Part 1 of 2
Ari opened her apartment door and the All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band was standing there. It took her a minute to place them. Ragweed, Sparky, Luna Lady on accordion, and the third drummer, the little gerbil-faced guy, Donald. She couldn't remember his stage name. She couldn't remember the others' real names. They looked exactly the same as the last time she'd seen them, except Donald didn't have the drum kit and for some reason they were in San Francisco.
"Ari?" said Ragweed. "Have we got the right address?"
"Roadie grew up nice," muttered Donald, looking her up and down.
"Shut up, Gerbil," said Luna Lady. Ari felt stupidly old, like it was her fault for being thirty-one.
"Ari," said Ragweed, "sorry this is out of left field, but we need your help. The thing is, next week the Earth is going to explode, and we only just got back to this galaxy."
"Tell her we got abducted by UFOs," said Sparky, nudging him.
"You tell her," said Luna Lady. "Since when is Ragweed pope of everything?"
"Yeah, we got abducted by UFOs," said Ragweed. "What you might know as extraterrestrials or unexplained phenomena. But it's okay, because we're back now, and anyway we've got superpowers."
"Bitchin' superpowers," said Donald.
"So," said Ragweed, "can we crash at your place?"
Ari said the only thing that came to mind, which was, "I left your drum kit in my mom's shed."
Ragweed's superpower was Super Voice. Sparky's was hyperintelligence. Luna Lady's was levitation and the Third Eye, and Donald's was breathing underwater.
"I forgot his stage name was Gerbil," said Ari.
"It wasn't," said Sparky. "It was Forty Ounces. We started calling him Gerbil while we were in the other galaxy, and it stuck."
"Because he looks like a gerbil," said Luna Lady.
"Do not," said Gerbil.
They had been given superpowers by the UFO people, the same UFO people who were now planning to blow up the Earth. They were a little cagey about how and why the UFO people had given them superpowers. Ari had trouble working out why they had been abducted in the first place.
"Did they experiment on you or something?" she said.
"Nah," said Ragweed. "Nothing like that. Mostly they just wanted us to watch movies with them. Like Hitchcock movies, and Breakfast at Tiffany's."
"I used to want to be Holly Golightly," said Ari.
"When was that?" said Sparky. "I don't remember that."
"In college," said Ari. "Don't sit on the coffee table. It's not very sturdy, it's just Ikea. Doesn't every girl want to be Holly Golightly at some point?"
"Every girl wants to be a manic-depressive whore?" said Luna Lady. "Probably true, but depressing."
"We must've seen Breakfast at Tiffany's ten times," said Ragweed, grinning, or maybe grimacing.
Ragweed looked the same as he'd looked the last time Ari had seen him, thirteen years ago. He was a rangy guy in an Elvis pompadour and a sharkskin-toned polyester suit. He grinned like an alligator. Sparky had shaggy hair and glasses and something about him that screamed I'm the One with a Day Job. Luna Lady was wiry and tattooed. Gerbil looked like a gerbil. None of them had changed in thirteen years. They might even have been wearing the same clothes the last time Ari had seen them, driving them home from Zeno's Coffeehouse with the drum kit crammed in the back of her mom's minivan.
Ari really had meant to return the drum kit to Luna Lady, whose name, she suddenly remembered, was Beth. But there had been a lot to do, those last weeks before college, and she figured Luna Lady or Gerbil would show up for the drum kit one day. They hadn't. She'd never seen any of them again. Ari hadn't thought much about it, because it just seemed like one of those things, but apparently it was because all four of them, the All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band, had been beamed aboard a UFO.
"And sometimes they made us play a set for them," said Ragweed. "Forty minutes, with a break."
"I don't think they abducted us for our music, though," said Sparky. "I don't think they were too interested in it, except that it was something we did. Like, if they'd abducted a basketball team, they would've made them play basketball sometimes."
"Yeah, who'd come across the twelve galaxies to hear us?" said Luna Lady.
"Shut up, Beth," said Gerbil.
"Shut up, Gerbil," said Luna Lady.
"We didn't get paid," Ragweed added, "but they gave us free beer."
"You got any beer?" asked Luna Lady.
Ari dragged herself into the kitchen. At first she'd been kind of excited to see them, and of course the alien abduction stuff was interesting. But they didn't seem to understand that she wasn't their roadie anymore, or that she was now several years older than they were. She didn't know where she was going to find crash space for them. Maybe she could talk them into a Motel Six.
"I've got five Amstels and a Stella Artois," she shouted to the living room.
"That a beer?" called Gerbil. "I ain't drinking any Zima shit."
"I don't know if they even make Zima anymore," said Ari, returning to the living room with as many bottles as she could carry. "Do you want glasses?"
They didn't, of course. Ari scrounged for coasters. She suddenly couldn't think of anything to say. "Did you play okay without your drum kit?" she asked.
"They had their own kit," said Gerbil.
Ari leaned in the doorway with the Stella Artois. The band filled her sofa and armchair and no one offered her a seat. Ragweed and Sparky both pulled out packs of Marlboros and lit up, like they were still in Indiana and it was still the twentieth century.
"Earth is pretty great," said Ragweed, finally.
"I'm going to go check my email," said Ari.
"Really?" said Sparky, genuinely fascinated. "On a computer? You didn't used to have a computer."
"Everybody has computers now," said Luna Lady. "I know through the power of the Third Eye."
"Hey, can I see you levitate?" said Ari. Luna Lady looked at her and she felt like an idiot.
"Is your computer, like, on the Net?" Ragweed asked, pronouncing the terms carefully.
"Everybody's computer is on the Net," said Luna Lady, before Ari could answer. "It goes through the air like TV now. They use the Google program."
"We should use Ari's computer to, like, hack the Net," said Ragweed. He sucked giddily on his cigarette. "We should take over the President's computer, and the Pentagon, and stop the UFO people that way."
"It doesn't work like that," said Ari. "Anyway, how would you use the President's computer to stop the UFO people?" She wasn't trying to be sarcastic. She was hoping Ragweed or somebody would give her an honest answer, and she could figure out what the deal was. But they ignored her.
"Make Sparky do it," said Luna Lady. "He's the one who got hyperintelligence."
"Yeah, go hack the Pentagon, Sparky," said Gerbil. He was maybe trying to be sarcastic.
Ari took Sparky into her bedroom. She showed him how to use email and Safari and the word processor, and somehow three hours passed. She meant to ask him about the alien abduction thing. But he kept asking questions about the computer—not hyperintelligent questions, just stuff like how to change the desktop wallpaper, which Ari never bothered to do. When she sat down with Sparky the desktop was a beach, and when they got up again it was stars.
The rest of the All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band had fallen asleep on the floor, except for Luna Lady, who'd taken the sofa. Ari offered to get them some spare blankets, but Sparky said it was okay, they'd gotten used to roughing it in the other galaxy. Later, Ari thought she should have asked what he meant by that, if they'd camped out on some primitive planet, or if the UFO people made them sleep on the hard, cold floor of the UFO every night. Maybe the UFO people didn't sleep. But she didn't ask, because by then she just wanted to brush her teeth and go to bed.
The first thing Ari did when she woke up the next morning was convince herself that the return of the All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band had been a dream, or something she'd made up. But they were there on the floor of the living room, and later in the kitchen eating all her frozen waffles, so that didn't work.
Ari went to her job. She worked at a graphic design firm. She wasn't one of the graphic designers. She was one of the people who told the graphic designers what to do, based on instructions from people who were too important to talk to the graphic designers themselves, and both groups hated her for it. She remembered suddenly that she had majored in studio art in college. And taken a lot of film classes. It felt like a long time since she'd thought of that.
The All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band settled into Ari's apartment. Once in a while they sent Gerbil or Sparky to the corner store for beer, cigarettes, disposable razors, and half-and-half. Ari never saw them handle money. Probably they still had whatever they'd had on them when they'd been abducted by the UFO. They ate all of Ari's food, and when she bought more they ate that, too.
On the third day, Ari hinted to Sparky that if the All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band planned to crash for a while, she could use some help with the shopping and bills. The next morning, Ragweed went out quietly at dawn and returned with a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts. That was the last time the subject was brought up. The All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band clearly felt that it had done its duty.
Meanwhile, the band members were busy. They were saving the world. They mentioned this pretty often, although all they seemed to do was drink beer, smoke Marlboros, watch TV, and raid the kitchen. They all loved TV. They'd missed thirteen years of it, and everything fascinated them. They adored all reality TV shows and were disappointed when Ari said that reality TV was kind of not that popular anymore. They liked hearing about the TV they'd missed, but they didn't show an interest in anything that had happened in the real world. One day Ari came home to find Sparky looking at something about September 11 on her computer, and that was about it. They didn't want to contact their families.
"I miss my girlfriend," Sparky said once, late at night, "but she's probably married now."
"Married and fat," said Gerbil.
"You're a shallow pig, Gerbil," said Luna Lady.
Gerbil and Luna Lady were an item. Eventually Ari figured out that they were going into her bathroom together to have sex. Sometimes they also went to the roof. Ari tried not to think about it.
"You didn't know Gerbil was Luna Lady's boyfriend?" said Sparky. He was planted in front of her computer, looking at eBay. It was three in the morning. The rest of the band was still awake and noisy in the next room. Ari could hear Luna Lady's accordion wheezing to life. The neighbors hadn't started pounding on the floor yet, but it was only a matter of time.
Sparky smiled crookedly. "How do you think he got in the band?"
"Your good drummer moved to Texas?"
"Ha. . . . No, that was the first drummer, Fat Fury. The one Gerbil replaced was the girl who quit to be in an '80s TV theme cover band. Demoneena. Shit, I liked her."
"Well, I don't remember all the details," said Ari. "It was thirteen years ago for me."
"Yeah, I know. You're a total adult now."
"Barely. I mean, look at us. We're man-children."
"Even Luna Lady?"
"Oh hell yeah. The point is, we're the same as we were last time you saw us, right?"
"I can't remember. Probably."
Sparky turned back to the computer, shaking his head. "She can't remember. Space travel really screws with your lifestyle, you know that? Do people say 'lifestyle' anymore?"
"Did they ever?"
It hadn't been thirteen years for the All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band. Because of faster-than-light travel and Einstein and stuff. Sparky had explained it to her, but not very well, and to be honest it didn't sound like he really understood it himself. Ari was starting to have her doubts about the hyperintelligence. Anyway, from their point of view, they'd only been away for a few months, maybe a year. It was hard to keep track of the calendar in space. They'd hurried home once they'd heard that the Earth was scheduled to get blown up, and, lo and behold, thirteen years had gone by.
"So I can buy any of the things I'm seeing here?" Sparky asked.
"You can bid on them. It's an auction. I'm pretty sure this existed last time you were here, you know."
"And how do they get to my house?"
"Okay, okay. How do they get to your apartment?"
"Through the mail. Just like anything."
"Oh." Sparky deflated a little. "Is the mail, like, super-fast now?"
"No. It takes a week or two."
"Well, damn. We don't have that long."
"If it's something you need, you can probably get it at a regular store around here. I mean, we're in a city."
"Most stores don't have the right stuff." Sparky closed the browser window, but not before Ari could see that he'd been looking at plastic rain ponchos. She also noticed that the browser wasn't Safari. It was something else.
"By the way," said Sparky, "it's pretty awesome that you moved to California."
"Thanks," said Ari. She thought of a question she'd been meaning to ask. "How did you guys find me?"
"Luna Lady did it. With the Third Eye."
"It kind of seems like Luna Lady got the best powers."
Sparky thought about it. "Super Voice is pretty good. It's got a lot of applications."
Ari had to take his word for it, since she'd never seen or heard Super Voice in action, or any of the band's other superpowers. "How intelligent is hyperintelligent, anyway?"
"Really intelligent. Like, twice as smart as the smartest guy in history."
"You don't even know who the smartest guy in history was, Sparky."
"Yeah, I do. It was a Chinese guy. You haven't heard of him. The Chinese lost a lot of their history and books and stuff in wars. There was a guy named Wong who was the smartest guy ever. He invented the airplane, but later they forgot how to make them."
"And you're as smart as him."
"Twice as smart."
Ari fell back against her pillow. By this time she was used to walking around in front of the band members in her nightshirt, and hanging out with them while lying in bed, and shouting conversations while one of them was in the bathroom. It was getting to be like old times, until she put on her clothes and went to work. "Gerbil can just breathe underwater, though. That's kind of crummy."
"Yeah. Breathing underwater is a suck power." Sparky logged out. "Did you really want to be Holly Golightly?"
"I think that's pretty normal. Why?"
"Nothing. It's just that, after about the fifth time they made us watch that movie, we all kind of hated her guts."
Ari decided to be angry at Sparky for keeping her up all night with the computer. She was angry at all of them anyway. The Earth was supposed to blow up in a few days, and what the hell were they doing about it? Crapping up her apartment and eating all her food. Her days had turned inside out. All her living went on at night, in the dim corners of her smoky little apartment, and the nine-to-five at the graphic design firm felt like an afterthought, or a dream.
Her work was suffering, but no one at the office had noticed. That almost made it worse.
In high school, of course, she'd had no problem staying up until five in the morning and living on coffee and beer. It was definitely a five-in-the-morning mentality that makes a nerdy teenage girl volunteer to be the roadie for a junkabilly band. The All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band was a regular headliner at Zeno's Coffeehouse on Saturday nights, and she mooched at Zeno's, which was full of fascinating college kids and didn't mind if you smuggled in beer. One night, after their set, they'd bought her a plate of black beans and rice and struck up a conversation, and one thing had led to another. Being the roadie for the All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band mostly meant chauffeuring them around to bars and college coffeehouses, and sometimes testing the mics. They weren't a high-maintenance type of band. They didn't pay her, but she got free beer and cover waived everywhere, and she got to hang out with musicians. She'd been flattered by the attention, she realized now, because she'd been a dumb teenager, and because she used to be kind of fat back then.
Even though she'd known they were a dumb small-town novelty band, they'd seemed a little bit like gods. Now they were just twentysomething guys, and Luna Lady, who'd never taken the hint and gotten lives. Man-children. They could go to hell, Ari thought by the fifth day of occupation.
She came home willing to be pissed at anything. From the hall, she could hear the goddamned accordion.
They all had their instruments out. Ragweed was tuning his guitar, Sparky his bass. Gerbil didn't have the drum kit, of course, but he was tapping the coffee table with a pair of sticks. That was different. Usually they talked a lot more than they played.
"Good news!" said Ragweed. "With his hyperintelligence, Sparky has formulated a plan!"
"To save the Earth," Sparky clarified.
"Oh, yeah?" said Ari. "And how are you going to save the Earth?"
"Simple," said Ragweed. "With the power of music."
Ari went to the kitchen to get a Diet Pepsi. Gerbil and Luna Lady followed her.
"I don't know all the details," said Luna Lady. "Sparky says that playing the greatest set of all time will save the Earth from exploding."
"And we can do it with cosmic knowledge and the aid of our superpowers," said Gerbil.
"Well, not your superpower," Luna Lady told him. "Your superpower sucks."
"Shut up, Beth."
Luna Lady gently removed the Diet Pepsi from Ari's hand. "Don't drink that piss. They make it with radioactive water. The Third Eye told me so. Anyway, we got beer."
"Lots of beer," said Gerbil. "This is a big night."
Luna Lady poured the Diet Pepsi down the sink. "Mark says we're doing a dry run tonight. He says you, as roadie, should be the first to hear our perfect set."
"Wait," said Ari. "Is Mark Ragweed or Sparky?"
"Ragweed. You don't know our names? Come on, we've got a long night."
Ragweed had already ordered pizza and wings. Ari paid. While Ari ate pizza and drank horrible cheap beer, the All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band rehearsed the greatest set in the history of the Earth. They played "Rat Pfink" and the theme from She-Devils on Wheels. They played "Mysterious Mose" and "My Sweetheart's the Man in the Moon" and a cover of "Woo-Hoo" by the Rockateens. They played the Cherry Polka and the Too Fat Polka. They played a Wesley Willis song. They moved Ari to tears with the Blue Skirt Waltz, the song sung by the mourners at Frankie Yankovic's funeral. At eleven the neighbors stopped pounding on the floor, and at midnight they came up to complain in person. Luna Lady passed out beers while Sparky launched into "Stranger in My Arms" by the Cookies, and the neighbors laughed and ate wings and stayed until dawn. Some other neighbors came by, too, people Ari had never seen. The band played the Java Jive and the Cow Cow Boogie. They played surf music. They played a hula.
And that was why, instead of kicking the All-Night Truck Stop Polka Band out of her apartment, Ari got drunk and slept with Sparky.