One long-ago autumn day, a young man chose between two worlds
— and ended up with neither

Unidentified Objects

by James P. Blaylock

UFO Memories
Illustration by Robert K. J. Killheffer, based on an image by Dimitar Marinov / 123RF Stock Photo.

In 1956 the downtown square mile of the city of Orange was a collection of old houses: craftsman bungalows and tile-roofed Spanish, and here and there an old Queen Anne or a gingerbread Victorian with geminate windows and steep gables, and sometimes a carriage house alongside, too small by half to house the lumbering automobiles that the second fifty years of the century had produced. There were Studebakers at the curbs and Hudsons and Buicks with balloon tires like the illustrations of moon-aimed rockets on the covers of the pulp magazines.

Times were changing. Science was still a professor with wild hair and a lab coat and with bubbling apparatus in a cellar; but in a few short years he would walk on the moon — one last ivory and silver hurrah — and then, as if in an instant, he would grow faceless and featureless and unpronounceable. There would come the sudden knowledge that Moon Valley wasn’t so very far away after all, and neither was extinction; that the nation that controlled magnetism, as Diet Smith would have it, controlled almost nothing at all; and that a score of throbbing bulldozers could reduce the jungled wilds around Opar and El Dorado to desert sand in a few short, sad years. The modern automobile suddenly was slick and strange, stretched out and low and with enormous fins that swept back at the rear above banks of superfluous taillights. They seemed otherwordly at the time and were alien reminders, it seems to me now, of how provincial we had been, balanced on the back edge of an age.

The pace of things seemed to be accelerating, and already I could too easily anticipate stepping out onto my tilted front porch some signifying morning, the wind out of the east, and seeing stretched out before me not a shaded avenue of overarching trees and root-cracked sidewalks but the sleek, desertlike technology of a new age, a new suburbia, with robots in vinyl trousers sweeping fallen leaves into their own open mouths.

There is a plaza in the center of town, with a fountain, and in the autumn — the season when all of this came to my attention — red-brown leaves from flowering pear trees drift down onto the sluggish, gurgling water and float there like a centerpiece for a Thanksgiving table. On a starry evening, one November late in the Seventies, I was out walking in the plaza, thinking, I remember, that it had already become an artifact, with its quaint benches and granite curbs and rose garden. Then, shattering the mood of late night nostalgia, there shone in the sky an immense shooting star, followed by the appearance of a glowing object, which hovered and darted, sailing earthward until I could make out its shadow against the edge of the moon and then disappearing in a blink. I shouted and pointed, mostly out of surprise. Strange lights in the sky were nothing particularly novel; I had been seeing them for almost twenty years. But nothing that happens at night among the stars can ever become commonplace. At that late hour, though, there was almost certainly no one around to hear me; or so I thought.

So when she stood up, dropping papers and pencils and a wooden drawing board onto the concrete walk, I nearly shouted again. She had been sitting in the dim lamplight, hidden to me beyond the fountain. Dark hair fell across her shoulders in a rush of curl and hid her right eye, and with a practiced sweep of her hand she pulled it back in a shock and tucked it behind her ear, where it stayed obediently for about three quarters of a second and then fell seductively into her face again. Now, years later, for reasons I can’t at all define, the sight of a dark-haired woman brushing wayward hair out of her eyes recalls without fail that warm autumn night by the fountain.

She had that natural, arty, blue-jeans-and-floppy-sweater look of a college girl majoring in fine arts: embroidered handbag, rhinestone-emerald costume brooch, and translucent plastic shoes the color of root beer. I remember thinking right off that she had languorous eyes, and the sight of them reflecting the soft lamplight of the fountain jolted me. But the startled look on her face implied that she hadn’t admired my shouting like that, not at eleven o’clock at night in the otherwise deserted plaza.

There was the dark, pouting beauty in her eyes and lips of a woman in a Pre-Raphaelite painting, a painting that I had stumbled into in my clodlike way, grinning, I thought, like a half-wit: I too hastily explained the shooting star to her, gesturing too widely at the sky and mumbling that it hadn’t been an ordinary shooting star. But there was nothing in the sky now besides the low-hanging moon and a ragtag cloud, and she said offhandedly, not taking any notice of my discomfort, just what I had been thinking, that there was never anything ordinary about a shooting star.

I learned that her name was Jane and that she had sketched that fountain a dozen times during the day, with the blooming flowers behind it and the changing backdrop of people and cars and weather. I almost asked her whether she hadn’t ever been able to get it quite right, but then, I could see that that wasn’t the point.

Now she had been sketching it at night, its blue and green and pink lights illuminating the umbrella of falling water against night-shaded rosebushes and camphor trees and boxwood hedges.

It was perfect — straight out of a romantic old film. The hero stumbles out of the rain into an almost deserted library, and at the desk, with her hair up and spectacles on her nose, is the librarian who doesn’t know that if she’d just take the glasses off for a moment . . .

I scrabbled around to pick up fallen pencils while she protested that she could just as easily do it herself. It was surely only the magic of that shooting star that prevented her from gathering up her papers and going home. As it was, she stayed for a moment to talk, assuming, although she never said so, that there was something safe and maybe interesting in a fancier of shooting stars. I felt the same about her and her drawings and her root beer shoes.

She was distracted, never really looking at me. Maybe the image of the fountain was still sketched across the back of her eyes and she couldn’t see me clearly. It was just a little irritating, and I would discover later that it was a habit of hers, being distracted was, but on that night there was something in the air and it didn’t matter. Any number of things don’t matter at first. We talked, conversation dying and starting and with my mind mostly on going somewhere — my place, her place — for a drink, for what? There was something, an atmosphere that surrounded her, a musky sort of sweater and lilacs scent. But she was distant; her work had been interrupted and she was still half lost in the dream of it. She dragged her hand in the water of the fountain, her face half in shadow. She was tired out, she said. She didn’t need to be walked home. She could find her way alone.

But I’ve got ahead of myself. It’s important that I keep it all straight — all the details; without the details it amounts to nothing. I grew up on Olive Street, southwest of the plaza, and when I was six, and wearing my Davy Crockett hat and Red Rider shirt, and it was nearly dusk in late October, I heard the ding-a-linging of an ice cream truck from some distant reach of the neighborhood. The grass was covered with leaves, I remember, that had been rained on and were limp and heavy. I was digging for earthworms and dropping them one by one into a corral built of upright sticks and twigs that was the wall of the native village on Kong Island. The sky was cloudy, the street empty. There was smoke from a chimney across the way and the cloud-muted him of a distant airplane lost to view. Light through the living room window shone out across the dusky lawn.

The jangling of the ice cream bell drew near, and the truck rounded the distant corner, the bell cutting off and the truck accelerating as if the driver, anticipating dinner, had given up for the day and was steering a course for home. It slowed, though, when he saw me, and angled in toward the curb where I stood holding a handful of gutter-washed earthworms. Clearly he thought I’d signaled him. There were pictures of frozen concoctions painted on the gloss-white sides of the panel truck: coconut-covered Neapolitan bars and grape Popsicles, nut and chocolate drumsticks, and strawberry-swirled vanilla in paper cups with flat paper lids. He laboriously climbed out of the cab, came around the street side to the back, and confronted me there on the curb. He smiled and winked and wore a silver foil hat with an astonishing bill, and when he yanked open the hinged, chrome door there was such a whirling of steam off the dry ice inside that he utterly vanished behind it, and I caught a quick glimpse of cardboard bins farther back in the cold fog, stacked one on top of another and dusted with ice crystals.

I didn’t have a dime and wouldn’t be allowed to eat ice cream so close to dinner time anyway, and I said so, apologizing for having made him stop for nothing. He studied my earthworms and said that out in space there were planets where earthworms spoke and wore silk shirts, and that I could fly to those planets in the right sort of ship.

Then he bent into the freezer and after a lot of scraping and peering into boxes found a paper-wrapped ice cream bar — a FLYING SAUCER BAR, the wrapper said. It was as big around as a coffee cup saucer and was domed on top and fat with vanilla ice cream coated in chocolate. He tipped his hat, slammed his door, and drove off. I ate the thing guiltily while sitting beneath camellia bushes at the side of the house and lobbing sodden pink blooms out onto the front yard, laying siege to the earthworm fortress and watching the lamps blink on one by one along the street.

There are those incidents from our past that years later seem to us to be the stuff of dreams: the wash of shooting stars seen through the rear window of the family car at night in the Utah desert; the mottled, multilegged sun star, as big as a cartwheel, inching across the sand in the shallows of a northern California bay; the whale’s eyeball floating in alcohol and encased in a glass fishing float in a junk store near the waterfront; the remembered but unrecoverable hollow sensation of new love. The stars vanish in an instant; the starfish slips away into deep water and is gone; the shop with its fishing float is a misty dream, torn down in some unnumbered year to make room for a hotel built of steel and smoked glass. Love evaporates into the passing years like dry ice; you don’t know where it’s gone. The mistake is to think that the details don’t signify — the flying saucer bars and camellia blooms, rainy autumn streets and lamplight through evening windows and colored lights playing across the waters of a fountain on a warm November evening.

All the collected pieces of our imagistic memory seem sometimes to be trivial knickknacks when seen against the roaring of passing time. But without those little water-paint sketches, awash in remembered color and detail, none of us, despite our airy dreams, amount to more than an impatient ghost wandering through the revolving years and into an increasingly strange and alien future.

I came to know the driver of the ice cream truck. We became acquaintances. He no longer sold ice cream; there was no living to be made at it. He had got a penny a Popsicle, he said, and he produced a slip of paper covered with numbers — elaborate calculations of the millions of Popsicles he’d have to sell over the years just to stay solvent. Taken altogether like that it was impossible. He had been new to the area then and hadn’t got established yet. All talk of money aside, he had grown tired of it, of the very idea of driving an ice cream truck — something that wouldn’t have seemed possible to me on the rainy evening of the flying saucer bar, but which I understand well enough now.

He had appeared on our front porch, I remember, when I was ten or eleven, selling wonderful tin toys door-to-door. My mother bought a rocket propelled by compressed air. It was painted with bright, circus colors, complete with flames swirling around the cylindrical base of the thing. Looking competent and serious and very much like my ice cream man was a helmeted pilot painted into a bubblelike vehicle on the top of the rocket, which would pop off, like a second stage, when the rocket attained the stupendous height of thirty or forty feet. I immediately lost the bubble craft with its painted astronaut. It shot off, just like it was supposed to, and never came down. I have to suppose that it’s rusting in the branches of a tree somewhere, but I have a hazy memory of it simply shooting into the air and disappearing in a blink, hurtling up through the thin atmosphere toward deep space. Wasted money, my mother said.

Our third meeting was at the Palm Street Market, where I went to buy penny candy that was a nickel by then. I was thirteen, I suppose, or something near it, which would have made it early in the Sixties. The clerk being busy, I had strayed over to the magazine shelves and found a copy of Fate, which I read for the saucer stories, and which, on that afternoon, was the excuse for my being close enough to the “men’s” magazines to thumb through a couple while the clerk had his back turned. I had the Fate open to the account of Captain Hooton’s discovery of an airship near Texarkana, and a copy of something called Slick or Trick or Flick propped open on the rack behind. I read the saucer article out of apologetic shame in between thumbing through the pages of photographs, as if my reading it would balance out the rest, but remembering nothing of what I read until, with a shock of horror that I can still recall as clearly as anything else in my life, I became aware that the ice cream man, the tin toy salesman, was standing behind me, reading over my shoulder.

What I read, very slowly and carefully as three fourths of my blood rose into my head, was Captain Hooton’s contempt for airship design: “There was no bell or bell rope about the ship that I could discover, like I should think every well-regulated air locomotive should have.” At the precise moment of my reading that sentence, the clerk’s voice whacked out of the silence: “Hey, kid!” was what he said. I’d heard it before. It was a weirdly effective phrase and had such a freezing effect on me that Captain Hooton’s bit of mechanical outrage has come along through the years with me uninvited, pegged into my memory by the manufactured shame of that single moment.

Both of us bought a copy of Fate. I had to, of course, although it cost me forty cents that I couldn’t afford. I remember the ice cream man winking broadly at me there on the sidewalk, and me being deadly certain that I had become as transparent as a ghost fish. Everyone on Earth had been on to my little game with the magazine. I couldn’t set foot in that market without a disguise for a solid five years. And then, blessedly, he was gone, off down the street, and me in the opposite direction. I stayed clear of the market for a couple of months and then discovered, passing on the sidewalk, that the witnessing clerk was gone, and that went a long way toward putting things right, although Captain Hooton, as I said, has stayed with me. In fact, I began from that day to think of the ice cream man as Captain Hooton, since I had no idea what his name was, and years later the name would prove strangely appropriate.

In was in the autumn, then, that I first met Jane on that November night in the plaza, and weeks later when I introduced her to him, to Captain Hooton. She said in her artistic way that he had a “good face,” although she didn’t mean to make any sort of moral judgment, and truthfully his face was almost inhumanly long and angular. She said this after the three of us had chatted for a moment and he had gone on his way. It was as if there were nothing much more she could say about him that made any difference at all, as if she were distracted.

I remember that it irritated me, although why it should have I don’t know, except that he had already begun to mean something, to signify, as if our chance meetings over the years, if I could pluck them out of time and arrange them just so, would make a pattern.

“He dresses pretty awful, doesn’t he?” That’s what she said after he’d gone along and she could think of nothing more to say about his face.

I hadn’t noticed, and I said so, being friendly about it.

“He’s smelly. What was that, do you think?”

“Tobacco, I guess. I don’t know. Pipe tobacco.” She wasn’t keen on tobacco, or liquor either. So I didn’t put too fine a point on it because I didn’t want to set her off, to have to defend his smoking a pipe. It was true that his coat could have used a cleaning, but that hadn’t occurred to me, actually, until she mentioned it, wrinkling up her nose in that rabbit way of hers.

“I keep thinking that he’s got a fish in his pocket.”

I smiled at her, suddenly feeling as if I were betraying a friend.

“Well . . . ,” I said, trying to affect a dropping-the-subject tone.

She shuddered. “People get like that, especially old people. They forget to take baths and wash their hair.”

I shrugged, pretending to think that she was merely trying to be amusing.

“He’s not that old,” I said. But she immediately agreed. That was the problem, wasn’t it? You wouldn’t think. She looked at my own hair very briefly and then set out down the sidewalk with me following and studying my shadow in the afternoon sun and keeping my hands away from my hair. It looked neat enough there in the shadow on the sidewalk, but I knew that shadows couldn’t be trusted, and I was another five minutes worrying about it before something else happened, it doesn’t matter what, and I forgot about my hair and my vanity.

Her own hair had a sort of flyaway look to it, but perfect, if you understand me, and it shone as if she’d given it the standard hundred strokes that morning. A dark-red ribbon held a random clutch of it behind her ear, and there was something in the ribbon and in the way she put her hand on my arm to call my attention to some house or other that made me think of anything but houses. She had a way of touching you, almost as if accidentally, like a cat sliding past your leg, rubbing against you, and arching just a little and then continuing on, having abandoned any interest in you. She stood too close, maybe, for comfort — although comfort is the wrong word because the sensation was almost ultimately comfortable — and all the while that we were standing there talking about the lines of the roof, I was conscious only of the static charge of her presence, her shoulder just grazing my arm, her hip brushing against my thigh, the heavy presence of her sex suddenly washing away whatever was on the surface of my mind and settling there musky and soft. There hasn’t been another man in history more indifferent to the lines of a roof.

In the downtown circular plaza each Christmas, there was an enormous Santa Claus built from wire and twisted paper, lit from within by a spiral of pin lights, and at Halloween, beneath overcast skies and pending rain, there were parades of schoolchildren dressed as witches and clowns and bed-sheet ghosts. Then in spring there was a May festival, with city dignitaries riding in convertible Edsels and waving to people sitting in lawn chairs along the boulevard. One year the parade was led by a tame ape followed by fezzed Shriners in Mr. Toad cars.

Twice during the two years that Jane studied art, while the town shrank for her and grew cramped, we watched the parade from a sidewalk table in front of Felix’s Cafe, laughing at the ape and smiling at the solemn drumming of the marching bands. The second year one of the little cars caught fire and the parade fizzled out and waited while a half-dozen capering Shriners beat the fire out with their jackets. It was easy to laugh then, at the ape and the Edsels and the tiny cars, except that even then I suspected that her laughter was half cynical. Mine wasn’t, and this difference between us troubled me.

In the summer there was a street fair, and the smoky aroma of sausages and beer and the sticky-sweet smell of cotton candy. We pushed through the milling crowds and sat for hours under an ancient tree in the plaza, watching the world revolve around us.

It seems now that I was always wary then that the world in its spinning might tumble me off, and there was something about the exposed roots of that tree that made you want to touch them, to sit among them just to see how immovable they were. But the world couldn’t spin half fast enough for her. You’d have thought that if she could get a dozen paintings out of that fountain, then there would be enough, even in a provincial little town like this one, to amuse her forever.

Captain Hooton always seemed to be turning up. One year he put on a Santa costume and wandered through the shops startling children. The following year at Halloween he appeared out of the doorway of a disused shop, wearing a fright wig and carrying an enormous flashlight like a lighthouse beacon, on the lens of which was glued a witch cut out of black construction paper. He climbed into a sycamore tree in front of Watson’s Drugs and shined the witch for a half hour onto the white stone facade of the bank, and then, refusing to come down unless he was made to, was finally led away by the police. Jane ought to have admired the trick with the flashlight, but she had by then developed a permanent dislike for him because, I think, he didn’t seem to take her seriously, her or her paintings, and she took both of those things very seriously indeed, while pretending to care for almost nothing at all.

He ate pretty regularly for a time at Rudy’s counter, at the drugstore. It was a place where milk shakes were still served in enormous metal cylinders and where shopkeepers sat on red Naugahyde and ate hot turkey sandwiches and mashed potatoes and talked platitudes and weather and sports, squinting and nodding. Captain Hooton wasn’t much on conversation. He sat alone usually, smoking and wearing one of those caps that sports car enthusiasts wear, looking as if he were pondering something, breaking into silent laughter now and then as he watched the autumn rain fall and the red-brown sycamore leaves scattering along the street in the gusting breeze.

There was something awful about his skin — an odd color, perhaps, too pink and blue and never any hint of a beard, even in the afternoon.

A balding man from Fergy’s television repair referred to him jokingly as Doctor Loomis, apparently the name of an alien visitor in a cheap, old science-fiction thriller. I chatted with him three or four times when Jane wasn’t along, coming to think of him finally as a product of “the old school,” which, as Dickens said, is no school that ever existed on Earth.

There were more sightings of things in the sky — almost always at night, and almost always they were described in slightly ludicrous terms by astonished citizens, as if each of them had mugged up those old issues of Fate. The things were egg-shaped, wingless, smooth silver; they beamed people up through spiraling doors and motored them around the galaxy and then dropped them off again, in a vacant lot or behind an apartment complex or bowling alley and with an inexplicable lapse of memory. The City News was full of it.

Once, at the height of the sightings, men in uniforms came from the East and the sightings mysteriously stopped. Something landed in the upper reaches of my avocado tree one night and glowed there. Next morning I found a cardboard milk carton smelling of chemicals, the inside stained the green of a sunlit ocean, lying in the leaves and humus below. It had little wings fastened with silver duct tape. The bottom of it had been cut out and replaced with a carved square of pumice, a bored-out carburetor jet glued into the center of it.

It happened that Captain Hooton lived on Pine Street by that time, and so did I. I rented half of a little bungalow and took walks in the evening when I wasn’t with Jane. His house was deceptively large. From the street it seemed to be a narrow, gabled Victorian with a three-story turret in the right front corner, and with maybe a living room, parlor, and kitchen downstairs. Upstairs there might have been room for a pair of large bedrooms and a library midway up in the turret. There was a lot of split clinker brick mortared onto the front in an attempt to make the house look indefinably European, and shutters with shooting stars cut into them that had been added along the way. Old newspapers piled up regularly on the front porch and walk as if he were letting them ripen, and the brush-choked flowerbeds were so overgrown that none of the downstairs windows could have admitted any sunlight.

Jane seemed to see it as being a shame — the mess of weeds and brush, the cobbled-together house, the yellowing papers. Somehow I held out hope that it would strike her as — what? — original. Eccentric, maybe. At first I thought that they were too much alike in their eccentricities. I considered her root beer shoes and her costume jewelry and her very fashionable and practiced disregard for fashion and her perfectly disarranged hair, and it occurred to me that she was art, so to speak — artifice, theater. And although she talked about spontaneity, she was a marvel of regimentation and control, and never more so than when she was being spontaneous. The two of them couldn’t have been more unalike.

He was vaguely alarming, though. You couldn’t tell what he was thinking; his past and his future were misty and dim, giving you the sort of feeling you get on cheap haunted-house thrill rides at carnivals, where you’re never quite sure what colorful, grimacing thing will leap out at you from behind a plywood partition.

I could see the rear of his house from my backyard, and from there it appeared far larger. It ran back across the deep lot and was a wonder of dormers, gables, and lean-to closets, all of it overshadowed by walnut trees and trumpet flower vines on sagging trellises and arbors. Underneath was a sprawling basement, which at night glowed with lamplight through aboveground transom windows. The muted ring of small hammers and the hum of lathes sounded from the cellar at unwholesomely late hours.

The double doors of his garage were fastened with a rusted iron lock as big as a man’s hand, and he must have had a means by which to enter and leave the garage — and perhaps the house itself — without using any of the visible doors. I rarely saw him out and about. When I did, he sometimes seemed hardly to know me, as if distracted, his mind on mysteries.

Once, while I was out walking, I came across him spading up a strip of earth beneath his kitchen window, breaking the clods apart and pulling iron filings out of them with an enormous magnet. I recalled our distant meeting behind the ice cream truck, but by now he seemed to remember it only vaguely. I took him to be the sort of eccentric genius too caught up in his own meanderings to pay any attention to the mundane world.

He’d started a winter garden there along the side of his house, and a dozen loose heads of red-leaf lettuce grew in the half-shade of the eaves. We chatted amiably enough, about the weather, about gardens. He gave me a sidewise squint and asked if I’d seen any of the alleged “saucers” reported in the newspaper, and I said that I had, or at least that I had seen some saucer or another months ago. He nodded and frowned as if he’d rather hoped I hadn’t, as if the two of us might have sneered at the notion of it together.

A spotted butterfly hovered over the lettuce, alighting now and then and finally settling in “to eat the lettuce alive,” as he put it. He wouldn’t stand for it, he said, and very quietly he plucked up a wiremesh flyswatter that hung from a nail on the side porch, and he flailed away at the butterfly until the head of lettuce it had rested on was shredded. He seemed to think it was funny, particularly so because the butterfly itself had got entirely away, had fluttered off at the first sign of trouble. It was a joke, an irony, a metaphor of something that I didn’t quite catch.

He gave me a paper sack full of black-eyed peas and disappeared into the house, asking after the “young lady” but not waiting for an answer, and then shoving back out through the door to tell me to return the sack when I was through with it, and then laughing and winking and closing the door, and winking again through the kitchen window so that it was impossible to say what, entirely, he meant by the display.

There wasn’t much I could have told him about the “young lady.” Much of what I might have said would already be a reminiscence. The thing that mattered, I suppose, was that she made me weak in the knees, but I couldn’t say so. And she was entirely without that clinging, dependent nature that feeds a man’s vanity at first but soon grows tiresome. Jane always talked as if she had places to go to, people to meet. There was something in the tone of her voice that made such talk sound like a warning, as if I weren’t invited along, or weren’t up to it, or were a momentary amusement, like the May parade, perhaps, and would have to suffice while she was stuck there in that little far-flung corner of the globe.

She wanted to travel to the Orient, to Paris. I wanted to travel, too. It turned out that her plans didn’t exclude me. I would go along — quit work and go, just like that, spontaneously, wearing a beret and a knapsack. And that’s just what I did, finally, although without the beret; I’m not the sort of a man who can wear a hat. I’m too likely to affect the carefree attitude and then regret the hat, or whatever it is I’m wearing, and then whatever it is I’m not wearing but should have. It’s a world of regrets, isn’t it? Jane didn’t think so. She hadn’t any regrets, and said so, and for a while I was foolish enough to admire her saying so. I don’t believe that Captain Hooton would have understood her saying such a thing, let alone have admired it.

I brought around his paper sack, right enough, two days later, and he took it from me solemnly, nodding and frowning. At once he blew it up like a balloon — inflated it until it was almost spherical — and then, waving a finger in order to show me, I suppose, that I hadn’t seen anything yet, he pulled a slip of silver ribbon out of his vest pocket, looped it around the bunched paper at the bottom, and tied it off. He lit a kitchen match with his fingernail and held it to the tails of the ribbon. Immediately the inflated sack began to glow and rocketed away through the curb trees like a blowfish, the ribbons trailing streams of blue sparks. It angled skyward in a rush and vanished.

I must have looked astonished, thinking of the milk carton beneath my tree. He pretended to smoke his pipe with his ear. Then he sighted along the stem as if it were a periscope, and made whirring and clicking sorts of submarine noises with his tongue. Then waggling his shoulders as if generally loosening his joints, he blew softly across the reeking pipe bowl, dispersing the smoke and making a sound uncannily like Peruvian panpipes. He was full of tricks. He suddenly looked very old — certainly above seventy. His hair, which must have been a transplant, grew in patterns like hedgerows, and in the sunlight that shone between the racing clouds, his skin was almost translucent, as if he were a laminated see-through illustration in a modern encyclopedia.

And so one evening late I knocked on the cellar window next to his kitchen door, then stood back on the dewy lawn and waited for him. He was working down there, tinkering with something; I could see his head wagging over the bench.

In a moment he opened the door, having come upstairs. He didn’t seem at all surprised to see me skulking in the yard like that but waved me in impatiently as if he had been waiting for my arrival, maybe for years, and now I’d finally come and there was no time to waste.

The cellar was impossibly vast, stretching away room after room, a sort of labyrinth of low-ceilinged, concrete-floored rooms. I couldn’t be certain of my bearings any longer, but it seemed that the rooms must have been dug beneath the driveway alongside his house as well as under the house itself — maybe under the house next door; and once I allowed for such a thing, it occurred to me that his cellars might as easily stretch beneath my own house. I remembered nights when I had been awakened by noises, by strange creaks and clanks and rattles of the sort that startle you awake, and you listen, your heart going like sixty, while you tell yourself that it’s the house “settling,” but you don’t believe it. And all this time it might have been him, muffled beneath the floor and perhaps a few feet of earth, tapping away at a workbench like a dwarf in his mine.

All of this filled my head when I stood on the edge of his stairs, breathing the musty cellar air. It was late, after all, and a couple of closets with lights casting the shadows of doorways and shelves might have accounted for the illusion of vast size. We wandered away through the clutter, with me in my astonishment only half-listening to him, and despite all the magical debris, what I remember most, like an inessential but vivid element in a dream, was his head ducking and ducking under low, rough-sawn ceiling joists that were almost black with age.

I have a confused recollection of partly built contrivances, some of them moving due to hidden, clockwork mechanisms, some of them sighing and gurgling, hooked up to water pipes curling out of the walls or to steam pipes running in copper arteries toward a boiler that I can’t remember seeing but could hear sighing and wheezing somewhere nearby. There were pendulums and delicate hydraulic gizmos, and on the corner of one bench a gyroscope spun in a little depression, motivated, apparently, by nothing at all. The walls were strewn with charts and drawings and shelves of books, and once, when we bent through a doorway and into a room inhabited by the hovering, slowly rotating hologram of a space vehicle, we surprised a family of mice at work on the remains of a stale sandwich. What did they make, I wonder, of the ghost of the spacecraft? Had they tried to inhabit it, to build a nest in it? Would it have mattered to them that they were inhabiting a dream?

What did I make of it? Here’s Captain Hooton’s airship, I remember thinking. Where’s the bell rope? But it wasn’t his airship, not exactly; the ship itself was in an adjacent room.

The whole thing was a certainty in an instant — the lights in the sky, the odd debris beneath the avocado tree, even the weird pallor of his see-through skin. It had all been his doing all these years. That’s no surprise, I suppose, when it’s taken altogether like this. When all the details are compressed, the patterns are clear.

He had come from somewhere and was going back again. With the lumber of mechanical trash spread interminably across bench tops, and the cluttered walls and the mice, and him with his pipe and hat, he seemed so settled in, so permanent. And yet the continual tinkering and the lights on at all hours made it clear that he was on the edge of leaving — maybe in a week, maybe in the morning, maybe right now; that’s what I thought as I stood there looking at the ship.

It was nearly spherical, with four curved appendages that were a hybrid of wings and legs and that held the craft up off the concrete floor. Circular hatches ringed the ship, each covered with lapped plates that looked as if they’d spiral open to expose a door or a glassed-over window. The metal of the thing was polished to the silver shine of a perfect mirror that stretched our reflections like taffy as I stood listening to him tell me how we were directly under the backyard, and how he would detonate a charge, and one foggy night the ship would sail up out of the ground in a rush of smoke and dirt and be gone, affording the city newspapers their last legitimate saucer story.

I didn’t tell Jane about it. There were a lot of things I couldn’t or wouldn’t tell her. I wanted some little world of my own, which was removed from the world we had together, but which, of course, could be implied now and then for effect, but never revealed lest it seem to her to be amusing. One day soon the papers would be full of it anyway — the noise in the night, the scattered sightings of the heaven-bound craft, the backyard crater. There would be something then in being the only one who knew.

And he no doubt wasn’t anxious that the spaceship became general knowledge. There was no law against it, strictly speaking, but if they’d jailed him for the trick with the flashlight and the paper witch, or rather for refusing to come down out of a tree, then who could say what they might do if they got wind of a flying saucer buried in a cellar?

Then there was the chance that I might be aboard. He was willing to take me along. We talked about it all that night, about the places I’d see and the people I’d meet — a completely different sort of crowd than Jane and I would run into in our European travels.

It was then, about two years after I’d met Jane, that I gave up the house on Pine Street and moved in with her. She was free of school at last and was in an expansive, generous mood, which I’ll admit I took advantage of shamelessly, and when, in early July, she received money from home and bought a one-way ticket to Rome, I bought one, too, only mine was a round-trip ticket with a negotiable return date. That should have bothered her, my having doubts, but it didn’t. She didn’t remark on it at all. From the start it had been my business — another aspect of her modern attitude toward things, an attitude I could neither share nor condemn out loud.

The rest is inevitable. I returned and she didn’t. Captain Hooton was gone, and there was a crater with scorched grass around the perimeter of it in the backyard of his empty house. I might have gone along with him. But I didn’t, and what I get to keep is the memory of it all — the hologram, so to speak, of the ship and of faded desire, having given up the one for the already fading dream of the other.

There’s the image in my mind of a card house built of picture postcards pulled from a rusting wire rack of memories — the sort of thing that even a mouse wouldn’t live in, preferring something more permanent and substantial. But then, nothing is quite as solid as we’d like it to be, and the map of our lives, sketched out across our memory, is of a provincial little neighborhood, crisscrossed with regret and circumscribed by a couple of impassable roads and by splashes of bright color that have begun to fade even before we have them fixed in our memory.



This story copyright © 1989 by James P. Blaylock. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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