Tuesday
May062014

We're Coming for Them

Amy Benson


 

I.

We had been waiting for something in the city. As if our lives hadn't started yet. Likely it was static from the Judeo-Christian tradition—a savior always about to come (back), or a Cold War hangover, or nerves over dirty bombs and nuclear reactors. There was also a First World anticipation—surely something good, and then even better, was coming our way. We had been taking pictures of cornerstones, selling pretty well, barely registering the irony—as if a photograph of a foundation might itself be a foundation.

We went out to the country where our lives did not exist and a friendly local asked us if we wanted to see something that was really something? Like nothing we'd see in the city? We did. We brought our cameras.

 

Way back in sand dunes of scrub cedar and sumac sat a pole barn raised by hand with scrap—a sheet of fiberglass here, bleached pine there, washed up life preservers tacked everywhere.

Inside the barn, there is no other way to say it, was a flying saucer. Plywood had been warped into the classic shape—a disc body with a cockpit bubble on top, round porthole windows dotting the upper side. The exterior was painted blue. Blue like the bottom of a swimming pool, like a clear sky. Perhaps it was camouflage: we would never see it when it rose.

A hatch door swung down. "Go on, climb up. He won't mind."

Carpet remnants made the interior feel like a basement rec room. A swivel barstool rose up into the cockpit and was surrounded by a nest of electronics. We were supposed to believe in the blinking lights, the whir that slowly amplified to match the whir in our heads. There were coolers shoved into the corners, some topped with cushions to make seats, a small library in another area—medical textbooks, how-to for horticulture and electronics, programming, ham radio. A locked box contained, our guide said, offerings for when it landed.

He had covered the inside of the barn with mirrors, and when full length mirrors emptied his savings, our guide also told us, the man filled in with salvage mirrors from junked trailers, estate sales, even rearview mirrors from scrap yard cars pieced together across the walls and ceiling. In the world of the barn, the spaceship was everything.

This kind of waiting was finished with the earth and all that we might make of it. We set to work.

 

Word got out that we were looking for them, the secret builders. We heard of another and then another, in places people called "the middle of nowhere"—a misnomer as "nowhere" proliferated. We rented cars and drove through state after state, trickled down capillary country roads. We couldn't shoot fast enough; it seemed almost too easy: a rocket, an orb, a disc, a disc, a disc. Fiberglass, resin, aluminum, plastic, canisters of helium and propane and oxygen. Automotive toolkits, wires, and lights, and faith that when the time is right, the body will rise.

 

Mostly, the spaceship builders did not come out of their trailers or houses, though our local guides claimed they didn't mind the occasional tour. They were so serious they could not see that others might laugh. Some of their grounds looked measured and neat; some were spilling over or scraped to dust. Most were single, a few married, some widowed or divorced. The married ones interested us most—what sorts of agreements had they come to? were the ships built for two?—but we never met a wife. Most made regular visits to the hardware store where they either stared at their bellies and handed over a list, or they followed the clerk down the aisles and watched over the sawing of boards and the plucking of hinges and screws. Most got checks from the State, some had been in the Service, some had tried to live in a City and hurried home—all monoliths they'd wanted to escape. Some wrote stories for local newspapers about places they'd never been, some came to their town's operettas in pressed shirts, hat lines in their hair, some brought finished puzzles to the drugstore to be laminated. This is what the towns could see of them. Mostly they retracted from the main roads, back through trees and tall grasses, to spots where the stars looked personal. There they might see and be seen by the only eyes that mattered.

We learned all of this from the local guides, whose tab we picked up at the local bar or with whom we cruised the town and back roads, their cars nearly steering themselves around a loop. As our guides gave up the details, they usually seemed a little proud of their native loony. Proud, perhaps, that his version of loony was so ambitious. Sometimes the local just laughed—the spaceman really did belong on another planet—and gave a knowing look: he's not like us, you and me. But sometimes the local might eventually say, Sure, the guy was crazy, but if you listened closely, if you looked at his notebooks and his drawings, who knows, maybe he was the smartest guy around. Da Vinci came up a few times, his flying machines—what was the difference between the two? What are we missing? The local looked up, eyes surprised, a little feverish, before he knocked the thought back with a drink. We couldn't say how sad warped plywood and wires hooked up to nothing made us. We couldn't explain it, so we took pictures instead.

 

We shot every angle and vantage point—entry holes, fuel tanks, gaps in the construction, rain-swollen walls. We climbed trees and roofs to look down on the machines, got low among the biting things to frame a rocket nose against the sunrise.

Among the many shots, a minor motif emerged: spaceships in reflection. The first was the mirrored barn, of course. The next was in a salt marsh, standing water everywhere, pitcher plants in siren clusters. The ship was an orb hung on wires between tall poles, and, when it was weighted just so, it could zip from one end of the property to the other. The puddles, the water in the throats of the plants, reflected the sky and the brief flicker of a spaceship tethered to earth. The spaceship in a puddle was at once bobbing in the sky and boring into the ground.

Then another ship reflected in a truck's rearview mirror, another in the sunglasses of our guide. Through the lens, the ships looked more mysterious, the fantasy more possible, but also more remote, inaccessible to the eye, the will. That was the hope anyway.

 

 

II.

Eventually we came home, hauled ourselves up many stairs to our berth. We lived for a short time then in the undeveloped film, in each field and barn and scrapyard. We ordered in, we carried sacks of laundry down and then up the stairs, taxis and subway cars dropped us at predetermined locations. People of all description met our needs, or approximately so; in other words, we were back in the city. All the while, we hung back in the film, testing out the minds of the builders. Their presumed hope was: to be on the earth but not of it—a religious impulse—and then, more and more, neither of the earth nor on it.

But within weeks, the city had seeped back in and we were irretrievably post-marsh, post-night sky, post-distant neighbor, post-lone visionary. We could not all have pole barns, could not all go up. But there are many ways to hover, and this time the irony did register: in the city we rarely considered that there was ground under our feet, and the information that we stood on the unstable crust of one planet among millions did not seem relevant to us. We moved about as if in a futurist drawing.

 

At the opening, red dots accumulated in the catalogue with breathtaking swiftness. People looked as if they were seeing something on the wall and in their minds, and then in the air when they looked away. The volume rose in the room minute by minute. We felt very famous and ashamed for that one night. The excitement of others sparked a greediness in us, the slippery thought that what we had been waiting for was our own brilliance. All night we tracked that brilliance reflected in the glass and the eyes around us.

 

For a few days there was a flurry of activity—sales, commissions, offers to tour the show. One reporter wanted to write a profile of us. She revealed over coffee what she had dug up: our high school transcripts, photographs we took that ran in our college papers or still hung in a department store portrait studio, a few former landlords and lovers—the odd trail we didn't know we'd left behind.

And then there were the reviews. One critic said our images captured the curdled American Dream. This was the painful, salted beauty of second, third, fourth generation immigrants readying for another great exodus to a promised land. We had captured every angle of desire and the dead-end stories it tells.

Another critic, a bigger magazine, said we offered a shallow lampoon of Heartland America. That we made light of the thwarted ambitions of people stuck in a disposable economy. That perhaps these builders were the artists and we the coarse bullies who tore them down.

We carried these words with us everywhere we went, darts under the skin. You don't know us, we said on walks, in line at the bakery. You don't know how rich our empathy, how full our tone. We do not come by love easily, but we have learned to respect effort and the airless panic of failure. We took so many pictures of it. How could you fail to see?

 

 

III.

Cause and effect are notoriously difficult to establish; we'll just mention proximity instead: about a month after the show, we engaged a realtor, a guide to the outermost of the outer boroughs. She kept her face impassive and found what we required—just a shell, really, with loose zoning regulations. The neighborhood buzzes, but with subterranean machines not with people. There are many more bolt locks than windows per block, and when a dog barks, we understand from the echo that it is not standing on grass. Nothing rises above the utility poles, as if they murmur, "Bow down," and the buildings comply. It is, in other words, the perfect place to begin.

We've left our cameras napping in their plush cases; we've left behind our memory foam mattresses, too, though we spend both days and nights in the new warehouse among piles of lumber and fiberglass and scrap yard treasures. We've become builders. Yes, we can see the way this would play, the way our ship would become a destination, how visitors would tick off the references: Noah, Da Vinci, Columbus, Orville and Wilbur, and Bucky Fuller—all outsiders let in (by virtue of being right)—plus a little Dr. Frankenstein, a little Heaven's Gate. Late 60s/early 70s starmen songs would be playing softly in the background, and plastering the inside of the garage would be images of biospheres, cryogenics, floating cities, unexplained flying objects, jetpacks, and motherships. It would be called an installation in the broadside and advertisements: open to the public with a shuttle from the midtown museum. People would love to crawl up inside, pretend to push pretend buttons, wait for the roof to retract, which it would at unpredictable intervals, and count down to zero.

 

We have built a roof that retracts (and, of course, leaks when it rains), but we can see at most two stars on the clearest of nights and we will not show this when we're done. We are, instead, tending to a private urge: to gather all of our ambition, misanthropy, and fear—they are inseparable, really—in a disc and turn them ridiculous and cozy. When we finish, we will climb up in the evenings to drink our tea or a beer, take in the city haze reflected back to us, and we'll imagine what we might look like from a great distance.