Below is a reading of Old Open by Alex Higley, narrated by the author. Tortoise Books, May, 2017. It’s really cool and so is Alex Higley so please listen and enjoy!
Aging widower Russ Lanaker knows he doesn’t know his neighbors–but when he finds out one of them was a witness to, and career expert on, the strange UFO phenomenon known as the Phoenix Lights, he realizes that’s a situation he’d like to change. What follows is an odyssey out of his air-conditioned comfort zone, through the sun-baked Arizona suburbs, and onto the franchise-lined (and not-so-great) American road.
“Alex Higley’s Old Open is an adventure and a riddle; a winding tale that’s equal parts Coen Brothers and Denis Johnson. A gruff, generous, insightful, very funny book, and I simply loved it.”
It is two in the morning on my Friday, which is Tuesday, and in the house across the street, lights are getting flipped off and on in a disoriented march towards darkness. I’m watching the scene from my window with a ginger ale. Fifty- five and I still can’t sleep. I’ve already had my allotment of three domestic light beers for the night and have switched to the other carbonated without regret. The home across the street belongs to, but is not occupied by, Terrell Presley. Standing in the middle of the street that separates our houses, in the rocky desert hills where we live, I asked him a while back one burning, ticking day if the light switches in his house were placed oddly, if there had been miswiring, because this stunted fluttering with the lights always happens with his renters, and he, not unkindly, ignored the question. The creasing around his eyes deepened and he half smiled beyond me, as if a person we both liked was arriving. I want to be able to elegantly ignore questions without malice or consequence. But I really was curious about the switches, all the lights blinking. I’ve never been in the house and can only guess at causation.
Terrell takes extravagant quarterly golf trips with men he’s known since boyhood. Men he grew up with just outside of Pittsburgh. Right now he’s in Scotland. Last year was Brazil, at a resort where mostly undressed women offered kebabs mid-course. He told me cryptically: “I did not partake.” Terrell has never been married, and in general, despite what these mildly salacious golf trip details might lead you to believe, is discreet.
I like Terrell because he is self-made and direct, even at his most opaque. He invented a surgical adhesive technology, sold it, and retired. He drives the same car he did pre- retirement, a pristine old Saab. He has always, until now, made a point to tell me a little about the person or people who will be renting, and reminds me to not hesitate to call the resort or him directly if there are any problems. I work from home, remotely doing IT consulting, and in all cases deal with his renters in a more concrete way than he ever does, even when I don’t meet them. Past renters have included an ancient couple from Ames, Iowa; a retired military chaplain; Terrell’s dim and gawking sister. He’d made sure to point out his sister was adopted. I’ve helped kill a snake, jump-started a car, and, by telephone, recommended restaurants, doctors, the most affordable liquor stores. I’ve been told my phone number is the only contact Terrell lists on the fridge. He knows I like to talk and don’t mind questions from strangers.
Terrell doesn’t seem interested to know my impressions of his renters. I usually open on his terms, asking, “Did the check clear?” But I wasn’t able to do this with his sister, feeling it would be an overstep, so I’d had conspicuously little to say. From my window I’d seen her once, charging angrily in sweatpants towards her truck. I couldn’t reconcile her seemingly plain yokel qualities with Terrell’s daily crispness. So on his return, I only asked why she drove such an enormous truck, a Ford F-350. He told me he didn’t know, but said, “Without the truck, would you have asked anything about her?” before heading back inside with his hands in his pockets. It occurred to me Terrell had bought his sister the truck. Maybe to give her some mystery. I have no proof.
Invariably, we have our talks in the middle of the cambered desert-worn street sloping between our two houses. The asphalt has been baked gray and is flecked by divots. We live north of Phoenix in Cave Creek, a place people travel to for their own golf vacations, which is the reason Terrell usually has no trouble filling the house in his absence. I’ve been told he could charge double his price. Our part of the desert is craggy and undulating. We have flat red peaks. Tan and pink bluffs, guajillo, Mexican Blue Palm, adobe houses tucked behind dog-leg driveways. I’ve found houses in Cave Creek to often be secretly opulent or secretly run-down. It’s not exactly that all the houses look the same from the street, but instead that their flatness and positioning give away nothing. Landscaping is camouflage here. Locals take pride in the brutality of the summers, but I say any weather great masses of people over age ninety choose to be alive in, is weaker than advertised. Or over age fifty, for that matter. Nothing like the Midwestern crush and tumult of winter, the sickening cold. And here, if things do get too bad, San Diego is a five-hour drive, Flagstaff only two. As far as the renters that stay in his house, Terrell doesn’t need the money, but something about his general practicality must prevent him from letting it sit empty when it could be generating profit.
I’m at the window watching his house, now steadily dark, considering what has changed between Terrell and me. I shift my weight standing, sciatica buzzing down through my ass into my deadened leg; daily, nightly, I’m crumbling. Sometimes more than others. He’d said Scotland, offered the information freely, and when I’d asked about renters, he’d told me there would be none. So who the fuck is over there?
I’ve slept late. It’s nearly ten. I call Terrell’s house, to see if the unregistered stranger will pick up—but the phone rings and rings. I walk into the kitchen to make breakfast. I put coffee on. I take out a non-stick skillet, spray it with olive oil, mix five eggs in a metal bowl, dump them in the skillet, now hot, and add a handful of shredded sharp cheddar cheese. I take out a can of black beans and microwave them in a Pyrex bowl. I take out tortillas from the fridge. I continue cooking the eggs as the coffeemaker sputters to completion. I have no idea how anyone makes scrambled eggs. I’ve been doing it this way for ten years now because I can’t remember how my wife did it. My phone rings. The caller ID reads: TERRELL PRESLEY-HOME.
I say, “Yes, hello, this is Russ.” “You just called?” A woman’s voice.
“Yes, I did. Terrell usually lets me know when he has a renter, so I was just calling to make sure everything is OK.”
“If I’m not supposed to be here, how would calling the house help?”
“I don’t know how to…are you supposed to be there?”
“Yeah. Terrell is supposed to be here too. I’m not renting. I’m a friend.”
“It’s pronounced ‘tehr-ull.’ Like feral.” What kind of friend would mispronounce his name? He’s a Terrell like Terrell Owens, not Terrell Davis.
“I’ve never said it out loud,” the stranger says.
I don’t know what to make of this. “Well, when does he get back from Scotland?”
The woman laughs. “I have no idea why he would have told you he was in Scotland. He’s in Taos. He was supposed to be back yesterday before I arrived, but there was trouble with the plane.”
I hang up with the woman and call Terrell. He answers on the first ring, and I ask if he knows there is a woman at his house. He says he knows, that everything is fine, and thank you, and that he should be back tomorrow. I can tell he’s ready to hang up, but before he does, I ask, “Why doesn’t she know how to pronounce your name?”
“I believe in the past she’s always said ‘Mr. Presley.’ Been in rooms with me where that was the norm.” And then he does hang up.
He didn’t sound surprised or annoyed. He sounded like he always does, calm and already mentally occupied with other concerns. I put the phone down, spend a few minutes finishing the eggs, and my doorbell rings.
Standing at my front door is a thick-eyebrowed woman in workout clothes. Behind her, on the street she crossed to reach my home, heat is rising off the asphalt in blurring waves. She’s wearing earbuds attached to a phone she has in an inside pocket of her open zip-up. Under the zip-up she is wearing a white sports bra. She’s young, maybe thirty, and seems unaffected by the heat. Her dark hair is in a ponytail.
“I figured if I introduced myself, you’d see everything is OK. I’m Terrell’s friend, Jordan.”
I step aside so she can come into the house, say “Sure, sure,” in sincere welcome, and we shake hands. Shaking hands with a beautiful woman usually makes me think of one of two scenarios: 1. If the handshake is strong, her father. 2. If the handshake is weak, her single working mother, and the apartment she’d had to herself, the thousands of hours of TV. I know this is fantasy, but, still, it remains. Jordan’s was strong. Her loving father might have had no hands for all I know. No arms. The thought passes. To aid my unvoiced apology for the suspicions I earlier perpetrated on the phone, I ask Jordan if she wants any eggs, she says, “Sure, please,” and I am more surprised by this than anything she has so far told me today. She is still wearing the headphones. The presence of another person in my kitchen makes me aware of its particulars: the size of the island suggesting a level of cooking I can’t fulfill, the still-hanging decorative copper roosters my wife loved, the dated brightness and comfortable femininity. Jordan sits at the island as if she was a regular customer. Her attention is not diverted by any interest in scrutinizing my home: she seems already familiar, or, possibly closer to the truth, unimpressed.
“Do you always keep those in?” I ask, pointing at my own ears. I’m standing against the cabinets in the corner of the kitchen, intent on appearing as non-threatening as I am.
“You’re the second person to say that to me today. Well, not quite. The guy at the grocery store asked me what I was listening to, and I lied to him. I told him, ‘Richard and Linda Thompson,’ thinking that would stop the conversation. I was wrong. The kid lit up. He went on about how he felt they ‘got in their own way a lot,’ but when they didn’t they were ‘really magic.’ He cited ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’ and a particular live version of ‘A Heart Needs a Home’ as evidence.”
I make a face at Jordan. I haven’t listened to or talked about Richard and Linda Thompson with anyone in twenty years, or longer. I shift on my feet because leaning against the counter is killing my back. By the way she was talking, even if she wasn’t listening to Richard and Linda Thompson, she is making it clear she is familiar with their work. She seems dressed the wrong way to be saying the things she’s saying, and too young, but this is a simple dumbass thought I try to get rid of. And I don’t really know what the grocer meant. “What were you listening to?” I ask, getting her eggs situated on a tortilla I’d microwaved, scooping black beans over top.
“Nothing. I walk around with headphones in so people won’t bother me, but it hasn’t been working since I got here.” She tells me she is from Toronto. She watches me construct her breakfast without comment, sarcastic or otherwise, which is touching, and she thanks me as I set the plate in front of her. She takes out her headphones, picks up the taco, and eats.
Her mouth full, I ask, “Why is Terrell in Taos?”
“A convention,” Jordan says, covering her mouth with her hand. “But I was unaware that you were unaware. Earlier, I mean.”
“Of what?” I ask, wanting her to say more.
“Of who Terrell is,” she says. “Of what he does.” She types something into her phone and holds it out to me.
Before I look, I say, “Does he know that you are going to tell me whatever you’re going to tell me?”
“He knows you know he’s in Taos,” Jordan says, shrugging. “I called him before I came over. And he said he was in Scotland for a few days, before Taos. He told me that.”
Terrell’s been gone five days. To and from Scotland is a full day of flying. It’s possible he was in Scotland before returning to the States, to Taos. But why?
I put on my cheaters and take the phone from Jordan. On the phone is a Wikipedia entry for “Phoenix Lights.” I look at Jordan. She is again mid-bite. The entry reads:
The Phoenix Lights (also identified as “Lights over Phoenix”) was a UFO sighting which occurred in Phoenix, Arizona, and Sonora, Mexico on Thursday, March 13, 1997. Lights of varying descriptions were reported by thousands of people between 19:30 and 22:30 MST, in a space of about 300 miles (480 km), from the Nevada line, through Phoenix, to the edge of Tucson. There were allegedly two distinct events involved in the incident: a triangular formation of lights seen to pass over the state, and a series of stationary lights seen in the Phoenix area. The United States Air Force later identified the second group of lights as flares dropped by A-10 Warthog aircraft that were on training exercises at the Barry Goldwater Range in southwest Arizona.
I’m not following. I hold out the phone for Jordan, who is looking through my cupboards for a mug. When I point to the right spot, she gets one and pours herself coffee. I ask her what the deal is, and she says, “Keep reading.”
I audibly huff, and she smiles and drinks her coffee. I’ve succeeded in being non-threatening, dad-like. I scroll past sections detailing the timeline of the events, the arrival of the first and second set of lights in Prescott, Dewey, and Phoenix. Scroll past a heading of “First Sighting in Phoenix,” and “Reappearance in 2007,” and “Reappearance in 2008.” I scroll until I reach a section of the entry titled “Photographic Evidence.” Details of the photographic evidence of the first event yield nothing of interest; I go to the second event, and jackpot:
During the Phoenix event, numerous still photographs and videotapes were made, distinctly showing a series of lights appearing at a regular interval, remaining illuminated for several moments and then going out. Terrell Presley, of Cave Creek, captured the most often reproduced of these images. Presley’s photographs were all taken from the upper level of a Phoenix parking garage near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. These images have been repeatedly aired by documentary television channels such as the Discovery Channel and the History Channel as part of their UFO documentary programming. […] The most frequently reproduced sequence shows what appears to be an arc of lights appearing one by one, then going out in the same fashion. UFO advocates claim that these images show that the lights were some form of “running light” or other aircraft illumination along the leading edge of a large craft — estimated to be as large as a mile (1.6 km) in diameter — hovering over the city of Phoenix. Thousands of witnesses throughout Arizona also reported a silent, mile-wide V or boomerang-shaped craft with varying numbers of huge orbs. A significant number of witnesses reported that the craft was silently gliding directly overhead at low altitude.
“He’s not golfing,” I say.
“He golfs. He just also gives talks. He was giving a talk in Taos. That’s probably what he was doing in Scotland. There are UFO conventions all over the world. That’s where I met Mr. Presley. At a talk he gave in Toronto a year ago.”
A year ago. I’m trying to remember where Terrell told me he’d gone, but I can’t remember. He could’ve said Canada.
The Phoenix Lights would have happened three months after my wife and I moved to Arizona from Chicago. 1997. Eighteen years ago. I was thirty-seven and she was thirty-nine, no kids, no dog. I was still looking for a new job. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be another two anxious months of unemployment. She was working all sorts of shifts at the hospital, crazy hours, hours she didn’t need to work, to prove to her staff she was one of them, and had arrived to stay. They learned quickly the kind of woman she was. I still get cards from these women on her birthday, on my birthday, on days less readily marked. Undoubtedly she was working the night these alien lights hung in the sky, the night Terrell was on the top level of a parking garage taking pictures. Why was he up there? Was he some kind of photographer? Is the answer he was up there because he had the time? I don’t know if he’d sold his adhesive patent by then or not. I don’t know what his nights were filled with. Certain types of people don’t see UFOs would be my guess: people who are paycheck-to- paycheck, people with three kids, sick people, people with tangible worries and jobs. But this could be wrong. Maybe witnesses to these events span demographics, maybe because they actually happen.
We had an apartment on the fourth floor, and on her days off we’d sit in shorts on our little deck and watch the sunset, ask each other, “Would you move back to Chicago if you could?” And we’d both say, “No, I wouldn’t. I like it here.” Neither of us believed the other completely. We’d left all our friends and moved to a new state where the people were different, more private, and we’d found we were more unwilling to make new friends than we realized. We liked people, both of us; we liked people we didn’t know, we liked waiters and pharmacists and kids on airplanes. I mean, we hated all these people too, but I’m just saying we were not wary of everyone unknown to us. We were open, just less open than we’d realized before we’d moved, but we became happier clinging to each other, married in a way we never knew we could be.
I vaguely remember reading about the Phoenix Lights in the paper. Front page news. But I didn’t care about the event. Not in the slightest. I felt this way, feel this way, because of course there are aliens. Even if the lights aren’t extraterrestrial, if the reality is that the lights were some military happening, of course there is still something out there. The specifics aren’t important to me until the manifestation of alien life appearing on our planet moves past this speculative era. The difference for me is that life is enough. Normal routine nothing is enough. I’m interested in maps and pop music and recycling. Slow movies and the rainforest. Ocean fish that pulse glowing at pitch-black depths. And baseball. Tintypes of my forebears. Helmets from the Han dynasty or pre- merger football. The house across the street. My thinking is, aren’t we enough? Huddling together in hotel ballrooms and convention centers to affirm the actuality of an event past seems a waste. There’s actuality happening right now. In abundance. But I could be missing the point.
Terrell and I didn’t speak until after my wife died. We’d wave to him as we were building this house in Cave Creek, and he’d wave back, but we didn’t engage in any conversations in the middle of the street or elsewhere. My wife said at the time that Terrell looked like William Faulkner, then she said Howard Hughes, or a short actor playing Howard Hughes in a community theater production.
“A production of what?” I remember asking.
“Melvin and Howard,” she said, to please me. She knew that the idea of the Demme movie done onstage would make me grin. We’d seen All the President’s Men at a ten-year anniversary release in ’86, on our first date in Rogers Park near the Loyola campus at a theater long since gone, and Robards had remained something like our patron saint ever since. We’d met at Loyola, in an English class, a minor for both of us. I’d said this to Terrell early on, told him my wife had thought he looked like Faulkner, and he’d squinted his small eyes and said he’d never been told that. I think he started telling me about his renters because during that first talk after we were caught checking the mail at the same time, he needed something to say to the widower. To me.
Jordan is washing her own plate and mug, and I’m letting her do so without protest. She finishes, makes eye contact with me, and then looks away, meaning she is going to be heading out. I walk her to the door and she steps outside, turning to me and saying, “When Terrell gets back you should come over for drinks, the three of us.” Whatever she knows about Terrell is very different than what I know of him, so although I say in my head, “That will never happen,” maybe it will. It occurs to me to say, “Today is my Friday, so tomorrow could still work,” but then I’d have to explain that for the past several years, since beginning remote consulting, I’ve reinstated the work schedule of my youth in retail. Friday to Tuesday. It made sense to return to the schedule I knew before married life, to shopping in empty grocery stores midweek. For my life to lack any family rhythm. I say, “Sure, you bet,” about potentially drinking together and give her an earnest thumbs-up before she begins back across the street. She takes four steps—I know because I’m watching her walk away too closely, I’m human—before I say: “Jordan.”
She stops and faces me.
“What’s the big fucking secret?” I ask. “Why wouldn’t Terrell just tell me where he was going? What he was doing?”
“Maybe he was afraid things would change,” she says. “Or maybe he thought you already knew.”
And I have to remind myself she doesn’t know the state of our understanding of one another, how brief and situational our connections are. We speak in the middle of the street about people who will be staying at Terrell’s house a handful of times a year. I relay information about past renters. We wave. I do not ask Terrell personal questions; I respect the boundaries he maintains through his silence on topics he wishes to avoid. I try to make him laugh, and occasionally get a wry smile, which is just as satisfying. It’s possible that Jordan is right about Terrell being against a change in our situation. I can see how if Terrell likes being perceived as a person who keeps up with boyhood pals and takes them golfing around the world (in my previous understanding it was Terrell who paid for dinners and drinks and possibly even hotel rooms for these men) he would not want my perception dashed. Maybe he was able to see himself in the way I saw him because of our talks. Maybe he believes I know of his UFO talks and the golf and can hold those two facts in my head at once without ever speaking of the former. Maybe his understanding was that other people in town had told me of his Phoenix Lights fame and the reason our arrangement worked was because I chose to not ask him of it. Because what was there to say? What is there to say? You believe or you don’t, regardless of content. Maybe he knew me to be a believer, in general, and so any talk of inner self-definition and purpose was beside the point. The point was he’d found, in part, an equal. Maybe he wants me to be able to live inside my own created worlds, as I have done for him. I won’t be able to ask these questions of Terrell, not in a way that would give me the answers I want to know. And should I ask, I imagine he would raise his eyes to the horizon.
I’ve heard it said colloquially that the ability to communicate is unlimited if a certain openness is allowed by both parties; I believe this to be far from the truth. The amount of self- knowledge pre-supposed in a word like “openness” is vast. Our neighborly pattern feels irreparably altered.
Terrell’s back. After hearing his garage door motor, I perform my halting stagger to the window to see him and Jordan pull away in the Saab. This happens a few times, and I get no invite for drinks.
She leaves sometime after I’ve lost track of their comings and goings because an accounting program I helped design for an after-market golf cart accessory manufacturer in the Valley has gone awry. I have to videoconference with the same in- house tech guy for three days straight, giving him the language to calm his three bosses and an understanding of how to fix the books. I tell him at one point, when he is losing all patience with the tasks he sees stacked waiting in the days ahead, that we are talking about golf cart canopies and GPS systems to determine shot lengths for a leisure sport. This is not life-or-death. He is not calmed. He tells me, “It is my job to be worried.” I try and let his words stand for him by not responding, in order for him to be able to hear what he’s said and re-examine its content. But I don’t think this happens. I’m certain it doesn’t.