John Anderson’s Version
It was a rainy and windy fall morning. I was late for work as usual, and in a very irritable mood. The entire city seemed to have conspired to make every inch of my commute absolute torture. Everywhere there was a delay! I seemed to be the only one on the highway who wanted to arrive the same day I left. Everybody else was driving a turtle. To add to my misery, the telephone company had sadistically fenced off manholes in three (three!) different locations along the same highway! I cursed, swore and honked my way through traffic, fancying myself to be the only competent driver on the road.
If pride comes before a fall, then confidence comes before a crash.
The red light at Sutter’s Mill Road and Fourth Street was not working, and traffic tiptoed through the intersection. My windshield wipers were screeching back and forth, my shirt collar was too tight, and my car was threatening to stall; so when I saw an opening, I dashed. And crashed! The front of my car crumpled into the side of a ten-year-old Mustang driven by a very surprised businesswoman.
I don’t have to tell you how awful it was. No one was hurt, but traffic was snarled until the police finally graced us with their presence. The cars were moved, driver’s licenses were inspected, insurance information was exchanged, and each of us had our little private time with the police officer to tell our version of what happened. The accident was my fault, and I knew it from the start. This did not improve my slightly less than congenial mood.
Have you ever noticed that tow truck drivers respond faster than the police? I’ve never understood that, but I was grateful for the swift conveyance of my person and possessions to the body shop. Finally, someone let me use their telephone! I had to make about a zillion phone calls, after which someone told me where I could catch the bus.
The bus. Hooray. I hate city busses. Including the wait for the bus, I figured I must have stood out in the drizzly rain for about two hours. As I finished my calculations, the bus arrived. It squished, splashed and burped to a stop. I fumbled for change—they only take exact change, but they won’t tell you in advance what the fare is. The people behind me were rightfully impatient, and that tended to diminish my dexterity. As I walked down the aisle, the bus lurched into motion and farted down the road. What a glamorous mode of transportation! How I pity these poor lost souls who must ride it every day. I was guilty of my accident, and my punishment was to ride the bus.
The only vacant seat was on the last seat, which extends the whole width of the bus. Walking all the way back was like riding a surfboard, and it took a lot of coordination and two apologies to get there. The seat was occupied by only one man, a short black man with a gigantic teddy bear.
I flounced onto the seat with a soulful sigh. I looked to my left at my seat mate, whose feet didn’t reach the floor. He was about five and half feet tall, slightly muscular and really very handsome. He was wearing a faded green shirt and black pants. His clothes were hospital clean and expertly pressed, but they did show some wear. He had a dark trench coat on the seat beside him. Then I noticed that he was actually talking to his teddy bear, which was nearly as big as he was! His face was animated and lost in a childlike delight. That was disconcerting enough, but he was talking to it in some sing-song language I couldn’t identify.
I was trying to decide whether to envy his simple pleasure or to pity his apparently diminished mental state, when he suddenly noticed me. “Oh, I am sorry, I did not see you sir! A very fine morning to you!” he said, and extended his hand, “My name is Bobo.” I really didn’t want to make this fellow’s acquaintance, but the lovely lilt to his voice and the happy sparkle in his eye made my hand take his almost on its own volition. We shook hands warmly.
“Let me guess,” I said, intrigued by his accent, “You are not from Jamaica, are you?” He laughed pleasantly, and explained in his deceptively reggae voice that he was not. He fondled the right ear of his teddy bear, smiling as though I had flattered him. “Then you must be from Nigeria!” I announced triumphantly, “And your native language must be Ibo!”
“That is what I tell people to keep things simple,” he confided with a hundred-Watt smile. “But you are far too erudite for such a ruse to be effective with you. I must commend you on your encyclopedic knowledge of nationalities and cultures. Most people around here are only dimly aware that Nigeria exists, and yet it is the most populous nation of Africa. So it follows that you must be a very intelligent and educated man to know of the Ibo language. Sir, I am impressed!”
Well, those were not his exact words (my memory is not perfect), but that pretty much catches the flavor of them. You might say they threw me into a brief and involuntary reverie. I sat there for a moment, pondering this poor demented black man who conversed with teddy bears in public, and yet had the vocabulary of a college professor. There was something very strange about this man, and my curiosity overtook me. He beamed like a simpleton, but his eyes were intelligent and wise.
We talked on a number of subjects, and I found him to be astoundingly well informed on any topic I was competent to discuss. His stop came before mine, which was lucky for me, because I was so absorbed I would have ridden past my stop. When he announced that he was getting off, I urgently asked him where he was from. I couldn’t let that mystery go unsolved! Thorgelfayne, he said! Thorgelfayne, I asked? He wrote it down on a little card: the Grand Duchy of Thorgelfayne was his Homeland. The card was a business card for a pet store; I took it for his place of employment.
He left in the press of the crowd after a cordial good-bye. My awful day was not so bad after that. I vowed to visit the pet store as soon as I had wheels.
My late arrival at work meant that I had to work late, so at six-thirty I grabbed a hamburger and walked the three blocks to the city library. I searched every reference book on all four floors for the Grand Duchy of Thorgelfayne. I was informed by rather smug librarians that the only duchies that ever existed were in Europe and not in Africa. One lady informed me (in a tone of voice that suggested that God consults with her from time to time) that she only knew of two Grand Duchies: Hessen and Luxemburg. Hessen is now a state of the Federal Republic of Germany, making the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg the only grand duchy that survives as an independent nation. She also volunteered the information that Belgium, which is a kingdom, has a province named Luxemburg which is actually larger than the country of the same name! This bit of trivia was as irritating as it was entertaining. Of course, everyone told me that there is only one grand duchy these days, as if it were quite obvious.
At eight-fifty-five the lights began to go out, and at nine-oh-five a matronly librarian gruffly enjoined me to seek lodging elsewhere.
I took a taxi home.
At one in the morning, I was awakened by soft whimpering. The perfect ending to a perfect day, the dog wants out! Out goes the dog, in comes the dog, and we both settle down for the night, hopefully for the last time. As I reached to switch out the lamp, I noticed the card that Bobo had given me. I picked it up from the night stand and looked at it closely. It had the name of the pet store on one side, giving the address and phone number. I flipped it over. On the other side, in perfect cursive hand-writing that would have made any third-grade teacher proud, it said: Grand Duchy of Thorgelfayne on Homeland. On Homeland, I thought? What a strange way to put it! His command of English was far too excellent for a little boo-boo like that. But, I thought as I decisively switched off the light, there is not now and never has been an Grand Duchy of Thorgelfayne anywhere in the world. My library research proved that definitively.
Weeks went by, and I totally forgot all about Bobo and his teddy bear. The car was fixed, several projects at work consumed my energies, and numerous other things preoccupied me.
Now I don’t like this to get around much, because people do misunderstand, but I was a member of the local UFO society. It is just a group of ordinary people who like to discuss the evidence for extraterrestrial life. Most people think we’re a bunch of kooks. Maybe they’re right. But I mention it now only because one week, guess who showed up for the meeting! Bobo! I was secretly delighted to see him again, because I wanted to find out about this Thorgelfayne thing, but the meeting prevented me from speaking with him privately. He was absorbed in the proceedings, and managed to become the center of a friendly debate about what aliens would look like. Henrietta naturally maintained that intelligent life could take an unimaginable variety of forms, while Bobo argued that something called convergent evolution would make everyone look like humans. Fred somewhat undiplomatically labeled that anthrocentric chauvinism. To everyone’s surprise and to Fred’s chagrin, Bobo successfully corrected his terminology. But he did lose the debate.
I still wanted to talk to him, so I offered to drive him home. He spoke only of his day at the pet store.
He had volunteered to make a presentation the following week, and it turned out to be a confession that he was an alien! A number of minor mysteries were cleared up for me: Thorgelfayne was supposed to be a country on another planet, which was named Homeland. His story was very entertaining, but a bit far-fetched, and I think everyone was a little hard on him. He seemed depressed as I drove him home.
I tried to cheer him up, when suddenly I saw a shooting star! We were passing through a wooded area on Sutter’s Mill Road, just a few blocks from the intersection where I had had my accident. Bobo dismissed it as a meteorite, but I heard a distinct thunk and the trees were swaying nearby! I figured he was depressed about the meeting, so I overrode his objections and stopped at the side of the road. I was less than ten yards from the car when suddenly Bobo burst out and ran to my side. “I think I better go with you,” he said, out of breath.
When we reached the clearing, I could not believe my eyes! A real, honest-to-goodness flying saucer! It really didn’t look much like a science fiction flying saucer, but the words will do. I was paralyzed with astonishment. My mouth dried up, my arms and legs refused to move. The thought crossed my mind that I had been hit by some sort of hypnotic beam, but I realized I was just scared witless. Bobo was unaffected by this, and walked up to the saucer as though this sort of thing happened to him every day. Maybe it did, I thought in a panicky rush!
A tall black man walked out of the saucer to meet Bobo. They greeted each other in that musical teddy bear language, then they embraced affectionately and kissed. Soon, the tall man was joined by about a dozen more people of various races. Bobo returned to my side, grabbed my right hand and pulled me towards the assembly. I couldn’t fathom what was going on, and my mind was alarmed as my legs obeyed. They fawned all over me! Men and women alike hugged me tenderly and kissed me affectionately! My face stung with embarrassment. I had the giddy thought they would gain the false impression that Earthlings were all red-faced zombies, but I just was so surprised I could not cope! I really don’t remember what happened next. I remember that they were very hospitable, showed me all around, offered me refreshments; they were so nice, so mature and so kind that it made me feel ashamed of the human race. Human society was an immature temper tantrum compared to these folks.
Then I knew: Bobo was an alien! The little black man who talked to teddy bears on the city bus was an alien! My mind reeled!
The next week at the UFO society, Bobo was there. I wasn’t sure if that was reassuring or unnerving; I hadn’t sorted out my experience yet and I wasn’t sure if it really had happened. But when they started to chide him again for last week’s presentation, I couldn’t take it. I had to come to this brave little man’s defense!
“You people don’t know who you are dealing with,” I said in a wavering voice. “This is a very important man and he should be considered a very honored guest!” That sure raised a few eyebrows. Fred (who had his phone in his hand) look poised to call the men with white coats. The silence was deafening as I continued, not really sure of myself: “Dr. Bobo is an eminent scientist from another planet!” Bobo began to protest that he was just a lowly field worker, but I was not amenable to interruption—even from him. The words stumbled out as I gave a somewhat incoherent account of the flying saucer (or whatever it’s called) and then I related how nice the aliens are. To my shame, my own words overwhelmed me and I collapsed on the floor in tears.
I am not a member of that society anymore. They didn’t want a nut among their members; and I no longer needed to seek alien life. Seeking isn’t fun when you’ve found. But the pain of knowing what they are really like and being trapped in that comparatively inHuman human world was unbearable. I tell you this: I am very kind to funny-looking people with strange accents. You never know.
Cloudless nights used to be depressing. I would look at the stars and wonder: which one is Homeland? Where is Thorgelfayne? Why do I have to be here? So I went to the pet store, and I argued, I begged and I won.
Now of course, that has all changed. On cloudless nights when I look at the stars, I no longer wonder. I know which one is Earth, and where Pennsylvania is. And it makes me so glad that I’m here!