The Engs had called my agency about their dad, Walter, and I was to be interviewed at their home. They lived in the outskirts of Tucson, an old subdivision called Mesaland that had been there long before the town had come up to meet it. The houses sat on large parcels of land and were adobe brick, old-territorial style. At the front door I was greeted by a servant in a uniform of some sort (which was very stiff) who looked me over then led me to the home office. The agency had told me the Engs, a son and daughter, were sociologists and that their father was recently retired. I caught a glimpse of much chaos through the door in the back of the office: a handful of people running around, looking at tablet computers, inputting and chattering to each other. A man quickly shut the door and introduced himself to me as Mr. Bey Eng. He gestured toward the chair in front of his desk, then sat ramrod straight like a strict schoolmaster as if about to inform me of some error in my homework. He was tall with long dark hair that fit his head as a helmet and would never need to be brushed aside. As I sat down he proceeded to review what I assumed was my resume.
While I waited, I surveyed the room. The office was comfy. It was roomy, and filled with natural light from the large window that looked out onto the front garden. It had that “old Tucson” feel, with plaster walls of vanilla and Saltillo tiles on the floor. His desk was a huge monster and there were many bookcases that lined the wall.
“You are recommended. You been in this aiding for long time?”
“Yes, forty years.”
Nodding, he continued. “Well, my father not difficult to care for. Most important thing is he safe. His memory now less because age and he has begun lose weight.” These were common in the elderly. When the memory went, so did some of the taste buds and ability to digest well. I nodded my head, wondering where this family came from. Picking up the next paper, he read on, and then looked up at me again. I nodded. Again he continued to read.
“The agency say you have own car?” He looked up at me.
“If that is all right, I prefer it that way.”
He nodded, looking down at my papers again. “Yes, yes, the agency told. We do not have car for this city, yours will be necessary.”
No car? This isn’t a big city with many buses or any subways. The family isn’t from Tucson.
Mr. Eng continued on, “You can take him to small restaurant in city. Some of time you can add something,” he gestured, “bigger.” I assumed he meant a restaurant more expensive.
“Dad pay himself.” He smiled. “Something he insist upon. Your job make sure done correctly, safely. No visit with any aliens.”
Aliens? He knows some Mexican nationals? “Of course,” I said. I wondered how I would avoid that here, so close to the border.
He laid the papers on his desk. “I would like you take Walter food shopping. He prefer to eat food from here and in his house, when he not go out, of course. Use judgment on that, I…” he faltered, “I know nothing of this,” and stopped speaking.
“Certainly, I will encourage good nutrition and dietary habits. Does Walter take any medication?”
He looked at me with a blank expression.
“Like memory treatment, diabetic shots, blood pressure pills?” I tried to list the most common.
“No,” Mr. Eng shook his head, looking surprised I would ask.
I nodded knowing that his file carried the info about his father. I had already looked it over but wanted to double check, finding it odd that he didn’t have any medications for his father’s issues.
“Father once worked as we do. Now he settle in retirement and content to eat out.” This was probably what he thought, but I suspected it might not be what Walter thought. When you work as an aide, you often balance the needs of the employers with the needs of the charge. In this case, it looked like I would keep up the fiction that Bey “knew” what was going on with his father, Walter. I would probably find a man who was shaken at his losses and very bored in his life.
“One more thing, you aware confidentiality clause?”
“Certainly, standard practice,” I answered.
“Good.” He seemed to think he was speaking well, typical of foreign intellectuals who thought they knew more than me. “Any questions?”
“My work week?” and we proceeded with the business end of the conversation.
I am an aide, the person you hire to help Dad or Mom when they are aged and incapable of caring for themselves. The lowest paid profession—or at least one of those professions held in the lowest esteem—right next to Homemaker. People are always quick to assure me how important the work is, in the midst of offering my minimal pay. I smile and accept the offer because it is more for the elder I work than for their children who hire me. I should have suspected something when the salary turned out to be one of the highest that I had heard of in this field, but I took it to be a compliment and let it sit.
“Yes, Mr. Eng, it is satisfactory,” I said as I reached out to shake on the deal.
“Call me Bey,” he said as he reached back across the desk.
“Yes, please call me Sarah,” I answered.
Nodding, Bey said as he walked out of his office, “Let’s go meet Father.”
I followed him out of the house and along a neat little walkway to a casita behind the main house. Around the whole back section was a six-foot fence. I nodded in approval. My employers seemed to be aware of the possible issues with spontaneous wandering or deliberate escape by their father. Bey stepped into the casita and I followed.
We found Walter in front of the TV. He looked like a small, elderly man. However, as we got closer and Bey introduced us, I was surprised that he towered over me when he stood up. I’m six feet tall, so that is something to say. Walter was quite slim, more like skinny, with a balding pate and wispy white hair halfway down his head.
A small whine emerged from below me. A good size dog was looking at me expectantly. I reached down and petted it on the head.
“Dad, this new aide, Ms. Anders.”
“Hello, Walter, nice to meet you.” I reached out to shake. “Please call me Sarah.”
Walter smiled. “Nice to meet you,” he said, taking my hand.
“This dog, Hand,” Bey said, looking down at the dog.
I leaned down and petted him again on the head. “Hello, Hand.” Hand, that was a weird name, but the dog seemed nice. I like dogs; people say I spoil mine. Pets are often what keep my clients going, so I respect these furry companions.
“She’s going to take you lunch.” Bey told Walter.
“Oh? That sounds good.” He got up, collecting his things, and then stood at the door.
“Take someplace you like,” Bey said to me.
Walter locked his door and we walked back through the main house and out to the front where I had parked.
“I’ll see you when return, Ms. Anders?”
“Sure, see you then.” With that, Bey turned on his heel and walked back into the house.
I turned around and Walter was staring at me. “We are going in my car.” I gestured to the automobile. “Let’s get you in.”
I opened the door of the car for Walter and he slowly sat down in the front seat. Going around, I entered the driver’s side. After a few minutes of fussing with seat belts we were ready to go.
I presented my idea. “Well, how about a nice coffee shop where you can get some soup and a sandwich?”
“Un-huh, rather use my cruiser,” was all he said and then held onto the side loop above the window as if the car was going to race. I started the car and we were off. I went quite slow and avoided bumps and holes but I knew he would always fear them; you can rarely change the opinion of an Alzheimer's patient. If Walter believed the car was going to be too rough (perhaps from past experience) whatever I did he would always assume it. Old memories trump current realities.
We arrived at the coffee shop, sat down and ordered. I had to do most of the ordering. “I have been told you were a sociologist like your children.”
“Huh? Oh, that’s over, silly profession.” Walter looked around the restaurant.
“How long was your career?”
“A long time,” he said, looking at me.
“What did you do?”
“Watched people, recorded.” The food arrived. “Is this all for me?” he asked.
“Yes,” not wanting to call any more attention to the portion. He shook his head but then took a few good-sized bites.
“You watched people?” What an odd way to put it.
He nodded. “Yes, we are called Watchers.” He shook his head. “Some of it was good, getting to know them, their culture. That’s important!” He pointed his fork at me. “But when there’s trouble, and there always is, it’s hard to just watch.” The fork came down and he stared at his food.
“Yes, the old dilemma.”
Walter looked up “What?”
“Whether to try to help or keep filming. That must be difficult.”
“And unnecessary.” His whole body was tense, animated, then he relaxed. “At least sometimes,” he mumbled, the fire damped out.
“Oh, did that happen to you?” I asked, trying to keep the train of thought going.
He started eating again and that was it.
A few minutes later, “Who are you?” Walter pulled me out of my sandwich.
“I am Sarah, your aide. This is our first day,” I said, trying to smile with encouragement.
“Oh? Yes, of course, of course,” he went back to his meal. It would take a while before I could believe he truly remembered me.
Walter ate all his food and after a considerable period where his mind wandered, he forgot about what he had eaten and started again, distracting himself from his phobia of too much food. When it came to a drink, he rebelled against any water, especially when I explained it was a good idea. He didn’t argue but dragged out the process. Here he waited for me to give up.
“Ah, whiskey is for drinking, but water is for WAR!” I said, smiling at him.
He threw back his head and laughed. “I like that!”
“Yes, well it sums up the desert of the southwest. A hard lesson we learned.”
Walter lost his smile. “Yes, it is something easy to forget. You are very wise.”
“Thank you; now finish it so we can go.” I looked squarely at him.
Walter shrugged his shoulders, mumbled and drank: round one for me. How much these elderly were like children. Not wanting to eat nutritious food or take in enough water.
“Did you enjoy the sandwich?” I asked.
“Fine, fine,” he grumbled. “Rather have carrion burgers, though.”
Road kill? Good gracious! “Oh, well, maybe next time,” I said.
I pulled up to the main house and Walter found his way back to his own, but only after checking on the next day. He would need to ask the same questions repeatedly to reassure himself that these visits from me would continue. I went to Bey’s office and knocked on the door.
Bey answered, but this time the door to the working chaos of the office at the back was closed.
He looked at me. “How go?”
“Fine, he seems easy to get along with.”
A shadow passed over Bey’s face. “Until he disagrees with you.”
I nodded. It is hard to see your parent age.
“I would like to discuss other activities for him. How about taking him to the local gym?” I smiled.
“Gym, Father? I don’t think he ever in gym.” That grim face again as if he disapproved, but I didn’t know if it was with the suggestion, me, or Walter.
“Many in his generation haven’t. However, now there are activities for the elderly, and I think we could work out a routine he could enjoy. The one up Oracle Road would work well.”
He eyed me, shaking his head a bit. “If you think so…”
“How about you set up a trial period, say for a month? If it works out we could make it permanent.”
Bey closed his eyes for a moment. “What’s name gym?”
I went home from there and laid out materials for making up a schedule. Pepper, my dog, greeted me with some interest and then settled down to guard me while I worked. She was a cattle dog mixed with something like a greyhound and looked like Anubis when she was lying on the floor like that. Pepper was content with me if I gave her enough treats and walked her once a day. I wondered how she would get along with Hand.
I set up a schedule for Walter with exercise, movies and grocery shopping. Then, with the basic structure in place I added some light lectures through the Western National Parks Association and the University of Arizona. That ought to be good enough for a start.
Soon we were humming along. It was difficult for Walter to prepare for the grocery shopping. The effort of understanding the list I made up and then taking the inventory from it was almost too much, but I felt worth it. Walter did not want to make the effort and wanted me to take him whenever he deigned to remember a need. I wanted to be more efficient and provide more stimulus than that for him. The days fell into a pattern and Walter seemed to improve with the routines. He had a tendency to complain, though, in a creative manner.
“This town is so two-dimensional. Why don’t they have any cloud restaurants?” Walter would ask. Or, “Can’t they come up with something for more species than this?”
I didn’t know what to say to that. He did have a fertile imagination.
One month into my association with Walter, we were walking to the main house and he stopped, “I want to go out in my cruiser!” He said it in defiance, stopping and clenching his fists.
Startled, it took me a moment to answer, “Cruiser?”
Hand was outside and I saw his ears pick up at the word.
“Yeah, my cruiser. I want to get out of this little solar system!” and proceeded to lead me to one of the garages. Hand followed and barked once.
“Spaceships are much better transports; get you there much faster,” he babbled as he hurried along. “Especially with the wormholes.”
Seniors often fantasize about what their life was like before, but I realized for the first time I was with a Science Fiction fan. I followed him into the garage. The cruiser was sitting on the floor. It looked like something I had seen in cartoons as a child. Hand followed, wagging his tail.
“Walter, this is great! Did you build it?”
“Hell, no. I’m not an engineer.” He sneered.
“He picked it up cheap from a yahoo near Alpha Centuri.” Walter wasn’t speaking. I looked at Hand.
“Good trick! Are you a ventriloquist?” I asked.
“Ha, ha! Walter?” Something like a laugh came from Hand.
I was quiet, not knowing how it was all done. Then Hand walked towards me. He was standing up on two legs and gesturing with his paws. “Oh, Sarah, I know this is weird, but come on, let’s give it a try?”
I will tell you right now, the dog’s mouth and lips moved in speech. Seen it in the movies? Well, it happened right in front of me!
“Come, Walter. We need to talk to Bey,” I said watching Hand and turned toward the door.
“What? Oh no, let’s just go,” Walter said in a hurry.
“Yeah!” came from a voice from behind me. I jumped; there was only Hand. I turned to see him looking up at me, wagging his tail.
“Let’s get off this ball!” Hand said. I got dizzy and put my hand on the wall to steady myself.
“Come.” I led them out. Most of the time I can get my clients to follow me, I imagine because dementia leaves them without direction. You tell them what to do and they will follow. I shut the door to the garage and they followed me to Bey’s office. Knocking on his door, I waited. No one answered.
“Can I help you?” said a woman’s voice behind me.
“Oh, yes, I’m Ms. Anders.”
“Yes, nice to meet you. I’m Ephrem Eng. Bey’s sister.” A tall woman dressed in a severe suit with very short hair that I thought worked well for her. She held out her hand. The names keep getting stranger.
I shook it. “Hello,” I said, smiling. “I was going to ask Bey… Mr. Eng, if it is all right to use Walter’s cruiser.”
Ephrem smiled. Walter started to talk, but I kept control.
“Yes, Walter, it seems, has gotten a bit restless. He wants to take out his ‘cruiser’ and go driving. I saw the cruiser and Hand seems anxious, telling me we should get off this ball.” I waited again.
“He showed you?” Ephrem asked.
I nodded my head.
Ephrem sighed, “Well, I think it’s okay. Take it slow at first.” Slow, why slow? Limit the fantasies?
“I want to drive,” Walter spat out.
Ephrem nodded. “That’s okay, the cruiser is automatic. But Dad, Ms. Anders is in charge. What she says goes.” Ephrem certainly spoke better than her brother.
Walter scowled and then nodded.
“It’s okay?” I asked.
“Yes, you seem capable.” I was glad for the vote of confidence, I think. “He’ll need money. Same as before, he has a card.” Walter pulled out his wallet and reached for his debit card. Ephrem shook her head.
“Not that, the other one.” Ephrem stopped and thought for a moment, opened the door to the office and went to a desk drawer and produced a little card. It almost looked like a credit card, but the letters were not English—really not English! I couldn’t read it, of course, but it lined up like writing. This fantasy was quite involved. Not many children would indulge their parent this far.
Ephrem turned to me. “I know this is a surprise. Can you handle it?”
“Yes, sounds like a good idea, something interesting, different,” I said, nodding affirmative.
“Yes,” she looked at me expectantly. “Take care as you do here, make sure Dad is safe. Minimal drinking,” a raspberry came out and this time it wasn’t Walter, “or any other mischief. Supervise paying and tipping as before.”
I looked at Ephrem and just smiled.
“Don’t worry; he will take you to his favorite hangout, right Dad? And it is handled the same. Here is your chip.” Ephrem held something small, like a watch battery, in her hand. “Do I have permission to install?”
I nodded, curious, but not really expecting much. Ephrem slapped my upper arm and a small prick told me something went in. Ouch! “The chip, Jona, can give self-defense in a shield, translation, instant access to the cruiser, me and police in an emergency,” Ephrem said.
“Which police?” What is she talking about? I thought.
“Why, intergalactic, of course.”
Of course, what else? I thought in a sarcastic tone as I mentally shrugged my shoulders.
“Please just take the short trip today. You can add other choices later.”
“Right,” I said and we were walking out of the office, Ephrem locking up, Walter and Hand heading for the garage.
“Right, okay, just a short trip.” We left the office. I hoped the adventure would be more than sitting in the cruiser, rocking back and forth with Hand talking and seeing Walter’s lips move.
The two almost ran to the garage. When we entered I again saw the cruiser, just sitting there on the garage floor. It was something like out of The Jetsons, sort of like a car in that it had four seats, two in front and two in rear. The part with the seats was round like a half-ball underneath the seats and there was a glass type bubble over it.
Walter spoke. “Car on.” Then the car levitated off the floor. I mean it rose up and stood still, hanging in the air.
I was quiet; this was getting better, not so amateurish.
Walter pushed a button on the right side under the bubble and the bubble disappeared. He got in, right in the driver’s seat. This made me smile. One thing seniors really miss is the independence of driving. There was no wheel, though, and I was relieved about that. What am I saying? What difference did that make? Hand jumped in and took up almost all of the back two seats. He was wagging his tail faster than I thought was possible. He also had picked up a pair of shorts along the way.
“Come on, get in,” Hand said.
I jerked at the sound. Hand grinned at me, not a great sight with all those teeth. They were dog teeth, but imagine your dog trying to grin. I got in the other side in the front, like you would in a car. “How do...” Walter was way ahead of me.
“Car,” he said, “this is Walter. We want to go on a ride.”
The car spoke. “Hi Walter, haven’t seen you in a while. Do you have clearance?”
Walter scowled. I imagined some kind of spaceport tower clearing us, but he turned to me. “That’s your cue.”
“Oh, yes, this is Walter’s aide, Ms. Anders, and…” I looked at Walter, faltering. He gestured to hurry up. “I give permission and am accompanying Walter and Hand on this trip.”
“Checking, checking… Yes. Clearance authorization authenticated. Welcome aboard, Ms. Anders.”
“Why thank you.” This is a lot of high tech.
“I want to go to Uno’s bar for lunch.” Walter closed his eyes, grinning from ear to ear.
“Uno’s bar… found in memory… taking wormhole G-7. Fasten seatbelts, please.”
We both looked around and hooked up our belts. Before I could catch that this was going to happen, the roof opened and the car flew out. My stomach went down to the floor and I gripped the handle on the door. Holy…!
“What’s going on? Is this safe?” I screamed. “Will someone see us? Do we clear this with the Tucson airport, Davis-Monthan or something?” Trying not to let my teeth rattle, I searched for observers. Maybe I was imagining this.
“No ma’am, we have a nul-dar that makes us invisible both to line of sight and radar of the area. We will leave the atmosphere in two minutes.” The car was so confident. Well, why shouldn’t it be? I supposed it had a great deal of experience even if I didn’t. I was so flippant in my head, could I handle this?
Up we went, through the atmosphere, into space, all those stars.
“Yahoo!” came from my driver.
This happened so fast I tried to notice everything. Some of the ride, particularly the speed, had too much potential to make me nauseous, but it really was beautiful, you know. Looking back on Earth, even this stoic woman cried. I have heard Earth looks like a fragile marble when you see all of it at once, but I felt it looked majestic, ancient. For humans to say it is fragile smacks of great hubris. Aren’t we the fragile ones?
Then the wormhole appeared. I have heard of them (who hasn’t in Sci-Fi, how else can you explain travel over the immense distances in space?), and this looked like a worm, all full of swirls in the interior of a tube. I held my breath anticipating the ride like the initial ascent on a roller coaster, but I couldn’t see the end of this ride. We are really going! Then that makes Walter… and Hand…
“Wormhole G-7 accessed. Entry in three… two… one...” We were away. Walter was laughing, watching me try to keep my mouth closed. Zip, zip, zip—we went around, down, up too much like a roller coaster. I stopped liking those some time ago, change in my center of gravity and all that stuff. Then we were out and entering into some traffic lane. Others were emerging from their wormholes. Here we were, the Jetsons out for the day.
“Uno’s bar arrival in five minutes. Please wait for the cruiser to come to a complete stop.” I almost laughed out loud; maybe Walt Disney had ridden in one of these?
Uno’s bar came up on the right. I knew because I was reading the signs. The English interpretation scrolled across my eyes. At first it was annoying, but the script managed to keep out of what I wanted to see but still informed me. I just started to get the hang of it when UNO’s sign came into view. It was a dive. Small, kind of dirty but had parking on the roof—practical. We circled and landed in an open spot.
Walter was out and about to run off, but with a senior I had plenty of time to catch up.
“Don’t we need to lock the cruiser?” I asked him, trying once again to be logical, under control.
“It’s automatic. Everything is automatic,” Walter said over his shoulder.
I wish that were true with my car. How many times have I left the lights on? I caught up with him. “How many kinds of… people are there in the galaxy?” I asked Walter as we approached the entrance.
“Well, about twenty-eight known, but you usually see about ten.”
He had stopped just outside the building and pointed down on the street where people were walking by—well, not people like we know, but I thought of them that way. After all, they were intelligent and self-directed. Then I saw a form like a walking stick. One came out of the “beauty parlor” (as Walter informed me) with sticks added on their head, kind of attractive. Yes, there are even little dough-boy gray creatures with big eyes. Maybe that UFO stuff is true.
“Are all those women coming out of the beauty parlor?” I asked Walter.
Then I asked if any of the styles would transfer between the species. This did turn out to be true. One trend he remembered was a fake horn mounted on the head. This was to copy a famous entertainer who had been hugely popular. It had been a while since he had come into “town,” though. He didn’t know what the current fave was.
We entered the building and took the chute down. It was a chute, but it regulated how fast we went, so it was kinda fun. Walter got out into the main area and went straight for the bar. While drinking is not good in excess, seniors are adults and he wasn’t driving, at least not like we do on Earth, so I just watched, uncomfortable having my charge lead.
Uno’s was big. It started with a large room with multiple screens up high and two rooms, one on each side of the larger room that housed some kind of game (a kind of pool with lasers). It was smoky in the smaller rooms, but that didn’t seem to come into the large one. Well, they can smoke here. Each screen held a game of alien combatants, some very violent with much blood and some more like ours with weirdly colored balls going into a variety of holes. One of the screens I couldn’t see anything on and tried to move around to see if it could be viewed.
“They’re for the Trillians. It’s in a wavelength humans can’t see,” Hand said, smiling at me.
“Oh,” I mumbled, aware again of Hand.
Many different aliens were standing around. Most were standing up but with variations on their legs. There were three-legged and some four-armed and nobody thought it was at all weird. There was even the unsavory character huddled over a drink, in the corner, in the dark. I tried not to stare—probably wouldn’t be taken well.
“Hey, how about a grinard over the rocks?” Walter rubbed his hands together. “Man, I miss those.”
He didn’t actually say that, it was really something like “Shubba shubba grinard, hey, hey, hey!” but I got the translation and probably messed up what he actually said because it meant nothing to me. I refused an alcoholic drink, but the bartender gave me a very good alternative, much better than Coke.
“Hey, Walter!” A green man walked up and slapped Walter on his lower arm.
“Who is this lovely lady you have with you?” Uno turned to me, smiling and bowing.
“Oh, Bey gave me a babysitter.” Walter scowled again.
“Really?” Uno said. “How lucky for you.”
“I had to get off, that planet is so boring!” I stiffened a little. It felt like he said I was boring. Walter continued to nurse his drink.
“You don’t say.” Uno was still staring and smiling at me. It was a bit disconcerting, because his mouth was full of sharp, pointed teeth.
“Cut it out, Uno. She doesn’t know what a rabo you are.”
“Rabo? Really!” he turned to Walter. “So, what you doing these days? Found any interesting rules to break?”
Walter waved a hand at Uno and took a drink. “I been just twirling my toes.” He shook his head. “What’s been going on here?”
Uno smiled. “Not much, crazy politicians saying crazy things. Oh, the Agency decided to cut the funding on the Zeta project. They had managed to piss the whole planet off with their elaborate, over-the-top plans.”
“Good, they were messing that up anyway. Zeta didn’t even want a private wormhole system. Hell, they didn’t even like getting off their planet. At least the Earth does, or at least it used to.” He shook his head and laughed. “Now that Zeta is part of the galaxy, they should be listened to.”
“Well, are you staying for lunch? I’ve got some great Ando Sea Horns.” Walter perked up. “Here, sit down and I’ll bring you and your lovely babysitter a healthy portion.”
Uno sat us in a big booth and did produce a beautiful meal. Don’t ask me what an Ando Sea Horn is. The chip, Jona, said I could eat it.
“Go ahead, Ms. Anders. The Ando Sea Horns passed for safe presence in your bloodstream and body.”
Seems Jona could talk as well as print on my eye. They were similar to lobsters (which I can’t eat) but didn’t have whatever it is that makes us sufferers get hives. You crack them open, take out the sweet meat and dunk in butter stuff. Yeah, I know, what isn’t good in butter? Anyway, Walter and I were quiet for a while, except for an occasional moan as the forks entered our mouths.
“Uno is a nice person. Have you known him long?” I asked.
Walter laughed. “Yeah, always came here after a job. He’s a Carrion, helped him set this up.” Walter gestured around the bar. Ah, a Carrion burger.
Uno was basically a human with green skin and a round hole for a mouth filled with teeth that all pointed to each other. Walter said he didn’t eat, just photosynthesized like a plant. Well, to be precise, he ate only for pleasure, still had the alimentary canal, but it had been mostly ignored now in favor of sunbathing. I realized I had broken my word to my employer, the first time in my life. But was Uno the alien, or was I?
I pondered that as Uno brought over our dessert, a Macedonian tart. Holy Moly! The right amount of tart, sweet, and cream. I could have had a few more of those, but we needed to leave. Hand was hassling two women and managed to have too many drinks. I saw why he wore shorts. Wow, you don’t want a male dog standing up and walking around, especially if he is trying to pick up women!
Hand huffed when I told him we were going back but said his farewells. Uno ran the credit card in front of us and handed it back to Walter. Good idea! I had seen that before (on Earth, of course), but not enough. It is so much safer to keep the card in sight. Walter squinted at the bill, trying to figure out the tip. I sat at the table with him and we discussed what was fair.
“Okay then, that would be,” I figured in my head, “two donkurs (a donkur equivalent to about ten dollars), so about three dollar tip, one toka and one d-toka. Okay for Earth on a twenty-dollar bill. Yes, that fits.” I added the figures and Walter signed, and then he handed it back to Uno.
“You will return, pretty lady?” Uno reached for my hand again, looking up as he kissed it.
“Sure, sure,” I said as I hustled the gentleman out the door and back to the cruiser. Some furry alien moaned as Hand was taken from her arms.
“Tell the cruiser we are coming,” Walter said.
“Uh, hello cruiser,” I said.
“No, tell your chip,” Hand smiled.
“Yes, yes of course. Jona, could you inform the cruiser we are coming for the ride home?”
“Certainly, cruiser informed.” A voice right out of my arm, would I ever get used to that?
When we arrived at the cruiser, it was already open, so the three of us got in.
“Take us home,” Walter told the car.
“Certainly, Walter. Ms. Anders, do you concur?” the car asked.
“Yes, take us home.”
The car lifted up off the roof, as before, and it headed back out into traffic. The ride back was the same rollercoaster, but it held less sway with my tummy. You’d think it would be worse with that great meal, but maybe I was just more relaxed. Entering the atmosphere, I remembered how the shuttle had reentering lit up like a road flare and got nervous again.
“How does the cruiser take the heat?” I asked.
“It has a coating similar to your shuttles, but much thinner and absorbs the heat so well it can’t be seen by any Earth instruments,” Hand said from the back seat. Walter didn’t seem too interested in this.
Minutes later we were back home, putting the cruiser to bed.
Going out to eat at a coffee shop was not enough after that, especially since Hand was not allowed, so other ideas had to be generated. Walter asked to see my house. I obliged him. I drove both Walter and Hand in my own car. We pulled up and walked to the front door.
I warned Hand to walk like an Earthen dog, but he was way ahead of me. “I have lived here for three years.” He sounded a bit miffed.
As I opened the door, Pepper rushed to greet me and was doubly surprised at guests. She jumped around and sniffed Walter but paid great attention to Hand. I had tried to prepare Hand, and he was just as confident he could handle this as well, though I was not sure he had met one of our dogs before.
“Whoa, little lady, calm down. There’s plenty of me to go around.”
Pepper stopped short and looked hard around the room and at the two humans (I know, but for her that’s what we were), but when Hand spoke again, she was staring at him.
“Yes, it’s me. You are quite pretty.”
Now, Pepper knew what that meant, and her tail wagged. She put her front legs splayed out in front and bowed down.
“Is this a type of communication?” Hand asked me.
“Yes, she wants you to play,” I said, quite pleased.
“Oh, lady, yes ma’am.” And they ran off, running around the room and out into my little garden as soon as I opened the patio doors. I relaxed and turned my attention to Walter as he wandered around the living room.
“You live here by yourself?” he asked as he picked up pictures and books.
“Yes,” I said.
“Unusual. No mate?”
“No.” I shook my head. “I prefer it that way.”
“Yes, I have heard of this on Earth. It is unusual for such a backward planet.” He mused and then roused. “Oh, pardon me. I do not mean to infer that you are… It’s just that your level of development… the emancipation… That usually comes when reproduction is not so focused upon, necessary, if you take what I mean.” He looked at me with a tiny, mischievous smile.
“Well, I think we have enough population to last a few generations.”
“Not really. You need to inhabit a few places first. Really get a foothold in this solar system and then work on some outside it. Have to think of the species.” He got that cat smile again.
I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I suppose it’s true, as the dinosaurs could attest. There really is no safe amount of land; whole planets can be at risk. I didn’t want to think what could happen to whole solar systems. Whoa!
When Pepper and Hand had worn themselves out, we all sat down in the living room with refreshments and talk. Pepper led Walter out on the porch and they explored the garden together. He was very patient and explained what he liked about the place, and Pepper was delighted to listen. Hand lay on the floor, both of us watching them outside, and he started to tell me about how they met.
“I used to partner with Walter,”
“Yeah, you know, work together.”
“As a Watcher?”
Nodding his head, “We were a good team. Got into some fights, a good time.” Hand wagged his tail. “I retired with him.”
“Oh, didn’t go back home?”
The tail dropped. “No, it doesn’t exist anymore.”
“Oh, Hand, I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah, so was Walter. He fought the Agency, but in the end they said ‘Just watch’, you know, ‘record.’ Walter got me out of there just before the whole thing fell apart.”
“How? What happened?”
“Well, we blew ourselves up. That is, evidently, not usual. I know you think it is; that Earthen’s worry about it. Usually, they run out of something or someone comes along and takes it and that leads to the end. We were very volatile, though. The Agency said that was nature selecting. I suppose that’s right.” He sighed.
“I don’t know. That seems so heartless.”
“Well,” he shrugged his shoulders, “they have to deal with a whole galaxy. There is a great push not to get involved, let people be what they are.”
Yes, I felt that way, but it seemed to me that if extinction was involved it was worth trying something.
Walter decided on a nap and Pepper and Hand alternated between frenzied play and exhaustive panting. I wish I had that energy. When Walter woke up, I saw a different side to him, one I was familiar with from other clients.
“Oh, I don’t know what I’m doing, where I am.” He sighed and sat down.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Sarah?” Walter asked.
That was good. I was so new in his life.
“I just don’t know who I am. I look in the mirror and don’t recognize this face,” he said.
“Where were you born?”
“Tanterus 5 in the middle of the Tanterus system.”
“How many in your family?”
“One brother, two children. I had a wife, I think, but she’s no longer around?”
“Yes, what was she like?”
“I don’t know.” He didn’t remember and he quit talking. That was the end of it. It was amazing to me how memory loss patients could know so much but only access it from questions, not on their own.
Hand invited Pepper to go with us to Uno’s and of course she knew that word—GO!—showing us by wagging her tail and stepping on my feet. I allowed it after she got a chip (in addition to the Earthen one for dogs) and wore a leash, just to be safe. I wondered how Hand felt about this, but he said nothing.
Arriving at Uno’s with Pepper for the first time was a bit nerve wracking for me. What would she do? Would she be scared? I took a deep breath and trusted. I was learning to go with the flow. We all sat at the same table as our previous visit. Pepper could barely contain her curiosity, but she submitted to lying under the table. I guess she was relaxed.
“Hey Walter, stolen any icebergs today?” I turned to see a humanoid of questionable origin. He—it—stood three feet tall, hands for feet and hammers for hands.
“Demoleon!” Walter jumped up, grinning, and almost hugged the guy.
“Hey Walter, it’s good seeing you, been a long time.” Another cheerful voice caught our attention.
Walter turned to the new speaker, grinning even wider (if that was possible). “Arsta, you devil! What dark hole did you crawl out of? Come eat with us, Uno outdid himself.” Walter gestured to the two aliens.
“MMM… not my kind,” Arsta said, but Demoleon did sit down.
A small bark issued from below. Hand came and sat down right beside my dog, talking to her in whispers. Pepper loved the attention and nuzzled between the both of us.
Arsta turned to me.
“Oh, this is Sarah, my watchdog.” Walter grinned and rolled his eyes.
“How do you do? It is a pleasure to meet you.” Then it did a bow, just angled its body so the front legs and head were lowered. There is no other way to describe it; this was a spider, a huge spider whose head reached at least five feet high.
“Nice to meet you, too,” I managed to answer.
Arsta pulled over a cushion that fit its abdomen pretty well. “So, you are a watchdog for Walter?”
“Well, I am called an aide. I am helping Walter keep some of his independence.”
“I am glad about that. Walter had been so vibrant. His daughter and son took him to that small planet and we haven’t heard from him for quite a while, a few years. I don’t think they quite approved of us. I think the reason you were hired has something to do with the influence of your planet. Don’t you have male dominance?”
At first the feminist in me wanted to protest, but I realized she was speaking of the whole planet and that it seemed to be unusual. We have come a long way from the Suffragette movement. I was very proud to be an independent woman. Watchers, though, might view this on a much larger scale. Umm, male dominance unusual, that was interesting, and it had some influence on the decision to hire me. Why, because Walter was a male and therefore more important on Earth? Why would they care? I thought of Bey, how he looked. Whoa, this was going farther than my poor mind could absorb, so I continued to talk about my experience with his family.
“I don’t know about his daughter, I think you are right about the son, Bey. He disapproved of visiting with aliens. I thought he meant the people to the south who illegally crossed our border. There is quite a bit of tension over that, and they are called ‘illegal aliens’. I got the feeling he thought Walter would do something irresponsible. Of course, that is common in my work with the elderly, so I didn’t think it unusual, except that it seemed to encompass more than just the effects of age.”
“That sounds like Bey. I think you should know, though,” she leaned closer to me, “Walter is not irresponsible, except the way that men can be.” She leaned back, “He was an excellent Watcher. At this point he just has troubles with his memory, though I realize I haven’t seen him in a while.”
“Well, Walter was not involved with much when I first met him, but now he is really getting engaged.” I paused. “I’m afraid Bey will not be pleased we came here.”
Arsta nodded her head.
“I am surprised there wasn’t some help for him here. Something more than what we have,” I added in frustration.
“No, Walter’s children probably wouldn’t do much artificial for him. Some Watchers believe interference is not justified,” Arsta said.
I was stunned. “I would think every effort would be made…” I didn’t know how to finish.
Arsta delicately put a leg on my arm, “No Sarah, there isn’t much interest. Once they pass into declining stages, that is it.” All her eyes were on me. I had never encountered this point of view before.
Arsta leaned toward me and whispered in my ear, “Sarah, we are not gods. Being around for more millennia doesn’t always produce wisdom.” She leaned back. “Of course, all Watchers don’t think that way.” She leveled all her eyes at me. “Walter is one of the most valuable people I know, with or without his memory. I would do anything I could for him.” At this point I believe Arsta became my best friend, feeling like that about my charge.
“You have known Walter long?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, our first assignment was together. He was a rascal, but would come up with the most remarkable ideas. We backed each other many a time.”
“How long have you worked as a… Watcher?” I asked. I immediately felt foolish, that was the simplistic way Walter put it.
“Ooh, I am retired now. I had to raise my little ones. It takes a lot to have one hundred all the way to maturity.”
“Yes, that would be hard.” I thought about that. “Is it called Watching? How long does a career usually last?”
“Yes, we do call it Watching. It is a word that translates well. Let’s see, we all started around one thousand years ago, and some of us are still going at it. The Agency has been going for over a million years. Yes, I know that is a long time, but the age-old urge to know about others has always been around. Of course, it has changed over the years, policies have evolved. Many planets have matured and joined or died out, but a good proportion of the galaxy is represented.”
“Wow, that is something, over a million years. Are you all retired now?” I looked around the room.
“Oh, no, some like Hopo over there at the bar,” she indicated a small green guy with a spark plug body who turned a beautiful smile my way, “I don’t think he will ever quit. He tows things like asteroids on the side, just to make enough payroll. Budget cuts.” I nodded my head, I was familiar with that.
“Sometimes, he joins the jobs together, of course, not always with permission,” Demoleon said. The group laughed, nodding their heads. Walter scowled.
“What?” I asked, looking around. An inside joke?
Uno set down another drink in front of me. “Sometimes, you must break the rules.” Looking me straight in the eyes. I never broke rules, ever…. Oh yeah, that wasn’t true anymore. I squirmed in my seat.
“Aye,” Demoleon said.
I looked at all of them, finally ending at Arsta. “Oh, yes, Walter broke some rules, but…”
“It saved my life,” said Uno.
“And mine,” Hand barked.
“Sometimes that seems like a stupid choice,” Walter said.
“Aw, come on, you love me!” Hand grinned. Walter guffawed and waved his hand at the alien dog.
“But really, it was quite a stunt, a legend still. Imagine towing an iceberg all around that monstrous planet and dropping it in plain sight! I couldn’t have done it,” Demoleon said.
“Why would you move an iceberg?” I asked.
“Ah, for the age old battle,” Arsta said.
“Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for war!” Walter raised his glass.
“Righto,” and the group raised their glasses.
“You brought someone water?” I asked, smiling, pleased Walter had used my quote.
“He sure did, saved my people.” Uno sat down. “I came from a line of farmers. All of us, except my brother, Ibba,” Uno said, looking at the back corner of the bar at the unsavory character I had spotted earlier. “I was put in charge of selling the crops to Amida, the big city. I learned a good trade.”
“Then the city got greedy. They shared the river with the farmers. They started to fight over the water. It got ugly,” Walter said, shaking his head.
“It’s an old story. Those with the power take the water. At first it was pretty balanced, but soon the city grew and the farming got more efficient, which led to fewer farmers,” Arsta said. “Any Watcher will tell you where this goes, and it is not fun to watch.”
“I had them build a dam,” Walter said, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
A dam? Walter? Sarah looked at her charge closely.
“Great idea, but the city, Amida, beat us to it.” Uno scowled. “We were almost there!” His hand went up, “then the water was gone. They had managed to divert it into their territory away from the dam and us.”
“But wouldn’t that put Amida in a bad spot with no crops?” I asked.
“The larger you get, the more sources you pull from. The damned city got food from elsewhere in the country. We had some stored and survived okay for one season, but that was all we were prepared for,” Uno said.
“I have heard of taking an iceberg for water supply.” The idea was so huge. “So you got who,” I looked over at the bar, “Hopo, to pick it up for you?”
Hopo was looking at the group, stood up, walked over with his drink and joined in. “Sure did, and I put it behind the newly constructed dam.”
“Wow, how did everybody react?” I asked, astounded at the thought. “Where did you get it from, wasn’t there an issue with contamination, you know, microbes or something?”
Everyone grinned who could. “We got it from the same planet, and Hopo did something to it to make sure it was clean,” Arsta said. Hopo nodded, sipping his drink.
“They thought it was a divine proclamation. Volturnus, their god, had shown his displeasure at Amida and had blessed the farmers with even more water than was there originally.” Uno smiled, looking back at his brother again. “My brother supplied the parts, smuggled out from Amida, my family, the labor, and Walter the expertise.”
“That’s when the Agency shut me down,” Walter looked pained as he talked.
“He didn’t lose his job, but they watched him close after that,” Arsta said quietly to me.
“When the time came, we took an offered ride off planet.” Uno smiled, turning back to the group. “I’m afraid getting in between a god and his disciplined subjects was not safe.”
“So, this was not encouraged, this iceberg taking, by the Agency?” I asked. No wonder Bey was so suspicious.
The people around the table looked at each other. “Our primary goal is to observe and learn how civilizations develop, but...” Arsta turned her eight eyes to look around the table again.
“But, sometimes there is a moral question. Not a lot. We can go through centuries without much to test us,” Demoleon said. “Frankly, we are not there long enough.”
“And if you try to respond, the rules are quite strict. Technically, you could say Walter followed the rules,” Hopo said, raising his glass.
In chorus the rule was quoted, “As Watchers in a life and death emergency, where the agent has a reasonable chance of success to save life and the populace is left unaware of the greater galactic presence, the Watcher may temporarily interfere.”
“Of course, there was argument on the interpretation. The iceberg stunt was the largest ‘interference’ known, and having a god be the reason, well... the Agency didn’t like that. Thankfully, in this case, there was no Volturnus to answer to.”
Whoa! There can be a Volturnus to answer to?
I sat back in my chair. Pepper nuzzled my hand and sat down on my feet. There was comfort in her warmth and pressure. Could I have done that, taken that risk? A week ago I would have said no, but I had broken the rules, even if it was without my permission. Oh, fardles, technically, even that wasn’t true.
This trip back was met by a very irritated son. “Dad, where have you been? Ms. Anders, I thought made clear that Dad was not to associate with aliens.”
“Yes, you did, but at the time the only aliens I knew were from down south over the border. Ephrem gave me permission for Uno’s.”
I looked him straight in the eye. I had been anticipating this conversation. I knew that Bey would not approve, but I would not let my employers put me in the middle. This was Bey’s prejudice, not mine.
“This is very complicated, how do you define alien?” I asked Bey, looking straight at him again.
Bey shook his head and scowled.
“I made this choice,” Walter said.
“Dad, you not capable, let’s get you back in house.” He moved to take his father’s arm. I believed up until that moment that “handling” my charges in this forceful way was acceptable. Seeing it was unsettling.
“Wait, Bey, let’s not…” I said.
“You stay out this, go home.” And he moved to again force Walter away. I could tell Walter was going to resist. This was not good.
Bey reached for Walter’s arm and Walter pulled away. I saw the hand go up and I knew I could not allow that. Breaking another rule so soon, Sarah? Never in my career had I challenged my employer.
“Stop!” I stepped into Bey’s line of sight, reached up and pulled back his arm. Pepper started barking, seeing me react.
“Ms. Anders, this is private matter! Get that creature out of here!” Bey was trying not to yell but he was red.
Hand stepped up with Pepper. “She is not a creature,” and turning to my dog he said, “you go, girl!” Pepper continued to bark.
“And I am Walter’s advocate. Step away.” I held my ground. Bey dropped his arm, a little confused at the turn of events.
It was Walter’s turn to be astonished. He looked at me and then at his son, his eyes wide. Walter reached out for me and lost the support of his legs. I helped him reach the floor, very slowly.
“Call 911,” I told Bey as he stood looking down on us.
“No, can’t go to Earthen hospital,” was all he said as he shook his head.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” I shook my head. How far would this go, though I had to admit that it would be awkward.
I tried to think of what was the logical thing to do. My head came up. “Jona, prepare the cruiser, emergency, need closest medical facility that can help Walter.”
“Acknowledged, computing,” that wonderful voice out of my arm said.
“Hand, help me get there,” I said as I picked up that fragile old man and Hand and Pepper led the way back out to the garage opening doors as we went.
We left Bey standing there with his mouth open. I sat by Walter’s bed all night with Hand and Pepper lying at my feet.
The galaxy survived the interference, both of Walter’s and of mine. Bey never talked to me again; he found work elsewhere. Walter survived, though was never the same after that. We often took him out for joy rides, and a few times I got that smile back. Walter left me the cruiser, and Hand now lives with us. The Watcher Agency had erected a memorial outside the main building for the Water enterprise. Hand and I helped the retired Watchers petition, and it seemed someone else agreed that the enterprise was heroic.
On Friday nights (Earth nights) you can find Hand, Pepper, and me raising or just drinking a glass at Uno’s, in tribute:
“To Walter, for winning the water war!”