7. Reporting In, Number 1

May 13, 2010

As he sat on the dilapidated picnic table in the middle of the park, under the pale November sun, XR137! felt the exquisitely tender tentacles of Commanding Officer XJ0*3 wrap slowly around him. First his arms and torso, then his legs, and finally his neck, face and head. This was the pleasantest part of his assignment, when he reported in. Releasing all the information—traumas and observations—that he, in his unwieldy and miserable body, had gathered and sustained during the week.

The report was nonverbal. XJ0*3 absorbed his information, connecting in that magically gentle way that earmarked the superiority of their race. As XJ0*3 transformed each cell in his body, entering, reading, and reconfiguring its information, he felt cleansed, as if an intolerable burden, a burden unto pain, was lifted slowly from this primal self. And his thoughts drifted, drifted like pollen in the weak sunlight.

He was back on his uncle’s farm in Montana, riding around on his tractor, the June sunlight warm on his head and chest. All summer, his uncle and he rode the tractor around the farm. His uncle high on the metal tractor seat, his skin growing darker and drier under the increasing heat of summer, and Roger, wearing a large, floppy hat, seated on the bicycle seat that his Uncle Dan had welded to the tractor’s chassis. His uncle told him he was “riding shotgun” but what he was really in charge of was the transistor radio, which it was his job to hold and that blasted out folk and country-western songs while the two of them wove back and forth across the fields, the smell of dust and broken grass rising into their lungs.

When a Woody Guthrie song came thinly out of the radio, Roger’s uncle would sing along, giving the boy glances as if he were singing to Roger, one eyebrow lifted: This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York Island. Every once in a while, he would wink, but for the most part, Uncle Dan was silent, attentive to the work at hand, and listening to the radio. It was a monotonous but easy life, free of the tensions that living in the city brought.

It seemed his uncle always needed the radio on, in the car, on the tractor, in the house. Though most evenings in the house his Uncle Dan made his own music, walking around the sedately outfitted rooms, playing his fiddle, his expression absorbed as hundreds, no, thousands of notes, tumbled out from under his fingers and bow.

Sometimes Roger helped his Aunt Meghan with small chores, and he liked that. She was a tall, rounded woman with milky skin and brilliantly red hair. She was soft, pillowy and talkative, unlike his mother and his uncle, who were tall but dark, large-boned and thin, silent people. Uncle Dan said it was because she came from a family of ten brothers and sisters. “You have to express yourself when there’s that many of you,” he said, “otherwise you might never get fed.” Meg wore lipstick and penciled in her eyebrows. Often they drove the ten miles or so into town, and Meg would take Roger out for a treat, she was especially fond of cherry cokes and Roger would get a root beer float with vanilla ice cream. Other days, Roger rode a tricycle around the parking area. When he got older, he had a bike that he rode down the asphalt road into the town, often to buy cooking supplies for his aunt. He would pack everything into a large red backpack and pedal home, after having spent an hour or so in the local comic book store. He could even bring comics home, something his mother would never allow.

In September, just before he returned to the city, to school and his anxious, overworked mother, Roger and Aunt Meghan would make “pudding.” It was something none of his friends at school in the city had heard of much less tasted, but plum pudding was one of the many things that showed his aunt was Canadian and different. Like the funny way she said “about”—as if it were “a boot.”

Making pudding began by dragging out all the containers, the enormous turkey pans, and big hand grinder that his aunt screwed onto the kitchen tabletop. And then they were off to the butcher to buy suet: “beef kidney suet,” his aunt admonished every year—only that would do. And pounds of apples and carrots, raisins and currants, a potato, but no plums or even figs. It was, thought Roger, strange, wonderfully strange. Why was it called plum pudding, if it wasn’t a pudding and it didn’t have any plums? That was part of its grand mystery, like the suet that came out of the grinder in long pale wormy looking strands and then disappeared into a mixture that when steamed and warm was sweet and dark, heavy with moisture, and nothing at all like chunks of suet.

Roger felt cold. He opened his eyes and saw that dusk had fallen in the park. He was alone on the park bench and he was hungry. The chill that the night brought had slowly submerged into his body. The sky above had turned orange and dusky. Walking across the park was a little man with tufted white hair. Roger recognized him as the man who fed the Cat. It was clear the little white-haired man recognized the Cat’s intelligence and paid him homage, as well he should—Cat, like XR137!, being from a superior alien race.

Hail, mortal! Bringer of food, worshipper of the Cat!

XR137! rose slowly from the bench, and shuffled in the man’s direction. Sometimes the little man with tufted white hair gave him money.

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