I wasn’t kidnapped by aliens. That line sells tabloids, but it wasn’t true.
No, I went with the aliens of my own free will.
The night it happened I was drinking in this bar I go to sometimes. The place was too far from downtown to be popular with college students, and that’s why I go there, especially when I’m feeling low. My dissertation, a semiotic study of package labeling in the United States (1946 to 1959), was bogged down in the third chapter, and I’d been avoiding my dissertation director, who also happened to be sleeping with my ex-girlfriend Anita. Spring Break would be over in one short week, which meant I’d soon be facing a roomful of freshly tanned freshmen, bored, hung over, or buzzed, who would write me papers that began, “Their are many problem’s in todays American society.”
Before me on the bar, the rings of water left by my beer mug arranged themselves into patterns, and as time passed, these patterns seemed to take on a profundity of their own. I had tuned out the drama of March Madness, 2007 edition, hung suspended from the ceiling nearby, the clink of glasses, and the drone of the crowd behind me, even when it rose to a roar in response to something happening on the screen. I was repressing, for the moment, my anxieties about world peace, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, global warming, the state of the economy, the nuclear weapons Korea might be developing, the nuclear weapons we had already developed, the genocide in Sudan, the proliferation of natural disasters, the threat of terrorism, and the prospect of new weapons of mass destruction. I was indulging in self-pity, luxuriating in it like a heavy fur coat.
The guy next to me leaned over an empty stool and spoke.
“Forgive me,” he said.
I looked up at him. I took in the Bud Light on the bar, the cell phone he held pressed to his ear. I could hear a voice in it, chirping. Beneath the heavy odor of cigarette smoke and beer, I caught a whiff of something, soft as a whisper yet so powerfully evocative that I was momentarily knocked loose from ordinary time. Pipe tobacco, yes, and something else—an elusive scent of aftershave, familiar to me as my own heartbeat and yet, I couldn’t place it. I almost missed what he said next.
“Pardon me,” he said. The cell phone chirped again.
“Excuse me,” he said.
You probably think that his eyes glowed with x-ray vision or something, but he looked like a normal guy. Actually, he looked a lot like Alec Guinness—the young Alec Guiness, with a face open and expressionless as wallpaper paste.
“Yeah?” I said.
The crowd thundered its disapproval of something, and his eyes shifted, then returned to my face. He was wearing a gray suit and narrow dark tie in a place that ran to work shirts, bowling shirts and Hoosier apparel. On the bar in front of him sat a gray fedora. I was wearing dirty jeans, a hooded sweatshirt, and sneakers. Tonight, the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, the bar was awash in red, not green; I.U. was playing U.C.L.A. in the second round of the West Regionals. My neighbor outclassed everything in the joint, including the scotch.
“Could you tell me, please, what state we’re in?” He spoke pleasantly with a refined but restrained accent, possibly British, that went well with the suit. I could see now that he wasn’t that young, but he had the kind of face that was hard to pin down. Forties, maybe?
“I don’t know about you, man,” I said, “but I’m in a state of depression, in transit to a state of intoxication.” Bars bring out the worst in me, and depression wasn’t helping. I was a walking cliché.
He studied me a minute. “Excuse me,” he said. “I was speaking geographically.”
“Oh, geographically.” It had been two beers, maybe three, since I’d had the occasion to speak to anybody and I noticed that my tongue was getting in the way. “Let me give you a hint. See that TV set up there? The one that everybody in this place is watching except you and me?”
He glanced at the television and nodded.
“What game are they playing on that TV?” I asked. With the freshmen gone, it had been a while since I’d instigated a Socratic dialogue, and I thought I might have more success with an adult, anyway. Socrates had never faced a twenty-first-century eighteen-year-old, or he would have taken the hemlock sooner.
“It appears to be basketball,” he said, cautious.
“Very good,” I said. “Therefore, we must be in the state of —?”
He looked at me in some consternation, then muttered something into his cell phone. The phone twittered briefly and fell silent.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’m just being a prick. You’re English, aren’t you? Look, we’re in the state of Indiana.”
Enlightenment smoothed his brow. “Ah, Indiana! Home of the Indianapolis Five Hundred. The Crossroads of America.” He nodded soberly. “Indiana.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” I said encouragingly. “Except the Five Hundred takes place in May, and this is March. That means it’s playoff time. Sweet Sixteen time. NCAA Championships. March Madness.”
“Championships,” he repeated. “I see. Could you tell me, please, how far we are from the state of D.C.?”
I shook my head. “D.C., man, that’s a state of mind. A whole different ballgame. Out here in the sticks, we’re light years away from D.C.”
He stared at me, then something shifted in his face and he said, “You’re making a joke, is that right?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” I said. “I’m a real comedian tonight. Sorry.”
He smiled indulgently. “Not at all,” he said.
The bartender drifted over and picked up my empty mug. I nodded at him.
“Listen, can I ask you a personal question?” I leaned closer to the Englishman. When he didn’t back away, I continued. “How can you stand to drink that light beer crap? I mean, I know you’re probably used to drinking it warm, being from England and all, but that stuff is crap.”
He frowned at his bottle and glass. “I didn’t know what to order. You see, I haven’t drunk a beer in a very long time.”
The bartender set my mug down. “Bring another draft for my friend here,” I said to him. I slid over to the stool next to the Brit, and spoke to him confidentially. “We should really be drinking a German bock or a microbrew, or even a Killian’s, seeing as how it’s Saint Paddy’s day. But they don’t have any of that here. You could get it in town, but then you’d have to put up with the students.”
The bartender set a mug in front of him. I watched him take a tentative sip. “It’s very tasty,” he said. He plucked a napkin from a nearby dispenser and dabbed at his upper lip.
“You bet it is,” I said, and slapped him on the back.
He took another swig and smiled at me. “Now, about D.C.,” he said. “How would one get there from here? To Washington, specifically?”
“You want to go to Washington?” I asked. “You a protester?”
He frowned. “I’m not at liberty—,” he began.
I flapped a hand at him. “Never mind, you want to go there,” I said. “What you want to do is take I-70 east to Breezewood—.”
“Breezewood,” he echoed.
“Town of Motels,” I said. “In Breezewood, you catch I-95 south, and it takes you right to the Beltway.”
“The Beltway,” he repeated with some uncertainty.
“That’s the freeway around D.C.,” I explained.
“Would that be the Circumferential Highway?”
I shook my head. “The Beltway.” I put down my coaster in front of him, then drew a circle around it with condensation from my mug. “It’s kind of like a semi-permeable barrier, you know, like a, like a—a cell wall. You know about cells, right? Building blocks of life?”
“Yes.” He smiled as if the question amused him a little.
“Right, well, the Beltway is like a cell wall. It keeps a lot of stuff from getting into the city where the government is.”
“You mean, I won’t be able to enter the city?”
“No, no, you’ll get in all right,” I said. “Paying customers are welcome, especially if you’re in the market for tee-shirts, Washington Monument thermometers, miniature Smithsonian reproductions of eighteenth-century chamber pots, shit like that. It’s ideas and opinions they want to keep out. Objections to the way they’re running the show. You don’t have any of those, do you?”
“Yes, I do,” he said.
“So you are a protester,” I said.
You’ll say I should have considered the other option. You’ll say that in these days of vigilance against terrorism, I should have notified the FBI immediately. It never crossed my mind that he could be a terrorist. I’d read that the 9/11 guys had caroused a lot before their mission, and talked about the bevy of babes they expected to encounter in heaven. This guy looked more like a middle manager at a company that made widgets—a guy whose heaven would not be overpopulated with babes. Plus, he had a British accent, and the Brits are supposed to be our allies. But what did I know?
“Well, more power to you,” I said. I was feeling light-headed. I’d been keeping to myself, avoiding my friends. And after all that solitude, I was warming to the company of this British stranger.
“It’s not power I want,” he said.
“Just an expression,” I said. “Anyway, don’t listen to me. Just get on the Beltway and follow the signs into the city.”
“Oh,” he said. “And this I-70 and I-95, those are interstate highways?”
“Yep.” I picked up the salt shaker and made a long line of salt on the bar in front of us. “We’re here,” I said, tapping the bar with my fingertip below the line, “and Indianapolis is here.” I touched the line of salt. “You follow that all the way through Ohio and West Virginia and Pennsylvania.” I made another line of salt perpendicular to the first line.
“Breezewood?” he asked, pointing to the intersection.
He followed the new line of salt to the end. “Washington?”
I beamed at him. How I’d missed intelligent adult conversation!
“I am extremely grateful to you,” he said, licking the salt off his finger. “I hope I haven’t bothered you.”
“Nah.” I waved away his gratitude. “I was just sitting here, drowning my problems.”
“You have problems?” he said.
I signaled the bartender for another round and told him. He hadn’t finished the last round, so maybe I was buying his time. He was a good listener. Some of his questions were pretty basic, but others were truly sensitive and profound—or at least, they seemed so at the time. He wanted to know what a dissertation was, and a dissertation director, and once we got that squared away, he asked if it was customary to have sex with one’s dissertation director, since my dissertation director also happened to be Anita’s as well. That was a hard question to answer; it took a lot of explaining.
“Perhaps that is why you’re having difficulty with your dissertation,” he ventured. “When you work on your dissertation, you are reminded of your former girlfriend, and you become angry and sad. Then you have difficulty concentrating.”
I know now that the reason I got stuck on my dissertation was that I’d picked a lame topic, but in the alcoholic haze of my melancholy that night, what the Englishman said struck me like an epiphany. I barely noticed that his consonants were starting to liquefy from the beer he was floating them in. The guy was definitely not a hardened drinker.
“Jesus!” I said. “I bet you’re right!”
Then he asked me to explain what my dissertation was about, and I started in on that, but I hadn’t gotten far when he asked me to explain what semiotics was. So I blathered on about signs and representation and meaning, and did a few semiotic interpretations of the labels on the whiskey bottles lined up behind the bar, and the bottle of ketchup on the bar in front of us.
“It’s rather like mathematics, isn’t it?” he said. “But—well, more amusing and less practical.”
“I wouldn’t call it impractical,” I said, but I hadn’t taken offense. If he’d pressed me, I would have admitted that the primary use of semiotics, as far as I could see, was to provide me with a dissertation topic and afterward, if I was very lucky, a university teaching job in an American Studies department, preferably west of Dubai. But in the interest of demonstrating its practicality, I turned on my stool to look around for something else to interpret. That’s when I spotted the new arrival.
He was the tallest human being I’d ever seen, on or off a basketball court, but broad-shouldered, like an offensive lineman. He had just walked in, and stood with his back to me, so I could see only his silhouette. He stood with his legs apart, scanning the room, and the pose seemed familiar to me somehow. Then he turned in my direction. He was wearing a sport coat that looked like it had been cut from a charcoal plaid tablecloth, an open-necked gray textured shirt, and black pants. Wavy dark hair combed back from his forehead gleamed under the artificial light. He wore long sideburns. Deep-set eyes drooped sleepily under long lashes, until he saw us, and then they opened wide. He smiled, the left side of his upper lip lifting like a lopsided stage curtain over a nice set of teeth and a full lower lip. Semiotics would be wasted on him. The King had returned as Bigfoot.
I rapped the Englishman on the elbow with my knuckles. “Hey, man,” I said, watching the tall man advance toward us. “You got a friend? Tall dude looks like Elvis Presley on growth hormones?”