"Pretty Purple Lights"
“Just saw a UFO,” I told her. I lay in bed with my cell phone pressed to my ear, my eyes full of dazzle, brain running its pragmatic subroutines to make sense of it all. I wanted to believe but didn’t have the knack. With this, as so many other things, I put my faith in logic.
Miranda’s voice sparked to life as she asked, “A real one?”
I knew I’d made the right choice to call and share this with her. All traces of resentment from our argument earlier in the day vanished like the sun behind the moon in an eclipse. It hadn’t been that much of a fight anyway. Miranda said in that passive-aggressive way of hers, “Nobody cares about me. Nobody listens.” I told her she was full of shit. Then we both headed off to our apartments in a huff. Now, I needed a way for us to move on from that without either admitting defeat. For Miranda, who loved to lounge around in panties and a tee shirt while watching alien shows on Netflix, what better solution could I come up with than to talk about something odd I saw in the sky? She loved to talk about flying saucers, military cover-ups, alien autopsies, Nazca lines, landing bases on the moon, and anything else to do with little green men.
Of course, I wouldn’t have thought of making this story up. It happened to be true. “Yeah,” I said. “A real UFO. I’m not saying it was a flying saucer or anything like that. Just a pyramid of pretty purple lights in the sky. It just floated there for a while. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it was aliens. It might’ve been, but…. I figure some rich kid was out there playing with his new drone. Still, I mean … yeah. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“That’s so cool!”
“It was beautiful, too. A radiant purple triangle….”
A few minutes after nine o’clock, I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette like I always did because my roommate Jason hated the smell of smoke. I paced around on the black, iron balcony, my hard shoes chiming with every step as if I were striking a brass bell with a dull hammer. I smoked, circled, stopped when the blaze of violet light caught my eye. It hovered at a point in the sky where no light should have been. It was past the murky mosquito pond, the woods in back of our complex trailing downhill, the rows of houses and the street below, and on beyond the next hill and next brief patch of oaks and pines not quite a forest, over where the folks with money lived. “What is that?” I muttered. It shone brilliantly through a gap in branches of the nearest trees where half the leaves already had fallen away. If it had appeared a couple of months earlier, I wouldn’t have seen it.
Immediately, my brain said spaceship. It was a made up of bold, shimmering beacons like the beams of three flashlights run through a curtain of purple satin. It looked the way spaceships often looked in movies from the 1970s and 80s before modern CGI and computers began to add so many unnecessary details. I thought of the stories I heard as a kid about strange lights in the sky that seemed to follow people home.
Whatever it was, it didn’t belong there. I smoked two or three cigarettes after dark each evening, and I recognized the red dots of two nearby radio towers. I could pick out an airplane’s lights by size, shape, and direction as it headed to or from the airport five miles away. Likewise, like a catfish seen through river murk, a chopper flying patients to one of the nearby hospitals displayed a certain mix of light and shadow that gave it away even before I heard the whir of turning rotors. This thing wasn’t a star, either—too big, too close, and a color unlike that of any star I’d ever heard of.
Without taking my eyes off it, I fumbled for the handle of the sliding glass door. “Hey, Jason,” I shouted, “you want to see something amazing?”
“What is it, Bill? I’m watching Dancing with the Stars!” He made no move to get up, but I felt his brown eyes staring at me from beneath those godawful Vonnegut eyebrows of his. I was sure his neck had wrenched around at almost a hundred and eighty degrees.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think it’s a UFO.”
“A what?” he whined as if he hadn’t heard me, but his recliner clapped shut with a sound like the crackle of lightning. Then he was beside me, leaving the door open as he lurched onto the balcony. “Where?”
“Holy shit,” he said.
“Uh huh,” I grunted.
“What the fuck is that?” he said.
“UFO,” I replied.
“UFO,” I repeated.
“I guess … maybe.”
“It’s not a helicopter,” I said.
“Not an airplane.”
“I mean, it’s not moving. It’s just … there.”
“Got to be kidding,” he said. “You have your phone with you?”
“It’s in the bedroom,” I told him. “On the dresser.”
“That’s okay. I’ll get mine.” He vanished through the doorway, returning a few seconds later with his iPhone. He turned on the camera and started filming, his arm raised above his head as if he were waving a torch to send out signals. “Glad it’s still there, but what the hell is it?”
“Maybe it’s one of those Amazon-dot-com drones.”
“Could be.” Jason ran back inside, leaving the sliding door open.
I reached over and pulled it shut.
A minute later, he came around the side of the building, having gone out the front and down the stairs. He kept moving, filming, and looking for a better view. “This is ridiculous,” he shouted up to me. “Nobody’ll believe it.”
I couldn’t be sure I believed it, but, there it was—the jewel on a sorcerer’s staff, a radioactive violet floating on the breeze, the crystal eyes of a geode carved like a jack-o-lantern.
We must have watched for fifteen minutes before the thing moved. Blurring at first as if set on vibrate, it headed down in a straight line like a streaking meteor. Trees blocked a lot of my view, but I could see its lights burning among what remained of the leaves like an acid-trip forest fire. A minute later, it shot back up, then went down again and disappeared for good.
“That’s why I figure it was a drone,” I told Miranda. “It went straight up and down. On those spacemen-mystery shows, you always hear is how UFOs fly in weird directions, cutting at impossible angles, spiraling and weaving.”
“Most of the time,” Miranda replied. “Not always.” She sounded so excited.
It thrilled me to have a way to break the ice with her after we butted heads earlier. I rarely found my way back into a dialogue so quickly. Her tastes varied too much from mine. She cared about different things. She loved dogs and costume dramas, craft beers and Chinese food. I preferred sports and whiskey.
With Becky Harris, my last girlfriend, it had been simpler. We both liked hockey and cats, so a casual mention of the Pittsburgh Penguins or the sending of a cute kitty meme on Facebook did the trick—especially the kitty meme. Becky was obsessed with cats. I could show her a photo of Adolf Hitler holding a tabby while he stood in front of a pit of broken, bloody bodies, and she’d say, “Oh, look. A kitty.”
Miranda, though, was a dog person. I didn’t like dogs, didn’t know enough about them to enter into an intelligent conversation on their habits, and preferred not to have one anyway. So, that was out. She also didn’t care for sports of any kind. Instead, she liked ghosts, Norse mythology, and, of course, flying saucers. She often told me about the latest spaceships-in-the-ocean or Native-Americans-worshiping-astronauts theories from the History Channel shows she watched.
“Hmm,” she sighed. “Well, you know what Giorgio says.” She meant the big-haired weirdo on that Ancient Aliens program.
“No. What does he say?”
“It’s aliens!” she screeched, her voice so loud that I had to pull the phone away from my ear.
“It’s definitely aliens.”
“That’s just what he always says.”
I chuckled, first at her words and enthusiasm, then at my own crazy thoughts. “You know what would be funny? If aliens did come to Earth, and they had a really twisted sense of humor. Maybe they’d hang out in the woods and play with UFO-shaped drones just to fuck with people.”
The sound of her laughter was almost as amazing and full of light as the UFO. It made me feel safe and comforted as though everything might be all right between us. “Sounds like something they would do. Look at how they always abduct hicks. They never pick up scientists.”
“True. They tend to snatch the dumbest ones.”
“Other than Whitley Strieber.”
“Well, yeah. Anyway, it could be a part of some cruel joke. Not like they ever learn anything about human intelligence from those folks.”
“Besides,” she said, “picking up scientists would be too risky.”
“Nah, scientists would play along. They’d be like, Sure, you can anal-probe me, but you have to let me anal-probe you first.”
She laughed harder. Miranda’s joy pushed me to continue.
“After all,” I said, “they’d want to fully explore that strange alien physiology. Think about it. Somebody had to come up with that egg-laying alien-penis dildo, right?”
She knew what I meant. She’d sent me a link to the clickbait story about this kooky gray prop prick that ejaculated gelatin eggs because, well, some people have a fetish about giving birth to Martians or whatever. Not Miranda, though. That was too far even for her.
I spent my morning working in the customer-service center, hiding behind the walls of my mini-cubicle and answering calls from people asking if the warranties were still good for their washers, dryers, refrigerators, and the like. Nine out of ten, I told, “I’m sorry to say it expired….” The tenth, I scheduled for a visit from a repair technician in whatever city the caller lived. It wasn’t a difficult job. Just tedious.
At lunchtime, I slipped into the breakroom and turned on the TV, switching channels until I found the local news. Most of my coworkers drove down the street to Wendy’s for lunch, so I was alone except for one black-haired young woman sitting on the green vinyl sofa and reading a book. I glanced at her as if to say, “Do you mind my turning this on?”
She ignored me and went about reading what I thought I recognized from the back cover as So Long and Thanks for All the Fish.
Cool, I thought. If she’s reading Douglas Adams, she shouldn’t have any problem with me searching for aliens.
If anyone reported a UFO over Charleston, I expected the local news to mention it. Channel 13, especially, was good about covering every wacky celestial happening, often with pictures. One of the anchors wasted five minutes once jabbering about a shooting star of the fireball variety that many locals believed meant the end of the world had come.
I stood in front of that television for twenty minutes, waiting for word. I saw car wrecks jamming up I-64, drug busts on the west side, and a high school teacher arrested for child porn found on his computer. There were two separate weather forecasts. The news and sports anchors traded glib banter about the college football games this weekend. But, no one said a word about drones, UFOs, or pretty purple lights. When the weatherman, an auguste clown of a chatterbox, appeared for the third time, I switched off the set and headed outside to smoke before time to return to work. I still had many folks to disappoint before my day would be over.
I picked up Miranda at the dentist’s office where she worked as an assistant. She recently had her hair dyed reddish-orange and cut short in a sort of 1920s flapper style. The new tint stood out on a gray day and gave her round, pale cheeks an artificial flush. She looked like she should be wearing a creamy satin ball gown rather than the navy hospital scrubs she put on every day. When she climbed into the passenger’s seat, my Subaru filled with the scent of her perfume like grapes and roses. Under that were traces of the more biting burnt smell of the hand soap Dr. Kim bought for his employees. I assumed he used a different kind for himself because I couldn’t imagine that odor lingering around someone’s mouth whenever work was done.
“How was your day?” I asked, leaning over to kiss her.
“Isn’t it always?”
“Worse today. We had a guy whose gums looked like something out of the X-Files.”
“Ooh,” I groaned. “Didn’t need that image in my head.”