The All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band
By Shaenon K. Garrity
20 June 2011
Part 2 of 2
"This is kind of unexpected," said Sparky, "considering you always had the crush on Mark."
"You figured that out with your giant alien-enlarged brain?"
"Yeah, it really took hyperintelligence to work that one out." Sparky gazed dreamily at the ceiling. "The others are going to kill me. They're going to be so jealous."
"They all wanted my body, too?"
"Well, yeah. You were a teenage girl. But mostly they're going to be jealous that I got the bed."
Ari stretched. It was just about noon and she still felt okay about sleeping with Sparky, and that was a good sign, wasn't it? The truth was, she'd had what was just about technically sex with Ragweed thirteen years ago in the back of the minivan after everyone else had gone home. He hadn't mentioned it since coming back, which was a relief but also kind of upsetting. She had lost her virginity to him, and then she'd forgotten his name.
"I don't remember your real name," she said to Sparky.
He smiled at the ceiling, a little sadly. "Figures. You know, I hate being Sparky. The whole time we were in the other galaxy, I kept hoping the others'd come up with a different name for me, the way they did for Donald."
"You don't want to get called Gerbil."
"Mark's gone through about ten different names. Honky Tonk. Colonel Jesus. Asphalt."
"I don't remember those."
"Way before your time. Aren't you incredibly late for work?"
"I'm staying in today. I'm going to help you guys with the big show."
"No can do." Sparky started feeling around for his pants. "We're going out. I need Luna Lady to scout a location with the Third Eye. There are only certain places where the set can work."
"Should be okay, though. California's on a continental divide and a bunch of ley lines, so there are tons of spots that amplify superpowers. Oh, and we need a drum kit, since you left the old one in your mom's shed in Indiana."
"Sorry," said Ari, pulling herself out of bed. "I didn't know it'd end up being crucial to saving the Earth."
"'Sokay. Just take it easy. We're going to need a roadie. That's why we found you, you know."
"It wasn't for my sizzling sex appeal?"
"Well, that too," said Sparky, and kissed her.
After Sparky had taken a shower, the All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band left without a word, though Gerbil flashed Ari a lot of knowing looks. Ari called in sick. No one at work missed her. She put on a sweatshirt and pajama pants and puttered around, collecting beer cans and emptying ashtrays. She ran the vacuum cleaner just to make some noise. The afternoon light trickled through the blinds, cold and yellow, making the apartment look like the inside of a UFO.
The doorbell rang. Ari had her hand on the knob before she remembered that her apartment didn't have a doorbell. She opened the door slowly.
A muscular, white-toothed UPS man stood in the hall. Except that he wasn't a UPS man. Someone had clearly put a lot of work into the uniform, but it was the wrong shade of brown and some of the insignias read PSU. He had two lobes on each ear, which was probably another mistake.
"Package for you, ma'am," he said. His voice was low and thrilling.
"You're not UPS," said Ari.
"I need you to sign here."
"You're one of the space aliens."
"You're paranoid, ma'am. I'm familiar with all the symptoms of paranoia on your planet. Our planet."
"You're here for the band."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Well, they're not in."
"Oh? When will Ragweed be back?"
Ari shut the door. The phone rang. "I can't help feeling we got off on the wrong foot," said the thrilling voice. "I got the uniform right, though, didn't I?"
"No. And you have too many earlobes."
"Is that why I didn't arouse you? I was told you had erotic fantasies about UPS deliverymen."
Ari hung up. The voice emerged from her answering machine, which was sitting on a kitchen shelf unplugged. "No, I deserved that, that was violating local sex taboos. Ma'am, I just want to talk to you about the All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band."
"Why haven't I thrown out my answering machine?" muttered Ari.
"What you have to understand, ma'am, is that they're unbalanced. Mentally unbalanced. You can tell, can't you? All those wild stories about being abducted by UFO people who want to blow up the Earth."
"Aren't you a UFO person?"
"Why would UFO people want to blow up the Earth? It sounds crazy, doesn't it?"
"I don't know. I don't know how UFO people think."
"Ma'am, I'm still standing outside your door. May I come in?"
"Fair enough, fair enough. Just listen. Your friends aren't going to prevent the explosion of the Earth. They're going to cause it. With their superpowers. Unless you assist us."
"Why should I trust you?"
"Why should you trust them?"
The answering machine clicked off. Ari ran to the door and threw it open. The hall was empty.
She sat down at the kitchen table and thought for a long time. Later, as the light dimmed and turned purple, she got up and plugged in the answering machine.
"Why did the aliens give you superpowers?" Ari asked.
"Dunno," said Sparky. "Alien thing, I guess."
They were in the living room. Ari squatted in the pile of things the band had brought back: old clock radios and lidless blenders and a humidifier and a pile of circuit boards and a Walkman and a guitar and more beer. It looked like they had raided the Goodwill up the street. Sparky was ripping up the appliances and screwing them back together. Ragweed and Ari were drinking the beer. Ari could hear Luna Lady and Gerbil in the kitchen yelling at each other over the chili they were theoretically cooking.
"It just seems funny," said Ari. "Why would they give you superpowers, then set you free just in time to stop them from blowing up the Earth?"
Sparky stopped whacking a blender with the blunt end of a screwdriver. Ragweed put down his beer. "First of all," said Ragweed, "they didn't set us free. We escaped."
"With our superpowers, obviously. Luna Lady sensed with the Third Eye—"
"So you escaped the UFO people with the superpowers they gave you?"
Ragweed and Sparky looked at each other. "Do you have a problem with this scenario?" said Ragweed.
"I'm just trying to understand. You haven't really told me anything."
"We've told you lots of things! We told you about Breakfast at Tiffany's, right?"
"We don't understand all of it ourselves," said Sparky. "Aliens are pretty inscrutable, you know."
"I thought you were hyperintelligent!"
"Hyperintelligent isn't the same as, like, omniscient. Geez." Sparky's leg jiggled. "Where's this coming from, Ari? You know we're making dinner tonight. For you."
"Yeah," said Ragweed. "Are you our roadie or aren't you?"
"I aren't. I mean, I'm not."
"I'm not your roadie! I'm thirty-one years old! I have a job! And an apartment and furniture and things!" Somehow Ari was shouting. In the kitchen, Luna Lady and Gerbil fell silent. "I don't appreciate being treated like a teenager, and I . . . I want to be told things! And what does any of this have to do with the Earth blowing up?"
Sparky and Ragweed looked at her.
"We're saving the Earth," said Sparky, but he didn't sound so sure.
"You'd better be," said Ari.
Luna Lady and Gerbil were in the doorway, staring. Nobody said anything. Ari got up, pushed her way past them, and locked herself in her bedroom.
The sheets still smelled a little like Sparky.
When Ari came out of her room, everyone was in the living room, sitting in her sofa and armchair. "I'm sorry for shouting," she said. "I know you've been through a lot."
"Not as much as you," said Sparky. "It's only been a year for us."
"So you're still gonna be our roadie?" said Ragweed.
"No. I'm a grownup, you know?"
"The fate of the world depends on it," said Luna Lady.
"That's kind of what I'm afraid of."
Ari locked the bedroom door behind her.
She woke up early, feeling like she hadn't slept at all. The All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band was gone except for Sparky, asleep on the couch. All the Goodwill junk was gone. They'd even cleared away the beer cans.
There was a pot of cold chili on the stove. Ari ate it for breakfast.
"Sorry they had to clear out without saying goodbye," said Sparky when he woke up. "It's just that they really need a roadie."
"Chili?" said Ari.
"Thanks. By the way, my name's Mike."
Ari went back to work. She told people she'd had the two-day flu and she was okay now as long as she didn't breathe on anybody. One of the graphic design teams was creating signage for a supermarket chain. Ari's superiors handed down word that the leafy greens weren't leafy enough. It was kind of challenging, coming up with suggestions for the design team. Kind of creative. Kind of.
Mike made risotto for dinner. "If you can cook," said Ari, "why did you let me keep ordering you guys pizzas and stuff?"
"I cooked for the band the whole time we were in the other galaxy. I wanted a break. Anyway, once I've done this and my pasta puttanesca, I'm out."
"Are you sure you want to stay here? Shouldn't you be with the band?"
"I already did my part. I came up with the plan and built the amps. That's as far as my hyperintelligence can assist the project."
"But you also play bass."
Mike put his hand on Ari's. "They can get another bass player."
And that was kind of good too.
Ari awoke just before dawn. "The drum kit," she said.
"Mng," said Mike.
"Gerbil never got a new drum kit. Where are they going to get one now?"
"They don't know the city. Without your hyperintelligence, how can they find a decent music store? Can Luna Lady do it with the Third Eye? Mike? Mike?"
Mike cracked an eyelid. "What?"
"Can Luna Lady find a music store with the Third Eye?"
"Why do we care?"
"Can you just answer the question?"
Mike groaned. "Probably not. The Third Eye is mostly for finding ley lines and wifi and stuff. Not that it'd matter anyway."
"Why not? Why wouldn't it matter?" Mike rolled over. Ari shook him. "Mike, c'mon."
"Ari. Baby. Sleep. They'll survive without us."
"Why wouldn't it matter, Sparky?"
In the cold, grey early light, Mike was a thin shadow. He clutched at Ari's flowered comforter like a drowning man. "We spent all our money on the parts for the Ultra-Psionic Amplifier. And beer. Nothing left for drums."
"What's the Ultra-Psionic Amplifier?"
"The thing I built the other night."
"I kind of figured that out. I mean, what's it do?"
"It synchs the instruments with Super Voice. Super Voice is really useful, you know."
"But the drums."
"Can we go back to sleep?"
"Mike! Can they do it without the drums?"
Mike was silent. Ari lay beside him for what felt like a long while. The grey light started to turn gold. Ari threw back the comforter.
"It was my job to get the drums," she said.
There was a music shop. Ari found it with the Google program. She stood in front of it, hopping up and down to keep the cold off, until it opened. She marched in, pointed to the drums in the window, and whipped out her check card.
Mike helped her load it into her car. It took some tilting and shoving. Ari had a little squat car for getting around the city. It didn't take a drum kit as gracefully as her mom's minivan had.
"Okay," said Ari. "Where are they? You know the place, right?"
"I don't know if this is a good idea," said Mike.
Ari said nothing. She started the car.
"Golden Gate Park," said Mike. "There's a spot. You'll see."
"And today's the day, right?"
"Ari, have you considered that we might be wrong?"
"Or maybe this is all part of the alien plot and they want us to play this set?"
"Or the aliens are the good guys and we're just screwing with you?"
"I don't think so, but we could be. Have you considered that none of this stuff is real in the first place?"
"No, that UPS guy was definitely coming on to me."
"What UPS guy?"
"He was an alien."
"Oh." Mike leaned back in the passenger seat. "It'd be kind of nice if it wasn't real. If I'd just lost thirteen years the normal way. I'm starting to think I'd like that."
"No. That wouldn't be nice at all."
"This isn't the way to Golden Gate Park, you know."
"We're stopping back at my apartment."
"I've got a few things to do before we head over."
"You could put your work clothes on, go to work."
It was easy to see which field in the park to head for. The silver tower of trash rose overhead like Cleopatra's Needle.
The Ultra-Psionic Amplifier was larger than Ari had realized. In its shadow, the band was tuning up. Ari and Mike pushed through the crowd, using the drum kit as a battering ram.
"Oh, hi, Sparky," said Ragweed. "Hi, roadie. About time you showed up."
"Where'd all these people come from?" said Luna Lady.
"I sent them here," said Ari. "I put out the word on the Internet. And on my phone and . . . and stuff." Some things took too long to explain to the band.
Luna Lady nodded wisely. "It's a good thing you got a computer after we left. Those things pay for themselves."
"Hey!" said Gerbil. "Drums!"
"Nice work, roadie," said Ragweed. "Really nice work."
"I'm not your roadie," said Ari. "I'm your agent."
"I'm our agent," said Ragweed.
"You're a terrible agent."
"She's right," said Gerbil. "Remember when we played the twelve galaxies for, like, thirteen years straight?"
"And all they did was comp our beer?" said Luna Lady.
"I'm with you on this thing," said Ari, "but only if I'm your agent and I get ten percent."
"Also," said Mike, "I don't want to be named Sparky anymore."
Ragweed draped an arm over Ari's shoulders. "In that case, agent, you'd better know the whole score. The plan is to use my Super Voice to broadcast the greatest set of all time across the entire planet. This will make Earth so awesome it will be impervious to explosion. You savvy?"
"We found this psychically enhanced site with my Third Eye," said Luna Lady, "and Sparky used his hyperintelligence to build the Ultra-Psionic Amplifier so we could synch Ragweed's Super Voice with our instruments. It's a plan that perfectly combines each of our unique superpowers."
"Oh, fuck you," said Gerbil.
"Seriously, I'm done being Sparky," said Mike.
"Pick up a bass, Sparky," said Ragweed.
"Ragweed," said Ari, "you're no longer Ragweed. From this day forward, your name is Mandrake."
"Since when do you get to hand out the names?" said Mandrake.
"I'm your agent."
Ari pointed at Gerbil. "You're Otter."
"Oh, thank God," said Otter. "I was so sick of being Gerbil."
"And you," said Ari to Luna Lady, "are Galactic Mistress Theramina."
"Fair enough," said Theramina.
"What about me?" said Sparky.
"Honestly, it's hard to think of you as anything but Sparky."
"Screw that, I'm Doctor Lightning." Sparky grinned darkly. "Doctor. Lightning."
The crowd was growing. It was a Golden Gate Park crowd: hippies and yuppies and bag ladies and thirtysomething guys with skateboards and creative facial hair. "I didn't expect this many people to show up," said Ari. "I just told Facebook and some other places."
"This is perfect," said Mandrake. "This is what we were missing. An audience."
"We needed you for this," said Theramina. "You're our connection to planet Earth."
"Your name," said Mandrake, "is now Earth Child."
"You're not calling me Earth Child."
A low whine emanated from the tower of junk. "The Ultra-Psionic Amplifier is all warmed up," said Doctor Lightning. "Are we gonna talk or are we gonna play?"
"We're gonna play," said Theramina. "We're gonna save the world."
"Or destroy it," said Otter.
"Shut up, Otter."
The sky was California blue, like it never was in San Francisco. Out of nowhere, the crowd started a chant. Otter tapped four beats on the cymbal of his new drum set. Earth Child closed her eyes and raised her arms to the sun as the All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band launched into the greatest set of all time.