W Tracy Dillon, 5/14/2018

Current Occupation: Teacher
Former Occupation: Quality Control Lead, Technical Publishing House
Contact Information: W Tracy Dillon lives with his family on a farm in rural Oregon where they practice permaculture farming techniques. He is a faculty member at Portland State University.  However, he’s a lot more fun than this bio would seem to indicate.

 

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Control

On August 5, 1981 President Ronald Reagan fired 11,345 striking union members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, leaving the skies of the nation in perilous disorganization.  Stunned men and women who had held the safety of thousands of people a day on their minds and in their hands had to find employment in quotidian sectors of the economy. Banned for life from ever serving their government through gainful employment again, they descended to the ranks of common workers, directing their uncertain futures into crash landings as safely as they knew how.  This is the story of one of those men.

His name was Randy Cross, and he was so very confused on August 8, 1981.  Even among his brother air traffic controllers, his self-assurance and calm in the face of potential disaster set him apart.  No near miss of packed commuter planes above and beyond the runways of Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport could nonplus him.  In a crisis, he believed that he was the controller everyone looked to. Yet, he wasn’t really one of his brethren, either. Known for his meticulously knotted neck ties and clean-cut appearance, he never accompanied his controller acquaintances for beers after a scare, never got asked to join the bowling team, never got to know anyone well enough to indiscreetly sleep with their wives.  He kept his private life to himself, and nobody really cared, because he was a capable air traffic controller. He stacked tin efficiently, came in for extra shifts when the supervisor had his hands full, and clearly remember never making a mistake.

And that is why he was so very confused on August 8, when the supervisor called him into his office and fired him.

Stunned, he didn’t know what to say.  He had not seen it coming.

When things got complicated, Randy liked to lay them out verbally.  He enunciated each succeeding point in the chain of events leading to a present situation in order to analyze its origin, trajectory, and probable outcome.  Each idea acquired syntax and floated like words in a bubble over his head so that he could arrange them in a logical order that led to an inevitable conclusion.  In this way, he gained perspective. So he began reviewing the facts as he sat in the supervisor’s office, speaking to no one but himself, and staring at the pulsating words wrapped in invisible bubbles tethered tenuously to his head.

“I have been a good employee for four-and-a-half years.  I supported the quest for better working conditions, better pay, and the 32-hour work week.  I pointed out that the Postal Workers’ strike in 70 also violated the Taft-Hartley Act but that postmen were not fired.  That gave everyone courage, I believe.”

As he ticked off these facts, the supervisor began looking a little annoyed.  Not that Randy was watching the supervisor’s expressions. Maybe that’s why the supervisor was annoyed.  Instead, Randy was watching the chain of reasoning unfold in the air overhead. He couldn’t afford to miss anything.  He had to see how all of this lined up.

Then it occurred to him that the evidence for being a good employee that he was sharing actually illustrated his alignment with the union organizers.  He was sitting here sorting things out in a manager’s office, after all. He decided then on a different direction.

“I came out with everyone but returned when Reagan ordered us back. I’m one of the thirteen-hundred.  I didn’t come back in because of financial need or to take care of a family. I don’t have a family. I did it out of love for the job.”

Given this direction, it became harder to see where the supervisor was coming from.  Where was he headed with this?

“It’s got nothing to do with that,” said the supervisor.

What, then?

“You really didn’t see it?”

“See what?” asked Randy.

“And it’s not the first time.”

The first time for what, wondered Randy.

“Just out there.  Just now,” the supervisor said.  “You didn’t see it. You didn’t hear it.  The can that disappeared right off your screen?  The pilot who called in instrument failure? Said he saw a teardrop shaped metallic object with a spinning ring off his left wing for over three minutes?  Then it shot up into the air? You got none of that? Just sat there in a stupor, Maury said?”

 

Randy really didn’t know what the supervisor was talking about.  Maybe if he returned to the beginning and reorganized his thoughts.

 

“I have been a good employee.  I do my job. I help out all the time.  I bailed Maury out on 336, for gosh sake.”

 

Randy was referring to AirCal Flight 336, which crashed on February 17.  Maury had cleared the flight to land on Runway 19R at the same time that he cleared another flight to take-off from Runway 19R.  Randy heard Maury make the mistake. He moved swiftly and decisively, ordering 336 to fly a go-round and aborting the other jet’s take off.  The Tower could blame the AirCal Captain after that. He didn’t execute the go-around fast enough, brought his landing gear up too soon, and skidded, sparks flying, down Runway 19R until the plane caught fire before stopping.  Only four passengers were hurt, none of them seriously. Ninety-one passengers and five crew members went “whee” down the emergency exit slides that day, safe because Randy had done his job. Maury never said a thank you, but everyone knew that Randy had stopped two Boeing 737s from plowing into each other and killing hundreds of people.  Everyone knew Randy had stopped that from happening, right? Everyone knew. Didn’t they? And now here he was, being fired?

 

“That’s another thing, Randy,” the supervisor said.  “You’ve got to stop making out that you’re special. Shit like that happens all the time, and we’re always covering each other’s ass.  You know that. And now with completely untrained …” His voice trailed off and he looked around the room, as if he’d find the word he wanted pinned to the wall.  “… completely untrained, whoever, coming in here, I can’t afford to have someone … who I know can lapse like that … around.  I’ve got to bring … whoever … up to speed, and if I can’t count on one of the few pros I’ve got left over after this … whatever … I’d just as soon not have him around.”

The supervisor’s manner softened when he saw how Randy was taking this.

“Listen, Randy.  There’s another reason I’m doing this now.  The real reason.” His voice lowered. “I know we have, well, our differences of opinions about things.”  And he paused. Randy had no idea what he was talking about. None of this made any sense. “But really, I’m doing you a favor here. You can use the strike as an excuse for why you lost your job.”

“But I came back,” Randy said.  “I always come to work. I always come on time, and I stay late and do extra shifts if you need me.”

The supervisor interrupted him by swatting the words out of the air.  Randy’s mental bubbles bumped and collided, dissipating in ten different directions.  

“Listen to what I’m telling you, Randy.  I can make it look like you got let go like the rest of them, see?  You’re just another poor bastard who gambled and lost. I won’t put down that you were let go because of error.  We can just make it look like you were one in ten thousand. That way–” He paused. “There won’t be a competency issue on your record.”

“Randy?

“Randy?  Randy, do you understand what I’m saying?  I’m doing you a favor here.”

But Randy did not understand.  Not at all. Just one in ten thousand.  Like all the rest of them.

Maury ignored Randy when he came out of the supervisor’s office under the pretense that he was safeguarding airplanes in the sky.  He stared at the green glow of the radar screen with his smug back turned. Only Allen, the one air traffic controller at Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport who ever seemed to take an interest in Randy as a possible friend, said goodbye.

“It’s bullshit when they do this kind of thing to us,” Allen said.  He tried to offer comfort, but there was a distance. It wasn’t Allen losing his job.  He looked at Randy like he didn’t recognize him anymore, like Randy wasn’t getting it. “Take care of yourself,” he said.  And then he just drifted away.

It was Randy’s last day on the job.

Six months later he was sitting in a cubicle at Mage Technical Publications.  Randy had gotten a job proofreading The Yellow Pages.  The job was to compare the proofs of advertisements to the original customer contracts.  Customers wrote down the words they wanted in their ads on their contracts. The Quality Control Manager distributed these hand-written ads to the Quality Control Lead.  The Quality Control Lead then distributed the ads to the typists. After a proof run, the Lead distributed the typed ads to the proofreaders. The proofreaders then compared the original hand-written ads to the proof ads.  But the proofreaders weren’t looking for misspellings or grammar errors. They were looking for differences between the original hand-written ads and the typed ad copy. The proof ad typed by the typist was supposed to replicate the hand-written ad.  If the proofreader determined that it did, the proof and the original hand-written ad got placed in the basket on the left of the Quality Control Manager’s desk. If the proofreader determined that the typist had not keyed the exact copy when preparing the hand-written ad for publication, he changed the copy back to the original version, and placed the proof and the original contract in the box on the right of the Quality Control Manager’s desk.  The job paid six dollars an hour, which was two dollars and 65 cents higher than the minimum wage. It was 1982.

The Quality Control Lead was a twenty-something kid who was trying to grow a beard.  Facial hair was not allowed as part of the dress and grooming code at Mage Technical Publications, but it didn’t matter, because the Lead wasn’t old enough to sprout serious whiskers.  Most of the time he looked rarefied, like his face was in soft focus. He was trying to explain something to Randy.

“You see, here it is again,” he was saying.  “The original ad says ‘Reality World.’ The typist typed ‘Realty World.’ You’re supposed to catch that.”

Randy furrowed his brow.  He hadn’t really been listening.

“And then this one.”  The Lead with the peach fuzz face rustled through the several contracts he had brought over to Randy’s cubicle.  “In this one, the typist got it right. She typed ‘Reality World.’ But then you actually changed it to ‘Realty World.’”

At first Randy had doubts about working as a proofreader, but it came pretty easily to him.  The words were fixed points in space and held his attention. He made sure they lined up and flew right.  When something didn’t make sense to him, he fixed it. That’s why he couldn’t understand what the Lead was talking about.

“But clearly it’s supposed to be ‘Realty World.’  ‘Reality World’ is the mistake. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The Lead tried to look amused, but he was scared.  He clearly was a kid doing a man’s job. He wasn’t used to calling people out and criticizing their work performance.  Randy wondered why he even had the job. Then he noticed another Lead. This guy was a floater in Quality Control. A switch hitter.  Sometimes he turned up in proofreading. Sometimes in art. When he wasn’t inspecting the proofreading department, he was in graphics, making sure the artists were setting up the ad copy right on their end.  Randy wasn’t sure where he fit in all of this, but it was clear that he was looking out after the boy, who was in training for something great, but Randy didn’t get it. He didn’t want to show insubordination while the floating lead was watching, so he straightened up in his seat.  He concentrated on what the boy was whining about.

The Lead tried to look amused, and maybe he was.  He paused and searched the air for the right way to explain things to this person who clearly didn’t appreciate irony.  Yet, at the same time, Randy noted that he tried very hard to restrain himself from sounding condescending. The Lead was probably a good enough kid and a likeable enough fellow.  It’s just that Randy was used to keeping people from dying every day. Now he was employed to make spelling errors so that Mage Technical Communications could return the proof to the customer, point out the error, explain that Mage did not presume to change a single thing in the written copy it had received out of respect for the customer’s reputation for excellence, and then charge the customer extra to make the edit.  

That made some sense on one level.  Because once you determine that you know what the customer wants better than the customer does, where would it stop?  Maybe the customer did want the words spelled the way they had been written. Maybe the customer ran Reality World, and not a real-estate company.

On another level, it didn’t line up.  Mage was counting on poor spelling to make extra money.  Heck, they were hoping to land contracts from dyslexics writing ad copy for Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Reality World of Tehachapi or Yreka or Yucaipa.  Just as long as they got it wrong and paid more to make it right.  

 

In a logical world, the arrangement of the workflow in the proofreading department at Mage Technical Publications was inefficient and bizarre.  The Lead knew that. He just didn’t know that Randy knew it too.

 

How to explain this.  Again. In language you’ll understand the Lead’s baby face was trying to puzzle out.

 

“Matt, I understand,” Randy said.  But he was really talking to the Floating Lead, the boy’s mentor, who was listening.  “We replicate the error so that the customer has to pay to fix it. If we fix it for him, we lose a step in the billing cycle.  I get it.”

The Lead was pleased that he was off the hook and didn’t have to fight about it.  “Well, that’s one way to look at it, for sure,” he said, jovially. It’s the only way to look at it, Randy thought, but he didn’t say anything.  The Lead had some sophisticated, intellectual, ironic way of dealing with the lack of order, and he knew Randy wouldn’t understand.  He thanked Randy and walked away. The Floating Lead linked up with him and they went off together for a debrief. Randy could tell that the Floating Lead was telling the kid he’d handled that well.

“Why do you think you’re still working here?” Sally, one of the two typists, asked Randy on lunch break.  

Randy always stayed in his cubicle and didn’t get lunch in the cafeteria.  Sally rarely did. Randy could tell that she thought herself overqualified to be making seven dollars an hour, which was three dollars and 65 cents higher than the minimum wage in 1982.  Randy got that. He was overqualified to be a proofreader because he’d been a professional air traffic controller. But he’d gotten laid off during the strike. He’d turned up here at Mage Technical Publications for a brief layover on his way to the more responsible position that his talent and temperament would lead him to.  Maybe that would be here, at Mage, but the boy lead clearly was competition. Randy thought about the soft little hairs around his lips and on his chin and got angry. He wished he could change the subject.

“I’ve had opportunities, but the right one hasn’t come along just yet,” he said.

“No, silly,” Sally said, slapping his knee.  “You’re terrible at this. Proofreading I mean.”  

Sally was the fastest and cleanest typist on the team.  She could misspell 80 words a minute without slipping in accuracies by mistake.  There were faster typists than Sally, but the faster they were, the less they read, so they erred by typing the word they perceived instead of the letters they saw.  A fast typist might slip up and skip over the “i” in a real estate customer’s ad. That cost the company money. Instead of going directly back to the customer who then paid to fix it, the ad had to be rerouted back to the typist, who had to slow down in order to recreate the error on a second run before it could be returned to the customer, who only then was able to pay extra to fix it.  That is, if the proofreader caught the typist’s error. A proofreader who missed the typist’s errors could get fired. A proofreader who missed the typist’s errors could get the typist fired, because the frequency of errors would come to the attention of the Quality Control Manager.

In this way, the proofreaders and the typists gained a symbiotic alliance. They became paired in teams.  If both proofreader and typist did their jobs well, they took care of each other, and the Quality Control Manger never had to get involved.

Randy leaned out beyond his cubicle wall and glanced quickly across the room.  There was the Quality Control Manager, sitting at his desk behind the left and the right boxes for proofs and contracts.  His name was Arnie and he was in his 50s, much older than the minimum wage employees who worked for him. Except for Randy, that is.  Randy was older, too old to be making three dollars and 65 cents more than the minimum wage. Arnie knew that Randy had been a professional air traffic controller, and that’s what probably attracted him.  Randy was a mature and responsible worker who had been caught up in circumstances put into play by higher forces that he could not control. Even if it took a little extra training time, having that kind of worker on the team would pay off in some way.  

Sally saw every letter for what it was and was fast.  Randy appreciated being paired with her because she created fewer errors for him to miss.  Typists made a dollar more an hour than proofreaders, so Randy wanted her to like him. If he wasn’t good at proofreading, maybe he could move up to a typist position.

“I mean, don’t you know why you’re still working here?” Sally was going on.  

Randy didn’t want to say.  He hated it when people reacted badly to his nostalgia about being a responsible professional who protected people’s lives and property.  They acted like he was bragging, but it’s just that he missed the tower. He missed watching the planes come and go and tracking their trajectories in green diodes across the vast black expanse of his radar screen.  He missed the night shifts most of all, when the room was dark except for the green haze around the controllers’ faces, and the lights from the jets winked in the heavens among all the stars.

“They pair me with the newbies to watch out for them, you know.”

“You are the fastest typist in the department,” Randy said.

“I can tell Arnie likes you,” she said.  “So you’ll probably be taken care of.”

“What’s the arrangement with Matt?” Randy asked.

“Oh.  Matt,” Sally said flatly.  Randy got the feeling that she didn’t like Matt.  “Too pretty for me.” She smiled. “Did you know he’s got a Master’s degree?  In English literature?”

“Really,” Randy said matter-of-factly.  

“Can you imagine.  All of that intense preparation and you end up proofreading The Yellow Pages.”

Randy was a bit uneasy.  Jealous, really. No one seemed to care that he’d been a professional air traffic controller who saved people’s lives.  But people seemed sad for Matt, who’d risen to academic heights that no one making minimum wage could even imagine. His fall seemed somehow more tragic than Randy’s.  It didn’t line up. But somewhere, somebody was taking care of Matt, whose higher degree made it possible for him to consciously misspell Reality while reveling in irony instead of condemning inefficiency.  

“When did he become Lead?” Randy asked.

“About a month before you got here,” Sally said.  “He’s a good kid. They’ll probably make him manager when Arnie’s gone.”

“Arnie’s leaving?”

“No.  Of course not.”  Sally looked uneasy, as if she’d insulted Arnie and wanted to say something to compensate in case she was being overheard.  “Arnie’s a fixture. He started with the company. But he’s getting older. I mean, one day…” She stopped talking.

Lunch hour was over.  People were trailing back from the cafeteria in ragged lines, and Sally stood up to go.

“I’ve got a feeling that kid won’t stay around long though,” she said. “Me either.  We’re not going to spend the rest of our lives pushing out The Yellow Pages.  Now, you—” she said, slapping Randy’s knee and laughing.  “I can’t tell yet about you—”

Summer came, and Randy hadn’t lost his job proofreading The Yellow Pages.  At his sixth month review, Matt give him a rating of “good,” not “excellent,” but it gave him a 35 cents-an-hour raise, as was the custom at Mage Technical Publications.  A heat wave in Santa Clara County that year knocked out the mainframe computers. The giant units got too hot and shut down. The plant manager had to call in experts to reboot them, and the employees got a day off.  From then on, though, a safety feature shut down the computers when the temperature became uncomfortable. But the employees couldn’t be sent home every time it happened, so they stayed, lolling about in the cafeteria or playing frisbee outside on the lawn.  Some even brought picnic lunches in case the power went out and they got to eat outside near the city fountain.

Arnie the Quality Control Manager didn’t like anyone getting paid for playing frisbee, even minimum wage.  He started acting angry just after the weather turned and the heat put the mainframes offline. The fact that the experts couldn’t fix the problem seemed to bother him inordinately.  He read his newspaper at his desk at lunch time, slapping the pages right to left one after the other as he flew through the news too bothered to read. Randy had seen this kind of behavior before.  It reminded him of his supervisor at Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport when the strike got called.

One day in October, when the mainframes shut down after the fourth brownout of the morning, the proofreading department emptied of everyone except Randy and Arnie.  Randy still kept to himself for the most part, while Arnie tended to work over lunch and breaks. Arnie was always at his desk. Without power to the mainframes, Randy wondered what Arnie could be working on.  But he wasn’t working. He was reading The San Jose Mercury. Randy could hear the newsprint pages turning, but infrequently.  Arnie was tense and reading his paper closely. And Randy heard something else too.  Arnie was crying. He couldn’t be sure, but that’s what it sounded like. Soft, quiet sobs. Randy stiffened.  He knew that if Arnie could see him, Arnie would know that Randy could tell he was crying. It was only nine a.m.  How long could he last like this, pretending not to hear Arnie crying? He thought about excusing himself to go make a pay phone call in the lobby beside the cafeteria when the phone rang.

Arnie had the only phone in the department.  It sat on his desk next to the box on the right where the Lead put proof corrections.

“Randy Cross,” he heard Arnie say.  “Yes, Randy Cross works here. Randy—” called Arnie, “You have a phone call here.”

This was a strange series of events.  No one ever got called at work, and Arnie never gave them the phone if they did.  Employees who got calls at work got a demerit for it. Talking on the phone during work hours went against the code of acceptable employee conduct at Mage Technical Publications.  But Arnie didn’t sound mad. Maybe it was because he was trying to stop crying.

“Randy,” Arnie called again, his voice quiet and hoarse.  

There was no getting around it.  Randy had to walk over to Arnie’s desk and take a strange call while trying not to let Arnie know that he knew about the crying.  Arnie passed the receiver and went back to his paper. Randy wished he would leave the room, but Arnie was the Quality Control Manager.  This was his department, his desk, his phone. Nobody should have been talking on it except him anyway.

“Yes?” Randy said.

“Randy?  Randy, it’s Allen.”

“Yes.”

“Allen Richter.”

“Yes?” Randy was trying not to look in Arnie’s direction, and Arnie was hiding behind the newspaper, the limp corners of the rag trembling in his hands.  Every once in a while he sniffled.

“Randy, you remember me?”

“I remember you.  From SJC.” SJC was FAA code for the Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport.

“What about last night?  Do you remember last night?”

Arnie’s hand reached out from behind the newspaper page to retrieve a tissue from a box by the phone.

“Randy?  Do you remember last night?”

“Yes, I remember you, Allen.”  Randy had the feeling he was in a conversation that he didn’t want anyone to hear the other side of.  He ought to have said, “Last night?” But he didn’t want Arnie to hear him asking about last night in a strange way during an inappropriate call.

“I remember everything now, Randy.  Can you? Or are you still out?”

Of course Randy didn’t say, “Remember what?” or “What do you mean, out?”  He merely said, “Uh-huh.”  Not a “yes” uh-huh, but a “go on” uh-huh.

“You can’t remember, can you?” Allen asked.

Where was Allen going with this?  He was making no sense.

“All right.  I’m coming out. I have to see you.  I’m leaving now. I can be there tonight.  Randy? Randy?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know Mac’s downtown?”

“Is that where you guys used to go for beers?”

“No, Randy.  The guys didn’t go there for beers.  Do you know it? It’s downtown. Meet me there tonight.” Randy paused.  Then he said, “It closes at 2:00 in the morning. I can make it if I leave now, I’m sure I can.  Randy? Randy? Will you meet me?”

“Yes, I’ll go.”

“I think I can get there by midnight, but wait for me.  Promise.”

“All right,” Randy said.

Allen hung up.  Randy put the receiver back in its cradle.  He felt like he needed to say something to Arnie.  

“That’s strange.  An old friend,” he said.  Arnie didn’t move behind his newspaper.  “From my glory days as an air traffic controller.” Randy laughed nervously, reminding Arnie that once a long time ago he’d been more than just another proofreader.  He stood awkwardly in front of Arnie’s desk. Finally he said, “Are you following the story?”

“Yes.  Yes, I am,” Arnie said.  Randy had worried that Arnie was angry and hiding a face of uncontrollable rage behind his paper.  He must have been so mad that he knew his anger was misplaced and inappropriate. But Arnie wasn’t angry.  He dropped the newspaper and looked at Randy with a deep and profound sorrow. It was saddest look Randy had ever seen in his life.  It made him heartsick.

“It’s terrible what’s happening.”  He stared at Randy but was disconsolate.  Randy might as well have been ten miles away.

That night Randy sat uncomfortably in a booth waiting for Allen to arrive.  He got there at 11:00. The bartender was beginning to get irritated because he’d only ordered one drink in over an hour.  But it was a slow night, so better some business than none at all.

Finally Allen showed up.  He saw Randy as soon as he came in the door and joined him.

“I just flew in from Des Moines,” Allen said.  “Clear weather.” He waited for the server to take his order and went on.  “I was on a cross country with a kid two days ago,” he said.

“Uh-huh,” Randy said.

Allen looked at him like Randy should have been more curious about all of this.

“You really don’t remember anything?” he asked.

“I really don’t know what you are talking about,” Randy said.  “Why did you fly in from Des Moines?”

“I live on a farm outside Des Moines now.  Got a flight instructor job at a little training school.  Single-engine puddle jumping for the local kids mostly, but at least I’m around the airport that way.”  

Allen’s drink came.

“Borrowed their baddest Cessna to get here tonight.  Probably get fired for that.”

Randy glanced around as if someone were missing and they should wait to talk until they were joined.

“Like I said, I was on a cross-country with a kid a week back.  Flying to Lowell. C97.” He paused and took a drink. “We saw an orb.”  He paused.  “The kid saw it too.  Saw it first.”

“Uh-huh.”

“A … double … spheroid…” He mimicked a shape in the air above the tabletop.  Getting the words out was a terrible effort. “…convex…”  He was staring at the imaginary orb that wrestled to break free from his hands.  “…orb…”

Allen was going in circles. Was he some kind of crazy person now?

“I’m not crazy,” Allen snapped.  “Listen.” He decided to get down to it.  “That’s when I remembered. Brenda and I have moved out to a farm.  An Iowa farm, for Christ’s sake. To get away.”  He chortled.  The irony of it had caught him off guard.  “Before that. Before that flight, I don’t remember when, but I remember.  I was looking at stars. There was a bright light. It floated over the farm.  I could hear cattle in the neighbor’s field. They were crazy. I’ve never heard cows low like that, not in my life.  I didn’t think they could sound that way.

“I went into the bedroom to wake up Brenda.  We’ve been having trouble, you know?” He looked at Randy.

“Uh-huh.”

“After the strike.”  Allen cleared his throat.  “I was confused about what to do, what direction.”

Allen righted himself in his seat.  He was getting off track.

“There was a glowing green disk over the barn.  I was scared to death. We both were. Then calm.”  He looked into Randy’s face. “I mean, the peace that passes understanding, Randy.  I’ve never felt like that before, never in my life.  I was at peace, and everything made sense. Me. Brenda.  Everything.

“These … beings …suddenly came into the bedroom. They led us to the ship.  A stairway came out of it. Everything was calm, quiet. Dead quiet.  The cows had stopped. You couldn’t hear a thing, Randy. No crickets on an Iowa midnight.”  He guffawed at the implausibility.

“They led us up the stairs and into the ship.  It was dim, Randy. Just like the tower. You remember the green glow of the radar screen?  It was like that, only … it was a different kind of light.

“They asked Brenda to lie down.  They didn’t have mouths. They had slits for mouths, but I couldn’t see any lips moving.  But Brenda was fine with it. She laid down on an altar, Randy. That’s the best way I can describe it.  It looked just like a white ivory altar.

“They bound her wrists and ankles with manacles.  She told them they didn’t have to do that, but they said it was for her own protection.  I mean, I heard what they said inside my head.  

“There was a woman.  I don’t know how I know that.  They didn’t look like they had a sex.  This one was a little smaller than the others, with bigger eyes, a thinner nose, and pouty lips.  She took Brenda’s gown off and started singing. I swear. She made this humming song.

“They took me away to another chamber and gave me this green drink.  I was fine with it. I drank it. But then I felt flushed, just a real rush of hot …

Allen glanced around to make sure no one else was listening.

“And I got an erection.”

“Uh-huh.”

“They put this metal cup on it and sucked out my sperm.”

The story was winding down.

“Later Brenda told me they’d stuck a needle in her womb, and took samples of hair and blood.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And you were on the ship.  Randy. Did you hear me? You were on the ship, in another one of the cubicles.”

Allen drained his drink and called the server over to order another round.  He was waiting for Randy to say something. After a while, he broke the silence himself.

“There was something about seeing that saucer with the kid on the cross-country, Randy.  The kid saw it, right in front of us. And I didn’t see it. And the kid goes, ‘Don’t you see that?  Don’t you see that?’ And I didn’t see it at all. But he was so scared, terrified. And I said, ‘Don’t be afraid.  They won’t hurt you.’ And that’s when it all came back to me, my whole life. Right there on descent into Lowell, Indiana.  They’ve been coming for me my whole life, Randy. I’m some kind of experiment for them.”

Randy let out a sigh and stretched, like a bad cramp had just relaxed.  “I don’t know where you’re going with this. This is crazy.”

“I remember everything now.  Everything. They’ve been coming for you, too, Randy.  That’s what I figure. And for a lot of us. There were like fifty rooms on that ship, and they had somebody in every one of them.”

“Jesus, Allen, this is crazy.  Do you know how this sounds?”

“Do you ever have blackouts?  Ever?”

Randy couldn’t remember if he’d ever blacked out.

“And have you always been interested in space?  In flying? Always looking up there like there’s something to figure out?  I’ve always wanted to fly, always. Got my license when I was 17. Didn’t have the vision to be a professional pilot, so I became an air traffic controller.  It’s like I’m waiting, watching. Always waiting for them to come.”

“Ok, Allen,” Randy said.  “I don’t know what you want from me.”

“I don’t want anything from you, Randy.  I just want … I just want…” Allen was looking for the right words.  “I just, I don’t want to feel so alone with this thing anymore.” Allen looked sad.  Not because he was ashamed that aliens made him masturbate into a metal cup on their flying saucer, but because he felt so totally, completely alone.  

“What about Brenda?”

“Brenda won’t remember.” Allen corrected himself.  It wasn’t like she had a choice. “She can’t remember.”  

“You told her?”

“Of course I told her.  Once I got things straightened out, I couldn’t not tell her.  I just can’t go on that way.”

“Are you still together?”

Allen paused.  His second drink was coming.  He waited until the server left them and continued.  “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

There was a long silence, and Randy was glad for the second drink.  Finally, Allen said, “So! What you been up to lately?”

They both laughed like they’d just pulled off a high school prank.  It was the first time Randy had laughed since his days in the tower at SJC.

Randy was a wreck at work the next morning from staying out all night.  He missed correction after correction and made mistake after mistake. Sally the typist was getting fed up.  She was intolerant today for some reason. Finally, Matt had to talk to him.

“Hey, man,” Matt said.  He seemed low key and was doing his best to show understanding.  “I understand. If you can afford it, why don’t you just take the day off and go home.”

Randy could afford it, but he didn’t want to be alone.  He didn’t want to be with anyone, but he didn’t want to be alone either.

“I’m ok,” he said. “Look, an old friend came in from out-of-state last night.”  Randy was resorting to the I used to be an air traffic controller play.  “We used to be air traffic controllers together.  There was this one crash, AirCal Flight 336. It crashed, and my friend thinks it was his fault.  He can’t forgive himself, and it’s getting his marriage into trouble. He felt he needed to talk to someone who could understand.”

Matt nodded his head like he knew Randy was lying but was ok with it.  “It’s ok, Randy,” he said. “Arnie’s out too.” He paused. “So it’s ok.  There’s nobody who’s going to hold it against you.”

What the hell, Randy thought.  And he got up to leave.

Sally stopped him.  “I’m sorry, Randy,” she said.  “I’m being a bitch today. I’m just so worried about Arnie.”

“It’s ok, Sally,” Randy said.  What the hell, he thought. Is everyone just going nuts?

Sally hesitated as if she didn’t know how Randy was going to take what she was about to say.  But she said it anyway. “He’s got GRID. Randy? Did you know that?”

No, Randy didn’t know that.  He had no idea what she was talking about, and she could tell.

“Randy, it’s the disease.  It’s been in all the papers.  Arnie’s already lost friends because of it.”

It was inappropriate to turn your back on someone just because he had a disease over which he had no control, Randy thought.  It was wrong.

“They’re calling it AIDS now,” she said.  “It’s all over the news.”

Randy wasn’t sure what to say.  

“You take care of yourself,” Sally said.  She gave him a hug and said goodbye. But she’d see him at work again tomorrow.

A few weeks later, they came for him in his bed.  They offered to suppress his memory, but he told them he didn’t need it anymore.

On the ship, he disrobed and sat on the table in the examination room.  The ship hummed quietly and was bathed in soft green light. Randy felt comfortable for the first time in a long while.  He wished he’d be able to remember after this time. On every visit, he could remember all the other visits, and his mind was clear.  He knew exactly who and where he was, and his mind and memory were sound. On every visit, he remembered the other visits clearly, and he realized that he would be made to forget them when they were done with him.  That’s the one thing he didn’t like. He liked the way being chosen made him feel important. But he didn’t like not being able to remember. And he didn’t like the way his mind worked in-between visits. It was as if now, in the ship, with the visitors, he was his waking self, the real Randall Cross.  The one that people knew, the Randy at work, Randy the tenant or the neighbor, Randy the customer, Randy the friend, that was the dreaming one, the pretend real life a hallucination.

This time something was different.

“What’s wrong?” Randy asked.

The visitors communicated telepathically and could not censor their thoughts.  There was no deception in them and no stealth. But the result was a constant stream of consciousness that overwhelmed Randy’s mind.  And if there were more than one nearby, Randy felt their whisperings competing inside his head. Ironically, his thoughts were not exposed to them.  They could not guard him from hearing their minds, yet they could not read his. To understand him, they had to hear Randy speak.

Normally the complications of thoughts dovetailing in their minds presented a rushing flow of information that Randy could not assemble in linear fashion.  The visitors thought all at once and did not unfold their instructions or desires one after another in linear fashion. Yet, they were not confusing. Listening to them was calming.  It put Randy in a passive, receptive state of mind. He was at peace in this state, because there was nothing he needed to do. It was only when he was required to act on their information that he had to force himself to dissemble the One Thought into something that resembled sentences with temporal structure and a logic based on beginnings, middles, and ends.

This time, when Randy asked, “What’s wrong?” she only gave him two thoughts. This was surprising.  Only two thoughts? These two thoughts are important, Randy recognized.

“You are too old now,” she said.  “We can’t use you anymore, so we will be saying goodbye after tonight.  And the ship is in trouble. There’s something wrong with the navigation system.”

The first thought was alarming.  He knew that if the visitors were done with him and would never return, the Randy who lived in the dreaming life of the real world would fall into a deep depression.  The people in the dream would wonder why he was drifting so far away. He imagined that separating from the visitors would leave a void in the dream, and that Randy would have to find a way to kill himself one day, and no one would ever know why.  Perhaps he would seek out Arnie, the Quality Control Manager at Mage Technical Publications, and learn how to acquire an immune deficiency.

“Don’t leave me,” he asked.  The visitor understood that he simply wanted her company now, on this final visit, for as long as possible.  She understood that he knew his place in the order of things and accepted his fate. But for now, as a kindness, if she could be with him, he would appreciate it very much.

“Come with me,” she said.

“Thank you,” Randy said.  She waited for him to dress, and let him accompany her on her rounds.

He greeted Allen warmly when they came to his examination room.

“Thanks for trying the other night,” Randy said.  “What’s it like, being able to remember?”

She fetched a vial of the green liquid and gave it to Allen.   

“I’m still never completely clear.  I can remember, but it’s like remembering a dream.  It’s like I’m only a little out, but not altogether.”

“How does it happen?” they asked her.

“At a certain point we don’t mind if you remember.  We know you won’t hurt us. When that happens, we lessen the retraction of your memories.  At some point, a significant joyous or traumatic event triggers the recognition that releases the memories.  At that point, you come close to us.”

She transmitted these ideas in the time it took to hum a single musical sound.

“Will I remember, then?” Randy asked.  If the dreaming Randy could wake, he might be able to sustain the life without her, nourished by his memories.

“You are not yet at that place,” she said.

“But can’t you keep visiting until you lead me there?”

“You are too old.  We can’t use you anymore.”

“But can’t you just visit anyway, please, until I come close enough to you to remember?”

“It doesn’t work that way.  Some people never get to that point.”

Randy understood.

“Bottom’s up,” Allen said, and he knocked back the green drink.  “Now if you’ll excuse me,” he said, laughing. Randy respected his privacy and left with a smile.

When they came to Brenda’s examination room, she expressed her concern.

“It’s terrible not to remember when he can.  I see myself in those times between visits, and it’s like I’m watching a movie, or looking at someone I don’t even know.  I can see poor Allen explaining the truth to me, and I just can’t bring myself to hear it. Now, in this place, I know how horrible my ignorance there is.  But still I am at peace here.”

“I wish I could do something to help,” Randy said.

“I think we’ll be ok.  We have to be. Somewhere inside, I have to know that it’s true, that he’s telling the truth.  There has to be someplace inside of myself where I know. Or it’s just too horrible to consider.”

The visitor told Randy to come with her.  Something was happening on the bridge.

The visitors all were of agitated mind.  Something was wrong with the ship.

Randy didn’t have to inquire.  The air was full of their concern.

“The navigation system has failed and we cannot steer anymore.  We can’t communicate our location to the mother ship.”

“How do you steer?” Randy asked.

They told him.

“What do you mean you cannot see?” Randy asked.

It became clear to him.  

“I can save the ship,” Randy said.  “I was an air traffic controller. I can look here, on this screen, and see the other ships.  I can tell them where you are at.”

They agreed.  Their almond eyes smiled.

“Control, this is SJC,” Randy said, just to say something familiar.  The ship was listing slowly now. Another few minutes, another few feet, and it would all crash to the ground, for everyone in Lombard to see.  

Randy looked out the windshield.  He looked at the instruments bathed in green light.  He determined their geographical position. They’d flown from Washington through California then northeasterly from Nevada through Utah, Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa into Illinois.  

 

“41° 52’ 48” North, 88° 0’ 28” West,” Randy announced.

 

“They can see us,” said the visitors.  “We get in trouble with the supervisor when we allow ourselves to be seen.”

 

“Don’t be afraid,” Randy told them.  “Tomorrow morning somebody will call the planetarium to report a UFO sighting.  No one will believe them. It won’t matter if anyone does.”

 

From the south, several small crafts arrived to encircle the airship.  They bobbed and weaved a tapestry of invisible power around the unmoving mass, fixing it to the sky.  In a few minutes, the repairs would be made.

The visitors’ thoughts became calm.  They thanked Randy and answered his request.  “Yes, you can stay with us. We might need an air traffic controller again.”

Randy was delighted.  They let him sit in the console in front of the green navigation screens and delivered the transcendent thoughts of higher beings who take great pleasure in seeing the joy of a child.

Randy laughed and answered the starship that hovered above North America.  He pinpointed the other airships that were patrolling Eastern Canada and the Southern United States.  Soon they would all rendezvous behind a star.

“I’m gay, and I live on a ship in outer space!” he declared.

In November of 1982, that was a startling thing for an Earth man to say.   

 

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