When Phillip and Althea reached the front of the food pantry line, they were again talking about the bright lights they’d seen roving over the battered coast. A few others had also been speaking of the UFO sightings. There’d been multiple in the past weeks. Glowing ovals that slowed or sped. Always unusually captivated by the pier that had been peeled away last month by the winds. I hadn’t yet seen it for myself, but I wasn’t particularly above believing them either. By which I mean, I did believe them and was only fretting over if I’d catch a glimpse, too.
Where was it this time? I asked.
The pier, as usual, Althea said, flipping a squashed can of peaches with fingers coated in grit. Pellets of sweat drummed from her temples. I asked her where exactly on the pier.
Way at the tip, she said, dropping cans into a tattered tote. Some meters above, she said. They’re always just a bit above. I’ve got a kink in my neck from all that craning.
Beside her, Phillip packed a trash bag with our offerings. He said, But we’ve also seen them closer to the ferris wheel.
Althea rolled her neck. And by the shrimp boats, she said, her eyes closed.
Phillip spun his bag into a knot. You’ll see them soon enough yourself, he said. He slapped his palm to my shoulder, and the two sauntered off.
We ran out of supplies and I folded the collapsible tables. Left them tucked in a corner of St. Mary’s, the local church from which we operated. Pounding down corridors that smelled of yeast and candle wax and mothballs I met Father Berlant. He clutched his hands, pressed them to his ballooning belly. He bowed his head down and spoke.
Lots more people now, ain’t it? he said. Father Berlant was a red-faced man with three or so hairs that sprung from his shiny head in curlicues, and he leaned back and forth on his heels as he spoke, out of impatience over anything else.
I said, More and more with each passing hurricane.
It’s a fine thing you do, he said, and he shuffled down the hall. My eyes tracked his back, and I thought of when Father Berlant walked into St. Mary’s after seeing the lights. Mouth propped open, eyes glittering in awe. He was stunned. But I’m a man of faith, he told me. This was all he said, and I hadn’t prodded him about it since. He’d grown even more reserved, I thought. Apprehensive now of the going ons around him. The world no longer such a familiar place. Its wonders not one for the book.
So far, there was no evidence of the sightings. Like everyone had collectively forgotten to take pictures. Like everyone knew if they did, they’d sully the experience. A small part of me wondered if this wasn’t unlike those cases of communal hysteria. If so, why had it skipped me? I envied them. I was also afraid I’d be next; I wasn’t, I thought, ready to see what evils the sky bore. And so I had my eyes lowered as I lumbered down the main drag for lunch: I was meeting Cecil for clam chowder.
He tugged his bag into the booth I’d snatched, a quick kiss skimming my cheek. He’d seen the lights, too. But, like Father Berlant, he had little to say—they wanted answers that no one could give. I crushed crackers in their bag before scattering the dust over a steaming bowl and I asked Cecil about work.
Never thought I’d be representing a kidnapper, he said. Cecil was a public defender. One of his regulars had flown off the handle again, this time scooping up kids of which he’d lost custody, driving them round and round the causeways that wreathed the coast. It’s a shame, Cecil said. I liked him.
He just wanted to spend some time with his kids, I said.
Cecil dropped his spoon. He was bullish in appearance—a towering figure with a squat, squashed nose, almost as though someone had punched him in once as a toddler. But he was soft-spoken, and walked as if on tippy toes, afraid of breaking the world’s equilibrium with his hulking frame. He had a gun, he said, and he cleared away the line of froth that palmed his lip.
If only he’d seen the lights, I said. I’m sure that would have turned him right and easy.
Cecil rested his eyes over the boulevard from which cars shot past at awful speeds. Hot air smelling of melting pavement rattled the umbrellas. The cloth was wan and stained by the elements. Did you notice a change in me? Cecil asked. The ground rumbled.
You’ve always been impatient, I said.
I’ll take that as a no.
You know the word awe-struck? That’s what I saw in you. Awe. Not fear or disbelief, but a kind of wonder at the world. You found the lights impressive. Everything moving forward will always be a little disappointing now. Screw the Seven Wonders.
Is it worth trying then? To find something to match it.
Do you want to see the lights again?
Cecil fell silent. He drew cold water past his lips through a gnawed plastic straw, the end all splintered. He did this with every plastic straw, and I can’t say I minded one bit. What if I told you I saw them again? he said. Last night.
What were you doing at the pier last night?
Waiting for the lights. There were dozens of us.
You’re all just awe-struck zombies. Obsessed.
I know you can’t wait to see them, Cecil said, and he looked down at his bowl. Have you noticed a drop in the quality of chowder here?
Like I said, life will just be one disappointment after another now.
When the server slapped the bill to our table, Cecil asked him if the chowder had been cooked differently. The man frowned. It’s a new cook, he said. Still learning the ropes, I guess.
Cecil tossed me a mild smile. But his eyes—I thought they still glittered.
I was in the bank the following day—thinking back to when I awoke in the middle of the night to Cecil’s side of the bed, empty and cold—when a gun went off. Crumbles of ceiling fell to the floor. A man pitched an empty duffle bag over the counter, told the teller to fill ’er up. I dropped to the ground, joining people beneath the table to the side of the room where pens scattered and deposit slips flapped. The teller obeyed: she packed stacks of bills into the bag. The man jittered: he swung the gun carelessly across the room and told her to hurry. Only a few seconds passed before he pulled the bag to his chest and ran to the street. We stayed on the ground. Panic-frozen.
I told Cecil about it at dinner. Why didn’t you call me? he said. He sat back on his chair, watching me with a weary look across his face. Between us a plate of towering ground beef spiced with taco seasoning steamed.
I’m telling you about it now, I said. I set scoops of filling into a corn tortilla. Wrapped it carefully before shoving it into my mouth.
I mean, are you okay?
My hands shook and I chewed. It’s the lights, I said. Everyone’s gone crazy.
It’s the hurricanes. People are desperate.
Are you going to defend him? I said. I was thinking now of the kidnapper Cecil was already representing. Had it been the lights that drove him to take his son, gun gripped in one hand, sweated steering wheel in the other?
Why would I defend him? Cecil said.
I tapped back my beer bottle. The bitter taste of Cecil’s preferred brand drowned my tongue. I drained it anyway and began taking pulls from his own bottle. You weren’t in bed last night, I said. Where were you?
Wherever you think I was, he said, and he rubbed his face.
I have no desire anymore. Don’t want to see them, not if I’m next.
I’m being cautious. Something you could use a little bit more of.
I just wanted to feel something, he said. His uneaten soft taco had begun to unfold, the filling spilling across his plate. Both beer bottles were now empty.
People go to extremes for that, I said. Have you ever met a drug addict?
It’s like art, art that moves you.
I still have ceiling dust in my hair.
Father Berlant sat slumped over concrete steps that plunged into the administrative offices of St. Mary’s. I sank beside him with a box of bruised fruit. Peach, Father? I said, and he brought his teeth to the downy surface.
I heard you were present during that bank robbery, he said, swiping at the juice that spilled from the edges of his mouth. I stared at his fingers slick from fruit and nodded. The sweet scent of nectar drifting between us.
It’s desperate times, I said.
It’s always been this way, he said. Feels worse at the moment, but one day you’ll look back and realize this wasn’t so bad. That what you’re living now is worse.
And the lights?
What about them?
Don’t you think they make this moment different from any other?
I have always left room for the inexplicable, he said, and he spat out the pit.
Why do you think I haven’t seen them yet? It seems everyone else has by now.
Wrong place, wrong time. Are you sure you want to see them? You won’t be able to return to your same old life. Not when you know that everything you’ve ever believed is a lie. Don’t you fear change?
Have you seen proof of God ever? I said.
You and me here, he said.
Aren’t the lights testing your faith?
They are strengthening it.
Patti Lorraine once saw Jesus in her pancake. Does that count as proof?
When was the last time you went to confession?
Father, we’ve worked together for years and I’ve never gone to confession. Nor have you ever asked.
Things are changing, isn’t that what you said? You’re a believer.
I saw my hands were shaking—images from the robbery flashed in my mind. I told Father Berlant I was, and he gripped my shoulder, pulled me up. I followed him down the corridor, sat back inside the confession booth. It smelled of wood polish. The stale odor of old cushions after I pushed my hips in place.
It had been years, but the ritual came to me all the same. Its words and gestures. The sign of the cross unfurled from my fingertips. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, I said. My last confession was years ago. After my confirmation, I think. I’ve probably sinned a lot since then.
That’s okay, Father Berlant said through the booth. Tell me what you can remember.
I am an envious person. I feel lust, constantly. I lie, though less now than before. I stole a lot as a kid. I drank a lot, too. Thoughts of suicide. Though not so much anymore. I am living in sin with a man, though I feel no guilt about it. It’s the one thing in my life of which I feel no shame. But I am an ungrateful person. I always have the desire to blow-up my life. Though I don’t act on those impulses. I am a person of control now. I wasn’t one before.
You’ve come a long way, Father Berlant said.
For many years, I said, I wished for the death of my father. He’s dead now, and it has made all the difference. The resentments I held weighed on me. They were a burden. I can breathe now that they’re gone.
It’s not uncommon to wish for a parent’s death, Father Berlant said.
I don’t feel remorse, I said. I’m better because of it.
The man I see today is a good man. Whether you know it or not.
Father, are they competing in your mind? The extraterrestrial with the spiritual?
Absolutely not, he said.
They’re both just spectacles, I said. Phenomena that come and go.
I’m a holy man. You understand that.
Hurricanes, too. Phenomena. Spectacle. We love watching destruction unfold on our TV screens. How is any of this any different?
You have so much to learn, he said. I hope you’ll come see me again.
I don’t remember the Act of Contrition.
That’s okay. I can guide you.
Cecil shifted in bed when I spoke. I had caught him before he could slip out and into the night. I had every chance to tell Father Berlant about our funding and I couldn’t do it, I said. He flicked the lamp on before scooting himself upright. He said he was sure Father Berlant knew by now.
Still, he should have heard it from me. I don’t know how we’ll only operate one day a week now. People need us more than ever before.
It’s a ruthless country we live in.
Something something Capitalism, I said, and I gathered Cecil into my arms. I feel like I’m losing you, I said. His heart banged against the smooth of my palms. We hadn’t had sex in months but the steps came to us easily. We were particular in what we liked, and never veered far from our ritual, reliable in its solidity. In this way, sex was like confession—not only because they were both rituals, but in how I approached them: as though I was coming back to something from the past. I locked my legs around his torso, his hardness grinding down. He groaned softly when I peeled away his briefs, then my own. The lube was cold, the comfort an old one. I guided him in, his breath hot and already stale. I burned only briefly, and would maybe burn again in the morning. Cars roared outside. I cried quietly once we were done.
Things will look up, Cecil said.
That’s what everyone’s saying, I said. But doesn’t it all seem bleaker than ever before?
I think we’re only now seeing the light.
You would think that, I said.
I mean it. The best is yet to come.
The line trickled past the stack of crates packed with cabbage and bananas I leaned my weight against. It was the same people as always; they scooped up cans of kidney beans and string beans. I have a good feeling about tonight, Althea said when she reached the front of the line. She plucked her cans and produce, dropping them into her sagging sack. Phillip was creeping up behind. He said he agreed. Maybe it’ll be your lucky night, he said, his eyes glossing over me and to the pillar of cabbage heads. The day passed in a daze. When supplies ran out, I folded the tables, tossed the crates to the dump. I crossed through St. Mary’s, down the many-odored corridors, until I met Father Berlant. I don’t have time for confession, he said, pushing past me and into his office.
I stood in the hall for a moment, then followed him inside.
Didn’t you hear me? he said from behind his desk buried in stacks of age-stained paper.
I should have told you when we spoke that we lost funding, I said.
Oh, that? I don’t care. The people deserve what they get.
This is your parish we’re talking about. Don’t you care?
They have found a higher power. Don’t you think? For that matter, haven’t I also? Do you know I spend every night out there, waiting for the lights? And what for? They don’t do anything. They haven’t beamed me up. They haven’t spoken some new truth to me. It’s a vice like any other. I am no stronger than the junkie or the whore.
Then: I’m sorry, he said. I’ve spoken out of turn. It’s just that everything feels so heightened lately, don’t you think?
I sat across from him, my finger swiping at the dust that coated the old mahogany. Confession, I said. Something has changed in my relationship and I don’t know what it is. I fear he has moved on, and is leaving me behind. He’s a public defender, and what am I? Someone too afraid to go look at some flying saucers?
There is no sin to what you’ve said.
Envy? Wrath? I lack any of the seven virtues, anyway.
I am in a crisis, can’t you see?
Are you going to hurt yourself?
Color flooded Father Berlant’s cheeks. Jesus, he said. No.
I walked the streets. Stared into the faces of the people I passed. The sun bounced off the many irises until all eyes glowed something deep and vacant. Had they always seemed so empty? I was grasping. At home, I sat in the armchair tucked in the most shadowed corner of the living room. I waited for Cecil to return. The sun sank and still, nothing. He was out there, I was sure of it, loitering under the lights. That small constellation that bloomed through parting clouds.
When I woke, he was in bed, and I couldn’t remember if I’d checked our room in the first place. Had he been there the entire time? I shook him awake. I told him to fuck me, to fuck the distance away.
What distance? he said, sleep-rumpled, eyes drowning in morning grit.
I’m losing you, I said. I’m losing you.
The lights have you going crazy.
But I haven’t even seen them.
We’ve done this song and dance before, he said. I haven’t changed one bit.
I grabbed the lube from the nightstand and he glared.
Do this for me, I said.
His stare was still fixed over me. I couldn’t take it, his eyes. I pressed my hand against them until all I saw was flesh. His hardness was pressed to my thigh, and I buried my whole body into it until he bleated a sound of rapture. Cars shot through the street outside. The entire house, I thought, trembled.
Father Berlant was nowhere to be found the next day. When I checked his office, there was a stillness to it. The same stale odor of before. But it was empty, a deadness in the air. The head nun, Sister Wheeler, shrugged when I asked after him. Haven’t seen him all day, she said.
Aren’t you worried? I asked.
Why would I be worried? she said, her gaze steady and unblinking.
There are things going on. The world is changing. It isn’t safe out there.
Her eyes drifted across the whole length of me. You, she said. You’ve always been a worrier.
Do I know you? I said.
I am Sister Wheeler.
I am lost, I said. Have you ever felt so lost?
If you want confession, try the next church over, she said. I nodded, dazed, and I banged out of the heavy mahogany doors emblazoned with engravings I’d never bothered to appreciate. My fingers grazed past them, and I thought of how that was what I always did—let things, life, pass me by. Would I try the next church? I didn’t know. Stars stabbed the sky with pale light. A low haze falling to the coast. The waves lapped the shore. I had taken a detour towards the pier. Bodies flecked the sandy banks. Some spread over beach towels. Others had simply found a spot in the sand to dig their knees to. They were all waiting for the lights.
I stared up at the sky. Then my eyes darted to the floor, and I ducked back into the street, facing away from the sea. I was never one for uncertainty or change—had no one else seen the film Nope?
At home, I waited. This was all, it seemed, I did now. There were questions racing past my mind: would this be the last time I ever waited? would the lights beam them all up? would Cecil ever return? There was a certain peace to the idea. That the end was nigh. That I could go back to living a more restful life. I felt settled by this. And in the morning, when I’d see the news about all the missing people, I would feel no grief. I would feel no superiority either. I’d feel the opposite—that I was an average person after all. By which I mean, I lacked courage, and would forever fail at acknowledging anything other than that. A deficit in me. The food pantry would have no one to feed. Idle time would become my partner. There would be things to look forward to, like walking the beach. Like being able to stare at the sky without a care in the world. The knot in my stomach would be gone. Iguanas would scurry past me, for once no dangers to fret over. It would not be paradise, but it would be better than the weeks before.