By Paul Curley
When the rumors of UFO sightings began circulating, well before the hovering over the Bush ranch in Crawford, I conjured you over coffee and newspaper in the mornings and then again at dinner in front of the evening news. First there was the French tourist who claimed to have seen something bright and spinny from the Matterhorn at Disneyland, prompting local news stations to send reporters to carnivals and amusement parks where greasy-faced teenagers chalked the sighting up to vertigo.
If you had been here, you might have said, “Rookie reporters all over the country are pulling the short straw on this one, wading through the masses of grimy, sticky, cotton candy humanity just because some tourist got dizzy.”
“And what, we’re supposed to be calmed by some teenagers’ vertigo theory?” I might have asked.
“Makes you mad, doesn’t it?” you might have goaded me.
Then I would have surely pretended to lose it. Standing up from the table, I’d have thrown my napkin against the wall and stormed out of the room like I used to, letting you laugh alone before trotting back into the room and bowing to your applause and adoration.
Then came reports from around the world of sightings in Kenya by tourists on safari, by garbage collectors and a street vendor early in the morning near the Acropolis in Athens, and by a drunken Australian snorkeling guide who’d been put out of work when a Chinese oil tanker ran through his coral reef a couple of months earlier. All of these reports were met with tabloid-hardened skepticism, but the sighting that eventually grabbed the attention of the American public was when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie spotted the UFO while atop the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. You called that night.
“Did you hear the news?” you asked.
“When are you coming home?”
“But did you hear?”
“Yeah. We should be mocking this whole thing together. When are you coming home?” I asked again.
There was a long pause. “I don’t know.”
“I miss you,” I told you.
Where the unfamous world populace had failed, the celebrity of Brangelina succeeded. Mainstream news agencies reported the sighting as real news, and Brad and Angelina’s faces were splattered over the internet, television, and tabloids more than ever. Reporters scrambled to find UFO experts, and when there appeared to be no verifiable experts on UFOs, they turned to retired NASA folks and airline pilots. They even put on the air the same people they’d previously labeled whack jobs to tell their now newsworthy stories of being abducted by aliens.
A woman named Pamela Stoker told the world on CNN that she was plucked off the beach one summer at Hilton Head, South Carolina, and kept in the ship for she didn’t know how long, where she was probed, pinched, and subjected to myriad images with wires and tubes attached to her brain. “When they’d finished with me,” she said, “they placed me right back into the same beach chair that they’d snatched me from.” Fearful of losing its market niche at a time in which the difference between themselves and legitimate news sources was becoming fuzzy, the National Enquirer ran the story that the woman’s drink still had fresh ice cubes in it when she was put back, sparking an ugly rash of amateur time travel theories. In an effort to discredit the woman, an organization later identified as the Hilton Head Chamber of Commerce tweeted that Pamela Stoker had been drinking more than tonic.
When asked about the UFO sightings while on a family vacation in Hawaii, President Obama told the reporter, “You’ve been reading the Enquirer again,” as he waved a finger of shame at her and flashed his Chiclet smile. But this is Brangelina, not just some tart in Hilton Head, would have been the summary of the Sunday morning news shows, unapologetically scornful of the president for missing the authentication of the sightings.
Several more women came forward with their own abduction story exclusives on news magazine programs like 60 Minutes and Dateline, detailing as fact their abductions and how they were probed for God knows how long by God knows how many aliens. In middle school locker rooms, where the abduction stories affirmed the standing conspiratorial wisdom, boys noted that the abductees were always women, but never “hot” women. Bill Clinton, who privately thought the same thing, observed on the evening news that all the sightings and abductions had happened in tourist areas, a connecting of the dots that spawned rampant speculation that these were simply intergalactic tourists.
There were reports thereafter of a sharp spike in the number of Americans requesting vacation time, or simply not showing for work. The Congressional Committee on Workplace Efficiency announced a probe into the cause, but the committee was soon incapacitated by an inundation of complaints from citizens who’d become sensitive to the word probe after seeing the testimonials of the abductees. Newspaper editors rushed out memos to their writers labeling the word probe as sensitive, to be used with extreme caution.
The USA Today reported that tourism was up. Representatives from the airlines and from hotels at vacation destinations around the world confirmed that their business had seen an uptick since the Brangelina sighting. Eager to capitalize on the emerging UFO tourist market, the Hilton Head Chamber of Commerce tried to enlist the original abductee, Pamela Stoker, to guide tours of her abduction site, but alas the woman really did have a drinking problem and was in rehab at an undisclosed location. Not long after, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld came on TV, scrunchy-faced behind his glasses and testy as always, to say, “The suggestion that these aliens are simply tourists and intend us no harm smacks to me of Pollyannaism.”
When the ship fitting prior descriptions stopped over the Bush ranch, media outlets fumbled clumsily for the correct word. Some reported that the ship had parked, as though it were all part of a plan, while others used the words stalled, disabled, stranded, or even dead, words that suggested that the occupants had no choice but to stop where they did, the location over the ranch mere happenstance. Before long, however, as though there’d been a meeting, media outlets uniformly reported that the ship was hovering over the ranch.
You came back to me at the beginning of the hovering. You stood on the porch winsome and winded with tousled hair, your shoulder tipped from the weight of your grandfather’s old suitcase.
“Are you here to stay?” I asked.
Without words, you walked past me and we made love with our socks on, the door wide open. That night, we strolled deserted streets, past the flickering blue glow of televisions in people’s homes. You grabbed my hand.
“Who do you suppose is in there?” you asked. “What do they want? And why are they just hovering?”
“Why all of a sudden do we believe that crackpot, Pamela Stoker?” I asked.
“What if she’s telling the truth?”
“I missed you.”
The ship, a perfectly round purple disk, hovered motionlessly. National security talking heads told us that their global positioning instruments, which were far more sensitive than anything available to civilians, showed that the ship hadn’t moved even a thousandth of an inch in any direction. Furthermore, America’s most highly sensitive instruments could detect no sound or emissions from the vehicle, all of which prompted everyone from NASA officials to trekkies to NASCAR racers to speculate as to how much further advanced they were than us. NASA made an unofficial declaration that “the aliens are in the range of 5,000 to 6,000 years ahead of us,” to which one popular veteran on the NASCAR circuit replied with a shit-eating grin bigger than Texas, “I seriously doubt that.”
That night, we watched Jay Leno in bed. In his opening monologue, he said the aliens were “a few thousand years ahead of most humans, but billions and billions of light years ahead of NASCAR drivers,” the word billions spoken in imitation of the late Carl Sagan.
I ran my fingers through your hair and sighed, “Jay Leno, only you can find humor in the ominous portent of the hovering!”
“I wonder what they’re doing in the ship,” you said.
“Maybe W’s one of their own, and they’re getting ready to beam him up.”
“Maybe they’re getting all their wires and specimen jars ready,” you said.
“All their probes,” I teased.
You led me by the hand to the living room where we took turns spinning vinyls for each other in a duel of our natural proclivities – you spinning us closer to doom with songs like Lake of Fire (the Meat Puppets version), The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot, and Antony and the Johnson’s Hope There’s Someone, and I creating distance from doom with Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, and The Purple People Eater by Sheb Wooley. Then you pulled me to the bay windows, to the lights of downtown, where we danced to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue in its entirety.
Sometime before sunrise, you woke me. “What if they’re running reconnaissance?”
“I don’t know.”
“What if other ships are on the way to wipe us out?” you asked.
“Try not to worry so much.”
“I can’t help it.”
We imagined special forces rappelling from helicopters onto the craft and using the best human know-how to break in and storm it, but two weeks passed with no movement from the aliens or the government. It seemed after a while that maybe the ship would stay right where it was forever without any sort of creature emerging. Former first couple George and Laura welcomed Remy Moreau from the Disneyland sighting, the folks from the safari in Kenya, the street cleaner and vendor from Athens, and Brangelina to the ranch for lunch. The Australian boat captain wouldn’t leave his vessel, and Pamela Stoker was still at an undisclosed location, leading the New York Times to report that she’d been abducted again. After lunch, the guests emerged from the house to television cameras. They looked up at the disk, told the press that it was definitely the same one they’d seen earlier, and signed autographs before being whisked away in limousines. Brangelina reportedly flew off to Haiti to adopt their 11th child.
The New York Times launched a front page investigative series detailing a dramatic drop in world conflict since the hovering began – fewer car bombings in Jerusalem, a complete halt to Palestinian homes being demolished in the occupied territories, a 90% reduction in casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not a single decapitation along the Mexican/US border. School principals reported that instances of bullying were on the wane and police chiefs presented data showing that violent crime was down. Psychologists and sociologists appeared on talk shows espousing the theory that the outside threat of the space ship was focusing us on our commonalities rather than our differences. Pope Benedict XVI appeared behind bulletproof glass in St. Peter’s Square to say, “This encounter with intelligent and potentially violent alien life gives us the unprecedented opportunity for unity and peace among humans.” Surely, if patriotism weren’t passé before, it must now be. To this, Donald Rumsfeld replied, “The suggestion of peace on Earth smacks to me of Pollyannaism.”
Alarmed by the growing optimism of peace among humans, the US Department of Defense sent out a cadre of its economists to caution Americans that the nation was still in an economic downturn, and that peace wasn’t profitable. However, they were soon pleased by new numbers showing that the alien threat could be profitable, as a quarter of a million new jobs were added in the first quarter of the hovering. In what the media dubbed alienomics, the aerospace industry created over 4,000 jobs to develop craft that could fight alien warfare, and the construction industry built 95,000 underground alien shelters in people’s backyards. Gripped by fear, Americans bought more guns than ever, purchased alien abduction insurance, and supported a burgeoning market of alien threat books with titles such as How to Make Yourself Unattractive to the Alien Abductor and Growing a Garden in an Alien World.
If peace among humans, or at least the alien threat, had become profitable at all for the US economy, it proved to be an absolute boon to the tourist industry of Texas, where hotels went up in mere weeks as legally close to the Bush ranch as possible. Restaurants and tour bus operators followed, as did souvenir vendors who sold t-shirts with prints of rattle snakes and the words Don’t hover on me. In fact, a general optimism regarding the craft ensued as enough time passed that it seemed that the craft might forever hover.
A peace camp developed in the desert near the ranch. At first it was just a small group of earnest folks who used all the media attention they could garner to advocate for a nonviolent response to the aliens, but soon a rather bohemian set of backpackers, vagabond musicians, and all varieties of loners looking for community opportunistically glommed on, followed by a more conventional array of insurance agents, teachers, dentists, and pharmaceutical reps who’d left their jobs and homes for the chance to feel alive again. Within weeks, the peace camp numbered in the tens of thousands of people living in a sprawling stench of tents, RVs, and cardboard boxes.
I read an editorial to you over morning coffee that argued that the peace camp was unpatriotic. “I bet you anything that there are militias of men with multiple wives and dozens of creepy home-schooled kids who at this very moment are hatching plans to kick the shit out of the peace campers,” I said.
“All those people leaving home, looking for something,” you mused.
“Only, you came back,”
“I was scared. You know?”
“I know.” I hoped more than anything that the hovering would never end. “How about when you’re not scared anymore?”
The New York Times reported that the indefinite hover posed a challenge to the government of the United States. How could they tolerate its existence? Despite the Obama administration’s feckless appearance thus far, an anonymous source disclosed that plans were being drawn to incapacitate the ship in a way that would preserve the ship and any specimens inside for scientific inquiry. The longer the tourist spectacle continued, Obama’s national security advisors fretted, the more the public will view the craft as a natural fixture in the Texas sky and the greater resistance they will have to pulling it down. In fact, lobbyists for the Texas Department of Tourism had been in steady contact with members of Congress urging the government to continue its hands-off approach when all this complacency was scattered by what became known as the opening.
It happened moments before Crawford sunrise in late August. A door opened, a panel on the curved edge of the hull, revealing nothing but an impenetrable, unearthly light. Live feeds on television and internet, which for weeks had shown nothing but the stillness of the disk against a slowly changing sky, for several minutes after the opening transmitted nothing but the color white until technicians were awakened, apertures adjusted and filters applied. After a frenzied volley of phone calls east to west, most of the world population had awakened to the news, baited by the feeds into fearful yet undeniably eager anticipation.
People all over the globe would remember where they were when they first heard that the craft had opened. They were called into staff rooms and rounded up from fields and factory floors. Televisions were wheeled into yoga centers and places of worship, and the feeds were projected onto school gymnasium walls and streamed on the jumbotrons in public spots like Times Square, Leicester Square, and the Ginza in Tokyo. People stared at the white glow on their phones in the middle of rice paddies, in doctors’ offices, and on buses. We were all transfixed by the light.
The phone pulled you out of bed while it was still dark. You came back to the bedroom and shook me. “It was my parents. Something’s happening with the ship,” you told me.
Bathed in the white glow, we cocooned on the couch against the foreboding image of the motionless disk, the time since opening clicking over in the bottom right corner of the television screen.
“What’s going to happen?” you asked me near tears.
“How the shit should I know?” I joked.
You grimaced at me, and I pulled the blanket up to our chins and softly leaned into you.
“My God, that light.” You were squinting at it.
We waited in silence with the rest of humanity for something to happen, the volume turned down to mute the maundering of the anchor in New York. Who or what would emerge? What kind of strange powers were we about to witness? Would this be the end for human kind, or would these be our distant cousins? Would we welcome them, or would the US Air Force fire a missile into the gaping maw of the ship?
Exactly 23 minutes and 42 seconds after the panel had slid open, the planet Earth watching, the light suddenly dimmed, faintly backlighting something that seemed to be moving. This was the moment, the incredible, wonderful, horribly terrifying moment, all at once enervating and invigorating, that we had been wondering about for months. You gripped my arm and whispered, “Something’s coming.”
The alien, at first obscured by the radiant glow, took form not all at once but in slow ticks of the clock, as though it had just walked through galaxies to the edge of a dense fog of light. The Earth swelled as it held its breath, and as the alien came into full view, we all shuddered in exhalation at the spectacle of a bipedal but otherwise grotesquely inhuman creature with what appeared to be a chunky gray exoskeleton. Cameras zoomed to reveal large murky eyes that drifted around the head, a thin crack of a mouth and at least two arms and extra appendages that didn’t seem to move. The alien, now in plain sight, stilled itself for several seconds as though waiting for applause to die down, but Earth’s attention already lay rapt 65 feet below.
Then there came the first sound from the creature, an exquisitely high-pitched whine, a whale throwing its voice, perhaps a clearing of the throat. In the weeks leading up to this moment we had wondered how the aliens would communicate. If they were to imitate any earthly language, what would it be? And what would they travel all those unknowable miles to tell us, ask of us, or do to us? Its roving eyes blinked, and it held up its movable arms. Then, in a slow Texan drawl, it spoke just eleven words, “We are here to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.”
Leaflets in many earthly languages detailing the highlights of what we know as the New Testament fell from the ship. Though the geographical references had changed, the names of people and the stories were largely the same. Before the last leaflet had even touched the ground, the alien had withdrawn from the breach and the panel door had silently slid across, extinguishing the bright light.
Your open mouth and wide eyes registered a muddle of shock, amusement and horror. “Holy shit, how did they hear about that guy?” you asked. I called in sick and we cooked quiche, bacon, and blueberry muffins. We talked as we chewed, dripping coffee and strewing crumbs all over those eleven words and thirteen seconds the way we used to go over the gory details the morning after our parties.
“Did you see its eyes floating around its head? And its skin was so rocky,” You said.
“No, it looked more like Thanksgiving stuffing. And how about the Texan accent?” I spat.
“I know, right?”
“As much as Texas might seem like the center of the world or even the world complete to Texans, to the aliens who travel the vastness of outer space, Texas must be no more than a speck of sand in a dust storm.”
“And hello, Earth to aliens! We already have Mormons!” you said.
“Yeah, we’re all set here.”
“Only they don’t hover for weeks on our front steps. God, it’s so comical, right?”
“I feel relieved,” I said.
“Why? Just because they’re some sort of alien missionaries doesn’t mean they’ll be peaceful. I’m still scared.”
By afternoon, the leaders of the major world religions had issued myriad responses. The Dalai Lama urged humans to engage the aliens in dialogue, but the Vatican warned of a ruse to gain humans’ trust. Stephen Hawking warned that the aliens would try to colonize Earth to exploit the planet’s resources, to which Pat Robertson added with a waxy smile, “They will try to colonize us by forcing our own religion on us.” Native American tribal leaders, who best understood the hovering experientially, quietly issued a joint statement: “This can’t be good.”
There was one day of furious efforts to comprehend what was happening and what was about to happen, but what people in Texas learned when they woke up the next morning shocked the world all over again. The ship was gone. Before dawn sometime. After weeks of hovering with no detectable movement or emissions, no sign that it was going anywhere, it was simply gone. The US looked for it with the most sensitive of tools, the same sophisticated spy ware that located mobile chemical weapons labs in Iraq in 2002, but they couldn’t find any trace of the ship.
The craft may have vanished, but the vapor trail of controversy it left behind was stretched across the front page of The New York Times: The Aliens Are Christian! The proposition that creatures from another planet would know about Jesus would prove to be the largest challenge to faith worldwide since Copernicus and Galileo asserted that the Earth revolved around the sun. World Christian leaders caucused in secret spots to review what happened and develop a set of possible outcomes and interventions to prevent any financially devastating exodus from their flocks.
In an event nearly as outlandish as the alien statement, Pat Robertson and Pope Benedict XVI shared a lunch of pulled pork sandwiches and baked beans at a Masonic Lodge in Virginia Beach. We watched on CNN as the men emerged from the lodge and scrunched into the back of the popemobile where they faced the media. They looked like celebrity contestants in a traveling dunk tank. The Pope said that the aliens had learned about Jesus from broadcasts that had either intentionally or unintentionally been sent into space, “for we all know that God created man in His own image, and we could all see with our own eyes that the grotesque visage, inhuman in all respects, could most certainly not be in His image.” Then, Pat Robertson said, “The alien is the devil himself trying to confuse and divide us! If I’m hearing God right, He’s telling me that tsunamis will ravage our coasts by year’s end to punish those among us who believe that He also made those things.”
I said to you, “Yeah, cuz everybody knows its Adam and Eve, not Adam and Qrbleev.”
Then you said humorlessly, “If I’m hearing God right, he’s telling me that this tsunami of idiocy will continue indefinitely, and that very soon now we’re gonna return to bombing the fuck out of each other.”
The first sign that Earth’s short-lived experiment with peace among humans was over was seen in Texas at the Peace Camp. For days after the craft had left, thousands of people remained at the camp in vigilant hope for its return. They couldn’t bear to see the end of that magical time focused on something bigger than themselves, normal life on hold. The thought of going back to alarm clocks, weekends, casual Fridays, holiday potlucks, the dentist, haircuts, and rent was depressing. The State of Texas tolerated the camp for two additional weeks before issuing an order for it to be disbanded in three days, which turned out to be three days of such excessive partying and law breaking as to make Woodstock look like a church picnic, thereby prompting the Governor of Texas to call in the National Guard.
You turned on the television news coverage of the soldiers firing tear gas at an estimated 8,000 campers, most of whom were too altered by drugs to run or find an exit, ending up in heaps of half-clothed sweaty bodies.
“Come here and look at this mess!” you yelled from the living room. “After all the hype about what the aliens would do to us, here we are beating each other with clubs.” You were crying.
That night we argued about things we wouldn’t remember the next day, and I knew that one day soon you’d leave again.
Four months following the alien statement, The Washington Post reported that folks who’d previously renounced organized religion were joining Christian churches in record numbers, no doubt fueled by tabloid covers showing Brangelina receiving holy communion at the Vatican. The alien’s pronouncement, which others had seen to refute any biblical authenticity, to others was enough evidence of an irrefutable, universal truth to obviate the need for blind faith. If the aliens knew about Jesus, their reasoning went, he must be the real deal. There was even an organization, founded by leaders of the Peace Camp, that was already calling the alien a prophet. They predicted, though the longitudinal arc of the historical event would be far longer than any human lifetime, that we were witnessing the birth of a fourth major Judeo-Christian religion.
At the same time, people who’d up to that point self-identified as fundamentalist Christians were leaving the church. How could the aliens really know about Jesus Christ? It called into question the Bible stories, all of which took place on Earth between humans – no mention of aliens anywhere. It was supposed to all be literally true, and now none of it could be true.
Amid these shifts in Christian demographics, however, remained a group of ardent right wing fundamentalists who hung onto their faith with militant fervor, vowing to defend their God and their Book by any means necessary from the blasphemy of the charlatan alien prophet. They advocated stockpiling guns in the churches and congregation members’ basements for the inevitable return of the aliens, and pointed to the left wing sinners as the ones who would damn humans for cavorting with alien Christian posers.
Well, the ship has not returned, and world conflict has returned to economically sustainable pre-hovering levels. In addition to a change in church demographics and the lingering feeling that we are not alone, an enduring legacy of the hovering has been the expressions from the event, which we seamlessly graft to the events of today. “Borrowing the words of Donald Rumsfeld,” people say, “any suggestion that al-Qaeda won’t use drones against the United States smacks to me of Pollyannaism.” Or, people quote Pat Robertson in support of using US troops to combat what they call the Mexican invasion. “The alien is the devil himself trying to confuse and divide us!”
I never miss you more than when the news is the most terrifying. I read the paper over breakfast and recite aloud my favorite quote from the hovering: “This can’t be good.” Without fail, the ensuing silence makes me wish you were here to make fun of the world with me.
About the author:
Paul Curley abandoned a budding legal career years ago to teach English in
Japan, an unusual maneuver that he has yet to regret. He has traveled
extensively through Asia, Europe and Central America, and currently teaches
US History and English to speakers of other languages at a high school in
Portland, Oregon, USA. In addition to short fiction, Paul writes poetry and
is working on his first novel.