Monday, February 23, 2009

Little Gray Men

In the early 1960's, before the Kennedy assassination and Little Rock, before "I have a dream," on a lonesome country road in New Hampshire, a mixed-race couple, him black, her white, encounter a flying saucer, which assails them with its spiraling red and white lights before landing nearby. Before the episode ends, the aliens abduct the couple and perform bizarre examinations on them during the course of which they discover that the man, Bernie, wears false teeth. The aliens, it should go without saying, have big heads and large eyes. Oh--and they happen to be gray.

This is the rudely summarized plot of Peter Ho Davies' short story, "The Hull Case." And it could be read as a blatant and even clumsy metaphor for the anxieties, hopes, delusions and fears of a racially mixed couple living in a still very segregated society, with the gray aliens standing in for the biological children they could not have. But the story turns out to be true: Davies based it on the famous case of a real mixed-race couple and their highly publicized encounter with extra-terrestrials--an encounter which, in those post-Rosewell years, was taken quite seriously by the likes of LIFE magazine and the United States Air Force, who sent an officer to interview the couple at their home. The scene of the couple being questioned by "the colonel" forms the backbone of Davies' tale, with a devoted yet reluctant Bernie forced into the role of unwitting accomplice alongside his overenthusiastic and even evangelistic wife, Bessie, for whom their encounter with aliens is more than freak occurence: it is touched with Destiny and Purpose; it has given meaning not only to their lives, but to life in general.

One of the themes of the story as written by Davies is the very human need to give shape and substance to existence, to find meaning not only in everyday occurences, but in tragedies such that they are mitigated, or at least made bearable. For Bernie and Bessie, the tragedy is their inability to have children. That's Bessie's tragedy, anyway. For Bernie, though, the tragedy runs deeper. For unlike his white and rather innocent wife, Bernie is no innocent. He is all-too aware of the prejudices that divide him from the wider white society around him, and of the fear with which he navigates his way through a "whites only" world. When while driving to Niagara Falls for their second honeymoon they first see the swirling lights in their rearview mirror, Bernie jumps immediately to the conclusion that it must be the police; that they are being pulled over, and dreads what may ensure when the officer shines his flashlight in their mixed faces. Top be kidnapped by aliens would, for Bernie, have been the lesser of evils.

We all, to greater and lesser extents, at least from time to time, yearn to be removed from the gravity of our own circumstances, to be free of the local earth and the tremendous weights and pressures that life imposes on us. Add the pressures of prejudice and bigotry and the existential wound inflicted by childlessness, and you have a recipe for an abduction fantasy. Like the aliens who populate it, the kidnapping fantasy itself becomes a substitute for the child this couple never had, the life that might have served as their emissary into a more tolerable and tolerant society, a world where skin colors wouldn't matter so much; indeed, one where a black man might even be made President of the United States. Of course, space aliens are emissaries. Typically, they bring a wider view of things, of a universe wherein planet earth is but one of many planets with a culture and civilization. And being far wiser than us they bring warnings, dire ones, usually, of imminent self-annihilation. They come in peace to save us from ourselves and to remind us of all that we have to lose.

Children serve that function. They tell us, first of all, that there is more to our lives that just our selves, that there will indeed be a future, and that we have a stake in it. For Bernie and Bessie, that future had been cruelly excised. It was almost as if the mis-matched colors of their skins precluded it, as if all the forces of nature and society--at least the bigoted society that Bernie has embodied within him in the form of primal fear--conspire against their taking root in the world. Bernie wears false teeth; he has lost his "bite." A toothless animal is helpless against its enemies. Bernie is physically and emotionally impotent, powerless to change the world, irrelevant to its plans. For Bessie, this sense of powerlessness is liberating: in being abducted by space aliens she feels a sort of rapture. In what she cannot explain or control she takes solace and even finds a form of salvation. This makes more than a little sense because Bessie is a woman, and a woman's body is made to be "invaded"--first by the man's penis, then by his sperm, and finally by the fetus that occupies and grows in her womb. For a woman this type of surrender is not only natural, but blissful.

For Bernie things are different. To the extent that he must surrender himself (to his impotence, to his powerlessness, to Bessie's will), he feels nothing but shame and guilt. A man's role is not to surrender, but to fight and to fertilize; to defend himself and his family; to push forward into the future, staking claims along the way. But Bernie's only future now, aside from a pension from the post office where he works, is that of a toothless spent warrior whose fighting days have ended before they have even begun, and whose legacy will likely be determined by the degree of credibility assigned to the story that he and his wife tell to the Colonel--a tale that, even as he corroborates it, Bernie knows is absurd, laughable. His life, in other words, is a joke. The one thing he is able to nurture, his only stake in the future, is as a footnote to an absurdity: that will be his legacy.

If the "children" of Bernie and Bessie's marriage are gray, it is not only because they have skins of different color. The "mixture" goes further than color. The gray here is that of mixed feelings, the gray of doubts and regrets, of uncertainty and of dubious claims. After all, whether Bernie is indeed the co-creator of the abduction story, of his wife's "child," is questionable: for all he knows that seed may have been planted without him. There, too, his role may be superfluous. The child she carries for them both may have resulted from a virgin birth: a divine, if not an immaculate, conception.

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