BY CARRIE HOFFMAN
In the backyard we grew an alien. It wasnít as difficult as you might thinkóit just took the right kind of soil, some quality fertilizer and water, and a little love. He came right up. He burst through the muddy ground like one of those whack-a-moles we hit at the fair every August.
The alien was tall. He towered over Motherís pink rose bushes and her garden of tomatoes and squash. But unlike the roses, our organic alien did not shift in the breeze; unlike the vegetables, he never turned soft and rotted. He was stiff, except for the spongy layer of fungus that covered his long body. As a joke, we liked to call him ďFigure 128Ē after a photograph in Brotherís science text.
Brother really liked science that year. Some afternoons he would pick off a bit of the flaky fungus and then examine it under his microscope. He would make soft sketches of what he saw and then he would hang them on the refrigerator like art. He kept soil samples inside of Sisterís old baby food jars, and then stored the jars in plastic bags that looked like jellyfish.
óUnclassifiable, he would say. Father would shift in his chair, cross his legs, and nod with ambiguous approval. Mother, in the kitchen, hummed to herself and changed the refrigerator art every couple of days.
Sister had been taking ballet lessons and she would pirouette and grand jetté underneath the alienís towering head. Her pink tutu moved in harsh waves that cast spotted shadows on the alienís ankles. She propped her leg up on the alienís hip, stretched her arm toward his pointy skull. In her head, she told us, she could hear a secret alien song that was good to dance to. Brother accused her of storytelling, but I listened closely, waiting for the melody of another planet to come into my fleshy ears.
Mother and Father were rarely around when Sister danced so glamorously underneath the alien, but they would venture outside once we were in our beds. We watched from the window. Nighttime was when the alienís white fungus glowed like creatures in the depths of the ocean -- and this is why Mother and Father liked to stand beneath the alien. It was as though they were standing underneath a romantic lamppost in Italy or France, countries I had read about in my Geography class. Draped in the light of the moon and the fungus, our parents would neck. Their bodies made triangular shadows on the wooden fence, cut in the middle by the alienís bright outline. Our father buried his face in our motherís shoulder; and sometimes he cried into her collarbone. We watched them from the window upstairs, my face on the glass, Brother and Sisterís bodies pressing against me from behind.
óMove over, Brother said, pushing Sister into the corner.
óShut up asshole, she replied and shoved him back.
And when I turned back, Mother and Father would be heading indoors, the alien still glowing, but dimmed slightly in the dark yard.
Spring moved on and other things grew up around the alien in the backyard: daffodils, parsley, baby birds and baby worms. The baby birds sat on the alienís shoulders while the mother birds went flying off for bits of string and small twigs. Soon, school was out for the summer months and there were no longer any obligations. Once I tied a kite to the alien and it soared for days, blue and pink and green in the air until the string broke and it crashed into the wooden fence.
Brother spent the first part of the summer trying to break the alien down into the smallest of particles. He took relevant statistics, and measured the alienís head, the width of his torso, the girth of his testicles. Sister started tap dance camp, and she informed us that she could no longer dance on the soft grass below the alien. She headed to the side patio where we could hear her feet click-click-clicking against the gray concrete. Her arms and legs moved in swift motions, but overall, the summer passed by slowly, like a disinterested traveler.
That summer, it was rare to see Mother and Father necking underneath the alien. They stayed indoors, my mother straightening the unstraightened, my father reading his glossy magazines. They did not venture outside, even when the summer air was cool and damp. Father cried a bit more, but not into Motherís shoulder like before. He cried only when he thought he was aloneówhen he didnít know that I was tending to the alien outside, or watching him sob through the sliding glass doors. Our father sometimes stayed in the car when he returned from work, his shoulders slumped over the steering wheel whenever I went to check the mail.
By the end of the summer, we stayed away from home. Brother, Sister and I went to the public pool every day, wearing our flip-flops, draping colorful beach towels around our shoulders. We splashed each other and swam until our lips were blue from the cold, and our eyes red from the chlorine. We walked home together, twisting our wet towels into snakes and slapping each other in the legs with them.
As the summer moved on, Brother gave up his scientific curiosity and Sister quit dancing in favor of diving lessons. We still had the same bedtime, only at night Mother and Father closed our door and stayed fighting in their bedroom. I stood barefoot in the hallway, listening with one ear to Brother and Sisterís snores; with the other ear, I listened to our parentsí strained voices. One night they argued about the stink of the alienís fungus; the next night, about the high cost of Fatherís dry-cleaning bills. Nights after that, the content of their words always turned to Motherís flirtation with the muscular neighborhood men, how she flipped her hair ever so slightly, and how scandalous her skirts were.
When fall came, Father moved out. His feet crunched through the brown, unraked leaves that covered the walkway, and then he was gone. We had no furniture in the living room because he took it all. When a light bulb went out in the bedroom, no one changed it. I did my homework in the evenings by the window, squinting in the dim light that came from the alien outside. Winter came early that year and Mother began to keep us indoors because of the cold and dark skies. While we were stuck in the house, she would leave us alone with cold hot dogs and carrot sticks for dinner. On rare occasions, she gave us instructions that we didnít follow. Instead, we watched television and became rather scatterbrained, losing our mittens daily and getting yelled at for it. When we picked at our scabby knees, no one lectured us about our poor hygiene. We visited the alien less and less. At night I looked out the window and could barely tell the difference between the tall alien and a tree in the yard, or a telephone pole out by the street.
Once, when we built a snowman outside, Sister mentioned that he should
be as tall as the alien. She made huge gestures with her arms. We
all looked over to notice that the alien was folded over and shivering,
still standing in the spot where he sprouted so many months before. Except
that now he drooped the way that Motherís pantyhose did as they dried on
a clothesline. We propped our alien up with thick sticks, but once we went
inside for the hot cocoa that burned the roofs of our mouths, we forgot
about him. Seated around the kitchen table, we debated elementary school
politics, our brotherís recurring nose bleeds, and whether the holiday
season would come at all that year. Meanwhile, the alien must have drooped
more, for when we went back outside with a carrot for the snowmanís nose,
the alien was gone, a pile of sticks left where he stood waiting for so
long. We theorized then about whether the alien walked away, whether he
dissolved, or whether he decayed into the ground. We wondered if he would
return in the spring the way that Motherís rosebushes often did. Then Brother
proposed that our alien wasnít ever there to begin with. Sister shouted
at Brother to keep his big mouth shut, but all the while I kept wondering
whether the alien ever came to love us, and if, after all, we ever really
B R A V E S O U L S R E C E I V E
PROCEED ELSEWHERE ONLY AFTER READING
AT LEAST THREE OF THE FOLLOWING:
One With Nature
Love in the Time of Coca-Cola:
Incidents of Egotourism in Central America
Van Neeko Clariot
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