32. Party prep
Sam arrived at the school cafeteria at noon to assemble her volunteers and get them decorating for that night’s alien ball. The turnout of volunteers was more than she expected. Everyone who signed up showed up and some brought kids or curious friends. A good sign, thought Sam.
Throughout the afternoon the crew worked away happily. The local blue grass band Sam had hired arrived about mid afternoon and started to set up. As they warmed up and tuned their instruments they gave the volunteers an impromptu concert, which lifted spirits still higher.
Then they rehearsed their song written just for the occasion. It started off with a haunting solo fiddle riff. Then the lead singer started in a cappella.
AAA-lee en. Oh my aaa-lee en
I don’t know just where you’ve been
But I sure am glad you’ve come back again
AAA-lee en. Oh you aaa-lee en
You’ve been hard to find
But we’re told you’re kind
AAA-lee en. Oh yeah aaa-lee en
You’ve filled our void
Thanks to Martin Boyd
Then the band broke in all at once in a fast, danceable tune. And the trio sang together.
AAA-lee en. You’re our aaa-lee en
You got out there on the edge
With your firewood Stonehenge
AAA-lee en. Our celebrity aaa-lee en
You’ll get Narvik some lines
In the New York Times
By five o’clock everything was set and the volunteers scurried home to get dressed up for the party. They’re sound check and rehearsal complete the band headed out to find a bar and some dinner. So, Sam Tucker sat alone in the middle of the decorated cafeteria on a lone folding chairs, the tables and chairs having been folded and lined up against a wall to make room for the dance floor.
She gazed up at the green and white streamers, green for some reason being, it seemed, the official color of aliens. Cardboard flying saucers of various designs – contributed by Mr. Twigg’s junior art class – hung from the ceiling. Against the windows the bar had been set up but not yet stocked.
Sam looked around. For all she knew she was alone in the building. Slanted October sunlight streamed through the windows and settled pleasantly on the old tiled floor. In the air was the faint smell of a million hamburgers and hot dogs and servings of macaroni and cheese. Sam thought to herself that she was almost halfway through her big weekend and, at least to this point, she and Narvik had survived some harrowing moments but had come through intact.
She thought to herself how very stupid this all was and, yet, how much she cared, really cared, how it all came out, not just for herself, her reputation and her career but for Narvik. She was, she had to admit, a real Narvik booster now. She was pulling for the little town, an underdog community in an underdog state in an underdog region.
And an odd, even frightening, thought came over her all at once, mixed up in green and white streamers and the whiff of decades of hot school lunches that had been baked into the walls. She had always thought of this starter job in this backwoods outpost as a brilliant way to get a foothold in the public relations business. A backdoor back into New York where her real life and future awaited her. But what if she was falling in love with Narvik? In love with this tired but pretty town and its quirky people at least one of whom was, it was said, a kind alien from some far off planet?
A door banged open and a gust of cool October wind ushered in some dry leaves. A guy with a hand dolly was wheeling in two kegs. “You in charge here?” he asked. And before she could summon herself up from the deep well of her thoughts he asked, “Where do you want the beer?”
33. The ball
The guests started arriving at seven. It was officially advertised as a costume ball and most Narvikians took that seriously. But not just Narvik residents. People came from all over Ottawa County and from as far away as Madison, where Alan, the alternative weekly stringer, had written a front page story about the revival of interest in the Narvik Alien Days Festival. This attracted sophisticated college town hipsters with a National Public Radio affinity for whimsy and an earnest search for things they deemed “authentic.”
Those without imagination wore green turtle necks and black slacks and the cheap bouncing antennae you can buy at a drugstore. But there was also a lot of creativity among those who were serious about winning the costume contest to be held near the end of the evening. The grand prize-winner was to be seated atop the Flying Saucer Chevy bringing up the rear of the next day’s alien parade. Sam had, she congratulated herself, cleverly advertised this as the big prize to get the attention of FSC owner Larry Mercer who had promised to deliver the iconic float, but had not been heard from in a week. Sam was crossing her fingers that the winner of the contest would, in fact, have a Chevy Impala encased in an old silo blow torched into the shape of a flying saucer to ride upon the following day.
As the party-goers arrived Sam stood at the door and sent those in civilian clothes or those in green turtle necks to a door with a big sign over it that read “LAME LINE.” Those in that line were given a ticket for one free soft drink. Those who wore real costumes were given a ticket for one free beer.
Sam herself wore a kind of exaggerated Princess Leah outfit, suggesting that she was the queen alien.
Dr. Martin Boyd arrived with Darla Schmitt in tow. Darla wore a stunning alien-farmer outfit while Martin dressed in his usual professorial garb, a narrow-lapelled tweed jacket, pressed jeans and black turtleneck. But Sam allowed both to enter through the respectable line as Darla had made a clear effort and Martin Boyd came as, well, Dr. Martin Boyd. That was odd enough.
Sheriff Harold Rhude arrived with his wife. Sam ruled them worthy of the regular entrance though just barely. The sheriff was wearing his uniform and Sam was just about to point him to the LAME LINE when, wordlessly, he pulled from his holster a toy laser gun.
“That’s pretty lame, sheriff. But you get points for subtly and attitude,” she said as she reluctantly waived the couple through.
Mayor Claire Kornstedt and Joe Ellsted showed up together. They wore mayoral sashes. Claire’s read “Alien Mayor” and his said “Former Alien Mayor.” Sam waved them to the cool people line.
Robbie Porter went straight through the popular line with his silver jacket and silver cowboy hat with attached telescoping antenna. He wore a button that said, “There’s a new sheriff in the universe.”
“Are we running for something, counselor?” said Sam.
“Only for truth and justice, Ms. Tucker,” replied the lawyer.
Thelma Rhude came dressed as Thelma Rhude. But Sam let her through the beer ticket line as Thelma was carrying her trusty reporter’s notebook and was clearly there on official business. Her ethical code would not allow her to be part of a story she was covering. And, as Sam expected, she also refused the ticket for the beer, which for most reporters would have been taking ethics way too far.
Harriet Sobelman, by now fast friends with Thelma, came with her and also did not dress up, but she did accept the beer.
“Hey, what were you two up to at the courthouse today?” asked Sam as they passed her. “Meryl’s here and he said he had to kick you out at dinner time.”
“That’s for you to know in good time, my dear,” said Thelma. Harriet just winked and they brushed passed her into the cafeteria.
Later Sam noticed that Thelma and Harriet were apparently being held captive at a table with Alan, the stringer from the Madison weekly newspaper. ‘Serves ‘em right for being so cryptic with me,’ she thought.
The blue grass band struck up around 8 PM after the crowd had had a chance to warm up with a beer or two and people jumped onto the dance floor, some bumping into one another with their over-sized flying saucer outfits.
As the night wore on everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time. The place got so crowded that at one point Claire noticed the town’s volunteer fire chief studying the “Capacity 400” sign on the cafeteria wall and looking back to survey the crowd. Claire walked over, grabbed her by the hand and said, “Let’s dance, Alice!”
After midnight the crowd started to thin and the band finished their last set with their special “Alien Song” to a standing ovation.
The night had been a smashing success. Across the dance floor Sam saw Sheriff Rhude answer his cell phone. He looked intense. After a brief conversation he put his phone back in its holster and his eyes seemed to search out Claire. He strode across the dance floor to where she stood and they had a brief conversation.
They walked over to Sam.
“A lovely evening, Sam! What a success!” said the mayor.
“Yeah, nice work, Sam. Everybody had a lot of fun. Even Emily Meister,” chimed in the sheriff.
“Emily won the costume contest!” said Sam who by this time had allowed herself to have a couple of beers.
“Well, that’s as it should be,” said the sheriff. “Us old folks have to go. Everything seems fine here. Do you want me to stick around until they’re all gone?”
“No, no, sheriff. You can run along.” And Sam kissed the sheriff, his wife and then the mayor each on the cheek.
“Okay then. You have my cell if you need me for anything. Well, Mayor Kornstedt we’ll give you a police escort home then.” And they left into the cold October night.
34. BDC LLC
Earlier that evening at the ball the Madison alternative weekly stringer Alan had explained to Thelma and Harriet that his day job was being a barista at a locally-owned coffee shop on the Square. The editor gave him a key to the office so that he could come in on weekends and borrow a desk and some quiet so that he could complete his stories. He lived with four roommates, all musicians.
Thelma and Harriet found all this tiresome and they were barely paying attention and looking about the room for a more interesting and fruitful conversation, which they thought might be had with just about anyone else. Sensing that he needed to say something that would rekindle (well, kindle at all) the interest of his target audience of one, New York Times reporter Harriet Sobelman, Alan grasped at a straw.
“Here’s a weird thing about working on the weekends over there,” began Alan. “Almost every weekend, when I’m there on a Sunday morning, I hear the elevator. It’s a little creepy, so sometimes I go out in the hall and watch where it stops. It’s always the ninth floor. Then, when I leave there’s always this same black Cadillac SUV, the only car in the lot.”
“Huh,” said Harriet to indicate her complete lack of interest. But just to make conversation she asked, “Who’s on the ninth floor?”
“I wondered about that,” said Alan. “So I looked it up on the building directory. There’s a couple of nonprofits – The Fierce Women League and Free the Children. And then something called BDC LLC.”
At the mention of BDC LLC Harriet stopped scanning the room for a better conversation. She nudged Thelma who had not heard in part because she was a little hard of hearing and in part because she had long stopped listening.
“What was that last thing?” asked Harriet so that her friend could take it in.
“BDC LLC?” repeated Alan. “Yeah, I have no idea what that is. Must be a front for something. Anyway, I figure that’s who has the big black car because nonprofit folks can’t afford cars like that and even if they could they wouldn’t get a Caddy. Probably more like a really nice Suburu.”
Thelma and Harriet exchanged glances. “Tomorrow’s Sunday,” said Harriet. “Alan, are you going in to the office?”
“I wasn’t planning on it. I figured I’d crash with a friend in Redding tonight and cover the parade tomorrow.”
“Could you do us a favor tomorrow?” asked Harriet.
Alan thought he would very much like to do Harriet Sobelman a favor of any kind whatsoever.
“Go in to the office tomorrow morning. We’ll meet you there.”