they like to sit as much as possible. The man playing the video game is still playing, headphones now plugged in. His body is small and kind of twisted up. He’s with his mother and they’re driven in a separate shuttle, a camouflage golf cart with chrome rims, careening up the hill.
“Do you ever think of painting again?” she asks as we ascend the thick gravel path. An older couple to the side of us is really struggling. They move as if walking through a pool of oil. Then the man throws his hands up and heads carefully back down the hill, arms extended like he’s touching walls, saying, “I can’t do this anymore… with you.”
Maybe those who like to sit have the right idea.
“Not really,” I say shrugging. “I’m not sure I was ever good at it. I’m okay with it.”
“It’s true,” I say, letting her shove me. “I’m happy at my day job and living with you. I don’t need much.”
“Holy shit this place is making you sentimental. What happened?”
“Nothing. What happened to you?”
She stops abruptly and I think maybe she’ll disappear, that I’ve accidently challenged the gate. But her stopping is her way to convey shock at me implying something had happened to her. I apologize. I don’t do a thing to mess my gate up, no way, uh-uh. She starts walking again.
Inside the castle we escape the tour. Holding hands, we walk the narrow staircases. When Church designed the interior he hand-painted and stenciled everything in middle east décor, Persian style, the pamphlet said, so there’s lots of brushed gold and faded emerald. Yellow poppies decorate doorways. The money flowing into this place—the admission and parking fee, the gift shop—goes to the State. Historical preservation is the explanation, but it’s just straight cash flowing into the “General fund” which my office uses to print signs and banners for one time use.
On the top floor, Alice steps over a thick rope leading to Church’s bedroom. She stands on a rug weaved in blood-orange and elephant hide colors. “Don’t do it,” I whisper.
“Come on,” she replies. “Who cares?”
Alice has always been into adventure. During one of our first dates she jumped the bar to pour a drink because the bartender was in the bathroom taking a shit. She served beers on tap to strangers and accepted tips. Early Alice caused spontaneous scenes, later Alice drank half-beers and became so fearful she couldn’t drive more than forty miles per hour. I don’t blame her, it’s one of my holes too, driving on a highway is taking a chance on a metal coffin, it’s why we took the train to the castle.
“No way,” I say to Alice tip-toeing around Church’s bedroom.
“Get in here,” she whispers.
Walking away would equal escaping the gate, so I follow into Church’s ornate bedroom that minus cleaning staff probably hasn’t had two people in it for a hundred plus years.
“We’re going to get arrested,” I tell Alice.
“Just two minutes,” she says.
For a guy who was into painting landscapes he sure liked peacocks. They are everywhere. As painted statues six feet tall, framed illustrations hung on the walls, and stenciled on each tile leading into bathroom. Church’s bed, which Alice swan dives onto, is domed by peacock colored netting. The windows are amber colored and honeycombed with black lines. How all of this was not burned to the ground by the workers in the back quarters, I don’t know.
She swings her legs off the side of the bed and inspects a brass bowl on a wooden nightstand. Every piece of furniture has knotted lace-like carvings running the edges, more peacock paintings on the front and sides, dog-pawed feet. Nothing is simple here. Even the lamp on the dresser appears to be constructed from ten different parts, more flower than utility piece. Alice walks to the dresser and begins opening every drawer. They have gold hinges shaped like dragonflies with red screws for eyes. Most are empty except random papers and cleaning supplies, but inside one drawer is a notebook, leather-bound, and badly worn.
“Open it,” says Alice, who tries handing me the book by waving it near my face.
“You open it.”
“Ugh,” she grunts. “Fine.”
I step closer. “But I want to see.”
Inside are women’s names and their daily tasks to complete inside and outside the home, written by Church himself, his initials on each corner, his handwriting a flowing but severely slanted longhand, two columns of names and tasks separated by a black line. I turn the pages with endless names. In the final pages are the household rules. Alice points to a single sentence on a page otherwise blank: “Clean all horse stalls of all blood.”
The bathroom is wallpapered with wreaths of cherries against a desert dune background. Alice steps into the bathtub with a peacock faucet. She lays with her arms crossed over her chest, eyes closed. There are no windows in here. I look in the bathroom mirror above the sink and flick my nose.
“Were you ever inspired by this place?” she asks, sitting up in the tub. “Did you really sit on the lawn and paint the river?”
“I did,” I confess. “You really shouldn’t be in there.”
I panic because what I just said could be challenging my gate. But Alice nods. She doesn’t disappear. I stare, breathing deeply, convinced that at any minute we will be caught and charged with numerous trespassing accusations, then I’ll fired from my job. I was so close to the ten year mark.
“You’re right,” she says, now standing. She straddles the side of the tub, carefully steps out, then sits on the toilet.
Do whatever you want.
I won’t stop you, Alice.
Let Alice be Alice.
“Don’t tell Mr. Church,” she says, shifting her pants down to her knees. The sound of piss on porcelain is incredibly loud.
Early years Alice forever.
Leaving the bedroom, she takes a silver paintbrush from the windowsill vase and slips it inside the waist of her jeans, and when I glare in judgement, in amazement, she shrugs.
As the tour continues up the stairs, we walk down the back stairs to the dining hall, a massive room with no windows and a cement colored banquet table set ornately for fifty. The main vibe in the castle is Church and his wife were lonely, constantly adding décor to the walls, fixtures and trinkets to whatever space, no matter how small, not yet touched. A crowded atmosphere – I overhear the tour guide say “Artful clutter” – with little natural light.
We walk through the dining hall. Alice checks the hallway for anyone, and when it’s clear, we go further down into what is the basement.
Even here everything is ornately decorated, but this is a different style room, renovated and added recently to display the worker’s portraits, the names from the book. It’s an afterthought, a pandering political move by Leader Dubben (first name Reuben, which is the best rhyming name ever) representing the district, and it’s the saddest of the rooms. Because Church didn’t design it, it feels out of place. One picture shows a woman frowning next to the horse stalls.
“Unbelievable,” says Alice, touching everything she can, running her hand over the portraits, stepping over the roped off areas with more furniture and arranged vases. She sits down in a queen-like chair. “I love you,” she says.
There’s an hour before the train leaves so we’re at the lake, sitting on the sand with our knees pulled to our chests, me lovingly mocking how Alice is sitting. She rests her head against my shoulder. The world is silent and the wind white-tops the waves. It’s much cooler here because of the elevation, I think, a hint of fall in summer or another storm coming, but the cloudless sky is aggressively blue.
The lake Church painted and made a fortune off glimmers like a metal roof. That lake deserves to be paid. You can rent a rowboat for two dollars but we won’t. The man playing the violent video game is out there, his mother struggling to row in the wind.
I put my arm around Alice and my arm doesn’t pass through her.
I put my mouth on her head.
Shifting backward, she comes to a kneeling position. Above her is the castle and the white outline of the moon. A mist of sand blows through the air and into us and her hair wraps around her face. She asks if I just kissed her.
I’m enamored with all things Alice, this very real version I want to consistently touch confirming this is happening. I need to ask Dorian how long the gate will last. Does it close-up or stay this way forever? I didn’t think a person could be the focal point of an ideal gate. Will I be retired with Alice? And if I go first will she have access to my pension? I know the answer to the last question, it’s yes, because she’s listed as the beneficiary. In the future my retirement transfers to Alice so she can have a comfortable life after I’m dead.
“You did this.” She palms my head and pushes it downward. “Like, you put your mouth on my head,” she mumbles into my hair, “but you didn’t actually do a kiss.” I’m looking into the sand. Everything is slightly darker in here. Alice presses her lips hard against my hair for a dramatically long time making a sucking noise then kneels backward again.
“Thank you,” I say to the sand.
On the train ride back she falls asleep with her head on my lap. She drools. The guy still playing the violent video game is across the aisle from me, also in the aisle seat, and asks if – he points at Alice – is a video game. His chin is touching his chest but his eyes are fixated on me.
“It’s my wife,” I whisper. “It’s a person.”
“My wife,” I say, leaning over slightly so he can hear me.
“Shhhhhhhh she’s sleeping.”
The man twitches and his legs that don’t reach the floor spasm. His head moves in a circle. “But,” he says, “But but but,” louder and louder until people are turning around, until his mother is glaring at me from the window seat, cradling his vibrating head in a soothing rocking motion. With my hands cupping her ears, Alice doesn’t move.
I decide to no longer be a people watcher.
The train rocks along toward A-ville as Alice sleeps. Two teenage girls keep going to the bathroom and each time they come out they have more make-up on. Some people have laptops open, there’s a woman sitting two rows up with some kind of wrap or shawl around her head, typing away. I’m not sure these people are interesting, but I can’t stop being a people watcher. A small man in a big suit is watching Pineapple Express but isn’t laughing. But most sleep on the train like Alice, heads wobbling against the seat or window. I think these people are fake sleeping. I won’t wake Alice until the train conductor tells me it is time to go. The sky is getting dark.
Excerpted from Vincent and Alice and Alice. Used with permission of Tyrant Books. Copyright 2019 by Shane Jones.