It was the summer after the space shuttle Challenger exploded that I first began to realize the Austins' marriage was coming apart. This was August of 1986, the same time as the Hudson Valley UFO sightings. Remember them? People were seeing these huge, triangle-shaped airships just floating across the night skies over rural Cold Spring, Fishkill, Mahopac and Brewster. The local police departments were inundated with breathless, stammering phone calls from locals claiming they’d seen a flying saucer. No — more like a flying slice of pizza trimmed in Christmas lights!
The newspapers loved the story, and even the normally sober-sided New York Times got in on the act with a tongue-in-cheek feature on the phenomena that read like a script for a hokey science fiction movie. I thought all the reports were just another example of public hysteria and mass hallucination — until I saw one of the things myself.
But let me get back to the Austins. Jimmy and Candice were an interesting pair. He was a handsome, charismatic guy with an MFA in sculpture who’d given up seriously pursuing his artistic inclinations for a top job with his dad’s small chemical manufacturing firm. Jimmy went from sculpting ocean waves, his signature subject, to vice president of the company’s solvents and detergents division. He had kids now, and the job paid well – what else could he do, I guess. Candice (don’t ever call her ‘Candy’) was blond, blue-eyed and lithesome, where Jimmy was dark-haired, physically blocky and powerful. She couldn’t give a damn about art or literature, two areas that Jimmy loved with a deep and impressive knowledge. Actually, the guy was a polymath of sorts who could build a wing onto his house, hold forth on color theory in Fauvist painting, and name all the other Troggs' hit songs besides Wild Thing, sometimes all at once (I helped him with a lot of the grunt work when he built that wing, by the way). His favorite author? Richard Feynman, the physicist who explored quantum computing and nanotechnology. I couldn’t really keep up with Jimmy, but he was an easygoing sort who was fun to listen to, and really was very modest about his intellect.
Unfortunately, Candice thought he was incredibly boring. That was pretty obvious. Maybe when they’d first met as NYU students living the bohemian life in the village she’d forgiven him his braininess because of his chiseled good looks. Or maybe her curiosity about how a regular-seeming guy could be so smart just wore off. Whatever it was, it was apparent to me and to my wife, Jean, that there was no longer any magic there for her. Jimmy didn’t seem to notice, though, and I'm sure he would have gone on loving her anyway, no matter what. His fascination was not hard to understand — just his devotion. Like I said, she wasn’t hard on the eyes, and she had this quick and zany sense of humor that, while bordering on nasty, could be quite charming. And it was her ongoing search for wacky laughs that fix that UFO scare so securely in my imagination. One night in particular stands out. As I said, it was August and the Austin’s were hosting a little get together with us and another couple, Alice and Peter Grey. A smoky dusk was starting to cool down what had been a typical, sultry New York summer day. We were on the back deck, designed and built by Jimmy, a cantilevered affair that overlooked a small pond; also Jimmy’s handiwork — he’d sketched the whole thing out in pencil, then mixed and poured the concrete, planted some stunted bonsai and filled it with fish. That’s the way he was; if he wanted to do something, he just did it.
As we watched, golden carp rose to the pond’s surface like sudden shafts of sunlight in the murk. The smell of coming rain was in the air, and every now and then a firefly punctured the dark with a tiny pulse of green light. A circle of orange citron lamps glowed like little jack ‘o’ lanterns all around the deck, leaking a faintly greasy, lemony odor that was supposed to fend off mosquitoes. Believe it or not, we were playing Scrabble. Not a pursuit that would make most men and women in their thirties burn with passion, but we all had babies at home, safe with sitters, and a night out doing anything but minding children – even playing Scrabble – was a welcome respite. And it helped that there was always plenty of wine, beer and whisky, not to mention the occasional cannabis that Jimmy was fond of smoking.
The ever-competitive Candice had just won another round and was rubbing it in, cackling over her victories.
“I don’t know if you’re all up to my standards, here. This is really too easy,” she said as though addressing first-graders.
While she almost never came up with odd or exotic words, she had an uncanny knack for watching the double- and triple-word scores on the board, a by-the-numbers strategy that overwhelmed even Peter Grey, who was some kind of crossword puzzle champ.
“Let’s play again; I’ll kick your tail in the next round,” I told her, eager to wipe the snarky smile from her face.
She sat back and shook out her blonde mane, another ripple of gold in the night.
“Nah. I’m getting tired of this game. You schlubs don’t pose much of a challenge.” She poured herself another glass of Sangria from the pitcher that sat in the middle of the table. “Let’s do something else.”
“Hearts or poker?” Jimmy asked.
“No more games; something else.”
“Oh, c’mon hon, you’re the Queen of Hearts,’ Jimmy said, and made a corny show of grabbing her thigh, nicely revealed by short shorts.
She flinched ever so slightly and flicked his hand away.
“Hmmpff,” she huffed in phony disgust. “You just can’t keep up with me, admit it.”
“I’m done,” said Alice as she put her tiles back in the game box. “I certainly can’t seem to win tonight.”
There were a few moments of silence as we looked around at each other, all of us pleasantly tipsy. The only sounds came from the clink of ice in our Sangria glasses and the traffic out on Interstate-684 a mile away, surging in the background like a distant sea. Then there was a watery splash as a carp surfaced to gulp down another bug in the pond.
“All right then, why don’t you show them your ‘alien attractor’ creation,” Jimmy said.
“It’s an alien attractor AND repulsor,” she corrected him.
“Oh yeah, right … Why don’t you let them see it?”
“What’s he talking about?” my wife asked blankly. “Alien attractor?”
“Hmmpff, “ Candice said, crossing her arms over her chest.
“You guys have heard those reports of UFOS in the area, right?” Jimmy said.
“I heard about them,” said Pete. “A lot of people have seen them … You think they’re aliens checking us out, making sure we behave ourselves?”
“Might be. People have been seeing them all over Putnam County and up in Dutchess,” Jimmy said. “Strange, hovering V-shaped spaceships, or something. Some investigators think they’re a hoax, more than likely pranksters flying ultra-lights — you know, those tiny kite-like planes — out of the Stormville airport. They can hover and practically stand still. Apparently, if they fly close enough to the ground at night with lights outlining their wings, an optical illusion creates the perception they’re a huge airship … I’m not sure what to believe yet, but I haven’t dismissed the possibility they’re visitors from outer space — cue the theremin music. As Sun Ra and his Interstellar Arkestra put it: ‘Space is the Place.’ So keep an open mind.”
“Yeah right,” I said. “You’re stoned. They’re going to come halfway across the universe to commune with the woodchucks in Putnam, right? Or maybe they just want to hang out on Main Street in Brewster, take in a movie at The Cameo and then go over to Bob’s Diner for a burger and fries, like in that Twilight Zone episode.”
Jimmy stood up and said, “C’mon you’ve got to show them.”
Candice made her nasally “hmm” noise again, but got up, and it was clear she was tickled. Chances were it was a set-up, all part of a joke they’d dreamed up.
“Step this way then, ladies and gentlemen, “ she said in her best carnival barker voice and started down the deck stairs. We all got up and tagged along behind her. She led us around their old renovated farmhouse, to a side-yard where light streamed from the kitchen window to reveal what at first appeared to be a pile of junk.
“Is this a sculpture-in-progress?” I asked Jimmy. “A new direction for you?”
Jimmy still liked to sculpt, but his usual subject was ocean waves, sea froth and all, which he’d cast in cement and then paint in various aqua colors. The waves were realistic and full of energy, and he’d given me one that I kept on display in my family room.
“This is mine, not his,” Candice said coolly. “Pretty amazing mobile, don’t you think?”
“It’s really great, hon,” Jimmy said. “It’s like one of those found objects Cocteau would have discovered and transformed. Like that urinal that’s now in a museum.”
Candice stared at him like he’d just fell out of the sky and landed in the backyard.
“Wow. What the hell is it?” Pete asked.
A good question. From what I could tell, she’d taken an aluminum beach umbrella, stripped off its cloth covering and planted it upside down in the grass so that it resembled a spindly radar dish. Then she’d spun bright copper wire between its metal arms in a spider web pattern, which was creepy enough. But it was the old work boot stuck on one arm, and a Yankees cap on another, along with several other articles of Jimmy’s clothing, as well as a naked Barbie doll, some old photos from their NYU days and what looked like the innards from several gutted radios that pushed it into a potentially crazy, scary region.
Several “black light” bulbs dangled on wires from the spooky mess, so I wasn¹t completely surprised when she walked over and plugged the construct into an outdoor socket on a corner of the house. The ultraviolet lights came on illuminating the garish fluorescent paint she’d splashed on the sculpture even as the disemboweled radio parts emitted a keening, electronic whine. Then — and this was alarming — some of the metal arms began to flail about. I instinctively ducked, half-expecting one of them to fly off and impale me.
Jimmy seemed more excited than Candice, who just stood quietly admiring her creation.
“See, it¹s a kinetic sculpture, “ he said and strode around it. “Isn’t it cool? What a wild imagination.”
“I don’t get it, “ Pete said between laughs. “Why?”
“It¹s for signaling the spacemen,” Candice said matter-of-factly, as though we should have guessed as much. “It’s my alien invitation. When it’s on like this, it means I’m home and they¹re welcome to visit, maybe come on down and have a beer, or whatever. I hope they take me up on it so I can show them humans are friendly. Otherwise, they’ve got to base their opinion on wars and bad TV. I want them to know that we’re not all like that.”
She said this almost as though she meant it, but not quite. Just a hint of irony lingered about the corners of her smile.
We all looked on with drink-addled amusement and laughed at our friend’s nutty outrageousness, more than a little delighted to be in on any joke or scrap of oddness that took us, even for a few minutes, outside the boundaries of our more circumscribed suburban lives.
“Isn’t it beautiful,” Jimmy repeated a couple of times as he walked around the thing — drunk, I assumed, on love and alcohol.
Later that night, on the drive home, Jean told me she thought the Austins' marriage was in trouble.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't like the way Candice treats him," she said. "It's not right"
"She's always been sarcastic. That's how she is, that's her personality."
"No. She's so cold and clipped with him. He doesn't deserve that."
I had to agree with her. Jimmy was a good guy; always warm, friendly and funny. Candice seemed angry with him for some reason. "Maybe it's just a phase, something they'll get over."
"I really hope so," Jean answered. "But something feels wrong."
“Yeah, she’s trying to contact aliens, “ I snickered. Jean didn’t think it was funny, though.
We didn’t see the Austins for a couple of months after that. Something was always coming up — vacations, business trips, the kids were sick with the Coxsackie virus, etc. — the usual domestic churn. We saw the Greys a couple of times, though, and Candice’s alien-attractor would inevitably come up and we’d have another good laugh. It was especially topical because the UFOs were back in the news again, with several recent sightings over the local reservoirs that supplied New York City. Were the bug-eyed monsters plotting to poison the metropolis? Naw — we decided they were just thirsty after crossing the vast desert of space.
We all agreed we missed the Austins and wondered what they thought of the latest extraterrestrial visits.
Then, on a perfect Sunday morning in early October, a red Ferrari convertible fishtailed into my driveway, gravel flying before the driver hit the brakes as the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK" came screaming out of tortured radio speakers. I was in the yard trying to fix my lawnmower, and I didn’t immediately recognize the guy behind the wheel. When he started waving at me to come over, I realized it was Jimmy. He was wearing a black bandana with tiny white skulls on it and a black T-shirt with the Rolling Stones’ libidinous lips-and-tongue logo. He’d let his hair grow, too, and it trailed like wings from behind his ears. He pushed his mirror-shades down his nose, winked at me, and turned the volume down on the radio.
“C’mon, man — it’s my birthday; let’s go for a ride!”
“Let me check with the wife,” I said, welcoming any excuse to abandon the mower.
A few minutes later I was a passenger in the two-seater as it hurtled along twisty old roads, past tumbledown stonewalls and under overhanging branches ablaze with fall foliage. Jimmy raced the Ferrari around turns without bothering to downshift, getting uncomfortably close to some of the ancient, gnarly tree roots that seemed to heave up from the earth. He was sticking to back roads, former cow paths a hundred years ago, with names like Foggintown, Farm-to-Market and Sodom. The latter got its name from the bars and brothels that used to cluster along it when it was a playground for Brewster’s hardworking farmers, railroad men and miners.
“This baby drives like a dream, ” Jimmy shouted as he whipped around another curve, grinning at me from under the sky-blue void reflected in his sunglasses.
“Yeah, it’s great,” I yelled back as he revved the engine down a straightaway. “Where’d you get the money for this?”
“It’s a lease — just for the day,” he answered. “Wasn’t that much. I’ve always wanted one, though.”
“Nice,” I said, trying not to tell him to slow down as yet another curve loomed up. I didn’t want to spoil his high.
“It’s my fortieth today, you know,” he said. “It sucks. I had to do something to celebrate. Something different, a little edgier.” He hit the accelerator and I watched the needle jump to sixty-five mph. We were on a dirt road now that didn’t look familiar and was barely wide enough for two cars to pass.
“Maybe you better take it easy around this next turn.’’
It wasn’t what he wanted to hear; he wanted a confederate who’d tell him to gun it and to hell with everything, take a risk, live dangerously, put the pedal to the metal, man. I was too old for that crap — and I wanted to get older.
“Ah, c’mon, buddy, don’t wimp out on me,” he said. “This feels so good.” He stepped on the pedal and the Ferrari bolted forward like it was lifting off; I instinctively clutched the padded leather dashboard. I guess he noticed how pale I was because he let up on the gas and drove in silence for a few hundred yards at a less nerve-rattling speed. He cut onto Fields Lane, another packed-dirt road that was nothing more than ruts and well-worn grooves.
“Candice is having an affair,” he said.
I waited for him to say more, but he was quiet. I turned to say something — anything really — because I had no idea how to respond. He beat me to it anyway.
“Yeah, The Master of the Hunt bagged my wife. That sucks, too.”
Riding horses was among the Austins’ many hobbies, and they had two Morgans, I think they’re called – I don’t know anything about the horsey set. And really, it was Candice who loved the animals, and Jimmy indulged her. She joined a South Salem riding club without Jimmy – he wasn’t interested – and she often spent weekend mornings in the fall on fox hunts. I don’t get it, but the upper classes around here and in Westchester get off on chasing foxes around the woods. They gallop down the horse trails playing dress-up in their jodhpurs and red blazers and black helmets, their hounds baying for blood. From what I’ve seen, they’re a bunch of phony Wall Street jerks, real estate moguls and rich poseurs who use their ostentatious equestrian displays to show off their “class.” I mean, who can afford that crap and why bother anyway?
Well, Candice worshipped the riding rituals, and would frankly tell you she admired the rich for simply being rich. Anyway, The Master of the Hunt is the alpha male who heads up the foxhunt. In this case, he was a well-known playboy and scion of a family that made a fortune in the fast-food hamburger business. I don’t need to name the company; let’s just say its advertising icon is an idiotic red-haired clown and it’s as American as, well, the cheeseburger. His daddy owned more of the corporation’s franchise restaurants than anyone else in the northeast, and was reputedly worth at least $400 million. The family ached, no doubt, to put decades of rancid burger grease and bad food behind them as they pranced around the countryside on thoroughbred horses while wearing scarlet jackets and living in an overheated fantasy of leftover British colonialism. America is a weird place.
So beautiful Candice had caught The Master’s eye, and went for it. It wasn’t hard to tell that Jimmy was devastated.
“I know everything,” Jimmy was saying as we came up behind a gray-haired couple of Sunday drivers sputtering along in a Buick doing the speed limit, which was twenty-five. Jimmy was right on their bumper. “The Master’s wife found out and sent me all the e-mails between ‘em. You wouldn’t believe it; nothing but sex talk. Really crazy stuff, too — and they each used cute nicknames; he was Ken, she was Lila. I’m not freakin’ kidding. It was out of control — she loved this guy, would do anything for him.”
He was peering at me again over his shiny, inscrutable shades, and I almost expected him to suddenly give his belly laugh and announce he was yanking my chain; it was all a big joke, yuk, yuk, yuk. But then I saw the tears sliding down from behind his glasses, wet and cruelly glittering in the sunshine.
All I could do was slink a little deeper into my bucket seat and mutter that I was sorry, it was horrible.
“How could she do this to me. I’ve never cared for anyone but her— what did I do wrong? What’s wrong with me?" His face was slick with tears now, and he let out a sob and then gunned the Ferrari around the Buick, veering so close to the other car he forced it onto the shoulder. Then he hit the accelerator hard and we were flying up the road again. It began to occur to me that he was thinking about killing himself, maybe wrapping the Ferrari around a tree for a big dramatic exit from all his pain.
I asked him to please slow down.
He didn’t flinch and didn’t acknowledge that he heard me, just stared straight ahead. Who knows what was going through his head; too many ugly thoughts, I’m sure. But he slowed down, not to the speed limit, but close enough, and I let the tension go and eased back in my seat.
“I’m really sorry, Jimbo. I don’t know what to tell you. You deserve better.”
“What is it about our society that makes it so easy for this to happen? Do we have too many freedoms, are we too decadent?”
There he was, trying to analyze it from the cool distance of his intellect. The poison was bound to sink back into his heart at any moment.
“It’s been going on forever, Jimmy. It can happen anytime, anywhere.”
“Yeah, I know it. But it hurts so bad, man. Why would she do this to me? Why would she do it to our kids? I mean something like this, it’s like throwing a hand grenade into the middle of your family. And the worst part is, the shrapnel causes damage for years.”
I understood that; I’m from a broken family myself (and so was Jimmy, in fact) and I saw some awful scenes between my mom and dad, memories that still wake me at 3 a.m. These are scars that will never fade.
“It’s broken my heart and spirit,’’ he said. “Something’s missing now, dead maybe. You ever see an old tree that’s fallen over and right there in its center, the heartwood’s gone?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Well, that’s me. And yet, I don’t think I can leave her. I couldn’t do that to my kids, I love them too much, I love their future to much … I think it’s easier to tell a child his mother’s dead than it is to tell him you’re getting divorced — don’t you? ”
An unsettling comment, but with a certain splintery truth.
“Might be,” I replied, remembering all the nights I lay in bed listening to my parents fight, and wishing they were both dead so I’d be free of everything, all the screaming and sarcasm and insults; free from all the pain they inflicted on each other, and on me.
Strangely enough, it was only hours after that Ferrari ride, that I saw my UFO.
Now, I realize I might be undercutting my credibility here and maybe casting doubt on my sanity. But I can't lie; I saw something that night, something I can't quite explain. I was alone in our split-level ranch house out on Ryder Ridge; my wife had gone over to her mother's with the baby. It was about 9 p.m. and it was nice to have some down time to myself. So I grabbed a beer from the fridge and stepped out on the back deck and wham — over the treetops comes my UFO … Just floating … Silently … No noise at all; it was just there — an enormous triangle of light with a dark, opaque center that blocked out the stars. And then it was directly overhead, obscuring first the Cepheus constellation and then Hercules' legs and star-limned torso, where it seemed to stall and wait as I gaped up at it, Corona bottle in hand, immovable as I listened, straining for a sound, any noise, but not hearing anything — just like they said in all the news reports. Except, what hadn't come across on TV, really, was the sheer size of the thing. From where I stood, I tried to estimate its height and width, based on the nearby trees and houses, but it was hard to get any perspective; distances seemed warped and askew. It was definitely gigantic, bigger than a 747 jet, and it just hung there, magically levitating in the star-spiked sky.
A wavelet of fear swept through me, head to foot, followed by a cold, nauseous sweat. What I was seeing didn't add up, was incomprehensible — wasn't supposed to be there. Something was amiss in my usual, if somewhat dull, suburban universe. As I watched the giant glowing triangle edge slowly up the night sky, then down, then sideways, an uncanny calm came over me, a sense of acceptance, as though I’d told myself not to fight it — just believe. There it was, the impossible unfolding right before my eyes and I was suddenly in awe and full of wonder. It felt good, miraculous even, the way I imagine a religious experience would feel.
And then it was gone; I can't even remember exactly how it left, or disappeared, or whatever it did. It was like a movie screen suddenly going dark and sucking all that light back into the projectionist's booth; it just vanished.
We lived in a woodsy, isolated part of town and our nearest neighbor was several hundred yards away. I didn’t know them and didn’t even consider checking to see if they’d seen the object. Instead, I called the state police barracks out on Route 22, but the line was busy and stayed busy for the next twenty minutes. Finally, I gave up; the switchboard was probably jammed with people phoning in reports on the UFO. Then I flicked through the TV channels — this was before cable made it out here — and there was nothing.
I thought about ringing Jimmy up, but decided not to; I wasn’t in the mood to get depressed. Seeing the UFO had induced a kind of euphoria in me, and I wanted to hang on to that high. When Jean came home, I was already well into my fifth beer and was slurring my words with excitement as I told her about the visitor. But she seemed tired and unimpressed.
“You’ve been drinking. Are you sure it wasn’t a military plane out of Newburgh?” There was an Air Force base up there that was home to a fleet of B-52s and who knew what other top secret aircraft.
“No way. We don’t have anything that can hover and float like that. This thing was enormous and it just stopped dead in mid-air.”
“Sounds like a weather balloon, like they found out west in the fifties — where was it?”
“New Mexico. Area 51.”
“Wasn’t that a hoax or something?”
“It was never really explained.”
“Oh, C’mon. It was some local yokels playing a prank. That’s probably what you saw, too. Somebody’s big joke. Jimmy said they were flying those ultra-light thingys from that little backwoods strip over in Stormville.”
“I’m not so sure; nobody’s proved that yet, and what I saw, well, it was unearthly. There was something wrong about it, like it didn’t belong here.”
The baby woke up just then with his hungry cry, so Jean dismissed my UFO with a wave of her hand and put a pan of water on the stove to heat up a formula bottle.
“You’ll laugh at yourself in the morning when you’re sober.”
But when I woke up the next day, I was still freaked out about the incident, and I wasn’t hung over. I went outside in my bathrobe to pick up the local paper, The Reporter Dispatch, from its usual place on the front walk. My hands fumbled the paper from its blue plastic sheath, and there was my UFO in a grainy black and white photo at the bottom of Page One. “UFOs sighted over Putnam” read the uninspired headline, and the story told of multiple reports of “flying pyramids and triangles” seen over the eastern part of the county.
The prose was flat and matter-of-fact, as though chopped out on a tight deadline with no chance to communicate the wonder of the thing. The story reported that police were inundated with phone calls and witnesses described pretty much what I’d seen. An expert in the story derided the reports, saying they were most likely unusual atmospheric disturbances or a hoax, possibly by pilots in ultra-light aircraft. I didn’t buy it. Whatever I saw was not of this earth, to echo one of those old flying saucer movies.
Over the next couple of days I talked about the UFO with friends at work whenever I had the chance, but soon quit because I got tired of the skeptical looks and wise-ass remarks.
When I ran into Jimmy at the A&P a week later, the spaceship wasn't on my mind. In fact, he mentioned it first as we rolled our full carts into the parking lot.
“Hey, Candice saw that UFO that was in the paper,” he said. “I was away on a business trip, so I missed it, dammit.”
“I saw it, too.”
“Wow. Do you believe it was the real deal?”
“What I saw was real. I don’t think anyone could have faked it.”
“No kidding — you're sure?”
"I wish you'd seen it.”
"I'll tell you what, Candice hasn't made much sense since she saw the thing over our backyard; she’s totally convinced her alien attractor pulled it in. She really believes that pile of junk summoned it — that it came to see her."
“She’s yanking your chain.”
“I wish she were, but she’s obsessed. She’s been switching on her “attractor” lights every night since it happened. It’s almost pathological.” Jimmy didn’t look happy, but he could be a good actor when he wanted to put one over on you, so I wasn’t biting.”
“Get her to a shrink. Maybe she needs some electroshock treatment,” I said, joking, of course, although I found the mental image pleasing. “Nothing like a few jolts of electricity to bring you back to reality.”
Jimmy didn’t think it was funny; or at least he pretended it was no laughing matter.
“I mean it, Jack. I’m worried about her, especially with all the other stuff going on in our lives right now. I think she’s cracking up. She’s been acting erratically lately, and we’re fighting all the time."
"You two should get yourselves into therapy. You need to work through some issues."
I wasn’t really ready to discuss the dissolution of their marriage in the middle of the A&P parking lot, but I felt bad for the guy. To my relief, the conversation returned to the UFOs, and Jimmy wanted as many details as I could remember. He got me to describe the ship's blue-white lights and its shimmying movement across the sky —the way it left a momentary after-image behind that then caught up and merged with the craft. I told him everything I could remember, trying to keep it going so I didn’t have to go back and talk about his marriage. He listened intently, as he always did. Finally, he looked abruptly at his watch and said he was sorry, he had to run, to give him a call later in the week.
"Candice and I have date tonight," he said with a bitter little laugh. "It's something we're doing to liven up our marriage. We pretend we just met and then go out to lunch or a bar, see if we can't learn something new about each other.” He shrugged, signaling that it wasn’t his idea. “I'm trying to keep us together; whatever it takes."
We'd pushed our carts out to his Chrysler station wagon by now, and he opened up the tailgate and loaded in his groceries. Then he reminded me to call, got in his frumpy anti-Ferrari, and was gone.
I called him later that week and left a couple of messages on his answering machine, but didn't hear back. It worried me; I hoped they were getting along. I even thought about driving over to see them, but decided against it. I let a couple more weeks slip by without getting in touch.
That's when the detectives came knocking on my door. It was on a Saturday afternoon, and there were two of them. They were from the Sheriff's “BCI Unit,” the younger one said as he flashed his shield.
"The Bureau of Criminal Investigation," added the older detective, a big, pulpy-faced guy who appeared to have a drinking problem, judging from the rosacea that scrawled across his nose and cheeks, not to mention his sweetly alcoholic breath. "I'm Detective Walsh, and this is Detective Valenti, he said. "We just want to ask you a few questions about friends of yours, James and Candice Austin."
"What's happened to Jimmy?" I asked.
"Jimmy — Mr. Austin — is fine," Walsh said. "This is about his wife, Candice Austin. She's been missing for about a week. At least that's when Mr. Austin reported that she hadn't come home."
"Jesus, I didn't hear anything about this."
Walsh stared at me as I said this, watching for something, a twitch, or a nervous tic, I suppose.
"Was everything OK between them, was there any marital discord? " Valenti asked. Walsh didn't seem pleased by the interjection.
"Did you know his wife was having an affair?" Walsh asked.
"Well, I mean, he'd told me about it ... He’s not a suspect, is he? Jimmy would never hurt Candice, officers." I had to say it, out of friendship — though I wasn't sure I believed it.
"We didn't say he did," Walsh said. "We're just trying to get to the bottom of this. In most cases involving spouses that disappear, they just got fed up and took off. It's clear they were having some marriage troubles, right?"
"They weren't getting along lately, if that's what you mean. He told me she met this guy at her horse club — have you checked him out?"
"We've interviewed him already," Valenti said, tucking his shirt in over a premature potbelly. His boss gave him an exasperated grimace meant to convey that he should shut up. Valenti stepped back and Walsh took over again.
“As Detective Valenti pointed out, we've already talked with him. His wife's divorcing him and he's a person of interest. But I’m going to guess that your friend Candice is staying with friends out of town, and will — or won't — come back after she figures out what to do with the rest of her life. But I still gotta ask you a few questions."
He wanted to know when I saw her last, whether they fought, if Jimmy had been acting “suspiciously,” etc. I told him what I knew and repeated that I didn't believe Jimmy would harm her.
"She was kind of a whack job, wasn't she?" Valenti said.
"If you mean her sense of humor, yeah, she can be pretty funny and unpredictable."
"What about that flying saucer thing she had set up in the backyard? That was a little nutty, huh?"
"That’s Candice. She’s always doing things for their shock value; she has an artsy, theatrical streak."
"I'll say. She seems way out there to me. You think she believed in these UFOs?"
"You guys tell me. Everything I've read said the cops are getting calls about lights in the sky all the time."
"They're pranksters flying outta Stormville," Walsh said.
"That's what Jimmy said, too."
"We had a case recently over in Carmel like this," Walsh went on. "Wife went missing after one of those objects allegedly buzzed her neighborhood. She left a note, though, said she was leaving her husband for a "studley starman."
"Two months later, she turned up in Santa Barbara, California. Alive; had a nice tan. Now Santa Barbara is on another planet, but it ain’t Mars.”
A little titter from Valenti.
“This is after we'd spent hundreds of hours searching for her,” Walsh said. “Her ‘starman’ was a stud carpenter ten years her junior. He'd been doing renovations on the house. Obviously was renovating her, too (another snicker from Valenti). Believe it or not, there have been two or three other wives who took off, apparently hoping their idiot hubbies would think they'd been snatched by aliens. Crazy world we live in, huh?"
"If you're telling me you think she's a bored housewife who just up and split after her affair was discovered, I think that's a real possibility," I said. "I don't understand why Jimmy wasn't enough for her, but she was tired of him, I could see that. I'm not quite willing to say she was unstable, but she was certainly impulsive, so leaving suddenly would not be out of character."
That seemed to be what they wanted to hear. They probably had a whole backlog of cases — drugs, burglaries, sex assaults — the usual ugliness that festers just beyond the prim suburban fences and chemically enhanced lawns. Then there were the reports of missing teen-age girls, runaway boys and wayward, unhappy wives. Guess which investigations they'd rather pursue?
So that was about it with the interview. They told me to call if I had anything more to add, and they left.
I dialed Jimmy on the phone as soon as I was back in the house. He didn’t pick up until it rang nine times, and then he sounded depressed. His words came thick and slow, as though he’d been drinking, drugging, or both. But maybe he'd only been crying.
"She's gone, man, left me and the kids, I don't know where ... Maybe the aliens got her. Maybe they beamed right in on her emanations and came and plucked her off the planet."
"What are you talking about, Jimmy. You been drinking?"
"Nothing too strong, just vodka."
"Great. Listen, you've got to hold it together. Your kids, Graham and Emmy, they need you now."
"They're at my mother's over in Danbury. They're okay. I need some time ... I hope she calls me man, I miss her so much already."
He stopped talking and I heard him sobbing in the background, and then there was the unmistakable tinkle of ice on glass.
"Where'd she go? You have any idea?" he asked when he got back on the line.
"I don't, Jimmy. But she'll be home soon, I bet, like nothing happened." That was a lie I thought he wanted to hear. I’d been telling a lot of little lies lately.
"I really miss her, man ... I forgive her, I really do. She asked me, y'know, if I ever could, and I told her I didn't have an answer, that I had to wait for all the scar tissue inside me to heal up, to stop hurting so much. But I do forgiver her; I just want her back with me ... you’ve got to help me find her, Jack.”
"Listen Jimmy. I'm coming over. Don't go anywhere till I get there, okay? I'm leaving now."
He muttered something unintelligible and hung up.
"I’m in the backyard," I heard Jimmy yell after I'd been pounding on the front door for a couple of minutes. I went around the house and found him sprawled in a lawn chair on his deck, which was littered with empty Smirnoff bottles and crumpled Utica Club cans. He was wearing a pair of raggedy cut-off jeans and a T-shirt that was streaked with aqua-colored paint and smudges of gray clay or cement. He didn't bother to sit up in the chair when he saw me.
"Have a drink, old buddy," he said, waving a vodka bottle at me. “Salud.” Then he took a swallow.
"No thanks, Jimmy. How you doing? You all right?"
"Aw, who knows, who freakin' cares."
I sat down on a bench built into the deck across from him. He watched me and took another drink.
"I see you've been working," I said, indicating his T-shirt. "More waves?"
"Oceans of ‘em, they just keep coming. I wish they'd wash everything away — but they don't." He gestured toward his artificial pond.
Sure enough, there were several of his blue-green cement waves marching through the grass around the pond. Most were a foot or two tall, but one rose up about three feet, the height of a tombstone. Except for its size, the big breaker was typical of his wave sculptures. Fat at its base, it tapered gracefully upward and then crested in a fury of sea foam waiting forever to plunge on a beach that wasn’t there. I liked the wave; I appreciated its power and sinuous beauty. I also realized that it was large enough to entomb a body part; maybe an entire body. Candice was only about 100 pounds soaking wet.
I must have stared at the wave for too long, because when I looked back at Jimmy, there was a split-second gleam of recognition in his eye, as though he’d read my mind. Then his face flushed and he leapt out of his chair, stumbling as his intoxicated brain tried to keep him upright.
“You think I killed her, too, don’ t you?” he accused. “ You bastard. I thought you were my friend.”
He ran headlong into his garden shed next to the deck, and I heard him banging around in there among the shovels and tools. When he reappeared, he had a formidable-looking sledgehammer in his hands and he came right at me. While I didn’t know if he’d murdered Candice, at that moment I was sure he was going to kill me.
I was on my feet now and ran back a few steps, prepared to put some more distance between us if I had to. In his present condition, I didn’t think I’d have any trouble outrunning him. But instead of pouncing on me and trying to bash my skull in, he stopped in front of the big wave and started swinging. Blue-gray chunks went flying in every direction as he battered his creation to pieces. I didn’t try to stop him — that would have been too dangerous. Again and again he raised the hammer and brought it down with all the force he could muster, reducing the sculpture to gravel and dust in minutes.
“See,” he said, standing back from the ruin and wiping the sweat from his face with a forearm as he panted from exertion. “No body inside. Nobody. Nothing. I didn’t kill her, get it? I DID NOT KILL HER,” he shouted. Then he flung the hammer down, stormed up his deck stairs and back into the house.
Call me a coward; call me a lousy friend — I didn’t think it was a good time to follow him inside and console him.
I tried calling Jimmy over the next few days, but the answering machine always came on after two rings. I left him messages, basically telling him to give me a call if I could help, that I was worried about him.
I stopped over the Austins’ one night during the week, and Peter told me he’d been trying to reach Jimmy, too, but that he’d hung up on him. We decided to go over to his house together that Saturday to check on him. It went unspoken, but we were both thinking there was strength in numbers, especially if Jimmy went psycho.
As it happened, there was no need for concern; Candice came back that Friday. She just waltzed back through the door and into Jimmy’s arms.
I remember the day because physicist Richard Feynman was on TV talking about the inept management culture at NASA that led to the Challenger disaster when Jimmy called. Feynman was explaining the O-ring failure, and the billowing explosion was up on the screen, spewing fiery streamers into the Atlantic below.
“She came back,” Jimmy shouted over the line. “I’m so relieved, man. I couldn’t live without her.”
He was a somewhat incoherent, but I heard him say Candice was more beautiful than ever, as lovely as when they’d first married. He said that when she walked into the house, he just fell down at her feet and wept. That part got to me; I felt sorry for him — he seemed so needy and pathetic and unmanned. And I was angry at her for that reason, for doing that to my friend; yet I understood him. She was his goddess, forever and always. They were star-crossed and that was the end of it; there was nothing anyone could do or say to change that.
I was glad for Jimmy, but found the entire episode absolutely baffling; who knew life could be so bizarre? We’re all learning every day, I guess.
Candice and Jimmy soon found their rhythm again, their married rut if you want to be jaundiced about it, and returned to their old, comfortable ways. From then on, Jimmy always referred to her disappearance as her mid-life crisis come early, and kidded that he couldn’t wait for the real one to arrive in about ten years. Everything sort of went back to normal after that, whatever “normal” means. Jimmy sculpted even larger, more dynamic waves that still wait to crash on invisible shores; and Candice was just as zany as ever.
One thing continues to puzzle me, though. That same Friday evening that Candice found her way home and back into Jimmy’s heart, swarms of pyramid-shaped UFOs were spotted all over the northeast. The Air Force scrambled jets out of Newburgh, but none of them caught up with the purported spaceships. Then the mysterious objects vanished and we were all left searching the skies for answers that never came, just like in real life.
But what nobody ever adequately explained, as far as I’m concerned, was the change in Candice’s eyes. Where they were once a glittering, mocking blue, they were now a deep, oceanic green. When I asked Jimmy one night during a poker at their house why she wore her green contacts all the time, he smirked as though the joke was on me.
“What do you mean?” he said, glancing down at his cards. “Those are her eyes. They’ve always been green.”