“Orphan Pirates of the Spanish Main” by Dennis Danvers is a science-fiction novelette that follows Stan and his brother Ollie, children of alien (or crazy) parents who receive a mysterious postcard from their father, who with their mother, disappeared decades earlier into the “Abyss” in New Mexico.
When asked about his own childhood by his children, Dad would say something like “I was a galley slave on a pirate ship, and we sailed the Spanish Main!” I doubt my dad knew anything about any kind of ship or even where the Spanish Main was exactly. He just liked the way it sounded stringing the words together. I don’t think they even had galley slaves on pirate ships, certainly not in the early twentieth century when Dad was a kid, but none of that mattered in the least when Dad made a story of something.
He was once attacked by a herd of wildebeests while mowing the grass, when they mistook the new riding lawn mower for a Land Rover on safari and made a perfectly understandable preemptive strike. He emerged unscathed, but Mom’s newly planted shrubbery, part of a brief but passionate fling with horticulture, was mowed down in the melee, and the mower’s blade was busted, so Dad never had to ride the damn thing again. He preferred his reel. It took him a dreamy afternoon to mow the grass, the blades sighing and clattering.
The puppy he brought home from his travels had been rescued from a space capsule in New Mexico and might be a Russian cosmonaut, an alien, or—my favorite—Top Secret, which explained why she was more intelligent and loving than all other dogs. We named her Natasha—we were all big Rocky and Bullwinkle fans. At the end of her miraculous life, Dad buried her in the backyard, knelt and cried over her late into the night. I fell asleep at my windowsill watching him, crying too. I grew up thinking crying was okay if you felt like it.
He was raised in a boarding school for gifted salesmen—the campus looked like a string of motels—where he was taught how to drive all over hell and half of Georgia, pad his expense account, and tell every joke ever told that couldn’t be told in front of me and my brother. Well, he’d say. Maybe just one. Just sort of dirty. Mom, giggling, told him not to, which alerted us we were about to hear something good. When you’re hearing about some woman stuck in a toilet on her wedding night, a plumber on the way to rescue her, you don’t press for details about the storyteller’s childhood.
Which version of his childhood? There were several to choose from. These are just salesmen’s samples, not for resale. He never told us the truth. Or if he did, it was buried under so much bullshit, you couldn’t find it with a whole army of pirates and farmers’ daughters. He didn’t want to tell us, plain and simple.
He wasn’t always like that. If I really needed to talk to him about something serious—which comes up more often when you’re single digits than you might think—he dropped the bullshit and listened like no one else.
I finally asked Mom. I had too many ideas running around in my head of these different kids Dad had been to keep them straight, like his life was three or four crazy movies all mashed up together. I imagined my favorites. Abbott & Costello meet Fred Astaire and Frankenstein East of Eden. I knew some of them weren’t true, couldn’t be true, that he was just pretending, but I didn’t always know, and I didn’t know which ones might be true, which little boy I could imagine myself being, because more than anything in the world, I wanted to be like him.
Turns out none of them were him. Young Master Smoke and Mister Mirrors. Who might you imagine he was? Who would you like him to be? Pick one of those. Who he really was, like Natasha’s mysterious origins, was classified. I’ve come to believe he was an alien who had taken on human form—Mom too—and that made me and my brother essentially aliens too, but that’s not what she told me.
“Your father was an orphan,” Mom said. “He grew up in a Catholic orphanage. He doesn’t like to talk about it.”
I often wish she hadn’t said that last part because I’m one of those kids, even now, at sixty-seven, who takes things to heart, and I never asked the follow-up questions while he was around to ask. I was too busy being charmed like everybody else. Lots of aliens were planted in orphanages, old enough to know their mission, but too old to stand a chance of adoption.
I sort of knew he was an orphan before I asked. Not having paternal grandparents was a clue, but I wasn’t the only kid without. Some kids didn’t have fathers. What’s a couple of grandparents? What I hadn’t known was that Dad never had a real home when he was little. He lived in one. He never had anybody. I wish I could’ve talked to him about it. Who knows? Maybe he did too. There’s a whole lot of things I don’t like to talk about with anyone, I would talk about with my dad if he were still alive.
Like my brother, for instance. It’s like we had a different identical father. Like I said—Mister Mirrors. All my wives have said there’s no mistaking Ollie and I are brothers—the voice, the timing, gestures, sense of humor. It’s only in the trivial matters like deeply cherished beliefs where we differ. Also, I’m tall and skinny, and he’s neither, even though we have the same big blue eyes.
We both have a passion for cooking. Dad taught us. Alien men love to cook.
Dad told me he first learned to cook when he was playing Mr. Potato Head, in a hot steamy kitchen, and Potato said, “‘Hey, don’t you think I’d be more comfortable and appealing without this dirty brown coat on?’ One thing led to another, and before you know it, he taught me how to make perfect mashed potatoes.”
I was making perfect mashed potatoes when he told me this. Dad had taught me how. I was standing on a stepstool, mashing. His hand was wrapped around mine to make sure I kept a good grip on the pot handle. The potholder, which had a cat on it because I loved them, was battle-scarred, with singed edges and greasy stains, but it was mine. We bought it at the grocery store because I liked it. Dad couldn’t say no. I suspect that’s because he never had anybody to ask for anything.
“What about gravy?” I asked. “Did Potato teach you that?” That was the lesson for the day. He was going to show me gravy. We were in a kitchen redolent with the smell of roasting beef garnished with garlic and rosemary. I had watched him truss it, snipped the twine with the massive kitchen shears when instructed, helped him insert whole cloves of garlic into the flesh.
“Gravy came later,” Dad said, “on a wagon train out west—somewhere between Death Valley and Tombstone. The settlers were looking for a new cook after they’d just staked the last one out on an anthill for the awful gooey lumpy gravy he made them, and buzzards were eating his eyeballs, which the settlers joked seemed to be as gummy as his gravy. Don’t believe what you see on TV. Settlers weren’t always nice. Some were so ornery, folks back home were probably begging them to leave town. Don’t believe that pioneering spirit stuff either. Most of them were just leaving some kind of mess they’d made of their lives, so that middle of nowhere was the only option left. There wasn’t a lot of singing around the campfire. Everybody was scared to take the cook’s job, so they gave it to me because I was just a kid, and they thought they could push me around.”
“What did you do?” I asked, mashing furiously as Dad poured in a little more hot milk. Of course I asked. I was a skilled straight man by the time I was in first grade. Turns out—my favorite part—he went out in the moonlight in the desert, away from all the cranky settlers, where a lizard not unlike the chameleon I got at the State Fair of Texas only weeks before turned into an Indian shaman who taught him how to make the best gravy in the world on a campfire under a billion stars, the secrets of which he intended to share with me once we got the roast out of the oven and scraped the pan.
I figure he worked in the kitchen where he lived, cooking for all the kids in the orphanage, the priests and nuns and whatever. He always cooked too much, stored it away in a massive freezer. That’s often what we ate when he traveled, which he did a lot. Mom didn’t always feel like cooking.
She liked his stories too, and I was often aware of her as an amused and loving audience to the wild tales he told me and my brother. Before we came along I imagine his stories were a little different. She loved him. You could see it. She wasn’t always happy about it—with good reason—but she loved him. We all did. He needed that. He never had anybody before the three of us.
He was a terrible disciplinarian. A kid would have to be brain-dead not to get around Dad, and me and Ollie were far from brain-dead. Mom would say no but Dad never did, and they never overruled the other. “Ask Dad” was like open sesame. Ollie used to use his time on the phone when Dad called home from the road to get around Mom, and it drove her crazy.
I only took serious advantage once, when I malingered through six weeks of eighth grade because I loathed it—with good reason. Today, I would have the sadistic shop teacher arrested, the rabidly racist history teacher fired, but these were the good old days, and they were duly appointed by the state to build my character deep in the heart of Texas. My only option was deceit. I did a pretty good cough, gave myself a sporadic fever by touching the thermometer to my reading lamp, timing my performances for when Dad was home. I enjoyed my reclusive freedom with Clarke and Asimov and Bradbury and Heinlein, somewhere out there among the stars where shamans make gravy for galley slaves, gathering enough inner strength to eventually return to school and prosper. I built my own character. Several.
I think Dad knew I was faking but understood I needed to hide out for a while and feel safe. I could navigate the bullies. I had mastered the art of invisibility, but brainwashers and torturers ran the place, and they had their eyes on me.
Ollie, older by four years, led a wilder youth, which resulted in his joining the military at the suggestion of a judge who said he might overlook the reckless mistakes of a patriot willing to serve his country. Ancient history. Now he’s settled down and out in suburbia with his dogs and his kitchen and his last wife.
I’m no different, except I prefer the city and one dog at a time. My current situation’s somewhat complicated. Technically, I’m married to Katyana, a woman half my age, but that’s mostly a means to get her on my health insurance and give them some financial stability, her and her son Dylan, legally my son as well, though biologically not. They don’t make you prove it at the hospital, turns out. All you have to do is step up and take credit. Nothing’s cross-referenced, or they might’ve noticed I had a vasectomy a few decades back and a sex-ending prostatectomy five years ago. Katyana comes with a dog as well, Avatar, a stunning blue-gray standard poodle my intense little border collie Myrna adores with embarrassing intensity. They were both already too damn smart for dogs individually. Now they collude.
My brother doesn’t approve of my recent marriage. Par for the course. My brother and I don’t talk much these days, so I know it’s important when he calls me. He’s seventy-one.
Not a lot of good news peaks then, unless you want to talk religion, which I probably shouldn’t, but I will. You can’t expect an old man to stay on the subject—or, rather, the subject is larger than it might first appear. Aliens have a hard time with religion. Earthbound religions seem puny in the face of the cosmos. Dad again. The orphanage was Catholic. We most definitely weren’t. Dad once told me he had wanted to be a priest when he was a kid until he figured out a few things—no details, though I could imagine. He wasn’t anything in particular, but there was a resolute certainty that he was no longer Catholic. Mom picked the church. Mom liked the idea of church. She wasn’t picky about doctrinal issues. Dad only went if Mom insisted, for whatever reason.
The only time he was enthusiastic about church besides weddings was when there was a stand-in minister one summer when we still lived in Texas who was eighty if he was a day, a wrinkled, liver-spotted old man with wild white hair and a voice that didn’t sound like a preacher’s but quiet and reedy and endlessly fascinated with the stories he told and the people he told them about. He had just retired from a life of missionary service in Africa. There was plenty of Bible in the sermons, as I recall, but he always came back to Africa, where people lived whole other lives like nothing we could imagine in Irving, Texas. He was terrific. I remember once he told the story of a refugee, though at the time I didn’t know what that was, but I remember he only had one leg, and he was trying to find his mother, and he came to the minister and asked if Jesus could help him. When I looked over at Dad, there were tears on his face. Mom was wet-faced too, and smiling, happy because Dad was going to church. More than she wanted to go herself, I think, she wanted Dad to find a way to make it up with God. But the summer ended.
Dad went only once to hear the new, permanent minister—tedious and doctrinaire. Dad cursed him on the drive home, though he took us to breakfast, and we all gorged. I can’t remember the minister’s name, but I can still see his face. He was not a happy man. He was my first serious dose of Calvinist Sin, which only plunged me deeper into boyhood pantheism, for which I suppose I should thank him. To this day it remains my one true religion.
Ollie and I both have had our spasms of religious fervor of one sort or another, but we’ve ended up in the same place. Sunday mornings, we’d both rather be home in our kitchens, cooking. I’m making vegan, no-fat zucchini muffins. Later, Katyana and I plan to take Dylan and the dogs down to the James River, our sanctuary. I confess to being a very happy man.
That’s when Ollie calls. “Stan,” he finally confesses after beating around every right-wing bush he can flail in an accent that still sounds like Irving, Texas more than a half-century later in a vain attempt to sucker me into a fight so one of us can hang up like we usually do: “I can’t cook anymore. I lost my sense of smell.”
I suppose I should explain that’s how we both cook. It’s the alien way, the way we were taught. If you don’t like spicy food, don’t even drive by our houses. We never use recipes, but we can sniff them out from a tasty restaurant dish, recreate them at home—without the salt, fat, and sugar in my case. I’m on a project to unclog my abused arteries. Ollie still has his addictions.
“You can’t smell anything? Have you been to the doctor?”
“I can still smell. The dogs still stink, the fucking compost next door. I just have no sense for it anymore, no confidence. I stood over a soup the other night with whole allspice berries, no idea how many to put in or none at all. It felt awful. One minute I had the idea of exactly how I wanted it to taste, you know? Next minute, gone. The soup was bland and disappointing. Camille pretended to like it, but I could tell. She said maybe I should write things down, use a recipe. The evening went downhill from there.”
Camille’s new. I’m sure he wants to impress her. I can imagine how he feels. I don’t get to say that often about my brother, so I nurse the feeling, try to get caught up in his crisis, help him struggle to overcome it. Rescuing my big brother was a major fantasy when I was ten, when I wasn’t drowning him in a vat of snake venom. My heart goes out to him.
“Why couldn’t we have normal parents like everyone else?” he says bitterly and torpedoes my sympathy.
Why does he have to blame everything on Mom and Dad? “Go to McDonald’s, Ollie. There’s probably a McDad on the menu, with cheese. A fried McMom.”
“I’ve asked you not to call me that.”
“Right. Oliver. Dad has nothing to do with your fucking nose, Ol-i-ver, so why don’t you put a lid on it for a change? Have you tried a neti pot?”
I imagine explaining sinus irrigation as an ancient and effective Indian treatment to my brother, followed by his near-certain sneering dismissal, and spare myself the aggravation. “Why don’t you come for a visit and we can work it out,” I hear myself saying in stunned disbelief. “You’ve never been.” It’s true. I’ve been down to Florida three times since he’s moved there, and he’s never come to see me in Richmond.
Is that what I really want? I ask myself, and I try to remind Ollie of what he’s getting himself into. “You can meet Katyana and Dylan.”
I’m trying to scare him off, but it’s too little, too late. Bad life choices his little brother’s made to disapprove of? What’s not to like about that? He’s touched by my offer.
What have I done?
“Bring Camille,” I think to say, but he gives one of his mysterious guttural chuckles I’m supposed to understand because I’m his little brother.
“Just me,” he says. “Is this a good time?”
I’ve come to believe all times are good times, each moment wondrous. Everything happens when it should. Even me and my big mouth. “It’s perfect.”
I recount it all to Katyana, and she thinks it will be delightful. She’s the only one. What possessed me to want to help my brother? I’m certainly not his keeper. Not that we both don’t need one. Our parents were strange, out of step with their culture, and maybe they didn’t prepare us for life in the real world, but I’ve made my peace with them. I’ve tried to explain to Ollie that Mom and Dad were aliens whose parenting styles were somewhat unconventional for humans of the time, but he’s having none of it. Too bad. It would be a comfort, but he doesn’t need any grief from me. If he’s coming to see me, he must be at the end of the last fiber of his rope. Shit. He must be in fucking free fall.
We all meet him at the airport—Katyana wants Dylan to experience the airport. We’re a joyful little family unit, Dylan at his giggly-gurgly best, when I spot Ollie coming down the glass hallway, and my fears are confirmed. Something’s seriously wrong. He’s nice, sweet even. Katyana’s gorgeous, and Dylan adorable, but this is my brother we’re talking about. He doesn’t even give me that look I’ve come to expect from any male who meets her and discovers we’re married. He cradles Dylan in his arms and smiles at me with poignant envy. Is this really my brother?
There’s an election looming, nasty inflammatory billboards everywhere. No matter which side you’re on, it’s loathsome to live in a battleground state. Ollie stares past the shrill slogans at the trees. We even go through a roundabout on the way home, a virulent passion of my brother’s for some reason, and he says not a word, just gazes forlornly at the lovely Richmond architecture, looking like he might start crying any minute. Maybe he’s remembering when he used to live here, when Mom and Dad were still alive. He shows a spark of life when he comes inside the house and the dogs are all over him—we both like most dogs better than we like most people—but something’s weighing on him. This cooking business is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m thinking the worst, some horrible wasting disease. Guilt geysers up inside of me. I haven’t been the best brother in the world, and now he has weeks to live. I feel awful.
He doesn’t care. It’s not about me. When I get him alone, he confesses that he and Camille are separated, that she said she couldn’t stand to live with a seventy-one-year-old man who still has serious issues with his parents when they’ve been dead for more than forty years. She said some things that weren’t very nice, made all the worse because they were true. Ollie’s a mess.
“Issues? She says ‘issues’?” She’s a semi-retired counselor, though I’m not sure who or what she counsels about.
He nods, snuffles. “She’s right,” he says.
Maybe she is, but she doesn’t have to say issues. Makes him sound like a client. He just needs to open his eyes and see. Ollie seems to have no idea what a gift it is to have had exceptional parents. Mom was an artist, though she never tried to sell anything, painting hollowed-out eggs, neckties, paint-by number landscapes with the palette changed so as to depict a scene from her home planet—never anything ordinary and mundane, no big-eyed girls or forlorn clowns. She made sculptures out of trash before everybody was doing that. The house always smelled like one glue or another. She threw herself into mosaics for a while. You never saw her without this tool, like pliers with jaws, that she used to snip the tiles. The sound drove the dog crazy—I guess it reminded her of having her nails cut—so when Mom had completely covered the kitchen counter, she abandoned mosaics so Natasha would come out from under my bed.
The mosaic was a city with domes and minarets and obelisks and ziggurats. Mom told me what they were when I asked. There was a lot going on. When you looked real close, some little chip of tile up along the roofline looked like a cat, or there were shadowy faces looking out the windows. She made it without a picture or plan or anything. Just snip, snip, snip, gluing down these pieces until she was done. I asked her if it was a real place, and she said, “Not anymore. It’s how I remember it.” The next thing she said was something like “Don’t you have homework?”
“I have to go,” Ollie says to me now. “We both have to go. To the abyss.” The abyss is where Mom and Dad’s earthly lives ended.
No, we don’t, but I have to say I’m intrigued. This isn’t like him. I figured Ollie gave up on bold symbolic journeys a long time ago. I tried going to the abyss and didn’t make it, thank goodness. Once is enough for me. “All this because of a few allspice berries, an overly cautious soup? What’s going on, Ollie? Oliver. I don’t see the connection.”
“I received a message.”
Before I can tell him he’s nuts, he hands me a postcard. On one side is a photo of a sand painting I’ve seen before. On the other is a map of a portion of New Mexico with the abyss marked with a red X. “Your Father Needs You!” is written in Mom’s loopy cursive. It’s postmarked Tucumcari, ten days ago.
Mom’s last artistic obsession, in the months before she and Dad took off for a vacation in the southwest, was a sand painting. Like the Navajo, she explained. She spent weeks just assembling the jars of different color sand. Dad would bring jars home from his travels. It took her a day and a night to sift the thing onto the garage floor, grain by grain, until it took up the whole garage. I was home for the summer, just out of college. Ollie had his own place, just out of the military. He’d come over for dinner to celebrate our birthdays, a few days apart.
After dinner, Mom had us take off our shoes and told us to walk out in the middle of the sand painting, me and Ollie both, but Ollie refused. Mom got pretty upset. Couldn’t he do this one small thing for her? What did it matter why? While they continued to argue, I walked out into the middle of it like she asked, messing up the perfectly precise design as little as possible. It was sort of Navajo, I guess, with these long spindly guys standing like a chorus line, but their eyes were big almond eyes, and they had multi-colored angel wings. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
She had me sit in the middle of it at the feet of the spindly-legged angels, while Ollie wouldn’t shut up about how stupid it was to make something like this and then just screw it up, that she needed help, that there were therapies, new drugs and treatments, but Mom ignored him and spoke to only me if he wouldn’t listen, as if he weren’t there: “Don’t let them change you. Don’t let them define you. Don’t let them diminish the things you love. They don’t mean to, but they will if you let them.” She said some other things on the same theme I don’t remember exactly. Ollie never listened. For years I wondered who “they” were. I’ve come to realize she meant humans.
Dad called us inside for dessert while Mom vacuumed up the sand painting with a Shop-Vac.
A week later they were gone, plunged into the abyss, an obscure site in New Mexico Mom just had to see. They had been planning this trip even longer than she’d been collecting grains of sand. Some say they didn’t die, that they were headed home. I guess I’m one.
I stare at the postcard now. It’s the sand painting on the garage floor. She took a bunch of photos of it with a camera mounted on the garage ceiling before the big fight with Ollie. I’m trying to imagine how and why it’s now, impossibly, a postcard in my hands. “How come I didn’t get one?”
“Cause you stepped into the sand painting, and I didn’t. That’s why you’ve healed, and I haven’t. I did some research. That’s what they’re for. Healing. Mom was trying to heal us. That’s why I’ve lost my sense of smell.”
I don’t see the last connection, but I let it pass. He’s actually taking something unusual Mom and Dad did seriously, for once, instead of seeing it as further evidence they were crazy. I don’t ask why, if I’m all healed—whatever he thinks that means—he needs me to tag along on this foolish journey, because I already know. He would feel too ridiculous otherwise. I’m the one who supposedly believes in this wacky alien shit. I’m the one who should be getting spooky postcards in the mail, not him. He needs his little brother along to boost his confidence that he hasn’t totally lost his mind. Late-onset schizophrenia is just one of many judgments out there for an old man who starts talking crazy, but you can always tell your little brother, right? He won’t rat you out.
I tell Katyana Ollie wants me to go out to the abyss with him, and she immediately says I should because he’s my brother, “and how many things has he ever asked you to do for him?” Katyana’s big on family loyalty. But then I get to the part about the postcard, and she stops me. “Let me see it.”
She looks it over front and back, shaking her head. I think she might cry. “I have to go with you,” she says.
“You’ve seen this before?”
“It’s one of Daddy’s alien artifacts. Look at the handwriting.”
“I did. It’s my mom’s.”
“Not the message. Your brother’s address. It’s Daddy’s handwriting.”
I’d completely missed it. The mailing address is even a different color ink. The lettering, tiny, precise printing. I’ve seen it before myself. It’s Dr. Deetermeyer’s, Katyana’s father, who first introduced me to the idea of my parents’ alien origins. He’s been missing for almost a year after a nervous breakdown, or whatever it’s called now. Katyana was pretty upset when he wasn’t around for Dylan’s birth. He’s done it before, taken off for parts unknown, only to turn up months later, sometimes with a new identity, a position at some new university. Katyana’s the only one left to go looking for him. He’s as wacky as a bag of cats, but he’s a fucking genius at the same time. It can be hard to suss out the borderline.
“You’re saying he sent this card?”
“You don’t think it’s from your dead mother, do you?”
“But what about the message? It’s her handwriting.”
She shrugs. “Then she wrote it when she was alive.”
“I thought you believed in magical stuff.”
“That doesn’t mean I believe in ghosts who mail postcards with Forever stamps.”
Her dad would have had Ollie’s address. He kept a huge database of all of us born to alien parents—who are essentially aliens ourselves—which explains a lot about the course of my life. He’s tried to interview as many of us as possible. This may have been his attempt to pique Ollie’s interest, so he would agree to such an interview. Deetermeyer wouldn’t send it to me for fear of Katyana finding him and revealing him to whatever institution he’s bamboozled into funding his research for his definitive work on aliens among us. As a genius without real degrees, his references are all aliens like me.
I would rather believe in aliens than ghosts. Katyana’s beliefs don’t matter: He’s still her father. She has to go find him regardless. No one else will. Her much older sister has washed her hands, she says. This from one who claims Jesus is the answer no matter the question. Katyana’s relieved to finally have a clue to her father’s whereabouts and a little pissed off to have to pursue it at the same time. She has a baby to take care of, for Christ’s sake. Katyana is nothing if not adaptable, however.
She smiles. “A big trip. Maybe that’s exactly what we need. We haven’t been anywhere since before Dylan was born.”
“What about Dylan?” I ask. “We can’t just leave him.”
“Of course not. He can experience the train.”
“Train? Who said anything about a train?”
“Don’t you think it would be fun? More comfortable with Dylan and all. We can treat your brother. He’s really low. He’s much nicer than you said. You’ll have time to bond, you know? See the country? Daddy’s not going anywhere in the middle of the semester, and neither is the abyss.” Even though ours is an unconventional marriage of convenience, scarcely a marriage at all, there’s one thing you should know. I will do anything on Earth she asks. I adore her.
Ollie bridles at first. The train? (He hates Amtrak on principle.) But Katyana puts Dylan in his arms and pretty soon Uncle Ollie—Katyana calls him Ollie, and he makes not a whimper—is completely onboard.
That still leaves the dogs. What to do about them. Boarding costs a lot of money. They come out weird, like you would expect intelligent social animals to be after being locked up in a cage for too damn long. Katyana suggests we ask Bill, a retired Unitarian minister and fellow child of aliens, to look after them. We both know him from the dog park. I say retired, but actually they practically forced him out after most of his sermons dwelt on aliens for nearly a year. There was some sort of settlement to make him go away, and he bought a condo a couple of blocks from the church. We’re on his balcony having coffee. This is where he sits on Sunday mornings and watches his flock pass by, imagining them feeling guilty for silencing the truth and banishing the messenger. That Unitarian guilt can be some nasty stuff. It comes at you from all directions, and no ritual can resolve it. His pug Clyde’s in my lap. I’m rubbing his belly, and he’s wiggling and snorting.
Bill’s glad to take care of Myrna and Avatar but is eager to discuss other matters. We haven’t had a chance to talk since Katyana and I got married.
“What’s it like?” he asks.
“Wonderful,” I say.
“I can imagine. She is so fucking hot.”
It’s obvious we’re not talking about the same thing. “She is that, but we’re not fucking.”
“You’re kidding. Why not?”
“For starters, I can’t.”
“What do you mean you can’t?”
“Can’t. Dick no work. Since the prostate surgery. The surgeon says it should, but it don’t.”
“What about drugs?”
“Read the possible side effects sometime. I can verify those and more, but what they didn’t do was stiffen my dick. I was seeing blue and turning red. I felt like a cartoon character. All for an increased risk of heart attack. One’s enough for me, thanks. Trust me. There’s worse things than a limp dick.”
“I had no idea.”
“It doesn’t come up in casual conversation. Besides, it makes people uncomfortable.”
Bill pauses to think about this, about how he does indeed feel uncomfortable. “So I don’t understand. Why did you marry her? You figure you’ve married so many times, what’s one more?”
“I married her for the same reason I have always married. I love her.”
“Why on Earth did she marry you?”
“She wanted Dylan to have a father. I claimed paternity. Dylan’s legally my son. By marrying we seal the deal legally for him, even if we divorce later.”
“You’re nuts. Why would you do a thing like that for her? You hardly know her. She’s crazy on top of that.”
“And you’re not? C’mon Bill. We connected. She saved my life. I was headed for the abyss, and she turned me around. It’s a small thing, to make their lives easier. They’ll have a place to live and a tidy sum when I’m gone.”
“You make it sound like it’s next week.”
“It’s always next week, next minute. You have to live now. You can’t wait around until you’re a better person to do the right thing. Katyana told me you used to hit on her. Would you fuck her if you could?”
His eyes grow huge at the thought. “In a heartbeat.”
“But you wouldn’t take her in, marry her, help raise her kid?”
He makes a face. Am I nuts? “Who’s the real father?”
“A rock star who denies paternity, her ex, who would put up a stink if she pressed it. He doesn’t want to complicate his assets and piss off his current girlfriend with a son. I have very simple assets and no girlfriends, and I rather like having a son.”
“You change diapers?”
“God, I hated that.” Bill and his thirty-something son are what he calls “estranged.” He always makes it sound like the grinding wheels of fate have yielded this sad result, symbolized by the middle finger his son raised to him in ninth grade, calling him a hypocrite and his church “stupid.” Sounds more like adolescence and a pompous dad to me, but I’ve never had a son. It was in his quest to understand his failed relationship with his son, as he calls it, that Bill first discovered his alien origins.
So the son never heard the sermons that got his dad bounced from the pulpit. I wonder what son would think of father now, a sad faraway look in his eye that might be for his son, for his flock, or it might be the blanket loss of dementia, though Bill seems sharp enough to me. Just a little nuts. The view from the pulpit must get to you after a while. I’m reminded of Myrna perched on an ottoman in the back room of the house watching her chaotic flock of squirrels. It’s her favorite thing to do. How crazy is that?
Clyde, sensing Bill’s need, rolls over in my lap, plops down on the floor, and leaps onto Bill’s knees like a flying ham. Bill cradles him in his arms. Clyde gazes at him in bug-eyed adoration, snorting sweet nothings, and Bill tells him what a good boy he is.
I rise, bid farewell. “I’ll bring the dogs by in the morning. Our train leaves at ten.”
I’m in the berth above, Katyana and Dylan sleep below. The ceiling is close, the stars beyond. We’re rocketing through the night inside the pleasant roar of the train. I lied to Bill in a way, made it sound like nothing: Impotence. Trouble is, desire persists. Can even grow. Like a cancer. Another unwelcome manifestation of overenthusiastic life.
I’ve just spent the day traveling with my beautiful wife and child who look at me as if they don’t know we’re all pretending to be a happy family who love one another. She cradled my white-whiskered face in her hands before I ascended to my berth and said, “Thank you for being such a sweet, sweet man,” and kissed me softly, lovingly, on the lips.
She had no intention to render me sleepless, to break my heart. Sweet means patient mostly, not being a self-centered asshole. It’s amazing how many men find this difficult. This is no easy journey we’ve undertaken, and I’m not talking about the train. Sweet’s easy. I can do it in my sleep, but dreaming of sweet Katyana, I can’t sleep. Longing with no relief. Not a problem I had foreseen, not a bad problem for a man my age to suffer from. I could just not care anymore, like the surgeon said would happen eventually, inevitably. Not that I put much stock in what the surgeon says these days.
I roll out of bed and head for the snack bar, where I find the conductor at one end doing his paperwork, and Ollie in the middle checking his messages. The concession is shut down and dark.
I sit down across from him. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“Me neither,” he says. “I heard from Camille. She says House stinks worse than ever, and he’s acting out with me not there. He chewed up her flip-flop.”
“I’m impressed. I didn’t think he still had it in him from what you told me.” House is an eleven-year-old basset-Doberman mix with chronic odor problems, a constant source of Ollie’s distress, one of many tributaries. Ollie’s always got distress. He stocks up at Costco, clips coupons. I take it as a good sign Camille’s looking after the dogs. She must still love him. I don’t remember the other dogs or their troubled stories, but you can bet they’re a handful.
“The vet wants to give him antibiotics, says the skin issues might point to an underlying infection. He looks like shit. Coat’s dull and patchy. He scratches himself all the time. I tried tea-tree oil. Nothing.”
“Haven’t tried that. You think that might help?”
“Make him feel better anyway.”
“What do you think about the antibiotics? This vet. She’s new. Girl right out of school. I don’t trust doctors.”
“Me either. But I’m alive because I have three mini Slinkies in my heart: Doctors have their moments. My old lab Alice had something like what you’re describing, and antibiotics cleared it up when nothing else would. You don’t really think that’s a postcard from Mom, do you?”
“What do you think it is?”
“I think she had postcards made of the sand painting, and Katyana’s father, Simon Deetermeyer, got ahold of them.” I’ve explained to him about Deetermeyer’s theories before, but he wasn’t ready to listen then. Now that we’re on a train in the middle of the night on the way to the abyss, what else is he going to do?
Ollie’s skeptical. It’s a lot to swallow, to accept that your parents were aliens who had taken on human form, as Deetermeyer believed our parents to be. “So her father’s insane? I thought you said you believed him.”
“I do. Not everything. Just the parts I like. Sort of the way Mom approached religion: Sweet Jesus, no Hell, lots of forgiveness and mercy.”
“Mom was crazy too.”
“That never kept her from being right, Ollie. Like the message on that card. Dad needed us.”
“No he didn’t. I think he preferred his life out on the road. You know he cheated on her, right?”
Did he think I was deaf? When they fought, old betrayals came up. We never lived anyplace large enough for me not to hear. When Ollie was in the military, and I was in high school, they plumbed Precambrian layers Ollie probably didn’t know about before Dad started traveling, while he was still in advertising, about the time I was born. While the adult children of alien beings tend toward serial monogamy, the alien parents like mine typically mated for life in a marriage riddled with infidelities, noisy fights and noisy sex, and lots of mercy and forgiveness.
“So what? Mom knew more than we do, and she stayed with him. They loved each other, Ollie. They loved us. That’s enough, isn’t it? Case you hadn’t noticed, there’s people who would kill for that.”
“I know,” he says, surprising me. “That’s more or less what Camille told me.”
“What prompted this discussion of Mom and Dad?”
“The postcard. I told her the story of the sand painting and how I wouldn’t walk on the damn thing, and she seemed to think I should’ve, that they aren’t meant to last, that’s why they’re made of sand, and I started arguing with her, and it got pretty heated, and that’s when she told me I had issues and left.”
“Just like that?”
“She called me ‘Ollie’—she never calls me that—and I yelled at her to never ever call me that. Then she hit the door.”
“Jeez, Ollie. Oliver.”
“Shit. You can call me whatever you want: Fucking Idiot, maybe.”
“Okay. Fucking Idiot, it is.” I call to the conductor. “Is it too late to get a beer?”
He raises his head from his work. My question seems to amuse him. He looks from me to Ollie and back again, and I imagine what he sees—two white-haired old men who should’ve been asleep miles ago. “I’m afraid it is, gentlemen.” To me he adds, “How’s the little baby doing? He traveling okay? I know your wife was concerned.”
I recognize him as the one who set us up in our compartment. He’s young and black and handsome with a dazzling smile. “He’s been an angel.”
“Glad to hear it. Some babies love the train. Some don’t. But they all hate the planes.” He stands and buttons his coat. “You gentlemen have a good evening. I have to go make sure no one’s sleeping in the aisles.” As he walks past us, he stops, then turns around. “I couldn’t help overhearing a little of your conversation—that you’re headed for the abyss?” He stops there, at the edge, so to speak, and searches our eyes. His nametag says Amir.
“That’s right,” I say.
“My dad was in the military. We were stationed there once. Security at a research facility right next to it.”
“What kind of research?” Ollie asks. I figure I already know.
“Top Secret,” Amir says, “but we kids on the base—there weren’t but a dozen of us—we heard things, and we thought it was a portal, like for aliens, you know?”
“Our parents died there,” Ollie says.
Amir gives him a knowing look, like someone who grew up on the edge of the abyss, shrugs, and smiles. “Maybe not. Know what I’m saying? Maybe not. You gentlemen have a good evening.”
When he’s gone, Ollie asks, “Do you believe him?”
“Why would he lie to us?”
“To amuse himself.”
“I think he was just trying to reach out.”
“You think everybody’s nice.”
“Not everybody, just most people.”
“You realize he must’ve listened to our entire conversation.”
“Wouldn’t you? A couple of old farts talking about their alien parents? Dylan loved him. He was very sweet to Katyana. I think we should talk to Amir some more.”
“The conductor. I read his nametag.”
“I never read those things.”
Back in our compartment, mother and child are sleeping, bathed in the glow of the night-light, and I quietly adore them. Do I think this will last? Of course not. Nothing lasts. Not that I won’t stick by them no matter where their lives take them for as long as I live. You can’t imagine how good it makes me feel to love them so, expecting nothing.
Her eyes flutter open, and she smiles drowsily. “Such a look,” she murmurs. “You should see yourself.”
And I do. She mirrors me, her eyes full of love. I start crying I’m so happy. Old men do that. Her eyes gleam back at me. I ascend into the berth above as if into heaven, fall fast asleep, and dream of her.
In the morning I take Dylan in my arms while his mother showers and I make a progress of the train from one end to the other looking for Amir, but he’s nowhere to be found. It’s a slow journey. Something about a lovely child in the arms of an old man warms the hearts of passengers who befriend us. “Grandchild?” they ask. “Son,” I say and watch their eyes widen in surprise. They have no idea just how surprised they should be at this biological impossibility.
I take Dylan to the observation car, and we observe a while. You hear different things about what babies can see, but he seems to be taking it all in, observing his home planet. That’s where I find Amir. For some inexplicable reason, the train rolls to a stop in the New Mexico desert, and there he is, standing outside. There’s an announcement that smokers in need of a fix can use this opportunity to satisfy their craving, or those of us who might want to stretch our legs can do so. There’s nothing but sand and rock and cacti for as far as you can see in all directions, the sun blazing away like it’s proud of the whole thing.
There’s not exactly a rush for the exits. My legs are stretched, but my mind remains coiled around the mystery of the abyss, so I head outside. The smokers stand in a small herd, sucking and coughing. I’m the only stretcher. At first I don’t see Amir. He’s standing fifty yards from the train at least—where I imagine rattlers and Gila monsters thrive—looking off into the distance, the endless nothingness.
I shield Dylan’s eyes from the glare with my jacket and head toward Amir, keeping an eye out for venomous reptiles—and scorpions, suddenly remembering those as well. It would be a hell of a thing to survive cancer and a heart attack only to die from a poisonous bite in the middle of nowhere. So careful am I that I fail to keep my eye on Amir, and when I’ve covered half the distance between us, I glance up, and he’s gone. I’ve grown accustomed to the impossible. I’m holding it in my arms, slumbering peacefully, though he squirms a little, making himself comfortable.
I should probably turn around, but instead I press on toward a pile of rocks right out of a western movie that’s the only place Amir could be. Maybe he’s taking a piss, I reason. I do reason once in a while. It’s also likely where the venomous monsters might dwell, but I’ve come this far, and the smokers are still hard at it, signaling their mortality to the achingly blue sky in pale poisonous puffs. The rocks are the color of a rich red sunset, and I boldly close the distance like I stroll through the desert every day.
There is indeed someone there, but it’s not Amir. It’s a man the color of the rocks, like he’s been baking there his whole life—the Indian shaman who taught my dad to make perfect gravy so he could pass it on to me only to have me renounce the knowledge when my clogged arteries rebelled, and I dropped all but dead and arose a new man.
“So, Stan, what are you doing heading for the abyss again?” he demands. “I thought you were through with that nonsense. It’s nowhere for a little darling like him.” He holds out a red finger to Dylan who grabs it in his tiny hands.
“It was my brother’s idea,” I say, knowing that’s no excuse.
Shaman shakes his head. “Follow me,” he says.
“The train,” I say.
“It’ll wait,” he says, and there’s no time to doubt as he walks into a cavern I hadn’t seen before, and I follow.
The way is straight and narrow, no natural formation, sloping down into the Earth. We come into a big round room, a kiva I think it’s called, and there, sitting by a small fire, are my dad and a one-legged boy as black as coal. Natasha’s there, sweeping her tail back and forth in the dust, glad to see me, and I understand where we are. “So this is where the abyss is?”
The Shaman laughs. It’s not a pleasant sound. “Son, the abyss is everywhere.”
Dad stands and embraces me, admires his grandson.
“Are you all right?” I ask him.
“I’m dead, Stan. Doing great. Your mom sends her love.”
This is a lot to process. “Ollie’s having his problems.”
Dad nods, turns to the shaman, who hands him a tiny plastic bag. Dad places it in my palm. “Tell him six.”
That’s what’s inside the bag. Six berries like six tiny planets. “Isn’t that a lot?” He gives me a look, like who am I to doubt my mentor? “I’ll tell him. What about Deetermeyer? Katyana’s worried sick.”
Dad turns again to the shaman, who pulls out a glossy brochure from his bag of tricks, and Dad hands it to me: The Institute of Advanced Alien Sciences, with a picture of a smiling Simon Deetermeyer on the back. A picture of Mom’s sand painting is on the cover. “This explains everything,” he says.
Somehow, I doubt that, but I don’t have time to argue, for I hear the train whistle blow. “I have to go.”
“Wait!” the shaman says. He places his red hand on my heart. “You have healed yourself. Your blood flows everywhere. Open your heart, and your loins will follow.”
Dad and the refugee kid nod in agreement, and Natasha wags her tail with renewed vigor. Dylan gives one of his joyful shrieks, and I turn and run back to the train. All the smokers are inside. I can see them at the windows wagering on my chances, running across the dead land at my age. My blood flows like a mighty river. My heart sings. I engage my yogic breath.
Amir is in the entrance to the observation car as the train starts to roll, and he pulls me inside. I’m too breathless to thank him, and he returns me to my seat. “Rest here,” he says gently, and I do.
I don’t know how much time has passed when Katyana finds us slumbering, father and child. “Look at you two,” she says, her eyes full of inexplicable, miraculous love. Blood courses through my scarred arteries to every extremity. I have an erection, my first in five years. “I have to find Ollie,” I say. “I have a message from Dad.” I show her the allspice berries, the brochure, and tell her what happened when the train stopped in the middle of nowhere.
“The train didn’t stop,” she says, even as she’s reading the brochure, which does indeed explain everything. She points out the caption beneath the cover. Your Father Needs You is the title, not a message. She looks at me like I’m the one who’s needed. “Dad looks happy. He’s not in any trouble for a change. That’s all I really need to know. If I show up, that could just ruin everything. Let’s all go home,” she suggests.
And we do. The dogs will be deliriously happy to see us.
“Orphan Pirates of the Spanish Main” copyright © 2016 by Dennis Danvers
Art copyright © 2016 by Chris Buzelli