Sam sipped Darla’s strong coffee as she waited in her kitchen for Martin Boyd to finish his afternoon’s meditation upstairs in his room.
Darla couldn’t suppress a smirk at the expense of her friend.
“Wipe that off your face, Darla,” snapped Sam while she sipped and stared at the old linoleum on the kitchen floor and did not look at her friend. She could feel the smirk.
“Oh, Sam. C’mon, girl friend. Where’s your sense of humor? You didn’t see this coming? And how does it matter? Yeah, Martin Boyd’s a loon. Stop the freakin’ presses, man. Like everybody in town didn’t know that from the day he showed up unannounced. You think he didn’t really need the $2,500? For cryin’ out loud, the only scandal here is that our sheriff actually spent tax dollars investigating the guy. Like, from the land of duh!”
Sam continued to study the floor. “I didn’t tell you the best news yet. I heard from Harriet. She’s coming. We’re going to get coverage in the New York freakin’ Times. Oh, for Christ sake.”
“And why isn’t that great news?”
“It’s not great, Darla, because it’s one thing to be a quirky, friendly, Midwestern town that’s in on it’s own joke. It’s another story – I mean literally another story – if a guy with a comparative literature degree from High Chaparral College gets paid by Narvik to come tell them that a crazy old farmer really has had a close encounter with aliens. That’s not funny. It’s a fine line between delightfully quirky and laughing stock and I think we just freakin’ crossed it!”
“I thought Ole paid for Martin’s fee.”
“Oh, yeah, like that makes it better. Crazy old eccentric farmer comes up with $2,000 from his mattress to pay ‘professor charlatan’ to confirm his own delusions!” Sam thought for a second. “And now that you bring it up, $500 did come from Narvik. Claire wiped out her travel account. Oh, that’s just great. Now, Claire’s going to get crucified for blowing public money on a scam artist who, worse, really might believe his own scam.”
Darla walked over to Sam and gently took the cup from her hand. “I think we’ve had enough caffeine for one afternoon, don’t you agree, Sam?”
At that moment they heard rustling upstairs. Apparently, meditation hour was over.
“Now, Sam,” said Darla. “Be gentle with him. He may be crazy but he’s the star of your show. You can’t afford to have him storming out of here.”
Sam glared at her friend and was still glaring as Martin Boyd creaked his way down the old stairs to the kitchen.
“Samantha, good to see you. Did you see Thelma’s story in the News?”
For a moment Darla and Sam stared into each other’s eyes. Darla mouthed the word, “Gentle”.
Sam cleared her throat. “I did, Dr. Boyd. I read it.”
“Well, are you intrigued?”
“I’d say that’s half of what I am.”
“And the other half?”
“Dr. Boyd. Martin. Flub it, I’m just going to call you Martin. Martin, let me be blunt. We didn’t pay you to do an investigation of anything.”
Under her breath Darla muttered, “So much for gentle.”
“No?” asked Martin.
“No. Martin, look. You should know this as well as anybody. We’re paying you to put on a show.”
“A show? You said you wanted me to be authentic.”
“Yes! “Authentic!” she said enthusiastically using air quotes. “But not really authentic.”
“You mean authentic but like I really don’t mean it.”
“Well, I can’t do that. I have my integrity to think about.”
“Your integrity? Your flubbin’ integrity? You’re a comparative literature major from High Chatterbury College.”
“I have a doctorate, Ms. Tucker. And the institution is High Chaparral.”
“Was! Was! It was until it went out of business. You’ve got a degree that has nothing to do with aliens, or even astronomy for cryin’ out loud, from some two bit weed school in the mountains that went up in smoke with it’s alumni.”
Darla hung in the doorway of her kitchen. She knew the polite thing to do would be to busy herself in some other part of the house, but this was just too good.
Dr. Martin Boyd was the kind of man who, when he became agitated, did not shout, but did the very opposite. He became very calm and his voice became very soft. This irritated Sam even more.
“Ms. Tucker, let’s set aside the issue of my qualifications, which are manifest. Something in this morning’s article has you concerned. Let’s talk about what it is.”
“It’s not just the article, Martin. It’s the sheriff. You’ve talked to him?”
“Right. And you’ve led him – a man who is well-respected in this town – to believe you are loony toons. You’ve led him to believe that you really think Ole Olson has seen aliens.”
“No. He hasn’t seen them. But they’re responsible for rearranging his woodpile.”
“Same flubbin’ thing! Even you can’t really believe that, Martin. It’s a fine line we’re paying you for. On the one hand, you have to give them enough to get them in the door and to entertain them. On the other hand, we’ll come off as total hicks if it sounds like you actually believe this shit. Say what you need to say, but say it with a twinkle in your eye.”
“Yes. A twinkle. A wink. A nod. Like you’re in on the joke. Like we’re all in on the joke.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why the freakin’ not?!”
“Because it’s not a joke to Ole Olson.”
28. Drowning sorrows
“That’s your third old fashioned, dear,” said Claire Kornstedt from her usual chair at their usual table at the Saucer.
“My God, Claire. Don’t you see? Martin Boyd has lost track of his irony.”
“He always had a wink in his eye.”
“Yes! And we are paying for that wink. I want the wink back. We have people coming from the New York Times. If Harriet doesn’t see that we’re making fun of ourselves she’ll think we’re really nuts. And friend or not, she’ll write it.”
“Oh, it’ll be fine, Sam. If we can’t have sanity around here, then let’s have crazies who really mean what they say. It might be refreshing.”
“I don’t see why you’re so cool about it, Claire. Your ass is right in the middle of this whole thing. You put $500 of Narvik taxpayer’s hard earned money into this nut job. Doesn’t that worry you?”
“Not really. What’s the worst that can happen? I don’t get re-elected or maybe I don’t run for re-election anyway. Maybe Robbie Porter will decide to take my job instead of the sheriff’s. Good. It’d serve him right.”
“Then if you don’t care about your job, how about your reputation?”
“My reputation? Oh, my dear, I don’t worry much about what people think of me. I’ve done my part. I’ve put in my time for my community. People know that. If I spent $500 of the public’s money unwisely, why, I expect that most of my neighbors will think that I was just trying anything for Narvik. Trying literally to keep the lights on. Throwing a, you know, an Our Father.”
“A Hail Mary.”
“Whatever. This town needs some prayers. We’re trying, you and I. And if we screw up in our efforts, well, flub ‘em, as you would say, Sam. They can all flub themselves and go straight to hell.” And with that she nodded at Pauline behind the bar.
29. Aliens among us
“I submit the following for your consideration.”
It was Friday evening, opening night of the 36th annual Narvik Alien Days Festival. On stage at the packed high school auditorium, Dr. Martin Boyd spoke in a deep, resonate voice. Boyd wore a tweed jacket over a quilted vest with the collar turned up, freshly pressed blue jeans, brown cowboy boots. He looked like a Rocky Mountain academic. Perhaps like a man with a degree from a place like High Chaparral College.
On a large screen behind him PowerPoint slides popped up one by one.
“One. Firewood is stacked on the Olson farm and Mr. Olson swears in an affidavit filed with me that he did not stack it.” A photo of the most famous cord of firewood in Wisconsin is on the screen.
“Two. Said firewood is arranged in such a way as to form a gentle arc.” A photo taken along the arc pops up.
“Three. When one stands at one end of the arc and aligns his gaze directly over the other end, by my calculations, he will be facing directly at sunset on the winter solstice. Much like Stonehenge.” A split screen. One a photo of Stonehenge. The other of the firewood arc with a line superimposed pointing to the horizon.
“Four. Said firewood will not burn.” A photo of one piece of the wood with a match touched to it, not burning the wood.
“I have interviewed all the principals. I have surveyed the site thoroughly. I have reviewed the literature.
“I have every reason to believe that Mr. Olson is telling the truth.” In the front row, wearing his best flannel shirt, Ole seemed to beam at the vindication from Dr. Martin Boyd.
“So. Who then could have stacked the wood? And why would they have done it just so? And why won’t it burn?”
Martin Boyd paused for effect.
“I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.”
A murmur cut through the audience. Sam Tucker couldn’t decide to be angry or elated. On the one hand, Martin would not embarrass her or Narvik. On the other hand, really? All this for nothing?
But then he went on.
“No. I do not have answers. But I know this.”
The crowd hushed again. Everyone seemed to lean forward in unison. ‘Oh, dear lord,’ thought Sam.
“I do know this,” repeated the good doctor. “When aliens visited Narvik in 1982… they didn’t all leave.”
The crowd broke into shocked titters. Boyd shouted over the crowd.
“No, they didn’t all leave. My evidence suggests that one of them is among us and has been among us for 36 years. And that’s who arranged the wood on the Olson farm!”
In the front row, right next to Ole, Sam had placed placards reading “Reserved For Press.” She had reserved ten seats, but only five were occupied. Representatives were present from local radio station WPRX, The La Crosse Tribune, a stringer for a Madison alternative weekly, and of course the Narvik News and the The New York Times.
When Martin Boyd concluded his presentation, Times reporter Harriet Sobelman’s hand shot up.
“Dr. Boyd. Who do you suspect is the alien?” asked Harriet with a smirk that Sam Tucker could feel even in the back of the auditorium where she stood. By this point, Sam was past caring. She saw Narvik being made a laughing stock in the national press, its moment of fame reduced to a series of jokes at its expense. She saw Claire being raked over the coals and maybe hounded from office. And she saw her own career in tatters. The woman who brought Martin Boyd and ridicule to Narvik.
The nice thing about it all, thought Sam, is that with everything now destroyed she just didn’t have to give a damn. It was like being dead and looking down at the proceedings from above. Yeah, Harriet, she thought. Good question. Who is the alien?
Boyd cleared his throat. “I don’t know anything for a fact and so it would be irresponsible for me to speculate aloud. But I’ve decided to stay in Narvik until I can be certain and then I’ll turn over what I know to the local authorities.”
Another titter ran through the audience. This wasn’t over. It would get even better!
“Of course,” Boyd went on. “I should caution everyone that the alien does not have to be someone who arrived at the time of the landing. It’s quite possible that our visitor simply took up residence in an individual who was already here.
“And there’s one more important thing we know about this person. Let’s call it “he” though I wouldn’t presume to know its gender. He will be nice.”
“How do we know that?” asked enterprising reporter Thelma Rhude.
“Reason. Logic. Simple math,” replied Dr. Martin Boyd. “Look at it this way. There are maybe 100 billion stars in our own galaxy, the Milky Way, which for all intents and purposes is the only one of the millions of galaxies that matters to us since it’s the only one close enough for alien life to get here.
“Those 100 billion stars probably have something like 50 billion planets in their orbits. And of those perhaps one percent are in the habitable zone where water in its liquid form – a precondition for life – is possible. So, that’s around 500 million planets that could contain life. So, I ask you, what are the chances that none of them do?”
“Yes, doctor,” said New Your Times reporter Harriet Sobleman. “Fine. But what’s that got to do with the Narvik alien being kind?” Harriet had to smirk at her own question, but she made a note for her story. “The Narvik alien.”
“I’m getting to that. With so many chances for intelligent life, why have there been so few verified visits to earth? I think the answer is obvious.” He paused to allow elbows to move to knees in his audience.
“Nuclear war. You see, long before a civilization ever gets to the point where it can develop the technology to make advanced space travel possible it will have learned to split the atom. From that will come nuclear weapons and from nuclear weapons will come extinction.
“So, almost all civilizations carry the seeds of their own destruction. Therefore, the only civilizations that evolve to the point where they could reach us must have developed advanced methods to achieve peace. They worked through their nuclear period without blowing themselves up. Logic demands that our visitor, whoever he is, must be kind.”
Harriet couldn’t let it go. “But if he’s kind why is he here? Wouldn’t ‘logic demand’ that the only reason to explore other planets is to scout them out for exploitation?”
“Not necessarily,” answered the good doctor. “We went to the moon. We’ve sent probes to Mars and Venus, knowing before hand that none of those places could be habitable or profitably mined for anything. Humankind needs to explore for its own sake. It’s a natural desire. It’s just that the alien visiting us comes from a society that has developed better vehicles for it.”
At the back of the room Sam Tucker was beginning to recover. Maybe there was a way to snatch something positive from all this wreckage strewn around her.