Out of Roswell
Randon Jones pulled into the Navaho Inn on a Wednesday evening. The attached restaurant looked busy, judging from the large pickups and SUVs parked in front of it. As she stepped out of her Volvo, she noted two sleek cowboys getting into a white crew cab pickup. Driving away, they simultaneously removed toothpicks from between their teeth and tossed them out their respective windows.
“Classy,” she thought.
After checking in, she opened her room with the old-fashioned key attached to its plastic tag. The room number stood out, bright white on maroon. She would have to keep that in her purse. The room was neat, decorated with knotty pine furniture that had probably been there for forty years, obviously made of tough material, since it was not too beaten up. Fresh paint, carpet, and curtains made it surprisingly homey, but the bathroom towels were scratchy and meager. She was glad she had brought her own. She also had a comforter in the trunk of her car, just in case she needed it to pad a cheap mattress. So far, it didn’t seem that she would need it. Everything smelled decent—obviously the non-smoking policy had been respected.
Her cell phone played harpsichord music. It was her friend from work, Patty.
“Did you make it in one piece?” she asked.
“Sure. Why wouldn’t I?”
“I would die of boredom on that long, empty stretch of road to Sulfur Gap.”
“I managed to stay awake and even enjoy the scenery. You have to realize, I’m from another desert, so I’m used to stark scenery. At least there are cotton fields to break up the drive.”
“Are you going dancing?” Patty was as reluctant as Randon to practice what they had learned at Western dance class. They both had been more of a fit with the chess club in high school and college than with the dance crowd.
“Well, I’m going to observe. There’s a place called Hopper’s. I found it on the Internet. They have a supposedly decent live band, so I might go tonight. Why don’t you zip on up here? I’d rather check out the place with someone than go by myself.”
“I know what you mean. I’d love to go with you, but I’m pretty tired, and I’d have to be back for work tomorrow. You scout it out.”
“We’re pretty lame to avoid the dance places in San Angelo. But I want to practice with the full ambience before I go local.”
“Understood. Too bad you managed to waste your youth studying and practicing piano and never went honky-tonking. There had to be some places around Roswell and Albuquerque.”
“Oh, there were. Plenty. Everyone had a hangout, but my parents indoctrinated me to avoid doing what everyone else was doing, so I wound up doing nothing. Unless it was book club. The only contest I could have won would be Nerd Queen. Anyway, I haven’t heard any stories from you about the wild and reckless excursions of your youth.”
“Oh, yeah. I was the one who always decorated the gym for prom and wound up without a date. Well, you get your feet wet while you’ve got a chance, and I’ll want a full report when you get back. Bye now.”
A recent immigrant to West Texas, Randon had felt an imaginary breeze whistling temptingly up her skirt when she signed up for the country western dance classes with Patty. The pleasant roll of excitement gathering in her stomach lifted her and lightened her steps as she ventured onto the stage in the college’s small modular theater, its floor the perfect sounding board for the swishing of feet learning the Texas Two-step, Cotton-Eye Joe, and Schottische. She hadn’t felt such a rush since she got in trouble on a class field trip in the fourth grade for giving the raspberry to all the exhibits at the UFO museum in Roswell.
When required to venture into Sandstone County for her job, Randon decided to be daring and mix a little pleasure with work. She was more confident now. She was a late bloomer—her body had lengthened more in proportion to her legs so that she no longer seemed to be walking on stilts. She had straightened her kinky hair so that it now hung in a luxurious mass down her back, she had made a determined study of how to dress for success, and she had learned how to use makeup. Her mother had offered no encouragement—she went to work in overalls and a hard hat every day and shunned activities that required dressing up.
Randon’s Volvo had brought her up the straight and narrow highway to Sulfur Gap, past the tall-posted wire fences of game ranches where exotic antelope roamed, even the occasional buffalo. She drove toward the horizon, the highway stretching as far as she could see with little specks of mailboxes and the silver-painted triangles of iron pipe on each side of cattle guards, marking the turn-ins for farms and ranches. Some of the fields were covered with the snow of cotton ready to harvest. Some had already been stripped, and the big, white oblong cubes of baled, raw cotton lay along the service roads to be loaded and transported to the gin.
In her motel room, Randon kicked off her shoes and lay back on the bed. She had just finished reading a novel and hadn’t decided on which one to download for her next read. She flipped through the television channels, turned off the TV, and tossed the remote aside. Even though she viewed going to a dance hall in Sulfur Gap as akin to an anthropological expedition, she was losing her nerve. Maybe she should walk over to the diner and have a salad and make it an early night. She still had tomorrow and maybe Friday, if she decided to stay on after her workshop was over.
In the restaurant, she looked the other way as she passed the enticing cold case where coconut cream and chocolate meringue pies lay behind the gleaming glass. She had a tendency to go off her eating plan when she was bored, so she didn’t want to catch a tempting glimpse, even to appreciate the swirly chocolaty confection labeled “Mood Booster.” Not being able to fit into her size 4’s would be more of a downer than the brief high she would get from Mood Booster. She was saving her sugar intake for the expected drinks she would have when and if she went to Hopper’s.
The sign at the front of the diner said “Seat yourself,” so she found a booth toward the rear. The smell of fried onion rings and seared sirloin made her mouth water. She had no hope for any kind of salad besides the chopped iceberg lettuce they kept for hamburgers, topped with an anemic slice of tomato. Better than nothing. She looked at the menu. The Navaho offered a few Mexican food items, including chalupas. With a bit of cooperation from the cook, she could make it a healthy meal.
A skinny little waitress with spiky blonde hair stopped at her table and pulled a pad from her apron.
“What’ll you have to drink?”
“Water, with extra lemon.”
“All we have are the packets of lemon juice.” The waitress tilted her pen in the direction of a condiment holder stuffed with sugar packets and little plastic containers of lemon. Beside the holder were bottles of steak sauce, ketchup, and mustard.
“No fresh lemon?”
“Sorry.” The little waitress was sincere. “If you’re looking for anything fresh around here, you’ll have to order a steak. Or something with a tortilla. We make our own—and our own salsa.”
“Okay, I guess I can live with the lemon packets for the water. And I’ll go ahead and order a chalupa—just one—no sides of rice and beans. And I’d appreciate it if you could not fry the corn tortilla. Could you grill it?”
“We can do that.”
“And I need to ask—do you know if the refried beans are made with lard? Because I don’t want them if there’s any lard.”
“No, we just use a little bit of canola oil to make the refried beans.”
Randon was pleasantly surprised.
“Great. So I’ll have the beans on the tortilla. And what about your chicken? I don’t suppose it’s free range?”
Now the waitress giggled, showing a row of straight, white teeth. “No, we don’t get organic around here. We’d lose business. People would think we were a front for a Socialist revolutionary group plotting to take over Sandstone County.”
Randon absorbed this information and laughed. “You’re right. Well, when in Rome. Is the chicken fresh or canned?”
“We cook it fresh, bone it, and shred the meat every morning. And we don’t add salt except a little while it’s cooking.”
“Okay, then. I’ll have the bean and chicken chalupa. Oh, and is the cheese real?”
“Yes, ma’am. A mix of real cheddar and Jack cheese. You want to go easy on the cheese?”
“Sure,” Randon said, admiring the way the waitress anticipated her next request.
“So it’s a water and a chicken and bean chalupa. I’m guessing you want the lettuce and tomatoes stacked up. How about an avocado slice?”
“Sure. And I’d like some of your salsa on the side.”
“I’m also guessing you don’t want a basket of tortilla chips.”
“You are so right,” she said.
When her order came, Randon tentatively tasted a dab of the salsa with the end of her fork, which she had examined and found to be clean. It was delicious, with just the right amount of seasoning, cilantro, jalapeño, and lime mixed with the pureed tomatoes. She dumped the entire small dish over her chalupa. She would have to remember this place as a good pit stop on the way home to Roswell to visit her parents.
When the waitress stopped back at her table with a pitcher of water to refill her glass, Randon decided she might be a good source of information.
“I’m here for a couple of days,” she said, “and I was wondering if you know anything about the places people hang out. I mean, like a place where you can get a drink, relax, maybe listen to a little music.”
Without missing a beat, the waitress answered. “Hopper’s is the place. It’s clean, and there’s a live band. For the VFW, you have to be with a member, and it smells like smoke. People still smoke in part of it, and it drifts all over. So if you don’t mind the smoke smell, I can fix you up with my granddaddy. Since he got his prosthesis working right, he’s a pretty good dancer.”
Randon reacted before she saw the play in the waitress’s eye. “Oh, no! I’m not looking for a date!”
The waitress laughed. “I’m just kidding! You might like Hopper’s, though. Couples go there, singles too, and not only to find a ‘date’.”
“Okay, I’ll give it a try,” Randon said. “You had me going there, talking about fixing me up with your granddaddy.”
“I can’t help myself. Anyway, I’ll be at Hopper’s Friday night. My friend Charlene and I are dressing up for Halloween and going for the discount drinks. You get drinks for half price if you’re in costume.”
“But Halloween’s Saturday.”
“Yeah, that’s when the elementary school and the Catholic Church are having their fall festivals. Saturday is for the kids. Friday is for the bar and dance crowd. This weekend, anyway. If you come, just look for me. You can sit at our table and none of the guys will hit on you if you don’t want them to.”
“Sounds like a good idea. But I don’t have a costume. I don’t even have anything ‘cowgirl’ to wear.”
“That doesn’t matter a bit. Just wear comfortable shoes to dance in. Oh, and my name’s Dora Jean. I’ll look for you Friday, unless you come back for more chalupa between now and then.”
They shook hands and said goodbye, Randon leaving a hefty tip and making a beeline for the hotel office to add Friday night to her stay.
Back in her room, she called Patty. She would need backup.
“Let’s go to Hopper’s on Friday night. I’ll get you a room if you can come.”
Patty said, “Appropriate name for a bar. ‘Hoppers.’ You can do all kinds of things with that. They should have a neon sign shaped like a grasshopper, and their ads could say, ‘Who needs to go bar-hoppin’ when you can land at Hoppers?’ or ‘Things are hoppin’ at Hopper’s.’”
“Actually, the owner’s name is Brady Hopper. His family has owned the club since the sixties. It’s quite a legend, according the waitress at the Navaho,” Randon explained.
Before they disconnected, Patty said, “I’ve got an old Lily Munster costume that would fit you, and I could go as Morticia. Want me to bring them?”
“No! I’m not going to try to fit in that much around here. . . . You’ll like Dora Jean, though.”
Randon kept waking up throughout the night, looking at her digital clock beside the bed. She mentally rehearsed the dance steps she had learned, her feet twitching under the thin sheet.
Thursday and Friday, she drove a few blocks to the Sulfur Gap Community center, where she presented her part in a workshop on groundwater preservation for the Texas Water Commission. The workshop attracted ranchers, city managers, county commissioners—anyone with an interest in conservation. She was out of place in her power business suit and heels, and she knew she bored them all. One large man let his head fall back with his mouth open as he passed into sleep, and he gave a loud snort that startled him awake and made the people at his table laugh. She frowned and kept talking, but she really didn’t blame him. She was passionate about her subject, but she had trouble conveying it.
She had brought her own protein bars for breakfast, and she picked at the pasta salad in her box lunch provided at the workshop. For dinner, she ate at the Navaho. Dora Jean helped her come up with healthy concoctions involving chicken, lettuce, tomato, salsa, and grilled, not fried, tortilla.
She was looking forward to Hopper’s on Friday so that she could get her foot in the door of the dance hall. But by Friday evening, she was so nervous she had to park her Volvo far from the door. She didn’t trust herself to seesaw into the narrower parking spaces. She patted her purse and felt the pepper spray canister that she had brought along, in case she had to navigate a seedy area such as the parking lot of a bar.
Patty was concerned. “Calm down. This is not the time to spiral into social anxiety disorder.” Patty had come better prepared than Randon. She had spent some time carefully plotting her outfit to blend in but be attractive. Her long, loose tunic tank hung unevenly to mid-thigh over her leggings, and her ropers looked like she wore them all the time. Randon had wanted to avoid the issue of what to wear. It was a way to pretend to herself that she didn’t feel like she was going to her first dance. Wait. She was going to her first dance. She looked down at the outfit she had cobbled together. She had pushed up the sleeves of her business suit jacket, which she wore over a white embroidered T-shirt she had been sleeping in the last two nights. Her jeans had been a quick, surprise find at the Walmart up the road toward Briargrove. Her low-heeled ankle boots completed the ensemble.
Daylight Savings Time had ended by the decree of urban gods the week before, and even though the world turned as usual and created long, amber and salmon-tinted sunsets, the curtain of darkness had descended by seven in the evening, suddenly it seemed, throwing everyone off balance as they ate supper or drove home from work in the twilight.
The two grown, well-educated women, greenhorns to the world of honky-tonk, stepped tentatively through the door at half past eight.
Before their eyes could adjust to the low neon lighting, Randon heard Dora Jean.
“It’s about time! Get over here.”
They followed her waving hand to the edge of the dance floor, where Dora Jean and three friends sat at a small, round table. Two chairs had been saved for them. After introductions, they wasted no time flagging down a waitress, who brought three shots of tequila for each of them. Randon felt daring, drinking with three hair stylists—one a very cute, tall man—and a waitress at an out-of-the-way joint on the fringes of the fringes of so-called civilized country.
They made small talk and listened to the band.
On the subject of occupations, Randon said, “I’ve always played it safe.” Her “safe” sounded more like “shafe,” a signal that she needed to slow down on the tequila.
“Played it safe? I would be scared to death to go to college like you did,” said Dora Jean. “But I’m dyslexic, so that’s not totally irrational.”
Charley, the tall, lanky hair stylist, chewed his toothpick and rearranged it to the other side of his mouth. “I’m the one who’s played it safe. Never lived outside Sandstone County except for going to barber school. But cuttin’ hair can be risky.”
“Everybody has a different idea of what’s safe,” said Dorothy, owner of the salon where Charley and Charlene worked.
“I’ve always done what people expected of me, that’s how I play it safe,” Randon said, realizing she was stepping into personal territory with people she barely knew.
The group nodded understanding. Sitting next to her, Patty was relaxing. Randon could feel the tension ebbing.
No one at their table had on a serious costume, but Dora Jean’s bandana and eye patch made her look enough like a pirate that the waitress gave the whole table the discount. Dorothy’s tiara helped, too, but Charlene pointed out that it really wasn’t a costume for Dorothy to wear a tiara to the dance hall. Dorothy reminded Charlene that she was wearing a head band with bobbing shamrocks springing from the ends of pipe cleaners, a holdover from St. Patrick’s Day.
“You’re jealous,” Charlene said, twanging her shamrock antenna.
Randon thought how out of character it was for her to be sitting here. Her parents would disapprove of her present company and choice of entertainment on a Friday night, but she felt a little elf inside her beginning to stir, to say “So what?” A lifetime of parental approval criteria had already been checked off.
She had attended college at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. But she couldn’t leave Roswell completely behind as she had planned.
Her dorm roommate was a random assignment. When she learned of Randon’s Roswell origins, she just had to say, “The land of the little green men.”
Randon replied, “Actually, they’re supposed to be grey.”
“You mean you believe that crap?”
“Oh, God, no!”
“Then why do you care what color they are?”
There was no way to win. People heard Roswell and thought “UFO” because of the absolutely bogus myth that persisted about a spacecraft crashing in the desert decades ago. Allegedly, bodies of extraterrestrial astronauts were recovered and taken to a secret bunker in Nevada to be dissected and studied, along with the craft, which would unlock mysteries of aeronautics for the backward humans of planet Earth. She scoffed along with her parents at the whole idea.
Upon graduation, Randon took her degree in environmental planning and design to West Texas, where she went to work on a federal project to determine what to do with a dry man-made lake. The reservoir had dried up twice, the first time because the pipeline that was built to fill another lake nearby had drained it. Then, the receiving lake went dry, too. The lakes sat for years, with the expected rain that would refill them never arriving. Then, when two years of unprecedented rainfall finally refilled the lakes, residents of north San Angelo became worried that the dam would break, so the engineers in charge drained it again. After thirty years and many wildfires in the dry lake bed, alternate planning options were needed.
Randon liked San Angelo, with its historic frontier vibe and cultural and community activities at a level unusual for a small city. Community development efforts had paid off—a river walk, flower gardens and parks, a top-rated art museum, and an internationally-known water lily collection contradicted the idea of a former frontier fort town full of bordellos, gambling halls, and buffalo hunters. She thought she had reached a higher level of civilization and simply stayed away from the tractor pulls, monster truck rallies, gun shows, and rodeos at the coliseum.
As the band played on in Sulfur Gap, Raggedy Ann and Andy danced by, followed by Captain Jack Sparrow and his gypsy sidekick. Other dancers accessorized with feather boas dangling across shoulders and peacock feathers in hat brims. Like Dorothy’s tiara, it was hard to tell if the extra bits of flair were part of a Halloween costume or just the usual attire for dancing at Hopper’s on Friday night. It didn’t matter, Randon decided. In fact, she was just fine in her nightshirt and jeans. She didn’t really need the Ann Taylor jacket at all.
She became curious about a shadowy figure standing behind the pool table on the other side of the dance floor from her table of new friends. He was intently watching a pool game, his head closely following the cue ball. His neck was as wide as his head, but his shoulders sloped oddly. At first he stood for several minutes with his arms folded across his shallow chest, but when he finally dropped them to his sides, she could see that they were unusually short. He made her think of the Roswell stories about little grey men.
Randon paused in her reverie to lean toward handsome, gangly Charley Bristow, the most sought-after barber in five counties, according to his co-workers. “Who’s that oddly-shaped little man over there?”
“That’s Mikey. He comes in to watch his brother play pool. He’s a sweet guy, but not all there.” Charley tapped his temple. “Down’s Syndrome. His brother’s the tall one, Ike. We kids used to call them Ikey and Mikey until Ikey started stomping everyone that called him that.”
Randon thought this was too much information, but it seemed to be the way people passed the time in Sulfur Gap, telling little tidbits of one another’s history.
“He could pass for an alien if you gave him a space suit,” Randon said. Charley just looked at her with a touch of shame in his eyes, as if she had said something cruel. She had once again failed to be funny.
“Sorry,” she said, trying to recover the fumble. “I guess I have aliens on the brain. My parents had big issues with teachers in Roswell who liked to appeal to our imaginations by having us do art projects, write stories, and even solve math problems based on something about aliens.”
“Oh yeah? I think that’d be fun.”
“My parents didn’t think so. They were always going to the school, even to the school board, protesting the ignorance and superstition of a curriculum that would include field trips to the UFO Museum.”
“Your parents must’ve had time on their hands.”
“No, they both worked. Mom was a pipeline welder and Dad was an ICU nurse. They kept pretty good tabs on my brother and me, though.”
“Lucky you.” Randon noted that Charley was not being sarcastic.
“I think I’ll go see if Ike’s up for a real game of billiards.” Charley tipped his hat and headed around the dance floor. Randon watched his lanky walk and wondered if she should get a haircut before she left Sulfur Gap in the morning.
Charley chalked his pool cue, while Ike racked the balls. Charley stood next to Mikey, leaning down to talk in his ear. Mikey tilted his head with interest, looking straight at Randon, eagerly nodding in her direction. Oh, hell, what was Charley doing? Was he getting back at her for her comment about Mikey looking like an alien? Sure enough, Mikey started around the pool table, keeping his eyes glued to her as he made his way over to her table. He didn’t swing his arms when he walked, and his jeans were turned up in wide cuffs above glaring white tennis shoes. Pearl snap buttons shone on his starchy checkered shirt.
She turned frantically to Patty. “Oh, my God! Charley put that little guy up to coming over and asking me to dance!”
Patty threw back her head and roared with laughter. “Well, he’ll be a good one to practice with! You won’t be too self-conscious like you would be with the dreamy barber, had he asked you to dance.”
“I’m not doing it!” Randon hissed these last words and got up to make a plunge toward the women’s bathroom, but Dora Jean grabbed her arm.
“Hey! Don’t be such a chicken. The only dance Mikey knows is the two-step, and he goes slow, no matter what the beat of the song is. We all dance with him, and he loves to meet a new friend.”
By now Mikey stood in front of Randon with a broad, friendly grin on his face. He held out his hand to shake hers. “Hi, I’m Mikey.”
“Hi, Mikey, I’m Randon, and this is my friend Patty.” Randon gave an exaggerated nod in Patty’s direction. Patty wasn’t going to get off just sitting there and smirking.
“Hi, Randon and Patty.” Mikey shook each of their hands. “Who wants the first dance?”
They looked at each other and giggled. Then they realized that Dora Jean, Charlene, and Dorothy were looking at them, taking the situation seriously. They were Mikey’s friends, concerned that his feelings not be hurt.
Patty was the fastest. “Randon can go first,” she volunteered.
So Randon ventured onto the dance floor and turned awkwardly toward her new partner. Mikey was a head shorter that she was. He held her stiffly away and watched the band as they started the next song. Within seconds, Randon felt the urge to put Mikey at ease. The people that might be watching became less important, and she forgot about the music—Mikey didn’t keep up with the beat anyway. She didn’t care anymore about getting the steps just right. It was not her vision of what her first dance in a real honkey-tonk would be like, but she was having fun.
“You’re a very good dancer,” she told him, and he ducked his chin and smiled. He stepped back and led her into a mechanical twirl. He had to stand on tiptoe, and she had to duck under his arm. She felt like a ballerina on top of a music box. Stiff, observed, on-the-spot, but special.
After the song, everyone clapped in her direction. Mikey offered his arm and escorted her from the dance floor. He held out his hand to Patty. She grinned at the other women as she and Mikey headed out to dance another two-step, followed by the same applause that Randon’s dance received.
During the next three songs, Mikey danced with each of the women at the table—Dorothy, Charlene, and Dora Jean. Charley finished his pool game and danced with them, too. When the band played “Cotton Eye Joe,” Dora Jean grabbed Randon’s hand, and she and Charlene formed a line, while Dorothy and Charley boosted Patty onto the floor. Charley asked Randon to dance a waltz, and she nearly froze on the spot, but he pulled her by the hand onto the floor. It was a slow waltz, and Charley shortened his stride and didn’t try any fancy moves. Patty got the next waltz. Randon sat watching, still feeling the imprint of Charley’s hand on her back.
“Charley sure is a nice guy,” she ventured to the other women.
“He’s the best.” Dorothy sounded like a proud mother.
“You guys aren’t related, are you?”
“Not by blood,” Charlene said. “We’re sort of like a family at the salon. Charley’s like our brother. Or maybe son?” she added, looking at Dorothy.
The tequila buzz was wearing off, and Randon was glad. No driving home tomorrow with a hangover. An autumn nip brought a cool breeze along the valley, and the outside doors of Hopper’s were propped open all around the building to let the fresh air circulate.
She looked across the room again. Ike must have gone home—he was nowhere to be seen around the pool tables, but Mikey still hovered in the shadows. She thought it odd that Ike would leave Mikey, but then one of his friends would surly take him home.
Pointed out the Mikey-shaped silhouette, she turned to Dora Jean. “Who’s that?”
Dora Jean eyed the corner where Randon had pointed. “I don’t see anyone.”
“I do. It looks like Mikey, but where’s Ike?”
Dora Jean squinted toward the extra chairs stacked in the suspect corner. “There’s only one Mikey,” she said, “and he and Ike left a while ago.”
Randon’s eyes focused again. Mikey was gone, as was the Mikey-shaped figure in the corner.
“I’m not nuts. I know what I saw,” she said. “Let’s go check it out.”
The band was taking a break, so she and Dora Jean walked straight across the dance floor. Propped against the wall was a life-size cardboard cutout of Willy Nelson.
Dora Jean laughed. “I’m sure Willy would be thrilled to know you mistook him for Mikey.”
“No, I saw someone else who looked like Mikey, I know!”
The propped-open door nearby led to the parking lot, and Randon stepped out to inspect the rows of pickups and SUVs. Her Volvo wasn’t visible, but she knew it was down in there somewhere, hidden by the behemoths surrounding the smaller car. Dora Jean stood beside her as they surveyed the area. The sounds of the pool balls and people’s voices drifted into the quiet lot. Other than a middle-aged couple getting into their Suburban, no one was in the lot.
Dora Jean patted her on the shoulder. The band was starting to play again while they inspected the quiet parking lot.
“I’m gonna run on back to the party.” And Randon was left alone and frustrated.
But she hadn’t given up. Someone was playing a colossal joke. The perfect time was Halloween and this was the perfect venue. She was being paranoid. And narcissistic. Why would anyone want to play such an elaborate hoax? It had to be Patty. She had told her about how her parents had responded the first time she came home from school and asked her mother about spacemen. It was after her kindergarten teacher had gathered the class on the reading rug and assured them they were safe from the alien beings. Randon had never heard of alien beings, so her five-year-old’s imagination was fired. When her mother got home from work and dismissed the teenage girl who was supposed to be babysitting but instead was making out with a boyfriend, Randon asked, “Mom, how come you never told me that space people landed out in the desert a long time ago?”
Piper (as her mother was called—her father liked to sing little ditties about Piper goin’ to the pipeline and Pipeline Piper mendin’ the line) said, “Oh, shit. Like you can’t come up with enough of your own excuses not to sleep in your bed. Now the freakin’ kindergarten teacher has to give you ideas.” She chunked her overalls into the washer and turned on the heavy cycle. “People who believe in flying saucers and spacemen are nut cases, crackpots. They have brain damage from birth or from too many drugs.”
When her father came home, Randon was already asleep, so the teacher hadn’t scared her too much. Piper had been convincing as she dismissed the subject. Randon missed the parental discussion about the poisonous influence of public school kindergarten on young minds, but she could imagine it as she reflected on the incident.
The next morning, her dad, Zech (short for Zechariah, the minor prophet of the Old Testament), was at the breakfast bar. Randon hopped onto the stool beside him for her early morning hair-ruffling.
“So, how did ya’ sleep, Missy?”
“Fine. If you mean did I dream about grey spacemen, I didn’t.”
Piper and Zech exchanged relieved looks and rolled their eyes at the absurdity of it all.
The kindergarten teacher had a fixation. One art assignment required the kids to draw what they thought a person from another planet might look like. Randon drew a person. The teacher told her to try again and use her imagination. Randon argued, “But you said a person. Even if it’s from another planet it’s still a person.” She got a check-minus on her picture of a person, even though the background had purple trees and two lime-green suns shining down on turquoise grass. Piper used a neon green highlighter and turned the minus into a plus sign and attached the picture to the refrigerator with magnets, where it hung until the corners tore off.
The field trip to the UFO Museum on Main Street toasted it with Piper. Randon stood in front of several exhibits and gave each the raspberry, an expression of such disrespect that the teacher banned her to a chair beside the front door for the duration of the visit. Piper was perturbed not so much by the punishment as by the teacher’s insistence in pursuing such a ridiculous “learning activity” as a trip to the UFO Museum, an activity that deserved a raspberry if one ever did. She took a morning off work for an appointment with the principal to discuss the needless emphasis on aliens.
“I’ll address the issue at the next faculty meeting,” Mrs. Randolph assured her.
Piper’s teacher friend Trish kept her posted. No mention was made of the issue at any faculty meeting. “You’ll have to get more parents fired up,” Trish informed her.
Most of the other mothers avoided Piper, though. Odd name, odd job, and far too muscular and outspoken. Piper intimidated Randon, too, but most of the time, Randon felt she had a mighty protector on her side.
Several times, Randon’s younger brother, LeRue, heard the family story about Randon getting in trouble for raspberrying the exhibits at the UFO Museum, and he wanted his own place in family lore, so his chosen refutation of the whole alien idea was more verbal. When his fourth grade teacher said that Roswell had the distinction of being the town the aliens visited, possibly because of the convenience of landing in the nearby desert, he blurted, “Bullshit.” Piper and Zech could not dispute the inappropriateness of LeRue’s language, although they backed up their son’s right to express disagreement with the teacher. The right to disagree was limply acknowledged, but the principal still gave LeRue three days of in-school detention for insubordination and offensive language. The family chafed under the oppression, the thought control. Randon kept it to herself, but she felt torpedoed, out-flanked by her brother in his daring display of cynicism.
Now she stood in the quiet of the parking lot, broken by the echoes of music and clinking glasses, clicking pool balls, and laughter. She raised her arms and looked up at the sky. The brighter stars winked through the lights of the parking lot. “And here’s to you, too,” she yelled. With that, she turned in a circle, spouting a long, loud ph-th-th-th at the sky.
Back inside, Charley was sitting in her chair next to Patty. They were touching shoulders. Something had happened in their world while Randon had gone pursuing phantoms from another world. Randon took Charley’s old chair across the table. She was piqued at Patty for abandoning her for this hair stylist. Granted, he was darn cute, but this was going off the agenda much too far. Patty was grinning like the women in the commercials for erectile dysfunction medication, and she hadn’t even gotten laid yet. Just the prospect gave her a gleeful look. Dorothy, Dora Jean, and Charlene seemed not to notice. Charlene was filing her nails, Dorothy sipped a Coke through a straw, and Dora Jean cupped her hands around her mouth to yell a request at the band—Put Your Little Foot.
Patty laughed at Dora Jean. “Put Your Little Foot? I learned that in first grade!”
“And we still do it in the Gap. Come on, Randon, hitch it up and get out here.” She shot out a skinny arm and grabbed Randon’s wrist.
Charlene and Dorothy paired up, and the four of them joined the motley crowd. Some people took the dance seriously and executed the steps with stately precision, while others exaggerated the moves and clowned around. Dora Jean was in a clowning mood, and it rubbed off on Randon. “What the hell?” she thought, not bothering to see if Charley and Patty were dancing. She decided Patty had been too busy planning her wardrobe and stealing Charley to carry out a ruse of aliens gathering at the dance hall.
Randon paused a moment to consider her thoughts. Patty didn’t steal Charley. They had made no contingency plans for meeting eligible bachelors, and Randon certainly had no claim. Still, the feeling of betrayal was nibbling away at the amount of fun she could be having.
Back at the table, Patty and Charley had scooted a little closer, and Patty rested her hand on Charley’s leg with a proprietary air. She batted her eyes at Randon and grinned like a chimpanzee. She seemed to be saying, “Look what I get to take back to the motel.” Randon fake-smiled back with a tinge of self-righteousness as she assessed her advantages in not taking a good-looking hairdresser back to the motel. A—She wouldn’t have to emotionally disentangle from anything. B—She wouldn’t be starting something she couldn’t finish. And C—She wouldn’t be remembered as the lady engineer from San Angelo who had a one-nighter with Charley. Her smile broadened.
The band started a slow two-step, and Charley pulled Patty into another dance. Someone tapped Randon on the shoulder. She turned to find Brady Hopper, the owner of the club, standing over her. He had been working at the bar most of the night. Dora Jean had pointed him out to her. He was in his thirties, thinning hair, but attractive.
“How about a dance?”
“Sure.” Randon felt that she was gaining an advantage over Patty in dancing with more partners on their experimental journey to dance land. At least she would not be a wallflower while Patty practiced dance lessons with her new teacher. “Oh, stop it!” she told herself. “This is not a competition. I could just as well be in Patty’s shoes if I hadn’t been chasing imaginary Mikeys out in the parking lot.” The memory of what she saw—or thought she saw—was fading like a shimmering mirage. She blamed the tequila.
As they moved into the steps, Brady asked, “What brings you to Sulfur Gap?”
Talking and dancing at the same time was like trying to meditate at a NASCAR race, but Randon managed to explain her job at the workshop. She didn’t reveal that she and her friend were two nerds trying to learn how to fit in at a honky-tonk.
“I’m always glad to see out-of-towners. Word gets around that we have a nice little family saloon here.”
Randon appreciated that Brady kept his distance. He was probably married and was dancing with her only to be polite to a newcomer and promote business. After the dance, Patty and Charley stayed on the dance floor, waiting for the next song to start. The tequila wearing off and the disappointment of the evening were giving her a headache. Ike had joined the group after taking Mikey home, and it became clear that he was going to work his way around the table, dancing with each of the unattended women in turn. Randon didn’t want to wait her turn. While Ike danced with Charlene, she told Dorothy and Dora Jean that she needed to go back to the hotel and take some aspirin.
“You come back and see us again, okay?” Dora Jean stood up and hugged her like they were old friends.
Dorothy extended her hand. “It was nice to meet you. Your friend, too. I might not get a chance to tell her so before Charley whisks her off.”
Randon said goodbye and waved to Patty, indicating in sign language that she was driving back to the hotel. Patty stopped dancing and patted Charley on the chest. She caught up with Randon just outside the door. The moths were flitting around the overhead light, and the occasional June bug jumped out of nowhere. It created the feeling that one needed to keep fanning away more insects than were really there. The glare was unflattering. Patty’s teeth were yellowish, and she had dark circles under her eyes.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine. I drank too much and now I’ve got a headache. I’m assuming Charley or one of the others can give you a ride back to the hotel—or wherever.”
“You think I’m a slut, don’t you?”
“Yes.” Randon stared into her eyes. She turned away before she had to take in Patty’s hurt look. She didn’t feel like apologizing. Another friendship in freefall like a burned-up moth spiraling down to the pavement. Her first dance in a real live honky-tonk was with a mentally challenged little man, and her first night of dancing ended with going back to a stark little hotel room alone, while her friend who she thought was as big of a scaredy cat as she was, hooked up with a good-looking, very nice man. Time to wallow in some self-pity. She could play Sudoku on her cell phone and think of how forlorn she was until she fell asleep.
By the time she got back to the Navaho, she had decided to go home that night. At least Patty had her own room, so she wouldn’t have to leave a note on the pillow. She swallowed some aspirin and took a quick shower to make sure she was awake. The Navaho’s café was still open, and she knew the coffee was good. She could order a to-go cup as she headed out. She scooped her cosmetics into their zipper bag and threw them and her dirty clothes into her suitcase. She walked the short distance to the office and put her key through the slot in the door for off-hour departures. She stood by the register in the café while a waitress she hadn’t seen before brought her black coffee to go.
Pulling away toward San Angelo, she was glad the route headed in the opposite direction of Hopper’s. She would be back in her own bed in two hours.
The long road was empty. Her radio was tuned to the symphony channel, which played Holst’s “The Planets.” What timing, she thought. She couldn’t believe that her reality meter had been so out of whack. Having expectations of a good time at Hopper’s. Seeing little alien-looking Mikey figures and chasing them into the parking lot. She was as big a fool as idiots who came to Roswell in search of UFO’s.
She remembered the enthusiasts with antennas, satellite dishes, and metal sculptures attached to their vans and camper shells mounted on pickup beds that converged every year for a big round-up on the outskirts of town. The idea was that their collective desires and equipment would allow contact with the aliens. The beer can recyclers experienced a business boom. As they drove out of town for their vacation to the mountains every summer, Piper, Zech, Randon, and LeRue tut-tutted at the freak show.
The highway planed out in front of her. Moonlight washed over the fields to the horizon so that the landscape looked like a photographic negative. Off to the west the outlines of receding mesas layered themselves into the distance. It looked like another world in the moonlight. The clashing sounds of Holst’s music fought with her thoughts, so she turned off the radio. The whisper of the wind around her car and the light singing of the tires on the highway were all the music she needed.
She looked again toward the mesas, and saw something hovering at the end of the second, no, the third one in the lineup. She had to watch the highway. How stupid it would be to have a wreck after asserting her independence from Patty and the club scene in Sulfur Gap. She slowed down to a crawl. It wasn’t as if a car would come roaring over the hill to run over her Volvo—there were no hills. Driving as straight as she could, she examined the hovering object. It was half as thick as the mesa, which rose at least three hundred feet off the flat prairie. It was flat, oblong, and silvery. It shimmered in the moonlight like a fat, silver bullet. But each time she turned back to look at it after checking the road, it had shifted, appearing beside the mesa in the foreground and looking more white than silver. She finally pulled to the side of the road and stared at the distant, floating object. Her mind struggled to consider what she was seeing. A cloud wouldn’t be that close to the ground, and the night was cloudless. A weather balloon could have gotten trapped along the mesa’s edge, but why did it seem to change positions? Her mind was growing foggy. Just as a sense of alarm began to spread through her body and make her hands tingle, her phone played its harpsichord music.
It was Patty, pulling her back to reality.
She answered with relief.
“Hey, you pill,” Patty said. “Why aren’t you in your room?”
“I decided to drive on home.”
After a pause, Patty asked, “Are you really mad at me?”
Randon sighed. “No. Our friendship is more important to me than competing for the attention of a guy we hardly know. I was feeling sorry for myself, but I don’t think picking up a guy at Hopper’s is a brass ring to grab for. And I’m just speaking for myself. No criticism of you.”
“None taken. I decided the same things as you. I left Charley and got a ride back to the motel with Dora Jean. She teased me outright about being a rare girl to resist the charms of Charley. I didn’t tell her I gave him my phone number and that he can come see me any time.”
Randon laughed. “Dora Jean is about as reticent as a rapper on speed. I hope you didn’t make too big of a sacrifice.”
“It was just timing that made Charley choose me. That didn’t make me feel too special. The point of going out was to no longer be honky-tonk virgins, not to lose our true virginity.”
“You’re a virgin?!” Randon suppressed a gasp.
Patty began to laugh harder and harder until she sounded like a leaky valve with spasms. Randon thought she might need to hang up and call an ambulance to go to Patty’s hotel room. Finally, she recovered. “No, you dummy. But you don’t have to sound so shocked at the idea that I might be. I’ve had serious boyfriends, but I can say I am a virgin to the world of one-night stands.”
“Me, too,” Randon confessed. Then she laughed with Patty. She had almost forgotten the mysterious floating object that hovered around the mesas. When she looked for it, it was gone. She said goodnight to Patty and pulled back onto the highway.
Nearing the city limits, Randon decided to drive past her dry reservoir rather than go straight home. She turned on the narrow road that led down to picnic sites—concrete tables and benches under metal awnings—that once and briefly stood close to the water’s edge, now positioned mysteriously on ridges that dropped toward a sloping valley of mesquite and algerita brambles. No place for a picnic. The state park surrounding the dry lake still afforded paths for hardy bicyclists, and sightseers could meander down the roads in car caravans for a glimpse of buffalo that lived inside the park. Supposedly there was a dry creek bed with dinosaur tracks, but the casual attempts she had made to see them were met with non-information—being sent from one gate to another, being told to join a scheduled tour, and learning that no printed tour schedules were available.
She enjoyed the solitude of the dry lakeside. In the wee hours of the morning, the moon was bright enough to cast faint shadows across the hood of her car. She turned off her lights and settled back to enjoy the silence. She tried to picture the shimmering shape beside the mesas that she had been looking at on the way home. She couldn’t call up a definite image in her mind. It was like a shadowy dream now, although she knew she had seen something. Maybe she was just tired. Two boring days of workshop followed by an emotional evening of ups and downs. Exhausting.
Randon cracked the windows so that she could hear the occasional hoot of an owl, a chirping cricket, and rustling of the breeze through rough grasses.
Then, an eerie silence enveloped her car, as if she were a bug and a giant glass jar had been lowered over her, cutting off the outside world. A shadow slowly moved across and blotted out the moonlight. A translucent green light bathed the dashboard and her hands as they gripped the steering wheel. She sat frozen, transfixed with a sense of stillness that she had never before felt. In the stifling silence, there was no peace, but neither was there the kind of terror that she would expect as she detached from herself and observed herself sitting in her car. As the light faded and the moonlight was restored, she wondered how long she had been caught in the green light. It could have been seconds or hours, but she couldn’t tell.
Her heart resumed beating, though she hadn’t been aware that it had stopped. The usual sounds of the breeze, the owl, and the crickets feathered back into her consciousness as the moonlight washed away the electric green that she thought she remembered only seconds ago. Now she wasn’t sure what had happened. She began to think she had fallen asleep and dreamed the whole thing … until she saw the lights.
Above the horizon, a long row of glowing orbs in the shape of a smile ran in an arc, blinking in succession one way, then the other, then all together. The rowed lights were white, like a disembodied Cheshire cat grin. The sound of a whoopee cushion telegraphed into her brain. As her jaw dropped, the lights disappeared as if sucked into a small hole that snapped shut and vanished.
The aliens had given her the raspberry.
Author’s note: Wikipedia has this to say about raspberries:
Blowing a raspberry, strawberry or making a Bronx cheer is to make a noise signifying derision, real or feigned. It is made by placing the tongue between the lips and blowing to produce a sound similar to flatulence. In the terminology of phonetics, this sound can be described as an unvoiced linguolabial trill [r̼̊]. It is never used in human language phonemically (e.g., to be used as a building block of words), but the sound is widely used across human cultures.
Alien ones, too.