Sam goes for a road trip to the Grand Canyon with his buddy Ed, an alien who looks like a giant pill bug; by Phil Temples.
I'd seen Ed around campus many times. He was almost always alone. People instinctively shied away from him. Ed's appearance can be a little disturbing. He's approximately five feet, four inches, and sports several dozen pairs of appendages along the length of his body that act as arms. His spiny chest and abdomen are encased in a grey, segmented shell. With it, he can fold in on himself for privacy. In short, Ed resembles a giant Armadillidium vulgare, or pill bug. Or a "roly-poly." Take your pick. But, hey - who am I to judge. I can appreciate that we humans must look pretty bizarre to him. Perhaps we're known as Humanus vulgare on his world.
I first met Ed late one Friday night in November at the student union in Willard Straight Hall. The sandwich shop was practically deserted, save for us and a few other stragglers. Most of the students had left for the Thanksgiving holidays. There wasn't much incentive for me to go back to Brooklyn for the holiday: Mom is deceased, and Dad is an alcoholic. I guessed that my roly-poly friend might have wanted to visit home - if he had an extra decade or two to spare.
I walked over and introduced myself, and asked him if he'd like some company.
"Sure, be my guest."
Ed's command of English was excellent; he spoke it colloquially, with a heavy Spanish accent.
He motioned to an empty seat at the table. Spread before him were various textbooks on animal husbandry, computers, Greek literature, political science, and quantum mechanics. I learned that Ed was in his sophomore year doing a quadruple major. The quantum mechanics class wasn't a part of his major - it was merely a passing interest.
He told me that his name was Ed Sullivan. He must have known what my next question would be; without my asking, he explained the name. Of the many early television transmissions that made it into outer space, "The Ed Sullivan Show" was one of Ed's favorites. Ed claimed to have seen almost every episode. (Those episodes Ed missed he watched later on YouTube.)
"So, what's your real - I mean, what do they call you on your planet?"
"You ready for this? Listen closely..."
I heard a hair-raising screech coming from some holes near his belly. It sounded like the noise made from dragging your fingernails across a blackboard. I covered my ears.
"Okay, okay. Uncle!"
"Yeah. Now you understand why I use this adopted name."
Ed explained how he and his kind could quickly engineer new organs to adapt to this and other worlds. The larynx and vocal chords had been synthesized for producing human speech. He'd grown lungs suitable for breathing our atmosphere.
"So you must have traveled all over the galaxy, huh?"
Ed smirked. He possessed a very expressive face for a bug.
"No, not that much, Sam. I've been to Manhattan, Philly, and D.C. Let's see - south of the Mason-Dixon line. Buckhead, near Atlanta. Ever hear of it? Oh, yeah - and a shitty little rock called Proxima Centauri 4. Don't even bother to go there."
Spring break finally arrived, and we headed out on a Friday night after Ed's last class. I had suggested taking my VW Beetle, as it gets pretty good gas mileage. But Ed convinced me that we should take his ride instead. He owns a tricked out 2015 Ford Minivan with all sorts of mods. The Ford sported an advanced collision avoidance system that Ed built. It could also do full autopilot if he wished. But Ed explained that that sort of control was only legal in California - because Google had lobbied for it.
The driver's seat was specially designed to fit his shell. It mounted on tracks that slid back and forth. That made it trivial to swap back to the regular seat for a human driver. Good thing, too, since we needed to share the driving duties. After all, Ithaca to the Grand Canyon National Park and back wasn't going to be a mere day trip.
After nearly twenty-four hours of continuous driving, I had succeeded in telling Ed practically every dirty joke and story in my repertoire; he, in turn, taught me some new ones. Not all of them translated very well. Perhaps I needed a better understanding of the nuances of alien mating positions and sexual reproduction. More likely, though, I was totally exhausted. In fact, we were both running on fumes. We decided to put in at a small motel outside of Tulsa.
The clerk gave Ed a wary look as she handed me the key to a room.
"Two twin beds okay?"
I assured her it was. Actually, the second bed wasn't necessary since Ed found it more far more comfortable to roll into a big ball and sleep on the floor.
Before turning in, we decided to go next door to the greasy spoon and order some food and a beer.
We strode into the bar, and hopped onto the two closest empty bar stools. The local rednecks stopped what they were doing and stared. It was a classic scene out of some TV show, where something bizarre happens or is said, and suddenly you hear the sound of a phonograph needle skipping across a record, followed by dead air. Upon seeing us, one cowboy scratched on a pool shot. He simply stood there - stick in hand, his cue ball rolling off the table and across the floor - gaping at us. I didn't want any trouble. I was thinking we should make a quick exit, but then Ed saved the day. In a perfect Brooklyn Hasidic accent, he addressed the gawkers.
"What'sa mattah? You ain't nevah seen a Yankee be-fah?"
The bartender, whose nametag read "Mollie," burst out laughing. That, in turn, elicited a few chuckles from the pool players. In another stroke of genius, Ed turned to the woman, handed over a wad of twenty dollar bills and, in a loud voice, announced:
"Mollie, a round for all of our new friends!"
Ed ordered several more rounds of drinks for the locals, who had quickly gotten over their initial suspicions about "the bug." We were having a delightful time hobnobbing it with Ralph, Gus, Bud, and Earl - all of whom worked at a local tractor supply store. Bud's girlfriend, Susie, walked in later and joined us. After a couple of drinks, she screwed up her courage and asked Ed if she could pose with him for a 'selfie.'
"Go right ahead, little lady. I don't mind. That is, of course..." Ed turned and winked at Bud.
"...Unless your boyfriend does."
The pool game was gradually abandoned, and Ed was peppered with all manner of questions, like: "How fast does your spaceship travel?" "How old are you?" "Do you have sex like humans do?" The latter question came from Susie.
One of them asked, "How come you talk like a Mexican, anyway? You don't look like one."
"God's honest truth," replied Ed, "I started to learn your language from a tutor implant on the way here. It was created by one of our kind who landed in Spain in the early twentieth century. After awhile, though, I discovered that I was learning Spanish instead of English, so I switched. I guess I'll always consider Spanish to be my 'native Terran tongue.' That's why I choose to keep the accent."
Ralph, who had previously been silent, spoke up.
"Does that mean you speak Spanglish?"
They all chucked, including Ed.
"I guess you could say that. Not only do I speak both Spanish and English, but I can switch to Spanglish when I have to."
Ed explained to Gus that their spaceships didn't actually go faster than the speed of light. Instead of moving normally across space, they sort of squeezed around and through it. Their technology had a way of compressing space ahead of their ship, while inflating it behind. "I know, I know," Ed said, "It's cheating. But we get great gas mileage."
Earl - the oldest of the group, and the one who scratched his shot when we first arrived, finally spoke.
"I like you. You're okay for a bug. How old are you, son?"
Thank God he wasn't asking me. It must have been obvious to every person in the bar that I wasn't yet 21. In all of the commotion, Mollie hadn't carded me.
Instead of answering out loud, Ed handed Earl his New York driver's license. The gang gathered around Earl to stare at it. The laser-engraved, polycarbonate card showed the classic Statue of Liberty image in the upper right hand. Ed's black-and-white dual images were visible along with his Ithaca campus address. Alongside "Date of Birth" the ID card read, "08/20/1824." There was no doubt that the state of New York considered Ed Sullivan of legal age, and allowed to operate a motor vehicle.
"Whoa," exclaimed Earl.
"You better start calling him 'pappy,'" said one of Earl's buddies.
"Don't you mean, 'great-great-great-grand-pappy'?" chimed in another.
"It's only approximate," said Ed. "You see - my father, who was hatching me at the time - he was in suspended animation. I became a sentient being around that date - well, plus or minus a few months." With a straight bug face, Ed added, "Please don't tell the New York DMV my dirty little secret. I had a hell of a time getting a driver's license in the first place. Besides, I don't want them deporting me on a technicality."
Earl stared at Ed for a moment, not knowing whether to take him seriously. Then everyone broke into a boisterous laughter.
The next day we drove and drove, and the miles slowly ticked off. We left the Texas Panhandle behind and made our way across New Mexico, stopping briefly in Albuquerque for a meal. I was frankly surprised at the reception Ed received whenever we pulled in at rest stops and gas stations. People were cautious, yet they still approached. Most had only seen pictures of aliens before; they had never met one face to face. Ed put them all at ease, greeting each with a rambunctious, "Howdy!" He posed for countless pictures.
This was getting old. I was beginning to feel like a third wheel. One couple asked if Ed would hold their newborn infant and pose with them for a photo. Without so much as a "please" they handed me their iPhone, assuming I would snap the picture.
Excuse me. Hello! I'm not his press agent!
I was sorely tempted to shout out, "Hey, careful! On his planet, they eat their young." But I didn't want to get us into any trouble. I told myself, "This is Ed's vacation, too. I shouldn't rain on his parade."
He's my friend. Let him have a little fun and human attention.
The following day, we arose bright and early and left the motel for the national park. I was anxious to get started.
"What do you want to see first?" I asked, as I opened the brochure. "We can stop by Hopi Point, the Vermillion Cliffs, or Lipan Point. Oh! I know - how about that cool skywalk. What's it called?"
"Are you thinking of the Hualapai Tribe and Skywalk?" Ed asked.
"Yeah. That's it! Just think what would it be like to step out onto a clear, transparent platform and look straight down for thousands of feet... Say, you're not afraid of heights are you, Ed?"
He returned my look; he wore a huge grin. I've seen that look before.
"Sam, you're talking to someone who has gazed down upon the surface of a giant gas planet from 500 kilometers high while floating freely in space. Does that sound like someone who is afraid of heights? Besides, I have a better idea. But it's a surprise. I'll show you when we get there."
We arrived an hour later at the south rim at a parking lot just down the road from the visitor's center. A sign read, "Grand Canyon Helicopter and Jeep Tour."
"Ed - a helicopter ride? Come on. I don't have that kind of dough. And I don't want to sponge off of you anymore."
"Relax. This isn't gonna cost either of us a dime. Patience, Grasshopper - I'm almost ready to reveal my big surprise."
We pulled into the parking lot, and hopped out of the van. Ed opened the trunk and grabbed a large pack. He motioned for us to walk to the edge of the canyon.
"So, what's in the bag? It's not a parachute, is it? Because I'm not jumping off a cliff."
Ed said nothing. He kept walking toward the edge. I was beginning to feel anxious.
He's not crazy enough to base jump off the Grand Canyon, is he? Dear God...
A moment later, we arrived. Ed unzipped the bag, and pulled out a two body harnesses. Now, I'd climbed in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, bungee-jumped in Vermont, and parachuted at Pepperell, Massachusetts so I had some familiarity with all sorts of harnesses and hardware. But these were of a design I'd never seen before. Besides, I didn't see any parachute, cords, or even cables.
"Uhh - We're not - I mean, you're not free-climbing down the cliff, are you?"
"Nope. Here. Put this smaller harness on. It should fit you perfectly."
I was scared shitless, but something about the manner of his voice instilled confidence in me. I felt compelled to obey his request.
The harness fit snugly around my chest. I looked over at Ed. He was already wearing his. The back of my harness contained several fasteners that attached to... what? The front of his harness?
"Ed, are you going to tell me what the hell this is?"
"Watch this... Ta-dah!"
Just then, I witnessed an amazing site: slowly popping out from underneath Ed's hardened, segmented shell were several transparent membranes. They began to unfold. It gave Ed the appearance of a gigantic bumble bee!
"What do you think?" he asked. "Huh? HUH?"
"I. Uh. Umm. Well, I don't know what to say. They're amazing! Hey, since when could you fly?"
"I've only been growing them for the past couple of weeks, after we decided to take this trip over spring break."
"Look, you've been a great friend, Sam. I want to show my appreciation by treating you to something a little out of the ordinary. Of course, everybody and his brother who comes here takes a 'copter ride across the canyon. But how many people can claim they've flown across the Grand Canyon while strapped to the chest of a space creature? Hey! We should get some tourist to snap a few photos for your scrapbook before we go."
Ed assured me that it would be perfectly safe. Ed had snuck out early in the morning while I was still sleeping and tested his wings. He climbed to around 2,000 feet and hovered for nearly a half-hour - while carrying 200 pounds of weight. I was impressed!
We waved down some tourists, who readily agreed to shoot some video of us hovering just over the cliff's edge. At first, I didn't dare look down. But I remembered that scene from the movie "2010," where John Lithgow's character took a space walk over to Discovery with Io staring him in the face - and he didn't puke. I was determined to overcome my queasiness, sit back, and enjoy the view.
I've flown over the Grand Canyon on transcontinental flights before but I can assure you, the view from 35,000 feet doesn't do it justice. Ed made lazy circle-eight patterns around, and down inside the canyon with me in tow. The scenery was absolutely amazing! Later, we waved at some of the tourists in the helicopters. I don't think they completely understood what they were seeing - but in any event, they waved back.
"I hope you're going to get into trouble for this."
Initially I had been shouting, but I soon realized there was very little wind noise. I fell back to a normal tone of voice. Except for the gentle humming sound of Ed's wings, it was eerily quiet. I could hear the cry of a bald eagle in the distance.
"Nahh. I don't think anyone's going to report us to the FAA. Besides, even if they do, I took the liberty of registering myself."
Ed stuck one of his appendages in front of my face. He had written on it with a magic marker a made-up registration number: N124F. I couldn't help but chuckle.
All too soon, it was time to head back to terra firma and the confines of the parking lot. About a dozen tourists had gathered near the edge to greet us with applause when we landed. A certain park ranger was there, too. And he seemed pretty unhappy.
"Mister... Sullivan - is it?"
The ranger handed Ed's license back to him.
"Listen, I know you think you're a big-shot space alien 'n' all. But you're in my park right now. Subject to my rules. Where in God's name does it say you can trespass over my airspace like that? You endangered people's lives! Hell, what if everybody suddenly decided to sprout wings tomorrow and go tearing about over the canyon, huh?"
Ed appeared flabbergasted. He was clearly at a loss for words. I butted in.
"Look, sir... It's my fault. I encouraged him to do it. He's not familiar with our laws. I should have known better. Besides, you don't want to start an interstellar incident over this, do you? Cut him some slack, okay? If you're going to arrest anyone, arrest me."
"Alright, I will."
The ranger reached behind his belt and pulled out a pair of handcuffs. He motioned me to put my hands behind my head. I was terrified!
This can't be happening!
At that moment, I imagined what the consequences would be for me. I would have a criminal record that would follow me for the rest of my life. I might even be expelled from the university.
How would I ever get a job? Oh, SHIT!
Then I saw Ed reach out at the last second, and stop the ranger from cuffing me. He grinned at the ranger. The ranger grinned at him. Then they both laughed.
That's when I realized I'd been "had."
"Gotcha!" yelled Ed.
It was a spring break I would remember for the rest of my life.