Strange Encounters

In 1989, the South Carolina Fiction Project selected my story “An Invasion of Tourists” as one of twelve short stories to be published in Columbia, South Carolina’s daily newspaper, The State. The story, written in second person, dramatizes a male twenty-something’s encounter with two very strange bar patrons who seem not only foreign, but downright alien, and by alien, I mean alien in the extra-terrestrial sense:

There’s another woman, but something’s not quite right about her. In a tropical print sundress, she’s practically catatonic. Her eyes are fluorescent green, very far apart and don’t blink. Slowly, she picks up her banana daiquiri, cocks her head, and laps it up with a flickering tongue.

You stare in disbelief. She looks at you and smiles stupidly. “Hello,” she says, “how goes it, amigo?” Her voice is fresh, friendly, but somehow mechanical, like the voice on your Portuguese Made Easy records.

[snip]

“Where y’all from?’

“Q.”

“Queue? Where’s that?”

“Just around the corner from Tri-Alpha 6.”

They’re smiling like his and hers ventriloquist dummies. You manage to muster a fake laugh as the jukebox engages. Pop-a-top, pop-a-top, pop-a-top. Reggae. Bob Marley.

“Excuse us,” they say in unison and head for the small, tiled rectangle that serves as a dance floor. Like exotic birds, they go through elaborate steps, a mirror image mating dance. Then shoulder-to- shoulder, back-to-back, butt-to-butt, they shimmy, like two people with terrible itches.

“What’s the scoop on those two?” you ask the bartender.

“Beats me,” he says, “but they sure can do the Dorsal.”

As the story progresses, the unnamed protagonist sees more and more evidence of an intergalactic incursion. For example, the lead story on the eleven o’clock news is unexplained lights hovering over cars on I-26. After a sleepless night, he drives to the television station to share his story with the anchor. There he encounters a teenager convinced he’s also seen an extraterrestrial. The kid looks crazed, so the protagonist decides to bail.

You’ve called in sick. Deservedly so. You’re shook. You came within a heartbeat of making an utter fool of yourself. You can’t believe that you’d ever fall a victim of mass hysteria. With so little sleep, your memory is even more suspect than usual. Probably her tongue wasn’t as long as it seemed yesterday. Maybe she was wearing contacts that made her eyes that color.

Maybe you’re going insane.

You head out to the beach for rest and relaxation. You’ll swim, exhaust yourself, and go home for 18 hours or so of sleep.

Food. You haven’t eaten. Food will make you feel better. So you pull into Frankie’s Place, a rundown joint on the front beach. Seated on the deck with a salt breeze blowing, you feel better already. Frank, a fat, freckled, tattooed ex-Marine brings you out a cold one.

How’s business,” you ask.

“Great,” he says. “Tourists are flocking in from everywhere.”

“Do you get many from Tri-Alpha 6,” you ask, as if he’s your pal, as if it’s an inside joke.

“Huh?”

“Tri-Alpha 6.”

“What’s that? A fraternity?”

You don’t answer him.

As he waddles off, he shakes his head as if to say, “Give me a break.”

You turn to look out over the ocean, half hoping to see one flashing over the horizon, but there’s nothing, not even a cloud in the sky.

***

Scene of the Second Encounter

Well, brothers and sisters, yesterday I had a real-life strange encounter, though not quite as disorienting as the one in the short story.

I was walking my dog to the end of the unpaved road where I live (see above). A grey medium-sized SUV slowly made its way towards us and stopped. An elderly woman on the passenger side rolled down her window, and the driver, another grey-haired woman, leaned towards the steering wheel so I could make eye contact with both. They didn’t look like aliens from another planet but like characters in a David Lynch movie, corny and blandly friendly in a creepy, Trumanshowesque[1] sort of way.

“We just have a question,” the passenger said in a vowel-deprived Midwestern accent.

“Ask away.”

“What’s behind these houses? Marshes?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Marshes and the Folly River.”

“A river?” the driver asked. “There’s a river back there?” Her tone was incredulous.

“Yes, ma’am, a river.”

“But what are those long things jutting out? Flat wooden things projecting outwards. It looks like you could walk on them.”

“They’re docks,” I said, somewhat taken aback, wondering what planet they were from.

“Docks!” They seemed flabbergasted.

The passenger said, “You mean you can have boats back there?”

“Yes, ma’am. It’s deep water. You could take a boat out of there and sail all the way to Lisbon, Portugal.”

The passenger said, “We’re not from around here.”

I laughed. “I’d never guess with those accents of yours.”

They were beaming.

“Where are you from?”

“St. Louis.”

I mentioned going to see the Braves play at Busch stadium when my boys were young.

“We’re Cardinal fans,” they said, almost apologetically.

“No shit Sherlock,” I thought, but instead said, “I got to see Ozzie Smith do his backflip.”

They both smiled genuine smiles. They knew who Ozzie Smith was, which came as a relief. 

(You may have heard that during the Battle of the Bulge, army units would quiz each other at checkpoints with baseball trivia after they learned that German spies, wearing US uniforms and speaking perfect American English, were attempting to infiltrate the lines.)

I showed them where to turn around (it’s a dead end road) and bid them goodbye. Twenty minutes later, as I was walking to Lowlife for my afternoon constitutional, they passed me without waving, puttering along about fifteen miles an hour.

When I told the tale to my pal Jeremy at Lowlife,” he said. “Haven’t they seen movies? There are docks in movies. St Louis is on the Mississippi, for chrissakes. They must have seen a dock before.”

He added, waving and nodding, “I would have said, ‘good day’ and walked away.


[1] Yes, goddammit, add it to the dictionary.

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