This is the third installment of my brief novel, Alien Parade. Previous installments can be found at Yellow Stripes & Dead Armadillos.com
11. Big time
Harriet Sobelman and Samantha Tucker grew up as close childhood friends on the Upper Westside of Manhattan. When it came time for college Sam Tucker chose to follow previous generations of Tucker’s to the University of Wisconsin while Harriet went to Northwestern to study journalism.
Harriet graduated at the top of her class and that combined with family connections landed her a job at The New York Times as a general assignment reporter. She was low on the totem pole but when the Times was the pole you were low on you were, for all intents and purposes, beginning your career higher up then most people ended theirs.
Her friend Sam chose public relations. Director was her title and she was in charge of one-fifth of an entire state. But her program was an underfunded backwater of state government in the Midwest and she directed a staff of one – herself.
She and Harriet had drifted apart as childhood friends usually do. Then one day in early October Sam shared a strange story from a tiny hamlet in Wisconsin that ended up on Harriet’s personal news feed. Mysterious happenings in the mysterious back woods of fly over country and right in time for Halloween.
So, Harriet emailed her old friend and then the two texted back and forth for days before making the serious commitment to actual telephonic voice communication.
“You gotta come out here, Harry! It’s a great story and you and I can hang out. It’ll be a blast.”
“I want to come, but it’s going to be a stretch for my editors to let me. But here’s the thing. Northwestern has homecoming in October. Maybe I could go there for that and then drive up to what is it… Navrick… and catch the festival, do some interviews. Write something up and see if they bite. And the best part is we could see each other.”
Coup! thought Samantha. She had not quite secured coverage of the Narvik Alien Days Festival in the nation’s paper of record, but she was coming close. She could not wait to tell her new friend Claire Kornstedt.
12. Cautionary tale
The two women were sharing what had by now become their weekly old fashioned-laced evening meeting at the Flying Saucer.
Her news spilled out of Sam Tucker like water down the Kickappoo River in a spring flood. Since Thelma Rhude’s story ran earlier that week on the front page of the Narvik News, Sam had had inquiries or had coaxed interest out of the likes of the La Crosse Tribune, Wisconsin State Journal, the Capital Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and, she saved the best for last.. The New York Times.
She dropped the last name casually, no exclamation point. As in, ‘oh, yes, and the Times, The New York Times, not that this is a surprise to a professional like me.’
“My,” said Mayor Claire Kornstedt mulling over her cocktail. “Did we really get the La Crosse Tribune?”
Sam hesitated, then laughed. “Okay, Claire. That’s funny. I’m not sure we’ve got the Times. Just a friend I know who works there. Maybe nothing will come of it.”
Claire raised her glass. “Here’s to you, Sam. Nicely done.” They clinked their heavy glasses.
“Thank you,” said Sam and in those simple words she packed more real gratitude than she had felt toward anyone in a long time. She had come to admire Claire Kornstedt, to almost think of her as the woman she would want to become at 68. Smart, mature, sensible, grounded and respected in a way that can’t be gotten by saying smart things but only by earning it through decades of demonstrated good judgment. A lovely woman in every sense.
“But here’s the thing, Sam. Have you thought about what happens when they all get here?”
“Not much. Why?”
“You’ve never actually been to one of our Alien Days Festivals, I take it.”
“Let me tell you about them.” She conveyed once again, as she had at their first meeting only this time with more detail, the story of the once electrifying Mercer Flying Saucer Chevy and all the costumes among the children and the adults four deep on the sidewalks and Ole Olson looking stoic, a little befuddled and yet beyond reproach as he rode as grand marshal at the head of the parade. She described the Alien Ball at the Nimrod’s gym on the Friday night of the festival with its spiked green Martian Man punch and the giant sheet cake made in the shape of a saucer.
“The Mercer Flying Saucer Chevy hasn’t flown in years, Sam. I think it’s sitting out behind Larry’s barn getting rusty. We haven’t had the ball since, I can’t remember, 1996 or ’97. Anyway, it was after a year when someone spiked the punch with some kind of hallucinogen. Ole hasn’t even come to the parade since Robbie’s dad ousted him as grand marshal. It’s not the same seeing a lawyer at the head of a parade as it is a real celebrity and a curiosity the likes of Ole Olson.”
Sam listened to her glumly as the problem took root and sprouted in her mind. “And the sheet cake?”
“We still have donuts – you know they’re shaped like flying saucers anyway. But we get them with silver frosting and sparkles.”
“Well, that’s something to build on then,” said Sam Tucker and she raised her empty glass and nodded to Pauline behind the bar.
13. Panic mode
It was now just 28 days before the start of the Narvik Alien Days Festival. To be exact, there were traditionally three Alien Days, which were always the final Friday, Saturday and Sunday in October. Those dates corresponded roughly with the UFO sighting on the Olson farm back in 1982 and, in no way coincidentally, with Halloween everywhere. The weekend culminated with the Alien Parade on Sunday afternoon, though the exact time of the parade always had to remain flexible so as not to conflict with kickoff of the Packer game. Sam Tucker had at least one thing going her way. This year the parade coincided with a Packer bye week.
But as for other breaks to be provided by fate or powers akin to the National Football League they were going to be few and far between. Sam Tucker had created great expectations in the virtual world and in what was left of the real one. A spotlight was about to be shown upon Narvik, her most challenging charge in the world of rural economic development. And if that bright light revealed a tired, sad, aging town, well, then it would have been better had she not flicked the switch at all.
Upon contemplation during a sleepless night after her drinks with Claire she understood that the mayor, politely and just through the reservation in her manner and the things she did not say, was telling Sam all of these things. And, to make it all so much worse, she was telling her something else. Claire was telling her young friend that she had faith in her, that somehow she believed that Sam would conjure up the best Alien Days in decades just in time for the town’s star turn. In this, Sam thought to herself, there was no pressure.
In her sleeplessness Sam did what she often did to regain control of a situation. She made a list. And the first thing on that list was to go see Larry Mercer.
Now at mid-morning and fortified by strong coffee, Sam Tucker drove out to Mercer’s Auto Body on County K. It was another chilly, cloudy morning and the sky promised one of those flat days when two in the afternoon feels not at all different from eight in the morning.
The property outside the building was strewn with old cars and trucks and pieces of old vehicles of all kinds. It was, essentially, a junkyard. But inside, the shop was surprisingly well ordered. Not neat, exactly, but much less chaotic than the grounds outside the front door would have predicted.
In the waiting area a man sat alone in a metal and plastic chair reading Deer & Deer Hunting Magazine. As Sam walked in he looked up at her over his reading glasses. She noticed the white name tag patch sewn on the pocket of his blue cotton shirt. “Larry.”
“Are you Mr. Mercer?”
“Nobody here answers to that name. I’m Larry, though,” and he pointed to the name on his pocket.
“The owner?” Sam chided herself for the dumb question.
Larry Mercer was a man of generous spirit so he ignored the dumbness of the question. He spread out his arms holding the deer hunting magazine in one hand and his readers in the other. “All this is mine,” he said.
Sam introduced herself and explained her job.
“Yep, heard of ya. Claire and Joe speak highly of you. So, how can I help make Narvik great again?”
Before she could get started, Larry interrupted.
“’Course, I say ‘again.’ But the truth is that Narvik never really was great. But there was a day when it was sort of adequate. Still, I don’t suppose that ‘Make Narvik Mediocre Again’ will inspire many people.”
Sam gave a light chuckle. “The thing is…”
Larry interrupted again.
“Then again it seems to me that ‘great’ is over rated in any event. Narvik never had those pretensions. Not really. Great, that’s for places like Redding. They have a very high opinion of themselves up in Redding. All those big houses on the ridge tops looking down at us down here in the valleys. No, in Narvik we have valley type people. Closer to the earth, know what I mean?”
“Yes, I think…”
“Now, the alien thing, that was different. In my opinion, Ole Olson and all that just made Narvik confused about what it was. New York Times. CBS News. Charles Kuralt. We started thinking we were something special. Kind of spoiled the place. I like it better this way.”
Sam waited to see if the lecture had ended before starting again in earnest. He looked at her in silence. She looked at him.
“Excuse me, Mr. Mercer. Larry. Excuse me, but I’m told you built the flying saucer that was the very highlight of the Alien Parade.”
Larry chuckled. “Yeah, yeah. That was me. Some people didn’t get the joke. I was just mocking the whole thing. Plus I like to screw around with a blow torch and it was sort of a challenge. Would you like to see it?”
“The saucer? Yes! Is it here?”
Larry led Sam out the back door to an old barn. He pulled back a tarp covered in dust and bat dung and there it was, the Flying Saucer Chevy.
“Well, done!” said Samantha. “But it doesn’t run?”
“Well, that depends on what you mean by ‘run’. I suppose I could get it started but I don’t have any confidence that I could drive it all the way into Narvik and keep it in the parade without having it stall out. And the last thing anybody needs is a stalled out alien spacecraft being dragged at the end of a parade. Sort of dampens the whole mood.”
“I see,” said Sam. “What would it take to get it running reliably again?”
“Oh, a fella would have to lift the engine and that means getting this whole darn saucer cowling off first. It’d be a hellavu job. I’d charge a couple thousand dollars for a job like that if I wasn’t doing it for myself. No, it’s not worth it.”
Sam’s mind raced through the requirements to access the various small pots of money in several Home Town marketing programs. Anything would be a stretch and, anyway, there wasn’t time to jump through all the hoops.
Sam smiled her best damsel smile. She most certainly was in distress. “Wouldn’t it be fun though to get it out one more time?”
“No,” said Larry Mercer not in a mean way but in a way that was meant to convey conviction. “It’d be a hell of a pain in the ass and it’s not a priority.”
Sam looked around and wondered what exactly was a priority these days at the Mercer Body Shop. An uncomfortable moment passed where it seemed that Larry was wondering the same thing.
“And anyway,” he added. “It’s October. I go duck hunting in October.”
14. Dance, dance, dance
Sam left it at that with Larry Mercer. She wasn’t giving up though. At their next meeting she would see what the mayor could do for her.
She drove back into town for a late morning appointment with the high school principal, Tom Neujahr, a man in his late 40’s whose body was the product of many bake sales. His girth made his tie not so much hang from his neck as rest on his stomach, even when he was standing.
After the usual introductions he sat down and swung his chair around to face away from his guest. Hunched over his old laptop, which sat on his credenza, he tapped away in silence for several minutes. Sam reminded herself that she had just asked him to check the availability of school facilities, not break the nation’s nuclear launch codes.
Finally, still looking at his computer, he said, “Ms. Tucker, I’m sorry but there appears to be a varsity basketball game that Saturday night in the gym. But we could let you have the cafeteria. It’s smaller, but the windows look out on the track.”
Sam remembered advice she had heard from political consultants that her family sometimes worked with: always go too small rather than too big. A hundred people in a room set up for fifty felt like it was bursting at the seams and the campaign was wildly successful. Put the same 100 people in a cavern and everything looks pathetic.
“We’ll take it!” she said. Finally, something had gone right in her effort to revive Alien Days.
As she filled out the paper work, Tom Neujahr reminisced about alien dances gone by. “It’s where I met my wife. I was dressed as a Martian – not too creative — but she came from Saturn. Had these big rings, which were really hoola hoops, attached to her waist. But then the next year, that was the year of the hallucinogenic punch and, well, that was the end of that. Which reminds me, are you planning to serve alcoholic beverages?”
It was Wisconsin. It was a festival. And it would be a Saturday night. The answer was yes.
“Oh.” The principal sat back behind his desk. “That’s a problem.”
Sam looked up from her paper work.
“See, it’s the basketball game. After the punch incident the school board passed a bunch of new policies. Well, one of ‘em was that you can’t have any magic mushrooms or stuff like that on premises, but I’m sure that wasn’t in your plans anyway. But there’s another one that says you can’t have any alcohol at all in the school while children are present. And problem is there’s a basketball game that night so children will be present.”
“But that’s in the gym and the dance will be in the cafeteria.”
“Doesn’t matter to the school board. It’s under the same roof.”
“Can I get an exception?”
“You’d have to go directly to the school board. I’m pretty sure the whole board would have to vote on it.”
“What are my chances?”
“Don’t know.” He thought for a second looking down at the food stains on his tie. “But it would help if you could get the sheriff on your side. Do you know Harold Rhude?”
“Seems all roads lead to you, sheriff.”
“Do they now?” Sheriff Harold Rhude seemed amused.
“May I have your support for the temporary liquor license?”
“Ms. Tucker, do you know what the number one fatal crime is in Ottawa County?”
Sam shrugged. “Murder?”
“We haven’t had a murder in this county in 22 years. No, it’s O. W. I.,” he said. “Operating while intoxicated. There’s not much to do socially around here so when people want to be social they get together and drink. Then they drive home. I could describe some early Sunday morning crash scenes I’ve been at, but I won’t. It’s not pleasant.”
“I get it, sheriff. But you’re civically minded. You care about Narvik. You grew up there. And you know Narvik is dying. Everybody’s getting old. The kids move away and never come back. All it’s got is a couple churches and the school and the Flying Saucer. And you’ve heard the talk about the school consolidation with Redding. It’s only a matter of time before the town loses that too and then it’s pretty much all over.”
The sheriff nodded. “A town without a school won’t be a town for long. And you’re going to save it with aliens and a liquor license.”
“Every town needs a center, a reason for it to exist. Maybe that used to be feed mills or a train station or some small factory. But that’s mostly gone now. What’s left is an idea. An identity. Something to build around.”
“Yes, aliens. And why not? It feeds the imagination and people need to have their imaginations fed. Of course, I don’t think it’s real. That’s not the point. Just the idea that there might be aliens out there gets us to think about how we look from the outside. It forces us to take stock, to look around, the way you do at your living room before you have company. And if we don’t like what we see, well, maybe it’s what we need to tidy the place up a little bit.”
Sam couldn’t help but let out a little smile. She had rehearsed that speech all the way over to the sheriff’s office and, she had to admit, she had delivered it splendidly.
Harold Rhude smiled back at her. Then he leaned back in his chair and looked over Sam’s head. “I used to feel passionately about things. Certain things. Now I spend a lot of time figuring out my retirement benefits. Except I don’t really know what I’ll do when I start collecting them.”
He snapped out of his reverie and leveled his eyes on Sam. “If you think that bringing back Alien Days will put some life back in Narvik and you need some booze at a dance to help with that then I think you’re… well, let’s just say optimistic. But I won’t stand in your way. With some conditions. Serve no alcohol after midnight and find a way to keep people there for another hour or so if you can. Require designated drivers. Make sure everybody’s sobered up before they get behind a wheel. Understood?”
“Thank you, sheriff.”
“But you know that even with my support you still have to get this by Emily.”
“Emily Meister. School board president. Very serious. Very pure in her convictions. Whatever she says about this the rest of the school board will go along with just out of fear.”
Sam’s shoulders slumped. Every time she thought she had crossed a finish line she looked up to see someone holding the tape another 100 feet away. But she dutifully added to her list. “Get Emily Meister on board with booze.”
16. Harrison Boyd
“I’ll talk to Emily,” said Mayor Claire Kornstedt. “Any luck with Larry?”
The mayor was having lunch with Sam Tucker at Bauman’s, their usual haunt when dining in Bosshardt, the Ottawa County seat. Sam explained Larry Mercer’s reluctance to invest time into reviving the Flying Saucer Chevy.
Claire made a note. “I’ll have Joe Ellsted talk to him. The village does some business at Larry’s body shop. Maybe Joe can work something out. By the way, I think you’re doing wonderfully, Sam, I really do.”
“Thanks, Claire. I’m not so sure. Even if we can get past these hurdles what we’ve got is a dance in a high school cafeteria and a lame parade featuring a limping old Chevy covered in reclaimed metal from an old silo.”
“An old silo? Is that where Larry got it? I never knew that! It adds to the mystique, don’t you agree?”
“Oh, don’t think I haven’t fed that into social media.” But Sam still sat glumly in their dark booth. “Now we’re down to 22 days and this still doesn’t feel awesome.”
“It’s becoming more awesome every day thanks to you, Sam. I’m sure it’ll be ‘totally awesome’ when it gets here.”
“Don’t mock me, Claire. We need something else. Something more. Something that’ll create some real excitement.”
Claire put her soup spoon down. “Let me think. That first year in 1983 we had the dance and the parade, of course. But we had a program on Friday night, too.”
“Yes, and of course we had a fish fry.”
“Everybody’s got a fish fry. Tell me about the show.”
“Oh, it wasn’t a show at all. It was a very serious lecture by… I don’t remember his name. Some sort of UFO person. An expert. He was from California or Arizona or Oregon. Someplace where they take these things seriously. Oh, it was a big deal. People were packed in like sardines. We had to move it from the cafeteria to the gym at the high school.”
“Hmm. Do you think this guy is still around? Could we get him back?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t know. He was young at the time, though.”
The next day back in Narvik, Sam went to see Narvik News editor Thelma Rhude in her office. Thelma knew exactly who the mayor meant. She quickly found the old clipping.
“Harrison Boyd,” she said. “Professor Harrison Boyd. Although I never knew if he was a real professor or just called himself that. He was from New Mexico.”
She handed Sam the clipping, which contained a large photo of a man with longish dark hair and a beard in a turtleneck sweater and tweed jacket. His arm was extended as he made a point. There was a blackboard behind him on which he had apparently drawn something that looked like a space ship. Three stiff looking men sat behind a folding table next to the blackboard.
The headline read, UFO Expert: Olson Claim Could Be Real.
Sam looked more closely at the picture and its caption. The three men in the picture were Trygve and Ole Olson and a very young Sheriff Harold Rhude, in his first term of office.
Sam read the full article. “This is freakin’ great!” she said when she was finished. “This is eggs-zactly what we need. I’ve gotta track down Harrison Boyd.”
5 thoughts on “Alien Parade: Installment 3”
I’m enjoying the story.
One huge detail though. Lots of cities have an Upper Westside. However, if you’re talking about the area in Manhattan where John and Yoko lived and the hallowed ground on which Zabar’s rests, then it’s the Upper West Side. Not as bad a mistake as calling one of the boroughs “Bronx” — but close.
Thank you. I’m interested in getting any kind of feedback, whether important details like this or comments about the structure or substance of the story. Kind of crowd source editing. And as for the Upper West Side, I should know better. Whenever we visit New York, and it’s been too long, we stay in that part of town. I know Zabar’s well.
I should have mentioned too that the musical is “West Side Story”, not “Westside Story”. But that’s beating a dead horse already.
Hi Dave. I just finished reading installment 3 of your very charming book! Thank you for sending it out and giving your readers some fun and more than a few laughs. I look forward to the rest…
I’m working with Little Creek Press in Mineral Point and plan on publishing my memoir in early spring. I’m just about finished with updating it to make it more relevant to our current chaos.
I always look forward to reading your comments.
Looking forward reading it, Janice. Hope you do an author event at Mystery to Me.