Cosmic Lift Off
How sure are you of what you see? So much of it is how we process what we see. It is in the eye of the beholder.
Every fourth Tuesday at 1:45 the tea room was invaded by the Air Force. The Air Force tracked UFO activity through a reporting program called Project Open Skies. Few UFO sighters were willing to go onto a military base, so officials chose more accessible places to report sightings. Our tea room was a registered report center. Every fourth Tuesday, Officer Willis came in for his report. I might have confused his blue uniform with a cop’s uniform, except for the clutter of colored ribbons pinned to his left breast. Willis stood head and shoulders over even my partner John. Willis was the picture of a military officer.
At first glance, Willis’ uniform confused Jamie, Maggie’s nephew, mightily. Jamie slid around the wall of the kitchen to get out of Major Willis’ view. I gave him the hairy eyeball. “Get yourself out there and bring the guy his tea and muffin.”
“He ain’t here to arrest me?” Jamie pressed himself into a corner beyond the stove.
“Jamie, he doesn’t know you. He doesn’t know you’re here.” I said, to relieve his panic.
“Neither did the guy with the neighborhood watch.” Jamie mumbled.
“Maybe so,” I answered, “But this guy’s not here for you. He’s here for the UFO report.”
Jamie had come up from Alabama to live with his great aunt, Maggie, the family’s matriarch. When the police found Jamie with the wrong crowd at the wrong place, with a very wrong substance in his pockets, his mother sent Jamie up to Maggie for a locational cure.
Jamie hadn’t had a lot of male role models. But he knew men in uniform were trouble. Uniforms scared the crap out of Jamie.
“He’s a cop of some kind.” Jamie wound himself into a panic. “You can see your face in the shine off his boots. What kind of uniform is that? Is he a state trooper? FBI? Neighborhood watch?” Jamie’s neighborhood watch consisted of 5 grandmothers, and a desert storm veteran who had not yet settled back into civilian life. When Jamie got in trouble, the neighborhood watch hadn’t gone to the police. They went to Maggie.
“He’s Air Force, Jamie,” I told him.
“Why does look so pissed off?” Jamie asked me. He peered around the kitchen wall to get a better look at the officer.
“He just is, Jamie. He comes in for the UFO report,” I said. “I’m pretty sure it’s the worst part of his week.”
“The what report?” Jamie was now startled out of being scared.
“UFO. Unidentified Flying Objects. We’re a report center.”
“We what?” He shook his big head.
“People come here to report their UFO experiences,” I told him. That was not strictly true. No one had ever reported a UFO experience at the tea room. But we were a report center, and Willis came to the tea room to check for reports.
Jamie’s face broke into a tiny smile. Then he made a choking sound. “Little green men? My Favorite Martian? Mork and Mindy? Dr. Spock?”
“Just go out there, Jamie, and bring the man his tea. He hates visiting us, but he’s nicer after he has a muffin. He’s a bit of a sugar junkie.” Jamie grabbed the tray I’d prepped.
Jamie worked in the tea room four days a week when Maggie read. Jamie arrived at Maggie’s, betrayed, miserable and bored, so we turned his tea room time into a paying job. He wiped tables, cleared dishes and brought water and tea to the customers. We paid him a small salary but he kept the tips from the clients.
Jamie shuffled out with a muffin and tea and escaped to the back. Willis picked at his muffin. Carolyn sat at his table to give him the report. That was my cue to go hide in the kitchen and do the dishes. Major Willis looked at me like I was some sort of sex worker. Carolyn, in her misplaced hippie days, had been a sex worker, so it didn’t offend her. She smiled sweetly as she swirled her blond hair around her finger and explained that no, no one here had seen a UFO this month. Not all month. Not last month either. For real, not ever. No one ever reported a UFO.
Willis looked up and said, “When someone does, have them fill out this form in triplicate, and file it for my next inspection here.” We snickered ourselves silly over the form. He left us a pad of them:
Official Report Form, Document 328-UFO
All UFO Reporters Must Fill Out
The Following Questionnaire
Attached doctor/psychiatrist’s reported
Security report on the reporters
Location of Siting
Time of day
Urine Test results
Street drugs results
Prescription Drugs results
Blood Alcohol test results
Breathalyzer test results
To be filled out by reportin officer
Did you experience:
Inability to Sleep?
Inability to Wake?
Did you visually see aliens? Were they
Did they speak to you/try to communicate with you?
In some other language?
In an unknown language?
With hand/body signals?
I solemnly swear or affirm that the above is completely factual to my knowledge. Under the penalty for perjury.
Signed by X the reporter___________________________________________
Witnessed by reporting officer_________________________________________
Willis insisted everyone who came in with a UFO sighting fill this out. It was a hopeless task. No one in the tea room used their legal name for anything except their taxes. Willis’ torment continued monthly as he visited our den of female intuition, just to receive blank stares and barely contained hilarity.
So Willis sat at a table, ramrod straight, with the form and pen in his hand hoping for a straight answer to a question no one was going to answer. Carolyn placed muffins and sandwiches in front of him. The rest of us watched the show from the corners like the Saturday Matinee. We bent over laughing as Carolyn batted her eyes at him.
At the end of each visit Carolyn smiled a gooey smile again and said, “Lovely to see you again, Major. Maybe we’ll have a report next month.” Then Willis rose stiffly out of his chair, aligned his hat to the center of his forehead and made his way to, one presumed, the next tea room/UFO report center.
Major Willis didn’t have words for how much he hated this particular detail. His face told us all, but he never said what he thought. Even we thought it was a silly shit mission. But it was official. Willis was assigned to Operation Open Sky for UFO and he did his duty. Clearly, he’d pissed in someone’s Wheaties.
Since no one in the tea room did see UFOs, it was a thankless mission. Occasionally someone might rave about white lights and flying cattle. Those cases resolved once people adjusted their medication on doctors’ orders or as a personal experiment.
I was tempted to tell him a fairy tale about cows sucked up by large silver disks in the sky. I don’t have enough impulse control. Would that be lying to the government? How long could they stick you in a hole tied to a gurney after that? So, I hid in the kitchen every time he came in. It didn’t mean I couldn’t see everything or hear what was said. It kept me from cruelly playing with him.
Maggie looked over her shoulder at Major Willis, and said “That boy’s pants are on too tight.” She sniffed and went back to giving her client the lottery numbers.
Jamie came back out of the kitchen where he’d been hiding. Maggie had a huge heart, but that softness did not extend to Jamie. He came to her to straighten out his life, and he would straighten out. Or else.
Jamie’s patience with old ladies (we were all old if we were over twenty-five) didn’t extend to Maggie. She snapped at him and you could hear his response even if it wasn’t spoken. “Now pull those pants up. I got you a belt. You best wear it. Those fall down around your ankles. The girls won’t never forget that. You want to be a legend?”
He did not. He dropped his eyes and mumbled in response. She put both hands on her hips and leaned in towards him. “Get that belt on and get yourself to the tutoring center or I’ll use it on you.”
When Jamie didn’t wait on customers, he practiced being transparent. You could walk in a room, look straight at him and not see him. He was that kind of quiet.
The next month when Major Willis came in, Jamie’s panic had worn off enough to be able to do his job around the man. The officer was tough, male, and disciplined. The uniform was cool in a manly man way. Jamie didn’t know men with that kind of self-control and self-respect. Jamie silently placed tea and muffins in front of him, and disappeared. The next month when Major Willis came in, Jamie walked up to Willis’s table with shy admiration, and called Willis “sir.” Willis went through his non-report with Carolyn, but as Jamie wiped his table, Jamie asked Willis what service he was in. Before the table was clean, they bonded while Willis told the boy stories about fighting airplanes and aircraft carriers, evil sergeants, military foul ups, and honorable men. They sat together telling tales, sunk in a world of testosterone and war.
It was a quiet day. It didn’t matter. Jamie listened to stories for at least an hour before Willis remembered that he needed to be moving on.
Jamie was transformed. For the first time in his life, he’d met someone he wanted to emulate. Even Maggie agreed there was no harm in it. Better still, Willis was, like most military men, color blind. He saw Jamie not as a troubled black kid but as a young man with possibilities. It became part of Willis’ monthly visit. We even set aside time to make sure he and Jamie would have talking space. Willis didn’t bring recruiting fliers, but he did make it clear that a brave young man with discipline and ambition could have a good life in the Air Force. And Jamie decided to figure out how to be that brave young man.
Willis confessed to Jamie how he really felt about project Open Sky. Willis personally believed UFO sightings were a function of street drugs and schizophrenia. Carolyn was cute, and Willis didn’t mind her flirting with him for a half-hour each month. But militarily, Willis saw Project Open Skies as a documentation of decadent drunks and druggies recovering from orgiastic parties.
Jamie found that confusing. He took everything Willis said as gospel. But Jamie couldn’t imagine the controlled men of the Air Force wasting their time on hallucinations. Jamie’s vision of the future featured a sharp uniform and a position of respect. Surely the military wasn’t interested in folk stories and hallucinations.
Maggie’s family in Alabama wasn’t exactly rural. But they hailed from a small town and lived like many marginal families did in the south. Jamie hadn’t been in a town larger than 1000 people. Boston overwhelmed him. The technology and the travel systems left him so lost he was dizzy. Jamie hadn’t connected with books before. But now that Jamie saw a reason, he began a stream of weekly library trips. He returned with an armful of WWII stories and military histories. Willis and Jamie spent hours over those books. It was more military lore than we could handle. But Jamie became responsible and respectful in a way we’d prayed for.
Winter arrived and everyone crabbed about the ice and the wind chill. Cabin fever leapt from one person to another in the room. Maggie and Jamie were hard hit, not being northern snow birds. Jamie loved winter until he took his first humiliating fall on an icy sidewalk. Neither of them were ever warm enough. By February he was surly and discolored around the eyes. Maggie had no patience with the boy. She kept up a stream of helpful comments that did everything but help. “Pick your feet up and don’t you dare tramp snow in on the rug. Get yourself in the kitchen and make yourself useful. You can’t be that wooden-headed.” But something was wrong. Jamie went from being disconnected and unhappy to being jambled. His eyes looked bruised from lack of sleep. He almost walked into walls and fell down stair cases. He was a zombified mess. Jamie lay his head down on the table when no one was watching and dozed for a moment. His eyes twitched. He talked in his sleep. “The lights! Huge! Under the tree. Huge. Willis… sky… lights…”
I wanted to class this as a bad dream. Maggie wouldn’t have it. “He did that all morning too. Fool. Nobody believe in UFOs. He was up and down all night last night clunking around. Can’t sleep to save himself.” Maggie shook her whole body instead of just her head. His condition was past her knowledge and skill.
“Do you think he saw a UFO?” I asked her.
“I think he saw something. God knows what.” Maggie grimaced.
We finally asked him. “Jamie did you see something odd over the last couple days?”
“I dunno,” he answered, head down. Maggie folded her arms and leaned back.
“I don’t know what you think you dunno! You talk to Marlene like you ain’t some jumped-up bumpkin. Did you see something?” You never told Maggie “no.”
“You ain’t gonna like it,” he mumbled.
“I don’t give a shilly-shally whether I like it or not. Out with it.” Maggie was winding up to a conclusion I hoped wouldn’t bruise Jamie worse than usual.
“There’s a whole bunch of lights at night, way up in the sky,” Jamie said. “I seen them every night for a week. They move all over the sky. They go on all night long. Scared me green,” he said. “I thought it was dream, but they keep coming, night after night. Willis told me that aliens do that. He don’t believe himself, but he been asking people about it for years. I thought it might be helicopters, like he told me, but the lights were so far up, and there weren’t no noise. I finally put my head under the covers and tried to sleep. I ain’t slept in three days.”
Maggie and I listened, appalled. Unfortunately, this constituted a UFO sighting. We didn’t wait for Willis’ regular visit. We called him and Willis came immediately. Jamie grabbed Willis’ arm, before Willis could even reach the table. We stayed clear so they could talk.
An hour later Jamie went back to bussing tables and Willis spoke to Maggie. They had nothing in common but their concern for the boy. That was enough.
“He’s terrified, He can’t quite tell me why,” Willis said. “He’s seeing lights in the sky. I’m here to report that kind of thing, but you know I think it’s nonsense.”
“Will you file a report?” Maggie was suspicious of any public paper trail.
“I’d like to know what we’re looking at first.” He put both palms up in surrender. It was his job.
Maggie nodded. She didn’t believe in UFOs either. Witches, voodoo, hoodoo, druids, ghosts, demons, and psychics, yes. UFOs, no.
“I had the pastor talk to him,” she said. “He don’t think Jamie’s lying, although Jamie has in the past. But not to me. What he’s seeing, we don’t know.”
“Is he on drugs?” Willis ventured. I could see from his face Willis hated the thought. But he had to ask.
“If he is,” Maggie said, “he’s dead by nightfall. He knows that.”
“There’s a clinic around the corner that can do a drug test.” Willis wrote down the address. Another woman might have argued that her boy couldn’t be on drugs. Not Maggie. She took the square piece of paper with the address, pressed it into her pocket book and promised Willis results forwarded tomorrow.
“Can we wait on your report?” she asked Willis.
“I can’t report anything without the tests.” Willis acknowledged.
Jamie was crushed. His eyes darted between the two people in the world who cared most for him in the world. They’d just called him a junkie. Or worse. “Why doesn’t anyone believe me?” he wailed.
“Nobody believe or disbelieve,” Maggie answered. “When you see something no one else sees, they’re going to ask.”
“No one asks you,” Jamie said. “They just take what you say for real.” The unfairness of that glowed through Jamie’s voice. Everyone took Maggie at her word.
Maggie spoke in a flat voice. “What I say is real. What I see is real.” Maggie’s gift was undeniable. She could be mistaken or misinterpreted, but she was never wrong.
“How do you know what I see ain’t real?” he asked her.
“This is how we tell,” Maggie answered. “Get your jacket. We’re going for that test now.” She pushed him ahead of her solely with her gaze. The elevator took them down.
Willis looked at me, distraught, His face twisted with disappointment.
“Do you really think…?” He could suggest the test, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask it.
“I’m sorry, Major. He has a history. But I’d say he was clean while he’s been here. Maggie is formidable. She’s kept a firm hand on him.”
“No doubt,” he replied. Willis had experience with pissed-off old ladies. Maggie scared him. Willis handed me his personal number. “If he needs something…”
“We’ll keep you in the loop,” I answered.
Willis marched off, woodenly.
We waited through the dreary afternoon. Late in the day I fixed myself some tea. I drifted into a memory.
“Momma, why don’t we see Nona anymore?” I asked. My mother always was angry. But she blazed bright red at the mention of Nona. “Nona left us, Marlene. She just left. She’s a stupid old woman. She believes all kinds of stupid things.” I jerked awake.
Maggie and Jamie came in right before we closed. We had new supplies in and it was Jamie’s job to get them sorted out. Maggie and I though normal rhythm of the task would help settle him. Maggie said, “Can I leave him with you? Will you get him to church after? I’ve got a choir thing I’m promised for.” Maggie sang choir at the Miracle Baptist Church.
“But of course,” I answered. Jamie went into the back.
“So, what did they find?” I asked Maggie.
“Clean, they tell me. No grass. No hash, no amphetamines, no barbiturates, nothing. Even the hair test was clean,” Maggie said.
“No. I’m relieved in one way and scared spitless all in one,” Maggie said.
I understood. We all hoped for a clean drug test but none of us liked what the alternative problems might be. Jamie was young for juvenile schizophrenia, but he was within the age range. He might have lied but I’d have bet my back teeth he hadn’t. Not to Major Willis. Not a chance.
Maybe he had a vision of some kind. But Jamie was all boy. The gift rarely ran through the male line. When men read it was through divinatory systems like Tarot or Horoscopes. Women in Maggie’s family didn’t need any props. They just knew. So what were our options? Mental illness, a desperate lie for attention. Or a hallucination. I flinched when I imagined him with a brain tumor. No. No. I told myself. That’s not psychic. That’s just panic.
“Will you read for me?” Maggie asked me. “I’m too close.”
“I hate to tell you, Maggie, we’re all too close. He’s our kid by now.”
She gave me a smile mixed with pain and pride. “I know that.” She reached out and bear-hugged me. It was both sweet and suffocating. “I got to go,” she said. “Will you have him to me by 7:30?”
“Sure,” I said. “Should I feed him first?”
“You better. Unless you want him to eat the upholstery in your car.” She placed her church hat on her head, buttoned her coat and checked her lipstick in the mirror while she waited for the elevator.
I called Major Willis to give him the report. He understood what the options were if it wasn’t drugs. I could hear heart-break in his voice.
“I’m taking Jamie out for dinner,” I said. “Would you like to join us? I think it would lift his spirits.”
Major Wallis said, “Of course. I’ll be over in around a half hour.” I suggested the little diner near Maggie’s church.
Jamie clanged pans and pots in the kitchen. That natural reaction normal enough after being falsely accused. I let him bang away. He could burn his anger off without hurting anybody, especially himself
He came out from back wiping his hands on his jeans. “It’s all up and I’m all done.” He slumped in a chair and gave me an angry grimace. “Why is it,” he said, “Everyone believe anything my aunt says?” His lips turned in a bitter smile. “She say all kinds of things. Sometimes she’s right but sometimes she ain’t. Why do you all believe her?”
“Your aunt Maggie is for real, Jamie. I don’t think she separates what she sees as a psychic from what she sees with her eyes. Sometimes she doesn’t understand what she sees. Sometimes we don’t either. And sometimes it gets misinterpreted. I’ve seen her misunderstand, but I’ve never seen her vision be wrong. We can’t always make sense of what we see. But you need to understand. We know Maggie’s real because we’ve known her for a long time. We know who she is. As we get to know you, we’ll know who you are too.”
“You think I’m a liar?” he said in more bitterness.
“Actually, no.” I rubbed my arms. I suddenly felt cold. “Everybody tells untruths sometimes, but I haven’t seen you tell the big and hurtful lies, the ones that make a person a liar. We don’t know how to interpret what you’ve seen. Hey, Major Willis is going to join us for dinner. Get your coat.”
The elevator opened. Major Willis was there, not in his class A uniform, but in slacks and a sweater and a winter coat. “Did someone say ‘dinner’?” he asked, a bit too brightly. “Do you still have the car with the moon roof?”
“Yep.” It was ancient but it ran. It was a very cool car in its heyday. Now it was a very cold car when the moon roof didn’t quite close. We walked over to it together.
We drove off to the diner. Jamie and Willis discussed personal combat training, through cheeseburgers and fries. I glazed over, unable to join in that but glad for the comfort it gave them both. The conversation was interrupted only by the french fries Jamie crammed into his mouth. I spaced out for a moment. I heard Nona say, “Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It means you don’t understand.” I snapped back to hear Jamie ask Willis about the Bridge at the river Qui.
After ice cream Jamie, went to the heart of his hurt. “Damn,” he said. “I’ve done good here. I don’t have any bad friends, cause I don’t have any friends. The doctors and Aunt Maggie got up all in my face and you know I ain’t touched a thing.”
“I know,” said Willis. I did too. I almost wished it were drugs. The alternatives were heartbreaking. I passed the ketchup over to him. How do you help a child who sees what isn’t there? Who can’t see what is? Was this a desperate need to lie? A brain injury? A tumor?
Willis chewed on a toothpick, as I drove out of the parking lot. Jamie leaned back in the passenger seat to take in the night sky. Even though he was fourteen, his knees jutted out from the seat in this tiny old car. He would be a big man someday, if we could get him there. Willis sat in the back, silent. Watching. Worried about the boy.
As we went around the service road to get on to the high way, Jamie pointed straight up and yelled. “There! Right there! Stop the car!” There it was. There were huge lights scraping the sky in patterns. I slammed on the brake. The lights continued their journey across the sky and back again. Jamie’s face, lit by the dashboard was a mask of mystery and wonder. “UFO!” he screamed.
I had a moment of clarity. I knew. Willis might have too, but he didn’t say.
“UFO! UFO!” Jamie screamed. “It’s there. It’s real. Can you see it? I’m not making it up. I’m not on drugs and I’m not crazy.” Jamie’s smile beamed wide. It wasn’t safe for a boy of his size to bounce up and down in a car that small. Just as well we had the moon roof open.
“No, Jamie. You’re not,” I said. I turned down the service road past a roadside full of fast food palaces and car dealerships. Willis’s face was quizzical, but he kept his silence. He waited to see where this was going. I found what I was looking for, three blocks down, in front of the Chevrolet lot. Along the rows of stickered cars, a bank of searchlights raked the sky in a syncopated light show.
Jamie dropped his eyes from the sky to the front window. He took a moment to connect the dots, How do you tell a kid he just mistook the light display as a UFO sighting? I didn’t. I let him do the math.
“Damn,” he said. He looked so embarrassed, I was afraid he was going to cry. Then he made a bubbling noise that turned into raucous laughter. I joined him.
“Do we need to report this sighting, Major Willis?” I asked. Willis was too busy snickering to speak.
“Do you have to report this, Major Willis?” Jamie asked.
“Are you worried about your record?” Willis asked.
“Yes, sir,” Jamie said, scrambling for his dignity. Maggie, Willis and I pointed out frequently that records followed you forever. Jamie was keenly aware of records.
“Good,” I answered. I put the car into reverse and headed for the church.
The music poured out of the parking lot as we drove up. “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? Oh Lord. Oh Lord.”
I parked the car and we walked Jamie in.
The song finished on a crescendo. The choir froze on the last note and then broke ranks. Maggie headed in our direction.
“I hope I don’t have to correct anything you said to Marlene or the officer, do I?” She spoke to Jamie, but she’d just asked me.
“I don’t think so. Auntie,” Jamie answered. “Does she, Marlene?” Jamie had received enough ego hits for the day. I could understand that.
“Uh, no,” I confirmed. Willis made a gesture that confirmed that. I’d finally realized how much Maggie scared Willis.
Jamie posed himself like a professor giving a lecture. “Did you know people up north have big-ass lights they use when they want to get your attention?” Jamie’s voice was full of sarcasm and bravado. He’d figured it out. This was his joke now.
“Police?” Maggie said in horror.
“Car dealerships,” I answered.
Maggie’s head lifted even as she crossed her arms. “Well, of course they do. Did you find one?”
Jamie nodded. “Major Willis saw it all. He can tell you all about it.”
Maggie’s jaw dropped. “Oh, dear sweet baby Jesus! I haven’t thought about that for thirty years! Jamie, the same thing happened to me when I first moved up North. I saw the lights and I thought it was the Rapture for sure! I like to died when I found out it was nothing but some slimy white guy selling used cars.” She grabbed her nephew by the ears and kissed him on each cheek. “I believe you, and I am proud to be your Auntie.”
Jamie swallowed hard. “Thank you, Auntie. Officer Willis saw it all. He can tell you all about it.”
Willis confirmed Jamie’s statement with a nod and his most officious voice. “Jamie showed us the phenomenon. I don’t think we’ll need to investigate further.
Willis, confirmed him with a nod and his most officious voice. “Jamie showed us the phenomena. I don’t think we’ll need to investigate further.”
Maggie half shoved both of them towards the table full of desserts the choir had brought.
It was Jamie’s lift-off. From then Jamie knew we would not desert him. Nor would we put up with lies or horseshit. He knew he could be mistaken but no one would automatically count him as wrong.
Willis put his arm around the boy. “You know an Air Force officer needs to go to college first, don’t you son? We need to start working on that.”
“Yes sir,” Jamie said.
Did you like Cosmic Lift Off? You can read more about Jamie and Maggie in Tales from the Tea Room on Amazon.com
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