Atonal Panhandle Variation
    G. W. Cox
Alma was pretty in a hard, prairie way. The prairie dwelled in the creases between her upper lip and cheeks. In her smile, I saw a waver of irony. Her eyes crimped to conceal and protect.

Hunter's Plymouth Fury plowed a furrow through cold air at 90 miles an hour, the three of us energy across the geometric panhandle. The car had plates for that Texas county. We belonged.

The radio played honky tonk music but I heard —

    Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,
    Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes.

Alma and I held hands like we were at the movies. She, mesmerized by the view of nothing out the windshield. I searched the horizon for clumps of trees, a sign of water, a sign of anything.

"You can see forever out here, Hunter," I said.

"That's the karma of the place. You can see forever, but there ain't nothing to see." Hunter was an Arrow shirt dharma cowboy with a square head. He liked showing us this, his empty side.

"What did you do when you were in high school?"

"Saturday? I'd drive a half hour to a friend's, watch college football, drink some beer. If we got ambitious, we'd go on over to Borger or Amarillo, taste of the big city."

We stopped to eat at the Hunters wheat farm, an oasis of prefab buildings, a few scrub oaks garnished by tumbleweeds. His parents' Sunday dinner, moved up a day for us, went down dry.

Hunter flashed mashed peas as he gave me the background of the night's event. "Nesbit retired as an art prof at North Carolina, moved out here to teach art and culture to the panhandle ladies." His mother smiled down at her chicken. His father glared expressionless across the table.

"Also he considers this the best landing zone for UFOs."

"UFOs?" Alma asked, losing control of her mashed potatoes.

Hunter lowered his voice. "He believes there are two aliens orbiting the Earth, acting as guides or gods."

The silence around the table prodded him on. "I don't know how they fit in but he believes everyone has guardians. With practice in lowering your mind level, you can communicate with them. He's so good at this, he can read peoples' auras, see which way they're being steered. He'll read your auras tonight."

At the community center, Alma twitched in the green velvet dress she'd made special for this. Its dry cleaner's plastic bag had flipped in my face all through the trip. Her unfamiliar white stockings caught old eyes like highway mileage posts.

Nesbit, paunchy and gray in a black turtleneck, told the small audience on folding chairs about astral projection.

"To make the connection, you must bring your mind to the same level with the people you want to connect with. I've instructed many of you how to do this. I've done this with all my counselors, my personal ones and the extraterrestrial ones. Then concentrate your energy on that person or place."

A thin, older man wearing a black body stocking sat stock still in a chair beside him. Nesbit pointed with a flat hand.

"Our guest for the evening, Pace Cornwell of the dance company in New York, arrived here through more conventional means. Pace?"

The two switched places. Alma held my hand.

Pace said he'd begun choreographing to atonal music, "Not the conventional tones we hear on the radio, but the sound of heart beats, the feet of a crowd on steps, sounds of existence. There's no do re mi as we know it in space."

He demonstrated this by pounding on the table, a metal chair, a cymbal, rustling a book like a flock of birds taking wing. All the time, I watched his liquid motion, no angles, no stiff lines.

"Oh wow," Alma whispered.

Then he switched on a tape of plunks, bonks and springs. He changed the room into a stage with walls as floors and the floor an instrument. These noises, just noises, harmonized with his rhythmic random ovement, a panther before sheep.

After the performance, Nesbit's reading of auras seemed like the daily horoscope. Farmers grumbled innuendoes about the dancer's tights. Wives slapped them.

On the ride back, I dropped Alma's hand and fixed on the stars. I sent thoughts to the counselors. I asked them to take me.

Then a new song came on the radio —

    There's a woman
    That you ought to know
    And she's coming, singing soft and low
    Singing rock and roll,
    She's a joy to know.

I sent my mind to the stars. I returned to last week's concert at the old hangar, the girl with morphine eyes, black waterfalls of hair, bare under a purple deerskin vest. Hip-huggers only caressing. Everything about her pliant. I delivered myself to her.

In the final sequence, the lead guitar ran up the scale zigzagged, leveled out. The bass followed. The lead guitar chimed.

G. W. Cox lives in New Mexico. After a career in newspaper trenches, he devotes his time to fiction. His stories have appeared in Gator Springs Gazette, Literary Potpourri, Opium Magazine, Sweet Fancy Moses and Vestal Review. He earned honorable mention in the Writer's Digest 2002 contest, personal essay category.

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