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Alien Fringe

Alien Fringe by George LoBuono
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Michael, a San Francisco psychologist, has flashes of otherworldly insight---communications that are too intelligent to be human, but when he tries to tell an eager lover, she thinks he's losing it. Meanwhile, an investment banker comes in for help with a drinking problem, and, over time, Michael learns that his client has ties to a brutal black budget network. Then, just when he's beginning to piece together what lies behind the bitingly critical alien telepathy, Michael nearly drowns in dangerous surf and his life begins to unravel amid the heady strains of fresh love, higher orders of being, and the secret doings of a criminal elite.
SynergEbooks; February 2005
260 pages; ISBN 9780744305005
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: Alien Fringe
Author: George LoBuono

"So what is the difference?" she said. "It's always the same. His mouth alone—look at it! Just like a dog. The well-fed roll of it, the smirk on the lips, the puppy eyes. A dog sniffs the ass of another dog first thing, and then moves on to find something else. Stupid, of course, yet polite in its own way. But him? First he checks out your ass and then your eyes to see if you're onto him. Watch him, you'll see: sitting quietly, scouting about to make sure no one notices, then he targets your rear and simply stares at it. Just like a dog… and from behind usually." At a table across the room, Charlie Thorn stuffed potato chips into his mouth with one hand, a tuna sandwich in the other. “Catch him in the act and he'll glance away briefly, a frown or the cold look, but then he'll bounce right back or find another rear to lap at. In my dreams I've pushed men off a cliff, one by one. I don't recall the details, but I'm sure I didn't check out their asses beforehand."

"Come on. He stinks, but he's not an animal." Madeleine covered her mouth, laughing, then straightened up quickly. "One beer and look at me. Don't let them get under your skin, Lydia. Just call him on it then ignore him. He lives here too, you know."

"I'm sick of it, damn it! Every day it's the same stupid crap. I can't stand it."

"If you want me to, I'll talk to him."

"Not on your life. You know what he's like. You go up against Charlie

and he'll tell all the men in Yeoville that you're a man-hater or a dope dealer. Then he'll try to mess up your business here because he's a petty little shit." Lydia stiffed her jaw in jest. 'I'm Charlie Thorn, nice to meet you. You know, Thorn Insurance… been here in town for 35 years.'"

"He's a male; gotta prove something."

"He's a cold fish. His wife comes to my drawing classes. I sold her a painted silk and some frames. If she only knew. Watch him." Lydia pushed sweaty strands of brown hair off of her neck, then sipped her tea. "Think what it does to the mind, years of it. Maybe forty, fifty times a day and all of it stupid, wasted energy. Men are intellectually stultified."

"Not so loud. He can hear you."

"Come on, Madeleine! He deserves it. How smart would you be if every time you saw food, you thought about smearing it all over your body? Remember how it was when you were little—the respect, the deference they gave you? You were an equal!"

Madeleine shook her head, smiling.

"Age twelve—you could kick all of their asses. Your wrath was like fate. Little boys didn't mess with you."

"Yeah, but…"

"But nothing! Think of it, Madeleine: the whole process of human evolution has been a struggle. Out of the slime and into the cockpit. Come on, now what's the first thing you notice about a man?"

"His mouth, or maybe his clothes."

"Uh-uh. The threat. If you check his mouth, it's only to see whether he's dangerous or not. It's fear… every single time. And if you don't look formidable,

if there isn't something about you that's fearsome, then you get pushed around right from the start. People go by first impressions, my dear. If you look like an invitation to an idiot, some handy little breasts at a Quick Stop, then you have to deal with the dog in them every single time. You've been conditioned to accept it. It's something that, by now, we all take for granted."

"I know men who are different. They're like brothers in a sense."

"Old friends, no doubt, maybe a few here and there. But the ones you meet now?"

"Steven's not that way."

"Steven's an exception. Listen. Haven't you ever thought about shaving your head and wearing only grunge, or lifting weights so that you could bump some of them out of the way? Look at him." Again Lydia nodded toward the rear table. "The slackness, the presumptuous demeanor; dreamlike but lacking real comportment. And what, pray tell, does the threat of rape mean to them? I mean the ones who've been in prison, of course." Madeleine listened quietly. "It makes them vicious, foul-mouthed and catty. They go in sorry boys but come out cold and defensive. That, my dear, is what they do to us. Ever heard of women who snatch small children off the streets?"

"You're too much, Lydia."

"Or think… the last few wars… or the crazies out shooting people right here at home. It was men, almost all of it. Not women. I mean, here we get pushed around and condemned for 'moral abandon,' while they're the ones who do the real violence." Lydia tapped her finger against the table. "In order to truly brainwash people, you have to assault their most basic sensitivities, make them feel guilty for simply being what they are. Guilt pushes them inward. It contains them, keeps them quiet so they can be manipulated more easily. And then, as any Nazi Capo might have known, they're made to feel grateful for even the slightest act of kindness."

"Enough, please! It doesn't help to demonize them." Madeline shook her head. She'd had too much to drink, so she got up to pay the bill. "Let's get out of here," she said on returning. "Go for a walk."

They ambled along a shaded street near the river where Lydia had chosen to live because rent was cheap in the areas where it flooded. California in the era of global warming… there'd even been a typhoon in San Francisco. People tried to explain it away, but it was no use. Meanwhile, U.S. carmakers were selling limos in China. And what would happen if each family there had their own car? Oil production would peak within a few years, and, after that it would all be downhill. Yeoville would be the place to be when the oil ran out. A bicycle would get you anywhere. All the town's drunks would have to compete with lawnmowers for alcohol.

There were miles of forest between Yeoville and the nearest suburb. If the oil were all gone, the people in the valleys down south would either be stranded, or would have to move even closer together. Yeoville would finally be free of dowdy tourists demanding their money's worth. The forests would reclaim vast tracts of housing. Lydia had moved up from LA to get away from it.

Lydia worked for a newspaper down in Willits where Tom, the editor, loped around and spoke a kind of Sportuguese for a living. He couldn't deal with the fact that Lydia knew how to tear a bad story apart better than he did, the way she coolly hammered back at him with better sticking points. She told him that a story had to be laced with subtleties for the final impact on the reader. The best part came last, she said, the background that clued the reader to the importance of the story—the part Tom always cut out to make room for his puff pieces.

Tom had a way of clamming up in the middle of conversations about writing style. He'd raise his brows, a pitcher on the mound shrugging off a hand signal, and then spook off to talk with Phil, the ad manager, all the while looking as sullen, as morose as possible. The two would stand talking, Tom's voice dropping down to bass clef, with Phil doing his best to make his own voice go yet lower. It's like what moose do: buck up to someone, voice dropping, a kind of head-butt spiral down to profundo.

Madeleine had known Lydia for three years. Their first times together had been the best—when Madeleine took her up and down the coast in an old white Datsun to show her what Northern California was like. They went on early morning hikes through bent-looking pines above a blanket of fog running from Bolinas north toward Alaska. They went to parties with Madeleine's friends and spent strange nights who knows where, walking naked through the forest in the moonlight. On rainy days they sat in ratty chairs beside a window, talking.

Sometimes, with a soft-spoken gay friend named Steven, they bicycled down Black Hawk grade to the coast and picnicked beside tide pools behind a giant lichen-covered boulder, where they'd sit and talk or read the most intimate passages each could find, taking time to allow the stillness of the water to lend its ponderous weight to their pauses.

They'd doff their shoes and wade out into the clear, cold brine where Steven, a biologist at a university in Sonoma, bent down to investigate the plant life. It was like another world for Lydia, a misty place where strangely shaped clouds swept by low and quiet like translucent dreamscapes reflected on the water. They crept barefoot through starfish and anemones, sea urchins and hermit crabs, their feet numbed by the cold and the anemones when they got out. The prickly feeling lasted half an hour.

When she'd first moved up from LA, Lydia had brought all her books and plants, which she filled her small house with. It wasn't much: a front room with a tilted wooden floor, a small kitchen, and a bedroom. The bathroom had been

built onto a rear porch after the outhouse washed away in a flood caused by overlogging. The place was a glorified shack-of-sorts with woodwork along the eaves like that of a birdhouse, but someone had taken time to plant alyssum and clover all around. A tall cedar grew furry red just out the kitchen window, and flowering trees mixed with pine throughout the neighborhood.

Madeleine had read any number of Lydia's books on the front room futon, tales of men who'd lived with pygmies, women locked into their houses in Saudi Arabia, and black hole doorways into other universes. It was odd the way she remembered it, like a refuge from something cold and brutal; like she'd gotten away with things that she'd hoped no one would find out about. Small things easily crushed, delicate flowers and incense. Both she and Lydia gave up on alcohol back then. They felt alive in a way that had somehow escaped them.

Most of Madeleine's friends had either moved away or had married, then had children and didn't get out much. Madeleine sat on the couch and watched dust float through a dimming slant of sunlight. She felt clumsy, out of place in the summer heat while Lydia heated lasagna in the kitchen. The front room was decorated with Lydia's charcoal sketches and watercolors. Small town boredom was like a prison.

After eating, she went home—down to Main Street, across and up the hill. Lydia's words were still with her as she passed Buddy Timmon's pickup perched high on monster shocks, fresh-washed and dripping. It chilled her just to see it. There was a coldness in his eyes, the way his wife shrank back from him in public. Their drapes were tight shut, but she could feel the tension straight through the walls. Buddy ran with a bad bunch; loud and wolfish. Their goddamned cars.

From higher up the town looked pleasant: a mist among the trees by the river, the stars out full and brilliant. The mountains to the south glowed softly with the light off of the ocean. She stopped in front of her house to take it all in, but felt cold straight through. She went in and locked the door, shivering.

Yeoville had scarcely changed since her father had moved up from Fresno to set up his own real estate business. She was thirteen then but shot straight up two inches taller than he, then went off to study architecture at UC Davis. Those were good years: the friends she made from all over, the organic gardening project she'd worked on, the ski trips up to Tahoe. She remembered weekend trips back home, driving north as huge pillows of fog crept across the coastal mountains in the moonlight, the heater on, radio going. Tall trees along a river bend, giant wings on the way in. There was a warmth in it then, the greenish compass of dash lights in the darkness. It was before her father died and she quit school to help her mother out.

After the funeral she got a job in a store downtown, then got an apartment and settled in to stay because she felt like she belonged there. They sold the real estate office and paid off her mother's mortgage with the money. Two years later, her mother got a job with the forest service. They gave her a small cottage to live in, so she let Madeleine use the big house. It was the perfect arrangement.

"Madeleine." It was Lydia on the phone. "Can you come over? Steven's here. We're going to meet a friend of his."

"I don't know. I'm kind of tired."

"Don't be silly. We'll get you back home and into bed on time."

"Okay." She turned off all the lights and sat on the front porch in the darkness, waiting for them to come pick her up.

Steven drove them a few miles west of town along a road lined with old oaks that twisted up into the night sky, casting tortured-looking shadows on the pavement. There was something in the trees and the quiet of Yeoville, a sense of a past that was more personal.

"I wonder what Nina Gerard's doing these days," Madeleine said, cheered by the look on her friends' faces as they sped past the play of pale light on leaves turned by night winds. She'd seen the shadows of the dead upon them, the forms of long-lost women and children poised as if frozen in mid-motion.

"I heard she moved up to Spokane. Her husband's family's there," Steven said. He pulled off the road and climbed the gravel drive of an old white house with a rear deck that lit up the pines on the hillside. Steven's friend Josh was home to visit his parents. His house was filled with people still sitting at the dinner table, his sister's family.

"Well hello there," Josh's father said, aglow when they entered. Josh's family was new to town. The introductions went round the table, smiles and nods, a few testy noses.

The four excused themselves out the back door before they could be drawn too far into the conversation. Josh said that one of his nephews got caught stealing in town the day before. His parents were being strict with him.

Josh was tall and thin, a fishery worker in Yuba County. He had dark eyes and thick brown hair, a slow and serious way of talking.

"It's better out here," he said, leading them to one side of the deck with a view of thick pines and a woodpile at the edge of a clearing. "The kids won't find us." He pulled out a cigarette, which he lit, but then handled awkwardly.

"Madeleine grew up here," Steven said.

"Only in high school. I'm still pretty much an outsider."

"And Lydia moved up from LA a few years ago," Steven went on. "She's a reporter down in Willits."

"Oh, really? Ever work the fish beat?" Josh said with a nasal tone, exhaling thickly.

"Not since they flushed all of Santa Rosa's sewage down the Russian River." Lydia leaned her slender arms across the railing.

Josh said he liked working with trout. It thrilled him to see thousands and thousands teeming together at one time, knowing they'd all be set free eventually.

"I don't even fish anymore," he said. "If I did, I'd let 'me go again. A lot of people do it." He and Steven talked about what there was to see on the surrounding hillsides. Josh said there was a giant redwood a few hundred yards away, a straggler that somehow survived the nineteenth century.

While they talked, Josh's two small nieces and his nephew darted out at intervals through a shaft of light from the back door, each time slamming the screen door loudly. One of his little nieces stuck close, despite the mosquitoes, and showed a sticks-with-twine thing that she'd made to Lydia.

"So how's the research going?" Josh asked Steven, reaching down to pick up his little niece. Steven was investigating the way that vineyard chemicals deplete oxygen in the rivers and the effect it has on the plant population.

"Fine. I've got more students on it than I can handle." He went over the basics briefly, with Lydia listening closely. The smell of dried wood was strong on the breeze gentle. "What I'd really like to do, though, is work on the effects of global warming."

"Ahh, but can you really prove it?" Lydia asked in jest.

"What?" Steven said, lost in thought. "Oh… Snow problem. Actually, I'm interested in the change in growth patterns caused by climate changes, the at-risk populations, and the migration of species northward. The problem is, it's a huge undertaking and the weather's a complex quantity," he said somberly. "A British climate study I read no longer simply speculates. They say that within decades the polar ice cap will melt completely during the summers. Imagine the effect on the southern redwoods."

"We'll surf the Faeroe Islands," Lydia said.

"It's not funny," Josh said, putting his niece down. "A frog'll sit in a pot and allow itself to be boiled to death… 'long as you just turn up the heat slowly."

"Some students of mine are fighting a plan to build houses on a marsh and woodland area down in Marin. They say it'll hurt the watershed. They got it all over the newspapers." Steven said slowly.

"I read about that," Lydia said, then it was quiet for a while. "You know that meadow up along Pedrales Rd. where it's only one lane across the culvert?"

"Up past Barber's house?" Madeleine said.

"That one. I was at a town council meeting last month when Jimmy Buchwald filed for a permit to build four houses on it."

"Disaster," Madeleine said. "That'll ruin that whole area. I always said it would make a nice little park. Put some picnic tables up along the ridge…"

"I looked up the filing and checked who was behind it. It's a partnership; Jimmy, a contractor from Mossberg, and Charlie Thorn's wife, Alicia."

"Alicia. Figures," Madeleine nodded.

"Who's Alicia?" Josh asked, arms crossed.

"You don't know who Alicia Thorn is?" Madeleine said with mock scorn." Her father used to own the big clothing store downtown. Until the K-Mart in Mimosa put him out of business."

"Remember the shirts they used to sell?" Steven said. "Like King's Road irregulars."

"They own property all over town. They own Barch's Liquors and The Purple Rose."

"The place that sells the praying hands ceramics?" Lydia asked.

Madeleine nodded.

"Lamp unto my feet, or else…” Steven pointed his finger skyward.

"Alicia's cousins own a little winery down in Duisberg," Madeleine said.

"Which one is that?" Lydia gestured, limp-wristed.

"Baron Fessler."

"You've probably seen Alicia around town. Drives the green Coupe DeVille with cream leather?" Madeleine drew a blank. "You know Charlie married her for her money. He's a Chamber of Commerce do-bee. Says he wants to invite more heavy industry up to Yeoville, maybe a composite wood factory or a gravel company."

"He'd be lucky to get a granola wrapper," Lydia said. "We're the wolves of the steppes to the people in Mimosa."

They talked on the porch for a while, then piled into Josh's car and drove up the road for a view of the lights in the next valley. Josh told them that the big trees in the valley were all logged in the 1850s. "There used to be grizzlies up in these hills, believe it or not," he said. "Just imagine what it was like then."

They stayed out talking until late, but got Madeleine back home in time for a good night's sleep.