Roth / Hailing Frequency /
© Matthue Roth, 2010. “Hailing Frequency” is a copyrighted work. It is NOT okay to post it anywhere online or to print it for distribution without the express permission of the author.
by Matthue Roth
We can’t get through to Slovenia. Galiene keeps calling and calling, but each time, the answer is the same: all international calls are down.
“But someone in our apartment building spoke to his sister in London,” Galiene protests to the operator, thinking it’ll make a difference. The answer comes back: All overseas calling has been discontinued for the duration of the emergency. Emergency is what they’ve been calling the invasion. “And, anyway, that’s London,” she tells Galiene. “The space ships look the same everywhere on Earth. What do you need to talk to Slovakia for?”
“It’s where my parents live, you whore!” Galiene screams into the phone. Then she lets loose a torrent of curses in their full Cyrillic glory.
She stares at the phone for a moment, taken by surprise at the dial tone, astonished that this string of incantations has failed to unlock her magic door, or that anyone could possibly have hung up on her, and proceeds to dial her parents again. Again, there is no answer.
On Wednesday night, the televisions announce that curfew has been lifted. Anyone who wants to return to work, can. “Those who are feel unable or uncomfortable leaving their homes will not be penalized, by right of law,” the anchorman notes. In other words, if you were freaking out, feel free to continue freaking.
Galiene lets loose a sigh of relief. She doesn’t bother to hide it. Work is a welcome respite, an excuse to be apart for the most boring portion of the day, and it would be a lie to say both of us aren’t grateful for the opportunity to get away from each other.
A break will do us good.
An hour after she leaves, I am climbing the walls. What do I do? Am I really supposed to look for jobs? Would anyone seriously consider a resume from someone who’s applying for jobs in the middle of an alien invasion? How can I watch the news alone without her dry cracks? I have all these thoughts in my head. If Galiene was here, I’d be telling her about them. I try telling myself, but I start to feel like a mental patient.
Finally, I decide to go on a walk.
The streets are largely empty. People are out and about, but afraid to stay too long in the open. They stick close to buildings. They scuttle back and forth between buildings, crossing streets quickly, uncertain, anxious.
The military is everywhere. Trucks, convoys, foot soldiers positioned down the street, down every street. At the corner of Broadway and Belmont sits a tank. It isn’t the first time in my life that I’ve seen a tank—at a museum or an air show or something—but I don’t think I ever realized how big they were. You’ve got to ask yourself, where does the army keep this stuff? The tank takes up most of both sides of the street, and part of the sidewalk. No matter where they’re stationed, they’re all on battle mode: fingers on the trigger, pointing toward the sky.
At this rate, you could almost not blame the aliens for not coming out. If I didn’t live with Galiene, I wouldn’t, either.
But sometimes, being outside just feels liberating, you know? Open air, faces I don’t immediately recognize, no sky, but at least I know it’s out there. After a block or two on the sidewalk, I switch to walking in the center of the street. There’s barely any traffic. It feels more awkward than dangerous, like this isn’t actually real life. I could skip around the yellow line in the center of the street, but that might be a little too flamboyant. For now, it’s enough to just stroll, peaceful and inoffensive, walking target and all.
I can’t avoid staring at the space ship—massive, towering above the city skyline, exerting its dominance. Right now, it seems to be looking over my shoulder in particular, checking to see that I’m behaving myself. If not… The warning is whispered through the Earth’s atmosphere down at me, and a shiver runs down my back. I can’t figure out whether I’m imagining that skyscraper of a space ship with a big cartoony tooth-filled smile face or with a gun trained on me.
The first time I encounter someone else, however, they stop, smile, and ask me how I’m doing. It catches me so off guard that I’m about to reply My wife hates me, I don’t have a job, and, oh, have you looked up in the sky lately?
Just in time, I catch myself.
“Uh…fine. Thanks. How are you?”
The speaker is a gentle-looking man who has settled into middle age like a comfortable couch, pillows of fat, faded plaids dotting his clothes—the kind of man, in another life, everyday life, I never would’ve spoken to. “Doin’ alright!” he replies. “Great weather we’re having. Just don’t look up at the sun, y’know?”
He chuckles as if it were a joke instead of a sign of our impending demise, and nods politely, as if I’m being discharged. He moves away at a brisk, racing pace toward the hardware store.
The hardware store?
I do a double take. They’re selling power tools, chainsaws, sheets of metal, and they are getting quite a crowd. Across the street, a portly and hunchbacked man is directing his son to solder those pieces of sheet metal onto the windows of his convenience store.
Someone comes up to me and asks if I have a light.
“Sorry, man,” I shake my head.
“That’s okay,” he says, pulling a book of matches from his pocket. “I got matches. I just hate the taste of sulfur, you know?”
“Sure,” I say, not knowing at all. Then, because I’m in a friendly mood: “Risking your life for a cigarette? How come you don’t just smoke inside?”
“Management,” he grins and points to his lapel: Scully’s Hardware, MARCO—How May I Help You. “No smoking in the store. Even now. I figure, if they want to shoot me during a cigarette break, I probably deserve it—I’m killing myself anyway, right?” He laughs.
I let out a low whistle. “Can’t believe you’re selling that shit to those people,” I comment, as inoffensively as I can.
“That sheet metal? No way it’ll be able to hold up against their heat rays or reality disruptors or alien rhino creatures, or whatever they’ve got on board.”
He says: “And what are you risking your life for out here, man?”
I shrug. “A walk.”
“A walk? Yeah, like that’s worth getting yourself killed over.”
“Different strokes, different folks.”
“Hope so,” I resign myself to saying.
Another time, or if this were a friend, or even someone I halfway knew, this would provoke a fight. I’d probably never talk to him again. We are strangers, though, and the only thing we have in common is this conversation. Even the fact that I know his name feels like cheating. Silently, we both consider the other’s position, and I think we both kind of decide that we can see the other’s point.
“Shit, man—do you think this war’s gonna happen?”
“If it does,” I say, watching the shopkeeper and his son, “we’ll be the ones who start it.”
“The way it should be,” he agrees, nodding firmly. “Those fuckers stole the sky. We got to get it back.”
For a moment I’m repulsed, does he think we’re still animals? But we are. Made for fighting, rumbling, eating meat. It’s a small miracle that we managed to discover language and the wheel in the first place, and that we haven’t eradicated half the world or dueled away our girlfriends in the process.
The space ship. You can’t avoid thinking about it for too long. Especially standing in the middle of the street, but anywhere, really. If there was a giant robot holding a bomb at your front door, could you go on cooking dinner in peace? We don’t know what they’re up to. We don’t know that they’re any better than we are, and they could be a lot worse.
Evidently, Marco From Scully’s has gotten tired of waiting for me to agree with him. “Be safe,” he says, crunching his cigarette beneath his sole. He leans down and, out of habit I guess, scoops up the butt. Then he stares at it a second and tosses it back down.
“Why bother?” he asks me. “One more thing they can use for target practice. Take care of yourself, man.”
I’m lost in my thoughts. When I look back up, he’s gone. Back to the store? Teleported away? Fried to bare atoms by an alien weapon? No. If they want to declare war on us, they should just hover up there for a few more days. We’ll all go crazy.
At this rate, it’s just a question of when.
As I walk, part of the president’s speech is going through my head, the part before we turned it off.
“The following days will be a test,” he’d said. “Not a test for the Earth, and not for the universe, but for each of us. When you walk, downcast, will you smile at a neighbor, will you feel proud to place his needs above your own? Or will we show ourselves to be a race of small-minded, petty brigands? My friends, the choice is up to us.”
That was the exact point I’d clicked off the TV, sick of all that pop-song politicking.
Only now did I see people on the street, humbled and honest and afraid. At a convenience store counter, a man checks his watch between customers. A black Lexus rolls down the street. A white-haired man in a t-shirt lectures to three kids in the back seat. From the way he wags his finger, he’s warning them about something. In the parking lot between projects, kids play ball in a yard. Their mother watches, taking deep hits off her cigarette, as though it is the only thing she had left to trust in.
I don’t have an agenda, I just walk. Ending up where I do is quite coincidental, and quite far. The closer I get to the center of town, the fewer people are out.
But I don’t tempt Fate, I just work with what it gives me. Standing in front of the white glass building, its lobby like a giant aquarium, I swallow my hesitation, curse my subconscious, and walk in.
A pretty, cold young woman smiles at me. Her hair is frosted into a curl, and her wardrobe matches the lobby. Who gets hired to do this kind of thing? Why does she get to do this job and I don’t? I should ask her for an application.
“I—uh, 28, I think.”
She is so distant. I would be amiable, charming, welcoming. They should hire me. Somebody should.
An unseen machine dispenses a sticker the size of my palm.
“Suite 2850, second bank of elevators to your left. Wear this at all times.” She offers it to me stuck to her long index finger, perched on the tip. Beneath it lurks her nail, almost a talon, Lovecraftian in its shape and length.
“Thanks.” I offer the briefest of smiles and take the second bank of elevators.
On Floor 28 is another receptionist, this time, a man—young, movie star-ish, well-oiled hair and a chiseled jaw. I rub my own stubble self-consciously. “Galiene Mjolnir, please,” I tell him.
“Just one second,” he says. He finishes typing something and rings a line. “Dr. Mjolnir?” he says. “Someone here for you.”
When she sees me, she doesn’t seem upset, but she doesn’t seem happy, either—more like preoccupied. “Victorje! What are you doing here?—How did you get here, all the way from home?” she asks, looking perplexed.
“Aren’t you happy to see me?”
It doesn’t sound like a rhetorical question. Fidgety, she glances at Receptionist Man.
“Let’s go to my lab,” she says.
Her lab is a sanitized white box of a room adjacent to a cubicle wasteland. It’s at least as large as my high school chem. lab, with six large desks, each outfitted with a minibar stacked with chemicals, a bunch of beakers, and a bright orange shower head. I know it’s for chemical spills, but I can’t stop looking at it and thinking graphic thoughts, hurtful thoughts, about what Galiene does here all day.
“You are thinking of maybe getting less sweaty?” she asks.
No one kills a mood like Galiene.
“You look really hot in that lab coat,” I tell her. “You should wear it when we go on dates.”
She smiles, disarmed. And the truth is, she does. The lab coat comes to just above her knees, brushing the hem of her skirt, and trailing after her when she walks, like a very enthusiastic ghost. Her pale blue-tinted goggles set off her eyes, a blue so deep it’s almost black, perched delicately above her bangs.
Her laptop sits open on the desk, her email onscreen. She shuts it quickly, in one fluid motion, between pulling out two high stools and placing them a respectful distance apart. “Is email working in Slovenia?” I ask, trying to sound hopeful.
Her shoulders rise, then drop. “It is,” she admits. “But my mother and my father they are hopeless at it. ‘All is good here, how is Victor?’ A real emotional connection is elusive.”
“We could probably set it up to do voice chats,” I offer. “It shouldn’t be too hard…”
“Okay, you’re right,” I concede. And, because I can’t think of anything else to say: “I thought I’d surprise you for lunch.”
“This is nice,” she says warmly, and rewards me with a smile. “So, what food are we having?”
I look at her blankly.
“What did you bring?”
She nods. Curiously, not hostilely, although I take it that way.
“It does not matter,” she says, keeping up the smile, though it falters momentarily. “How did you get here, did the subway run? Did you walk?”
I tell her about my Herculean hike, describing in detail all the people I passed, the families carrying home massive boxes of pasta and lunchmeats, rolling huge vats of water down the street; the school on Aldine, with no place to send its children for recess, letting them burn off excess sugar energy by running around maniacally in the classrooms. The children looked so old, older than they should be, standing on desks and yelling out through chain-linked windows.
I tell Galiene what Marco said, about men and monsters and blowing the ship out of the sky. This makes her sad, which I should’ve been able to predict: Galiene is always sad when you think she’ll be celebratory, jubilant when you expect her to be depressed. I wonder if it’s the result of growing up with a different language. No, it’s just growing up a woman.
Galiene starts talking about traffic. How the roads today were a frenzy of people and movement, and how the cars tore through the road like leopards. There was all the usual traffic, but racing along to work, moving way faster than normal. There was no hesitation and no indecision—people dropped out at their exits noiselessly, and fast. No one tried to pass. Everyone, in a scared, hushed agreement, went along exactly at the speed limit, as though someone was watching to make sure. There was no honking. Nobody yelled, even. It was like the moment during a fire drill when the crowd catches a whiff of furtive smoke, comes across a door that is hot to the touch, and they begin to suspect that this might be the real thing.
When we talk, it feels as though we’re trading lessons we’ve learned, serving as each other’s eyes and ears for the time we’ve spent apart. We smile and we nod and we even laugh at certain moments, the right moments, the moments that we know we want each other to, when we’re talking.
And everything seems okay. Devoid of the normality of our days, devoid of the four walls of our can’t-get-no-satisfaction apartment, it is a change, not only of pace, but of rhythm and meter and reason. We don’t have to conform to the rules that held us down at home. The air is clearer here, and it’s not just because of the particulate-free triple filtration system in the office building.
“For how long do you think this thing will continue?”
I shake my head. “No way of knowing.”
“What if they never do anything at all? What if they just stay and stay and stay?”
“Space ships that never land? Gali, is that even possible?”
“If they need gas, obviously, then no. But if they rely on the solar energy, and if it has the efficiency to stay through one whole night, it can stay forever there.”
I like this, now. We are gaining the steam of real conversation. It’s like talking to someone who you’ve known for a long time but never really talked to—except, in our case, the someone is someone you’ve been living with for three years.
“Do you realize,” I say, “we’ve been staring at these ships all week, and we have no idea what they look like, except on the bottom?”
“Victor, are you going to divorce me?”
I am just about to launch into an extensive musing about the alien ships, and whether up top they’ve got gun turrets and a launching pad filled with baby X-wing assault fighters, or maybe just a giant swimming pool. The first words are already coming out of my mouth when Galiene interjects, and I know what she’s saying, and I want to keep talking and gloss over what she’s said and not pay any attention to it, like a momentary burst of static during a TV show, but I can’t.
“God, baby, Galiene, don’t even say that word…”
“I see the way you look at me, as if you are thinking Why does she act this way?, and you always are so angry, and I try to hold my temper but it does not always want to go, and I have been so moody here, and I take it out on you…and you are spending so much time on the computer…”
My defense flares up. This was, I thought, supposed to be her confession. “Why can’t I spend time on the computer?”
“But you do not ever want to do anything else—”
“I don’t want to be on the computer all the time, I need to be,” I retort. “Besides, damn it, why are you always staying here late into the night?”
“I am still new—I must to prove myself—”
“To whom? The guy at the front desk?”
Silence. An anvil has been dropped, and I am surprised to see the lever resting in my hand. I stare at my stomach. It’s always been protrusive, and I have always been shaped somewhat like a snowman, but lately, it has been taking over. I think I’m getting less attractive.
It takes me what feels like several moments to look up. Galiene does not seem guilty, only sad.
“Have you been smoking?” she asks timorously.
“Two days ago. You smelled like smoke. At first I felt afraid I had driven you to be a smoker. Then I felt afraid of other things.”
“I went to a bar that morning. I was sick of sending out resumes. I needed human contact.”
Her mouth skews even more. “In the morning?”
“It was early afternoon, maybe. What’s the big deal? In Slovenia we went out to bars constantly. My computer lab had our morning meetings at a bar.”
“But this is America. A bar here does not mean the same as a Slovenia bar.”
“That’s only because we make it mean something different, Galiene, you know that.”
“And did this bar seem the same as Slovenia to you?”
“Did you meet someone?”
“I met lots of people.”
“I am glad to hear that you have friends now.”
Oh, geez. Her voice is dry with sarcasm, her favorite mode to be in. It’s dry as a desert. It’s Death Valley.
“And, for your info,” she continues, “Jonathan at the front desk is gay. So is his boyfriend. I have told you about them, they want to go out with us to a concert when the weather will grow warm.”
I mumble something that’s so incoherent, even I don’t know what it’s supposed to be.
She says: “I think you should go now.”
I walk in the middle of streets, no longer jejune and exploratory, but not caring whether they train their death rays on me anymore or not. Getting blown up might make an interesting experience. My parents would be upset, but I’d be eager, curious—happy, even. “It’s just another phase of life,” I’d tell them. “Like moving out, or learning to speak a foreign language.”
Damn it. Everything comes back to Galiene. I really did abduct her, after a fashion. She didn’t want to be here. Neither did I, of course. But at least I can find newspapers in my language, call my relatives without paying a fortune or screaming at helpless long-distance operators—God, when you look at the life I have in this city, I almost have it easy.
I spend so much time alone, I almost feel guilty.
I return home, after most of an hour’s walk, smelling revoltingly of my own odor. I need a shower, but instead I go online. Read the news, read some comic books, listen to music. I go into SETI, log into my free account, and go through the motions of my usual hacks. My folder still sits there, freshly updated as of 1400.1500, looking a little pale, a little square, a bit like every other icon in the field, but, nonetheless, still distinctly mine.
I double click and nudge it open.
I check the speakers, check the cable. Check to make sure my notebook is still plugged in, and then I put on a song just to make sure everything else is hooked up. Where before there was a wavy line indicating the pitch and tone and volume of the noises, now there is virtually nothing, only a whisper of that clunky, static soundlessness of radio silence. I realize, to the sounds of empty air and the Ramones over my computer speakers: They’re gone.
Hours later, Galiene comes home. It’s dark, and none of the lights are on, and I’m not doing anything to speak of—that is, nothing but leaning against the couch and cupping my forehead in my hand. I hear the gate swing closed, then the tap of high heels on pavement, and then her climbing the stairs, fumbling with the keys. I get up to open the door. I can’t completely believe that she’s coming back.
“Boze moj,” she says, crying and gasping, choking on her own words. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I hate this country and I hate my life, and so it seems okay to take it out on you. I don’t want to do this, Victor. I do not want to,” and she collapses into my arms, crying. Her face is buried in my chest and her breasts heat up my belly. Gently, with both hands wrapped around her back, I guide us toward and then collapse us upon my parents’ old sofa, which had held nothing but bad memories in the old house, which my dad had reupholstered before he sent it to us. Together, we curl up on it in one entangled ball. We are making new memories, forcing ourselves to make them good ones.
© Matthue Roth. “Hailing Frequency” is a copyrighted work. It is NOT okay to post it anywhere online or to print it for distribution without the express permission of the author.