I don’t know why, but lecturing the extraterrestrials unnerved me. Oh, they assumed the respectful attitude—tentacles tucked beneath scaly feet—and rarely spoke. But if they objected to the lecture, they would stop coming to class and I would lose their lecture fees. So I started every class with a sensation like gravel in my stomach.
Sometimes I thought of giving up on teaching and devoting myself to designing algorithms for computing the standard error of autoregressive forecasts. (Don’t ask.) But after a day or two, I would miss the classroom. That impromptu stage of drama terrified me, yet, for fifty minutes, I felt alive. I had not anticipated that the students would close the distance that I had long maintained from the living. I had thought that I had no room for emotions, until I met Kate.
But you had asked me about the Easter murders. I best remember the cerulean skies that day. I don’t remember screams; the aliens die with dignity, if suddenly.
I had taken the students outside, to the fresh-mown lawn under the live oaks that fronted storied St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, to put them in a generous mood for filling out the course evaluations. I didn’t try to lecture that day, so they conversed cheerily in their native language, a sort of thrum. Then I heard a soft plop, like a melon flung out of a sixth-story window. I looked up in time to see Joe’s head explode. (Joe wasn’t his real name, of course. All the student aliens adopted American names to spare me the embarrassment of mispronunciation.) Sara was next. In five or six minutes, dum dum bullets had beheaded the whole class of twenty, their bodies wiggling like maggots. I was unharmed. I have no idea why the newspapers called the events the Easter murders, since they had occurred several weeks after that holiday.
The killers, a carful of Ancient Believers, had been cruising St. Charles, rifles at the ready, when they saw my class. They were jubilant at their find. The aliens in my course were missionaries, out to spread the word to Earth that God was our communal consciousness, a sort of divine social media. The Ancient Believers, the surviving offspring of the white nationalists, clung to their iconic faith in the one true Lord, a master of ceremonies as separable from us as a judge from defendants. They regarded the aliens as the advance guard of the Antichrist. This religious dispute, of course, was merely their alibi for mayhem. The Ancient Believers doted on rage. They fried the tentacles as a delicacy. They never faced murder charges since the aliens, being indecipherable as a nationality, had no constitutional rights.
I told you that twenty died. Actually, nineteen. Kate had skipped class, because she knew I had a crush on her, a crush that I barely understand. The point of a relationship between intellectuals is to determine the intellectual master, and Kate was as smart as a whip. But above all else, words endear, especially the halting words of a young foreigner who is trying to learn your language. For an alien, Kate was a master of English. Unlike her comrades, she never dialed up the robo-translator or playfully pantomimed snatching an elusive word out of thin air. She simply spoke. “You don’t light my fire.”
“That’s what I like about you,” I said. “No chance that I’ll get close enough to burn.”
“The consul disapproves of you.”
“I disapprove of me, too.”
But that was last week’s flirting. The task now was to set Kate to rights. Among the aliens, she was the elder, the scholar among the dilettantes, but the massacre had wilted her. “Why them rather than me?”
“It was a chance event.”
“There are no chance events.” That sounded like an Ancient Believer.
I offered her a cocoa, knowing she wouldn’t refuse, but she did. “Answer my question,” she said.
“Why do they hate us?”
“They don’t. Quite the reverse. They love a target.”
She didn’t reply because she didn’t understand. The aliens don’t grasp hate, although, as I would learn, they do grasp justice. You know that four summers ago they showed up on Earth quietly, on a sandy island in Micronesia. Their coming sparked a peak in apocalyptic worship; as for me, I thought that it demonstrated that anything could exist, including an illusion of God. In any event, the aliens never disclosed their origin, their history, or even their ethnic name. For a few weeks they were the stars of the broadcast news, but the journalists soon exhausted the few facts known about them, and by October their stories had given way to the World Series. Which was fine with the aliens. After proselytizing with meager results, they simply studied us, like anthropologists. They had come to New Orleans because they had heard of Mardi Gras, and they wanted to master the science of partying. But the more they observed, the less they comprehended.
“See you on Tuesday,” Kate said. That was my teaching day. But I didn’t see her. Later I learned that the aliens’ government had returned students to their home planet. That was the aliens’ way. They never complained. They simply packed up.
So DeGrauw University canceled my class, and I never got my evaluations. I’d pursued a larger agenda, of course. I had not gotten tenure, and in the coming year I would have to find a job at a lesser school. Meanwhile, my life was on hold again. I had long been too comfortable to gamble in my career, and I was determined to change. I told my colleagues that I had accepted the class of aliens because no one else wanted to teach them, and I needed the dough. But in reality, I had wanted to connect with the aliens, to lift my life above the mundane, and to come closer to Kate. If I couldn’t discover anything in my research, at least I might in my teaching. And, let’s be practical, getting the scoop on the aliens might pay off in publications. But now the mundane was back.
I had worked on my statistical calculations for a week when the Ancient Believers returned. They kicked to splinters my office door and lined up along the wall, cradling P90 submachine guns. The peril to me was so obvious that I didn’t realize it. “Get out of my office!”
They got a good laugh out of that. The hulking leader of the pack—Lev, easy to identify because he wore a filthy red bandanna above his forehead—handed his gun to a comrade, stepped up, and slapped me to the floor, dislodging one of my favorite molars. “Get out of my office,” he said. “But questions first. What did you mean by inviting those scumbags to campus?”
“Who invited them?”
“They invited themselves. Like you.”
That earned another slap. “Like it or not,” I heard him say through the ringing in my ears, “we run Louisiana. Our mission is to neutralize scumbags. We know that we missed one in your class.” He punched the framed photo of Kate on my desk. “Turn her over to us, and we’ll pardon your sins. Protect her, and we’ll remember.” He looked with disgust upon my bleeding face and left.
I am a card-carrying coward, so I phoned the alien consulate to ask when Kate would return. “Or should I give her an Incomplete?” I asked hopefully.
“You should give her an A for Prudence. I doubt that she’ll come back.”
But on Tuesday Kate stuck her head through my office doorway. “Where’s your class?”
“Canceled,” I said, startled.
“Because a class of one student is below the minimum size? We’ll pay the tuition for a full classroom.”
“The problem is political, not financial.”
“The Ancient Believers, yes. The consul told me. You can find me at 7718½ Green Street.” She disappeared.
I was apoplectic. What if the Ancient Believers were surveilling my office? They would shoot her to bits, not to mention me. Why did she return to Earth in the first place?
I called the consul again. “Does Kate have a death wish?” I asked.
“That concept is unknown on our planet. Kate is just curious. She wants to study why the Ancient Believers are bent on destroying her.”
“She needs life insurance.”
“Insurance is unknown on our planet, too. We do not fear the future. But I will tell her that you don’t wish her to return.”
“I’ll tell her myself.”
I knew Kate’s neighborhood: two lines of whitewashed wooden shotgun houses, occupied by rock musicians and other retirees, ending in a cemetery with giant gravestones and occupants of its own, dating to the 1700s; peace and quiet, except for the mockingbirds in the festive spring and the infernal feral dogs in the scorching summer night. Kate lived in a one-room studio apartment with a linoleum floor, a kitchen as small as a hermit’s closet, and a hole in the wall where the air conditioner should be. She came to the door before I had knocked. “I thought you would come,” she said.
“You’re begging for trouble by returning,” I said.
“Not begging. Demanding. What else do you want?”
“For you to keep out of sight. The Ancient Believers are looking for you.”
“I’m looking for them. I want to understand.”
I looked her over. She resembled a giant praying mantis, as tall and gaunt as me, and I could not read the expression on her face.
“I’m out of here,” I said. A man in love with an insect.
I had no real feeling for Kate, I told myself. My courting just demonstrated that I was above infatuation with a physique. But I had somehow induced Kate to put herself in alarum’s way. I didn’t believe her story of returning to study the Ancient Believers. That bunch was best viewed at a proximity of a hundred light-years. No, she had returned for me.
I rang her up. “Dinner at Schmoe’s?” I said. That was the only restaurant that stocked food for the aliens.
“You don’t have to go out of your way for me,” she said. “Because I won’t for you. Until you finish your paper.”
We met at six. The restaurant patio was to the aliens’ taste, humid and sunny and smelling of earth, a micro bayou. Like Kate, I ordered a salad; nothing else was on the menu save the Cajun requisites. “I’m writing a book about our religion and yours,” she said. “Can you arrange an interview with an Ancient Believer for me?”
I dropped my fork.
“An interview in person,” she said.
“Then I’ll have to contact them on my own.”
“On second thought….”
“I knew you’d help.”
She took a dainty bite from the Mardi Gras king cake. “We study thousands of religions. Most are beyond us. But sometimes one of their principles is so clear, so appealing, that our own…gods, I guess…adopt it for themselves.”
“I thought that you just wanted to learn about the Ancient Believers.”
“Call this active learning. Will you stop me?”
I tacked a request for a meeting with the Ancient Believers on my new office door. In five minutes, my phone rang. “Bring her to your office at eight tonight,” Lev said.
“I’m not handing her over. This is at her request. She wants to talk to you.”
“Seat her facing the office door.” Click.
I was in a dilemma. Should I protect Kate, risking her fury, or protect myself? I contemplated my kneecaps and called the only being that could help me now. “We have a guard detail at the consulate,” the consul said. “At our expense, not the UN’s. We can post it around your door.”
“The Ancient Believers are armed.”
“Amateurs, mainly. Don’t worry, and don’t pack a gun.”
“I wouldn’t know which end to shoot.” But I was still uneasy. From my dental bills, I knew that even an unarmed Lev was a threat.
The minutes crept by. The consul’s guards filed in quietly, taking positions on both sides of the hall leading to my office. As Lev and his thugs entered, the guards quickly disarmed them of their P90s. Kate came last.
In honor of the occasion, Lev had replaced his filthy red bandanna with a filthy blue one. “We’ll settle with you later,” he said to Kate.
“Certainly,” she said. She closed her eyestalks and I heard voices in my head, in an echo that seemed corporeal and curved, in the aliens’ incomprehensible lingo. From Lev’s maddened look, I could see that the Ancient Believers were hearing voices, too.
“My ancestors,” Kate explained. “They are singing, ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.’” Suddenly Lev crumpled to the floor, like a laundry bag spilling dirty clothes. As the voices faded, he slowly regained his feet, bewildered. With an approving glance at me, Kate marched out of my office and down the hall, her steps reverberating from the staircase.
In the next week, fueled by chocolate-chip cookies and speed, I banged out my article about the aliens. I could not dawdle, for I was already forgetting. Inner voices are like pain; vivid when experienced, impossible to recollect. I know I should say that Kate has changed my life, but I am not sure that she has. She is but a lamplight on a familiar but shadowed road; a lamplight, perhaps, that wishes to determine one’s destination.
No time to chat; Kate is calling. I am at the lesser place, teaching freshman statistics—the mean, the median, the mode—and the facts of the cosmos according to Kate. You can register for my class for half the tuition. The aliens will cover the rest, although I must say that for beings with such a cosmopolitan view, they are champion skinflints. Yes, cash is preferred, but credit cards are welcome.