Coffee with Thurston—a Christmas Carol in June
by dm gillis
Thurston hadn’t been the same since the abduction. He and I had been in high school together, until grade nine when he was removed by social services and remained unseen until his eighteenth birthday. Now he sat at the same coffee shop table everyday reading conspiracy newsletters, while people bought him cups of coffee that he couldn’t afford. It was out of a sense of obligation that I occasionally sat next to him, mostly feigning to listen as he read in a whispery, card shuffle voice from his poorly photocopied sheets of intrigue, or retelling his story of visitation.
“Says here,” he said one June day, reading form a smeared sheet of paper, as I sat and placed a chocolate croissant in front of him, “that SETI has released previously classified files. The information contained proves the existence of at least seven advanced alien civilizations in our galaxy alone.”
This was new and, “Oh?” I said, guessing that SETI didn’t keep classified files, and realising that I’d just committed myself to a vertical conversation without a ceiling or a landing pad. I stirred my coffee and looked longingly at my unopened Raymond Chandler novel.
“I’ve known it all along,” said Thurston. He bit down and tore off a bite of the croissant, spraying flaky crumbs everywhere. “When they came it was on a Christmas Eve deep snow dark the cars huge shapeless lumps blue parked along the avenue beneath the mercury streetlamps they didn’t bother to knock.”
This was how he spoke, a fresh and crispy word salad, and I had an idea I knew what it might look like written on the page: a marathon mixture of exotic punctuation, misplaced sentence emphasis, fragments and run-ons, all of it advancing toward an abyss of post traumatic psychosis that lay in the centre of a shadowy flatland of memories that swirled like manhole steam beneath a dim lamppost. He was a man trying to be someone—anyone—in the absence of identity. I tried to keep up, but frequently failed.
Placing his ball cap on the table, he sat back to carry on, and I saw not for the first time his balding head with the mysterious tattoo, a thin blue prime number sequence, 2—3—5—7, looking like something done with a needle, India ink and a wad of toilet paper. It was done backward. At some past point, in a moment of unrestrained madness, he’d done it himself, in the mirror. He was about twenty-five years old.
“It was like Christmas card salvation,” he began again, “from the dead-industry rot of an abandoned city. You couldn’t tell a Chevy from a Ford it’d piled so high the snow that kept falling no wind it came down soft and smothering like the old country tales of forced asphyxiation and cannibalism my father told me at bedtime whenever he could until he disappeared one graveyard shift in a massive vat of boiling industrial kitchen waste and condemned animals cadavers at the reduction plant where he worked. What choice did they have they made him into soap. I think of him whenever I wash I say a small soapy prayer for him and the boozy carrion ashtray stink and the way he hid in a room down the hall and my mother mostly looking afraid.”
It might have been a stand-up routine, but it wasn’t.
“I think I’ll go,” I said, believing I deserved to be cut free. It was an old and well told story, and I’d made my offering of croissant at the altar of his insanity. My sins were forgiven.
Grabbing my arm too tightly as I rose, however, he pulled me back down and said, “Please don’t.”
The chair made a loud scraping noise when my ass hit the seat.
“That was the Christmas Eve they took my mother and sister,” said Thurston, “the grenade popping Christmas lights tearing the furniture to shreds my father already gone and a nightmare and now the last who I ever loved. They were taken up in a violet beam of light into the spaceship like 70s cable TV stacked lined resolution twenty-four hours a day of scifi reruns dense with code and insinuation. Cathode ray Coca-Cola war spelled backward like a belly wound. I’d been misinformed about aliens expressionless spacemen the egg-hatched big-brained animals with hovercraft hands and evangelical eyes. Hollywood had been wrong about them and I’d been betrayed by television.”
I said, “I’ve heard this part before, Thurston.”
Odd, though. He seemed desperate this time, to snatch up something skirting round the craggy terrain of his truth. “Did I ever tell you,” he said, “that I saw the spaceship fly away?” He asked the question with unusual succinctness. “That I watched the craft that ferried away what was left of my family? I remember its size and shape, the direction it took, its colour. I know the trajectory and speed, or speeds, latitudes and longitudes, but I won’t bore you.”
I cocked my head and looked him in the eye. He looked back with a strange and sustained candour. “You may have alluded to it,” I said.
Actually, he never had. He’d always refused to tell this part of the story, most of the coffee shop patrons accepting that all of his avoidance, peculiarities and befuddlements arose out of a dissociative disorder, his never wanting to relive those horrible moments. I wondered if I should be the one to hear it first.
“I looked out of the window,” he said, with a new clarity, “and watched it streak across the black Christmas sky.”
Then he paused as though he’d made a decision, and went on.
“It flew over the venting, mile-off yellow lighted reduction plant where the ghost of my father lurked like Nosferatu. Then it seemed to stop and set slowly like a star on the horizon, and I watched it disappear. It was finished with the fentanyl neighborhoods and foreign no-fly zones, the unceded land and occupied territories, the corporations and open-carry Christian fanatics. It was moving at light speed now, out of sight, having flown through the taint and tar of our slaughtered environment, and above the starving and the homeless where it had shone brightly, briefly and out of place, while all of us looked up at it like it was a star to wish upon. But it wasn’t. So, when the Dylan Thomas dawn came once more, the world just continued to fissure beneath the weight of its own disgrace, ensuring that One Christmas was so much like another, forever more.”
“You okay, Thurston?” I said. “You don’t sound like yourself. I mean you do, you really do, more than I’ve ever heard you sound like yourself before, but you really don’t.”
Leaning across the table then, he said, “They’re colonising us, get it? A centimetre a day, ten seconds a week. They throw us a trinket now and then like quantum physics, and while we kill each other trying to monetise it, they take more and more of what and who we are. That’s their plan, I guess. We didn’t invent the theft of land and culture, after all. But it’s never enough for them. They’re just like us; they always want more. So from time to time, when they go home to visit, they take a trophy, something extra, a sliver of what they’ve left behind in escrow. That was Rebecca and my mother.”
“Oh.” What else was there to say? “But why are you telling me this now, here in this crappy coffee shop, with your hat off so everyone can see that fucked up tattoo? Who’s ever going to believe you, looking the way you do? Why should I?”
“Yeah,” he said. “The tatty is a bit fucked up.”
“Well you just laid a burden on me, dude. So, answer my question.”
“I guess I trust you, that’s it. As far as believing me goes, you will because you’re a geek, an awkward white boy open to ideas in pursuit of any goddamn thing to believe in in this world other than the crap he sees on the internet.”
“There’s a lot of this shit on the internet,” I reminded him.
“Yeah, well I’m for real. You can still smell last night’s bottle of cooking wine on my breath.”
He was right, I could.
“And I’m telling you,” he said, “because sometimes it seems like that window I told you about—the one I looked out of that Christmas Eve—it gets a little more brittle every day. It’s all that’s stood between me and them all this time, and I can’t maintain my belief in this alias of mine forever. One day that window’s gonna bust, and you’ll find what’s left of me in a culvert.”
“I don’t believe it.”
He shrugged, and said, “So now someone else knows, and I guess I feel lighter for it. Maybe that puts you in the doghouse, but I don’t think so. You can just tell them, the retard didn’t say shit, if anyone asks.” He grinned, and took another bite of his croissant.
Maybe if it was a piece of fiction he wouldn’t have been there the next morning, but he was. No one had beamed Thurston up, or whacked him. His gauntness seemed a little greyer, though, and his thoughts appeared to have returned to their earlier disorganised state. His lips moved as he read his conspiracy sheets and sipped his charity cappuccino. But he looked up at me and winked as I passed him by with my Americano, out the door and on my way to work.