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We Are You

by Jack Phillips Lowe

part 3 of 6

I plopped into the chair across from Bud and uncapped my ballpoint. “Now we’re in business! So tell me, what are you really working on? What brought you to Farmingdale, of all places?” This had to be something big.

“Ease up there, cowboy,” Bud said. “This isn’t an interview, I’m just telling a little story. You may not find it usable. But before I begin, let me ask you a question.”

“There’s a switch. Go ahead.” I thought he wanted me to change names and protect identities.

“Out of all the people who come in here, why did you pick me for a subject for your blog?”

“That’s simple. Once they found out what I was doing, everyone was itching to blab their guts out. Everyone has Jerry Springer’s Disease, running off at the mouth with nothing to say. You were the only one who clammed up. I figured you had one hell of a tale to tell. Or you were a criminal.”

Bud nearly swallowed his teeth. “Criminal? Only criminally tolerant of your nonsense, I’m afraid. Just do me one favor. When you post this on your blog, write it plainly, like I’m going to tell it. Don’t Oliver Stone things around.”

“On my honor, plain and true.” I noted in my spiral: Subject has typical eccentric’s conflict — need for acknowledgment & desire for privacy.

Bud folded his arms. “All right, then. This story might push the envelope in places, but I swear it’s one-hundred percent fact.”

I wrote a short list on my page: People, Us,

“I claimed to be a regular guy catching up on some office work. I admit now that I lied to you. I lied, simply because I couldn’t tell you the truth. I had to feel you out first. I had to be sure that you had the curiosity and drive to hear the real truth, know that you could handle all the details. You see, I’m a non-regular guy, about as non-regular as you can get.”

“Aha!” I exclaimed. “You’re a transsexual! I knew something was up. I could hear it in your voice. Score one for instinct.”

“Then you’ve got the instinct of a jackass, because that’s not it!” Bud growled. “A real reporter knows when to shut up and listen. Are you a reporter or a blithering idiot?”

I kept quiet. There was real anger in his voice and it pleased me. Anger disables defense mechanisms. If he had a story, I’d get it then.

“As I was saying, I’m a very non-regular guy. And I’m on a mission. A pretty extraordinary mission.”

I was tempted to say “from God” but managed to curb my tongue. “A mission? You mean military work?”

“I’d call it government work, but it’s more complex than that.”

“Can you be more specific? Is it the FBI, the CIA?”

Bud scratched his chin. “I didn’t say the U.S. government.”

“So you’re a foreigner, huh?” I crossed out my first list and wrote a new one: Homeland Security, New York Times, Washington Post? Pulitzer Prize!!

“It’s not a government from here.” Bud pointed to the floor.

I did the same, shaking my head. “Here?”

“From Earth.”

The punch line took a moment to sink in. When it did, I threw down my pen. “Ashton, you can come out now! Where are you, Ashton?”

Bud did a serviceable job of pretending to be confused. “Who’s Ashton?”

“I’ve been ‘punked.’ You ‘punked’ me. This is some spin-off version that pranks normal people, right? I thought I smelled Hollywood. Where’s the camera?”

“There’s no camera. I’m not joking. I’m serious.”

It was my turn to walk away. I gathered my stuff and went back behind the counter. “Look dude, I may have been born at night, but I wasn’t born last night. If you don’t mind, I’ve got coffee beans to grind.”

Bud motioned me back to the table. “Wait a minute. You press me for a story and now, you’re brushing me off? How unprofessional. A real reporter doesn’t let skepticism get in between him and the news.”

I sulked back to my chair. “You got a point. Let’s have it.” In my spiral, I crossed out my second list and started a third: Psychology Today, Newsweek.

Bud pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped soy milk off his upper lip. “You’ve just got to run with this, Quiz. I promise it’ll all make sense in the end. I work for a government from another planet.”

“So you said. Which one, Krypton?”

“No, wise-ass, that’s two galaxies over. You never heard of it. It’s unknown to Earthlings.”

“‘Earthlings,’” I scoffed.

“Okay, humans, don’t know it exists yet. I’m trying to phrase this in terms you can understand.”

I thought the guy was nuts. But there was something so matter-of-factual, so sincere in his demeanor, as if he truly believed it himself. I figured a wacko might be newsworthy, if only for being wacky, so I decided to humor him. For a while. “Where is your planet? What’s it called?”

“It’s in the Kuiper Belt, a short hop southwest of Pluto. We call it R Planet.”

“NASA has all kinds of satellites buzzing around up there. How can we not know about Planet R?”

“R Planet. You guys came close to finding us two or three years ago. Do you remember a news report about how a NASA probe photographed what your astronomers thought was a loose ball of gas, hanging out on the edge of your solar system?”

“Uh-uh. I don’t watch the Discovery Channel.”

“Look it up. They, the arrogant twits, called it ‘Nusquam.’ That’s Latin for ‘not anywhere.’ The so-called gas ball was us.”

“But our satellites are super high-tech. They’ve got cameras that could spot a pimple on Yoda’s nose. How could they miss you?”

“Our high-tech is higher than your high-tech. We didn’t want to become one of your McPlanets, so we laid low.”

“Oh, I get it. You used a kind of ‘cloaking device,’ like they have on Star Trek.”

Bud drained his cup. “No. Something quite ingeniously simpler. R Planet is covered in smog. The air pollution from our industries just makes it resemble a gas ball. Lucky us, huh? Garçon, refill me, please.”

I took his cup, ran back around the counter, topped it off and returned. “You know I’m not buying any of this. You’re full of it.”

“Who’s full of — doodie?” said a voice.

In the doorway stood a breathing cliché of a police officer. Jut jaw, crew cut and gym-rat physique, all wrapped up in navy blue. A crackling radio clipped to his belt filled the air around him with chatter. In one hand, he gripped an insulated travel mug emblazoned with Dick Tracy’s profile.

“Why, Officer Vega, come on in!” I said, standing to greet him.

“Don’t get up. You know what I’m here for,” said Vega. Planting his free hand on the counter, he vaulted over it in one fluid move.

“Bud, this is Officer Mark Vega of the Farmingdale Police Department,” I said, gesturing toward the muscle-bound figure rummaging behind the counter.

Bud smiled and waved. “My pleasure, Officer.”

“Vega, this is my friend, Bud. He’s an alien from another planet.”

Vega filled his Dick Tracy mug from an urn in back and took a sip. “Hmm, what is this? French roast?”

I gulped. “Vega, I said —”

“I heard, dumb — dumbo,” answered Vega. “What else is new in this nut house? Hardly working as usual, eh? Wait till I tell the boss you were fuc — screwing, around on company time.”

“We’re not screwing around, Officer,” said Bud. “Quiz and I are merely having a friendly conversation. I’m a regular customer here. I’m sure the boss wouldn’t mind.”

My eyes darted back and forth between Bud and Vega. “Hey, Sipkowicz, did you hear me?”

“‘Quiz,’ is that what you’re calling yourself now? I get it, you’re being ‘ironic’ again. Still playing that game. But it’s still not funny you little co–, I mean, egg-sucker,” said Vega. He helped himself to a handful of Sweet n’ Low packets from a case under the counter. “Wasn’t funny in high school, ain’t funny now.”

“You guys are old school chums?” asked Bud.

“No,” I said. “Mark used to shake me down for my lunch money each day between fourth and fifth periods.”

Vega lumbered out from behind the counter. “Laugh it up, Captain Giggles. I don’t deny my past. At least I’ve made something of myself. Some of us are still scribbling in notebooks and not getting la — uh, to know females intimately.”

“Officer,” said Bud, “I don’t mean to pry, but why do you keep censoring yourself? It’s just us guys here. There’s no need to hold your tongue.”

“That’s because Mark swears compulsively,” I said. “At least he did until recently, according to his sergeant, another customer of ours. Mark’s girlfriend teaches at a local Catholic school and she’s a true believer. Old Mark visited there on Career Day and dropped the f-bomb, right in front of her 3rd Grade class. That night, Pearl Pureheart neutered him. He’s been sporting the halo ever since.”

Vega slammed the sweetener packets to the floor. “Galldang it, I told you to lay off! Pearl’s the light of my life and you won’t disrespect her in my presence! She has reconnected me to my faith. Slander her again and I’ll rip your lungs out!”

I pressed my hands together and looked skyward. “Such piety!”

“Guys, please,” said Bud. “Officer, I’m sure you’ve got better things to do. Don’t let us keep you.”

“You’re darned right, I do,” said Vega. “Now get your — butt over here and ring me up.”

“You can tell Vega’s found religion,” I said, jumping on the register. “Before, he’d just skip out without paying.”

I rang Vega up and the register spat out his receipt. I grabbed a pencil and flipped the receipt over. Bud is a psycho! Escaped from loony bin? HELP! I wrote, and handed the receipt to the cop.

Vega stuffed the receipt in his shirt pocket and headed for the exit. He took hold of the door-handle, opened it, paused and turned to me.

“My friend, you are a lost soul,” he said, as the steam from his coffee mug wafted to the ceiling. “You know where the church is. Redemption is yours for the asking, every Sunday morning at nine.” Vega stepped outside and was gone.

If buttheads could fly, Mark Vega would have wings. Yet I would’ve given anything to walk out of there with him. I would’ve even followed him to church.

“It, you said?” asked Bud.

“Pardon?” I said, watching Vega’s squad car pull out of the parking lot.

“You said I was full of it,” Bud said. “No, not it.” He swirled the beige liquid in his cup, like some snooty wine expert. “Soy milk, the nectar of your gods. Open your mind, Quiz. Only bias stands between ignorance and understanding.”

Back in my chair, I cracked my knuckles and picked up my pen. “Let’s see, we’ve got smog, gas ball, R Planet. What’s the ‘R’ stand for?”

Bud snickered. “This, you won’t believe. Seriously, you’re going to flip. Some of the less-talented comedians at home are still mining this one for yuks. The ‘R’ is short for ‘Our.’”

“Say what?”

“O-U-R. Our Planet. It’s just easier to write the letter ‘R.’” Bud shook with laughter.

Maybe, I thought, he’d had a breakdown of some kind. Something stress-related. I figured if I appealed to common sense, sprung a logistical trap on him, it might bring Bud back to reality.

“If R Planet is way out near Pluto,” I wondered, “it must be damn cold. How could you survive there? And how did you get down here? Hitch a ride on a shooting star?”

“It’s cold in Duluth, too, and people live there. And the proper term for what you’re referring to is ‘comet.’ But I can’t say that I did. Good idea, though. I’ll keep it in mind for the trip home.”

I scanned Bud’s face for signs of tension or uncertainty, the signals a liar sends as he brainstorms to cover the gaps. His brow was sweat-free and his eyes were fixed on me. Bud was one cool customer. Either that, or he was totally delusional.

“My General Science teacher in college once said that it would take eight months to travel to Mars one-way. Your planet is even farther away, yet you’re in here every week. I haven’t heard of any UFO reports lately. How do you make the commute, with Captain Kirk’s teleporter?”

Bud frowned. “Science fiction references are our equivalent to racial slurs and I resent them. I’m glad this isn’t a restaurant. You’d be building models out of mashed potatoes by now, wouldn’t you?”

I nibbled my pen. This dude was crazy, but slick. “Point made. But you haven’t answered my question.”

Bud took another drink of that bitter goop. “Go to the window. Look across the street and then look up. The answer is there.”

* * *

To be continued...

Copyright © 2008 by Jack Phillips Lowe

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