The weather on Friday was cold and wet—no snow but a steady rain.
The podium was placed in front of and to the right of the life-sized models of extraterrestrials so that well-positioned photographers could get all of the figures in the frame if Larry and Elvis stood together at the microphone. Hung suspended behind the podium and models were an American flag and another flag, and this visual effect had proven the most difficult to achieve on short notice. That day, Larry told everyone that it was the flag of the intergalactic mutual defense organization that had sent them, but Elvis told me later that the organization didn’t have a flag, and that it was really the flag of the intergalactic police force, with a few extra stars and planets attached.
Reporters and photographers wandered in, soggy and ill-tempered. They had the resentful look of people who’d been taken off some juicy scandal to cover what would at best be a story about some financial deal between the U.S. and the Solomon Islands, wherever the fuck they were, to buy some aircraft part they wouldn’t understand and could care less about. They regarded the black-and-white flag with disdain; what kind of two-bit country, their eyes said, would design a flag like that? Ginger had done her best to get the international press there, but I couldn’t tell by looking whether or not she’d succeeded. I saw only one or two eager faces in the whole crowd—youngsters sent to cover an assignment nobody else wanted. I wished them well.
I had to hand it to Ginger: she knew what she was doing. When the Albert Einstein High School band struck up Robbie’s arrangement of the theme to E.T., I got a lump in my throat. Most of the reporters actually hung up their cell phones and craned their necks to see the podium.
The museum director stepped to the microphone, all smiles. When the theme music petered out, he spoke.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been asked to introduce to you two visitors who wish to speak to you on a topic of great importance,” he said. “Indeed, I can think of no topic of greater importance.”
Some of the veterans in the crowd rolled their eyes or exchanged jaded looks. They were expecting another lecture about climate change. Maybe the Solomons were about to disappear, which would save them the bother of figuring out where they were.
Larry and Elvis stepped from behind the flags and waited. I was glad that I’d talked Elvis out of wearing his new Witness Protection tee shirt. Larry looked distinguished, but Elvis looked as fashionable as he could have wished in a dark gray pinstripe and an open-collared light gray silk shirt. And even under the television lights, he looked cool.
The reporters shifted in their seats. Here were the same two clowns who’d already claimed their fifteen seconds of fame for rescuing a couple of tourists from a mugger on a slow news day. What did they want now? The Congressional Medal of Honor?
“Those of you who have seen our ‘Visitors from Outer Space’ exhibit will be familiar with the long history of government interest in the question of whether or not Earth has been visited by intelligent beings from other planets,” the director continued. “Some of you have perhaps concluded, like many of the scientists and researchers who have studied the question, that such visits have in fact taken place. I am here today to confirm your supposition. We are being visited right now, this minute, as I speak. I now yield the podium to two of those visitors, whom you know as Mr. Lawrence Smith and Mr. Elvis Preston.”
Some of the journalists were quicker than others, and their gasps identified them. Some of the veterans made other sounds expressing annoyance, exasperation, and incredulity. One or two leaned forward, eager to have a go at these publicity-seeking impostors. In the back row, a cynic on his cell phone had noticed the commotion around him, and was now asking his neighbors what he’d missed.
Elvis turned glowing eyes on him, and the cell phone disappeared from his hand. Elvis held it up for the crowd to see, and addressed the flabbergasted cynic sternly. “You should be quiet now and listen to what Larry has to say. We have come a long, long way to talk to you about the future of your planet.”
I saw other cell phones being slipped into pockets, out of the line of fire. The young reporters were grinning ear to ear and writing madly in their notebooks.
Now it was Larry’s turn. He shook hands with the director and smiled for the cameras. “Friends,” he said, and tried to tamp down the unexpectedly enthusiastic applause. “Friends.”
I caught Jillian’s eye and raised my eyebrows in appreciation. A good rhetorical strategy, I thought.
She nodded. “Tough love,” she whispered. “More carrot than stick.”
“Nice move,” I said.
“Friends,” he said, “much as we enjoy visiting your planet, getting to know you, sampling your delicious cuisine, and, uh, participating in your culture—.” Here there were a few snickers from those in the audience who had heard about their visit to the dance club. “Much as we enjoy all of those things, as I say, we are sorry to be sent here to deliver such a serious message. We are two hundred and fifty million of your Earth miles from our home galaxy, we’re tired, and we miss our friends and families, just as you miss yours when you travel long distances. We come, not on a mission of world peace”—here he looked at his audience meaningfully, as if attempting to make eye contact with each of them—“but of intergalactic peace—universal peace.”
They interrupted him with applause. “Universal peace” always drew a big round of applause, in my experience, until people were asked to give up the things they had to give up in order to achieve it.
“I represent a league of planets—an intergalactic United Nations, if you will—that is absolutely determined to eliminate aggression for the greater security of all planets. We cannot police the internecine squabbles that erupt on individual planets, nor do we wish to. But we will not tolerate violence and aggression directed at one planet by another. Let me be clear about what I mean here. We would regard the introduction of any nuclear weapons into outer space as an act of aggression, and we would act quickly to eliminate the aggressor. By ‘aggressor,’ I mean the planet. We would not have the luxury of taking the time to ascertain the country or individuals responsible. Our police force, on which Elvis serves, has been given absolute power to enforce this rule of nonaggression, and it has done so very effectively for many Earth millennia. I am prepared, if necessary, to demonstrate that power in such a way that none of you will doubt not only the seriousness of our mission but our ability to carry out what we have promised. I hope I won’t have to.
“Let me say again that we have grown fond of this planet and its people. Elvis here has grown particularly fond of your music and food.” A ripple of laughter released some of the crowd’s tension as Elvis smiled sheepishly. “We come as friends to warn you against pursuing the course you have set. We will not be back. If you don’t heed our warning, the ones who will come after us will come not as friends but as destroyers. We sincerely hope that you don’t allow that to happen.”
There was a moment of awkwardness in which nobody clapped, and then somebody yelled, “Let the big guy speak.” Other voices joined in.
Elvis approached the mike a little bashfully for a guy with two hundred and thirty-four friends on Facebook.
He looked down at the microphone. “Wow,” he said, and swiped a hand across his brow. “This is probably the greatest honor I’ve ever had in my life.”
Three people laughed and clapped, while the others stared at them.
I said to Jillian, “Is he quoting the person I think he’s quoting?”
She nodded and shushed me.
“I wish I’d brought my guitar,” Elvis said. “But seriously, folks, everything Larry said is true, so I hope you were all paying attention.”
“Mr. Preston!” A middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a sour look was on his feet. “Is it true you can destroy a planet?”
“Well, not all by myself,” Elvis said. “I might need a little help.”
A man with his arms crossed didn’t bother to stand. “You destroyed any lately?”
“Not lately, no,” Elvis said.
I felt the sweat pop out along my scalp and under my beard.
“No? How many have you destroyed in total?”
“Two. Maybe three.”
“‛Maybe three?’” The voice dripped sarcasm. “You don’t remember?”
“It’s kind of complicated. What’s your name?” Elvis said in a conversational tone, not angry or defensive.
“Walcott, John Walcott, U.P.I.” Walcott smirked at his cronies.
“Hi,” Elvis said. “I’m Elvis.”
The general laughter took some of the wind out of Walcott’s sails.
“Well, Mr. Walcott, it’s a long story, but one of those planets was dying anyway. See, the inhabitants ruined the atmosphere, and so it didn’t have enough protection from the star it was orbiting, and the whole planet heated up so the life forms couldn’t survive anymore. But the ones that were left attacked a neighboring planet, and that’s when we got called in for the wash-up operation.”
This explanation was greeted with silence. As if on cue, one of the more recently attached white dots came unglued from the black flag behind him and drifted to the floor.
Then one of the fresh-faced young women asked, “So is the Elvis look just a ploy or are you really a fan? How do you know about him, anyway?”
He gave her his lopsided grin. “We’ve been monitoring your television and radio transmissions from outer space.” He glanced at Larry. “Well,” he amended, “we were monitoring them until our scanner broke.” We had decided not to mention the previous New Mexico visit, even though we weren’t trying to hide Larry’s identity anymore. “I’m a big fan. Read my blog tomorrow. Or ask Larry. He’s pretty tired of hearing me sing ‘Hound Dog.’
“But listen, dudes, you should be asking Larry questions about our mission. He’s the one with all the brains. I’m just the prawn.”
“Brawn,” Jillian and I chorused softly.
“Mr. Smith,” called a man in tortoiseshell glasses. “Dan Jordan of the Times. Are you asking us to sign an agreement, or join this interplanetary defense organization?”
Larry returned to the mike. “Frankly, Mr. Jordan, we don’t really have much faith in signed agreements. Since we monitor your planet on an ongoing basis, we will know whether or not you’ve heeded our warning. As to whether or not you want to join the organization, that is entirely up to you.”
“You got some literature on it?” said one wag.
“Meg Falconer of the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Smith,” said a woman in a rather old-fashioned suit, standing up. “Will you be leaving right away now that you’ve delivered your message, or will you be staying to hear a reply?”
“We’ll be staying for a little while,” Larry said. “We don’t know how long. We want to disseminate our message more widely. In addition, we want to give you the opportunity to think about what we’ve said and ask any questions you may have.”
“Mr. Smith!” A man stood up in the back. “Harry Rosenthal, The Nation. What are your views on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Rosenthal, but as I explained, it’s not my purpose or my wish to insert myself into any wars taking place on Earth. For one thing, I’m not well-informed.”
“That never stopped anybody else in this town,” said the wag.
“I can only say that my people have learned to live without wars by acknowledging that all people want the same things—clean water, food, shelter, and safety for their children and their families. We are committed to meeting those basic needs. It’s a way of life I can recommend to you.”
He nodded to the director, who stepped in and ended the press conference.
The fresh-faced woman looked disappointed that she hadn’t gotten the chance to ask her follow-up question about Elvis’s transformation: how had he done it?
The boys were whisked away out of sight, but then somebody caught sight of me. There was a brief, frozen moment, before the hordes descended, when every eye in the room was on me, and I felt my stomach hit the floor. Then Jillian took my hand and said in my ear, “No comment.” She began tugging me toward the exit.
“Hank! What can you tell us about these aliens? Can they really carry out their threat?”
“Mr. Jones! Where do these guys come from?”
“Hank, is there any connection between these two aliens and Osama Bin Laden?”
“Yo, Hank! If these guys come from outer space, where’s their spaceship? It ain’t parked on top of the Pentagon.”
“Hank, there’s a rumor going around that Elvis Preston is the reincarnation of Elvis Presley. Can you comment?”
“Mr. Jones, have you seen any demonstrations of the spacemen’s special powers?”
They nearly trampled the Einstein High School band members in their eagerness to get to me, and the kids were scrambling for safety. I winced when a tuba hit the floor, but figured that the best thing that I could do was draw the mob away. In any case, Jillian had a grip on my hand that was tight as a Republican’s pocket, and she had now broken into a run. As I looked back, I saw our bodyguard-of-the-day, in his black jacket and Spartan Security shirt, trying to run interference for us. He looked like he’d had a lot of experience with this maneuver on the gridiron. Before I met Elvis, I would’ve considered him huge.
Jillian pulled me under a rope and around a barrier that said “Exhibit Closed.” We found the closest wall and leaned against it, trying to pant as quietly as we could. We heard footsteps rumbling past. In the dimly lit exhibit hall, I could see the shapes of four biplanes.
“If I could fly,” I gasped, “I’d commandeer one of those and fly back to Indiana.”
“Don’t be silly,” she gasped. “You’re having a great time.” She pushed off from the wall and approached one of the planes.
“I am?” I said. I pushed off from the wall and stifled a yelp when my back protested.
She was smiling and running a hand lovingly along the plane’s flank. “It’s a Mustang.”
“It looks like a plane to me,” I said.
“It’s a P-57 Mustang. My grandmother flew these.”
“Your grandmother was a pilot?”
She nodded. “A WASP, during the war. She also flew the C-47s on cargo transport missions. I guess she flew a lot of different planes, but she loved the Mustang. A lot of pilots did.”
I tried to imagine either of my grandmothers piloting a plane, or my mother, either, for that matter. “I don’t think my grandmothers had much to do with the war effort.”
“Of course they did,” Jillian said. “Everybody did. That was back in a time when everybody could support a war that was fought, like Larry said, to stop an aggressor. We weren’t fighting for big business or to boost the president’s ratings or because some right-wing Christian yahoo with the president’s ear wanted to kill non-Christians. Even after Pearl Harbor, we weren’t really fighting for revenge. Well, maybe some people were, but in those days the leaders of the free world didn’t declare war for revenge. If we could get Americans mobilized for peace the way they were mobilized for war in the forties, we could save the planet.”
“You think people were smarter back then?” I said, tracing a flame design on the Mustang’s fuselage. “The majority of Americans still think there were Iraqis in the planes on 9/11, and that’s why they supported the invasion of Iraq.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “We can’t seem to elect a quorum of leaders with the country’s best interests at heart rather than their own.”
“We can’t elect a quorum of leaders with the I.Q. of a tadpole.”
“We sure can’t elect a quorum with both public-mindedness and intellect,” she said. “Makes you wonder if we’re capable of heeding Larry’s warning, doesn’t it?”
I rubbed a hand across my face. “The odd thing is, I want them to succeed, Larry and Elvis, because it means so much to them, but I don’t give them much chance of success. I don’t have that much faith in humanity.”
We rejoined the others in a conference room, where the Einstein band members were being plied with cookies and punch and given the first crack at the spacemen. They were a pretty representative sample of their parents: some were asking Larry questions about outer space and the things he’d seen on his travels there, and some were asking Elvis what he really looked like and how he’d made himself look like Elvis Presley and whether he was married. I was gratified to note that the former were in the majority. Again, I had to hand it to Ginger, if she was the one who’d arranged this encounter. Larry and Elvis were both good with kids, and the kids would each take home with them snapshots of themselves with their pals, the aliens. In fact, I was a little surprised how well Larry interacted with young people. Given Robbie’s experience, I guess I should have known better. It wasn’t as if he dropped his reserve or his dignity. Maybe, I decided, he was good with kids because he treated them like intelligent beings. And let’s face it, some of these high school students knew more about astrophysics than I did—way more. It was too bad, really, that some of the ones who were capable of asking Larry intelligent questions about space-time were probably still writing essays that began, “Their are many problem’s in todays American society.” Did that mean I wanted to dedicate my life to teaching them to write intelligently in their mother tongue? Not necessarily.
One girl asked Elvis if he was wearing a wig. He blinked coyly, responded with, “Only my hairdresser knows for sure.”
Our departure marked the beginning of a new regimen, as far as security was concerned. We now traveled in Spartan Security vans, and our entourage had expanded to accommodate two additional bodyguards. Our security guard for the press conference had acquired a wire behind his ear. They tried to separate Larry and Elvis into two vans, but Elvis wouldn’t have it.
“I’m Larry’s main bodyguard,” he said. “I stick to him like goo. We’re like hot dogs and ketchup.”
He didn’t object to the other security guards. He accepted their usefulness.
“Dudes, I don’t want to vaporize anybody if I don’t have to,” he said.
“Fair enough. Let’s go back to the hotel and see what Anna’s lined up for you,” Ginger said.
“Can we stop at Taco Bell?” Elvis said.