Brad Watson’s novella, “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives,” is like a recursive dream. You’re never certain about where one dream ends and where reality (or the next dream) begins. At first glance, it appears to be a simple love story about Will and Olivia, two high school kids living in Mississippi. When Olivia becomes pregnant, they marry, rent a small apartment near a mental hospital and suffer through an oppressive, breezeless summer. Their ambitious love-making disturbs the landlady; their families object to the arrangement; they survive on leftovers and beer. One night, Will wakes and finds a strange couple sitting in his living room. They are familiar yet unnervingly strange. “‘We’re what you might call aliens,’ the woman said.” After this, things change in the story, in dramatic, funny, hopeful and heartbreaking ways.
Watson has re-written the contemporary love story. He challenges the basic assumptions of dreaming and waking states, questioning the idea of destiny and meaning. Part fantasy, part social commentary, part meta-fiction, part Southern Gothic, part autobiography, Watson’s novella bends conventional boundaries in weird and wild ways. “Young people don’t just drive around, bored, drinking beer and crashing into trees and other vehicles, slashing and flailing away at one another in parking lots and vacant lots out of rage or boredom,” thinks the narrator near the end of Aliens. Watson makes you wistful for those times.
Watson has written two collections of short stories. His first, The Last Days of the Dog Men, won the Sue Kaufmann Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize in Fiction and the St. Francis College Literary Award. Two of his stories, “Visitation” and “Alamo Plaza,” were selected as PEN/O’Henry Award winners and included in the 2010 and 2011 PEN /O’Henry anthologies respectively. His novel, The Heaven of Mercury, was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award.
Read an interview with Brad Watson here at Numéro Cinq.
From “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives”
By Brad Watson
In the moment after the couple from the asylum had left us that previous night, when I had begun to construct our little paradise in my mind, Olivia had awakened, dressed quietly, crept from the house, down the steps from the rickety deck, and walked away.
As she walked, and as dawn seeped into the cooled August air, the landscape began to change until she knew she was no longer in our little hometown. It was as if she didn’t know where she was, or where she wanted to be, and the landscape continually reshaped itself with the beautiful, disorienting whorl of a kaleidoscope turned by an invisible hand.
She put her own hand to her belly as she walked. It was flat and soft. Well, that was gone. That had ceased to exist. That was not a problem anymore.
She walked on. There was a vista now, improbably so. The trees had thinned out. There was a horizon, seemingly with nothing beyond the rise.
She heard a distant, quiet, susurrant sound, which grew louder the closer she got to the rise. And before she reached the rise she saw water, and when she stepped to the edge of the bluff she now stood on she could see it was the ocean, vast and blue-gray, with gulls sailing in the sky above it, and white breakers on the narrow beach below, and just beyond them in the water there was a very large yacht. There seemed to be no one on the yacht, which was at anchor in the swells. It was new, its hull made of polished, coffee-colored wood. And then there was someone on the yacht. She could see that a man dressed in a white jacket stood on the broad rear deck, facing her, a neat, sky-blue towel draped over his arm, which he held crooked in front of him in the manner of an old-fashioned waiter. Which he apparently was.
There was a stepped path down the face of the bluff and she took it, counting her steps as if she were a child with no more on her mind than the descent itself. One hundred and twenty-seven. She walked across the beach, the warm sand pushing up between her bare toes. She no longer had any need of shoes. She waded into the surf and swam through the breakers to the yacht, pulled herself onto the ladder hanging down from its gunnel, and climbed up onto the deck.
The waiter nodded to her. He was an older man, a soft and large and comforting man, dark-complexioned, and his expression was as somber as the expression on a tilefish. She wondered for a moment how she knew that, and then she remembered being amused by the photo of a somber tilefish in the margin of a page in her dictionary, when she was a little girl. And she had said to her father at dinner that night, when he seemed troubled by something and would not speak, You look just like an old tilefish! And after everyone had gotten over their astonishment at where this expression may have come from, they all laughed.
The waiter nodded toward a deck chair and said something to her in a language she didn’t understand. She sat in the chair and fell asleep and when she woke up her summer dress was dry and the waiter had placed a cold drink on the little table beside her. It was delicious and tasted like crushed watermelon on ice. The waiter was nowhere to be seen but there was another man across the deck from her, in another chair, watching her.
He was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. More beautiful than any man she’d ever seen in a movie. Or in a magazine photograph. Or on a billboard or the cover of a record album. He was impossibly beautiful and impossible to describe. She blushed and could not say any more to me about how beautiful this man was, and I didn’t ask her to try.
She said, We went away on the yacht to another country.
The country was something like she imagined Greece to be, or possibly southern Italy. It was very sunny, the warm air brimming with golden light, and there were mountains in the distance you could see from the villa on a hill above the shore. Below the villa there were steep rocky cliffs and a wide blue sea. The villa had a broad terrace that overlooked a white swimming pool. There were large, slow ceiling fans turning in all the rooms. There was a constant cool breeze that blew in from the sea. There were servants as beautiful and slender and brown and silent as some kind of near-human, intelligent animal. Their eyes clear and limpid with an animal-like devotion in their gaze. They transformed into other, similar creatures when they moved from one room to another.
There were dogs the size of small slender horses that roamed the grounds and guarded them against intruders, and killed rabbits and could be seen loping across clearings with these rabbits in their jaws.
There were great outsized housecats that lay draped over balustrades and the arms of stuffed sofas and chairs and they didn’t seem to acknowledge the existence of other creatures, not even the dogs.
The birds in the trees in their gardens watched her as she walked beneath them and they spoke to her in a silent language about things she could not translate to normal speech or even thought, and so these things remained entirely between her and the birds.
She and her Greek or Italian lover never spoke to one another, and yet they grew older, without appearing to. They only became more beautiful.
I became more beautiful, she said, until I wasn’t at all the person I had been before. I was entirely changed.
And that was good? I said.
She nodded, her attention distracted in the memory of her dream.
Yes, it was.
Brad’s writing is both complex and easily accessible. No mean feat. I have read everything he has written (I think) and it soothes me like exactly the right amount of codeine. The movements of the characters are fluid, and sometimes I want to squint at the type on his pages like one would a painting or design to make sure it is what you think it might be.
Watson is an extraordinary talent.