Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 40: "The Secret Testimony of Miserable Souls"

American Airlines pilot Jeff Trent: "I can't say a word. I'm muzzled by Army brass!"

Prefatory note: For the fortieth entry in this series, I have decided to do an article that is entirely self-indulgent. Rather than a review of a movie or book related to Ed Wood, it is a piece of original fiction inspired by his work. This idea goes back to November 2011 when I made a pitiful, abortive attempt to turn it into a full-length novel for NaNoWriMo, only to run smack dab into a nasty case of writer's block. But the idea never quite left me, so I thought I could turn it into a short story. Here, then, is that short story. It's written in sort of an exaggerated pulp style. This is more for myself than it is for you, but I hope you will enjoy it anyway.

"We'd like to know a little bit about you for our files.
We'd like to help you learn to help yourself.
Look around you. All you see are sympathetic eyes.
Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home."
-Simon and Garfunkel, "Mrs. Robinson" (1968)

"Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed:
 blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed."
-John 20:29 KJV

Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop.

Jeff knew that sound too well. That heavy, horsey stride was etched in his memory. Pretty soon, Old Nursey, with her bulletproof hair and battleship body, would enter his room, brandishing a metal serving tray with the usual contents: a pleated paper cup with three pills, two pink and one blue; a squat little glass of orange juice; one tangerine; a small plate with exactly three limp, triangular pieces of toast; and a copy of that day's San Fernando Gazette, folded neatly along its equator and then into thirds.

Jeff sat up in bed, awaiting her imminent arrival. Never a show of weakness, Jeff. Not for a second. She was just doing her job, he supposed, but Jeff disliked her anyway.  As he saw it, she was another obstacle standing between him and everything he wanted: Paula, his home, his job, his life.

A moment before Old Nursey even showed her face, Jeff could already detect that cloying, fruity perfume of hers, which intermingled uneasily with the sour, nostril-stinging smells of the hospital. And now here she was herself in the overgenerous flesh.

"Good morning, Mister Trent!" she said in that damnable sing-song voice of hers.

"That's Captain Trent," Jeff replied, testily.

 "My apologies, Captain." She smiled broadly but without warmth. Her eyes looked glassy and dead.

"Hmm," said Jeff by way of reply. It was important to be noncommittal with these  people.

If Old Nursey took umbrage at this, she didn't show it. With the precision of a true professional, she rested the tray on a dresser and went about her morning ministrations, checking this and that—first adjusting items around the room, then performing little tests on Jeff himself. She measured his pulse, took his blood pressure, and put the back of her hand to his forehead to see if he felt feverish. This little ritual had become automatic for both of them, so much so that they could carry on a conversation all the while.

"We missed you at breakfast this morning, Captain. We were very much hoping you would join the other pa... er, guests in the Common Room."

She'd slipped up and almost said what she really meant instead of what she was supposed to say. The word "guest" implied someone who dropped by the place of his own free will and could leave whenever he chose. Jeff was no more a "guest" here than Hess was at Spandau.

"I'll continue to take my meals in my room, thanks." His voice was measured and firm.

"If that's what you prefer."

"It is."

"But you do realize that for the sake of your long-term treatment here, it would be best to..."

"I know! Play the game! Follow the rules! Go along to get along! Is that the idea? That I should run around on the big wheel like an obedient little hamster?"

This time, Jeff had slipped up. That attitude didn't cut it in a place like this. Old Nursey—he now remembered her name was Violet —looked stricken. The miniature tirade hadn't gained him an inch of ground.

"Listen," he continued after pausing and noticeably softening his tone, "why don't you attend to the other... uh, guests, and I'll be along later for Remedial Finger Painting 101 or whatever it is they have planned for us later today. And I promise to play nice. Scout's honor." He made the Boy Scout salute he still remembered from his youth and gave Old Nursey the sly, flirtatious smile that had once won him Paula.

"We still have a little business to attend to," said the now-blushing Violet. Snapping back into her cheerfully professional default mode, the nurse brought the metal serving tray over from the dresser and set it upon the nightstand next to Jeff's bed. This task completed, she stood over her patient and watched him expectantly. Jeff knew the routine from here on out. He picked up the pleated paper cup and emptied its contents into his mouth. He then chased that with a slug of orange juice.

"Ahhhhhh!" exclaimed Jeff in the satisfied manner of a man who'd just quenched a nagging thirst after, say, mowing the lawn on a hot summer day. Old Nursey looked pleased. Wonder how pleased she'd be, thought Jeff, if she knew her precious patient had secreted the pills between his lower lip and gums?

After the orange juice had disappeared down his gullet, he deftly used his tongue to transfer the capsules to the hollow of his left cheek, where they would stay until Jeff, alone at last, found a toilet in which to dispose of them discreetly. This was a routine he had worked out over a number of weeks. It helped that Old Nursey, who wasn't really that old but just seemed that way because of her frumpy personality, was not terribly observant, anesthetized to her surroundings as she was. Flying on autopilot, Jeff thought, flashing back to his not-so-long-ago days working for American Airlines. Would he ever make it back there?

"I'll be back for your tray later," said Violet. "Don't forget, you have a consultation with Dr. Fineman scheduled for eleven o'clock. That's..." And here she checked the improbably dainty watch on her thick linebacker's wrist. "...Forty-five minutes. Let's try to be on time."

"Oh, I will be... Mother," Jeff retorted, punctuating the remark with a jovial chuckle to indicate that this was merely a conversational witticism and not a swipe. But it didn't matter either way. Old Nursey had already started clip-clopping her way out of the room and down the hall.

Jeff noticed, and not for the first time, that she hadn't so much glanced at the room's only other occupant. She never did.

This poor devil, who was likely in his sixties but looked at least 90, reminded Jeff of the old prospectors he'd seen in history books. A miner forty-niner, like in the song. He had a long, gaunt face accented by wildly bushy eyebrows and a scraggly, salt-and-pepper beard. His eyes, seemingly open all the time, were ringed with faint, purplish-grey circles. He looked liked he'd seen something awful and never gotten over it. Jeff had nicknamed him "Fred C. Dobbs," after the Bogart character. Fred didn't take his meals in the Common Room, nor did he participate in egg-decorating or basket-weaving alongside his fellow captives.

As near as the younger man could tell, Fred received nutrients through one tube and refunded the waste through another. Fred's preferred -- and, in fact, only -- activity in life was to lie on his side, his back facing his younger cohabitant, and stare at the room's featureless, sea-green plaster wall for hours at a stretch. The old man's standard expression was like that of a luckless pet owner who had once witnessed his poodle being run over by a moving truck and never recovered from the trauma. Once or twice, Jeff was sure that Fred had died, but the man would very occasionally moan or utter something that nearly sounded like an intelligible word. These vocalizations were both rare and doleful.

Old Nursey's duty roster did not include Fred. If there were maintenance to be performed on the forsaken man, Jeff noticed, it was carried out by several uniformed male orderlies, who were in and out of the room with the efficiency of a top-flight pit crew. Once or twice during Jeff's stay, he noticed that a couple of these fellows would wheel poor Fred away on a gurney, and he would be gone for a few hours. This was always, without fail, in the middle of the night, and Fred would be back in his rightful place -- if that nicety could be applied to this rotten situation -- by the time Jeff awoke a few hours later.

In all, the pilot was quite pleased with his elderly roommate. You could scarcely ask for someone quieter or better behaved. What's more, Fred was an ideal audience. When he was sure they were both quite alone, Jeff would tell him the whole, impossible-sounding story -- the flying saucers, the aliens, the ghouls. And never was there a hint of protest from Fred. No incredulity. No scoffing. No condescending remarks about how this was all in his head and that he should get over it and get on with his life. All in my head, my foot! thought Jeff, ruefully. He'd been there that night. He'd seen it all with his own two, perfectly-functional eyes. So had plenty of others. But where had they all gone? Why had they abandoned him?

Crimson? Crawdad?
Jeff picked up the newspaper and scanned it with his usual, methodical seriousness. This was a privilege for which he had fought and won, but now he wondered why he had even bothered. The Gazette was a sleepy, small-town rag that never contained anything the least bit useful, certainly nothing related to the events of that fateful evening in '57, the very things Jeff had witnessed first-hand.

Narrowing his eyes to slits, he inspected each column of text, looking for tell-tale phrases like "from outer space" or "risen from the grave." But they were absent from the paper today, just as they'd been absent every previous day and would be absent every succeeding day. If you wanted to read about how San Fernando's mayor had cut the ribbon at a newly-constructed bank or how local hurler "Sharpie" Kennicott had pitched a no-hitter for the local triple-A ball club, then the paper was just fine. Otherwise, it was a waste of printer's ink and a poor use of the typesetter's art.

The closest thing to an "expose" about the flying saucer affair that had appeared in the paper was some mumbo-jumbo from that gooney-bird psychic with the syndicated column. Jeff couldn't quite remember his name. It was Crimson or Crawdad or something like that. The fella had a platinum pompadour with a kiss curl in the middle of his forehead that looked like an upside-down question mark. Anyway, since his nonsense appeared in the same section of the newspaper where you could catch up on the latest adventures of Walt and Skeezix in Gasoline Alley, no one paid him much mind. Funnily, that old kook had gotten closer to the truth than anyone else in the mass media. Even a stopped watch is right twice a day, thought Jeff. Who else could have gotten away with saying that aliens had visited Earth and had even resurrected the dead, just to put a scare into us, and it was all a bid to prevent the human race from destroying the universe with our weapons technology? No reputable reporter could get that past an editor. Never in a million years. But this gooney-bird could say it.

How could such fantastic, history-changing events be covered up? Well, Uncle Sam could sure slather on the whitewash when he needed to. Jeff had been on the ship itself. Hell, he'd even punched one of those uninvited visitors right in the jaw. And he hadn't been alone that night either! That Army colonel and that police lieutenant had been right there with him. Both had since recanted their stories. Across the board, the military and law enforcement communities denied that any such alien invasion had ever taken place. The order had come from on high, and it applied to all, from the top brass to the rank-and-file.

So if you happened to interview Officer So-and-So or Private Such-and-Such, you'd always get the same answer... or the same set of non-answers, more accurately. Those strange floating objects spotted on both coasts? A mix of weather balloons and experimental military aircraft. Reports of bodies missing from graves? An unfortunate case of vandalism. And what about that small California border town, Loma Rosa, which had been all but wiped off the map in the course of just a few hours? A natural disaster, most likely the result of subterranean volcanic activity. Rest assured, citizens, that our best men were looking into the matter, and a full report would be forthcoming. In other words: Move along, folks. Nothing to see here. The whole thing turned Jeff's stomach.

The last year had been a tough one, he had to admit. It wasn't easy being the one domino who refused to topple over. But, then again, a formidable stubbornness was part of Jeff's character, informed both by his strict Southern Baptist upbringing and his experience in the military. For him to change his story now would be as contrary to nature as Newton getting that apple of his to fall upward. This was no longer a mere battle of wills. This was a test of a man's integrity. He had served four years in the Marine Corps during the "good war" and had seen some action in the Pacific Theater. The experience changed him permanently. When you shoot a Jap soldier right in his Jap guts and look him square in the eye as he bleeds to death right in front of you... well, that's the kind of thing that makes a man take inventory of his deeply-held beliefs. You take whichever ones you have left and put them in a strongbox where nobody can get at them. And when somebody tries to jimmy open that strongbox and monkey around with what's inside, you damned sure better give 'em hell.

The folks in charge of the military industrial complex said there were no such things as flying saucers or men from other worlds, and they were making Jeff sit in the corner with a dunce cap on his head like a misbehaving schoolboy until he was ready to say he was sorry in front of the whole class. But he hadn't done it yet. He held out for the sake of the 179,323,175 Americans who deserved to know the truth. Because of that, he was here in this strange and awful place. And it wasn't just the big things, like being away from Paula, which made it so bad. It was the little things, too. Like the food, for instance. Jeff thought back to the previous night's repast. He reckoned it was boiled fiberglass with a side order of sewer rat, with a glass of bilge water to wash it all down. Even hard-headed Jeff  was starting to see that the immovable object that was his heart would eventually succumb to the irresistible force of the pressure being placed upon him by the Powers that Be.

He sure could have used some support, but none was available to him. Most of the witnesses who'd spotted the UFOs had been drunk, elderly, or hopelessly confused. Poor Paula—who had seen plenty —fainted on the terrible night that she had encountered the deceased-yet-somehow-ambulatory Inspector Daniel Clay in the cemetery. She had come to after the worst of it had ended, but she wasn't very communicative -- partly from shell-shock and partly because she had few, if any, pertinent memories of the events. She was living with her mother in Sausalito now, and Jeff honestly didn't know if she would ever again be the feisty little gal he'd met at a USO dance. He affectionately called her "kid," another verbal tic he'd picked up from Bogart.

That seemed so long ago now. It hadn't helped that her husband, the big strong airplane pilot, had been shipped off to the happy home to live among the fruits and nuts because he just couldn't or wouldn't stop babbling about little green men from Mars. But the visitors had not been little or green or from Mars; they had barbershop haircuts and Oxford accents and looked like anybody you might see on the street -- apart from those queer uniforms of theirs. Jeff strained to remember the details. Their shirts, he thought, were shiny and kind of billowy, almost blouse-like, with high collars and a strange little insignia over the heart -- a jagged lightning bolt inside a semi-circle. Strange how the mind files away little tidbits like that.

The strange insignia.

Jeff had replayed that momentous evening a thousand and one times in his head. The male spaceman -- there had been two of them, a man and a woman -- talked quite a bit. He had a name that sounded something like "Eros," and his snooty, fussbudget personality reminded Jeff of a particularly disagreeable English teacher who had given him a lot of grief back in his middle school days. But that wasn't the reason he had socked ol' Eros in the jaw. No, that was an act born of pure animal instinct. At that moment, a familiar feeling of savagery—Jeff called it "The Beast"—had risen up within him and taken possession of his entire body. "The Beast" had also been with him on that blood-spattered day when he'd shot the Jap on that flyspeck of an island in the Central Pacific.

In retrospect, punching Eros had been the turning point in the whole evening, but at the time there hadn't been any real strategy behind it. Had he not done it, he, the colonel, and the police lieutenant might never have gotten off that ship alive. But, in the long run, had he truly done the right thing? Since then, Jeff had had ample opportunity to consider the words that Eros had spoken, focusing on their meaning rather than the uppity way in which he'd said them. Maybe that unwelcome wayfarer had been on to something. Maybe the human race really was on a collision course with complete annihilation. It was a cinch that Earth hadn't heard the last of this. They'd be back, those aliens... eventually. And who knows? Maybe they wouldn't make their presence known the next time around. For all Jeff knew, those things might just press a button on a console and, just like that, we'd be wiped out -- erased from the cosmic map like writing on a chalkboard.

Oh, but what was the use of dwelling on things like this? Even if he could assemble any tangible evidence or persuade any witnesses to speak out on his behalf, this wasn't a story that America was ready to hear, let alone the world. And, besides, how much longer could he hold out? If he stayed here much longer, he would wind up like those miserable souls he saw in the Common Room, staring gape-jawed at Romper Room, with its chirpy little anthem about what we viewers should and shouldn't do: "Do be a plate cleaner! Don't be a food fussy! Do be a car sitter! Don't be a car stander!" Jeff was in no hurry to join the plate cleaners and the car sitters of the world. Those bastards in the Common Room looked like wax dummies that had melted a little, and their brains had long since turned to oatmeal. Thanks but no thanks, brother.

What Captain Jeff Trent really wanted was to rejoin the world. Hold Paula in his arms. Breathe the air outside the walls of this terrible place. Truly live again. Maybe he could even get his old job back. It sure would be nice seeing Dan and Eadie again. If the universe was going to come to an end, so be it. That wasn't his department. He just wanted to get the most out of whatever time he had left on this crazy blue marble called Earth.

So that was it. He'd just have to recant his story. Repent. Not all at once, though. That would seem suspicious. They'd never buy it. They'd figure it for a ploy... and they'd be right. No, he'd have to start building this thing slowly and carefully over the course of a few weeks. And he'd begin with his consultation with Dr. Fineman at eleven. He glanced at the clock. Jesus, that was only ten minutes away. He'd better start thinking up what to say. "Say, doc, I've thought a lot about what you've been telling me, and..."


Who had said that? Jeff looked around the room, his eyes darting wildly to every corner in search of the voice that had disrupted him so suddenly. Jeff was so disoriented that he accidentally swallowed the three pills he'd been hiding in his mouth, and he had to cough a little to catch his breath. Once he regained his composure, he looked up and stared across the room. To his surprise and utter disbelief, he saw Fred C. Dobbs sitting bolt upright in bed, looking right at him. The two men locked eyes, and there was a tense moment of silence between them. The pilot was unnerved. It was all he could do to keep "the Beast" at bay.

Nothing like this had ever occurred before. Jeff had never once heard Fred utter a coherent thought, nor move of his own volition. The old man hadn't ever acknowledged his roommate's existence in any demonstrable way. Jeff assumed that the duffer was completely oblivious to him. Obviously, that wasn't the case. This was like seeing Lazarus rise from the tomb or Pinocchio become a real live boy. All sorts of thoughts raced through Jeff's head. Had the old man heard everything he'd said? And if so, what did he think of Jeff? Was this a dream? What was going on here?

Fred spoke again, this time in a calmer, more soothing manner: "You are confused, I see. I will explain. My name is Erebus."

The old man pulled his hospital gown down a little on the left side so that his shoulder was exposed. On it was branded a symbol: a semi-circle with a lightning bolt in the middle.

"You have already met my late countrymen, Eros and Tana," Jeff's roommate continued. "They were part of an unsuccessful initiative designated Plan 9. I, however, am here as part of Plan 4, which involved infiltrating Earth society and finding out just how much your people know about our activities. As I have learned, the individuals your society has deemed 'mentally ill' are unusually receptive to our presence. Your government has known this for some time and has, therefore, made a concerted effort to round them up, institutionalize them, and drug them into a vegetative state. My job is to monitor them, and the best way to do that was to become one of them."

Jeff was thunderstruck. He grasped for words: "B-but... how do I fit into all of this?"

"You believe in us, Captain, because you have seen us with your own two eyes. You possess no special sensitivity to extraterrestrial life. You were just, as your people say, in the right place at the right time. But your government deems you a threat because you know of us and are unwilling to deny our existence. That is why you are here."'

"So... what do I do?"

"Simply put: stay the course, Captain. You have great courage and emotional strength. These will be vital weapons in our ongoing campaign to change the public's mind and avoid further unnecessary violence. Sometimes, though, you underestimate yourself. A moment ago, for instance, you were considering surrender."

"How could you possibly...?"

"We have mental capabilities far beyond those of your species. You are not particularly difficult to read. There's no need for envy. Eventually, the human race will evolve to have this ability. It may take a few eons."

"Great," Jeff snorted. "What am I supposed to do in the meantime? I can't very well make much of a difference if I'm cooped up in this place."

"Relax, Captain Trent. The Ruler is aware of your situation and is devising a stratagem to assist you, even as we speak. Plan 10, he calls it. It should be ready any..."

Suddenly, the old man went as limp as a rag doll and collapsed back on his bed. Jeff was puzzled. It was as if his battery had died. Then, he looked up and saw Old Nursey standing in the doorway. She was making a show of pointing to her undersized wristwatch. Erebus must have sensed her arrival. That was why he was playing possum now.

"Captain Trent," the nurse said in that contemptible, saccharine tone, "it's eleven oh-two. And we mustn't keep Dr. Fineman waiting."

"No," said Jeff glumly, "we certainly mustn't."

Jeff hauled himself out of bed and checked himself in the mirror to make sure he looked even halfway presentable. Naturally, his roommate's words were still spinning 'round and 'round in his head. The pilot knew he had a long and difficult path ahead of him. He understood that now. For whatever reason, Sweet Lady Destiny had chosen him to save the universe. When he thought about the situation in its totality, it was overwhelming. Best to take these things one day at a time. Break it down into smaller, more manageable tasks. Step one: develop a taste for boiled fiberglass and sewer rat. Maybe a little ketchup would help.


An excerpt from a hand-written draft of this story. Most of my articles are written on a computer. 

In two weeks: There is a man named Rick Tell, my friends, and he has a dream. He wants to stage a full-length musical about the life of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Warts and all! The ups, the downs, the sweaters and skirts, the monsters, and the booze. Crazy, you say? Impossible, you say? Then you've never met Rick Tell. Actually, I've never met him either. But I have been communicating with him by e-mail, and he seems really enthusiastic and sincere about this eccentric, improbable project of his. In a lot of ways, that's emblematic of the spirit of Ed Wood. So, as you might imagine, it is my sworn duty to give my readers the lowdown about all of this, providing both the relevant facts and my thoughts thereupon, so that you can make an informed judgment of your own. Sound like a plan? Then be back here in 14 days as I explore Ed Wood: The Musical!