WHEN THEY COME ASKING
BY LIZ MANDRELL
She could have dropped out of the sky and into anyone's pool. It just happened to be mine. The moon was huge, like a watery baseball over my neighbor's privacy fence. I was sitting in the rattan chair in my backyard, sipping Scotch.
What kind of drink, they might ask me, in the interest of the investigation.
I drink Scotch because it helps me think. I need to be a razor sharp, state of the art, on the veriest edge of my discipline.
I am a high school science teacher.
In the lab if the scientists scrape my body for remnant cells, hair curls, slime of any sort, I will enjoy it, but they will find nothing. The hard scrape of a potshard won't reveal the living dying proof that what I saw wasn't just a dream or a light show, but a quixotic interlude like nothing that has happened before.
Perhaps the scientists will ask me for sperm, urine and stool specimens. And I will oblige them, giving them the product of what has randomly been called Alfred Roman for the last forty-eight years.
I have been sitting here for a while drinking. All afternoon perhaps. My wife, Jean, bought this chair at Furniture by Dave. It reminds me of a coffin they might put a shaman in, an island wise man, a native gone bad.
I have been dying for some time.
I saw it, like a gonzo comet, gutter balling into the earth's atmosphere. There wasn't a whole lot of noise around it, no thrashing or whizzing, until it hit the top of the fence with a wham! It dropped like a stone to the pavement and cracked open. I blinked a couple of times, sipped my drink and watched as it smoldered.
Sparks flew, but it was less like neon and more like rain showers. Herbicides from worldwide crops falling like raindrops on my head, and I tilted my head and opened my mouth to catch them.
It could have been anybody's backyard, I'll say, when they come asking. Only me sitting here, sipping a slightly strong single malt scotch, only I would have seen it roll into the earth, out of infinity, out of the heart of someone's waxing quadrant into the pit of my backyard. I was pondering the random play of galaxies on the pool's surface, considering the supernovas and their lovemaking, the cosmos, you know, when it just wham! hit the top of the fence.
There wasn't much noise on the street either. We live on Elmwood Drive like everyone else in America. We have a garage and cable and monkey grass along the concrete walk to our front door. We weren't always so predictable, Jean and me. We use to eat take-out in little white containers that sat around the kitchen for weeks while we worked at saving the whales or lobbying for federal aid for elks with brain disease. But then I got a job at the high school and she started working at Dr. Sharkif's office and something happened. She says I changed. But she's the one shopping at the mall and making Jell-O molds and buying up Longaberger baskets.
I'm just drinking, a long slow pull on an amber draught.
There was some shouting from a basketball game at the end of the cul de sac, some little boys talking trash, pulling the net down and popping up, out of nowhere, like NBA stars. They will be mine next year, sitting in my classroom at Coburn High, slouch-thinking of which professional sports team will see the genius buried in their Tommy jeans. The school board thinks I can teach them science, the curiosities of things natural and botanical. I might clap a ruler on the chalk tray and say, look alive, look alive, but their lives won't start until the Lakers call.
Were there any other sounds, they ask, the possibility that a whole fleet of these gutterballs might have transplaxed into the shallow earth of Coburn?
There might have been some mowing going on somewhere on the street, I will say. A diligent homeowner grooming the 20 x 20 space that gave him the privilege of barbecue, landscape mulch, invisible dog fences. Some little girls were catching fireflies and that's what made me think of light and its perfection, the deadly stripe of a lightening bolt or the homey glow of a 40-watt appliance bulb. It didn't matter; I am attracted to all light, staring pickled-faced and catastrophic into the beam.
I am looking for theoretical explanations of natural phenomena.
I was thinking of the future, a topic I only thought about when I was on the upswing and had a drink in my hand. There are two versions of the future that I picked, like oranges from the Pier I fruit bowl and juggled, considering which one would be the best juicer. My wife would either groom me into the image that she has dreamed of all these years where I would heel and obey OR after the children were grown, she leaves me. My daughter is already at the university; my son a senior at Coburn High. He is stepping on the land mine that will blow my legs out from under me.
Either is a lonely option.
Yes, yes. Like I said wham! It hit the edge of the privacy fence first, took a two-foot cookie bite out of the damn thing, right over the top of the wood. Insurance might not cover that. I'd like to think that I willed it here, that I thought it up in my fantasy of lights, appearing in a explosion like when you switch the light on and the gwwtzzzit of a shot bulb scares you a little, but you recover and say damn! Jean, hey Jean, where's the light bulbs? One's shot out here on the patio.
I have watched students buzz through my class, who really get it, but they end up driving a forklift at Dahmler the rest of their life anyway. I look at kids, stewing in cold sweat, and think: what do they want to do right now? How close will they come to it? My son wants to be an automotive engineer, and design solar cruisers. It's a start, I tell him.
“Jason,” I yelled at him as he bounded up the stairs two at a time tonight, slamming into his room, “What's your dream? You need to know!”
But there was no sound from his room. Afterwards I came down and fixed myself a stiff one.
Can I get you gentlemen something to drink? No? Well, you don't mind if I fix myself another?
I have a theory that the desires of the heart are simple childhood nightmares--to have a thousand lives to live and work out our differences with the universe--I would be a race car driver, a chef, a pilot, a woman, but I would never be the teacher that I am.
Whatever it was that broached the fence tonight, an egg or a pod or the shell right out of a concrete mixer, it just sat on the pool tile, cracked and breathing with bluish-green veins moving just beneath the surface. Horace, our Lab, acted like a mad dog, jumping up and down barking behind the sliding glass door. Jean yelled at him and he quieted down, still looking, bright-eyed at the thing by our pool.
Nightly I come home, sift through the mail, then to dinner. Afterwards, I fall asleep with Scientific Journal on my chest, Horace at my feet, two fingers in a glass on the table beside me.
I looked up at my Jean then who was just inside the kitchen window. She was chopping up tomatoes for tacos and I smiled at her, lifting my glass. Her grin spread out like whipped topping under pressure. We were having my sister over for dinner as we do every Saturday night. It becomes a competition then, this taco making, tomato slicing, matching place mats and napkin rings.
She didn't seem to notice that a giant egg had landed in our backyard.
I teach in an age where restraint is discouraged, rules are passé and the
memory of laws and notions of righteousness are fleeting. I am concerned, like everyone, of population loss, but I do not fancy the kids they're turning out these days.
The egg breathed in and out, like a morning glory, so imperceptible that you don't notice until one day the vine has taken over the north end of your bedroom and is snaking around your wife and you realize that time has passed, maybe a lifetime, and you look down at your tiny white hands and wonder, where have I been?
But then She. . .It. . .Something stepped out. Slipped really, like a foal from the blood of a thoroughbred's womb, and wiggled, head first until she uncurled and preened herself clean of the crust of eggshells of a thousand American breakfasts that she'd picked up while entering the earth's atmosphere.
She, this otherworldly vision, had stood up finally and towered above me. Horace started howling again. I had glanced at Jean, her face framed in the kitchen window, still there, waiting for the rice to fluff. She was cutting out coupons then. Spend money to save money. Jean had reprimanded Horace again, I remember, but he didn't stop. He kept jumping and barking. Finally, Jean had to lead him down the hall by his collar and lock him in the bedroom.
I don't know about coordinates. She burped out some numbers; they came out like garbled zip codes. It could have been her interstellar PIN number. I'm as empty as a tomb on the subject of her numbers.
“Alfred Roman,” I had said, extending my hand. She had looked at my hand, the tangle of veins behind her eyes stretched.
“Alfred Roman,” she had said as if noting a title, a recipe, some street name.
She was beautiful, hair and long legs snaking everywhere. At one point, she burped or spit. Something bluish came out of her mouth, a bubble, a wish or a word that escaped her lips like gelatin excellence.
“Do you know the law of the stars?” I had said by way of conversation. I pointed over us, the infinite space. “The earth?” I had pointed to the globe of dirt beneath my feet. “It's my home.”
“Home,” she had said and wobbled to the left. I stood up then, and put her on a bar stool and swung her around twice. She burped again. A blue bubble had escaped her lips and floated upward. I remember popping it with my swizzle stick, and it had collapsed with a shout.
“And you are?” I had said, swirling my glass. I look like Hef in that pose, one eye squinted to the world.
But she said nothing.
So I offered her a drink. My wife will fix dinner, talk to my sister, fill coffee cups, but I will be making love to an alien.
“And I would say that you are from another planet?” I remember saying as smooth as the scotch I'm still drinking.
“Planet,” she had said.
I am dead right about some things. My students come to me for answers because I know my field comprehensively, the wield of chemistry. I tell them all I know, but I end every year with a test of the heart: where is the periodic chart when you need to mix a period of joy with a beaker of despair? What are the properties of those elements?
“I would say you are from Neptune, perhaps, or from one of the lesser
planets, maybe an asteroid. You might be more comfortable in a small state like
Rhode Island. May I call you Miss Universe?” I remember lounging against the bar at this point.
“Yes, of course, how charming.” I started to woo her. Her legs were as long as the pool sweeper and had hooves like suction cups. She had one cupped nail brilliantly polished, shined to purple luminosity.
“I was born here in Coburn, you know,” and I remember her nodding, her pretty head sitting on the squarest of shoulders. “I know a lot about this town.”
Former students of mine man half the cash registers in Coburn. They are
pushing all the buttons that take my wife's money. She writes check with a fortified pencil, filling out the memo line like a will to Bed, Bath and Beyond.
Jean has a library of recipes in a green box on the counter. When she cooks, her brown hair falls into her beautiful brown librarian eyes. Tuna Casserole for Monday, Stuffed Peppers for Tuesday, Chicken Pot Pie for Wednesday, I grill on Thursday night - her Bunko night, and Friday, we eat left-overs. Saturday's, my sister comes over and brings her newest boyfriend.
I can drive down High and Main, other streets too, and name everyone who lives there, and possibly a tidbit about each of their lives. They have moved out of the chairs in my classroom and taken wives and jobs and babies, but I remember their faces before shaving. There is pressure in so much knowledge; there is despair in such a menu for two people like Jean and me. I remember Jean had waved from the kitchen window, her hand in an oven mitt. She didn't notice the exotic alien lady on my lap, licking my ear with her forked tongue.
Sometimes when I go to Chicago to Christmas shop with my wife, I am
overwhelmed by the strangers behind cash registers, and all the houses that I have no name or story for.
I was on the subway there, I believe they call it an elevated train, last December, staring at the back of a man's head for fifteen minutes. Perhaps I knew his head better than anyone, even his wife. He was balding with tiny flakes of skin like gold dust hanging to what was left of his hair. The back of his neck was exposed, two or three clogged pores clustered together like paw prints of the tiniest cat stepping across his neck when he slept. Who knows about those pores but me? Someone who loved him, had they known about those pores, would have extracted them long ago, unearthed, pinched them out, let those three clogged follicles breath.
And what is his story? And whom has he loved? And when will he die?
I remember the alien nodded at that and moved one hoof from the bar stool to my armrest. It made a clanging noise like a cow bell.
Every person on that subway, every businessman, every talcumed old African, every Minnesotan on vacation, they are beating hearts and a set of fingerprints and a double helix all their own.
"They will need someone to lead them when our sun becomes a red giant. I thought science would free us from dependence on this Earth, but I've been looking for a new planet anyway, a place to move," I had told her then.
She had turned around to face me and sighed. If I didn't know better, I'd say that she rolled her eyes. They were big glassy spoons, socketed deep into razor cheeks, almost suspended on eight-way hand tied cords in her head. In the center, mica glistened.
“All matter is expanding, all galaxies are moving away from each other, just like me and my wife.” I had put my arm around her bony square shoulder then in a comforting motion.
“Wife?” she had said, and I swear it was a question. She went right up on the
end of that word.
“Well, if you really want to know.” I remember reaching for my drink. “Jean was a
beauty queen once.”
When we met, Jean had hair down her back that she could sit on. I loved to watch her brush it out, like a coat over her shoulders, all silk and slide. She had grown up on a farm out in Dender, and loved Waylon and Willie, and she was as tough as nails. We were both 19. I took her swimming at the Y where I life guarded every summer. She was a terrible swimmer.
It was a moment for me.
I like women who have great bodies who are terrible swimmers. It's quite
sexy to watch when you're in the next lane. The girls on the Coburn team are
machines. They move through the water like knives--doing a perfect two beat
kick, breathing every four strokes, the waterline crossing their forehead, hands
entering the water without a splash. Textbook.
But to see a woman with a nice body like Jean's, licking inefficiently, erratic strokes,
splashing like a fish on a line while taking a minute to get across the pool. . .that I
liked. It's the look of vulnerability they have - especially when I passed her
doing three lengths for her one. I pretended she was there for the taking, ready
to be seduced.
Ha, ha, ha.
She had that quality.
She wanted to save the earth like me, stall the eroding wheat lands,
rebuild the clear cuts of the Pacific slope, but now she is dispossessed,
disinherited. She loves the sound of sliding plastic.
“Do you understand me?” I remember saying to the lovely jelly bowl next to me.
“Understand,” Miss Universe had said in a sleepy voice. Her arms had started to
dissolve by that time, running in blue rivulets down the pebbled tile of the patio. Less milky
than inky, the blueness formed little baby pools around my feet.
Many of my countrymen do not vote. My students are riddled with
hopelessness and disease. I see the failing material of households and farms
and banks and factories. I had hoped to change that, but now I am only looking
for a new home.
Jean is right. Perhaps I have changed.
“That,” I had said pointing to the woods behind our house, “is a stand of red
and white oak.” I remember her head swinging the way of my hand, wobbling a bit, then
turning back to face me.
“I plan to make furniture when I retire, a new set of cabinets for the
kitchen, some household items, maybe a bed for her, for my Jean. I won't be a part of the
problem. Twenty-three million trees are planted every year by the US Forestry Service. We
are doing what we can to take care of it, we are singing in harmony with the local
At that point, my drink was almost gone, a skimming of slivered cubes in the thick- bottomed glass and there was pain in my chest. A hard heart is what God gave to Pharoh when he turned the Israelites over and that's what I've developed from years of teaching -- this old lump beating seems to slow down daily.
Maybe I took a step toward the door or maybe I turned around, but suddenly I
remember her taking my hand. Her fingers are cold and rubbery. I noticed for the first
time, a light vapory comet's tail, swishing around her legs, lighter and thinner, streaming out
like a bride's train. When she kissed me, I felt Death cheeking down my belly. I pulled up
sharp and broke away. I looked in my glass. One last swallow, a large one to the back of my
throat, hanging there like a glob.
“Sirius, is that your home?” I remember trying once again to ascertain her home
territory. “Or maybe another time, perhaps? You're from time and time and half a time
away, perhaps? What have you seen? Jerusalem taken by the Turks?”
Then I remember something brush against my leg and I was felled like a timber,
crashed here on the patio, my glass thrown from my hand and dashed upon the rocks.
A pike of black crystalline, like feldspar, had appeared out of nowhere engaging the
comet's tail. It must have been the starting gear that propelled her out of my atmosphere.
Perhaps dead dinosaurs aren't the origin after all. Maybe the stuff of oil is everywhere, the
fuel of Jean's world, the gas that bends her head around the curves at Dillards, Famous,
GAP, Barney's. It's here under our patio, running along Elmwood Drive in a vein, the color
of black gold.
I know I haven't been much use to you boys, scientists all of you. I can tell by your
grimaces and scribbling pens.
I have a suit that color, you know, black gold. Only one of two I own, the other
black reserved for funerals. I will probably wear that suit in a few days. I know a Death
vision when I see it.
There is a boy who is killed every senior year (I've warned Jason not to
become this boy) and I've held the copper hands of caskets in this black suit.
These students -- why don't they ever learn? -- for every ball peen hammer they
out run, there is another one standing cocksure over their forehead, ready to
drive them under, when they have such hopes of playing all the keys at once,
signing contracts with flourish.
Life always catches up.
You need a paycheck to buy cottage cheese and peaches for dessert.
I can see Jean ready to wave me in. She is about to yell dinner's ready and your sister's
here, but then she quirks up her eyebrows as if to say, ohmigod, Alfred, are you
okay?? Her mouth is an O, screaming my name, Alfred, Alfred, Alfred. She is coming
through the sliding glass now, boys, give her some room, my special lady.
This other suit - it's a color I can't pinpoint. Jean bought it for me on a
nearly forced credit card for her cousin's wedding. She said that women would
smile at me if I wore it. And she was right. That night, an attractive woman, newly
divorced, danced with me at the reception at the VFW.
I noticed when I chaperoned the Senior Prom that high school girls, to whom I am
ordinarily invisible, looked at me in that suit. Jean's said that I'll want to be buried in
that suit, and although I haven't given it much consideration, perhaps that suit is the very
one in which I'll make my entrance into the next life. That suit will save me from becoming
a science teacher again.
I could be a movie star in that suit.
I could do a commercial in that suit.
It is a suit a President could wear.
It is a nice suit.
It is a space suit.