Keep Watching the Skies
SPACE: A very big, very dark place.
"It's all there," my mother declares cheerily, waving her tiny, arthritic hand in the direction of my childhood bedroom closet. "All the stuff you left behind."
"My entire adolescence?" I stare at the closet's sliding doors in dismay. They wobble and need a good coat of paint.
"Go wild," she says, then leaves me to my task.
Two years after my father's death, my mother, Dorothy, is selling her house and moving to a retirement community. Everything must go, she says. Still thoughtful and organized in her seventies, she has supplied me with three large boxes, appropriately labeled—"Audrey: Goodwill," "Audrey: Trash" and "Audrey: Keep."
Gingerly I begin pulling the junk from the closet, laying it out on my old twin bed: An Army jacket I picked up at a church thrift shop; a moth-eaten woolen poncho; the first four Joni Mitchell albums; incense and incense holders; a single pink and yellow artificial flower in a neon pot; an autograph book from junior high, signed by kids whose names I've largely forgotten; an assortment of blank postcards from vacations past; newspaper clippings whose relevance is not immediately obvious to me, etc., etc. A scratchy film of dust covers it all, sapping even the incense of its odor. I wonder how these particular items managed to survive earlier purges and catastrophes.
Then at the end of it all, lying on the shelf as innocently as a half-buried land mine, I find the essence of my teen days: Keep Watching the Skies: A Guide to Bad Science Fiction Movies by Audrey and Vicky Zelinski, copyright 1973. Although the title is from The Thing!, the cover of the spiral-bound opus features my sister's rendering of the Invasion of the Saucer-Men poster. The "saucer-man" has an enormous head the color of decaying cabbage, with bulging, vein-scarred eyes and furious, jagged teeth. Clutched in his oversized, talon-like fingers is a leggy redhead, stretched out in a classic vixen victim pose.
I open the notebook at random and marvel at the blue ballpoint writing, still crisp after so many years. I smile. The guide is about forty pages long and is divided into short chapters covering various "topics." I recognize my handwriting on some, my slightly older sister Vicky's on others.
ALIENS: Aliens come in many sizes and shapes. Some are small and slimy, while others are huge and hairy. Some are made out of things like stone and foam rubber. Some have painted ping pongs for eyeballs. Others have no eyeballs, or just one in the middle of their foreheads. Antennae are optional for some, but required if accompanied by pincers. Tentacles can be useful and fun. Aliens made out of rock are slow, but can multiply fast. Sometimes aliens look just like people and the only way you can tell they are aliens is to check their blood, which is usually green.
One thing is always true about aliens. They are smarter than humans, even the ones with lizard heads! Despite this, people always manage to figure out ways to kill them. Methods of destruction include electrocuting, blowing to bits, drenching, setting on fire, exposing to air; salting (really!), suffocating, and every now and then, shooting with plain old bullets.
MUTANTS: Don't confuse mutants with aliens. Mutants are just as ugly as aliens but come from Earth, not outer space. Mutants happen when Scientists fool around with "Mother Nature" and turn normal people into freaks. Generally speaking, mutants are angry creatures who enjoy taking revenge on normal folks.
I remember writing the guide with Vicky, though the words seem foreign to me now. We didn't write it all at once, in one burst of giggling inspiration, but over the good part of a summer. It was the year my dad, who worked at the regional Social Security office (Vicky and I never did figure out what he did there exactly), fell off the roof while cleaning out the gutter and ended up in the hospital with a damaged spine. The same year my mother had a hysterectomy. Too many fibroid tumors. Tumors that looked like alien fingers...
Anyway, my mother went a little nuts after the operation. Not because she lost her insides—she didn't miss the pain of those tumors one bit—but because of my dad. He went a little nuts with the bottle. Something about being imprisoned in the hospital for four weeks unhinged him more than usual. He started putting away a half gallon of Scotch a week, which is a lot of Scotch for one small man. My mother did her best to try to slow him down, but he was stubborn, like most drunks I know. I know a few. My sister is one, though she only drinks beer and wine. A six-pack here, a bottle there. Remember when drunks were funny? When comic relief meant a middle-aged boozer in a smashed hat, stumbling around, spouting inanities?
Vicky isn't funny anymore. She lives in England, far from this closet, a professor of psychology. She went to Oxford for graduate school, married a local and stayed. Then she got divorced and started drinking. Our last hours together, after my father's funeral, I told her she was turning into Dad. I didn't say, You're turning into a drunk, but she seemed to get my meaning. In retaliation, she told me I was turning into my mother. In her mind that meant humorless and cold. It's true that my mother, who grew up poor, is a no-nonsense woman, not given to extravagance, but I'd hardly call her humorless, or cold. Vicky hasn't spoken to me since, though our parting was strangely cordial. The hostile, unacknowledged silence came later. We keep in touch through our mother, who is only vaguely aware of our non-communication.
METEORS AND OTHER SPACE TRASH: Large plaster of Paris spheres that hurtle through space, threatening the inhabitants of Earth. If you want to study meteors, you need a special space ship, equipped with an ice cream scoop. The scoop catches the meteors as they whiz by (really!). If you're not careful, though, you might miss the meteor and get smashed to bits. Once you've caught one, bring it back to Earth and put it under a microscope. Why? We're not sure, but it has something to do with the entire future of space exploration.
Just like my parents, I am married, with two kids. A museum curator, specializing in photography. I live in a crowded house, a safe thirty miles from my mother. I don't watch sci-fi any more. Somewhere around Star Wars, they stopped being fun for me. Or maybe I stopped being fun.
I have to admit that, given her proclivities, my sister indulged me when it came to bad sci-fi movies. A local TV station used to run them every Saturday night, on a show called "Creature Double Feature", and I bribed her with Jiffy Pop to watch them with me. I allowed her to believe the movies scared me, but, in truth, I just wanted someone to laugh and groan with. After a while, I started keeping an annotated viewing log. I think this compulsive attention to detail presaged my curating career, although it was Vicky's idea to turn the log into the guide.
SCIENTISTS: Really smart guys, but crazy or nerdy. Will do anything in the name of science, including experimenting on themselves or other unsuspecting people! Like to study, not kill, aliens. (This point is particularly important.) Unlike normal folks, movie scientists know how to use slide rules. They can figure out how much electricity is needed at the power plant to cause a nuclear explosion in the aliens' cave...without taking a single measurement! A lot of people don't trust scientists, especially Army types. P.S. Don't worry about the nuclear explosion. It only kills aliens!
ASTRONAUTS: Cute, tough guys. Trained to withstand centrifugal forces, Tang, ugly Aliens, suicidal Scientists, corrupt Government Officials and peeing in their space suits. Dependable and loyal. However, please be advised...astronauts should never be sent into space if their girlfriends have just broken up with them. They will be so upset that they will forget that they can't breathe in space, take off their helmet and die a horrible (gasp) death!!!
Reading the above, I can hear Vicky's voice. Exclamation points, parentheticals, asides, ellipses...the stuff of high drama, that's Vicky. As I recall, she was having romantic troubles that summer. The boy she liked, liked someone else, and the boy who liked her, she couldn't stand.
That same summer, she came up with the idea to use my dad's Super 8 camera to make our own silent sci-fi movie. After appointing herself director, writer and star, she recruited her friends for supporting roles. The details of the story escape me now, but I know it gave Vicky plenty of opportunity to emote. Anxious to please, her would-be boyfriend Stan agreed to play the telepathic alien leader who ends up choking himself to death in an amazing reverse mind-control maneuver.
I operated the camera and created the special effects. The surface of the aliens' planet was achieved with colored lens filters over close-ups of mold-encrusted spaghetti, wet strands of the shag rug and a turd-filled litter box. I have to thank my sister for one thing. If it hadn't been for her vanity, I may never have discovered the joys of photography. Unfortunately, the film was destroyed in a garage fire during my senior year in high school, and my movie-making aspirations died with it.
I stare into the "keep" box. It's empty. Apparently I have no sentimental attachment to items from my distant past. They have slept undisturbed in this closet for these many years, I argue, why worry about them now? I'm fully aware of the irony of my feelings, so in contrast to my chosen profession. My own life is just past, you see, not history. I find my mother, sitting at the kitchen table, which is congested with junk mail and old newspapers, watching the kids across the street rolling the top section of a snowman in their front yard. Though her mouth is set, her eyes are smiling in amusement. She is easily buoyed by the happiness of children.
"Hey," I say.
She turns, startled. Her hearing has started to go. "Have you looked everything over?"
"Everything but the dust balls."
"Find anything interesting?"
"Just this." I wave the guide in front of her. "Remember it?"
She studies the cover illustration and her eyes light up with recognition. "It's that space thing you did with your sister."
"Amazing, isn't it?" I say, flipping through the pages.
"You and Vicky certainly were full of yourselves then."
"You read it?"
Mom nods. "I found it after you left for college. I assumed it had been safely de-classified by then. Is that all you're going to keep?"
"It's not like I'm going to be wearing an extra small poncho any time soon. Mom."
"The record albums might be worth something."
"Maybe, if they didn't have scratches as deep as Loch Ness on them."
"Vicky wants to keep everything from her closet."
"Vicky? You've already talked to her about it?"
"Yes. I called her last week, after I called you. I think she's going to have her hands full, packing that stuff up and taking it back with her, but she's determined."
"What do you mean 'taking it back with her'?"
"When she comes on Saturday."
"What?" I say, almost shouting.
"She's flying in this Saturday."
Mom heaves a sigh at my seeming dullness. "Yes. She says she's going to pack up all her stuff and ship it back to England. She didn't tell you?"
HOW TO COMMUNICATE WITH ALIENS: Shout slowly at them in English. If they are visiting Earth, demand to know where they are from and why they have come. If you are on their planet, give your name, rank and cereal number and tell them you're lost. Sometimes the aliens will ignore you, either because they don't understand English (incredible, no?), or because they're rude. Or maybe they just don't like small talk.
As threatened, Vicky arrives that weekend, and I have been assigned to deliver her to our mother's house. At the airport, we greet each other warmly, all smiles and hugs. The silence of the last two years floats away, like snow in a breeze. As she squeezes me, a powdery jasmine scent rises from her skin. I tell her she looks good, even though she doesn't. She's gotten heavier. I guess we all have, but she drags her extra pounds around like so many anchors, puffing and heaving.
The drive home along the damp interstate and sanded surface streets is filled with obligatory chit-chat, interspersed with quiet. I have taken the day off from my family to be with Vicky. Like the rest of the world, Nathan, my husband, has issues with my sister.
Later, as she's settling into her perfectly preserved former bedroom, complete with stuffed animals and flower-shaped throw pillows, I hand Vicky the guide. Her eyes get big, and a grin erupts across her face. "I was wondering where this thing had gotten to."
"I was thinking about it just the other day." She opens it gently, as though liberating some ancient text from centuries of darkness. "I still can't believe we wrote this." She reads a bit and laughs. "This is brilliant."
At the word "brilliant" her acquired English accent crashes through. In high school, she would sometimes pretend to be an English exchange student, inventing an entire other family, complete with dog and cat (but no little sister). When we played with the Ouija board, Vicky's spirits invariably were Victorian maidens who had met some horrible fate at the hands of their cruel masters.
As we sway next to each other, face-up on her old waterbed—the one she insisted my parents buy for her and then refused to decommission when waterbeds went out of style—Vicky and I take turns reading passages from the guide. Vicky has helped herself to a bottle of Chianti purchased by my dad prior to his death, sipping it from an "I Love Grandma" mug in between paragraphs.
"This is one of yours," I say, already amused. "'Aliens and Teenagers. Aliens and teens enjoy a special relationship. For some reason, teenagers are always the first people to experience aliens. Necking couples in cars are ESPECIALLY prone to seeing aliens. As soon as things get really HOT and HEAVY in the back seat, the aliens appear out of nowhere. Unfortunately, grown-ups never believe teens about aliens until the aliens KILL a bunch of them!! Some aliens and mutants are LONELY and are attracted to cute girls and rock 'n roll. Mutants are sad people who just want to fit in. Who doesn't??!!'"
"Are you sure I wrote that?" Vicky says.
"Can't you tell? I would never write about necking. You were the necker."
Vicky grabs the book from my hands in mock annoyance. "Remember when Dad caught me French-kissing Mark in the living room?"
"He walked right past us and opened the window. Never said a word, just opened the window. It was about 15 degrees outside. Mark was so humiliated, he never came over again. I got pneumonia."
"If it had been me, I would have been grounded for a year."
"It never would've been you, though, would it?" Without waiting for my response, Vicky reacts to the guide's "appendix", screaming, "God, we even made a top ten list!"
"You made it. You were into lists then."
I nod. "You even had a top ten Pop Tart list. Frosted strawberry was number one."
"You can remember that?" She sounds genuinely amazed.
"I still remember Bill Courtner's phone number and birthday," I say.
"You had a crush on Bill, didn't you?"
"Don't ask me why."
"He was cute."
"True, but he never would have watched bad sci-fi with me."
"Did you ever ask him?"
"I never spoke to him. Not directly anyway."
"You were pretty pathetic back then, weren't you?"
We go on like this for some time, reading from the guide and making odd connections. We don't discuss our present selves or the dark side of our parents' lives. I make no mention of Vicky's drinking, although she is clearly overdoing it even as we speak.
But like aliens who appear destroyed but are merely regrouping or regenerating vital parts, the memory of our last meeting eventually jerks to life and assaults us.
"Where's the family, by the way?" Vicky says, turning over on her stomach and causing the water to shift and roll under us.
I grab the bed frame to keep from sliding to the edge. "At home. They'll be by tomorrow."
"Do you think the boys will remember me?"
"How could they forget you?" I surprise myself with my bluntness. "The last time they saw you, you crawled into Brian's bed and passed out."
"So? Brian was sleeping there! You crushed him."
"I didn't crush him."
"Did to. He ended up sleeping with Nathan and me. He had nightmares. He still talks about the time his weird Aunt Vicky came into his room and stole his bed."
Vicky glares at me with hurt. "Is that why you stopped talking to me?" she says, finally.
"I didn't stop talking to you. You stopped talking to me."
"No, I made the last contact."
"Yes, I came to visit you."
"You came for Dad. And Mom. I just happened to be there."
"So? I came to you, not the other way around. And then you said nothing. No calls, no emails. Just two bloody Christmas cards, sent late."
I close my eyes, willing myself to patience, a practice perfected over years of child-rearing. "But you didn't send a card back, did you?"
"Audrey, c'mon. I know you've been mad at me."
"And you've been mad at me."
She smiles, triumphant. "OK, why were you mad at me?"
"You don't remember?"
"I remember we said some things. But so what? We've always ragged on each other. What did I say that got you so upset?"
"You honestly don't remember?"
I stare at the open page of the guide, allowing the words to drag me in.
WHAT TO DO IN CASE OF AN ALIEN OR MUTANT ATTACK: First off, panic!!! If you're a woman, scream, then faint (but only if there's a cute scientist nearby), jump in your car and drive, as fast as you can. Call the police. If you're a cop, shoot your gun at the aliens till you're all out of bullets. Scream, "Nothing will stop them!" Then run, as fast you can!!!
Vicky had raced from England as soon as Mom told her that Dad was dying. His drinking had weakened his heart, causing congestive failure. As we waited around his hospital bed during his final moments, Vicky and I managed to recall the good times we had had with him. We did have some good times, thanks mainly to his juvenile sense of humor and lack of inhibition. When you were out with Dad, you might wind up at the elbow of a charming, chatty stranger, or pop into a third-world restaurant for an exotic bite to eat. Just as likely, though, you'd be left and forgotten in the back seat of the Fairlane.
"I don't know about you," Vicky said, loud enough for the entire Intensive Care unit to hear, "but I had a great childhood. I sure hope my own kids—if I ever have any—are lucky enough to have a dad as good as ours. Don't you agree, Audrey?"
"Don't I agree, what?"
"That Dad was great?"
I gaped at her across my father's body. Was she lying, for Dad's sake? I didn't think so.
"Wasn't he?" she persisted.
Reluctant to say the words out loud, I furrowed my brow at my sister. "He's not dead yet," I hissed at her. Then I studied my dad's profile, as a tube filled his mouth with over-conditioned air. His skin had gone yellow and hung loosely around his cheek bones. His once-flirtatious eyes had shut down, preparing for oblivion. I loved him, but I couldn't say that he had given me a blissful childhood. On that point, I'm confident he and I would have agreed.
"Didn't Dad give you everything you ever wanted? Didn't he spoil us rotten?"
"Spoil us? When?"
What about all the days in between? I wanted to say.
"C'mon," she said, drearily insistent. "I think he'd like to know. He'd like to hear you say it."
"Audrey, please, just say it."
"Why? What for?" Then I mouthed the words, "I'm not going to say IT."
Vicky scowled at me. An hour later. Dad died. As he was grabbing his last breaths, I sputtered an "I love you. Dad" and wept. Days later, Vicky and I continued our argument in my kitchen, hurling the above-mentioned accusations at each other. I couldn't understand how my sister and I had come to hold such different views of our shared past. Was her memory deficient? Had she forgotten about our parents' screaming matches, the social embarrassments brought on by Dad's drinking, the ruined vacations, the forgotten recitals and parent-teacher meetings?
Or had she experienced the past differently than I? Were my humiliations just annoyances to her? Or had she actually resented our father as I did, but upon becoming like him, excused him, preferring to recall only the fun times?
"What did I say, Audrey? Tell me." Vicky's voice assails me with its intensity. She crosses her arms defiantly against her chest and fixes her full lips into an impatient pout. In the summer of 1972, she looked like Raquel Welch; her lips, breasts and hips were the target of my thirteen-year-old envy. If I had had boyfriends, she would have stolen them, and laughed. She was also smarter than I, though I was the better student. I knew this, but never admitted as much. I never would have given her the satisfaction. "I don't know exactly," I lie. I realize there's nothing in our guide about inter-species peacekeeping, because in the movies, the story always ends with one side conquering the other. "Something stupid and mean, I'm sure."
"Then you said something stupid and mean to me." She thrusts her hand into the air for emphasis. "Right?"
I sigh. "No doubt."
* * *
On the way back to the airport, Vicky tries to explain the differences between psychiatry as practiced in England vs. the States. She's articulate and witty. I can see why lonely people might come to her for guidance. She hides her own troubles so well.
The final bits of snow have melted, exposing the winter grass, made brownish by mud. Suddenly I am anxious for spring, though it's still a good month away. Vicky and I spent our last days together doing inventory in her closet, packing her memories away in cardboard boxes and heavy-duty tape. She was on her best behavior with Nathan and the kids, who had apparently forgiven her for their last unfortunate encounter. In a moment of generosity, I offered her the guide, but she insisted it was more mine than hers. Outside the terminal, we hug and kiss again and promise to call and write. Maybe we will this time. As she disappears through the glass doors, my heart twists a little. When I return to my mother's, she is stripping the sheets in Vicky's bedroom, wearing her lost widow look.
"Thanks for helping your sister," she says.
I shrug. "It wasn't too painful."
"I know she enjoyed spending time with you. And reminiscing."
"She does like to walk down memory lane. Especially about Dad."
She nods. "Funny, though. You were always his favorite."
"Your father's," she whispers, as though her other daughter were in the next room.
"He did. Many times. Usually after Vicky had done something to disappoint him. It worried me a little. She's so sensitive. I'd warn him not to be too obvious about it."
"Do you think Vicky knew?"
"Oh yes. She told me as much."
"Just before he passed. We got drunk together the night before, and it all came out. She said she'd always known, even when you two were little."
"The night before?" I flash back to the hospital, and Vicky's deathbed gushing, then to our last conversation in the kitchen. She had called me ungrateful. Spoiled and ungrateful and cold, even in the face of our father's death. At the time, I assumed these were words chosen indiscriminately from her drunken lexicon, though they still hurt. "She's an alcoholic, you know. Just like Dad."
"She thinks she's fine."
"Just like Dad."
"She doesn't listen any more than he did."
I glance at my watch and calculate the time in England. In approximately six hours, Vicky will be landing in London. The sun will be rising over the eastern Atlantic. I notice the guide still on the nightstand, open, full of adolescent angst and creativity. And hope.
SPACE EXPLORATION: There are no maps in space, and everything is millions and millions of miles away. Despite the dangers, you volunteer to go. Why? Because it's there. Or maybe some evil force is threatening the universe and you're the only one who can stop it. Or maybe Earth is dying and you, of all people, have been asked to save it!
Space travel is very hard on the nerves. If you've been in space for too long, you can get a little nutty. You may start doing weird, destructive things, like emptying all the ship's water tanks or cutting a hole in your buddy's air hose. Your friends may have to knock you out, or worse (if you're not the star), kill you. All kinds of things can go wrong with the ship. Meteorites can hit it, storms can knock it off course. But somehow (if you're the star) you'll always make it back home, safe and sound.
For a few blips one summer, I think, Vicky's orbit had aligned itself in perfect harmony with mine. A total eclipse of the universe. Like most astral phenomena, however, that summer was extraordinary, doomed never to repeat itself in our lifetimes. But we can always keep watching the skies.