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A quarterly international literary journal

Eurydice at the Medianoche Saloon

/ Fiction /

Even before Orpheus’s band was hired to play at the Medianoche Saloon, the dance club was packed. The crowds swarmed the place, as anyone would tell you, because of the beauty of Eurydice, who ruled the bar on the far side of the dance floor. She was so attractive, many bought beers they would never drink just to spend a couple of seconds interacting with her. Others bribed the barbacks to put in a good word for them in the vain hope she’d would break her rule and date a customer. All night long, patrons shouted compliments at her in a dozen languages while some of her more ardent fans spent their afternoons creating Instagram accounts in her honor.

With straight black hair pulled back into a ponytail tied with a dark blue ribbon, full red lips that just about every man and woman dreamed of kissing, and a smile that could make cold granite glow with heat, she was a living legend talked about in barrooms from the Rio Grande Valley to Puget Sound. Eurydice always wore a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up that emphasized her exquisite brown skin and perfect body. What made her fans go crazy, of course, was that she was unattainable. Many asked her out, but no one succeeded in getting a date with her as she rejected every flirtation and all attempts at romance. Instead, she lived quietly with her mother about a mile from the bar after having sworn off love. A faithless boyfriend can upend your life for years.

After hearing them perform at a dive bar near the Phoenix airport, the manager of the Medianoche shrewdly hired Orpheus and his band to play on weekends, creating long lines to get into the bar. Drop dead handsome with a charismatic smile, Orpheus would take the stage in black cowboy boots, tight jeans, a red tee shirt, and most improbably for the front man of a norteño band, a pork pie hat. His voice was so powerful it could motivate a starving army to march into battle and so spirited that the viejos forgot the pain in their knees to dance as if they were teenagers again. It didn’t matter what he sang about: girls cheating on boys, boys cheating on girls, or his abuela’s secret mole recipe, the dance floor would quickly fill with couples crying, laughing, stomping, and hollering until they couldn’t move anymore and had to stop for a drink.

Orpheus used his sensitive voice to score women. When the band finally quit around 1:45 in the morning, he’d have a girl picked out to accompany him home. He’d sing as he undressed them, and then they’d sing to their friends the next day about the wonders of sex with him. He made it with just about every pretty girl who passed through the Medianoche. Except Eurydice.

She would look at Orpheus with bland eyes as she served her customers. Despite her cold appearance, when she listened to Orpheus sing, she filled her mixed drinks with so much passion they compelled hardened men to break down and call an ex-girlfriend, just to talk. Her beers tasted of first love and romances that lasted for fifty years or more. Orpheus, too proud to admit his longing for Eurydice, acted as if he didn’t even know she worked there. He once loudly told his bass player that he was nearsighted and couldn’t tell who was tending the back bar. The truth, however, was that whenever he caught a glance of Eurydice across the room, Orpheus would sing out his heart so that patrons would wake up the next morning to discover their clothes smelled like the bitter almonds of unrequited love. Of course, they both wanted each other badly. But since they were each too good for mortal romance, neither knew how to pursue love. After every night they worked together, Eurydice would go home alone while Orpheus would close his eyes as he made fierce love to his consolation prize of the night. They were trapped in a prideful standoff.

The stalemate went on for over a year until Dolores Alba, the bruja who lived off Story Road, came in one Saturday night with some girlfriends. “Why shouldn’t I be here?” she asked Manuel González when he looked shocked to see a witch at the Medianoche, “I enjoy cold beer and good music as much as the next person. You think brujas sit alone in the dark every night, conjuring up spirits and mixing potions? We like to have a good time like everyone else. Señora Alba smelled the painful torment of unrequited love tainting the atmosphere of the bar as soon as she stepped out to dance with Arturo Calderón, the hunky uncle of her niece’s novio. Though she hated to attend to business during her free time, she rarely even checked her work email after six, the bruja looked around as she danced to identify the source of the emotional distress warping the night’s frivolity. She didn’t have to be a witch to see that Eurydice and Orpheus were in love but too proud to admit it. At the end of the night as the band was packing up and Eurydice was cashing out, Alba snatched the pork pie hat off a girl in from Salinas for a good time, handed it back to Orpheus, and then took him by the hand to go talk to Eurydice. At last, they could admit their feelings for each other.

Both were busy. Eurydice worked at the bar five nights a week, cooked and cleaned for her mother, and religiously attended Pilates classes. In addition to his Thursday through Sunday gig, Orpheus taught a class at Mission College on music theory every Wednesday. But the nights and hours they spent with each other were breathtaking in the joy they propagated not just for themselves but for everyone around them. Their summer of love was arguably the happiest the Valley ever experienced. For the first time in local memory, people meant it when they said have a nice day, backyard tomatoes were as sweet as sugar, and nine months later a baby boom filled every hospital in the county with the optimism of new life. Their wedding was spectacular with the street closed off in front of the Medianoche to accommodate the spill over crowd. The mayor stopped by to deliver a proclamation to honor the newlyweds, and the bishop was spotted in civilian clothes, blessing anyone who asked. Markito, Orpheus’s old roommate, was the best man with his girlfriend, Angela, the maid of honor. Only Señora Alba cried at the wedding. She had no power to stop cruel fate.

On the Wednesday before their first anniversary, Eurydice was tending bar and counting the hours until she could join Orpheus at home. His class got out at nine and he would be waiting for her in bed at the end of the night. She’d take a shower, slide in next to him, and for the next hour they would dwell in the land of ecstasy. She was thinking about how lucky she was when the music abruptly stopped. A very somber Officer Hernández walked across the dance floor to give Eurydice the tragic news.

Grief is sticky and rubbery as it tries to strangle you. You can’t get it off your hands while it binds tightly around your chest. Grief messes with your vision and dominates your mood so that happiness withers and blows away. When you are covered with it, Eurydice now knew, nothing tastes right, colors are washed out, and enjoyment lies far away on an impossible to reach shore. Grief, she could tell you, has no timetable, it exists according to its own hidden schedule. Eighteen months after the death of her dear Orpheus, it still owned her spirit. As she mourned, sadness settled on the whole region. Happiness abandoned the East Side as corporate downsizing left many unemployed, already unaffordable rents rose even more, and children stopped laughing. Old timers recalled the original name of the neighborhood, Sal Si Puedes, as they counseled anyone with ambition to leave if they could.

Eurydice tried to return to the Medianoche, but soon stopped working there. It was too full of memories. She quit and without Eurydice and Orpheus to draw a crowd, the bar closed. Eurydice made it through each day, taking the bus to a job as a bank teller downtown, but there was no joy in her life. She worked, tried to sleep, and ate just enough to stay alive. She existed but couldn’t thrive.

Eurydice’s mother grew increasingly alarmed over her daughter’s inability to get over Orpheus’s death and arranged for Señora Alba to visit to recommend a cure to get her daughter back from that melancholy dreamscape in her head. Eurydice received the bruja with excitement, showing enthusiasm for the first time since becoming a widow.

“It’s kind of you to come by,” she told Alba, “I need your advice. They say Orpheus has been taken from me forever. But I wonder, is that really true? There must be a way to see my husband short of me dying as well. I want to go get my beloved back from down below to live once again with me.”

Señora Alba stared at Eurydice in horror. “The dead inhabit a place far removed from us. It is dark and full of shades ruled by the King and Queen of the Underworld. Most living people never feel a need to reconnect with those they lost, many are even relieved to be parted for eternity from those who are dead. For those special few who severely miss their loved ones, people like you who are worn down by the misery of loss, there are ways to communicate with the dead. There are seances, magical potions, and smokes to inhale. But a visit to the Underworld? No. No. No. It’s too dangerous. It’s a mad request! Besides, many have attempted this journey, but few have returned. None have succeeded in bringing their dead back to life.”

“But if some have returned, there is a way. Tell me how to get there.”

“Oh Eurydice,” Alba pleaded, “Don’t try to visit. It’s tricky and dangerous. The few who have come back have told of the deep fast flowing River Styx that requires a ferry ride to cross. The oarsman, Charon, demands payment that few can afford. Then there is the dog, Cerberus, with three heads, each angrier than the next, guarding the entrance. And even if you can get past that hound, you’d have to plead with the Lord of the Underworld to release Orpheus. He jealously rules the dead and never lets any of his subjects leave. The whole dangerous trip would be in vain. Really, Eurydice, it’s not a place for a young woman such as yourself. Armed men don’t come back. Don’t be so bold to think you can succeed where they have failed.”

Eurydice knew she had a weapon that those men did not. “Where is the entrance to the Underworld? Where can I go?”

“No. I shouldn’t have told you there is a road to hell. Stay home, let me come to you with a potion to drink that will relieve the ache of love lost way too soon.”

“No. I have made up my mind. If you wish to help me, give me a potion to drink that will fortify me such as one you might give to a young man going off to war. Give me unstoppable courage.”

“No need for that. You are too bold for your own good.”

“Then show me the way to the gate to the Underworld. Take me there now.”

Surrendering, Alba texted her next client to warn her she was going to be late. She had a terrible feeling about how this would end.

Trying not to gloat, Eurydice refreshed her makeup and dressed like she was about to go to a club. She put on high heels, a low-cut blouse, and tight jeans that showed off her perfect hips while she made sure her lips looked full and luscious. Señora Alba immediately guessed her strategy. “You are smart as well as good looking. I don’t think your plan will work, but I admire the genius behind it.”

The bruja led Eurydice to the dollar store on Alum Rock Avenue, two blocks away. They walked around the building to the dumpsters where Señora Alba clapped her hands and a door appeared. “Here is some advice. Do exactly what the King of the Underworld demands of you. The slightest deviation from his instructions will mean disaster. And whatever you do, don’t eat or drink anything. If the tiniest morsel passes your lips, if you drink a single drop of water, you will be doomed to stay in the Underworld forever.” They hugged and then Eurydice opened the door and stepped down into a long dark passage. She walked for hours, hearing nothing but the sound of her breathing and the clack of her heals on the damp bricks. To her relief, there were no spiders or snakes that might scare her. She passed no one, but strangely, she had excellent cell service.

After hours of walking, her feet sore and her entire body facing exhaustion, Eurydice came upon a river so wide she couldn’t see the opposite bank in the gloom. Along the shore were multitudes of people, some sobbing or angry, others sitting silently by themselves, resolved to their fate. Eurydice saw there was no dignity in death. It strips people of their humanity. She felt sorry for the dead as she pulled out her compact and checked her makeup.

A tall thin man of infinite age walked up to stare at her with large, lascivious eyes. “Those are the ones who can’t afford the toll for me to take them across the river.” Charon gestured at the crowd. “They must wait a hundred years on the shore.” The ferryman had unkept auburn hair with a matching stringy, dirty beard. His rust-colored tunic was similarly stained and foul. He reminded Eurydice of the butcher at the carnecería on East San Carlos where she often shopped. He had that same bloodlust look on his face. “For the living, the fare is based on the number of years you have left to live. Given your health and youth, you will have to pay a ton of gold to board my boat. We don’t accept cash, checks, or credit cards. No bitcoin. Just gold.”

“How about this as payment?” Eurydice leaned over and gave Charon a sensuous kiss on the cheek. She put everything she had into it: love, kindness, and all her unlimited beauty. Charon was so flustered he almost dropped his oar.

“Uh. Wow. That was… Come on board beautiful woman.” At one point midstream, the boat began to rock violently. Terrified she might drown, Eurydice reached under her seat for a life preserver, making Charon laugh and love her innocence all the more. About an hour into the journey, he announced, “The duty-free shop is open. Tax free alcohol, perfume, and cigarettes, for sale. Cheaper than anything you can buy back home.” Remembering her instructions, Eurydice declined to shop. Upon landing on the far shore, she gave the ferryman another kiss and went on her way. “Hurry back!” he told her.

She heard the dog right before she saw it. Cerberus was growling, snarling, and barking so loud that the sound reverberated for several miles through the narrow cave. Each head was the size of a horse. Its mouths had rows of teeth like a great white shark, and it was so enraged by the approach of a living human that it strained, jumped, and slobbered as it prepared to attack her. Eurydice walked up to the dog just as it was about to leap, aiming to rip her apart before it devoured her. She sank to her knees to welcome it as if it were a puppy dog given to a toddler on Christmas morning. Within seconds she was scratching behind the ears of one head while giving another a gentle noogie. She cooed to the third, “That’s my precious boy. Aren’t you a good puppy? A half hour later, the dog reluctantly let her continue her journey after a final toss of a stick for him to fetch.

Several more hours of walking led her to the royal chambers where the King and Queen of the Underworld sat on twin onyx thrones. Deathly pale, they wore black turtlenecks under sleek black suits, looking more like tech titans than gods. Their black painted toenails were easy to spot in their black sandals and their black fingernails complemented their obsidian rings. Neither noticed Eurydice because each was busy typing into their phone. Finally, the Queen, who reminded Eurydice of her high school Spanish teacher, looked at her and said, “Husband. We have a visitor.”

“Eurydice,” Hades stared at her with wide eyes. “You made it! I shouldn’t have wagered against you, but I got carried away in the online betting. You know how that is. Your standing here means I’m going to forfeit an arm and a leg to those putting their money on you surviving this long.”

Persephone didn’t like how her husband was looking at Eurydice. “You shouldn’t have come here, child. You don’t belong in the underworld.” She clapped her hands and a tea set appeared. “Thirsty?”

“No, thank you.” Eurydice paused for a moment, letting her beauty wash over the King. She began to plead her case. “I’ve come for my dear husband, Orpheus. He died before his time and I would like to take him back with me, if only for a little while.”

“His time was up. We don’t determine a person’s lifespan here, silly girl.” Persephone tried to shoo Eurydice away. “That is done by others. We merely accept those who have died. Go home. You will not be welcome here for many years to come.”

“Don’t be so harsh, dear wife,” Hades was smitten by Eurydice. His dark eyes didn’t blink while his pupils grew large, and he had a silly grin on his face that was entirely out of place in hell. Eurydice, pressing her advantage, smiled at him and for the first time in the history of the underworld, Hades blushed. This enraged Persephone but her husband stared her into silence. “Let the dear girl make her argument. Listening to opposing viewpoints never hurt anyone.”

“Have you ever been in love?” Eurydice slowly looked from Hades to Persephone and back again. “So in love that your heart pounds every time your beloved walks in the door? Do you laugh because there is no greater joy in the world than his voice?” As she poured her heart out, spring broke out in the land of eternal winter. The smell of roses pushed aside the usual odor of mortification, birds sang in the distance as if a bright dawn was coming, and long sleeping souls began to wake from tedious dreams. Even Persephone briefly relaxed.

Eurydice knew she was winning. “Have you ever lost that person you loved?” The grief damns your future, wrings the hope out of your life, and makes sorrow envelope you like a cloak.” The cold eternal winter of hell suddenly returned. New grass withered and died, long dead souls shivered and went back to sleep, and the only thing to be heard beyond Eurydice’s voice was a harsh wind as Hades began to cry. Persephone softened as well.

“Allow me, lords of the underworld, to have my Orpheus for just a while longer. I beg you. He will return soon enough.”

Her pain was too much for Hades to bear. For the only time in eternity, the King of the Dead was willing to release one of his subjects. “Please, no more. Take him. But one warning: he must follow behind you until you are in the sun above. If you turn around, Orpheus will be pulled back into the Underworld. There will be no second chance.” Hades sighed. “Leave now, beautiful woman, before I change my mind. Orpheus is right behind you. But remember, you cannot turn around and look at him.”

“I have faith in you, dear lord. And faith in my Orpheus.”

“Really?” asked Persephone. “Despite how he died? Strange, such trust. I pray you find it had been faithfully returned.” Eurydice wondered what that meant but didn’t tarry to ask.

They didn’t speak until after Charon deposited them on the living side of the River Styx, then suddenly Orpheus couldn’t stop talking. “The worst part of being dead is that the world goes on without you.” Orpheus’ voice was low and mournful but still musical. It seemed to Eurydice that he was singing a requiem to himself. “Those still alive mention you less with every passing day. I was beginning to doubt if I was ever alive.”

“I did not forget you. I came down for you, didn’t I?” Eurydice tried to keep the conversation going. As long as she could hear Orpheus talking, she could be certain he was right behind her. The melody of his voice, which was as beautiful as an angel’s, kept her from turning around.

“Have you seen Markito? Does he walk the earth unmolested while I am cursed with death?” She was annoyed that he was asking about Markito rather than her.

“The police took him in for questioning and then released him for reasons they never shared. Last I heard he was in Texas.” Eurydice finally asked the question that was consuming her. “Why did Markito murder you?”

“Murder is banal, my love. You can search for motives, but they ultimately leave you even more dissatisfied than when you started. No murder justifies its causes. Enough of that. Tell me. What became of Markito’s sweet girlfriend, Angela?”

“She disappeared. No one has seen her since the night you died.” Eurydice was annoyed. She had not fetched Orpheus to talk about other women.

“I have searched for her here but haven’t found her.”

“Then she is alive?” Why did he care about her?

“Most likely. A woman of her beauty and charm would have disturbed the underground with her presence.”

“Never mind her. Why are you dead? I want to know.”

“Why are any of us dead? You might as well ask why we are alive. Nothing matters. We don’t exist. Then we do. Then we don’t. Death is the ultimate existential crisis.”

“Please answer me.” Eurydice tried not to show her anger. “You are the only one I can ask about your murder. You’re the only witness.”

“Let it go. In the underworld, we don’t ask about the cause of death. Many would give far too detailed answers. ‘I went to the doctor for a lump on my neck. He poked at it and sent me to specialist who was out of network.’ Really, Eurydice, who needs to spend eternity hearing about blood tests, doctor’s visits, and lab results? Some deaths can bore you to tears.”

“But you died unexpectedly and quickly. Surely your story must have entertained the other shades.” She imagined a circle of spirits sitting enraptured as they listened to Orpheus sing a ballad about his murder.

“Oh no. It is an old story, as ancient as boy meets girl, that would put you to sleep. I won’t bother you with it.”

“It is also our story and I have all the time in the world. Relax, flesh out all the little details and get ready to tell me all the background and every twist of intrigue. I am a patient woman.”

“The story would bother you.” Orpheus tried to sound playful.

“I am not easily annoyed. Enlighten me.” Eurydice was not in the mood for games.

“Oh no. You quickly learn down here never to open up to others. After all, you say the wrong thing to someone, and you have to live with them for eternity.”

Though she could sense Orpheus’ presence right behind her, she fought the urge to turn around to confront him. She needed to know why he was murdered. “Was yours a wrongful death?” She tried another approach to getting him to answer her questions.

“Don’t look for right or wrong in these things. You can’t consider the dead to be moral actors. Deceased people lack agency. All that matters is that you are leading me back into the world of the living. The only thing that is important right now is that I am here behind you.” Once she had found his voice soothing, an opening to a world where they dwelt in happiness. Now he sounded evasive, as if he was closing doors to rooms best kept hidden. Even as she was bringing him back to the living it seemed like there was something he was keeping from her.

“Curiosity is the most human of emotions,” Eurydice told her husband. “I need to know what happened to you.”

“Hades is full of cats. Curiosity is a most lethal disease.” And doubt was curiosity’s first born, she wanted to add.

“Did curiosity kill you? What thing that you hungered to know did you in?”

“My curiosities have always been most basic.”

“Some of the basest things can kill. Think of lead, a simple element. It can slowly poison through exposure to flaking paint. Or it can kill swiftly in the form of a bullet.”

“I know bullets. Markito fired six at me, though two missed. He was too excited to be a good shot.” She almost turned around as she was overcome by the need to hug Orpheus. Hearing of his murder made her heart ache.

“What drove him to a frenzied state of mind?”

“You know Markito. He was always easily excitable. He was continually jealous of this and that.”

“Why would he be jealous of you?” She struggled to put his death into the context of their life together. There were pieces that didn’t seem to fit in her memory.

“Maybe he was jealous of my wife, you, fair lady.”

Orpheus’ voice had grown shrill. Why was he lying? “A man does not kill another because he thinks their girlfriend is hot. Not even an extremely mercurial Markito would turn homicidal over me.”

“Maybe he was jealous of my singing. He was always saying ‘I wish I had your voice.’ Don’t you remember?”

She did not. Eurydice wanted to fall to her knees to beg Orpheus to tell the truth. What was he hiding? Had death changed him? Or was it their real life that she was only now discovering. “Come on. He wouldn’t shoot you in cold blood because you were talented. What set him off?”

“Drop it, my love. It would only upset you.” Slowly, she felt a ball of anger forming in her gut. What was happening to her? What had happened to him?

“I am as calm as the sea.” The pitch of her voice rose. “Tell me.”

Orpheus waited several minutes to speak. “Markito was stupid,” he said at last. “He thought I was having an affair with Angela.” Orpheus talked like he was telling a joke, as if him having an affair was the least likely thing in the universe.

“But you weren’t. Were you?” The ball of hot anger was in her neck now. She felt it pulsing, burning, and consuming her. She fought the urge to yell at him and used all her strength to not turn around to confront him.

“You were the woman I loved. Not Angela.” Orpheus went off key. His voice became all dissonance with no possible melody to be found in the obscure minor chords of his story. Eurydice knew why his music had left him and bitter tears rolled down her cheeks.

“Yet Markito thought otherwise. Why?” There was no chance of a satisfactory resolution now. The score was set, and they were moving towards its dreadful finale.

“Who knows?” Now the rhythm of Orpheus’s speech fell apart. He was offbeat and had lost his timing.

“You know. What evidence did he misinterpret?” Eurydice couldn’t dance around the truth any longer. “Did you sleep with Angela?”

“Sleep? No. Why would I sleep with her?” Orpheus let go an involuntary shriek that broadcast his guilt.

“Did you fuck her?”

“Why the obsession with penises and vaginas. In the underworld, our bodies no longer matter. As we lose our temporal selves, lust vanishes as well.”

“You did.” The ball of fury reached her brain, taking control of her voice. She was all anger now.

“Does it matter? Even when I was on earth, it was a meaningless moment. Sex doesn’t have to be anything deeper than the right amount of friction on certain nerve endings.”

Eurydice swiftly decided on what to do. But then there was a final moment, less than a second, where lucidity reasserted itself and she reconsidered her options. Forgiveness was certainly the best way forward. After all, she knew what life without Orpheus was like. She didn’t want to return to sour loneliness. She should take him back and remake her happiness. It would never happen again, she was sure. No man would make the same fatal mistake twice. His murder must have taught him a lesson; he certainly had learned of the consequences of infidelity. Perhaps, she could argue that his death atoned for his cheating.

Eurydice thought of the love they had shared. As she remembered his beautiful voice, she fondly recalled their long mornings together. Was there ever such happiness? Wouldn’t it be easy to pick up where they had left off? She told herself to forget Orpheus’s betrayal. Just ignore his unfaithfulness. Yes. She knew what she must do.

Eurydice turned around and stared at Orpheus as he fell back into Hell, never to return.


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