I am. The word on the face of the bus is LUCK. Bright bulbs of gold illuminate the letters so that even though the night is dark, this word goes before them, shining. I am far above, but I have moved over the land and the water of this place for some years now, and so I know how it is: the hum of their tires on their Tax Dollars at Work, the rice fields sliding invisibly past and smelling like Fabric-Safe Morning Rain, spots of light out toward the night horizon where others of them huddle in their bungalows or their mobile homes waiting for what these on the bus rush to seek for themselves along Interstate number Ten.
The bus dashes fast in the passing lane, the windows black, showing nothing to the outside world, but I know there are souls within, yearning forth into the dark night, crossing from the Great State of Texas to the Sportsman’s Paradise of Louisiana, the Pelican State, the Bayou State, the place where they Let the Good Times Roll, and down the highway is the city of Lake Charles where strobe lights as green as the most dazzling toothbrush wave about high over the lake, restlessly sweeping an empty sky. As if they are looking for me. But from these lights, everyone passing in the night knows there are vessels here that can carry them over this water and provide games to play where they might find this thing that so many seek. This is how I understand it so far.
But the central mysteries continue to dwell in darkness. I am still learning, even at this late hour, even as the moment of my arrival is established. Even now I am trying to learn what I need to know in order to do what I must. And so I turn my attention back to the bus, still twenty miles west, blowing past a great tandem tractor-trailer, quaking in the turbulence. I am far above. I wait. I have at my disposal the Wonders of Modern Technology. I can see everything. Hear everything. I am, as those on this planet who truly believe in a widely bespirited universe call me, a spaceman. Or, often, an alien. There is some very great fear in this name alien. So much is alien to those who live here. Even to those who can believe in something they have never seen.
In fact, I see nothing. I hear nothing. And I think it is because of the mystery of these vanishing, fragile, powerful things that plague the dwellers in this world, things that rush from them and around them and into them and through them and out again, constantly, these words, these particles of language that they each must manufacture with their brain and body and with something else in them, too, with a soul—this is itself a word, I realize—I am putting all of this forth now in words, I realize, and so even beginning to try to get at the mysteries I must solve here in order to do what I must, I fall deeper into the darkness—yet I have no other word for the thing I mean but soul—and this is something even a spaceman knows to be a mystery, even in himself, but more so in those who dwell across the vast and strange landscape of this planet, and this is something that eludes even the wonders of the technology of my home world—and this soul is something that on this planet must try to find a way to manufacture words, must try to speak its insubstantial self in these tiny, hastily assembled fragments of sound, these invisible things that yet always threaten to clog my wondrously advanced machines and my wondrously advanced head, too—I speak now with self-deprecating irony, because even I am not immune to fragmentation and digression when I am forced to resort to words. The atmosphere of this planet brims with words; they blow past me and I quake in the turbulence.
I crack my knuckles. It is a soothing thing I learned from a cowboy I once beamed up from Lubbock, Texas. I am a gol-durn lucky creature. I have eight fingers full of knuckles—count ’em, eight—to crack on each of my hands, and I do this, and I grow calm, and I wait. The bus just now leaves the reach of the tandem tractor-trailer’s headlight beams. There are a thousand yards of empty Interstate ahead. I wait for the bus to run farther into that dark gap. I sit before a great console, a vast screen that can flare with any of the countless images we’ve collected since our first visits here, long ago now, nearly a hundred revolutions of this planet around its star. Images from our machines, simply watching and listening, and images from the human voices, from the words shaping the moments from inside the brains and the souls of those who have visited us from below. All of those who came to us were dashing somewhere, all of them were seeking something. These are the images that I have to understand. Quickly now, before my appointed hour. But I am still mystified.
Perhaps this bus will help. I look again. It is racing on. For a hundred of these years we have gathered images. I am not the first. But now I am alone. I am the only one of my kind on this vessel, the only one of us attending this planet now. I am deeply moved by this responsibility. Yippee I. Yippee yay. I crack my knuckles once again. He was not a real cowboy, in the sense he himself wished for. I touch my console. He was the first of these that I had ever met. I was very young and not alone then. I call him up from the memories of this ship. I put him inside me.
I am Whiplash Willie Jones. Mr. Griffith, of course, was the hottest of shit if you figured these moving pictures would amount to anything. I never worked for Mr. Griffith, though I could’ve done that if I’d got the same chance that I myself would give even to a scorpion lurking in my boot some morning. I’d at least dump him out on the floor and let him have a chance to go ahead and run off and be what he is. Probably still hit him with the boot heel, though. Smash him where he stood before he could take a step. This maybe not the best way to put what I’m trying to say.
Though look at me, son. I don’t have the face of Mix or Holt or my old pal Bronco Billy Anderson. I never liked white horses anyhow. What I’d’ve been, dumped out of a boot there on the floor, was what I ended up being. The guy who grabs the loot and tries to get away. The guy who’d as soon cheat you as look at you. The guy who’d meet a decent woman in an orange grove in Los Angeles and marry her and take her back to Lubbock and treat her like shit and not be able to stop himself.
I didn’t choose any of that. That was the cards I drew even before I knew what game it was I was playing. Take the one thing I’m remembered for. It was in that little movie that Ed Porter made in 1903, The Great Train Robbery. Ten minutes long. I show up and he puts a hat on me and a goddamn polka-dot kerchief and he glues a handlebar mustache to my face. Then he starts the camera to watching me and he says go here, do this, do that.
That’s how it always is, ain’t it?
So I’m the leader of the gang that robs the train in the first damn story-telling film ever, and what happens? There’s fourteen scenes in this little tale and I get killed in an ambush in scene number thirteen, shot dead, clear for everybody to see, and then there I am in scene fourteen, the last one, and it’s just me filling up the screen. There ain’t no forest or no horses or nothing. Just blackness all around me, but I’m alive. I been born again. It’s some kind of miracle. And what do I do? I turn and face the audience and I raise my gun and I wrinkle my brow and I shoot. I shoot the whole lot of them. I shoot the whole goddamn world. And it’s nothing I choose for myself. The guy behind the camera, like some voice that just comes into my head, like the goddamn voice you hear inside you all your life long, he says do this, and I do it. And in the theaters, women fainted and strong men wept.
So how could I do any better by Gladys?
Quiet now, Willie. Quiet for now. The console flickers and goes dark. It would do me no good at this moment to crack my knuckles. I have an Achy Breaky Heart, and it is best to let this voice slide back into the darkness.
I straighten up sharply. I am afraid I have let my bus go too far.
But no. I see. It is all right. The bus is rushing on alone down there. The time has come. I move my hands over the dark surface before me and I make a great light and it gathers beneath my ship and then descends like a pillar of fire and it seizes this bus and the wheels rush on, spinning wildly but touching nothing now save the air, and the bus rises quickly, so quickly that any creature there below would instantly doubt its eyes. And inside, the pilgrims seeking Luck have all fallen into a deep sleep.
I rise. I step into the brushed-smooth metalloid corridor ringing with silence. I move along quickly. Gliding, my wife says, a thing that never ceases to amuse her.
Yes. I am married. Yes, to someone from this planet. In spite of the censure of many on the planet where I come from. And there is a faint clicking now. Tiny feet dashing at me from behind. This is the approach of my wife’s subspecies companion, Eddie. He is a cat. Or, through my wife’s voice, my darling adorable cat or my sweet little yellow cat or my cute-enough-to-eat cat—and this latter name alarms me, I must admit, though she assures me she would never actually employ this means of admiration for Eddie—and, by extension—she has spoken, at my request, directly to this point—for me either.
Eddie dashes ahead down the corridor, anxious to see our new arrivals, I think. It is hard for me to know about Eddie. I am not telepathic with any species other than my own, even primary species. And when it comes to the subspecies, it is, of course, even more difficult. Eddie’s vocabulary is severely limited. Though there is nuance to his few words. I can distinguish his put-food-before-me-instantly meow from his I-will-now-try-to-eat-a-piece-of-your-hand-and-it-is-not-because-you-are-cute meow. But there are things in his head, always, that I wish to know. He feels things very strongly, even his languor, even his serene arrogance. If there were only time, I would like to listen carefully enough to him so that I could hear. I would like to listen to every cat on this planet. To every sparrow. To every fish. But there is so little time now. I find myself moving faster along the corridor, just at the thought of this. The time is near for me. They have chosen a moment for themselves down there, the turning of a millennium. And so it shall be for me. As I hurry along this corridor I1fervently hope there might be from this bus some voice, some few tracks of words, that will help me understand how to do what I soon must do with this planet.
And then she is before me. My wife. My Edna Bradshaw. My darling adorable Edna. My cascade-of-unedited-words Edna. My cute-enough-to-eat Edna. I try this thought in my head now, by her example, and I must admit there is an oddly pleasurable stirring at it.
“Greetings, my wife Edna Bradshaw,” I say as I approach her. And I am struck anew with a further paradox of words on this planet. In my private inner self I am able to shape these words much more fluently and expressively than when I attempt to offer them through my mouth. On my planet we still have mouths and mechanisms to make sounds, but we use them primarily in the effort to create music or direct expressions of feeling that bypass the lumpenness of rational, denotated thought. For a time I assumed that this discrepancy between what is inside me and what comes out through my uttered words was a function of my, shall I say, alienness. But I no longer think that. And this is one of the reasons I am still searching desperately for answers about the inhabitants of this planet. I believe it is the same for them.
“I’m so excited,” Edna says and she does a thing with her body that still bypasses my rational thoughts quite effectively. Somehow she manages to make the tightly fitted, profusely ruffled, dramatically low-cut dress that she wears hold absolutely still while she wiggles—or I might say even undulates—within it. I am a skinny male creature, quite excessively skinny, as are all of those who inhabit my planet, the female creatures even more so. Edna is not. She is often critical of herself for this, though I think she is also quite proud of her knockers. “You have never seen a set of knockers like these, I bet.” This is, for me, a memorable observation from my cute-enough-to-eat Edna. She made her observation on the occasion of our first becoming lovers, when I had asked her for a date and took her far out of her galaxy and parked in a quadrant of quiet space.
Edna’s hand flies out now and thumps me on the chest. I assume she is reading the images from my inner self at this moment. But of course she is not. She will, however, occasionally thump me from an excess of love. “Oh you spaceman,” she will say.
But this time she is nodding again and again toward my chest where I am still smarting from this gesture of her love. I look. I am wearing a pinstripe suit which Edna says is much too big for me but which I cannot part with, having been warmly complimented on it by a fine old gentleman we took up from a late-night diner in Chicago about thirty years ago. I had put my suit on to greet him, a suit which I had inherited from a predecessor, and Herbert Jenkins was made to feel instantly at ease by it. He had once worn a zoot suit that looked very much like this one.
“This will make everybody feel right at home,” Edna says, and I focus on the lapel of my suit and a square white tag is affixed there. It reads: Hi, my Name is DESI.
She now has a similar tag in her hand and is waving it over her own chest. She says, “You know, this is a problem I simply didn’t anticipate. I am showing a good many of my assets, am I not. And my assets don’t like the idea of adhesives sticking to them. I once had a bee sting right there.” She places a fingertip on the steep slope where her knockers bunch together in the middle, and without a pause—my wife Edna Bradshaw seems sometimes never to draw a breath no matter how many words she speaks—without a pause, she continues, “And it got so red and full of puss—forgive me for talking like this about unpleasant matters, but it’s to the point, really. Which is, I put an adhesive bandage over that bee sting, and when I come to take it off, it felt like I was taking all my skin with it. So you see I don’t have a place right at the moment to put my name tag, and you have to have name tags with strangers. I want to be a good hostess, especially this being my first time, and I’m trying to figure all this out without a great deal of guidance—I don’t mean to be critical, my sweet spaceman lover—but I am struggling.”
She falls silent for a moment and her hand with the tag hovers before her and then, in a burst of inspiration, quickly descends past her knockers and toward the ruffled expanse below and it thumps down there and Edna cries out in satisfaction, “That should do.”
I take a step back—a necessary procedure to adjust the sight lines—and there, floating on a wave of ruffles in the center of her stomach, are the words: Hi, my name is EDNA. And I bend nearer because there is more, written in a small hand: (Mrs. Desi, your spaceman host. Nothing to worry about.)
I am pretty fast on the uptake. Needless to say, we have no use on my planet for such tags as these. But I perceive their function and I realize that Edna’s first impulse was the correct one, to put this declaration higher on the body, so that one’s eyes can take in the greeting with ease. I also understand how it is impossible—given her decision to join me in my first encounter with the new arrivals and to wear her special party dress for the occasion—for her to wear this tag in the appropriate area. I also understand, from many observations of the people of this planet, that this could cause her some social awkwardness and even embarrassment. So I gently peel the tag from my lapel and reattach it to my own middle-body area.
“What’s that for, honey?” she asks.
“We will tell them it is a custom of my home planet to wear our name tags in this manner.”
Edna Bradshaw smiles at me for doing this, a gentle smile, with her eyes filling, as they easily do, with tears. I am now rendered, as I usually am, utterly floppy-fingered helpless when I see her tears, even tears of appreciation and thanks, which is the case in this moment. I am struck, too, at the pleasure I am taking at her careful, indeed delicate, handwriting that identifies her as “Mrs. Desi,” for she is Mrs. Desi in the fullest sense, since I am Desi and she is my wife. Desi is the name she gave me at our first meeting because none of the people here, no dweller on this planet, is capable of saying my name, my true and full name.
My wife lunges forward and embraces me. I think of the bee sting on her precious knocker and I am sad at her ordeal and very happy to be pressing against her. Across her bare shoulders and back I let my sixteen fingertips deliver my heartbeat into her. Edna once likened my fingertips to the sucker pads on the feet of certain lizards on this planet, and this has caused me a curious torment ever since. I believe her comparison was meant in a purely superficial, visual way, but the very thought, even if untrue, of some gecko down there crouching in the grass this evening, smug in his tactile knowledge of Edna’s flesh—this makes me unhappy in a peculiarly intense way. I have vowed, however, never to ask my wife about this possibility. She continues her embrace, but I wish to remove these unpleasant thoughts from my mind, and I do have a bus full of sleeping and soon-to-be distressed subjects waiting for me.
“We must look in on our visitors now,” I say.
Edna ends her embrace and steps back and shifts about briefly in her dress once more and pats at her hairdo, though it is stiffly inert from All the Body and Holding Power She Will Ever Need, a state attainable from certain spray cans that I periodically beam up to our vessel. Since I married Edna, it is quite remarkable, the wondrous variety of seemingly commonplace things that one of the finest fruits of my planet’s technology has been used to acquire. Not that I have any regrets. My own daily life, like the lives of my fellow countrymen, can be rather stark in design: brush-textured alloys and tightly focused spot lighting and great, high-ceiling shadows. For all her stuff, which she has begun to bring into my existence, I am grateful to Edna. Personally, of course, since she is my wife, but professionally, too. These things are part of what I must try to learn.
I turn now to the great door into the Reception Hall and I move my hand and it opens. Edna and I have not discussed this moment in any detail. She asked me if she could be at my side when the next visitors arrived, and I thought this was a very good idea. There is always a period of anxiety at first, and Edna, being recognizable as one of their own, would put my visitors at ease. I said yes to her and she said she would handle everything and so I am not surprised at the name tags and the party dress. In the Reception Hall, however, there are some surprises.
The bus sits, just as it should, in a great swath of light in the center of the hall, which recedes into soothing darkness in all directions. Except one. Just as my vessel’s intuitive light—as natural as a cloudless morning—immediately picks up Edna and me and moves with us as we move—so, too, has a wide column of light appeared in a space to my right, about twenty paces away from the bus. I look carefully in this direction because the things being illuminated are very strange to me. There is a large hovering drape there with red roses marching around the edges—masking a table, I realize now—and on its top is a profusion of things.
“Come and see,” Edna says, taking my hand and pulling me toward the table. “This is going to be a lovely time for all. I’ve made everything here myself, nothing store-bought, except the ingredients, of course. That’s Southern Hospitality, and if you’re married to me, you’re married to Southern. Course you’re from the South in your own place, aren’t you?”
She pauses for me to verify this. She has made this inquiry before. The distinction is uncommon where I am from and so I compute the answer again and, from what I understand, latitudinally, of her question, I am able to reassure her once more. “Yes, I am from the Southern part of my own place.”
“See?” my wife Edna Bradshaw says, “this is just the touch you need. Now these are cheese straws and these are sausage balls—I had to make a choice between Jimmy Dean and Tennessee Pride, but I always tend to `Take Home a Package of Tennessee Pride.’ I like that, you know, thinking you can take home something that precious in a package, though my pride’d be Alabama pride, but never mind. At the end of the day, all you really have is just pride in your sausage, is all, and Tennessee is close enough for that.”
My Edna Bradshaw pauses with this thought and an unmistakable sadness comes upon her. I will ask her about this feeling at a more appropriate moment, but already she is transforming her face into a perky, welcoming thing and she moves on down the table. She says, lifting her hand toward a great round, creviced globe remarkably similar in appearance to the outer moon of my home planet, “Now this is a pecan ball. Dried beef isn’t good enough for me when I make it. This baby has three pounds of real beef jerky. You remember when I had you beam up some things from that truck stop near where I used to live? A truck driver should know good jerky, it seems to me.”
I work hard at understanding what Edna is explaining to me, but the best I can do is record her observations in my memory and hope that I will one day fit all of this together. Food. Hospitality. I do know these to be crucial concepts in this world, and Edna’s self-assurance in these complex matters makes me happy to have her good counsel, and—I am not reluctant to speak this, for on my planet we greatly revere learning and expertise—Edna’s understanding of these concepts makes me love her even more. She moves along the table and says, “Here’s the low-fat neighborhood at our little spread. Carrot curls and rosettes of radishes. We Earthlings are fragile creatures, for all of that. You can put that down in the book you’re keeping on us, or whatever it is.”
“My records are increasingly full of your wisdom,” I say, though she resists the clear sexual invitation of my words. Which, I realize, is an act of the very wisdom I have spoken of, given our more pressing task at hand.
“And to top it all off,” she says, “we have a little indulgence for those of our guests with a sweet tooth. A tray full of Mississippi Mud.”
I quickly sort through all that I’ve learned about eating customs on this planet and I am at a loss to find a precedent for this taste in the primary species. Or even a subspecies, for that matter. Edna laughs at the apparent display of my confusion.
“Not real mud, you silly spaceman. It’s just a name. These are my best brownies with melted marshmallows, melted chocolate chips, and finely chopped pecans on top. You can see how versatile the pecan is, right here. I’ve used it in both a dessert and a main dish.” She motions back to our deeply creviced outer moon, and then gently tugs me to the end of the table and a large bowl full of a pale green fluid. It is precisely the color of the life substance flowing in my very veins, even foaming into more substantial eddies, just as in my body. Surely this is as deceptively figurative as the Mississippi mud, this bowl of my blood, but I am suddenly intensely conscious of my hands, which is where we feel fear in our bodies on my planet. My hands grow quickly hot and threaten to stiffen.
“It’s Presbyterian Punch,” she says. “You’re not Presbyterian, are you? Of course not. Silly me. You just look a little funny, all the sudden, and I don’t want to cause any offense, though the Presbyterians I know don’t take offense at much of anything.”
Edna’s lovely, multilayered, self-dialoging effusion of words has its usual calming effect on me and I raise my hands before me, rippling the last hot spots out of them.
“I love it when you do that,” Edna says of this process. Then she adds, “Which reminds me, I want to apologize that all we have for these folks is finger food.”
My hands go instantly rigid. Before me I have sixteen oaken trunks in terrified uprightness waiting for a strike of lightning: I put it thus to embrace the metaphorical impulses of this planet and, as is the great benefit of our ability to take on the perspectives of those we are near, I suddenly understand one more figurative turn of speech.
Edna says, “I forgot to have you beam me up some plastic utensils.”
“Of course,” I say, dropping my hands out of sight. “So these visitors must use their fingers to eat the food you have prepared.”
“We can do a sit-down dinner later,” Edna says, and then her words veer off sharply, something I have learned to be prepared for. “Hi, honey,” she cries. “Welcome. It’s all right.”
I am determined to keep up with her. “Hi, honey,” I reply in a similarly excited voice. “Certainly a sit-down dinner will be all right.” But I realize that her gaze is no longer directed at me. She is looking over my shoulder, and I turn to see what it is.
The bus waits in the light. The windows are dark-tinted but near the front is a face pressed hard against the glass, gaping, eyes wide in terror, taking in all of this. The face presses harder, the eyes widen even further, and I understand that I am myself the source for this surge of distress. My face is different in many respects from the faces on this planet. My wife Edna Bradshaw has always spoken lovingly of my quite large eyes that resemble in shape Eddie the cat’s eyes and my total lack of hair or fur of any kind and my mouth that is thin and sinuous—I have a very nice mouth by my home planet’s standards, but it has nothing like the outfold of lips that I must say I find enchanting in Edna. I understand how the sudden turning of this man in the large suit—that is, me—and his having a face like mine would cause the fear I see in the bus window. It is hard to look directly upon me. All of our visitors over the years have had to come to terms with our faces, one way or another. But in these first moments I am usually wearing my wide-brimmed felt hat to soften the effect.
The face vanishes from the window and Edna brisks past me. “Come on, Desi. These folks need some food.”
©2000 by Robert Olen Butler. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.