by Jack Alcott
|part 1 of 4|
It was the summer after the space shuttle Challenger exploded that I first began to realize the Austins’ marriage was coming apart. This was August of 1986, the same time as the Hudson Valley UFO sightings.
Remember them? People were seeing these huge, triangle-shaped airships just floating across the night skies over rural Cold Spring, Fishkill, Mahopac and Brewster. The local police departments were inundated with breathless, stammering phone calls from locals claiming they’d seen a flying saucer. No, more like a flying slice of pizza trimmed in Christmas lights!
The newspapers loved the story, and even the normally sober-sided New York Times got in on the act with a tongue-in-cheek feature on the phenomena that read like a script for a hokey science fiction movie. I thought all the reports were just another example of public hysteria and mass hallucination — until I saw one of the things myself.
But let me get back to the Austins. Jimmy and Candice were an interesting pair. He was a handsome, charismatic guy with an MFA in sculpture who’d given up seriously pursuing his artistic inclinations for a top job with his dad’s small chemical manufacturing firm. Jimmy went from sculpting ocean waves, his signature subject, to vice-president of the company’s solvents and detergents division. He had kids now, and the job paid well — what else could he do, I guess.
Candice (don’t ever call her ‘Candy’) was blond, blue-eyed and lithesome, where Jimmy was dark-haired, physically blocky and powerful. She couldn’t give a damn about art or literature, two areas that Jimmy loved with a deep and impressive knowledge. Actually, the guy was a polymath of sorts who could build a wing onto his house, hold forth on color theory in Fauvist painting, and name all the other Troggs’ hit songs besides “Wild Thing,” sometimes all at once (I helped him with a lot of the grunt work when he built that wing, by the way).
His favorite author? Richard Feynman, the physicist who explored quantum computing and nanotechnology. I couldn’t really keep up with Jimmy, but he was an easygoing sort who was fun to listen to and really was very modest about his intellect.
Unfortunately, Candice thought he was incredibly boring. That was pretty obvious. Maybe when they’d first met as NYU students living the bohemian life in the village she’d forgiven him his braininess because of his chiseled good looks. Or maybe her curiosity about how a regular-seeming guy could be so smart just wore off.
Whatever it was, it was apparent to me and to my wife, Jean, that there was no longer any magic there for her. Jimmy didn’t seem to notice, though, and I’m sure he would have gone on loving her anyway, no matter what.
His fascination was not hard to understand — just his devotion. Like I said, she wasn’t hard on the eyes, and she had this quick and zany sense of humor that, while bordering on nasty, could be quite charming. And it was her ongoing search for wacky laughs that fixed that UFO scare so securely in my imagination.
One night in particular stands out. As I said, it was August and the Austins were hosting a little get-together with us and another couple, Alice and Peter Grey. A smoky dusk was starting to cool down what had been a typical, sultry New York summer day.
We were on the back deck, designed and built by Jimmy. It was a cantilevered affair that overlooked a small pond, which was also Jimmy’s handiwork: he’d sketched the whole thing out in pencil, then mixed and poured the concrete, planted some stunted bonsai and filled it with fish. That’s the way he was; if he wanted to do something, he just did it.
As we watched, golden carp rose to the pond’s surface like sudden shafts of sunlight in the murk. The smell of coming rain was in the air, and every now and then a firefly punctured the dark with a tiny pulse of green light. A circle of orange citron lamps glowed like little jack ‘o’ lanterns all around the deck, leaking a faintly greasy, lemony odor that was supposed to fend off mosquitoes.
Believe it or not, we were playing Scrabble. Not a pursuit that would make most men and women in their thirties burn with passion, but we all had babies at home, safe with sitters, and a night out doing anything but minding children — even playing Scrabble — was a welcome respite. And it helped that there was always plenty of wine, beer and whisky, not to mention the occasional cannabis that Jimmy was fond of smoking.
The ever-competitive Candice had just won another round and was rubbing it in, cackling over her victories.
“I don’t know if you’re all up to my standards, here. This is really too easy,” she said as though addressing first-graders.
While she almost never came up with odd or exotic words, she had an uncanny knack for watching the double- and triple-word scores on the board, a by-the-numbers strategy that overwhelmed even Peter Grey, who was some kind of crossword puzzle champ.
“Let’s play again; I’ll kick your tail in the next round,” I told her, eager to wipe the snarky smile from her face.
She sat back and shook out her blonde mane, another ripple of gold in the night.
“Nah. I’m getting tired of this game. You schlubs don’t pose much of a challenge.” She poured herself another glass of Sangria from the pitcher that sat in the middle of the table. “Let’s do something else.”
“Hearts or poker?” Jimmy asked.
“No more games; something else.”
“Oh, c’mon, hon, you’re the Queen of Hearts,’ Jimmy said, and made a corny show of grabbing her thigh, nicely revealed by short shorts.
She flinched ever so slightly and flicked his hand away.
“Hmmpff,” she huffed in phony disgust. “You just can’t keep up with me, admit it.”
“I’m done,” said Alice as she put her tiles back in the game box. “I certainly can’t seem to win tonight.”
There were a few moments of silence as we looked around at each other, all of us pleasantly tipsy. The only sounds came from the clink of ice in our Sangria glasses and the traffic out on Interstate 684 a mile away, surging in the background like a distant sea. Then there was a watery splash as a carp surfaced to gulp down another bug in the pond.
“All right then, why don’t you show them your ‘alien attractor’ creation,” Jimmy said.
“It’s an alien attractor and repulsor,” she corrected him.
“Oh yeah, right... Why don’t you let them see it?”
“What’s he talking about?” my wife asked blankly. ‘Alien attractor’?”
“Hmmpff, “ Candice said, crossing her arms over her chest.
“You guys have heard those reports of UFOS in the area, right?” Jimmy said.
“I heard about them,” said Pete. “A lot of people have seen them... You think they’re aliens checking us out, making sure we behave ourselves?”
“Might be. People have been seeing them all over Putnam County and up in Dutchess,” Jimmy said. “Strange, hovering V-shaped spaceships, or something. Some investigators think they’re a hoax, more than likely pranksters flying ultra-lights — you know, those tiny kite-like planes — out of the Stormville airport. They can hover and practically stand still.
“Apparently, if they fly close enough to the ground at night with lights outlining their wings, an optical illusion creates the perception they’re a huge airship... I’m not sure what to believe yet, but I haven’t dismissed the possibility they’re visitors from outer space — cue the theremin music. As Sun Ra and his Interstellar Arkestra put it: ‘Space is the Place.’ So keep an open mind.”
“Yeah right,” I said. “You’re stoned. They’re going to come halfway across the universe to commune with the woodchucks in Putnam, right? Or maybe they just want to hang out on Main Street in Brewster, take in a movie at The Cameo and then go over to Bob’s Diner for a burger and fries, like in that Twilight Zone episode.”
Jimmy stood up and said, “C’mon, you’ve got to show them.”
Candice made her nasally “hmm” noise again, but got up, and it was clear she was tickled. Chances were it was a set-up, all part of a joke they’d dreamed up.
“Step this way then, ladies and gentlemen,” she said in her best carnival barker voice and started down the deck stairs. We all got up and tagged along behind her. She led us around their old renovated farmhouse, to a side yard where light streamed from the kitchen window to reveal what at first appeared to be a pile of junk.
“Is this a sculpture in progress?” I asked Jimmy. “A new direction for you?”
Jimmy still liked to sculpt, but his usual subject was ocean waves, sea froth and all, which he’d cast in cement and then paint in various aqua colors. The waves were realistic and full of energy, and he’d given me one that I kept on display in my family room.
“This is mine, not his,” Candice said coolly. “Pretty amazing mobile, don’t you think?”
“It’s really great, hon,” Jimmy said. “It’s like one of those found objects Cocteau would have discovered and transformed. Like that urinal that’s now in a museum.”
Candice stared at him like he’d just fell out of the sky and landed in the backyard.
“Wow. What the hell is it?” Pete asked.
A good question. From what I could tell, she’d taken an aluminum beach umbrella, stripped off its cloth covering and planted it upside down in the grass so that it resembled a spindly radar dish. Then she’d spun bright copper wire between its metal arms in a spider web pattern, which was creepy enough.
But it was the old work boot stuck on one arm, and a Yankees cap on another, along with several other articles of Jimmy’s clothing, as well as a naked Barbie doll, some old photos from their NYU days and what looked like the innards from several gutted radios that pushed it into a potentially crazy, scary region.
Several black-light bulbs dangled on wires from the spooky mess, so I wasn’t completely surprised when she walked over and plugged the construct into an outdoor socket on a corner of the house. The ultraviolet lights came on, illuminating the garish fluorescent paint she’d splashed on the sculpture even as the disemboweled radio parts emitted a keening, electronic whine. Then — and this was alarming — some of the metal arms began to flail about. I instinctively ducked, half-expecting one of them to fly off and impale me.
Jimmy seemed more excited than Candice, who just stood quietly admiring her creation.
“See, it’s a kinetic sculpture,” he said and strode around it. “Isn’t it cool? What a wild imagination.”
“I don’t get it, “ Pete said between laughs. “Why?”
“It’s for signaling the spacemen,” Candice said matter-of-factly, as though we should have guessed as much. “It’s my alien invitation. When it’s on like this, it means I’m home and they’re welcome to visit, maybe come on down and have a beer, or whatever. I hope they take me up on it so I can show them humans are friendly. Otherwise, they’ve got to base their opinion on wars and bad TV. I want them to know that we’re not all like that.”
She said this almost as though she meant it, but not quite. Just a hint of irony lingered about the corners of her smile.
We all looked on with drink-addled amusement and laughed at our friend’s nutty outrageousness, more than a little delighted to be in on any joke or scrap of oddness that took us, even for a few minutes, outside the boundaries of our more circumscribed suburban lives.
“Isn’t it beautiful,” Jimmy repeated a couple of times as he walked around the thing — drunk, I assumed, on love and alcohol.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Jack Alcott