Joyland

Los Angeles |

Neon Green

by Margaret Wappler

Excerpted from Margaret Wappler’s debut novel Neon Green, now available to buy from Unnamed Press here. It's the summer of 1994 in suburban Chicago: Forrest Gump is still in theaters, teens are reeling from the recent death of Kurt Cobain, and you can enter a sweepstakes for a spaceship from Jupiter to land in your backyard. When a flying saucer lands in the Allens' backyard, family patriarch and environmental activist Ernest is up in arms. According to the company facilitating the visits, the spaceship is 100 percent non-toxic, and the green sludge it occasionally dumps in their backyard is totally biodegradable. As Ernest's panic increases, so do his questions.

*

Ernest found himself standing next to Marilyn, his reporter friend who picked through a plate of cold hors d’oeuvres as the neon lights repeatedly raked over the grass, making it look as fake as Astroturf. They were outside, with everyone else at the party, watching the spaceship for sport. She had arrived late and by herself, wearing a pencil skirt and blouse that suggested she’d type a news story in the corner later. Ernest offered to warm something up for her but she waved him off.

“Your husband couldn’t make it?”

“He’s not into parties,” Marilyn said.

“Well, let me reintroduce you to the ship. Now, the ship’s kind of like a newborn baby or falling in love. It slaps you back into life and it also drives you insane.” Ernest checked Marilyn for a reaction. Marilyn cracked a smile. “Is it at least sleep-trained?”

Her smile stirred a simple and childlike feeling in Ernest—encouragement. She emanated serious vibes, as ever, but that only made Ernest want to drive her into laughter all the more.

“Not even close. As you can see, it’s getting ready to launch into its nightly show. You can think of it as the witching hour.”

“Uh-oh, maybe we should go back to the falling in love idea. Sounds more fun!”

“That’s what everyone thinks in the beginning.”

A hint of sparkle in Marilyn’s eyes—he’d take it.

From a few yards away, Ernest’s wife Cynthia caught his jovial tone and wondered what had jacked up his spirits. Suddenly, the unabated crank was showing off the spaceship to the reporter lady with almost as much lavish enthusiasm as their son Gabe. She heard him say, “All things considered, it’s pretty entertaining.” Oh, really? Since when? Cynthia walked over just as Ernest was saying, “And here’s the hatch where the space-poop comes out,” which made her snicker, because clearly Ernest wasn’t pacing himself. (Ernest and his best friend Tom, they egged each other on with the drinking, and Ernest usually came out on the losing end.) But as she shook hands with Marilyn—and she was attractive in the glamorously manly way of a 1970s tennis star—she felt better. Ernest threw his arm around her and cajoled Cynthia into telling the story of how it landed. For all his crabbiness, Ernest always loved parties, loved telling stories, and maybe he’d finally embraced the spaceship as another tale to spin. After a minute of painting the landing scene for Marilyn, who listened intently and marveled in all the right spots, Cynthia floated back to the rest of the party, almost convinced that Ernest was coming around on the spaceship. Maybe he just needed someone cool to care about it first. Or maybe, feeling a subtle wave of nausea run into the pit of her stomach, she was the one not pacing herself.

Marilyn continued: “So I looked into those government regulations you mentioned, Ernest, but there’s not much to tell. The spaceships aren’t allowed to make or disperse anything that hasn’t been tested and approved by the FDA or EPA.”

“That was more than I could find out,” Ernest said, chugging the last portion of a beer. “Guess it takes a reporter to properly dig. What were your methods, may I ask?”

“I made a few phone calls to New World, but I also researched it on the Net.”

“The Net?”

“You know, the Internet,” she said.

“I’m not really up on all that.”

Ernest’s colleague Ross, who had been hovering nearby, stepped into their conversation. “Are you guys talking about the World Wide Web?”

“Otherwise known as the information superhighway? Yes,” Marilyn said.

“Is it really all that?” Ernest said. “I thought it was a bunch of half-empty chat rooms. Not that I totally understand what a chat room is.”

“It’s pretty amazing. Once you get past the half-empty chat rooms.”

“I’m not ready for endless amounts of information at my fingertips.”

“Well, it’s coming for you whether you like it or not,” Ross said. “Wouldn’t be a bad idea to make a web page for our Earth Day party.”

“Feels like a robot invasion,” Ernest said. “No, thanks.”

“It’s not robots at all,” Marilyn said. “It’s us. Whoever’s on there.”

A collective restlessness took over the party, as its guests milled on the grass, surveying the visitor. Tom started to circle the spaceship, spilling some of his beer into the grass as he looked up. “It’s a good-looking ship,” Tom said to Ernest. “It really is.”

“It doesn’t look a little cheap to you?” Ernest asked. “Like something used for a promotion on a used-car lot?”

“It’s an intergalactic visitor and you’re criticizing it for looking cheap? What, are you wearing Armani right now?”

Ernest rubbed his flannel sleeve. “It’s a few seasons old so you might not recognize it.”

“What’s the probability of them coming out?”

Marilyn answered for Ernest. “There’s never been a concrete report of a single one of them emerging from the ship. New World won’t even say how many aliens are typically in the ship.”

“Wait a minute,” Tom asked loudly after a minute of sizing up the spaceship, “did they say anything about luring them out?”

Tom sashayed up to the weeping willow tree and picked up a frond that had fallen. He quickly spun around and gave the ship a come hither stare, then pointed at it as if he were calling out a dancing partner. The party whooped in encouragement. He shimmied over to the spaceship and limboed until he was directly under the center. He held the frond in his hand and lightly whipped the ship’s belly, wiggling his fingers on his other hand to communicate some sort of perverse glee. Emboldened by the crowd’s laughter, he then shoved the frond between his teeth and danced, taking his hands and reaching up toward the underside; his hips writhed to some imaginary sound track of frenzied hand cymbals.

“All right, all right,” Ernest called out, feeling suddenly protective of the thing.

As if on cue, the ship pepped up. The green lights rolled and then pitched to the left and then the right. The party oohed and aahed and then took a few steps back. Tom hastily retracted his arms but stayed underneath the ship. Would there be more?

The party waited but the ship offered nothing. Tom tried to rev up the ship again. He slapped the bottom with his weeping willow frond and shimmied faster. Cynthia looked at Ernest and was glad to see him laughing, albeit nervously, the lines in his face looser. She moved close to him and grabbed his hand. He squeezed it, feeling the clamminess of her skin and then stealing a glance at her. She looked pale; red wine stained little dry fragments of her lips. Finally embarrassed by Tom’s overreaching need for attention, people turned away and started new conversation; Tom got the hint and stopped, but not before giving a little bow. Ernest pulled his hand away from Cynthia’s to applaud his friend (he was one of the few to clap).

As if he had been propping her up, she crumpled to the grass, folding into her dress, then lying in a fetal position on the ground. The crowd startled and stepped back. Marilyn made room for Tom’s wife Olivia, a nurse, to bound through.

Ernest dropped down next to his wife; her face was drained, her lips closer to the shade of the vein that was always lightly visible on her temple. Olivia knelt on the other side as Cynthia blinked awake.

“Stay down for now,” Olivia said, fingers pressed on Cynthia’s wrist, checking her pulse.

At the moment, Cynthia was uninterested in getting up anyway. But she couldn’t quite figure out how she’d gotten to the ground.