A Coffee Cup/Alien Invasion Story
By Douglas Lain, illustration by Jeff Foster
7 February 2005
The UFOs in the sky over Portland look like hubcaps. Silver or chrome-plated saucers, all of them roughly the same size and all of them spinning, hang miraculously in midair, but most people either don't see them or pretend that they don't see.
It's a sunny day despite the patches of shadow the discs cast on the city. The sunshine finds its way through the gaps, bending along the sides of the ships and shining.
Down below, a young married couple, Alex and Shelly, share drinks underneath a cloth umbrella at the Blue Moon Pub. It's a hot day, and across the street, in a park squeezed into one quarter of a city block, there is a fountain bubbling away.
"Are we going to talk about it?" Alex asks.
Shelly knows exactly what the "it" is that Alex is referring to, but she just gives him a blank look and tips back her glass to take another suck on her last ice cube.
The UFOs have been up there for three weeks. At first the saucers were news everywhere. The same shot of a silver disc hovering over the White House dominated every television broadcast. But when nothing more happened, after administration officials appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows and denied that there had necessarily been an alien invasion, after the President called for more study, the cameras were turned back towards earth. By the end of the second week the saucers were no longer a serious topic of conversation, and now, at the end of the third week, most people barely remember that they are up there at all.
"Are we going to talk about it?" Alex asks.
"I don't know. I'm out of booze again," Shelly says.
Shelly is the name of a girl I knew in high school. I didn't know her very well, but I knew of her. I decided to use her name because I recently found out that Shelly is dead. She died several years ago, in a car accident. She was 27 years old.
Shelly was a cheerleader when I knew her, and a member of the homecoming court. She was pretty and blonde and in my high school yearbook she's listed as a member of the Young Life Club, whatever that was. Shelly's Senior quote was a steal from the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off:
"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."
Alex is also the name of a kid I used to know. He was a friend of mine for years when I was growing up, but I lost track of him after he was institutionalized during our freshman year of high school.
Alex and his mother lived in a small apartment on Nevada Avenue, and she used to take in cats. They had about fifteen cats and kittens in their three-room home, and Alex always smelled of cat piss because of it.
In middle school Alex often spoke to me of suicide, so I wasn't really surprised to hear that he'd tried to do it. Not even when I heard that he'd reached over from the passenger seat of his mom's station wagon and tried to grab the steering wheel out of her hands. He was aiming for a telephone pole.
Alex and Shelly aren't unusual or strange. Being dead or disturbed are very ordinary things to be.
Last year, on July 4th, I spent the day at home with my wife and kids; we rented the 1978 version of Superman, the one starring Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman. I watched the movie with the kids, and we all drank Coca-Cola and ate hot dogs. The only thing slightly un-American was the fact that the hot dogs were made of tofu because my wife is a vegetarian.
I tried to find the experience incongruous and ironic, but it was really just inevitable, even natural. I didn't want to celebrate the Fourth of July. I intended to let the war spoil the holiday, to ignore all the sparklers and flags. Instead, I watched Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve fly over a beautiful New York skyline, over the Statue of Liberty.
"Why are you here?" Kidder asked.
"To fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way."
"I don't believe this."
"Lois, I never lie," Reeve said.
"Are we going to talk about the saucers, or are we going to leave it to the people on television?"
"I'm relieved," Shelly says. She brushes her blonde hair out of her eyes, and smiles as she lies to him. "You start off with this cryptic question: 'Are we going to talk about it?' And I thought you were going to leave me or something."
"How could I do that? A love as true as ours?" Alex waves to the bartender, holds up two fingers in a victory sign and hopes that the bartender's nod indicates comprehension. Alex pushes back in his chair and lights up a cigarette as he waits for more gin. "You do see them, don't you?"
The bartender approaches their table with the drinks, but he's gazing at the sky. He looks down just long enough to avoid spilling their drinks. "What the hell are they doing up there? What do they want?" he asks.
"He sees them too," Shelly says.
"Everybody sees them."
"What are they?" the bartender asks.
"Nobody knows," Shelly says.
"Speak for yourself. I've got a damned good theory about them."
"What the hell are they?" The bartender is not listening; he's just repeating himself over and over.
"Looks like an alien invasion to me. That's my theory," Alex says.
Shelly takes a sip from her drink, and then a gulp. "Nobody knows what they are or why they're here. It's best not to speculate," she says.
"There are so many," the bartender says. "Just hanging there."
Alex and Shelly don't say anything more, but keep their heads down. They don't want to look at the saucers with the bartender. They want to keep their problems private.
Alex is plastered. He's fumbling around with his cigarettes, his neck is craned back as he stares at the flying saucers. He slumps forward to look at Shelly and takes a swig of beer. He's switched over to beer, ice-cold Pabst, and this gin and beer combination is churning a hole in his stomach. His belly lets out a low moan in nauseous protest.
Shelly is enjoying a Coca-Cola. She says she doesn't want to get drunk after all. It's not a good idea.
"Remember in The Day the Earth Stood Still when the aliens turned out all the lights?"
"I'm not even sure I see them. For me they're only there when I first get up, or if I wake up in the middle of the night," Shelly says. "I don't really see them when I'm awake."
Alex takes Shelly's hand. "Of course you see them. Just use your eyes. Look, see?"
Shelly shrugs, pulls her hand out of his sweaty grip, and takes another sip of her soda.
He sees them all the time, so persistently that the saucers don't surprise him anymore. This is what's really bothering him, what's really making his skin crawl. The ships are a miracle, a complete disruption of the routine, and yet, at the same time, they look exactly how he'd expect them to look. They fit, somehow.
"Did I ever tell you about my religious conversion?" he asks.
"You're an atheist."
"Yeah, but I was a Christian. Between my freshman and sophomore years in high school, when I was fourteen, I was Born Again. I was saved all summer long."
Alex takes a sip of Shelly's drink and then shrugs as he puts it back down on the table and grabs his own glass. He decides to start over.
"Is it even possible that people knew how to dream before television?" he asks.
"Before television?" Shelly asks.
"Yeah. How could it be? What did these prehistoric dreams look like? How were they edited?"
When he was a child Alex dreamt that he didn't exist, that he'd never existed. He was a blank wall, an empty space between the door of his parents' '82 VW station wagon and the car itself. He had nightmares that involved only darkness and a failed effort to speak.
"It wasn't until after I started watching TV in earnest, shows like Zoom and Sesame Street every day, that I could dream properly."
Alex is stirring his beer with the green straw from his gin and tonic; he's sweating and he pushes his hair off his brow, reveals just how far his hairline has receded. He takes a sip through the plastic straw and grimaces. He removes the straw.
"I had a conversion experience like a dream, while I was watching television," Alex says. "I changed channels from MTV to HBO, and caught the beginning of the Home Box Office promotional film. This family was gathered in their living room, and the father rose from the couch and turned on the TV. He turned on HBO and for an instant there they were again, the family on television was on television, and the father on their television turned on the TV and there they were again, and so on to infinity. Just for an instant. And then the camera pulled back, up and back, through the chimney, over the rooftop, and into space."
Alex pauses, stares blankly, remembering what he'd seen. He refocuses on Shelly, tries to read her face to see if she's getting it.
"It was just a feeling. I think the word for what I experienced is satori," Alex says. "In literature the word would be epiphany."
In the HBO promo, the camera drew nearer to the UFOs and it became clear that what was really flying through space were three metallic letters: H, B, and O. Red, blue, and green lasers shot through the logo. The introductory segment came to a conclusion as the HBO craft filled the screen completely.
"I actually got down on my knees and prayed when the promo ended. I prayed to a John Cusack film. I surrendered to One Crazy Summer."
"You saw God in the logo for HBO?" Shelly asks.
"I saw God in everything, but the feeling went away. I got over it."
Shelly finishes her drink, tipping her glass back and then chewing on the ice in her mouth. She puts the glass down heavily, pushes her hair back behind an ear, and stares at her husband.
"For the past few weeks I've had that same feeling, only I know it isn't God this time."
"I need another drink," Shelly says. She looks down at the table and puts her hands around her empty glass.
"There's something else. Something I can do," Alex says.
"I'll show you." He stands up, brings his hands up over his head, and waves them around.
Alex starts humming, a sort of deep toneless hum, and he keeps his arms flailing. And slowly he rises up, he floats, until his tennis-shoe-clad feet are even with the tabletop.
"Get down." Shelly glances furtively into the restaurant window. "Stop it, I don't want to see this."
Alex has his eyes closed, his arms are spinning in circles, and the humming is getting louder.
At the sound of his name he comes back down. He lands awkwardly, and then slowly picks himself up, and inspects himself. He looks for cuts and bruises.
"Nice one," Shelly says.
"Really good," Shelly says.
In 1995 I attended a writers' workshop in Seattle. One of the instructors, a very fine writer whose work has won all sorts of awards, taught us that there are many different ways to write stories. There aren't any solid rules. Sometimes you can show too much and not tell enough, for instance. And sometimes you don't really need a plot, but you can just make a story out of two people sharing a cup of coffee or a pint of beer.
These plotless stories, he called them "New Yorker Cup of Coffee Stories," are subtle. All that happens is that a situation is set up, explained, and then two people sit down, share a cup of coffee, and through the course of their interaction the situation is changed. There is only a little movement, maybe just a millimeter. A millimeter is apparently enough.
In August of 2001 my sister-in-law visited Disneyland. She sent my kids Mickey Mouse ears as souvenirs and they arrived about a week before 9/11. So after the attack, while I was surrounded by flags and fear, while I was worrying about anthrax and the possibility of nuclear retaliation, my kids were constantly in their ears.
They kept asking me to teach them to talk like Mickey, kept asking me to pretend to be Donald Duck.
On September 12th we went to the park across the street from a Starbucks and the Blue Moon Pub, a little park that only took up a quarter of a city block. We stood and stared at the fountain. It burbled away. Water streamed out the mouth of a cement frog.
I didn't want to talk like Mickey Mouse so I pointed out the cement amphibian.
"The Native Americans thought that frogs were good medicine," I told the kids. "Cleansing medicine."
It was a bluff. I didn't know anything about Indian religions. I'd read a few books, but I didn't really know. I should have stuck with what was familiar. I should have given in to Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse ears.
"Frogs?" my son asked. "How can an animal be medicine?"
"I thought medicine comes from a store," my daughter said.
I didn't know how to explain it to them. How could an animal be medicine? Where do you find medicine if not in a store? I didn't really understand it myself.
Shelly puts down her drink and runs her fingers through her hair. She looks down at the table and grunts. She and Alex have been together since high school, for seven years. They moved in together right after graduation. They've only been married for the past six months, but before that there were six years; how could it turn out that they haven't known each other at all?
No. He's known her, but she hasn't known him, Shelly realises.
Back then Alex was a catch—tall and broad, a junior while she was a sophomore, and even though he wasn't on any teams he was strong and athletic. He was dangerous in a way that she couldn't define. He didn't do drugs, didn't get into fights, didn't really do anything normal like that.
"I'm always unhappy and out of control in school. I don't know how to act," Alex told her after his graduation, told her as an explanation as to why he hadn't applied to college.
"It's like you're free or something," Shelly said. During her sophomore year they were in the same physics class. She used to watch Alex when she should have been taking notes. It was in physics class that Shelly chose Alex. She picked him as her lab partner.
Doing the day's experiment with her, Alex grabbed one end of the Slinky and took off down the hall with it, past the freshman lockers, while she held the other end with both hands and watched the metal loops stretch. She watched him move. She liked the way he didn't seem to care about it, liked the way he held the coil with his thumb and just kept going.
When he got to the other end of the hall, when the Slinky was pulled as far as it could be pulled, Shelly kneeled down and slipped her end of the Slinky through the shoelaces of her sneaker. Then she stood up and stretched, the metal coil twisting down to her foot. She swept her long blonde hair back and rubber-banded it into a ponytail. She used both hands to sweep back her hair, and then she jerked on her sweater to cover her navel. She used both hands to smooth out her skirt.
She knew he was watching her adjust herself, watching her preening. Fifteen feet of hallway separated them, but they were connected by a metal strand, a taut Slinky.
"I hear voices sometimes," Alex says. "Since the saucers showed up I can hear them. At least I think it's them."
"What do they say?" Shelly asks him now. She still loves him. He's still sexy and dangerous. He's more dangerous than ever.
"They say that it's our time," Alex says. "They talk about a change, it's time for the change."
"What does that mean?" Shelly asks.
"How am I supposed to know? I don't know anything. Why doesn't anyone see them? Why does the TV keep saying they're not there?" Alex says.
"What kind of change? What's going to change?"
Alex doesn't know. He takes another swig of beer and then he hums under his breath, a long, slow hum.
"Stop that," Shelly says. "Don't do that again."
"What should we do?" Alex says.
"I don't know. I don't hear voices," she says. "I can't float."
Alex finishes his beer and then leans over to her until they're nose to nose. "You just don't want to hear voices."
"You just don't want to fly," Alex says. "So you pretend you can't."
Shelly lights a cigarette and then waves the smoke away, flaps her hand back and forth in front of her face. "Why wouldn't I want to fly?"
"For the same reason!"
"Why don't people see the saucers? Because they're afraid," Alex says. "You're afraid. Well, don't you think I'm afraid? Do you think I understand anything? I don't understand anything! I don't know what to believe, and don't believe in anything."
Shelly takes another puff of smoke into her lungs and stares at him. She doesn't respond.
"I'm floating, you know?" Alex leans back in his chair. "I can't even keep my feet on the ground."
Shelly is waiting to use the toilet, standing in the polluted air inside the Blue Moon Pub; she wonders which she resents more, the saucers or her husband. She glances at the skyline through the plate glass windows at the front, she sees the spinning, flashing saucers, and she resents them, but she decides that she resents him more.
It must make Alex happy, she decides. There are UFOs and he's communing with them somehow, and it's just another way for him to feel superior.
She's waiting for the restroom, thinking of all the ways she resents her husband, when she starts to sway, unconsciously at first, to the music from the jukebox. Stan Getz's "Corcovado" is on and Shelly moves back and forth to the sound of Getz's sax. Shelly is dancing with her eyes closed. She wanders out of line, and when the song comes to an end she sits down in an empty booth. She leans across the aisle to get a cigarette from a kid in a backward baseball cap.
"Thanks," she says.
"Can I buy you a drink."
"Sure," she says. "Gin and tonic."
The kid waves to the waitress as he slides in across from Shelly. He lights Shelly's cigarette and puts his hand on her knee.
He's a pudgy kid with sideburns and a goatee. He couldn't be more than twenty-one years old, half a decade younger than she is, and doesn't look too bright. In fact he looks stupid and angry, but another Stan Getz song comes on the jukebox and Shelly is distracted again.
This time it's "The Girl from Ipanema" that fills the bar with sax.
Shelly lets the kid keep his hand where he wants it. She closes her eyes again and takes a long, deep drag from her cigarette.
"Where are you from?" she asks the kid.
"Where are you from?" he asks her.
"Me? I'm from Neptune," she says. "I just got off one of those ships up there." She points, her whole body moving languidly, towards the windows.
The kid takes his hand off her knee.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he says.
Shelly blows out a cloud of smoke, and winks at the kid before tipping back her gin and tonic.
"There aren't any saucers," the kid says. "You're crazy."
Shelly takes another good look at the kid; he's almost funny sitting there in his football shirt and baseball cap. He's almost sad. She stubs out her cigarette, and then stands up to leave. She doesn't need this, and besides, she's suddenly remembered why she came inside the bar to begin with.
"Tell me that there aren't any saucers," the kid says. He stands up and blocks her exit, won't let her leave the booth.
"I've got to pee," she says. "Get out of my way or I'll get your shoes wet."
"I'm warning you."
The song is over, the jukebox stops playing, and the room is suddenly quiet. The room is quiet except for this fat kid breathing on her. "Tell me that there aren't any."
"There are no saucers," Shelly says. "Now let me go to the bathroom."
Inside the stall Shelly pees and then just sits there, staring at nothing. She's obviously drunker than she'd thought. She sits on the toilet, inert for the moment, and stares at the words somebody has scratched into the green paint on the stall door.
"When will we wake up?"
Shelly stares and stares, reads and rereads. Then she wipes herself, pulls up her skirt, and leaves the question behind.
This is a story about the New Normal, about life during wartime. It would be titled "UFOs and the End of the World" if I hadn't already written enough stories with the words "the End of the World" in the title.
Last December the Washington Park Zoo had a Christmas light display. These zoo lights were shaped like crocodiles, made into leaping frogs, giant dragons, swimming otters. There were millions of tiny light bulbs clumped together, strung along the trees, and everywhere.
It was raining hard, the night we went out to see the display. The kids were excited, but I just felt wet. The zipper on my jacket was broken, I'd left my umbrella in my cubicle at work, and while my wife and kids were wearing raincoats and hats, I had only my overcoat and my unruly mop of hair to protect me.
A light-up giraffe picked up a neon heart and swung it up into place on top of a neon Christmas tree. Then the lights went out, the giraffe and the tree disappeared, and there was a moment of darkness until the giraffe lit up again and the whole process started over. The giraffe picked up a neon heart from the ground, the Christmas tree appeared, and the giraffe placed the heart at the top. And again it happened. And again. Water poured down my face.
"It's the myth of Sisyphus as a Christmas display," I said. "That giraffe is cursed."
"What's Sissypus?" my son asked.
"Look, dancing hippos," my daughter said.
Electricity. Watching the decorations through the streamlets on my glasses I saw the light-up hippos, the light-up monkeys, as just another deception. Free electricity forever, and never mind the dwindling oil supplies, the wars, the nightmare of scarcity that was just around the corner.
We finally found shelter in the monkey house. We watched real ring-tailed lemurs pace back and forth in their concrete cells.
"That one is sleeping," my daughter said. She pointed to a nest on a metal perch. She pointed to the infant lemur sleeping there and asked why the zookeeper didn't turn out the light for the monkey.
"There is no night or day in the zoo," I said.
"There is too," my son objected. "It's nighttime now, so the monkeys are inside."
I admitted my mistake.
"But there is no such thing as darkness at the zoo," I said. "It's light every day, night and day, all the time."
"I want to see the Christmas lights," my daughter said.
The kids were mesmerized as we wandered back into the rain to look at the lights. All four of us stared and stared at the lights through the rain. In the middle of it all, with "Jingle Bells" playing from the snack bar, surrounded by lights, I was overwhelmed.
I looked at the front gate of the zoo, at the huge display of lights that loomed overhead. Red and green and orange and blue lights buzzing bright. I thought about the final scene in Close Encounters, about the book Childhood's End.
The whole world seemed like a flying saucer.
Shelly and Alex don't know what to say to each other. They're both drunk, tired, disengaged. The sky above their heads is still full of saucers, but it's getting more and more difficult to make them out. The sunlight is fading, and the Blue Moon's exterior lighting, the street lamps, the headlights and neon signs are on.
"What we have to accept is that we don't know what to do."
"What's that?" Alex asks.
Shelly starts to take a sip from her last gin and tonic, but then stops and swirls the drink around in the glass; she watches the reflection of the saucers. They're lighting up now, red and yellow and green, each craft glowing and pulsing.
"They look like radioactive M&M's," Shelly says.
Alex takes her glass away from her before she has a chance to take a sip, and sets it down on his side of the table.
"What should we do?"
Shelly doesn't answer, but takes Alex's hand in her own, makes him stroke her face. She likes the feeling of his warm fingers on her cheek.
"Are we going to talk about it, or what?" Alex asks.
"We can talk about it," Shelly said. "But we can't answer it. We can't keep trying to answer."
"But we can't pretend they're not there. We can't pretend this isn't happening," Alex says.
"It's happening. We know that much. Something is definitely happening."
The saucers above their heads are blinking on and off, off and on.
"Maybe they're sending out signals in Morse code," Alex says.
"And then again, maybe they aren't."
"What do you want to do?"
"I want to go home with you. To our home."
Both Alex and Shelly gather up their belongings, try to piece themselves back together under a sky dotted by neon saucers. She grabs her handbag and he helps her with her red wool coat. Brushing herself off and trying to stand steady, Shelly slowly reaches over to Alex and takes his hand.
Alex and Shelly leave the pub, make their way down 21st to Burnside, and Shelly holds Alex's hand tight, as tight as she can. She pulls on him, hard. But despite her efforts, he is floating. She holds his hand tight, but he's lifting off.
Alex feels his wife's firm grip and squeezes back, but he isn't thinking about her. He isn't thinking at all. He's watching the sky, the saucers.
Shelly pulls on him, tries to anchor herself with a tree branch, to dig in her heels, but Alex keeps rising, and when she feels her feet leave the ground Shelly gives up. She lets go.
Alex is rising fast. She watches him drift, calls out to him, but before she can find her bearings, before she can think of what to do, he's gone.
Shelly sits down on the pavement, stunned. She lies down across the sidewalk, stares up in the air to where Alex was last visible. She pulls her wool coat around her, and hums to herself, a low, long hum, though she's not aware that she's doing it.
Shelly doesn't move for a long time, but just lies there on the concrete, watching the neon saucers.
The story "A Coffee Cup/Alien Invasion Story" (but not the illustration), by Douglas Lain, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
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