"There's aliens around these parts," said the old man, his lips moving invisibly behind the knotted curls of a yellowed beard, "an' they'll get'cha."
I stared up at him with eyes as wide as flying saucers. My feet wouldn't move, either because my curiosity was piqued or because some extraterrestrial force glued them to the floor. I wasn't sure. He bent down to put his face in mine to punctuate for his last statement. I supposed it was for dramatic effect, but I was distracted by the flake of dry bread tangled in his beard.
It was probably from last week's lunch of tuna sandwiches. I could smell it on his breath.
The old man straightened up. He looked like he was 10 feet tall. But beside him, I notice that Daddy was at least 12 feet. My dad put a hand on my shoulder and pulled me back to his side. He had a look on his face I couldn't distinguish, somewhere between amusement and concern.
My mother's look was familiar. She didn't want to be rude. She nodded her head and smiled with squinted eyes, perhaps to prevent the spit from splashing into them. And, so, the old man continued.
"'The damn pigs took all the evidence. But, I know it's true. I seen 'em 50 years ago. I was about your size."
This time, his punctuation mark was a rough poke to my stomach. My dad pulled me closer. I wondered if I was still small enough to inconspicuously slide through the gap in his legs.
The old man leaned against the counter at the soda bar, looking pleased by his captive audience. He lit a cigarette in preparation for story time.
"Fifty years ago, a UFO crashed right over there," he said, thrusting his finger toward one of a million sand dunes in Roswell, New Mexico. "The police took the evidence, and the aliens took me."
I gazed at him intently. He certainly didn't look like anything from this world. I was convinced.
"Time to go home," said my dad, steering me gently by the shoulders. But now, I was enraptured by the story and needed to hear the ending.
"Daddy, is it true?" I asked, whispering as softly as possible so the aliens wouldn't know I'd arrived.
"Of course not," he said abruptly.
We walked out the door of the seemingly innocent soda shop and into alien territory. Our weekend day-trips had changed drastically since our recent relocation from an Atlanta suburb to Albuquerque, New Mexico. We used to go to Six Flags.
Back home, the garage door lifted slowly to reveal the name of our new home, "Casa de Chaos," painted on the driveway in peeling white paint. I was now a safe distance from the alien man, two miles south, and glad to return home. The house was my new source of endless discoveries.
It was in the nicest area of the city, and was the former summer home of child actor and director Jimmy Lydon. The huge house seemed even bigger given my small stature. I walked into the great room to feel the cool brick floor beneath my bare toes.
The entire west wall was not made of wood, but of windows. Two saguaro cacti reach 10 feet into the sky from their pots, accenting the landscape of the Sandia mountains, named for their watermelon color at sunset.
I walked outside and grimaced as a snail crumbled into a puddle of seering flesh below my heal. On the sidewalk beside the late snail was a painting of a fried egg. Five feet further, a painted mouse was forever embalmed in its fictional death. The predator, painted on the white adobe wall on the left, was a cat who had already moved on to better things. He was eyeing a parrot in a birdcage, and held a red feather in its mouth. Jimmy Lydon moved to California, but his eccentricities remained at the Casa de Chaos.
Further down the adobe wall was my parent's bedroom window. A bullet hole in the glass was evidence of another story I never heard the end of, and this time, I was glad I never heard the beginning either.
The nicest areas in Albuquerque were more dangerous than the ghetto in Atlanta. Our next-door neighbors on either side were robbed by gangs. Several times, I was awakened by the crack of gunshots. From my room, I often heard my mother asking my dad to go up and make sure everything was O.K. Once, I didn't hear his returning footsteps for hours. I thought someone shot him, or perhaps aliens abducted him.
He would walk through the enormous great room and into the front room, just off the street, to look out the window and make sure we were safe. I wasn't allowed to sleep in that front room because it was too close to the street. I was happy to oblige by that rule, even when it meant sharing a room with my infant brother.
I was more terrified of that room than I was of the alien man or the gunshots. Every time I stepped foot inside of it, I felt a cold chill. I was sure that I felt something watching me from the ceiling vent. Once, my friend and I sneaked into the room at night to test our bravery.
I didn't sleep. My friend fell asleep briefly with her eyes wide open and I thought she was dead. I never went back to the room at night.
Years later, I was told a doctor committed suicide in that front room many years ago. Maybe it was only a coincidence. Maybe not.
My greatest comfort was the month of monsoons. I grew to love thunderstorms in Atlanta, and the dry heat of New Mexico seemed endless. Finally, in August, the sky cracked open from the weight of one year's worth of rain. It came down like a waterfall. The clouds that dammed up the water so effectively finally gave in. I heard the familiar crack of thunder, which felt so friendly compared to the crack of gunshots. No one dared go outside but me.
I missed catching raindrops on my tongue, and I wanted to see what it was like to catch a river in my mouth. My mom said that I just wanted to see what was meant by the phrase, "You look like a drowned rat." The rain was so powerful that it nearly knocked me down. I was giggling loudly but I could not hear myself over the torrents.
And suddenly, it was over, never to return until the following August. Soon, and just as suddenly, we were gone, too. We were off to another state and new adventures, far from the alien man, gunshots, monsoons and images of predatory painted cats.