One thing is for sure—the town knows Martians. You can’t step anywhere without trampling over one. The first Martian welcomed us yesterday morning from a billboard next to our hotel. Martian cardboard cutouts have been plastered in every storefront window, and street vendors at every corner peddle cuddly Martian dolls to anybody with a heartbeat. Right now, as we speak, someone in a Martian costume—presumably the town greeter retiring for the night—crosses the intersection we’re approaching.
“Remember to downshift,” Charlie advises me. “You’ll stall if you don’t.”
It’s been over a year since we bought the Saturn, but today is the first time I’m behind the wheel. Charlie drove the entire way from New Jersey to New Mexico because he wanted to make sure the car could withstand my inexperience with a manual transmission. After checking into our room at the Comfort Inn, he declared that the time has finally come. I must learn how to handle the Saturn.
The car stutters violently before I can press down on the clutch. We stall, lunging forward, stopping inches from the Martian.
“Asshole!” the person behind the mask shouts, while slapping the car’s hood with his webbed hand. He finishes crossing the street, waving his green middle finger over his head.
Charlie pokes his head out the window. “Sorry about that. New driver.” He pulls his head back in and says to me, “You almost ran down E.T.”
The light turns green. The car behind us waits patiently for me to shift into first gear. We continue down Main Street. I reach about fifteen miles-per-hour when I think it’s time to go into second.
“Do you have a feel for shifting yet?” Charlie asks.
“How will I know when I get there?”
“I can’t describe it. It’s just a feeling.” He removes his seatbelt, adjusting himself into a more comfortable position with his feet on the dashboard, adding, “It’s boring out here. Want to turn around and go back?”
“Wasn’t it your idea to sightsee?”
“I thought you were into this paranormal stuff,” I tell him.
“I am.” His pause reeks of disappointment. “It’s just too touristy out here. Too…what’s the word…artificial.”
Charlie gets no argument from me. We could be on the boardwalk at Seaside Heights with all the gift shops on both sides of the street. The Alien Zone, Star Child, UFO Gifts & Gags, The Venusian Emporium. I count ten within a mile before I lose track. The bright pastels and neon lights decorating each shop blend together into a mesh of visual stimulation fit enough for the Jersey shore.
“And what will we do at the hotel?” I ask. “It’s not even nine.”
He keeps his gaze focused outside the car. “I don’t know. Fool around.”
I think of the distance that’s been between us lately, and then I ask, “You sure you want to do that?”
“I said I did, didn’t I?”
The haze of neon lights thins as the last gift shop disappears in the rearview mirror—we enter the suburbs of New Mexico, where homes line one side of the street and an empty desert occupies the other.
Charlie turns down the radio, and says, “I feel like Clark Griswold and we just left Wally World.”
“We do have a pool at the hotel.” I pull down the neck of my shirt to show off my cleavage. “You can call me Christie Brinkley if you want.”
He eyes my chest. “This is crazy. This is crazy. This is crazy,” he says.
The words don’t linger for long once I accelerate. They get sucked out into the humid June night. I’m starting to get the hang of this.
The AAA employee who mapped out our drive with a purple highlighter exceeded my expectations. We haven’t been lost once, and the AAA-approved attractions—particularly the alpaca farm in Arkansas—have been consistently satisfying. What kept her from reaching perfection was failing to advise us of the importance of proper seating on a cross-country sojourn. I guide the Saturn to the side of the road, ready to cry ‘uncle.’
“Why are we stopping?” Charlie asks.
“I can’t drive anymore.”
“Yes you can. You’re doing fine.”
His encouragement does little to soothe the tingling creeping up my spine.
“It’s my back. I don’t know how you can tolerate this seat.” I open the door and swing my legs outside. “It’s like sitting on a boulder.”
We switch places. The passenger’s seat has surprisingly more cushion to it, especially without the orthopedic beads that came free with the car. My back already feels better.
Charlie’s absence from the car suddenly becomes noticeable. I find his reflection in the rearview mirror. For whatever reason, he’s staring off into the distance. He then heads for the trunk.
“What are you looking for?” I shout out the window.
He takes whatever he’s found from the trunk and brings it with him to the edge of the road. My second call to him goes unanswered. I am, of course, forced to throw off my seatbelt and storm outside.
The binoculars he holds to his face scan the desert. “I see lights there.”
I turn my gaze to where his finger points, and lo and behold, I spot some lights. Heavy-duty flashlights, maybe, or a small carnival. I tell Charlie what they look like to me.
“A carnival? You can’t be serious?”
“Who knows what these New Mexicans do at night.”
“But in the middle of the desert?” He lets go of the binoculars. They dangle around his neck. “I think it might be Area 51.”
“I thought that was in Nevada.”
“Not the Area 51. One of its satellite branches.”
I snatch the binoculars from around Charlie’s neck. The distant lights reveal themselves in greater detail.
“I see cars and headlights,” I tell him. “No spaceships. Sorry.”
He starts heading out into the desert, passing a metal sign that reads: NO TRESPASSING. PRIVATE COMMUNITY. “Let’s explore.”
“What about going back to the hotel?”
He checks his watch. “It’s only 8:50. We have the whole night ahead of us.”
“But I want to go to bed with you. I feel things coming to life down there.”
“Twenty minutes. I promise.”
Snap Dragon Gardens, so says the wooden sign surrounded by waist-high bushes, has a pleasant ring to it. The townhouses look spacious but aren’t obscenely tacky like every new construction in New Jersey. Lawns are kept trim and fed with fertilizer marked by small white flags sticking out of the ground. Further down the road, a fully-lit playground is packed with children.
Charlie already makes himself at home by kicking a wayward soccer ball back to a group of kids.
“Thanks, mister,” one of them shouts cheerfully, throwing the ball back into play.
“We shouldn’t be here,” I tell Charlie. “We can get in trouble.”
“What trouble can we possibly get into?”
What looked like a carnival from the binoculars can better be described as a block party. Pup tents, campers, flashlights, Weber grills, a volleyball net, and children waving sparklers populate the grass field just past the community pool. But out of all these jarring sights, what really captures my eye is a strand of holiday lights draped between a pickup truck and a house trailer—both in a serious state of rust and decay. The lights blink on and off at regular intervals, adding to the festive mood we’ve wandered into.
The trailer wobbles side-to-side and its tiny door squeaks open. The owner stumbles out, nearly wringing his neck on the precariously low hanging lights. He regains his footing and heads towards an empty lawn chair.
It doesn’t take him long to spot us gawking at him. But instead of letting his attention drift somewhere else—the socially appropriate thing to do—he stares at us hard. I’m worried where this is might go.
“Come for the festivities?” he asks, and after consulting the sky, adds, “We should be starting any minute.”
The kids behind us erupt laughing after one of them puts the soccer ball into the net. The normalcy of it does nothing to ease my worries.
“We’re just, uh,” Charlie stammers, “visiting relatives.”
A woman wearing a floral apron and carrying a tray of brownies appears from inside the trailer. She ducks underneath the Christmas lights without a problem. “Travis,” she says after resting the brownie tray on a cooler, “the toilet’s leaking again.”
“I’ll fix it later, Maude. We have company.”
Maude gives us a quick once-over. Her tobacco-colored face brightens up. “Young ones. Please, have a seat. Rest those tired legs.”
“And have a beer.”
Charlie wraps his lips around the bottle that Travis gives him. We’re then ushered into two extra lawn chairs our hosts set up for us. Charlie crosses his legs comfortably, and with his beer in hand, is the epitome of relaxed. My husband’s assurance of a nighttime romp was nothing but talk.
Charlie asks them, “Do you two live around here or are you visiting—like us?”
While her husband shoves a brownie into his mouth, Maude snorts out a laugh. “Visiting. That’s rich.”
“Please excuse my wife,” Travis says, picking out the crumbs lodged in his beard. “She’s just a bit excited tonight.”
Charlie leans forward in his lawn chair. The interest in his face is genuine. He then asks, “What’s the party for? Somebody’s birthday?”
Travis points to a star brighter than the others around it. “We’re here because every June twenty-fifth, Betelgeuse emits strong radio waves.”
“Beetlejuice?” I ask.
“The star,” Travis corrects me. “Not the movie.”
Maude helps herself to a brownie. They still haven’t offered us any and it bothers me more than it should. She instead offers us a suspicious eye and then a question, “Are you familiar with the waves?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Charlie replies in a way that sounds like he belongs here.
“Then your minds are open. That’s important for tonight’s success.”
“We weren’t ready last year.” Travis gives his wife’s arm a rub.
“I see that now. We weren’t ready and that’s okay to say. Right, toots?”
Maude hides her disgust behind her brownie. “We can’t even plug up a hole in the ocean. What can we possibly offer them?”
“Our fruitful women,” Travis shouts, grinning. He points at me and adds, “And I nominate this lovely specimen right here.”
Charlie doesn’t lift a finger to rescue me from this world of derelicts. In fact, he joins Travis in giggling at the prospects of a Martian taking me to experiment on my malfunctioning body. Some husband.
Maude suddenly darts out of her chair and says, “Where are our manners? Our guests don’t have any brownies.” She cuts two squares with a plastic knife and hands one to each of us. “My secret recipe.”
One conspicuous whiff makes the secret ingredient not-so-secret. I check in with Charlie before I indulge, figuring one of us have to drive back to the hotel. His slow head-nod tells me he will be the sober one responsible tonight.
He slides me his brownie discreetly, so as to not offend our generous hosts. He then tells Travis, “I admire your trailer. You don’t see too many of these anymore.”
Maude interrupts to ask me, “Want some advice, honey?”
“Sure,” I tell her, feeling the world around me spin so fast that I don’t care about anything anymore.
“Don’t let your husband push you around. If you don’t make a stand every once in a while, you’ll find yourself living in a trailer with a crapper that barely works.”
I steal a sip from Charlie’s beer to help wash down the brownie. Once the foul taste passes my throat, I reply out of obligation, “Your husband seems like a very loving man.”
Maude slaps her husband in the chest. “You hear that? She says you seem like a loving man.”
“The girl’s got a lot to learn about marriage.”
I come to after a short doze—thanks to the two brownies I inhaled—to the sound of whoosh! shooting overhead. Hysterics break out.
“Damn kids!” someone yells.
Another hollers, “Where are their parents?”
The model rocket that caused the premature frenzy floats back to earth with the aid of a parachute. A gang of rabid adults grabs it before it touches down and tears it to shreds. The two kids on the macadam responsible for the fake-out cannot stop laughing.
Five other rockets – lined up from tallest to shortest – wait to be launched. The younger boy sets one up on the launch pad, while the other gets on his knees and fiddles with the wires leading to the engine.
For the past ten minutes, Charlie and Travis have been studying a map of the constellations. They each grip an end of the map and talk about Betelgeuse and its ability to support sentient beings. Maude has disappeared somewhere inside the trailer. If I had to guess, I’d say she’s passed out—another victim of her potent concoction.
My presence here is no longer essential. I hobble out of the lawn chair and leave the two men to their discussion of the heavens.
I work my way to the macadam as best I can. I haven’t been stoned since college, so I’ve forgotten how sloppy it gets me. But it feels good and I regret nothing.
I ask the boys, “Mind if I give your rocket a whirl?”
After the younger boy whispers something into his ear, the older boy hands me the ignition box. He then gives me a key. “Go ahead.”
“What do I do?”
“Put the key into the hole. Then press the button. Simple.”
A tiny bulb lights up once I insert put the key into its proper place. My thumb then creeps towards the launch button.
In the course of an eye-blink, I perceive the rocket taking off. The sparks powering the ascent burn the grass around the launch pad. The kids scream for their toy to go all the way to Mars. I then see my husband of nearly three years start the Saturn. I hear him tell me he’s ready to make love.
But, of course, none of that was real. Instead, the rocket sits still on the launch pad. I push the button a few more times, even take out the key and put it back in. But still, nothing.
“What did you do?” the older boy asks.
“What do you mean, what did I do?”
“It was working fine before.” He snatches the ignition box from my hands to give it a few good smacks.
“The batteries might be dead,” suggests the younger one, who receives a quick punch in the arm from his brother.
“Do you have any extra batteries laying around?” I ask.
The older boy looks at me out of the corner of his eye. For a second, this kid no older than twelve looks like he wants to smack me.
I’m about to find my husband so we can hightail our way out of here when the crowd wakes up. The entire gathering gasps at the lights darting from one end of the earth to the other.
“They’re coming!” a woman shrieks.
Others fix their hair, hike up their pants, and wipe food off their faces.
I peer through the excited crowd and spot Charlie beside the pickup. He’s traded the map for his cell phone. My phone beeps once.
The kid beside me abandons his gaze of the meteor shower to ask, “Do you have any kids, lady?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Because if you don’t and you want one,” he pauses to let his fingers follow a meteor across the sky, “they can give you one.”
“You don’t say.”
“They call it ‘impregnate.’ Do you know what that means?”
Charlie’s text reads: Meet @ the Saturn. Across the desert.
He waits behind the steering wheel. The headlights are turned on. They point towards our next destination, Texas. The crowd I leave behind starts yelling towards the sky, “Come back!” and “Don’t go!”
When I return to the car, we drive back to our hotel as fast as it takes a flying saucer to travel halfway across the universe to spread their seed to planet Earth.