Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Sweet Smell of Success: an improbable tale of alien invasions and local heroes

The Sweet Smell of Success

By Rhonda Palmer

Dedicated to the memory of Carl Sagan

“Our loyalties are to the species and the planet.  We speak for Earth. 
Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves
but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”  
Carl Sagan—“Cosmos”

Night lay over the trailer park like a slightly damp wool blanket.  Moonlight and one dim street lamp gave faint outline to two rows of aging trailers and an accompanying herd of pickup trucks.  The silence of the sleeping trailer park was broken only by the occasional shuffling of a scavenging armadillo.

Into this moist stillness there suddenly came a laser beam of stench moving rapidly back and forth over the miles from the river to the faint glow of town several miles away.  One by one the dogs sat up quietly, expectantly.  They sniffed each molecule of stink as it spoke to them directly.  (Attention.  Attention, please.  Prepare for invasion.)

Bubba Henderson’s 14-foot trailer sat crookedly on its 15-foot lot.  Grey-eyed Bubba was sleeping in the recliner in the kitchen, dining room, living room and bedroom. The recliner only reclined these days and Bubba was only truly comfortable in that brown corduroy space.  At thirty-two his life was perfect and surrounded him like an ocean: empty chip bags, heaps of crumpled soda cans, chocolate chip cookie boxes (chunky), fast-food bags, stacks of comic books and pulp Science Fiction novels.  He was a ponderous man, a man with substance, a man with an abdomen.  He wore a tremendous pair of Marvin the Martian Boxer Shorts and a T-shirt that did not cover his girth.  His belly glistened in the moonlight.  Humphrey the dog lay contentedly at his feet.  Humphrey was, like Bubba, of undetermined origins, but in him could be detected hints of bloodhound and bird-dog and a bit of standard poodle.   He was not beautiful to look at but he had Talents and knew his master well.

Humphrey was very interested in these molecules floating through the screen door.  He thought an invasion might prove uncomfortable to Bubba and himself and in a vague way he knew Bubba would be mightily interested in this information.  But how to awaken his sleeping Buddha?  Barking would never work, as Bubba was deaf in one ear and had the other plugged into a dusty TV console.  Bubba liked sleeping to the susurration of a 24-hour Science-Fiction channel. 

And so Humphrey concentrated and released his own concoction of doggy methane, aimed to reach Bubba about nose-high.

Bubba’s eyes flew up and his nostrils flared.  He gagged.

“Doggone gas bag!” he yelled.  “You’ve been eating chicken skins again!”

He threw a full can of Vernor’s ginger ale at the dog, who avoided the attack and continued to stare intently at the man.

Bubba stared back and breathed heavily.  Sudden awakenings did his delicate constitution no good, and he was always hours recovering his poise.  This labored breathing was not helping the process though, as it was filled with something heavy and moist and foul.  He reached for the RC Cola at his side and took a sip, tasting it thoughtfully; letting his prodigious mental powers have free play.  He spoke to Humphrey.

“Not chicken skins entirely, old boy, so sorry.”  Humphrey’s tail thumped twice.  “Not the dump, either.  The carbon content isn’t high enough.  Nor the pig farm over by Mechanicsburg.  This has a distinctly metallic bouquet, with traces of sulphur and something new. . . .”  His voice trailed off as he sipped the warm cola.  Humphrey could hear the faint meshing of gears and the whirr of Bubba’s finely tuned mind.

Slowly the sky began to glow in the north.

They had traveled far across the empty spaces, guided by nothing but the faint photon emissions of a distant gas ball.  The small spaceships held them and kept their speech safe from the vacuum without.  Loose speech was filtered from nutritional air on a regular basis but it did become noisy in that place all the same. 

The captain of the mighty crew was tired of being with his mates and podlings.  He was tired of hints of the hints of treachery he could detect, and he was tired of the same speeches over and over.

“We’re doomed!”  “We shouldn’t have come!”  “Are we almost there?”

He would never have come himself except for the commands of the Head Dreamer, the Grand Poobah of Home World and Keeper of the Sacred Yeast Culture.

“I have found the planet waiting for your arrival.  I have sensed the distant scent of its beauty and now command you to go there, claim it as our own and begin its redemption.  Duty rests upon your nostrils!”

Now he was here with ignorant youngsters and a small ship full of noisome noise but he had his orders and would carry them out or die.  This planet would be won for his people!  Already hints of methane and heavy metals were being detected by his ship’s delicate sensors.  Fortunately there was no hint of intelligence in the reports.  They had sent out discrete packets of sulphur in a pattern that would certainly be picked up and understood by any intelligent creature.  Soon they would start a sequence of prime numbers, but he held out no hope of response.  They had not received a response on any of the other 326 planets they had claimed as their own and had sadly concluded that the universe had conspired to produce only one intelligent species. 

“We land after dinner!”  The communication went out to all on-board.  The ship’s filtering system was stressed by the amount of exuberance released by the crew as they began preparation for the takeover of this small planet; the third from its sun.

Bubba had come to a decision.  He needed to go outside and confer with the Herb Woman in the trailer next door.  She was wise, and while she did not have his vast intelligence, she often knew things.  However visiting her was not a decision arrived at lightly, as he would first need to stand up.   He ate a box of Ding-Dongs to fortify himself and then threw his head forward, then his arms.  The recliner groaned and the trailer shuddered.  His abdomen rolled onto his knees, his knees put forth a mighty effort and straightened only milliseconds before his head hit the floor.  He rose, arms in the air in a sign of victory and he smiled as Humphrey barked congratulations.

“Humphrey, your Bubba-man is out to save the world!”  Bubba began the back and forth motion which ended in his legs moving forward, taking him out the front door and down the steps.  He moved gracefully and did not spill a drop of the RC Cola in his left hand.

The Herb Woman had anticipated him by at least an hour.  She had been sitting at the picnic table dividing their two lots and she watched as he disembarked his trailer.

“Bubba, you stink so bad I can smell you way over here,” she said.  Her pink flowered housedress fluttered around her bony knees and she reached down to pull up a drooping stocking.

“Mrs. Herb Woman, it isn’t me you smell tonight.  There is a different smell tonight.  It has danger in it and a heady sense of importance.  This smell may well portend a vast change in our view of the cosmos.”

“I don’t know about no changes but this smell is bad and don’t mean no good to no one.  Humphrey here is pretty worried, I can tell you.”  And she pointed to the dog, who faced the glow in the north, nose and hackles up.

Bubba respected Humphrey’s opinion.  He respected the Herb Woman’s opinion on occasion.  She had been known to achieve a high intensity Gestalt when under pressure and Bubba had seen enough alien invasions on Channel 27 to convince him that this was the time to listen to his friends.  They could be witnessing a fire in the Ford factory north of town, but he didn’t think so, especially when he saw the ovals of light zipping about overhead.

“What do you think of those?” he asked his neighbor.

“I don’t think they’s no fireworks.  I think they’s up to no good and that we better get some kind of plan worked up and real soon.  The gu’ment sure cant’ help us out, they ain’t enough time,” she said quietly.  “We gots to be helping the gu’ment, this time.”

 The Chief Commander of the Flying Nose began the long preparation for invasion.  Almost as an afterthought he pressed the button that began transmission of prime numbers.  What a waste of good information, he though, but what a mess to clean up with the Grand Poobah if he didn’t follow protocol.  He hated bureaucracy.

Humphrey stood up stiffly, hairs along his back bristling.  His lips curled and one sharp yip came out.  Then he sat down, almost in relief.  Suddenly the scene repeated itself, but he barked twice this time, sharp staccato noises that were repeated by dogs around the trailer park.

“This is information,” said Bubba.

Again the dogs in the area could be heard barking, a triplet of barks.  Humphrey was looking very anxious.  He sat down.  He stood up and barked, five times.  He sat down.  Like a puppet he kept getting pulled up, forced into barking and then released.

“It’s prime numbers,” said Bubba.  “They’re sending the prime numbers through the dogs.  But how are they communicating?”

The Herb Woman wrinkled her nose.  “If you didn’t stink so bad yourself you’d get the picture pretty quick, I’d say.  It’s a smell of some kind, and a demon one.  The dogs get it pretty clear.”

Bubba lifted his face into the breeze coming from the north.  “Yes,” he said.  “It’s sulfur, and coming in rhythmic waves.  Yes.”  He looked at Humphrey, exhaustedly standing and barking out prime numbers up to one hundred.  After 15 minutes the dog collapsed onto his side, tongue out and sides heaving.  Bubba poured some RC Cola into a hubcap and pushed it toward the dog.

“They stink for all the world like any goat,” quoted Bubba, “So hot and rammish does that odor float, that though a man be a mile away, the smell will taint him, trust ye what I say…..”  He looked at the Herb Woman expectantly.

“You’s crazy,” she said.

“It’s Chaucer, woman.  Haven’t you heard of Chaucer?”

“Chaucer, Schmaucer.  I know if we don’t do something might quick, there here space things is gwine to give us some real taint.”  She pulled tiny spectacles out of the pocket of her housedress and placed them carefully on her nose.  “These here specs belonged to my dead husband, Herb.  I allus wears ‘em when I got to think real hard, cause I can’t see when I got ‘em on.”

So the three of them sat for long moments, watching the flying saucers zipping around overhead.  The Herb Woman was rocking back and forth, humming and chewing a wad of tobacco.  Bubba kept sipping on his RC Cola and munching on the piece of beef jerky he kept in his shirt pocket for emergencies.  Humphrey was lying on the ground, eyes open, tongue out.

“Maybe we can beat ‘em at their own game,” said the Herb Woman.

Bubba nodded thoughtfully.  “Their own game,” he said.

The three of them—Bubba, the Herb Woman and the exhausted Humphrey, continued staring at the odd shapes flitting overhead.  Humphrey passed a large amount of gas and then closed his eyes contentedly.

In the only quiet space he could find, the Chief Commander began the immense mental preparations necessary for invasion.  He went through lists of protocol stored in his large memory bank.  He reviewed the last fifteen invasions and the necessary destruction of lower, worthless life forms.  Such destruction had at one time been a source of discomfort to him, but the Grand Poobah had wafted to him a new fragrance, one of the prime directive for spreading intelligence throughout the known universe.

“There will come a time with intelligence and true understanding will fill the worlds even as the sweetness of spring fills our hearts.  Be firm, and waft your firmness to those who serve you so willingly.”

This sweetness filled him completely, as he sat alone in the airtight seal of his locker.

Bubba looked at the Herb Woman then back at the sky.  He took a sip of his RC Cola and then ate a bag of Doritos, slowly, one by one.  He belched a long, loud, steady belch.

“Eructation,” he said.

“Watch your language, young man,” said the Herb Woman.

“Eructation means belching.  That’s what I was doing.  Belching.”

“Well, if you don’t stop belching, and that dog don’t stop it’s everlasting passing of nasty gas, we’ll never get any thinking done round here,” said the Herb Woman. 

This pronouncement caused Bubba’s hand to pause halfway between the Doritos bag and his mouth.  He closed his eyes and replayed scenes from the movies he had seen on the Sci-Fi channel.  A chemical equation balanced itself on the inside of his eyelids.

“Yes,” he said quietly.  “The snake bites its tail.”

“Eureka,” he said with more force, opening his eyes and looking at Humphrey.  The dog sat up expectantly and gazed steadily at his master.

Bubba gazed into the vast sky, where small lights moved briskly overhead.
“Now set the teeth,” he said as he began standing up from the picnic table, “and stretch the nostril wide…”

“What you got planned, fat boy?” asked the Herb Woman.  “Got anything to do with … stink?”

“I knew you would understand immediately,” said Bubba.  “Now Madam, if you would please fix me a pot of your famous beans, I must away to stock the armory, as it were.”  And he began the slow rolling motion that brought him to the door of his trailer.  It was with a sense of gratitude that he began the rummaging of his trailer.  He was grateful for his immense brain, and quick wit.  He was grateful for Humphrey’s nose and presence.  He was grateful for the Herb Woman’s wisdom and beans.  Mostly he was grateful for the store that delivered groceries to his door, and for the small but generous allowance from a distant relative that allowed him this life of meditative pleasure.

“Yes,” he said.  “Sardines, a jar of sauerkraut, two cans of ravioli, three bags of those extra hot cheesy things, some cold hot dogs, chips, salsa. . .” The list continued.  He placed all the items in a lidless cooler and worked his way slowly back out to the picnic talbe.  The Herb woman was waiting patiently with the beans and a six-pack of cheap beer.

“I don’t drink beer,” Bubba said.

“Tonight, you drink all the beer.  You’ll need it.  I’m the Herb Woman and I say so.” said the Herb Woman.

“I bow to your greater wisdom and beauty,” he said, after a moment of reflection.

The lights in the sky had begun descending toward a low hill outside the trailer court.

“The time has come, the time is now…”  Bubba recited solemnly.

He began to eat: slowly, deliberately, but with a grim determination born of the great responsibility now thrust upon him by an uncaring but needy humanity.  For every five bites he took, he gave Humphrey a share, particularly from the box of fried chicken skins he had been keeping in the refrigerator for emergencies.  Both Bubba and Humphrey were now aware that this was the moment for which they had been unwittingly preparing for years.

They saw the movement of bright objects on a dark horizon.  Still they ate, now gulping down hot dogs with only the briefest of chews.  The Herb Woman dished out beans from the greasy skillet where they had been fermenting for several days.

The Chief Commander sent out the redolence of heroism, the sweet smell of success, the mighty winds of obedience and sacrifice.  His troops were now full of the memories their past successes, and with carapaces held high they moved into the field of battle, ready to bring another planet into the perfumed joys of reunion with their own greatness.

Bubba watched the glittering things as they moved toward the trailer park.  There were swarms of them, coming rank upon rank.  They were led by the largest of the creatures.  Bubba waited patiently, he and Humphrey.  “Don’t fire till you see their nose-hairs, Humphrey,” Bubba whispered between gulps of bad beer.  Humphrey whined.  When the creatures were 30 feet from the trailer park, the battle began.

Honestly, Grand Poobah, I don’t understand how it happened.  We were only on the planet for minutes when we were attacked by monsters the like of which you have never smelled!  There were giants, ogres, insane creatures with screams of rage and hatred that killed thousands of my best soldiers before they had time to react!!  I called for retreat as quickly as I could, but my calls were overwhelmed by the waves of violence and anger coming from these hydras, these chimera, these, these…..Earthlings!!!  It was only by the Grace of the Pure Yeast Culture that I was able to save anyone.  We have returned to you, Oh Gentle One, to ask for your healing sweetness, and to warn all future expeditions to never to go to that place again.  Death and destruction live there and the stench of it will remain in my nostrils forever!

Bubba woke with sunshine on his face and a clean breeze blowing.  Humphrey was snuggled up to his leg.  They were both on the ground and the Herb Woman was sitting in a lawn chair next to them with an old red bandanna over her nose.  She pulled it down with a tentative sniff.  Then she smiled broadly, her toothless gums glowing pink in the morning light.

“You did it, big boy,” she said.

“Not so big anymore, I think,” he said, as he gingerly rubbed his abdomen.  “the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara said, ‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.’  I am now empty and my great life work is done.  Perhaps it is time for me to evolve.” 

“Boy, get your big behind up off the dirt get over to my trailer.  I got some good iscuits and gravy and buttermilk ready for your breakfast.”

It was quite a sight, Bubba getting to his feet with the Herb Woman and Humphrey pushing and rolling and pulling.  Finally it was accomplished and they went to the Herb Woman’s trailer and had the victor’s breakfast, although Bubba declined the buttermilk and opted for a can of warm Vernor’s Ginger Ale.

Thus are heroes born, thus do they live; unsung, unknown to those whose lives are dependant upon their quiet actions.  Let us praise them with great praise!”

“We are like the inhabitants of an isolated valley in New Guinea who communicate with societies in neighboring valleys (quite different societies, I might add) by runner and by drum.  When asked how a very advanced society will communicate, they might guess by an extremely rapid runner or by an improbably large drum.  They might not guess a technology beyond their ken.  And yet, all the while, a vast international cable and radio traffic passes over them, around them, and through them.  We will listen for the interstellar drums, but we will miss the interstellar cables.  We are likely to receive our first messages from the drummers of the neighboring galactic valleys—from civilizations only somewhat in our future.   The civilizations vastly more advanced than we, will be, for a long time, remote both in distance and in accessibility.  At a future time of vigorous interstellar radio traffic, the very advanced civilizations may be, for us, still insubstantial legends.”  Carl Sagan –   The Cosmic Connection.

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