The Photos

We catch up to Gary on the freeway. There is still no armed predator on his trail, but he’s high-tailing it out of his city. On the way to Bluthe’s safe house. A great deal has intervened, but in such a way that only the result interests us — as if the minutes passed in a kind of dance, a change of tempo that serves to bring the dancers together and set the stage for rocketing off the stage in different directions. All the movements direct our attention tendentially towards the center, and slowly it dawns on both the audience and the dancers’ unconsciousness that they are moving toward a spot that will signal the end of one major movement and the onset of another. From that moment on — and projected backward as far as you care to — every moment is seen as a movement subsidiary to the resolution.

The windows in Gary’s getaway vehicle have been cleaned of their deepest plastic haze, and some of the trash on the seat and floor has been removed. The car still shimmies and with less friendly weather the car becomes a certain death trap — bald tires, threadbare brake pads, loose steering and a seat belt that is stuck under the seat back. As is, a beer cradled between his legs, Gary is feeling quite confident. The radio, tinny and fuzzy, blares top 40 hits that occasionally hit that tone of minor-keyed remorse and hopefulness that his soul metabolizes into will. He looks at the scenery rushing by with a certain sense of mastery and takes another swig.

Alice had wanted to say no to Gary’s awkward invitation, but I believe she saw that the whole matter needed resolution. “All right, Gary,” she said. “The restaurant on X Ave?” Gary affirmed and they agreed on an hour later. It was just before they hung up that Alice said, “Make the reservation for four.” Gary had hoped otherwise, but he held onto the sigh that almost slipped into the phone.

When he felt his chin loosen a bit, he realized he equally had reason to be angry about the presumption that of course Reggie would be coming along and needing to be “filled in.” Given the stakes, he thought to himself, that decision ought not to be hers alone. He went along with this logic for a while before his own mind ran through some of the counter-arguments, which had some zing of their own and inevitably ended with Alice glaring at him and saying, “Fine, I don’t want any part of it.”

And he had the pictures. In his pocket. They weren’t very convincing photography, in end effect. But with the right context and the right assurance of authenticity, they might convince you that something happened. You may not believe that that something was of alien origin — how could anything we comprehend demand that conclusion of a skeptic — but you might believe that something very strange was afoot. You might ask to look at them again, in sequence. “If I didn’t know better,” you might say, admitting that you do and don’t at the same time.

And sure, he had the antenna with the green stain in the trunk. He even had its soup if she demanded a demonstration.

He got to the parking lot a half hour before their reservation with the intention of scoping out the location, but without a plan beyond that. I suppose it was sufficient for his purposes if he found no dark-windowed oversized SUVs and no government-issued recreational vehicles.

Alice drove into the lot right on time. Reggie got out quickly, before she stopped the car, and walked around the front of the suddenly halted vehicle and opened her door for her. She shook her head slightly at him in consternation, with a slight reluctant smile on her lips. This male posturing, she may have been whispering under her breath and without aid of her facial muscles.

From a row of cars over, Gary bellowed a big hello, as if this was a happy reunion and not an awkward meeting to resolve a larger problem that festered between them. He marched up to them while they were still concerned with closing doors and making sure Andrew was safely corralled. Gary stood closest to Alice, but tried not to get too close, backing up as Alice took several steps toward him while looking behind her.

“Gary –” she stopped, surprised to find him right in front of her.

“Hi, thanks for coming, Alice,” he said, before turning to Reggie, who had for an unarticulable reason put his arm around Andrew’s shoulders. He continued: “Hi, Andrew. Hello, Reggie.” Gary took a step and extended a hand to Reggie, but Reggie waited until he came up beside Gary — and Alice had moved a few steps beyond — before he reciprocated.

“Good to see you, Gary. Corinth.” His sinewy hand slipped over Gary’s, felt rough and crinkly. Gary could feel an unrevealed strength in Reggie’s fingers.

The procession into the restaurant made its way silently. Each second weighed just a bit more on Gary’s heart, as he visualized how the burden of every moment would fall on him. In this moment, he felt how unbelievably heavy his other burden had become, too, through days of secrecy — would he have the strength?

They had to wait ten minutes in the small area before the hostess station. Fortunately for all, Andrew wanted to engage his mother on his homework for Science class. Gary and Reggie could both safely watch their interaction, pretending that it somehow bound them to pay attention without engaging them directly. Andrew knew about his adult audience, if not why, and played it to the hilt. Alice seemed grateful, too, for the interlude.

When the hostess came to seat them, she seemed momentarily at ill ease, as if there was a potential collision approaching, as it would become clear that there were two Gary groups. But Gary clarified with a “Let’s go,” and the hostess sighed out of both relief and a slow-burning irritation at those whose ambiguities always threatened to explode into irate customers surrounding ill- tempered managers.

They sat down in a booth with comfortably high backs, Reggie and Gary to a side. They all hid themselves for a moment behind the massive laminated menus, until Alice assumed the initiative by putting down her menu.

Gary wanted to say, “It’s on me.” But he sensed the implication so he kept his mouth shut.

Alice began: “You said you had photos of something?”

Gary looked at her with a blank expression, saw the beauty of the face that he had had as companion so many times, what seemed like an eternity ago, and he couldn’t stop looking until her frown stopped him. “I hate to sound melodramatic,” he began, “but once you see these, there’s no going back.”

“What do you mean, no going back?” said Alice.

Gary risked another brief stare into the rich brown irises. “I mean,” he said and then cleared his voice, “two things. First, there is some risk in knowing what I am about to show you. I can’t hide that. Second, I think you’ll agree that the world is a different place after you’ve seen them.” He did not look around, but couldn’t help imagining how at each table around them someone was ignoring the food or conversation in front of him or her and straining ears.

Of course, it was at that moment — seeing the menus down — the waitress came back. A lot of crab was ordered, and she went on her way.

Reggie, as Gary saw with a quick glance, was sizing him up in a brand new way. Intrigue brought this conversation into a whole new context, and of course he couldn’t help but notice how off-put Alice was by Gary’s manner. Sure, Gary, just go about your business.

Reggie said, “Gary –“

“Yes?” he said, turning toward him, expecting the suspicions.

“What are the risks? Is this something – illegal? Like child porn or something?” He looked over at Alice to see how she would react to this dig; when all she did was raise her eyebrows he looked back at Gary to see what he had achieved with him.

Gary meanwhile was contemplating the relative strength of his heavyweight water glass and Reggie’s skull. Child porn. Not that — but in front of Alice? He felt his heart accelerate and imagined all the invectives he could hurl — perhaps not shutting up Reggie but keeping him silent just long enough to bow slightly to Alice and walk out of the restaurant and her life forever. Maybe get a dig in against Reggie’s manhood, but he’d still have to be careful about ethnic epithets, since he had no desire to be attacked physically. He wasn’t sure but maybe his lips were moving during this pause.

Then he said to Reggie: “The risks are minimal. Just keep what you see among us. For Alice’s sake.”

“Min-nee-mall,” repeated Reggie, in that widely American way of becoming homespun the moment you suspect someone is blustering with their education.

Gary didn’t respond, in part because he assumed such slights didn’t count for much with Alice and in part because the weight was growing — right there in his maw, in his fingers and arms. Alice was looking at him, unsure if his stalling was grandstanding or actual angst. Even as Gary felt less and less capable of continuing, he felt she was becoming more and more attuned. Perhaps the feeling of that first night had returned.

Gary reached into his pants pocket and pulled out about twenty Polaroids. “These aren’t the best quality, but I didn’t want any other records.” He pulled the first from the pile and laid it on the table in front of Alice. “This is a picture of the antenna apparatus. You will note the small glowing green image in the middle of the antenna.” Reggie stretched over the table while he let Alice have the full rightside-up look at the picture; he bolted back as if he had suddenly been hit by an electrical current and looked at Gary. Gary didn’t return the favor; he knew the expression: surprise and disappointment at such a meaningless display. He bore on. “Here’s a close-up.” The green was more evident, more clearly defined, but of course you could not tell exactly where it sat or indeed if it was not reflected off a surface. “Now,” Gary said, “here it is after I’ve flipped the power switch. It amplifies the signal.”

The green image was much larger, if still relatively indistinct. But for Alice the vital connection was instantly made. Even though the elements of the image were different, this was the same thing that had on that night projected itself into her mind. Here it was, in the middle of the desert / forest / wasteland / backcountry, responding to Gary’s command.

Alice let slip: “Oh my God.” Even more, after that moment of complete disarmament, Gary saw Alice look at him with a mixture of disbelief and something like respect that he had never expected to see again. Reggie saw it, too, but he was not leaning over the table this time, not dignifying this hat trick. A miscalculation, perhaps, but he obviously decided to hold to it.

Gary had more. “This is a close-up of the projected image. I figured out that the symbols were different atoms. Then I got a mix of the chemicals from a supply company and put a bowl of the stuff in front of the antenna.” Another Polaroid drops. “This is what the bowl looks like.” Another. “This is what the bowl looks like after the signal from the antenna finds it.” The now stereoscopic silvery device protruded from the depths of the bowl.

Alice picked up the photo and studied it. After a couple minutes of utter silence and stillness, amid a sea of human sounds, clanks and beeps, she glanced at Gary. “It’s looking at you,” she said.

“It appears to be,” he answered. “Here it’s followed my movement to the other side. Note the relative location of the beam coming from the antenna.” He allowed a moment for that to sink in — no doubt not long enough — and added: “Sometimes it tries to emulate my voice. It started pretty crude, but it’s getting better.”

After a few more seconds Alice let drop the photo she was holding, as if she had just seen a spider crawling on it. She had to look up again. Her eyes started on Gary but immediately slid over to Reggie’s. He tried to lock her gaze with a look that said don’t fall for this. But she almost imperceptibly shook her head, as if to say that she had no choice. It was unclear to Gary whether she had explained what had scared her so thoroughly that night, or whether Reggie had only gotten the in-the-light-of-day version.

That’s when she looked over and down at Andrew. He broke the impasse. “I told you,” he said with the half-impish voice he used to keep her eyes from glazing over — when he was talking about the things a pre-teen male imagines.

She seemed not sure which of his assertions he found validated here, but she answered: “You did, Andy.”

Andrew took all the Polaroids on the table and began looking at them one after another. Gary still had more, but the implication was clear to him. He would have to bear the burden on his own. For whatever Alice thought now, she couldn’t be involved without completely involving — risking — Andrew, too.

“I’ll need those back,” Gary said.

“Why?” asked Andrew.

“Because,” he said with a Hollywood glance at Alice, “I’m going to write a big report about this and I need the pictures.”

“You can take more,” he said.

“Maybe,” said Gary. “But I need these until the story hits the press. Until then, you’ll just have to be quiet about this. Don’t want to get scooped.”

Gary thought this was a pretty clever twist, but Alice of course saw how stalling her son was already too much conceded: he had infinite stores of energy to contemplate the matter from every angle, and you had to close the door before that energy could be brought to bear. Reggie took in her exasperated look and perceived once again that Gary was not going to be a problem for her and him. And the other angle began to interest him.

“So Gary,” he said, picking up one of the Polaroids on the very corner, as if the toxic chemicals that made the image had something to say about the contents, “you’re telling us that these are real-life pictures of an alien encounter?”

Gary puffed for an instant, tired of the two fronts on which he had to carry this conversation. “I’m telling you that this signal is not our technology. Where it comes from or why, I can’t really say.” He decided not to mention the Blue Ball Society or Bluthe.

“Well, even if that were true,” answered Reggie with a disdainful toss back onto the table — where the Polaroid landed in a small water puddle — “the government has lots of secret technology programs. That’s all this is. I would bet — if I were a betting man — you’re trespassing on government property there.”

“I suppose that could be,” said Gary, hoping not to continue this thread.

“Alice, honey,” said Reggie, “didn’t you say that somebody from Washington came by and asked about this stuff? He was just here to get the government’s property back, is all.” He leaned back again, pleased that he’d found the right fulcrum to get rid of this matter. “Government property. We shouldn’t do anything with it. We should just give it back.”

“I made the antenna,” said Gary. “It can’t be the government’s. And if the signal is a secret signal from the government, why don’t they just turn it off if they don’t want me to receive it? It’s not illegal to make an antenna, as far as I know.” He could imagine that it was plenty illegal to pick up certain EM bands, but he felt that he could probably bluff Reggie through that.

“The Man won’t ask questions when he comes a-calling. And maybe he’ll slap your wrist, but he’d just as soon slam my butt into a cell where the sun don’t shine.” Reggie half slapped his palm on the table to make his point. This was an angry side that Gary hadn’t seen before. It may have been what he immediately suspected — a canned reaction that proved itself useful — but it could also have had its own real genesis. Whatever, Gary was in no position to argue the point.

After that sank to the floor amid the general din, Gary said more softly, “I’m taking it away for good. You don’t need to worry about it any more.”

That, too, sank to the floor.

“I’d like to see it once. Can you show me?” said Alice.

Gary couldn’t help himself. On one level, he heard her fine, but on another he saw her say, ‘I’d like to sleep with you once, before we say goodbye forever. Can you do that for me?’ and they both stood up and walked out to the car, arm in arm. Reggie was left open-mouthed, surrounded with giant bowls of fried shrimp and crab, and Andrew eyeing him with a French Fry sticking out of his mouth.

“Sure,” he said finally, hoarsely, “it’s out in the trunk.” When eyebrows flared, he added: “It’s the safest place, I think.”

They ate in semi-silence. Reggie occasionally tried to engage Alice in commonalities, mostly from the church but carefully selected to exclude anything Gary might ask about. Andrew enjoyed the audience this provided him, but apparently also understood that the green stain discussion was over for now.

Gary’s mind was wandering, aching for a beer, barely perceiving Andrew’s tale about the battling robot he would build to make quick work of all the ones he’d seen on TV, when he heard Alice’s voice intone his name. ” — thank you for the dinner. But Andrew needs to get to his homework.”

“Sure,” said Gary, and felt like an idiot some seconds later when he noticed the check was on the table unclaimed. He picked up the check jacket and out of embarrassment said, “I’ll just take this up.” He got up and wandered toward the front door before realizing he needed to pay the server. He worked his way back toward what looked like her wait station. The woman he thought was his server didn’t look at him standing near her, as she punched in someone’s order, so he turned to find another station. Behind him he heard: “I’ll take that for you.” She waited until she was sure he was facing her way, then glanced at him and, with the confirmation, she smiled curtly. Then she took the jacket and put it down beside her. She punched in more items for a while before ascertaining, with barely a look, that Gary was still there, at which point she flicked the jacket open. She took the receipt, punched it up on her screen, swiped the card she found in the jacket, and struck a pose looking the other way while she waited for the credit card receipt to print. When it had, she placed it in the jacket on the counter, put the card back, tossed the jacket closed and handed it back to him with half a look and a cranked-up smile: “Have a great evening.”

That all handled, Gary signed and assigned the tip at the table, and followed his party out into the evening. They were waiting for him outside the door. He said redundantly, “Follow me.”

He had parked his vehicle somewhat out of the way. The precaution now seemed absurd, but he also felt a little bit of the flow of a movement whose conclusion has been telegraphed, as if no decision he made now would affect the outcome. Gary walked ahead and could feel that Reggie had put his arm around Alice, but when he reached the car and looked, Alice was walking with Andrew and Reggie was dragging behind. The lack of control was making him itch.

Gary waited until they had assembled in front of the trunk. He thought maybe he ought to say something but no words formed, so he turned, unlocked the trunk and raised the lid.

The antenna lay unceremoniously, half wrapped in a blanket to hold it steady, beside the large metal bowl full of the jell-o-like mix, covered with plastic wrap. The antenna had an unearthly shimmer to it — from the absolute smoothness of the surface and curvature — but what stood out was the glow from the center of the spiral. It was as if a radioactive paint had been sprayed upon an invisible spongy surface, a sickly pale green that stood out quite well in the darkness of the trunk well.

Gary observed Alice’s expression as she leaned forward to see better. She bent almost all the way over to get an unobstructed view of the signal, held her breath for about twenty seconds, then stood up again, mostly, with her hands and a good portion of her weight resting on the rim of the trunk. She didn’t look around. You could tell that she was processing, remembering the image in order to be sure that she had it, describing it to herself, breathing in the significance. One of those moments where you stop to consider that you are living along a trajectory, performing a dance that ends in your death, and it is the individual movements that define the dance.

With one unexpected step, you realize that it is possible that the deadening, indifferent universe may still surprise.

Alice looked at Gary first, in a moment that brought him joy. There were hints of tears in her eyes, wet with amazement, sorrow and disbelief, and her chin almost seemed to tremble. Then after just a few seconds, she said, “Thank you, Gary. Good night.” She took Andrew’s hand without acknowledging his questioning look — there would be a boundless sea of time to react to him — and took him away.

Reggie waited with Gary until she was out of earshot. With bravado: “That is some weird shit, Gary. Take care.” He had put his big hand on Gary’s shoulder and seemed to want to transfer another message through his fingers, as they pressed down through Gary’s jacket and shirt. Then he turned with a chuckle and went.