This story is a period piece -- my first professional short-story sale. I had already published four novels, but I write so little short fiction, and the markets for short stuff are so few, that this was the first.
When people ask me “Where do you get your ideas?” this is the story I always point to, because for this story, I know the answer. For a lot of writing, the connection between inspiration and the actual fiction is kind of tenuous except to the author. Like Marcel Proust going out to tea, and dipping a madeleine into his cup and taking a bite, and that was the inspiration for RECHERCHE A TEMPS PERDU -- not what you’d call an obvious leap of logic.
But the idea for this story came from a place that everyone understands -- Potomac Mills shopping mall, in Woodbridge, VA. When the megamall first opened, some optimistic entrepreneur rented a storefront and set up an Elvis Presley museum. One of the King’s Cadillacs (with fins) was in the front window, and you paid at the door to go inside and view other Presley memorabilia. I didn’t do so, but the concept fascinated me -- that there were enough people in Virginia who would pay to see Elvis souvenirs, enough customers to keep the museum afloat! (In fact, there were -not- enough customers, and when I went back to the mall a couple years later the museum had been replaced by a shoe store.) What drives people to do that? Is that quality something you could study? Who would study it? And at that point the story practically wrote itself...
My first order from Mt. Adelaide was for the Modesty Blaise poster. I’m always telling Arnold I don’t sell porn. It’s very tasteful: you don’t even see her face, just the leather bikini and the gun. Most people know not to send cash in the mail these days, and they put a name on their envelope. But I thought, hey, a nine-year-old boy with a fix on masterful women and no checking account. I mailed it off to “Mt. Adelaide, W. Va.” as requested, in a tube -- not folded -- and wished him luck hiding it from his mother.
In the mail-order comics business you send out catalogs the way other people put quarters in a slot machine -- as a gamble. I included one, rolled up small inside the poster tube. Ten days later I found a fat business-sized envelope in my box, among the utility bills and grocery store flyers. Curious, I opened it right away. Out flopped a stack of money, ten twenty-dollar bills! I have my box in a nice suburban post office, very quiet in the middle of the morning, and the only person in the lobby was an old lady in a pink designer jogging suit. She looked over the top of her sunglasses at my jeans and shaggy mustache, and I could hear her think, “Drug payoff.”
I scooped up the bills, which were rubber-banded neatly together, and stuffed them into my pocket. My hands shook as I unfolded the order form. It was the one from my catalog, plus a typed page of additional orders. In the “mail to” block was nothing but Mt. Adelaide, W. Va. 24956. “Jackpot!” I whooped, making the postal clerk look up.
I hurried home, flipped the sign in the window from “Sorry, We’re Closed” to “Hi, We’re Open!” and read the order. I never have any walk-in trade until after noon, when the school kids start getting out. The order was what my sister calls eclectic -- no comic books at all. There were X-Men bumper stickers and iron-on decals of Disney characters. And there was one of each and every button I listed, everything from “Aerobic Instructors Do It With Rhythm” to “Only Visiting This Planet” to “E=MC2.” Some of them I didn’t even stock any more; most button freaks buy them at cons. And typed at the bottom of the second page was a note, unsigned: “Please keep the change.”
Right then I decided Mt. Adelaide was my favorite customer. The total order came to less than $150, and that was at list price. Even after packaging and postage I’d turn a handsome profit. I spent the rest of the morning calling around for the buttons I didn’t have, and packing the shipment into padded mailbags. And in the last one I put my own note: “Write for an estimate on Special Orders.”
Well, like Bogart says, that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Mt. Adelaide wrote back, saying he wanted more buttons. I picked them up at conventions and novelty stores. You never come to the end of buttons; they’re always making more, all different. In half a year, Mt. Adelaide had probably the finest collection in West Virginia, and I only charged him triple the price I paid, too.
Then he expressed an interest in Deely-Bobbers. Sent me an old article from some magazine. Expense no object. You remember Deely-Bobbers, those plastic headbands with shiny little balls on springs like antennae. They’re dead out of fashion now, at least in Herndon, but hey, West Virginia is kind of rural. I went down to D.C., and when I found they were just as dead there, to New York City. I came back with Deely-Bobbers all right, hearts, globes, crescents, stars, eyeballs, you name it. After I mailed them off I had glitter, all colors, under my nails for weeks. But it was worth it when I got those envelopes of bills by return mail.
By this time I had a handle on Mt. Adelaide. I figured he was one of those reclusive millionaires, like Howard Hughes. I mean, if you get out at all you can buy liquor, right? He had an ongoing yen for Elvis memorabilia, and every now and then I’d buy him a commemorative liquor bottle. I’m not sure it’s legal to ship liquor over state lines, but I figured these were Art. They weren’t cheap, especially when you realize no one’ll ever twist off the King’s head and sip the bourbon, but Mt. Adelaide always paid up and asked for more. So he didn’t go to liquor stores, or cities (or else he could have bought his own Deely-Bobbers on the street about four years ago), or even shopping centers. Where in America can’t you find a stuffed Garfield the Cat?
I learned what Mt. Adelaide liked. He didn’t care for books or magazines or records -- Beatle bubble-gum cards were good, but not Beatle albums. No Star Wars or GoBots or E.T. or Star Trek, which is too bad because there’s a lot of goodies in that line. And nothing really valuable. I suggested bidding for John Lennon’s psychedelic-painted Rolls Royce and got a very nice no. In a word, he liked tacky. The really tony art galleries go beyond just selling stuff, I understand. For good customers they’ll buy on speculation, guide their tastes. Well, for about three years I guided Mt. Adelaide’s, only in a different way of course. I introduced him to new worlds: fuzzy dice to hang from your rearview mirror, trolls with idiotic grins and long fluffy acrylic hair, souvenir copies of major national monuments. New depths, Josie would say.
When I went downtown to buy him a plastic Washington Monument I saw a parked car with a picture of Prince Charles stuck on the back window, with a big styrofoam hand mounted on a spring beside it so that he’d wave. They like them in England, but you don’t see them much here. I waited for the driver to come back, and dickered with him for half an hour. I had to go to $35 before he’d sell. When I got back to Herndon I mailed it off to Mt. Adelaide, with a bill for $250. I figured I deserved it, for exerting initiative. He loved it, and wrote back urging me to keep an eye out for more Royal merchandise.
By then Mt. Adelaide was my meal ticket. The comic book store had never made much money. Now I could afford to hire an assistant to run it while I made a trip to Memphis. Mt. Adelaide knew the mother-lode for Elvis stuff was at Graceland, and begged me to go. When he mailed me a few liquor boxes full of twenties I allowed he had a point. Crazy millionaires always use cash; they probably don’t trust banks. In April I hired a truck and drove down in three days. The postcards and statuettes and paintings on black velvet and plush floppy-eared dogs that wind up to tinkle “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” were okay. But I was proudest of the guaranteed genuine ticket to Elvis’s last concert, with a snip from one of his white silk scarves thrown in.
Once you drive across Tennessee it’s a straight shot up I-81. I planned to find a Marriott outside Roanoke. Once I’d have camped out. Now I had plenty of twenties left, and more where they came from. But at Wytheville I saw a sign for I-77 North. “West Virginia,” it said.
I got so excited I cut off an Audi and pulled out at the next exit. Why drive back to Herndon to mail the stuff back to West Virginia, when I could drop it off now? Mt. Adelaide might be so pleased with the delivery, he’d invite me in to his secluded mansion, which I imagined was about as big as William Randolph Hearst’s. I always wanted to meet a reclusive millionaire.
So at a motor lodge outside Wytheville I bought a map of West Virginia. I unfolded it to the Cities and Towns index and looked for Mt. Adelaide. Nothing! I had to scratch my head about that for a second. All I knew about my customer was his town and his Zip Code. Then I realized it might not even be the name of a town. If it was a big estate, with a name, all you might need was the Zip Code. I bet William Randolph Hearst got his mail even if all it had was “San Simeon” on it.
Next morning I swung by the Wytheville Post Office to consult their Zip Code Directory. Mail to 24956 is handled at Seneca, West Virginia. My map showed Seneca was a tiny town near the Virginia line, only about a hundred miles north of here -- a nice morning’s drive.
I didn’t consider that a fully-loaded Ryder Rent-A-Truck is bad on mountains. The roads were secondary all the way, and the engine groaned up and down every hill. I got lost twice, the second time so bad I had to stop at an Arco to ask where I was, and it’s a point of pride in our family not to do that. Trout Spring, the grease monkey said. When I asked about Mt. Adelaide he just stared.
I made Seneca late in the afternoon, just in time to catch the postmaster. His directions sent me out past Clover Lick onto a one-lane gravel road that snaked down the side of a mountain. I didn’t like it one bit when the yellow hood of the truck nosed out over empty space on the curves. At the bottom of the hill the road quit. The clearing wasn’t even gravel, just clay, with barely room for a vehicle to turn. In the deep green shadow under the loblolly pines was a big steel mailbox sitting on a cut log. It was labeled, “Mt. Adelaide.”
Right then I should have quit too. But I said, “Hey, I wanted a recluse.” Scuffing around among the pines I found a narrow trail winding deeper into the hills. As I followed it I told myself that it wouldn’t be safe to unload my cargo and just leave it. What if a bear came by and broke the Blue Hawaii bud vases?
By that time evening was coming on. It was pretty dark under the trees. I almost missed the cabin, tucked in a narrow side valley. The path turned so sharp towards it I overshot myself and got tangled in some brambles. The cabin was one of those do-it-yourself log homes, probably a single room inside -- San Simeon, hah! No light showed from the single window. “I’m so full of dumbshit my eyes are brown,” I cussed myself, but took a peek inside.
Of course it was too dark to see anything. I was turning away when a gleam of light flashed out. It was a harsh blue upward glare, like the kind a photocopy machine puts out if you forget to drop the cover before pumping in your coin. I recognized the toy standing on the glass right away -- the Rambo poseable action figure I sent in my last order. As the light poured up, the doll began to get shorter. Stallone’s legs began to sink through the glass, then the overmuscled torso (complete with automatic weapon), and finally the sweatbanded head went under. The doll was gone, and the blue light went out.
I stood there with my jaw hanging down to my chest, just stood there while all these sensible thoughts tapped on my skull trying to get in -- thoughts like, it’s none of my business what the customer does with his stuff, and, it’s a hologram machine, whatever a hologram is, and, Rambo’s just a fad so I wouldn’t invest in much Rambo junk. Before any of them could get in the light surged up again, blue and fierce. On the glass was the bubble-packet and cardboard tab that Rambo had come packaged in, when I bought hiim at Toys-R-Us. And just above, the hand that had laid it there was moving away.
Now I’ve seen the Star Wars movies, and E.T., and I have a store full of comics about Bizarro and the Alien Legion and Mutant Teenage Ninja Turtles -- I read them, too. So why was I so stunned when the hand was like a three-armed starfish. Sort of crusty all over, but totally flexible, boneless. I couldn’t make out the color. The blue light made everything blue. No wonder he didn’t buy Star Wars stuff!
I hightailed it out of there so fast, it’s a wonder the alien didn’t come out to investigate the noise. I threw myself into the truck. I gunned up that hill in second gear, the engine screaming for mercy, the Elvis doodads lurching back and forth in the back as I wrenched the wheel around the curves. To get back to I-81 I had to go through Minnehaha Springs and Mountain Grove and Staunton, all twisty secondary roads, but at least they were paved. It’s a miracle I didn’t kill myself ten times over. I was sweating bullets until I got onto the interstate heading a steady 65 miles per hour heading north. Then I mopped my forehead and tried to relax, knowing it would take all night to drive home. I turned on the radio, and it gave a sputter and began to whine, “Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge mountains --”
I twisted the volume knob so hard it came off in my hand.
When I pulled up in front of the store I was nearly dead. The truck didn’t sound so good either -- as I cut the engine it gave a soggy thump, like a horse rolling over dead. It was ten in the morning, but the driveway was blocked by a white station wagon. I sat slumped at the wheel, too shot to even lean on the horn. The front door opened, and the twins boiled out of the store. “Hey, it’s Unca Tully!” “Didja read what’s been happening to Batman, Unca Tully, isn’t it neat with Two-Face -- “ “Didja bring back more comics, Unca Tully?”
Josie followed them out, yelling, “Hush up!” Then in a more civilized tone she said, “Coffee’s on the stove, Tully. How’re you doing these days?”
“Coffe, thank God!” I’m a year older than Josie, but my sister’s always been more sane and normal and supportive and mature. I used to resent it sometimes, but now mature and normal sounded wonderful. We went in through the store, where Arnold had already taped a towel over the Frazetta poster above the cash register, and upstairs to the kitchen. “What are you doing here, Josie?”
She took a mug down from the cupboard. “I told you we’d be here over spring break, Tully. Here you are -- be careful, it’s hot. Your assistant let us in. I tried to keep the twins from trashing your stock.”
“It’s okay.” I’m real good friends with Becca and Mikey. Six-year-olds have naturally juvenile minds, so we have a lot in common. Besides, they like comics. The coffee was like a sip of sanity. “How long you staying?”
“A week.” She frowned, cocking an ear at the sound of Mikey strangling Becca downstairs. “Honey, Tully’s back!”
Arnold came out of the bathroon, newly-shaven and pink in the face. He shook my hand solemnly. “Good of you to let us camp on you like this, Tull. Where’ve you been? Have you had breakfast?’
No way I could tell them I’d been playing culture-vulture to a Martian or something. “Oh, picking up some stock,” I lied weakly. “Food sounds great.”
Arnold put some eggs to fry, and began washing dishes. He’s a house-husband, I guess you’d call it. Josie brings home the bacon by working on computers for the Navy. I always tell him Jerry Falwell wouldn’t approve. “We’re going downtown to tour the White House today,” Josie was saying. “Will you join us?”
All I wanted was sleep. After breakfast my house-guests took themselves off, and I crashed. But the minute my body was rested I woke up again. I’d seen E.T. -- the movie, I mean -- and Close Encounters, too. I knew I had to do something. Suppose Elvis Presley was somehow the foothold for the invasion of Earth? But I couldn’t think what -- call the cops, the FBI? Maybe it’s a crime to sell stuff to aliens, I thought. Even if it was nothing but Gumby and Rambo, I bet they’d throw the book at me. And what was I going to do with the truck’s load?
I felt so shook, I went downstairs and skimmed a couple issues of Action Comics, to see how Superman might handle it. And once I was in the store I felt better. The twins had messed up the shelves. While my helper rang up customers I sorted all the issues of Spiderman back into order. I might have to live off the store’s profits again real soon. I took the towel down off the Frazetta, too. You might say Arnold had a real broad definition of porn.
Next day we all went downtown to the Air and Space Museum. The cherry blossoms were in bloom, and the Mall was jammed. Josie and the twins got off at the museum while Arnold and I drove around looking for a parking space. We finally found one on the other side of Constitution Avenue. After Arnold locked all the doors and checked his pocket twice for the keys I said, “Let’s cut through the National Gallery. There’s a moving sidewalk in the underpass between the buildings.”
Arnold sighed. The twins have aged him “When are you going to grow up, Tully? Find a nice girl, settle down?”
I knew he was worried I might be gay. “I’m waiting for the right girl, Arnie,” I said earnestly. “You know that God has an ideal mate for every one of us. It’d be a shame if I jumped the gun and missed her.” That was from Pat Robertson Answers Two Hundred of Life’s Most Probing Questions, which Arnold gave me last Christmas. I’d read it carefully so that when he nagged me I could quote it. Of course Arnold had read it too, so he just mumbled about going to church, which I hardly ever do.
We went into the East Wing and gaped up at the Calder mobile. “Only in America,” Arnold said. He doesn’t really approve of abstract art. Then when we went downstairs and over the moving sidewalk I had to wait while he bought a Matisse poster. It was one of the cut-out ones, with bright dancing figures and flowers. “Now that’s beautiful,” he said, and I agreed. It was beautiful, the way April, and the cherry blossoms, and the happy dirty faces of the twins were beautiful.
All of a sudden I thought about the Modesty Blaise, and was ashamed. Here this alien wanted samples of human culture for a museum on Alpha Centauri, and I was exploiting his ignorance, selling him kitsch. I remembered reading about that space probe, where they put in recordings of whale songs and Bach. That’s the sort of thing Earth should be represented by. “Wait a minute, Arnie,” I said, and grabbed a fat glossy art book at random. “Buy this too -- I’ll pay you back outside.” He looked at me funny -- it cost $60 -- but didn’t say anything.
We went through the West Building and out into the sunshine, Arnold holding his poster and me holding the book in a paper bag. The walks were crowded with tourists, joggers, strollers, and people lined up for ice cream. A teenaged girl with long black hair planted herself in front of us and said, “Hi, are you saved?”
With grave pride Arnold said, “Yes I am, but my brother here isn’t.”
I tried to think of some retort from Pat Robertson, but could only say, “But hey, Arnie!” The girl thrust a pocket New Testament at me, chattering like a bluejay. I took it and marched off, letting Arnold catch up as best he could.
Usually I love the Air and Space Museum, but this time I couldn’t enjoy it. An even more depressing idea had hit me. Should I try to convert this alien? You see, I’d been rolled in enough gospel to know the only way to salvation. You can figure that everyone on this planet has had a Bible pushed at them, one time or another. But not Mt. Adelaide. And I realized that if I didn’t do it, no one would. He’d be damned. And maybe his whole planet, his whole galaxy with him. Maybe God was counting on me -- watching me to see if I made the right decision.
Then, as if the idea of a celestial Peeping Tom set me off, I saw there was a whole slew of religious stuff I could send. Plastic Jesuses with magnetic bases that let them stand on your dashboard, white plaster garden statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, stick-on window plaques with rainbows and doves and scriptural texts in curly letters -- I could keep Mt. Adelaide happy for years! Thinking about God up there, watching me think all this, made my head spin.
The kids were tired and cranky on the way home. I sat between them in the back seat and helped Mikey page through All About Comets. Then, prying in my bag, Becca whined, “It’s my turn now, Unca Tully. Read me this.”
When I took the book out I found I’d bought Monet Retrospective. We looked at photographs of paintings of shimmery water-lilies for a while. Then, bored, Becca began to whimper and kick the seat again. “I wanna drink. I wanna get out. I wanna comic book!”
Mikey joined in the chant, “I wanna comic book!” That’s the worst part about twins, the way they reinforce each other.
For two cents I would have got out of the car myself. But Josie, wonderful Josie, fumbled under the front seat and produced The Mighty Thor -- not one, but two copies! “I’m sorry to steal your comics, Tully,” she said in the sudden quiet. “They were a last resort. I’ll pay you for these, I promise.”
“No, it’s okay.” The peace was worth it. I can see how kids get spoiled.
Arnold had been driving and following the whole exchange in the rear-view mirror. “From Monet to Thor,” he snorted.
Josie gave him a be-polite-now nudge. “Lots of people read comic books, dear,” she said. “Who’s to say they aren’t as legitimate an expression as painting?”
I sat up. “You know, I never thought of that.”
Arnold gave me another of those funny looks in the mirror and said, warningly, “You read the chapter in Pat Robertson about alcohol and drugs, Tully?”
I didn’t answer. What I saw was that an ET smart enough to hide out in the boonies and shop by mail was smart enough to know a Calder from a pair of fuzzy dice. He was deliberately, systematically studying this aspect of people -- the Deely-Bobber factor, whatever it is that makes us produce whacko items. A non-human would learn more from that than by studying, say, our NORAD defenses. I bet most people wouldn’t recognize a cruise missile if it fell on them, though Josie would. But Deely-Bobbers have a deep appeal.
And it wasn’t “only in America” either. The entire human race has this streak of nuttiness. Look at the waving Prince Charles ornament. And I figured that folks who know us, who want to know us that deeply, are okay.
As soon as the station wagon stopped in the driveway I jumped out and ran inside to the telephone. The Ryder people promised to tune up the engine first thing tomorrow if I nursed the truck to their garage. My helper had got the mail. On top of the stack was an envelope from West Virginia. Inside was the unsigned typewritten note: “Am interested in more Royal souvenirs, esp. a set of cups in the shape of Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s heads. Would you be able to visit Britain?”
“What is it, Unca Tully?” Mikey asked, hugging my leg.
Josie was right behind, so I said, “A confirmation. I went out and threw the letter on the front seat of the truck, to answer in person. I brought the pocket Bible and Monet too. Hey, you never know. Then I opened up the back. If I was going to drive back down those roads again, the load should be packed better.
Tagging along, the twins immediately began to fight over the stuffed hound dog. “Hey! Don’t destroy that -- this is how to play with it.” I wound up the key and set the dog on the tailgate. The kids watched, owl-eyed, as I sang along with the music-box. They were able to warble along too, by the second verse: “They said you was high-class; well that was just a lie...”
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