Mr. Chips and the Mango-Tango Mother Ship
Marylou was breaking it off with the human race once and for all, leaving the whole miserable lot for good, and this time for real. The whole thing had been a mistake from the start, an ill-conceived exploratory mission to gather data about evolutionary dead ends. High time had come to drive out to the desert, where she’d been deposited so many years ago—thirty-five, not that there was any point in counting, since no one had ever given a cold crap about her birthday or bothered to determine its exact date—to meet the Mother Ship and shake off the dust of this wreck of a planet. She’d already loaded her ’96 Buick Century with her go-bag and a variety of human cultural artifacts (including the Twilight series in paperback and a collection of scratched CDs by the Go-Go’s and Philip Glass), all the while nursing hopes that no well-meaning friend or distraught lover or stymied therapist would ever again tell her (because she’d heard it all before) that she was talking too fast, drinking and smoking too much, fucking too many strangers, driving too recklessly and laughing too loudly at the wrong time and basically, if you wanted to get to the heart of it, feeling too goddamn much when she wasn’t feeling anything at all. Her brain hurt, really, when she even thought about it.
She’d left her so-called husband on the couch, watching a Super Bowl half-time performance by some kinky little biped in spandex tights. He’d had his head so far buried in televised tits that he hadn’t noticed her going in and out of the house to load the car during the second quarter, taking breaks only to peek into the living room for an occasional glimpse of Aaron Rodgers, the only human being (certainly the only NFL quarterback) worth half a rat’s turd, from what she could tell. The miserable specimen didn’t even look up when she said she was going out to get some cigarettes. It served the son-of-a-bitch right to make his own damn supper, or at least reheat last night’s leftover tuna casserole and then spend the rest of his allotted lifespan drinking beer with his knuckle-dragging buddies (nothing against apes, who seemed cognitively advanced, relative to humans, and until sexual maturity, quite congenial). Served him right to be shit-out-of-luck in the relationship department. The human race didn’t need the likes of him reproducing, anyway.
She stood beside the Century with Mr. Chips dangling from her left hand by the scruff of his neck, mewling like nobody’s business and scratching her bare thighs with his ragged claws. Mr. Chips sensed big things afoot, and he tended to be a skittish cat just anyway, probably from putting up with years of that no-account asshole’s nerve-fraying ruckus—the endless noise of everything from Arizona Cardinals’ games to Mad Men reruns to Metallica’s Death Magnetic to X-rated video games that (he claimed) might get her in right mood if she’d just let go of the wrong one, whatever the hell that meant.
“We’re just like Noah taking off in his ark, Mr. Chips,” Marylou said, pushing the cat through an open window and into the Century. Mr. Chips peered over the edge of the seat, at a small fishbowl near the brake pedal. “I wanted to bring the best specimens home, sweetie, and only you and Lady Gaga made the cuts. No point overloading the car with two of everything from this ass-sucking clod of dirt.”
Mr. Chips leapt onto the dashboard and pressed himself into the angled space beneath the windshield. Marylou studied his muddy paws and the tufts of black hair at the base of his ears, blew him a kiss and took a step away from the car to kick a patch of rust at the bottom of the driver’s door.
“Only got one more trip ahead of us, you creaky piece of junk. Just got to get us beyond Gates Pass. Don’t let me down, now.” She slid into the driver’s seat and placed her feet on either side of the fishbowl. “Don’t you worry, Lady Gaga. I got it all under control. In an hour or so, we’re leaving this shit-can of a car in the desert and heading to Q System.”
Marylou turned the ignition key, listened to the engine struggle to life, and reached between her legs to tap the side of Lady Gaga’s bowl.
“You’ll be perking up once the Mother Ship gets escape velocity. Q System’s just north of the Big Dipper, and if you want, we’ll stop on our way home and let you take a swim in it. It’s one big floating fish bowl in outer space, Lady Gaga. You’re gonna have stars and planets to swim around instead of your dumb castle, Mr. Chips is gonna get some cosmic catnip, and we’re all gonna be happy for a change.”
Marylou trailed off and began shaking. She’d known for years (even if she’d been scared to admit it for too damn long) that the gig was up. Over the past few weeks, she’d been happy (too happy, her therapist would have said if Marylou had kept her last appointment) and relieved to have finally made the difficult decision to end her mission on Earth, but now exhaustion was clouding her thoughts and muting the elation she’d felt a half hour before, when she’d pulled her go-bag from the bedroom closet. She sat quietly for a moment, studying a portion of the dashboard melted weeks before by an ashtray fire. Beneath a ridge of blackened plastic, the check engine light glowed faintly.
The light had come on three months ago, the same day a burst of static interrupted an infomercial about a fat-burning vacuum cleaner and floated from the TV screen, assumed the shape of a snake and slithered into her brain. In terror, she’d sampled channels in rapid succession, trying to exorcise a steady hiss from her mind, and finally found refuge in the sight of Ellen DeGeneres interviewing Aaron Rodgers. She’d stood transfixed by Ellen’s gleaming white teeth and ruminating on her own unshakeable sense of estrangement until, in an inhuman act of mercy, Aaron Rodgers had dissolved into soft static, convinced her to r-e-l-a-x and whispered what she’d long suspected—that she was an alien stranded on Earth, a hyper-advanced being planted on a desolate rock to gather data about barely sentient bipeds. She’d turned the rabbit ears one way and another, measuring each oscillation of static until she knew without a doubt that she’d been born for a better life in a better body stroked by a better mate, and that her eyes were meant to behold velvety green skies illuminated by pumpkin-shaped moons.
For weeks, she’d taken long drives and trolled the radio waves for messages from the Mother Ship—each embedded in larger strings of information about Iraq and Mick Jagger, and on one occasion, two kangaroos that had escaped from a suburban backyard—and identified algorithms for confirming the content of each encoded transmission. She learned that the Mother Ship had delivered her in the shape of a human baby to the Saguaro National Forest; and that hours later, a middle-aged man who’d pulled off the road to take a leak had discovered her and (alarmed by her blistered stem-cell skin) dropped her off at a fire department. She heard, too, the soft blips of the Mother Ship returning to collect and carry her, exhausted, back to Q System—the soothing voice of a long-lost parent calling her home. Now that she was out of the house and away from her primary human subject, she could talk freely with Mr. Chips.
“She told me to abort the mission and come home, Mr. Chips. We’ve learned all we’re gonna learn about the human race. She told me to signal them when we get to that pull-off beyond Gates Pass. Supposed to turn the radio to the far end of the dial and let it sit for awhile and then go back and forth until they hear us.”
She looked, one last time, at the ranch house she’d foolishly called home for five years and felt a twinge of shame. To have failed at such a simple mission seemed a disgrace. She hadn’t learned a damn thing about human relationships except that they were nothing but institutionalized exercises in misery of the most eviscerating kind. The simple fact was that she’d never managed to blend in with humans in just about any kind of situation, and her unremitting alienation had exhausted her. Twice since seeing Aaron Rodgers on the Ellen Degeneres Show, she’d even turned her back on the Mother Ship and denied her extraterrestrial origins, despite overwhelming evidence that she didn’t (and couldn’t possibly) belong to the human race: the absent birth certificate, the invariably failed stints with successive foster families, repeated expulsions from even the worst of Arizona’s schools, her checkered employment history, drunken outbursts at weddings, and her indifference to things most others seemed to hold dear, from baptisms to baby showers to church raffles to mint chocolate Girl Scout cookies.
She listened to an ad for teeth-whitening gum and lit a cigarette. “Can’t say I didn’t try. Well, what happened on Earth stays on Earth. Just like Vegas, Mr. Chips. Time to scrape the shit from the bottom of our shoes, or I guess your paws. We’re going to a much better place.”
She rolled back into the street and turned the radio up loud. Mr. Chips folded back his ears and pressed against the windshield. She braked for a moment, stroked Mr. Chips and pushed the gas pedal to the floor. The car shuddered, bucked, backfired, nearly expired and then lurched around a corner. When the car settled into third gear, she blew a stream of cigarette smoke through her open window and began fishing cans of cat food from the go-bag.
“See, I thought of you, Mr. Chips,” she said, holding up a 39-cent can of chicken liver fiesta. “Might take you some time to get used to the chow in Q System, but you’ll have something to tide you over. Don’t you worry about me, Mr. Chips. I brought some of my own provisions to ease the transition back home.”
She slid a bottle of Popov from the go-bag, braced it between her scratched thighs and untwisted its cap. Mr. Chips sneezed and recoiled; Marylou cursed as the cap slipped from her grasp and fell into the fishbowl. She rested the fingers holding her cigarette on top of the steering wheel and reached down between her legs.
“Guess you wouldn’t like vodka in your bowl,” she said, pulling the cap from a fan of plastic coral. “Shame the stuff don’t agree with fish, because you’re missing out, Lady Gaga. Vodka’s about the only thing worth taking back to Q System.”
Marylou tossed the cap onto the street before a strip mall fronted by Food City, Factory 2-U, Family Dollar and an Eegee’s advertizing Mango Tango slushies on its scuffed marquee. She pulled a Glock from the go-bag and pointed it out the window. “Fuck you twice, Food City. This time you’re gonna feel the door on your ass on my way out.” She laughed and drew the gun back into the car, untangled her fingers from its trigger guard and slid it under the passenger seat. Mr. Chips crept to the edge of the dashboard and peered intently at Marylou. “Don’t you worry, Mr. Chips. I’m not crazy enough to get us arrested when we’re so close to getting the hell out of here.”
Past Westside Liquors, the lights of Tucson faded and the road began to rise. Marylou lifted the bottle of Popov to her lips, tilted her head back and then wedged the bottle between her thighs.
“You know he gave that gun more attention than he ever paid me.” She massaged the tips of Mr. Chips’ ears. “Oiling it up and talking to it like it was his girlfriend. Probably jizzin’ himself the whole time. Wait until the folks back home see the jerk-off’s little cap gun. He might not miss me, but he’s gonna cry like a baby when he finds that thing gone. Screw these humans six ways from Sunday if they’re all committed to killing themselves.”
Past the Desert Life Taxidermy Museum, the steering wheel vibrated and the engine whined and Marylou pressed the gas pedal to the floor to sustain a sense of lift at the top of a small incline. For a moment, the radio’s static slipped from her mind and she was alone with Mr. Chips, floating weightless over a dark valley. She felt the pleasant pull of gravity in her lower abdomen as the car descended into a gentle curve. The road straightened out, and her headlights spilled across a pale snake stretched across the road. Marylou pressed her flip flops against the brake pedal and her back against the seat; Mr. Chips extended his claws and dug into the dashboard; Lady Gaga angled her pelvic fins to counter the force of water sloshing over the side of her bowl; the Century skidded slightly onto the shoulder and came to a halt. When a cloud of dust dissipated, Marylou watched a rattlesnake inch across the road.
“That moron I called my husband would probably kill it, even though it isn’t hurting anyone. Just rattling along and minding its own business. Only difference between that snake and the man we just left is two feet and ten toes, and on the other side of the equation, the brain in that snake’s little head.”
Marylou extinguished her cigarette in the gum wrappers filling her ashtray, lit another cigarette, and when the snake’s tail disappeared into the roadside scrub, started towards Gates Pass, thinking the stars were closer than they’d ever been, and that if she touched the sky, she might feel something like satin. At a rise in the road, she looked down into the dark valley beyond Tucson.
“Down there is where we’re meeting the Mother Ship. Where they left me. Why they let me grow up in this place is beyond me, but everything will be explained to us on board. The Mother Ship moves in mysterious ways, Mr. Chips. Maybe I was supposed to save you from this trash heap, because this is no place for a cat to grow up. No country for old cats. They ought to make a movie about that.”
She rested her cigarette on a strip of melted plastic edging the ashtray and reached up beneath her shirt. “What kind of species has such uncomfortable breasts? Evolutionary advantages, my ass.” She twisted her shoulders and slid a lacy red bra through her shirtsleeve. “Won’t be needing this where we’re going,” she said, throwing the bra onto the road. “I gotta say, this body has been a load of bullshit, between cramps and cravings. Sex is the only good part, but even that leads to all sorts of problems no one’s got time for. You could spend your whole life in a doctor’s office, getting shots and IUD’s put in and having people want to tie your tubes, saying it’s for your own good. It would be the vet’s for you, so be glad they stole your nuts at the pound before you had time to think about it.”
She took several small bottles from her go-bag. “Might as well ditch the meds while we’re cleaning house, Mr. Chips. These humans have a diagnosis for everything that’s any fun. Having sex. Drinking. Smoking. Staying up late.” She pulled her cigarette from the edge of the ashtray and pressed it into the corner of her mouth. “Thought I’d bring some samples of these goddamn pills back to the Mother Ship, but there’s no point in killing a good buzz in Q System.” She tossed the bottles onto the road, glanced once at the rear-view mirror and descended into the valley. “Damn meds took the life out of everything, including the old vajayjay, but maybe we can blame the ex-husband for that.”
When the road leveled, she coasted onto a small gravel pull-off and killed the engine, leaving the radio tuned to static on the far right end of the dial. She contemplated a swathe of stars at the edge of the Milky Way and listened to coyotes yipping in the distance. After a moment, she took a swig of Popov and drew a pouch of catnip from the go-bag.
“Have your last pinch, Mr. Chips. Trust me, baby, you’re not gonna need this stuff to feel good where we’re going. The Mother Ship connection’s gonna hook you up with something sweet. And you’ll be the only cat in the galaxy. Everyone’s gonna buy you fancy collars and all sorts of toys and drive you around the solar system in a winged limousine.”
Mr. Chips slid his front paws down the glove compartment and lowered himself onto the passenger seat to root around in a small pile of dried leaves and stems. After a moment, he began kneading the seat cushions and chewing on the frayed hems of Marylou’s denim shorts. Marylou hummed along to static and studied the sky.
Several minutes passed before hard white light filled the rearview mirror. Marylou gripped her Popov bottle and leaned forward. “This is it, Mr. Chips. I’m going home. This is the end of those cum-guzzling hypocrites in Food City calling me white trash and charging too much for cat food made out of horse guts. It’s only the best for us, after this.”
As she finished speaking, a car rounded a bend in the road and passed the pull-off. Marylou leaned back in her seat and stroked Mr. Chips between his shoulder blades until he collapsed beside her thigh. “Thought it was the Mother Ship.” She lifted Lady Gaga’s bowl from the floor and placed it beside Mr. Chips. “It won’t be long,” she said. “I want us all to be ready.”
Four hours later, Mr. Chips crawled into the foot well in front of the passenger seat and started pawing the carpet. Marylou tugged a strand of hair falling loose from her ponytail.
“Whole damn desert’s one big litter box, but I can’t let you out, Mr. Chips. Too many things out there like to eat cats. All kinds of snakes, the two-legged and no-legged kind, and coyotes and javelinas who’d snap you up for a snack. You hang in there, Mr. Chips, because we’ll be leaving soon. On the Mother Ship, they got litter boxes filled with diamonds and rubies. You’ll be shitting shrimp and pissing pure cream.”
When dome light began to dim, Marylou scanned the dial and listened to bits of news about football scores and wars in far away places, a celebrity psychiatrist analyzing a sex scandal involving three politicians and a pro tennis player, and Bruce Springsteen singing about the Magic Rat driving his sleek machine and a girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge and the two of them taking a stab at romance. Two military transports passed overhead, and she decided that air traffic was making it hard for the Mother Ship to detect her signals, faint static transmissions now buried in broadcast chatter. She looked at the vodka left in her bottle, the slow rise and fall of Mr. Chips’ chest, the flecks of catnip floating in the fish bowl, and Lady Gaga turning in slow circles around a tiny castle.
“If the Mother Ship isn’t coming for us, Mr. Chips. I’m sure as hell not going back to the way we lived. Maybe you and Lady Gaga and me ought to chuck it all in. Cash our chips at this crazy casino. Never figured out how to get along with anyone, and there’s no two ways around the fact this mission failed. Wasn’t more than a few minutes of it that made any sense, and I don’t think there’s any hope of figuring the shit out at this point.”
She slid the gun from beneath the seat and cradled it in her lap. “In the hospital, some of the ladies used to say having babies gave meaning to life. Fact is, Mr. Chips, I didn’t want a baby. Wouldn’t know what to do with one. Don’t even know what kind of parts I have inside of me. Alien parts, maybe.” She trailed her fingers along Mr. Chips’ hind legs. He stretched his back, splayed his paws and curled back into himself. “I can hardly think straight enough to take care of you and Lady Gaga half the time, between the football blaring and the shit-bag neighbors mowing their grass and leaf blowing and raising hell in their pool. Forget a howling baby. There’s no place for one more in this world.”
She held the gun to Mr. Chips’ head, stroking him behind the ears with one hand and trailing the muzzle beneath his chin with the other. She’d kill Lady Gaga right in her bowl, even if it caused a big mess. Dumping her onto the gravel beside the car and letting her flop around while she drowned in the Earth’s shit-awful atmosphere would be cruel. It would be the human thing to do. As for herself, she’d pop herself the same way she popped Mr. Chips, sending one bullet straight through the static and into the center of her brain.
“The Mother Ship doesn’t care about us,” she whispered. She lifted the gun to her lips to feel the touch of cool metal on her skin. “It’ll be quick, Mr. Chips. Death. That’s one thing that comes quick, at least quicker than anything else, from what I can tell from all that shit on TV.”
She lowered the gun, and with her finger still curled around its trigger, scanned the radio dial until she found Bruce Springsteen’s voice again. Mr. Chips rose on his two front legs and yawned.
Marylou felt around on the seat until she found her lighter. “It would’ve been nice to think there was at least one of them, one person that would have been nice to you. I think Bruce Springsteen would have understood us, Mr. Chips, but who the hell really knows, since we never met the guy. He just makes sense more than most of them.”
She hummed along with Bruce Springsteen, now singing about parking lot visionaries and backstreet girls listening to records and two hearts beating through a night so tender, and she remembered downing shots and popping pills and fucking in the back seats of countless rusted cars, each with the same failing brakes and the same damn check engine light on their dashboards, feeling alive and defiant for at least a few fleeting instants before sadness flooded everything and some stranger’s sweat dried on her skin; driving as fast as she could around mountain bends because, everyone said, she was around the bend just anyway; singing as loud as she could while the wind whipped through her hair; tripping and falling without feeling any pain until someone pointed to the blood seeping from some new wound; laughing it all away and listening to loud music to drown out the sound of jets tearing apart the sky and leaving vapor trails across the face of the moon.
“Screw it, Mr. Chips. We’re not going out like this. That song wasn’t long enough, and we’re going to have to wait and listen until we hear it again, and anyway, it isn’t right to check out without having ourselves one last fling. Having a decent drink instead of sucking piss straight out of this bottle.” She sprinkled some catnip onto the passenger seat, placed Lady Gaga back on the floor and turned the ignition key. “Mr. Chips, I just can’t leave this shithole without having proper sex one last time, a roll in the proverbial hay with someone other than that jackass on the couch, if only so this mission won’t be a complete waste. It’s only right, and if that don’t matter, it’s what Mr. Springsteen would want us to do.”
It was nearly midnight when she parked in a corner of Eegee’s parking lot and propped a heavily laced Mango Tango slushie on her knee.
“Best delivery system for vodka I ever found, in case you’re wondering Mr. Chips. Humans don’t know much, but they know how to get messed-up pretty good, so I guess I did learn something from all of them.”
She sat with her elbow on the door, humming to the memory of Bruce Springsteen’s Jungleland and looking up at the sky, imagining the Mother Ship moving above the dome of haze obscuring the stars. Mr. Chips sat in the passenger seat, nibbling the edge of a hamburger patty. Lady Gaga, elevated to the dashboard, hung above her castle, fanning the water with her gills and fins to maintain her suspended state. Marylou was studying the streetlight passing between the spines of Lady Gaga’s translucent fins when a rusted red pickup backed into a nearby space. She lit a cigarette and watched a sinewy young man in oil-stained jeans step down from the truck’s cab. When he turned around, she didn’t turn away.
“Say, can I bum a smoke from you? I can give you a quarter, if that’s cool,” he said.
She imagined the color of his eyes and the feel of his hands smoothing over the scratches on her thighs. She waved away a quarter and started fishing around in her purse.
“They’re just Pall Malls. Trying not to spend all my money on the things.”
“No need to apologize. I don’t got any, so I ain’t got nothing on you.” He brushed Marylou’s fingers as he accepted her cigarette. He took a few steps away from the car and turned back around.
“Sorry to keep bothering you, but you got a light?” She held out her lighter, and he bent down and eyed Mr. Chips and Lady Gaga. “Got a pet store on wheels.”
“That’s Lady Gaga. And that’s Mr. Chips. He’s not really a pet. He’s more than that.”
“I get you. I used to have a dog named Jordie. Died last year. I think about him every day.” The man blew a line of smoke into the air and drummed his fingertips softly on the roof of the Century. “Cared about him more than I care about most people. Life is strange that way.”
“Mr. Chips and I are in it together,” Marylou said. “Wherever we are. To the end.”
Mr. Chips leapt on the dashboard, and the man rubbed his thumb and fingertips together to draw his attention.
“He isn’t gonna take off if he comes near the window, is he?”
“He’d never run off on me.”
“Smart little guy.” The man leaned through the open window and rubbed Mr. Chips behind the ears. “How’s that Mango Tango? Maybe it’s none of my business, but I was wondering if maybe you were out partying.”
“You a cop or something?”
“I ain’t no cop.”
“Then maybe I have been.”
“You ain’t the only one. You have fun tonight?”
“Not so much. I didn’t get to a party on time. There was no one there when I showed up.”
“Doesn’t sound like it was much of a party to begin with.”
She shrugged. “Mr. Chips likes you.” She leaned forward to brush her lips against Mr. Chips’ whiskers. “He might be right about the party, baby,” she whispered into a tuft of soft fur.
“You always take him to parties?”
“Didn’t want to leave him alone tonight.” She leaned back in her seat and watched the man’s index finger moving back and forth along Mr. Chip’s upturned chin. “Just moved out of my place, and there’s no way I was leaving him behind.”
For a moment, they pet Mr. Chips in silence and smoked. For a moment, Marylou felt at peace.
“If you and Mr. Chips aren’t going anywhere right now, I can get myself some Mango Tango. We could just chill a bit. If you smoke, I got some weed.”
“Mr. Chips has some weed, too.” She stroked Mr. Chips’ tail. “Hydroponic organic catnip. Actually, it’s just regular catnip. Can’t afford the good stuff, but we will someday.”
The man ground his cigarette on the pavement. “You or Mr. Chips or Lady Gaga need anything?”
She shook her head and watched him walk into the hard orange and yellow light filling the space between Eegee’s entrance and scuffed marquee. Marylou looked up towards the sky and imagined strange constellations and floating pumpkins and the Mother Ship hovering above, watching her every move and placing, in her path, all she needed to make the duration of her mission more tolerable; she imagined that she’d just experienced something some humans liked to call grace.
“He seems pretty decent for a human, and he’s sure as shit better looking than the last one. Maybe we still got some work left to do here before the Mother Ship comes, and it is going to come, because she didn’t forget about us. I can feel it, Mr. Chips.”
She stroked the side of Mr. Chips’ face and felt the presence of the Mother Ship moving across a plain black sky, static electricity between her thighs and a hint of moisture in the night air; she felt a strange hope that the man wouldn’t tell her, at least right away, that she was talking too fast or drinking and smoking too much or laughing too loudly at the wrong time or, if you wanted to get right to the pounding heart of it all, feeling too goddamn much for any one person stranded on a dying planet.
“Mr. Chips and the Mango-Tango Mother Ship” originally appeared in 34th Parallel Magazine.