Gary was tired and ready to leave, but something indefinably pleasant in the physical space of the restaurant held him to his stool. It was a palpable convergence of good feeling and soon it would end. Gary needed to bask in it a little more before going home. Or avoiding home. He sighed happily and slowly finished his beer. Eventually, he remembered it was Thursday and not Friday and worked on getting up and going to his car. He said goodbye to the night crew and to Frank, who was still there all those hours later with no apparent designs to leave, and exited the glass door with a light push from his left fist. He started his ’02 Civic, and put a compilation CD he’d made several years earlier into the player. Gary had been spending most of his free time listening to the crates full of old mix tapes and piles of mix CDs in the spare bedroom, his ex-wife Linda’s former office. Gary had not been crass or shameless enough to woo Linda with compilations when he first met her, but he’d made plenty of tapes and CDs for her after they’d married. She’d taken these with her as keepsakes of a relationship that worked in fits and starts before it became all fits, leaving behind the small mountain of mixes he hadn’t made for her. Gary worried that his current obsession with the homemade anthologies of his twenties was a pathetic retreat into nostalgia, but mostly he considered his recent listening habits biographical research into his own psychological, emotional, and cultural history. It was a way of understanding his life now, or a thoughtful fumble toward a partial understanding. Anyway, he still listened to this music. It wasn’t a nostalgia trip. Songs from his past didn’t conjure up the past as much as they continued to change and resonate with the present of each fresh listen. Music to Gary was the organization of sound into an abstract yet visceral state of being that combined the brain, the heart, and the groin into a large invisible bubble that blocked out distraction and deliberation. It changed the air. It turned everything different shades of color and made his blood bright, made his hair follicles pop. It was not a memory trigger to a teenage crush or a seventh birthday party or a grandmother’s sigh or a first year of marriage. It was a right-now living thing and was not nostalgia. Despite this truth, the physical ephemera of the cassettes – his handwriting, the titles he chose for the compilations, the song choices and sequencing – were artifacts from his past, and they took him back there, for good and ill.
Gary drove south even though his house was north. With Linda gone, it seemed too large and empty sometimes, especially weeknights. Unlike his other divorced or dumped friends, he liked the solitude on weekends, especially with a few beers and the music as loud as he wanted (Linda was a morning person), but the place was haunted by absence after a long day of work. Sometimes his friends came over on the weekends, but he had to keep that to a minimum. Newly divorced men drank like W.C. Fields on payday. It wasn’t a habit Gary wanted to cultivate. He sang along to Todd Rundgren’s “Long Flowing Robe” and Sparks’ “Barbecutie” as he drove past strip malls, restaurants, movie theaters, and pawn shops. He felt lonely in general and glad to be alone in the current floating moment of early dark. He liked his job managing his uncle’s diner. Some of his old friends became doctors, professors, and lawyers. Class bias rose from them like steam from a corn muffin. A ridiculous yet accurate analogy, Gary thought. Giant walking muffins with muffin-top heads and slit-open muffin mouths, steam rising out of the slits, flapping muffin mouthholes waiting to be buttered. I guess I hate my friends, Gary thought, and laughed to himself as the Beach Boys’ “Little Pad” segued into the Kinks’ “Berkeley Mews.”
Gary was about to turn around and go home when he saw a light on at Roger’s house. Roger was Gary’s roommate during the year of college both men attended before dropping out. Quitting worked out well for both of them. Roger owned three coffeehouses that did reasonably well in a city full of Starbucks and bakeries and diners. After three or four years of working 80-hour weeks, Roger created a viable business that mostly ran itself, with limited turnover and managers he could trust. He pulled a couple of long days a week now, but mostly stayed at home and had fun. Gary was mildly jealous of Roger’s good fortune, and the bizarre yet benign events that often occurred in his presence. A few years ago a tiny bit of space junk fell out of the sky and into Roger’s spare bedroom. The tiny meteorite fireball did some major damage to Roger’s roof, but he had enough to cover it and no one was injured. He kept the space rock in a glass case in the bedroom it had damaged. At first, some of his friends urged him to donate it to a museum or university, but they quickly tired of butting up against Roger’s stubbornness. “Let them get their own damn space rock,” Roger said. “This one came through my roof. I’m keeping it.” After his schedule lightened, Roger reacquainted himself with his old habit of staying up most of the night listening to records or watching obscure exploitation films, and he welcomed drop-in visitors at all hours as long as his porch light was on. Roger was a confirmed bachelor who had decided to live like a 22-year-old forever. Gary was glad he wasn’t Roger, though he envied his work schedule, but it was good to know someone like Roger when you couldn’t go home, when the chalk outline of a failed marriage was all over the walls of your house.
Almost as soon as Gary took his keys out of the ignition and opened his car door, Roger was running toward him, actually running, with an uncharacteristically urgent expression.
“Gary, hold on,” Roger said. He was mildly short of breath and red-faced. “If I let you in and show you what’s going on in my house right now, you’ve got to promise not to freak out. I mean it. Don’t lose it.” Roger looked intensely at Gary as he spoke, which Gary found unnerving.
“Huh?” It was all Gary could get out. He’d never seen Roger act this way, and he was curious and alarmed.
“I can’t tell you out here, because you’re not going to believe me until you see it. So you can either follow me in or head back home.”
Gary tried to respond, but he couldn’t. His brain had nothing to tell his voice in response to Roger’s bizarre behavior, so his brain and voice just hung on and waited for the proper stimuli and instruction. What could be in there? Gary quickly and silently ran through a hypothetical list. Did he kill someone? Were his coffee shops just a front for drug smuggling? He had no girlfriend or wife to betray, so he probably wasn’t hiding a woman. Was it a prank? Had he gone crazy? Gary thought he should probably get back in his car and drive away, but questions don’t find answers that way. Gary followed a few paces behind until they were inside the house. Everything looked the same, except for the giant thing watching television on the couch.
“What the hell is that?” Gary whispered to Roger. Roger drew up his shoulders into a tiny shrug.
“An alien, I guess,” he whispered back.
The thing was about seven feet tall and wrinkly. Wrinkly all over. Its skin was grayish pink and its fingers were very long and very wide. Its head was wide and round, with large black eyes that took up most of its face. It had no ears that Gary could see. It was wearing sweatpants. (“Those are my sweatpants,” Roger told Gary later that night, after several glasses of bourbon and a trip to the garage to see the spaceship, which looked like the developmentally challenged offspring of a pinball machine and a Hum-Vee. Somehow, the ridiculous machine had made it all the way from another planet to Roger’s house so was worthy of reverence and awe, even though it was the stupidest, ugliest thing Gary had ever seen. “I had to cover him up down there. You should see his genitals. At least, I think they’re genitals. They look like ours, mostly, but they’re enormous. I couldn’t have this thing in my home, looking at me, communicating with me, with his oversized pecker just hanging there, unwittingly taunting my own manhood. The elastic waistband is a useful invention. There’s no way he’d fit into any of my jeans.”)
The men stared at the creature for several minutes. It ignored them, instead focusing all its attention on the large, plasma-screen television, which was playing Roger’s DVD of Russ Meyer’s Supervixens. After Gary’s shock lessened enough to allow him to communicate coherently, Roger asked him into the kitchen for a private conversation.
“Okay,” Roger said quietly. “All I know is that he landed in my backyard two days ago in a spacecraft of some kind, which is in my locked garage. As far as I know, nobody else knows about him. My neighbors were at work, but you’d think some air traffic controllers somewhere would have picked up on his unidentified flying ass. Maybe he has something to block the signals. I’m not going to tell the government about it unless he decides he’s going to stick around. I don’t need a roommate right now.”
“What does he want?” Gary asked. “Can he communicate with you? This is amazing.”
“He seems to understand me pretty well, but he just points at what he wants, which so far has just been my movie collection. He sometimes makes noises, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t speak English. I don’t know if he understands it, or if he’s been here before. He’s pretty easy to get along with. He just sits on the couch and watches my DVDs. He’s been burning through my Russ Meyer collection. We started with The Immoral Mr. Teas and we’ve been working our way through chronologically. Honestly, it’s kind of like having a cat, but a cat with a sincere appreciation for the Russ Meyer oeuvre. He’s pretty low maintenance so far.”
“How can you be so casual about this?” Gary asked. “You’ve got an alien here, man. This is serious shit.”
“I’ve had a couple days to get used to it,” Roger said. “This sounds arrogant, but nothing surprises me. If I can wake up every day on this insane planet, in this insane country, then surely I can take the present curious circumstance in stride.”
“Maybe he came here to get your space rock. Maybe he dropped it,” Gary said.
“Hm,” Roger said. “Maybe so. He’s not in any hurry if that’s why he’s here.”
He smiled, sighed, and offered Gary a beer, which Gary accepted.
“Oh, hey,” Roger said suddenly. “Let me show you what he can do.”
The two men walked back into the living room, and Roger tapped the thing on what resembled a shoulder. The creature looked at Roger, and Roger pointed at the wall. The alien stuck out his large hand and touched the wall with the first of his four digits and began to hum loudly. The entire house and everything in it, including Roger and Gary, turned a bright, glowing neon shade of purple. Gary was not frightened, or worried about staying purple forever. Instead, he felt like he’d been dosed with every drug on earth and somehow been given the indestructible constitution to handle it all, and not just handle it but enjoy it without any of the negative side effects, paranoia, or harsh comedowns. He glanced at Roger, who seemed to misunderstand the look of pleasure on his face.
“Don’t worry,” Roger said, his clown face beaming ecstatically. “Don’t worry about a thing.”