War of the Lights
By Madeleine Rose Reardon Dimond
25 December 2000
The Christmas season was already off to a bad start when a spaceship landed on top of my house. I hate it when that happens.
I was dragging my tail home in the single-digit morning hours, having just played a double set in a joint where I wouldn't be caught dead. As usual, I was ruminating over why the audience thought I should be playing Tejano or mariachi -- and wondering if either or both would help my career. I was also trying to ignore the Santa sleigh drawn by pink flamingos and the nativity with Blessed Virgin Britney Spears and 'N Sync Wise Men.
Nested on my roof was a metallic ovoid that spanned the width of my house. It pulsed a rotating rainbow of colors. Since my house was the only one undecorated in Austin's Bushy Creek (numero uno on the Texas Tribune's Must-See Christmas Light List), I wondered if the neighbors had put it up. After all, Frank Jones had made his kids mow my lawn last fall while I was with my dying grandmother. He left me a nasty note about keeping up neighborhood standards. It bothered me more than the four letters from the Homeowners' Association.
But there was no nasty note on my front porch, just a five-foot greenish-blue lizard with a guitar.
If I'd remembered that I'd quit hard drinking and drugging, I might have been more surprised. Obviously I'd played too long on Sixth Street, that freakish strip that defines what we mean when we say "It's not Texas; it's Austin."
He struck a chord on his guitar and went into Mandy Moore's "I Want You Back."
His accent was terrible, and he didn't have the range. I wasn't sure if the Neighborhood Covenant allowed spaceships on the roof, but I was certain about sounds louder than 60 dB in the night. Austin, Live Music Capital of the World -- before 10:00 p.m. So I said, "Cut that out."
"Mean no harm," he warbled.
"That's what they all say," I muttered, fumbling with my key in the lock.
His throat swelled, ready to let loose again, and I waved him inside. I was on a first-name basis with the all the nightshift policemen of our comatose suburb, but I'm never inclined to pursue the acquaintance.
When the door shut behind him, I remembered that I'd given up drinking anything harder than Shiner Bock after the time when I'd played "Silent Night" at a bar mitzvah, and had abandoned recreational drugs in honor of my divorce, since I couldn't account for the six-year relationship otherwise.
I couldn't account for this either. Now I noticed that he wasn't exactly a lizard, it wasn't exactly a guitar, and no way was it a costume. I always get scared ten minutes too late. I groped in my bag for the Mace. The bag flipped inside out, and the Mace rolled under the piano. I envied it.
The lizard plowed into some classic Santana, tunneled through Bon Jovi, and then began cutting some serious grooves that I'd never heard before. My fear ebbed away, and I ripped my keyboard out of its case and played along. When he hit the original stuff, I improvised the best I could -- he laid down some frightening progressions.
Maybe music really is a universal language -- though being in a band will make you doubt it -- but I got the idea that he really was from outer space, that he came in peace, and that he was starved, man.
So I dug in the fridge. Two pieces remained of the rejected pizza I'd taken home from last week's Chuck E. Cheese gig. I offered him one and gnawed on the other. He shook his head and pointed to the chandelier. I've seen every BEM movie ever made -- so I knew that aliens eat weird. I unscrewed a few bulbs for him.
He shook his head and waved his arms, which was interesting, since they were jointed backwards. Then he hopped on the dining room table and sucked one of the sockets where a bulb had been. He glowed and sighed, but the lights went dim.
"Hey! You're killing my light bill!" I shouted.
He scrunched down. "You perceive dilemma? Much food exists, but must not endanger other life forms." He gestured out the bay window to the houses, all lit up for the season. "Supports life?"
"The lights? Why, no. Not that one." I pointed to the Joneses' twenty-foot Santa Claus sled.
All Bushy Creek yards groan under muppets, cartoon characters, angels, Biblical figures, and decorations straight from Candyland, but the Joneses lead the way, each year capturing the coveted Best Light Display Award, sinking to new depths of taste in the process. This year even the Guptas succumbed to Light Contest Fever and dangled a string of color-rotating flashing lights on the Buddha in their meditation garden. From the outdoor slatted blinds flashed a pink neon message, "All is one."
So I enjoyed seeing the alien pick up a light strand in the Joneses' front yard and suck it till the lights glowed brighter and then popped into blackness. He came back happier, and we traded names. I gave up on his and settled on "Al," with his approval, but he didn't butcher Carolyn Consuelo Herrera any worse than the Texans who pronounce Guadalupe as "Gwadaloop."
We jammed awhile longer, and I picked up more of his story. He was scouting for a suitable colony planet. But his ship had malfunctioned. Needing to land, he thought Earth might have both food sources and the technology for repairs. Our transmissions had been a nuisance to his navigation system, but they helped him learn English. He thought we might be kindred souls because we used music to communicate, just like his people did. So he modified one of his instruments to look like the guitars he saw on VH-1 and studied all the music radio he could find.
Our neighborhood registered a high concentration of food, but he picked my house amidst the blazing feast because it was dark. He hadn't wanted to hurt anyone by landing on their dinner table.
He had my full sympathy by the time he wailed, "I feel so break up, I wanna go home." I waved him to the upstairs bedrooms and promised my full attention to the problem in the morning.
I thought about it so hard during my lunch shift at Kerbey Lane's Fine Organic Restaurant that I offended one of my regulars by not noticing her new tattoo. I'd forgotten the staff gift exchange that day, but fortunately I'd just gone by the post office and picked up my great-aunt's gift, a wool scarf. She lives in Guadalajara and always knits me winter wear because I live so far north. I got a battery charger in return. At least, I thought that's what it was. The Asian manufacturer had saved money on translation. The box was plastered with slogans like "If buy one you get all," "One is equal to all," and "First and Uniquely."
Al was rocking along with VH-1 when I returned. Not wanting to disturb him, I sat down with the battery charger's manual. I frowned over "Take any charger to save you from spending unnecessary fortune of buying different kind of charger. It only needs simple adjustment for different kind of battery packs when use in first." Al's problems and his English seemed clear in comparison. Actually, I was impressed with his English. My ex-husband Toadstool had attempted to learn Spanish to impress my mother, but when he tried it out on her after six months' practice, she called the priest to cleanse and bless the house.
Al picked up the charger box and exclaimed over the marketing blurbs. "You know! 'One is equal to all.' 'First and uniquely.'"
I shook my head and turned the conversation to his situation. He was stuck on my roof unless we could find some raw materials and expert knowledge. He needed an engineer, someone who could make things go. Of course we were in tech country, and the University of Texas oozed brain power out its pores, but I balked at trying to explain the situation to anyone. They'd think I was crazy.
I settled for an engineer who already thought I was crazy: my ex-husband Toadstool. I left messages all over town because his company had gone DOA instead of IPO, and his drinking buddies hadn't seen him for months.
When he called, his voice sounded different. I gauged him to be at the zero- to two-drink level. However, the words were the same: instead of "Hello," an accusation.
"Carolyn, you've got my ohmmeter. I can stand your getting the house, but taking a man's ohmmeter, that's low even for you."
I knew my part in this scene, but Al needed his help. I tried cunning instead. "That's why I'm calling. You left some things upstairs, and I need to clean it out for a roommate--"
"You touch my tools and I'll rip every key off your piano!"
I bit my lip. Maybe three to six drinks, though he wasn't slurring at all. "Why don't you come take what you want tomorrow? After my lunch shift."
I explained to Al that help was on the way, and in the meantime I was headed for my gig at the Cactus Café. He clearly wanted to go with me -- that's how I interpreted the waving tail and wagging head -- so I got out Toadstool's cowboy outfit for him. With the hat pulled low, he blended in pretty well. He took a few nips from the extension cords, but not enough to seriously dim the lights. I told him he could feast all night on the Bushy Creek decorations.
We totally rocked. The tip jar spilled over, and I moved some CDs, the one Toadstool had helped me record back when we could stand each other. The manager booked us for once a week.
We sang all the way home, and I watched with glee while Al polished off the Mackenzies' robotic Smurfs carving fruit and cheese and the Jenkins' lights. They're Unitarian, so rather than display religious symbols, they just hog-tie every tree, bush, and rock with twinklers. Their house looks like a fireworks show in freeze frame.
The next afternoon Richard Todd Stull rang my doorbell. I'd braced myself, but a common bond drew us together.
"Tell me I didn't see toy polar bears skating around a teddy bear nativity."
"Sorry." I narrowed my eyes as I looked into his. They were clear.
"I see the Christmas Light Contest is still bigger than anything."
His expression turned soft. I was remembering too. Last year, early one morning, he and I had run through the neighborhood, switching displays. Putting a flashing armadillo in a manger and harnessing camels to Santa's sleigh was one of our best times.
His face hardened again. "Even you. Is that spaceship your idea of Christmas cheer?"
"I'm glad you mentioned that."
At that point Al wandered down the stairs. Rick's eyes opened wide as hubcaps. Panting raggedly, he pulled out his wallet and flailed through, dropping business cards. "They said this might happen. Call this number, Carolyn. It's Detox."
I knelt down to pick up the cards. "No, it's okay. Al's real. It's his spaceship."
Rick dropped the rest of the cards on my head and leaned against the door. "That's supposed to make me feel better?"
Al picked up his ax and played a few numbers. Rick breathed normally again, and I explained what I knew. The two guys disappeared into the ship until Al and I had to get ready for that night's gig.
While I collected my gear, Rick checked out the Speakers of Death. He'd built them for my wedding present, and they filled the living room. Pointing to the room's only other furniture, a coffee table laden with saints, photos, and a prayer book, he asked, "What's that?"
I scowled. "Abuelita left me her altar. You got a problem?"
"Abuelita's dead? When? She was your only family who liked your music." Rick extended a hand, but drew it back without touching me.
I swallowed some tears. "September." To save us both, I handed him the battery charger box. "I don't understand the manual."
Al clumped down the stairs in cowboy gear -- joints bending backwards, for sure, but other than that, no stranger than anything you might see on the Drag, when he remembered to keep his tail tucked under the vest. He forgot and swished it with delight. "Rick! Brother! You understand too!"
"Sure. You just plug it in the wall." Rick showed us. "I'll get back to you tomorrow, Al. I've got to get to work."
"Another startup?" I asked.
"Blockbuster. It's our busiest season." The door slammed before I could ask why an Austin engineer was shuffling videos. The local tech companies have revolving doors in the engineering departments, and an upwardly mobile career path consists of changing jobs every year for a pay increase.
As I dragged my weary bones home from Kerbey Lane the next day, I saw Rick with Phil Mackenzie from next door, unloading a case of Shiner Bock from Rick's rusted out pickup, packed full of beer and sagging low.
"Some party you're having," huffed Phil as they dumped the case into the living room next to fifteen others.
As Phil headed out for another load, Rick whispered, "Al needs aluminum. It's radical, the way they manage energy. Didn't you wonder why the house didn't burn up?" His eyes glittered with engineer's infatuation.
Phil staggered in with another case. "Woo, boy. Some party."
I felt sick, knowing where the beer was going. So I said, "The whole neighborhood's invited. I'll get out invitations tomorrow, but spread the word, will you?"
He brightened and continued thanking me until the truck was empty. When he'd left, Rick and I regarded the tower of fermentation.
He sighed. "That's my severance pay from Sockem."
"They paid you with beer?"
"I spent it on beer. Which turns out to be a good thing, because cans are almost perfect for what Al needs. The alloy is the closest thing we've got to what they're using as a catalyst, and just the right tensile strength, thickness, and malleability. The reaction with --you don't want to hear this, do you?"
"Not unless you want to hear my thesis on Elizabethan madrigals."
"Er, no. So what's with the party, Ms. Antisocial?"
"Even you can't drink that much and work on the ship too." I bit my quivering lip.
He blushed and ducked his head. "Actually, I was going to pour it down the drain. I'm in AA now. I've had a spiritual awakening."
"And George W is leading the Gay Pride parade!" I shut my mouth too late as usual.
Rick turned as red as he used to get after a six-pack, and left.
The party was a great idea. The light-gawking tourists had crammed our streets until we couldn't get out of our driveways anyway, but I was still surprised to see so many neighbors. Al was touched. "Earth understands. 'One is equal to all.' Everyone helps."
Or they just liked Shiner Bock. But I didn't say it.
Al wanted to be there, so we set him up in a dark alcove with his guitar. He laid down some majorly fine and exotic tunes, the kind that make you forget your address and grow doubtful about your name. Several people stared hard at him and remarked that he couldn't be from around here. "California," I said as I stuffed more beer in their hands, and that made it all right.
Mostly people just complained about the Homeowners' Association and the shoddy quality of this year's Christmas decorations. Everyone had lights shorting out except the Gibsons, who had a baby on a breathing monitor. I'd warned Al about their house.
Afterwards, beer cans filled the kitchen from floor to ceiling. Rick said we needed more, even after we stole from the recycling bins on trash day. So I bought cans from the homeless folks near my gigs. At first I paid the same as the recycling center, but when they saw how eager I was, they formed a cartel and raised prices.
"Nothing personal," Leslie assured me as he adjusted his tiara. "We're just businessmen. Like Michael Dell. Everybody needs extra money this time of year."
I couldn't be too upset. I was getting a record number of bookings and selling off the old CDs. Despite the grueling schedule, I did nothing worse than play "Christmas Polka" at a Baptist wedding.
But I cleared my calendar when Al and Rick announced a liftoff on Thursday night. I drug my keyboard outside and wired it into the Speakers of Death. For the first time I moved the volume off minimum. I wanted the whole world to hear, or at least Al up in his cocoon. I missed him already. I played versions of the carols we'd worked out, combined with Holst's "The Planets" and themes from all the Star Trek movies. Even if I forgot Al, my music never would.
Neighbors wandered over to thank me for playing on judging night, particularly since everyone had so much trouble with lights shorting out this year. They agreed that my music was better than the Gibsons' Star Wars angel choir with C3PO singing "White Christmas." Quite a tribute.
The spaceship shuddered. The light systems went into overdrive, outdoing the Lago Vista fireworks. My neighbors fell into awed silence.
Just like the best sex you ever had, the light show intensified, rising on wave after wave, until it exploded in a blaze that made the street look like high noon in July. We hit the ground and covered our eyes.
As the spots cleared from my eyes, I saw the ship sitting silent and dark on my roof. With my neighbors calling hopes that the judges had seen, I rushed into the house.
Al staggered down the stairs. Rick sat on the floor with his head in his hands.
"The nav system is shot. You'll never get off now. I'm not an engineer. I file videos."
Al put a speckled hand on Rick's shoulder. "Brother, the systems checked. But aluminum is not quite the same. We knew that."
"Oh, no!" I cried. "You'll never see your home again?"
Al extended a claw to stroke my cheek. "Carolyn, your people know the same truths as mine." He pointed to the battery charger box. "One is equal to all, yes? First and uniquely."
Tears filled my eyes and closed my throat. He'd find out soon enough that one was equal to all if one were the same color, size, and shape as the almighty all.
"This is known everywhere, yes? I can live in such a place." He pointed out the window to the Guptas' house, still blinking "All is one" over the flashing Buddha.
The door bell jangled me out of my pity. I opened the door to a couple of strangers and all my neighbors. I'd won the Best Light Display Award, and the judges wanted to install a sign in the front yard. I was more interested in the check.
I filled the next days with a furious Christmas bustle to give Al the best Christmas ever. I even told my mother I wasn't coming home. All right, I'll just go to hell.
Rick brought a scrawny artificial tree with battered silver branches, and we hung ornaments from HEB's clearance baskets. I bought a string of lights for Al's Christmas dinner.
On Christmas Eve I found treasure in the pantry. When I ran upstairs to show Rick and Al, I noticed the stairs were shaking. The walls, too. Rick yanked me away from the ship's gleaming hull.
Al leaned out of the hatch. "My podmates have found me!"
"They've got a tractor beam on him," said Rick, dragging me towards the stairs. "They tracked him from our attempt last week."
"No!" I screamed. I could see him speaking, but the frenzy crescendoed till my ears hurt, and I couldn't hear him any more.
Rick wrestled me into the downstairs closet, where we used to hide from tornados. The house shuddered violently.
When it stilled, we dug our fingernails out of each other's arms. We tiptoed upstairs and gazed at the gray Christmas sky.
"I could help you fix that hole," said Rick. "You'll want it done quick before the ice storms."
I tried to make myself panic over the cost, but gave up the struggle. I flopped into a quasi-lotus sit. I reached for the package I'd dropped earlier. "I was going to make barbecued Peeps! Now he'll never know what Christmas really is!"
Rick squatted beside me and took the flimsy box. "Wow! Purple chicks! You saved these from Easter?"
I gave a forlorn sniff. He'd moved out before Easter, but not before I'd laid in a supply of his favorite marshmallow creatures.
He poked at them through the cellophane. The sugar coating was hard. "They're the perfect consistency for barbecue. I'll bring some salsa. Unless . . . unless you want to go home now."
I shook my head and hugged my knees. "Mother doesn't ever want to see me again. That means at least Easter."
"Ouch! What did she say?"
"Madre de Dios, Consuelo, nunca en mi vida--"
"Never mind." He reached out a hand again, this time daring to touch my arm. "Carolyn, I'll make amends to you and everyone I've harmed, like AA says. As soon as I can remember it all."
I could have made a list for him, but I'd lost the will. Six years of betrayals tasted sour. I swallowed one last time. "It's just possible that I may have hurt you too."
It was the best Christmas ever. We toasted Al with sparkling grape juice. The Peeps were perfect. Rick made a milagro out of a little plastic rocket ship. We put it on Abuelita's altar on top of the battery charger box.
Rick moved back in to fix the roof, and afterwards there didn't seem to be any reason for him to leave, particularly after he got a job with that new Korean chip fab and could pay a reasonable rent. His new girlfriend doesn't mind. Sometimes I give her advice.
I was glad to have him around once I started touring to promote my new CD. Maybe you've seen it at Waterloo Music: Carolyn Herrera: Out of This World. The reviewers say I've got a special style all my own. Whenever I hear that, I raise my glass to the stars. I know he wouldn't mind, and I'm sure he knows, because one is equal to all.
Copyright © 2000 by Madeleine Rose Reardon Dimond
Madeleine Rose Reardon Dimond just moved to New England from Austin, Texas. Her nonfiction has appeared in a wide range of magazines in the past decade. She recently retired from the music industry after a twenty-five year career. The nightmares won't go away. For more about her, see her Web site.