Extraterrestrial Highway

Stephen Pett

Dan Namingha, Yellow Horizon, Acrylic on Canvas, 30"x24" ©2019

Extraterrestrial Highway

Tahnee had to do this by herself, to start here, in her basement apartment where she hadn’t really stayed since her mom. Tahnee would leave her fail-safes, her stamped Navajo bracelet, her phone, her purse, her weed. Stuff keys and car fob into her bra. No music jacked into her ears, except what she always heard. No pistol, for fuck sake, the little one her stepbrother Solomon—she had to stop calling him her stepbrother—had said she should take today because you never knew about the crazies. Two Sundays ago he’d coaxed her to the shooting range to teach her to use it, but, God, the noise, the holes in the targets, the whole idea of everybody armed. Tahnee wasn’t scared.

 

Tahnee had “a following,” the Santa Fe Reporter called it. Really? Which meant she led. Right? She’d shown that story to her phantom mom who’d just, poof, appeared last spring, showed up at a gig. “I’m so proud. Look at you.” Her mom’s eyes actually welled up. “My little singer, Tahn-Tahn. Tough enough... to do right by the gifts I gave you.”  

 

Tahnee’s gifts sure as hell didn’t come from her mom. Sure as hell didn’t come from all that dreck in the Grammysphere. Her music grew from work, knew what it knew from the streets of half a dozen big cities, knew knew, had fucking known foster care, poverty, good and very bad dope (those habits buried), rock-Adonis users, abusers. Told her what she loved, what she hated. Saved her long enough to get back here, here here, never home until maybe now, almost clean, this old old old old town of conquistador, yellow-woman, corn-mother history and cowboy colonizers bankrolling second, third, and fifth houses when she was the back-alley B-side of that kind of white person, her tattoos and her nose ring and her eyebrow stud said so. Her ambitions. Her, what did Solomon call it, tenacity. Tena-city. Her city, her recovered underground hometown was Hispanic and Native and runaway and old Buddhist hippie astrologer groupies and loss and guts and gutsy young kick-ass artists like all over and kindness and a house and two dozen new songs, two damn dozen, and even a dog, and mountains, the goddamn wonder mountains. Lead singer. She should be able to at least lead somebody to somewhere free of bullshit. Right?

 

Kneeling with a Sharpie on the cracked linoleum floor, Tahnee calligraphed her cardboard sign as best she could, Spencerian script, her mom’s, make that her dead dead mom’s, go-to: “HOMELESS=INIVISIBLE.” Drained her lukewarm Starbucks’ cup. Stuffed her backpack with air cushions from her last Amazon shipment to this address, badass sparkle purple Doc Marten boots, called her bass player Dillon—already awake as promised!—a videographer in his day job, and said, “Nearly ready, compadre, ground zero in fifteen.” Over her long underwear she pulled jeans she’d rubbed with mud, and Solomon’s old Lobos’ sweatshirt, sleeves rolled. She wore ragged slip-on Skechers that had been her mom’s, a Carhartt stocking cap, a ripped parka, and fingerless gloves. Besides the sign and a plastic bucket that once held ice cream, she took a discard shitty acoustic guitar case with an “Extraterrestrial Highway” sticker from Roswell on the lid, and her dog her last boyfriend found running loose on the Navajo rez, so named Rez, leashed to her with rope.

 

She needed to walk there. Every damn song was written, so what you did was earn your versions, your visions. And repay the three hundred and fifteen people who’d anted up on Kickstarter—ten grand for studio time—with more than even they’d bargained for.

 

Yes. Cold cold. What she’d waited for, January 3rd, another Friday—the perihelion, Solomon said, an irony she couldn’t refuse, the day the earth swung closest to the sun—sidewalks dusted with new snow, streets red from sanding. Strands of unlit icicle lights still draped half the parapets and canales of the run-down houses on the two blocks of her route. Cash-fat holiday Texans in a bulked-up SUV threw a wave of slush over the curb. Rez tugged at the rope, and she slid behind him, her skateboard balance kicking in, now worried she might not be able to keep him away from traffic.

 

Her main worry was that her chosen spot on the median at the intersection would be occupied by some genuinely desperate person she would never compete with, but half a block to go, as she cut through a parking lot past an Orangetheory and a Dollar Tree, she could see it was empty. Across the street, Dillon’s rusted Tacoma nosed out in a credit union parking lot. He emerged, all skinny six-foot-two of him, raised a hand to her, shouldered his camera.

 

She was not Tahnee.

 

In the middle of four lanes of splashing traffic, she took her perch, shed her backpack—“Stay close, Rez, sit”—faced into a rising wind, the sign at her chest. Stood over the stretch of pavement where the woman had been hit three months ago. Just days before that calamity, outside Whole Foods at lunchtime, Tahnee had led the same woman, staggering, from six busy indifferent lanes. A leather-cheeked, bloodshot Native woman who had mumbled about the shelter down past the mall, she needed to get to the shelter down past the mall. Tahnee and Solomon, one on each arm, had walked her inside, bought her a meal from the food bar, sat with her until she finished. A woman with that menthol cigarette smell, gutter wine. Told her to stay there until she sobered up.

 

When he asked the security guy to please leave her be, the guy said, “You aren’t the first to bring her in.”

 

Solomon saw it on Facebook, some veteran buddy’s video, the EMT’s just arrived, the woman, on her side, staring, mouth bloody, coat splayed, legs crushed, but this time with a cardboard sign she still held, “Born and razed on the rezervashun! HOMELESS BUT BLESSED!” One actual tear rolled down his cheek. “Do you know how many Indian women have disappeared?”

 

“Do I want to?”

 

That only five months since their own bi-polar mother left Tahnee’s apartment couch sometime in the night to end it the next morning, Good Friday, rushing onto the Old Pecos Trail clutching a sacred doll of the Virgin Mary she’d just swiped from the San Miguel Chapel. Hit by a white Animal Control pickup carrying stray dogs. The day after she’d coughed up blood and said, “Well there you go.”

 

Tahnee tried to ignore Dillon on her one side, then the other, shooting from every angle. On red lights she tried to connect with the eyes of drivers beside her in the left-turn lane, cars backed up six or seven or eight deep. Men, even young men, even teenagers stared straight ahead or fingered their phones. Women sized her up, head to toe, sometimes showed the hint of a smile looking at Rez. Kids stared from backseats. Hispanic guys stayed hidden behind tinted glass. Couples were the worst, old, young, all of them, talking, gesturing, including her in their glances over the melting messy landscape, as though she were another inanimate incidental. The guitar case blocked the slush on one side. Her fingertips burned. Burned burned. She was an artist. She was a living conscience. She knew more than any fucking college could have taught. Dillon circled her when traffic thinned. Finally gave her a thumb’s up and headed for his truck.

 

“Hey, Legs. Nice dog.” A silky voice from a short guy at the wheel of a candy-apple red Volkswagen bus, “Wild Cherry” in hand-done-she-could-tell, flawless black Cherokee Rose down the side panel, idling beside her, smoke ghosting from his open window. Weed. No ink. Dark eyebrows bushed over his shades. A brimmed leather hat. He stretched out an arm, a lint-free black cable knit sweater, an Apple watch on a gold band, his ringless pale hand dropping a bill, a $100 bill, and a card into her bucket. “You’re anything but invisible, Legs.” The black card was embossed in red with a name, Captain Kokopelli, an address, and a number. “Call me when you want the rest.”

 

“The rest?”

 

“Of your inheritance.”

 

“My—?”

 

“You’re worn out from waiting.” He accelerated through the green, and when she raised her eyes she saw Dillon not twenty yards away, back in the middle of the road, pants soaked, his round, glinting lens staring.

 

“Fucking golden.” Dillon said, Rez’s head between them. His truck shivered with its heat as she cupped her hands over the vents. You’re my culture warrior, Tahn.”

 

“You got it?”

 

“Got you like absolutely kickass. I’m set.”

 

She unfolded the bill.

 

“What that dude in the bus gave you?”

 

“Nuts.”

 

“Man, a couple of those a day—”

 

“No thanks.” She showed Dillon the card, told him what the guy’d said.

 

“You caught yourself a red perv mobile. Captain Kokopelli? ‘Wild Cherry’? That’s bad.”

 

“What I wish . . . I wish you’d got him, closeup. Recorded him. I mean, his voice had this snake-charmer like—”

 

“You were frozen.”

 

“Maybe, maybe we can stage it. With him. Same words. Instead of money he’ll hand over, hand out... a... pistol.”

 

“Geez. We don’t need that guy. Are you kidding? I’ll edit in a hand with the bill. Colin can do the voice over. Man, his like Christopher Walken. Or I’ll cut a line from some movie, like maybe Dead Zone.”

 

“Needs to be that guy. That guy for real. You saw him. The ending. I’ll call him, level with him. Give his money back. Think how perfect.”

 

“All your shit’s still too fresh is what I think. Our video’s good as done, babe. And time’s tight. The launch is like three weeks out. Trust me, trust me this will... will... open the big doors.”

 

“And minds. Jolt open a few brain cells. Ears to brain cells.”

 

“We’re done.” Dillon tapped his phone and the song, her song, her band Extraterrestrial Highway’s song, the title song on their album-to-be—they’d spent last two months laying down tracks—pounded from his speakers.

 

Ride your palomino Progress down the Google asphalt map,

There’s food here in the wasteland, an Oreo McShake, a chicken McWrap,

Dinosaurs once thundered here where snakes have learned to roll,

And me, extinct, invisible, homeless. Homeless. Hoooomeless. Hooooooome-less!

I might just be your soul.

 

She’d understood Solomon wasn’t just in for a dime when he gave her a garage door opener of her own. Pulling into his driveway, she still found the act unsettling. Pushing a button and having one of the two hollows under his house exposed for her to enter. The hollow lined with a stainless-steel sink and refrigerator retired from his restaurant, plus skis, a table saw, shelves of tools and jars of screws and bolts. And on a workbench where Tahnee had believed she’d refinish it, lay a beat-up sunburst Kay twelve-string signed, her mother swore, by Slash, the only thing beside her clothes she’d left behind.

 

He’d done the dishes, left her a sloppy note on the pine-plank kitchen table: “Happy you’re not homeless—with me.” She dropped the black card beside it, then decided maybe he shouldn’t know, stashed it in her purse. Hung up the soaked parka and right there in the hall, stripped out of the wet shoes and pants, what she understood, with guilt, many many others could not do. Without any window-dressing “niceties” like the monogrammed teal boxing robe Solomon’d ordered her, laid out on their bed he’d made. Rez curled next to her on the bathroom floor while, goose bumped, she peed and checked her dozen messages. Her least favorite stepsister, Solomon’s half-sister: “Happy New Year! Late! From the Big Apple. Clement surprised me with The Ball Drop. Come see us in Sedona when the cd’s done. We’re boosters.” Two from Colin, one from Denise, other Extraterrestrial Highway members, all three messages about people who had seen her with her sign, including Jono Manson, owner of Kitchen Sink Recording Studios where they were cutting the album. Her friends Suze, Kiley, Jen, and Coral—all saying something like, “Hey, homeless. You’re so brave. So talented. We love you.” From the famous lady science fiction writer who’d taken her in two years back when she’d been abandoned in Portland: “I’ll be through week after next. Time for your mother’s ashes?” Who’d bought them tickets to The Beggar’s Opera. She did not write back to any of them.

 

She almost called Solomon to ask for the night off, only then he’d get all protective and he might even take the night off himself and want to fuck. He’d saved her ass. Although he said it was the other way around, after his marriage blew up. No kids. Why would anyone the hell want kids?

 

She put Rez in the yard. Turned off her phone.

 

The tub’s jets swirled the steaming water turquoise from one of the Planet Earth bath bombs Solomon gave her for Christmas. She smoked a joint slowly, hummed what she imagined might be this very basic like three-chord anthem for the part of herself she believed in, the part apart from flesh and blood. The part that sang, that hummed like a tuning fork of bone. But all her songs were that anthem. Weren’t really even hers. Or they failed. She sang, “Which hand holds the money?” And again, “Which hand holds the money?” 

 

An hour left before she’d leave, she sat in the bright living room—the sun had returned—her old Takamine on her leg, Rez against her ankle, and changed the words to “Which fist holds the money?” then to “His fist is knuckled money.” Where the hell had that come from? Where the hell did songs come from anyway? She asked that of the urn on the shelf of the kiva fireplace. Of what was left of her mother, absent as always. “Bleeding cherry honey.” Whoa. She didn’t want to be morbid. Where did that get anyone? Really. “She gets that truth is scary, a hundred bucks and wild cherry.” Yeah, yeah, but man, so damn dark. She jotted lyrics on the back of one of the old menus from Solomon’s real love, in debt to his eyeballs, The Frito Magpie. Flipped it over.

 

Her mother—Solomon’s step he’d tried to help out once before when she’d skipped back through town—self-taught to do wedding invitations in reform school, how she’d later paid for Tahnee’s summer camp, she’d said—had calligraphed the front, the word “Magpie” a miraculous bird of winged letters. Artistic writing, the only time she focused—she’d stopped singing for money a decade ago—as though each stroke, each letter, each word might hold her steady. The menu image done over an afternoon on one of her falling outs with Solomon, to make it up with him, she’d said, the first time she stayed on Tahnee’s couch and puked most of two nights in Tahnee’s tiny bathroom. Tahnee, her baby, she said, her favorite, she said, the youngest of six children out of seven husbands. Tahnee’s dad, number seven, some vanished air-force dude from Minnesota who gave her his French last name she thought of changing, but she had to admit Tahnee Sauvage had this rightness to it, her rightness. Yeah.

 

Tahnee stopped tweaking melody lines on her guitar 50 minutes before she should leave, turned on her phone. Scrolled new texts, Instagram. Words and pictures one big high-tech chasm from where she had stood earlier. From Captain Kokofuckingpelli with his hairless hand holding out that Benjamin, a longhair Founder who had flown a kite for lightning and been some kind of lech, all she knew about him really. Had Captain Kokopelli touched her? Had some current crossed to her? Is that the twinge she felt in her picking hand? Something from him trying to shock its way in? Her inheritance?

 

She let Rez out again as she dressed, and when she slid the back door open for him to come in, there on the patio, wagging his tail, he dropped a bone that clattered, one of the soup bones Solomon got for him, she knew, but it glistened with the moisture from Rez’s mouth, and a crack ran down its side. She thought of that asshole’s voice. “You can’t help what you can’t help, can you, buddy?”

 

She did not call Captain Kokopelli because no way could she take just his voice.

 

On her phone on its rack on the dash of her car, Google maps had no qualms about showing her the way. About assuring her she had time: Twelve minutes, four point nine miles. The black card on the passenger seat beside her. The pistol—the little Smith and Wesson she brought only because without it she wouldn’t be going, which was crazy, she had never gone anywhere alone with a pistol—in the right-hand pocket of her coat. The sun bright. The roads nearly dry.

 

He wouldn’t be there.

 

South. Down Cerrillos Road, of course, the strip every journey seemed to include, and first thing there he was, the clichéd damn hunchback with his flute on the sign for Kokopelli Rafting Adventures. Then down past the Santa Fe Indian School, another, Kokopelli Landscaping. Then tagged on walls outside throwback Western motels, The King’s Rest, the Cottonwood Court, El Rey. How had she missed him? Even on bus benches, stop signs in this corridor of anywhere, Walmart, Home Depot, Smith’s, Pep Boys, Brake Masters. Kokopelli Property Management. Kokopelli Paint and Tile. Who the hell was he anyway? And who cared? On half the corners stood under-dressed loners with packs, with garbage bags, with dogs, with signs. At last past Lowe’s, Target, the mall, she veered onto 14, shed the city for open ground, “undeveloped” ground, cholla, chamisa, juniper, except for the isolated jail and the prison on opposite sides of the road. Three minutes, one point six miles. Her inheritance. Her video is what that meant.

 

He would not be there.

 

A left turn onto gravel, Coyote Springs Road, Dead End, marked by a huge metal pointing hand. Was Captain Kokopelli a sculptor? Some fucking performance artist? Maybe he was making a video. No, Dillon had it right. But . . . she needed him because she knew that’s how it ended, it did. Always had, she could see now. She could. The perihelion.

 

She passed a semi-trailer on its side in rocks. Three doublewides. A donkey and a llama staring from the doorway of a derelict adobe. Potholes. Coils of barbed wire hung with flapping trash in a ditch. She passed a yurt with a yard of metal sculptures, more hands, open, closed, thumbs up, thumbs down. So Captain Kokopelli was not the sculptor. What was he?

 

This morning she had been freezing. Now making her way at 10 miles an hour toward the red bus parked out front of a wide, low house behind a gated wall at the end of the road, the sun on her thighs, birds in the air like notes torn from the staff of converging horizontal lines, she sweated. Under her arms, on the back of her neck, her palms damp on the wheel. Two huge-headed dogs stood behind the gate’s bars, one brindle, one yellow. Mastiffs? Watched open mouths dripping as she turned to pull in behind the bus, vanity plate, GETITON. Pistol or not, she should leave. Should but he had given her one hundred bucks. Sent some hidden message, that was it. And you had to listen to hidden messages her mother had told her, “Don’t be deaf like me.” And she had been feeling the incompletion of their video, and then, and then she’d found the nerve to stand on that median, and then . . . like it was why she had been there in the first place, this guy rolled down his window. The only one to stop. This guy who had done who the hell knew what to women. To homeless women? Like her mother. To girls? Like . . . like her. Wild Cherry.

 

She had to be at work in 45 minutes. She could tell Captain Kokopelli that, that her boss knew where she was, expected her. She had a pistol. She had never imagined she would carry a pistol, had even marched to the plaza with Colin and Denise to listen to the pleas of high school students after the Parkland shooting.

 

First thing this morning Solomon had said, “You’re not some whacko with a gun. Take it.” She hadn’t then.

 

The sun would be down soon, the edge of the sky in the rearview already tinged turquoise, a red starting.

 

Did she smell cherry standing outside her car, her car between her and the house, each of the windows empty? Did he know she was here? The fauxdobe, flat-roofed house, with a portale she could now see was supported by poles carved into the shapes of birds, open-beaked, wings tight against their bodies. Silence except for her head music and a small plane growling over. Water dripped in dark fingers down the wall. The dogs did not growl or bark. Next to the gate, she could hear the chafing air entering and leaving their lungs, like her breathing after a hard night of belting things out. “Sweet pooches,” she said and realized her right hand—the one with her first tattoo, a swallow—gripped the pistol. She should get the hell out of here.

 

“Hola, cherished one.” The voice, that voice, tinny as it now was, spoke on her right side from an intercom box, chilled her. Thrilled her she had to admit. An intercom box where his face blinked from a small screen. His hairless face without dark glasses, with large dark gleaming eyes. His hairless head without a hat. “So soon, Legs.” Where was he? “I’ll call the dogs.”

 

“Wait.” Had that word even made it out of her mouth. “Wait. I’m not homeless. I... I want...”

 

“Of course. I know. You’ll tell me.”

 

“I’m making a music video, my band is. That’s why I was there today.”

 

She heard nothing, but the mastiffs clumsily wheeled and shuffled out of sight. Then where the snow had melted, she saw mounds of dog shit and scattered white bones. The screen was dark. “Wait.”

 

Even shorter than she imagined, but well-proportioned she had to admit, graceful even like... her mother who had as a runaway teenager swung on a trapeze in a half-assed circus, Captain Kokopelli—and why didn’t he use a real name?—hat and glasses back in place, strode down the path from the front door, wearing flipflops, black shorts, scars on his knees, and a fiery long-sleeved red shirt, “Wild Cherry” in that script across his chest. She did not want to shoot him. She did not want to shoot anyone—even that fucking fucking asshole who had forced her in high school in his father’s Lincoln.

 

“Legs,” he said. And it was that voice she had to have, they had to have, Extraterrestrial Highway, after weeks of work, a year or more of songwriting, polishing, after she’d halfway decided she’d had enough of Solomon if this project would just break through the noise. “You know I knew.” An accent. Was there this tinge of a southern accent?

 

“Knew?”

 

“I have a talent.” The gate squealed like a puppy. Was she goose bumped again? They stood there feet apart and he couldn’t have looked more relaxed, almost absent, unlike the face on the intercom screen. How old was he? He stepped to the side. “Come.”

 

“I can’t. I have to get to work.”

 

“Of course.”

 

“I’m here... I’m here to ask you in person... because what you did today was so... so right for this video I’m doing, my band’s doing. I’ll give your money back. I wanted to ask you to... to...”

 

“Yes?”

 

“We’ll recreate it, film it with sound. We’ll put you in the credits and—”

 

“Of course, but first . . .” And he raised the arm with the watch, the arm that had given her the bill, and this time it held a camera, and he unfolded a small screen from its side. He aimed the camera at her as he walked backwards. “My movie. It’s what I do. I’m the one who will make you famous. You’ll see. Start now. Talk to me.”

 

“I... I have a pistol.”

 

“All right. All right.” He opened his door with one hand, backed through it. “Tell me about the pistol. Tell me about why you would never use it.”

 

And the music she heard coming from the house was hers. Hers he must have recorded where? What bar? What shitty venue?

 

“This is your greatness. Because you know I’ve filmed everyone. I won a short-film Academy Award. New York Film Critics’. Chicago Film Critics’. A Golden Bear. I made the last two music videos the Stones did. Beyoncé, that was me. ‘Bootylicious.’”

 

She stood on the threshold, the dark interior in front of her that smelled of pine needles and sweat and weed, his storm door at her back. Her hand lifted the pistol from her pocket. She said, “Fuck your crazy ass. Give me the camera. Give it.”

 

And he did. And that footage he’d shot and she stole came near the end of the video that launched Extraterrestrial Highway. Launched launched. After the shots of his bus stopping. Before her inheritance, her ending. The for-real fucking ending. She’d actually found the woman hit by the car, who Dillon filmed muttering through a jagged gap in her teeth in a raised bed in a pea-green hospital room: “The driver, he didn’t see me cause of the sun.” Followed by Dillon’s last shot, just thirty seconds long, Tahnee alone on the top of snowy Wheeler Peak outside Taos, the highest point in New Mexico, tilting the urn, flooding the crystal air with ash, while the song faded.

 

Solomon, when he finally heard the story, tried to hunt “the bastard” down. House empty. This one audience guy in Chicago who’d seen the video asked how she’d gotten that gazillionaire hermit porn king to participate. Wasn’t he holed up hiding on his island in the South Seas? He couldn’t remember the guy’s name, and she, she never took the time to check it out on Google. What would be the point? Really.

Stephen Pett is the author of a novel, Sirens (Vintage), and a collection of poetry, Pulpit of Bones (Morrow). His short work—fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—has appeared in many venues, including Witness, Cimarron Review, Prairie Schooner, and Quarterly West, and made the Notable list in Best American Short Stories. “The Elizabeth Smart Memorial Hike,” a story of his, won Crab Orchard Review’s 2015 Special Issue Feature Award in Fiction. His story "Gateway to the Arctic" was Runner Up in the Missouri Review’s 2018 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors' Prize Contest and published. His story “The Keeper’s Watch” is story forthcoming in the North American Review. Stephen Pett co-founded and was Coordinator of Iowa State University's MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment. He is Founding Editor of Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.​