Return to Part I
The man's coat hung over the back of his chair, its lining revealing to James' wry, unspoken appreciation the quality of silver fabric he'd come to expect from aliens visiting Earth. In one hand the man held an open beer; in the other, a glass of wine. The third clutched a small cup of Perrier, recovered at great personal peril from the depths of the fridge, as James felt it somehow represented a portion of humanity for which he could not otherwise account but honestly had nothing against. He considered that he might just have given the man a Coke, as they had that in places where they've never heard of Jesus Christ. That's good coverage.
For now he had him watching television. "This is pretty much how we learn everything," James had told him, handing him the remote. "You can get a pretty good sense of the place this way."
"We don't need to go out?"
James considered this for a moment. "Well, we have the internet now. But if you like we can go out later."
That was four hours ago. In all that time, the man sat almost completely still, studiously sipping from left to right via his neck-mouth, flipping channels by aid of his tail. Go out? Where would he take him? Where did people go in New York? People seemed to be out all the time. Surely they must all be going somewhere, having all manner of exciting, wonderful things to do. Museums and such. Opera. Bars. They call the place the cultural capital of the world, the place where you can find every sort of person and every kind of thing. Brooklyn to the Bronx and all points in between, surely he'd come to the right place to get his first impression of life on earth.
"This is what you learn from?" the man asked, clicking off the TV.
"We go to school, too, some of us, but primarily, more or less, I'd say yes, that's where we get most of our everything."
"Most people here don't pick up on that before they're thirty. Well done."
"Which one were you on?"
"What shows did they vote you off of?"
"Ah. None. Yet."
"Is this how you pick your leaders?"
The man thought for a moment, a rather blank look in his now blinking third eye. "I wouldn't have put the odds of six different car commericals appearing on six different networks at the same time very high. But it happened four times."
He twitched for a moment, flicking with a very long thumbnail the pop-top on his beer can. Earlier I apologized for its not being an import.
"This Israeli-Palestinian thing is a bit of problem, isn't it?"
"For them, yes, I imagine it is."
"Strange. They both sounded so nice on the record."
"They probably recorded them separately. Like the Beatles after 1965. The last real war between them was in 1967."
"You think those events are linked?"
"I hadn't really thought about it before."
"The Beatles weren't on the record."
"That's fucked up."
"Perhaps I should play it for you."
Tucking his tail away, the man stepped through the door with James close on his square heels. James momentarily suspected a ruse of some kind to lure him to a ship wherein he would be subjected to the worst sort of tests, galactic SATs, or ACTs, if he'd come from that part of the universe. Far better a European or Asian had been taken if standardized tests were to be administered. There would likely be a lot of physics and history. James broke into the same sweat that foretold the utter disaster that was his GREs. 500 in analytic reasoning, because he could not determine which of four brothers wore what color shirts on which days. Precisely why, he thought, advanced civilizations uniformly wore silver.
"I'm parked on 44th," the man said. "In front of a fire hydrant. But I'd like to see them ticket me."
"Are you cloaked?"
"Is the ship cloaked?"
"What's a cloak?"
"Jesus, I don't know. It's a thingy on starships that makes them invisible. Klingons have them."
The man doubled over in laughter from both mouths. James looked around apprehensively; anywhere but New York someone might have thought this exceptionally odd. "That's ridiculous," he chuckled between gasps for breath, putting a hand on James' shoulder and pushing him forward. "They have no such thing."
They came to a stop in front of Hu's Deli and Grocery, with ATM!!! Inside!!!. But with a $2.00 fee for withdrawals, James never went there. The place across the street, the NEWSTANDD (no typo), gave you cash for $1.50. And typically their milk expired a day or two later. James absent-mindedly felt for his wallet when he remarked that the man had pointed a keychain at what looked uncannily like a black Ford Explorer. At the least, he'd expected something a little bigger; certainly something that got better mileage. He stood in silent incredulity, registered on his face in the form of a raised eyebrow.
"Yes," the man smiled sheepishly. "Well I would have preferred a convertible but then it wouldn't have fit, would it? This is the most popular vehicle in the country that fit my needs. Given the number of them on the streets, I gather it is safe to assume that most people now have record players in their cars?"
"No. No, they have--"
"A shame. We've been through generations of recording technology, these have the best sound. You listen. I'll drive."
James stepped into the passenger seat, looking over his shoulder at the hulking mass of metal in the back. It didn't look well constructed, certainly not the streamlined, design-conscious, over-engineered, sixties retro-modern futuristic kind of device with which he was now familiar, with soothing blue lights and graceful curves. It looked like it had been put together by amateurs from spare parts and a French instruction manual. The man reached down between the seats and came up with a slender black wire, the end of which he plugged into the dashboard cigarette lighter.
"Power," he explained simply.
They pulled out into the steady and unyielding current of Manhattan traffic, the man tapping lightly on the wheel, hands at the ten, two and six positions. He saved two eyes for the road but allowed the third to roam where it would, over street signs and billboards, shop windows and women. In observing the movements James saw the city as a stranger. There was pride to be found in the roof terraces and wall to wall windows, yes. Likewise he felt shame at the homeless people and relentless advertisements, the number of McDonalds restaurants they went by, and the sheer number of people out on the street in the middle of a workday apparently with nothing to do.
Still the man tapped. Ten minutes into the journey, the lines of his mouth drew tighter as his third eye darted across the world. When the messages of greeting ended--as he'd said, all in pleasant tones, without a hint of conflict or resentment, no matter what their juxtaposition--the music began. Times Square played against Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F; the Magic Flute competed with Broadway's blaring horns and whistling cops. Short-skirted women and puffed-up men walked through red lights on Park Avenue, their steps irksomely out of synch with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and a Navajo Night Chant. On Central Park West, Indian raga seemed out of place, and clearly Radio Moscow's recording of the Georgian S.S.R chorus did not belong on Wall Street. Only in the shadow of the Empire State Building did Beethoven's Fifth make a match.
It struck James that he had for years been underestimating his parents. In the few hours between working full-time jobs and looking after him--as shoddily as he maintained that had been done--they managed to acquire recordings of or master roughly fifty languages, at least two of which had died out of usage well before plumbing became all the rage in Rome. They'd collected detailed information on human anatomy, experienced South American tribal music, and put together a functional space-going record player with technology at which his Palm Pilot, had it a mouth, would laugh uproariously. They reached out to a world beyond their own. Meanwhile, his skill set scarcely included the minimum requirements for maintaining and operating shoe laces, buckles, and snaps, deficiencies attested to by the presence of velcro wherever such challenges might have presented themselves. James remained uncertain at the conclusion of their long undirected drive if the confusion he saw on the man's face was genuine, or merely a reflection of his own. He sat in silence and waited to find out.
"That was our favorite," the man said, referring to the Beethoven. "That is why I came." His mood had changed. Stopping the car at Washington Square he left his hands on the wheel but said nothing more. All three eyes searched independently over the scene before him, until one by one they fell on James. James, who squirmed in his seat, who suddently felt as though someone was feather-dusting his brain.
"Where is Beethoven?" the man asked. James said nothing. He looked away to the Washington Arch, a little Arc de Triomphe standing in stately magnificence at the bottom of 5th Avenue. What did it mean, he wondered. Who put it there, and why, what was its significance? To what victory of man did it attest?
"The Hittites," the man pressed. "Where are they?"
Again James could not respond. An old familiar throbbing crept behind his eye. Where should I take him? James asked himself, pinpoints of light appearing in his vision.
"Where are the Andean girls and the Balinese dancers? The eagles, the elephants, and tree-toads? Where is Ansel Adams?"
"I...I don't know..."
"But you must. Of course, you must. It's your record. You sent it. It's your world."
James looked though the circle of his eyes. It had become a reticle, a sight to be dragged over the faces of hot dog vendors and drug dealers, skateboarders, students, performance artists, policemen, businessmen, men and women carrying briefcases, iPods, laptops, cell phones, plastic-topped and over-flowing Starbucks coffee cups. Skin and hair and eyes of all colors, all types of clothing with all manner of logos and markers, designators, identifiers. All sorts of people doing all sorts of things in the cultural capital of the world. People just like him. But no Beethoven. Because Beethoven was dead. No one living had ever even heard his music how he played it. He left us notes; we assumed the rest, and sent the message on through time. What would you assume?
Sickness squeezed James' intestines; pain pushed moisture into his eyes. "They're not here," he said, at last, unable to look the man in any of his eyes. "They're gone. He's dead. They're all dead. I'm sorry--I don't know what happened--we don't--we don't have them anymore."
Disappointment has a universal face. The man sat silently for a moment, looking straight on at James, then exhaled deeply and relaxed into his seat. The circle blurred and failed, taking the headache with it. James watched as the man went over the data in his mind; he could hear the thoughts forming, almost unable to determine from which of them the questions were going to come. The man spoke first.
"Let's sit outside, shall we? It is a pleasant day."
James bought him a hot dog; he felt it was the least he could do. The two sat in the park on the rim of the fountain, their strangeness unobserved by the galaxy of people moving around them, each a star in his or her own mind. All in close proximity compared to the greater space, but still set apart by light-years of self-interest. One of those dark days, when aliens from beyond the solar system wear looks of disdain and your hot dog has too much mustard on it.
"Tell me, then," he began, taking surreptitious bites. "When exactly did you lose him?" His tone was light but forced in its attempt to maintain their previous civility.
"I'm not certain, exactly. Eighteen-hundred something. Two hundred years ago, or so. A while."
"Did Salieri kill him too?"
"No. No, I don't know what happened to him."
"I see. And Bach, he died--"
"Earlier. Before Mozart."
"I think Ansel Adams only died a few years ago."
"So he was alive when you sent the record, you mean."
"But none of the others."
"Johnny B. Goode?"
"Came out in the fifties."
"Twenty years before you sent it."
"I see. I see. I understand now, I think. Something happened. Yes. Something happened that you didn't want us to know, perhaps? Something that made you selfishly and misleadingly send out nothing more than echoes of a dead planet?"
The sudden vitriol made James nervous. He hadn't heretofore witnessed any displays of hostility, or any real threat from the stranger. His thoughts drifted to the poster on his wall and the burning city in the background. Three-handed, three-eyed, prehensile-tailed, square-heeled two-mouthed aliens. With telepathic abilities, no less, and who knew what else. Their armies would not arrive in SUVs, of that much James felt certain. But they'd be put to new use when they arrived. The 2004 Ford Subjugator. The Subaru Slave Transport. Which of them would sell out first, he wondered? Would he be able to keep his job under the new management?
"Maybe," he responded. "Maybe. I think they just wanted to portray the best we had to offer. We wanted to impress you."
"What would you send from now?"
James was stumped. He knew in his heart there was a real and respectable answer to this question, that there must be something; that he simply wasn't the one to ask. They call the modern composers classical. Something from the Whitney or MoMA? Christ, not American Idol's latest teen celebrity. Why wasn't he aware of more? Who won a Nobel Prize in anything last year? Or a Pulitzer? He needed time to tell him what was good, what would last, versus all the sandcastles built at low tide. A generation's worth of cultural consciousness would be handy just now. A stall for time. What were all these people doing in the park in the middle of the afternoon? What does all the marijuana, email, and hackeysack amount to?
"Is a year enough?" the man asked.
"What?" James looked up from his thoughts, startled.
"One year. To find it. To make a new record. Create a fair and accurate advertisement."
"You're asking me?"
"Who better, if I want the truth?"
"Truth in advertising?"
"That's what we call it."
James balked. The immensity of the responsibility overwhelmed him. Heroes in movies only ever had to save the world. They didn't have to sell it.
"So this kind of misunderstanding doesn't happen again," the man continued. "Which really, it mustn't."
"No...no, of couse."
"There are approaching six billion of you down here, you know."
"I find it very hard to believe there isn't a Beethoven among you."
"There must be."
"Get out and find one. Or be one, if you think you can manage that."
The man wiped a spot of ketchup from his neck and brushed the crumbs away from his hands. "A little less television, to start with, I think."
With that, he stood from the edge of the fountain, and headed back toward the car.
James Carter did not see the man leave. Never set eyes on the ship, wherever he'd left it, or been beamed down from, or whatever else science fiction and the collapsed space age promised the world after Sputnik first circled the globe. A year would not be enough time; but James felt they parted with that understanding implied. No one would return until a decent brochure could be put together, however long it took.
Though the next time, it would not be found by accident.
Having sighted the annoyingly obvious label Voyager I on the side of the beast during the ride back to his apartment, Mr. James Carter of midtown Manhattan unraveled the rest of the knot, at the other end of which was of course the former president and current man of good deeds. A better choice for the preceding interview, certainly. He could have explained the choices they made. But shock stunts the memory, and Jimmy Carter could no more have pointed out the modern Beethoven than James could. Or so he assumed.
The task left to him now was greater than any commercial or billboard. The problem he faced was not cutting a new record. When the time came, that would be the easy part. The Universe was ahead of the curve. It knew what the world--his part of it anyway--periodically forgot, what James would have to remind it of, even at the cost of neglecting his crumbling ceiling and the plasma screen he sacrficed it for.
There has to be a better product. Not a better ad.
An old rule of business, surefire, but frequently overlooked, and often taking several lifetimes' worth of effort to achieve.
James determined to start with his own.