In July of ‘95 an 18-wheeler overturned just north of Española, in a yellow arroyo sliced by the Rio Grande. On the news the trucker, unharmed, claimed a horse appeared suddenly in his headlights, a dark haloed shape like the black pop of an after-image. The nearest landowner in possession of horses said best guess, it was a tumbleweed, or nothing at all. Most likely the trucker was overtired, new to the job, to the nighttime driving and the endless brake lights on the unfamiliar highway. He was not from the area. Whatever the cause, the truck flipped. The weight of the skid propelled it through the rusted guardrails, down the embankment back-end first, half into the river. Punctured in the slide, the truck set free its cargo, including 15 cases bound for the UFO Museum of Roswell. There were souvenir glasses stamped with aliens in sombreros. Tiedyed I Believe t-shirts and tote bags. three-dozen copies of Kal K. Korff’s treatise on the Pullman Ranch incident. All of these and 2000 small green glow-in-the-dark alien tub toys swelled into the Rio where the tea-brown water lapped the wound in the truck bed. Glass smashed on the rocks, books sponged up the river and sunk. But the tub toys. Weeds and shopping carts in the silt netted some, but long before the manufacturing company in Colorado Springs hired divers to drag the Rio for its lost profits, most of the aliens had burst their soggy cardboard boxes and rushed away.
This was late Sunday and by Monday morning, local news outlets busied themselves with talk of night driving, drunk driving, reckless driving, the percentage of accidents for which farm animals were responsible. An exposé was run on the decay of the guardrails along that stretch of I-25, installed the year before but planted without the rust-preventative coating, a factory mistake made in the rush to ship before winter. They said the rails were blood-red with rust.
Then an alien was fished out of the river sixty-odd miles south of the wreck by a doctor, in town for an Otolaryngology conference in Albuquerque. The doctor and the dozen associates who’d signed up were bussed into the desert for a whitewater-rafting trip in a low slump of the Rio. While climbing aboard the boat he stumbled and plunged into the shallows. Ears pink, he scrambled up from between the neoprene boots of the otolaryngologists, who watched quietly, as did the river guides from their perch in the boat. Afterwards he was surly, staring down at the water when a bright green object bobbed towards them. At first he thought it was a kid’s lost ball. He reached down and plucked it out of the pale foam, studied what proved to be a small rubber alien the size of his palm, showed it around the boat, then clutched it to his chest for the rest of the ride.
When the group beached at noon to eat bagged baloney sandwiches on the shore near the Santo Doming Pueblo, one otolaryngologist phoned and described the strange find to his exwife, whom he was staying with in New Mexico. His ex-wife, a reporter with New Mexico 13, recognized the 18-wheeler’s missing cargo and ran with the untold story of the aliens. “They are among us,” she reported at the 6 o’clock hour. For a joke the show ran an artist’s rendering of a tub toy, and filled empty air with sightings, encounters, landings called in by viewers throughout the day.
An eight-year-old in Las Cruces, pale and thin as uncooked spaghetti, watched the news with her grownup sister. The girls were still in the black J. C. Penney funeral dresses they’d worn that afternoon. The anchorwoman warned viewers to stay away from the Rio Grande. “Or you might run into a straaaange visitor.” A picture appeared in the corner of the screen of a colored3 pencil drawing of an alien, bright Crayola green with three slim fingers, bigheaded, binoculareyed.
“Is this real?” she asked. A cold seed sprouted in her belly and she wished they were not alone in the house.
Her big sister laughed – not a true laugh, but a low whiff of air. “You know you used to go to Sunday school? I got called into your class when you were like, four or something. You had this assignment where you were supposed to draw the baptism of Jesus. And you did a tiny stick Jesus in the corner and then like thirty aliens around him. Flying aliens, aliens in the grass. I bought you a tape of E.T. for your birthday, and you watched it every day and got obsessed with putting him in your pictures. The teacher showed me your class folder, and there were E.T.s in every drawing you did that year. All hailing Jesus. I thought my little sister is either a genius or dumb as a mushroom.” Her eyes were bright with TV light. A week later the sisters drove two hours up I-25 to Roswell.
The city announced itself with streetlamps, black poles impaled with globed glass alien heads. Next came restaurants with big wind motion balloon aliens rippling in their parking lots, like the twenty foot tall balloon men that wriggled outside car dealerships and cell phone stores. A music shop propped cardboard aliens playing cardboard drum kits in its front window under the green neon Music is Universal sign. Inside the silver UFO Museum was the dissection exhibit, a mock hospital room where a charred plastic alien lay, child-thin, bulbous-skulled, while masked and suited mannequins sifted through the strange metallic contents of its stomach. In one cubical display, a photographic history of crop circles; in another, row upon row of framed paintings, pastels, penned doodles of aliens, ocean blue and violent red, eyes shark-small or globular, but always black. Above the rows the exhibit’s sign read: Paintings of Aliens by Locals.
In front of a world map of UFO sightings smothered in pushpins, a low reporter from some small fry station was interviewing the thirty-nine-year-old janitor, late of Egg Harbor, Wisconsin, who’d been fired last year and drifted south till he found himself doing work for the museum. “Well, I heard about that accident, those bath toys. We sell them $6.99 downstairs.” Had he heard they were traveling down the Rio towards the Gulf, due in Mexico within the week? “I heard they found one over in Truth or Consequences last night. But I don’t know too much about it. About how fast they’re going, or how many they found, or anything. It’s funny, though.” And what did he think about aliens? “About, what, about real aliens? I don’t know. It’s something to think about, you know, something being out there stranger than people. People, huh?” He laughed and shrugged, coolly puzzled, as though speaking of women’s fashion, or the bad stocks of other men.
If the tub toys ever washed ashore in Mexico, it wasn’t reported. News of the crash was eclipsed when a two-faced baby was born and died in Santa Fe in late July. It is uncertain whether the aliens made the Gulf. They were last spotted just south of White Sands, where grass furs into white hillocks of sand, blue under the stars. Further in the grass recedes and the sand collects in dunes, the peaks twice as high as a man, then twice as high again and again, until the road winds between dark hills that blot out the moon.