In Roswell

Like many road-trip stories, this one begins with a vehicular breakdown.

The Corolla is cruising two hours out of Santa Fe when the engine sputters, falters, dies. We coast to the shoulder and park. Long lines of barbed wire enclose nothing.

“Overheated,” I say by way of explanation to Terence. We recline our seats and wait, confident the beast will cool down. The roads out here are preternaturally straight, flat, and empty; it has taken conscious effort to keep the car below 90 mph. We’ll give the engine a minute, keep the speedometer at 65, and arrive in Austin a few hours later than anticipated. No harm done.

Fifteen minutes later the engine is turning over but not catching. This is unexpected. I call AAA, still without an inkling that my car might be a goner. The woman on the line asks if I know where I am. I say, New Mexico. She asks me to get out of the car and find the nearest mileage marker.

Eighteen-wheelers roar down the highway so fast that my open driver’s-side door is nearly torn off by the passing gusts. Yellow grasslands peel away from the roadside and recede unbroken to the horizon. Ravens pick at roadkill. I read the white numbers off the green marker and the woman promises to send someone.

“Could be the transmission,” I tell Terence after I hang up. I could no more find the transmission in an engine—it is in the engine, right?—than I could extract the pancreas from a cadaver. Terence, for his part, has had a driver’s license for exactly eight days.

The tow truck driver, when he arrives, is a mountainous man named Kevin with that rare sort of mustache that could profitably be termed “whiskers.” We pile into the cab. “Take you to Roswell,” says Kevin. “There’s a guy there.”

Roswell, Roswell. The constant repetition of the town’s name jogs a faint memory. Something about aliens?

“Damn right,” Kevin booms. “People say some kinda spaceship crashed here in the ’40s. Crash site’s about twenty miles that way.” He waves a hairy-knuckled hand at the prairie.

“No shit,” I say. “You get a lot of people coming out to see it?”

“Well, you can’t actually walk up to the site, ’cause it’s all private land out there. But you get all kinds of folk drive out to the spot and sit by the side of the road and just stare out there like they’re gonna see something.” He shakes his head in disgust. “We got a whole alien festival in the spring. All kindsa nuts at that.”

“You ever tow any alien hunters?”

Kevin nods. “Just recently, three people who said they’d all had encounters or some shit. Lights in the sky, the guy said. He said he called some kinda alien research center who told him there was no weird lightning, no space shuttle launches, no weather balloons or nothing that night, so he musta had a gen-u-wine encounter.” Kevin barks out a laugh. “You believe they got alien research centers? Where’s that money come from? You got people dying of cancer and they’re spending millions on lights in the sky.”

“No abductions?” I ask.

“Not yet,” Kevin says. “I pick up some guy who says he got probed, then I’ll start to worry.” He leans back, steering the truck with a finger; his head almost brushes the roof of the cab. He stares thoughtfully at the curveless highway. “I’ll tell you what really happened,” he offers after a moment. “I think something crashed out there, but it wasn’t no aliens. I think it was a government space plane. They were sending some shit into space, testing it out, and the damn thing crashed in the field. People saw the lights, came out to check it out, saw the pilots come out in space suits—and remember, nobody’d ever seen a space suit before—and thought they were aliens! Plus a lotta Air Force pilots are real short, like five feet.” He leans over and glances at me to make sure I understand the import of that detail. “Government comes out, confiscates the plane, covers the whole thing up. You gotta remember, this was during the Cold War—we didn’t want no Russians to know we were sending shit into space. Think about it.”

We do as instructed, and then tell him it sounds plausible. “Damn right that’s what happened,” Kevin says.

He drives us to Forrest Tire, the only garage open on weekends, and we ditch the car there with the understanding that it will be examined the next day. Kevin suggests that we spend the night at the local Days Inn, and drops us off after warning us about Roswell’s recent spate of cartel-related crime. “We got a lotta aliens here, all right,” he says darkly, eyebrows converging in a thick V, “only they ain’t from outer space.”

All right, Kevin, we say. And thanks.

***

The Days Inn’s only virtue is its proximity to a sports bar. Like salmon returning to their natal streams, we are drawn across the street.

Two hours later, Terence and I have downed three pitchers of Sam Adams and one plate of soggy nachos, and the mood is dolorous—diminishing morale and escalating BACs make for a dispiriting combination. Barring a miraculously quick fix, we’re not getting out of Roswell before Monday, and the delay is going to seriously curtail our road trip. Forget Austin, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans: we’re as likely to see those cities as we are Neptune.

Best case, we decide, involves the car being fixed on Monday and us booking it straight home. Worst case involves plane tickets.

We’re willing ourselves to care about a basketball game on TV when the door swings open to reveal a dozen or so women of scattered ages, rambunctious and ready to drink. Terence, who has the preternatural social IQ of a born event planner, quickly offers an assessment: bachelorette party. Our spirits lift slightly: the night now contains the possibility of romantic intrigue and the certainty of people-watching. We smile and nod. They order drinks.

The bride-to-be is hard to miss: she’s wearing red devil horns, and may or may not have played defensive end at New Mexico State. She passes out index cards to her acolytes, and it becomes clear, even from several tables away, that they’re playing a party game. It appears that each card holds a set of licentious instructions intended to, you know, spice things up. One girl, at her card’s behest, goes over to an adjacent booth of guys and starts collecting phone numbers. Another solicits a piggyback ride from a waiter. Another comes over to our table and, reading from her card’s script, asks, “Do you guys like peanuts?”

“Sure,” we say.

“Do you like salt on them?” She rolls her eyes at the card.

“Well, I usually go for the honey roasted, but…”

“So you like salty nuts.” The woman, who’s in her early 40s, groans at the punchline. The bride, orchestrating the scene from her table like a queen bee, laughs uproariously. “Sorry, guys,” she calls.

Terence, who’s both perpetually suave and perhaps the first Asian ever to set foot within Roswell city limits, is a smash hit with the bachelorettes. They buy him a drink, and go crazy when he manages to slurp it down without using his hands. As the women squeal, inspiration strikes: we will parlay my friend’s popularity into a wedding invitation.

Opportunity knocks a few minutes later when a girl comes over and asks, again reading from a card, to chug my beer. I acquiesce, in return for an audience with the bride.

The girl leads me over to the bride’s table. I sit down, describe our car’s woes, and ask for—nay, demand—an invitation. The bride, whose name is Christy, scribbles furiously on a cocktail napkin throughout my retelling. When I finish talking she looks up and hands me the napkin. A street address and directions.

“Five o’clock,” she says.

“And in costume,” adds one of her friends. “It’s a Halloween wedding.”

Terence and I glance at each other. A Halloween wedding? “What are you guys gonna wear?” I ask the table.

“Surprise,” the friend demurs.

“See you at five,” Christy says, though it’s clear from the way she laughs that she doesn’t expect us.

We leave the bar hours later, drunk and, if not quite happy, no longer miserable. I’m thinking about Halloween, about aliens, about bachelorettes—and, as best I can, avoiding thoughts about the dysfunctional Corolla imprisoned down the street. It’s a clogged filter, I tell myself, a leaky fuel pump. I’ll deal with it tomorrow.

***

“We’re in Austin, right?” Terence groans from an adjacent bed. The alarm clock chirps, and yellow light glows at the edge of the curtains.

Austin? Are we? I stare at the pale ceiling and for a second it seems plausible. I sit up in the cramped motel room, and the sight of my enormous backpack squatting troll-like in the corner activates my memory. Room 209. Days Inn. Roswell. Shit.

We choke down powdered eggs at the buffet and walk the two miles to Forrest Tire. If you’ve ever been to Roswell, you know that walking is not fashionable. In fact it’s strictly taboo. We walk two miles without passing a pedestrian. Ours is a nation utterly reliant upon the car, the fast food joint, and the superstore, and Roswell typifies that dependence better than any town I’ve ever seen. The city has no neighborhoods, no locally owned shops, and scarcely a sidewalk.

We pass the plaque demarcating the city park, but there’s no park in sight: just a square of cropped brown lawn too small for a game of bocce, let alone Frisbee. No trees. No benches or water fountains, either—no sign that the park receives any use, or serves a purpose other than being Roswell’s nominal Green Space.

When we make it to Forrest Tire, caked in grit and exhaust, we ask for Brandon, the mechanic. He emerges from a back room, bearded and genial, and breaks the news gently: the car is fucked.

“Motor’s shot,” he says, tugging on the brim of his hat. A small boy, his hair dyed red, green, and purple, hides behind Brandon’s legs, watching me somberly.

I try to keep my voice level. “What do you mean by shot, exactly?”

“Just… shot,” Brandon repeats, confused by my confusion. “It’s finished, it’s done. Has to be replaced.” He takes us over to the car and turns the key in the ignition. The hacking coughs of the engine are heartbreaking, pathetic.

“It sounds bad,” the rainbow-haired kid says, and I have to agree.

“What’s that gonna cost?” I ask casually, as though the cost is a minor consideration. In truth, it’s the consideration.

Brandon runs off to check, and returns with the grim news: $2,600, and if we’re lucky we’ll be back on the road in five days. Terence and I look at each other.

“Five more days here?” he says dubiously. The thought is almost worse than the money.

***

After prolonged and agonized negotiations, we decide to sell the car for four hundred dollars and fly home. It’s a painful decision, but, we’re convinced, the right one: the expense of fixing the car was nearly what the machine was worth. The cash will almost cover our plane tickets. Two days after its inception, the road trip is officially over.

I wonder, over an Arby’s chicken sandwich, whether the new owner will remove my bumper stickers. He probably won’t feel much allegiance to the School for Field Studies, the Montague Bookmill, or Hudson Riverkeeper. The thought of my personal affiliations being peeled off, balled up, and thrown away renders my sandwich suddenly tasteless.

“Look on the bright side,” Terence says. I chew and wait for the bright side, the existence of which seems unfathomable. “We’re going to a wedding.”

The thought does lift my spirits. If we’re going to spend another night in this godforsaken town, we might as well make the most of it. “Fuckin’ A,” I say. “We’re going.”

“We need costumes.”

“We’ve got two hours. Let’s roll.” And roll we do. Gratefully turning our attention to the scrounging of costumes for a Halloween wedding, we stumble out into the cold, bright New Mexico afternoon, hoping for a thrift store within walking distance.

***

There are two kinds of shops in downtown Roswell, and only two: vintage women’s clothing stores, and alien merchandise stands. If you’re looking to attend a Halloween party dressed as a female Venusian, you’ll assuredly find a suitable outfit. If, like me and Terence, you’re bound for a wedding reception full of strangers, and you’d rather their first impression of you not be ‘Martian drag queen,’ then the city offers slim pickings.

The preponderance of alien-themed shops and products in Roswell is almost unbelievable. Every third storefront is filled with alien postcards, pens, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, buttons, baseball hats, tote bags, dinner plates, and lunch boxes. Name a plastic, poorly constructed object, and odds are you can find it in Roswell, emblazoned with the ubiquitous green, inverted-pear-shape head.

Merchandise ranges from the benign to the very creepy. In the latter category belongs a wizened, four-foot-tall extraterrestrial dressed menacingly in a black Snuggie and guaranteed to come to life and murder any customer brave enough (and ignorant enough of horror movies) to take it home. On the lighter side are the slogan-bearing tee shirts, although all the shirts relating to mechanical malfunction—“I crashed in Roswell,” next to a picture of a grounded and smoking spacecraft—hit a little too close to home.

We wonder, as we hustle through stores peddling identical merchandise, how all these places stay in business. We’re the only customers, and the cashiers never look up from their crosswords, certain that we’re not a threat to buy anything. Has the alien commodities industry been hit hard by recession? Or are the hard-core alien hunters who buy this crap so fanatical that not even economic downturns can retard their purchasing? The stores are open; somebody must be buying this shit.

But that somebody won’t be us. We head back to the Days Inn with neither dresses nor alien attire, resolved to scavenge costumes from our own belongings.

***

We’re back in the room when inspiration strikes.

“Dude,” Terence says, with the awe of a mathematician whose proof is checking out. “The sheets.”

Fifteen minutes and several instructional YouTube videos later, we’ve more or less figured out how to create togas from bedsheets. Intent on accessorizing the togas with Roman headdress, I furtively slice a few leafy sprigs from the hedges outside our room and duck back inside, to find that Terence has already mastered the toga technique. I don’t have the knack, and wage battle with my sheet for about ten minutes, nearly strangling myself in the process, before I manage to get the damn thing in position. I wear cargo shorts underneath, to be on the safe side. Terence tapes together the headdresses, we slip into sandals, and we’re ready to rock.

“So are we dressed as Romans,” I ask, “or as frat dudes dressed as Romans? If we go as frat guys, we’ve got kind of a cool ironic meta-costume thing going on—”

“Come on, man,” Terence snaps. “Romans.”

We call a cab. After we place the call, Terence asks me if I have the directions. “Sure,” I say, “they’re right—”

The directions have vanished from the desk. We search the drawers, the floors, the wastebaskets, to no avail. With dismay we piece together the disappearance: the maid came in during the middle of the day, saw the crumpled cocktail napkin on the desk, and consigned it to the garbage can. Our salvation, discarded.

The thought of spending another night in a bar, with nothing to do but watch sports and think about our trip’s failure, is more than we can bear. I find the phonebook in the nightstand.

We place frantic calls to local newspapers, churches, city hall, any institution that might somehow know the wedding’s whereabouts. Our sleuthing is handicapped by the fact that we don’t even know the newlyweds’ names. We’re striking out. The hotel manager calls our room to tell us that our cab is downstairs, and won’t be waiting long.

“Visualize the napkin,” Terence implores. “Do you remember any details in the directions?”

I think hard. Something about passing a cemetery, maybe? “I think we have to take a left turn somewhere,” I say with a shrug.

He shakes his head and begs me to recall the street address.

I devote all my mental energy to the napkin’s image. And, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, something clicks. “The street name begins with R,” I say triumphantly.

Terence clutches at the phonebook, where,all the streets of Roswell are listed alphabetically. He begins to read off names, the words blurring together in a sort of incantation.

“Stop!” I cry. “Radcliffe. That’s it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Not at all. Let’s go.”

I stumble on the trailing tail of my toga as we traipse out the door and down the stairs. A kaffeeklatsch of high schoolers snicker at our outfits as we race past. Screw ’em. The hotel manager leans out the door, pumps his fist, and shouts, “To-ga!” as we jog by. We give him the thumbs-up and slide into the back seat of the cab.

“Where to?” the driver asks.

We glance at each other. “Radcliffe,” Terence says.

I add, “We’re looking for a lot of parked cars.”

***

Somehow—perhaps because, given our concatenation of failures, our luck simply had to improve—we find the wedding. On Radcliffe.

The bachelorettes from the previous night recognize us right away, and give us something of a hero’s welcome. It’s clear that they never expected us to show up, but they seem genuinely pleased to see us. We’ve missed the ceremony, they tell us, but forget it—the beer is cold and the enchiladas are hot. Who needs to see vows exchanged anyway?

The girls shepherd us over to the happily married couple, who, as befits their size, are costumed as Shrek and Fiona. The groom is at least 6’6″ and 350 pounds; Shrek’s distinctive stalk-like ears perch atop a cleanly shaved head. A goatee pokes through green face paint. “Remember these guys?” the bachelorettes cry to Christina.

She wraps us in a surprised hug. “Well, sure—never thought I’d see you here. John, these are the boys I was telling you about! From the bar.”

Shrek looks skeptical—and who can blame him—but he engulfs my hand in a shake. “I like your ears,” Terence says.

“Thanks,” John grunts. “I stuck ’em on with a hot glue gun.”

“I admire your commitment,” I tell him, sincerely.

He seems to warm to us, and grins. “It sounds like it should hurt, right, but really wasn’t so bad once the glue dried. Don’t know how I’m gonna get the damn things off, though.”

“You couldn’t find anybody to dress up as the donkey?” Terence asks.

“Nah, man, I was so bummed,” John sighs. “I asked everybody, but nobody wanted to get in the suit. It’s too bad, because pretty much everybody here’s a jackass.”

In fact, everyone at the party is wonderful, and resplendent in their costumes. There’s a Medusa, there’s a Marilyn Monroe, there’s a Bonnie and a Clyde. There’s a lascivious, fully-grown girl scout in a green skirt the approximate length of a cummerbund who everybody calls “Cookies.” There is a man whose blonde wig and enormous fake breasts clash weirdly with his patchy beard. He approaches me repeatedly and asks me to grope his boobs. “Do these suckers feel real, or what?” he demands. I tell him I’ve never felt realer.

We move to the living room and stand with our backs against a wall covered with crosses; dozens of Jesuses gaze down on us in mute agony. We are eating bowls of chicken posole and talking to a man dressed as former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman (jersey, shoulderpads, eye-black). We make the grave mistake of telling him that we are Giants fans; his eyes narrow to a glare. Terence and I huddle up beneath the Jesi and agree not to tell anyone else we’re New Yorkers; it seems that every person who learns we’re from the Northeast has a story about Yanks being rude, untrustworthy, manipulative, or otherwise uncouth. We will rebrand ourselves as nomads, wanderers, lost children of the desert.

Dozens of kids, weighed down with jack-o-lanterns full of candy in one hand and tridents, swords, and other murderous accessories in the other, weave their way through their inebriated parents. Their presence doesn’t temper the bacchanal. I see one kid, the bones of his skeleton costume green beneath the fluorescence of the kitchen, snatch a jello shot and lick the tiny plastic cup clean. The creepiest party-goer, a lecherous clown who never takes his mask off, even to drink, slinks up to Marilyn Monroe and vigorously rubs his nightmarish red-nosed visage in her cleavage. The kids gape.

There is a costume contest! Shrek and Fiona are the judges. The prize is a bottle of Southern Comfort, around which Shrek wraps his baseball glove-sized hands. He looks very sorry to be giving it away. Bonnie and Clyde parade for the judges, the machine gun tucked under Bonnie’s arm clattering as she points it at her competition. The kids throw bite-sized Snickers bars at each other and get underfoot.

“Toga Boys next!” Shrek shouts. The crowd shrieks its adulation. We strut in a circle and, at the bridesmaids’ behest, flex gratuitously and kiss our biceps. The girl scout known as Cookies wraps her arms around Terence’s torso and will not let go. The lecherous clown, arms folded across his chest, scrutinizes us silently. There is a fire pit, and a fire; sparks and ash float over the fence into a neighboring backyard. Somebody else’s problem. Medusa wins the costume contest and the bottle of Southern Comfort; she seems not only happy for the liquor, but relieved.

The night wears on, the kids collapse in puddles of fabric, fairy wings, and peanut butter cups. A World Series game on TV enters the late innings. I have conversations of almost hallucinatory intimacy: the costumes, and these people’s certain knowledge that they will never see us again, open them up like oysters. The alcohol helps, I imagine. The man with the fake breasts tells me about his new girlfriend and his old DUIs and I try hard to pay attention as the blonde wig slips backward off his head and reveals the scuzzy brown hair of his scalp. Shrek and a man in a kilt crush beer cans against their foreheads. Medusa slumps in a folding green camping chair and pulls from her bottle of SoCo.

Partiers drop out. Cookies has relinquished her grip on Terence’s chest, and now Terence and I find ourselves alone in the kitchen, scraping the bottom of the posole pot with wooden spoons. A cab is taking us to the airport at 7 am to catch a plane that will take us far from here. It’s time to go. We tell Shrek and Fiona that we’re leaving, to howls of dismay, solicitations of phone numbers, semi-authentic pleas to return soon. We will, we assure them—real soon. The truth, of course, is that I wouldn’t return to Roswell for anything. Except maybe an alien festival. No, not even for an alien festival. We grab fistfuls of cake on our way out the door. The taxi is waiting for us. It is the same driver.

 

Ben Goldfarb is from Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. He wonders whether the CIA’s recent declassification of Area 51 documents will help or harm Roswell’s alien tourism industry. Email him at ben.a.goldfarb@gmail.com and find him at www.bengoldfarb.com.

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