𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗚𝗶𝗿𝗹 𝘄𝗶𝘁𝗵 𝗖𝗵𝗮𝗿𝘁𝗿𝗲𝘂𝘀𝗲 𝗛𝗮𝗶𝗿
𝘣𝘺 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘳𝘺 𝘚𝘢𝘯𝘷𝘪𝘭𝘭𝘦
The crowd cheered wildly when Stan Belts drove his #12 Late Model across the finish line at the Santa Maria Speedway, nosing out his cross-state rival from Stockton. Before the winged sprint cars could be pushed onto the dirt track for the next event, Carl left his seat and headed for the beer booth.
He’d been sitting by himself in the grandstand’s top row for two hours, breathing in high-octane gasoline fumes. A horde mobbed the beer booth, eager to refill their 16-ounce cups. Carl removed his earplugs and shook his head. The world seemed too loud and he felt woozy from the fumes.
In the sea of grease-stained baseball caps, bald heads, and a few ponytails a swatch of bright color caught his eye. A girl with ragged hair the color of almost-ripe lemons stood at the counter and ordered. She turned toward Carl, a cup of beer clasped in each hand. Their eyes met and she smiled. Carl frowned. Holding two cups of beer meant she’d obviously come to the races with some gearhead boyfriend. But then he felt stupid for thinking otherwise.
She pushed toward him. The crowd seemed to magically give way. She stopped in front of Carl, leaned forward and kissed him on the lips.
“Come on, darlin’. We gotta hurry before the next race starts.”
“Ah . . . do I know you?”
“Don’t just stand there, come on.”
She walked ahead of him, her curvaceous butt clad in skin-tight jeans, her sequined tank top showing plenty. Strange colored tattoos covered most of her upper arms and shoulders with mathematical notations and word fragments. Her chartreuse hair moved like a beacon through the crowd. Carl followed her back to his seat.
“How did you know . . .?”
“I’ve been watching you,” she said. “You look different than the rest.”
“Thanks for being kind and saying ‘different.’”
“Where I come from, you’d be the handsomest one there.”
Carl grinned and bowed his head, his face burning. “Not many women would kiss a man they don’t know.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining.”
She turned sideways on the bench and faced Carl. “Who wears a blazer, slacks and tie to a dirt track race, anyway?”
“I used to come here as a kid. I’ve got some . . . some time now. I teach advanced physics at the University.”
“Yeah, I figured. Go ahead and drink your beer before it gets warm.”
“Thanks. Here, let me pay you for the suds.”
“Forget it. We’ll settle up later. So aren’t you gonna say something?”
“My hair. Do ya like it or hate it?”
“I’m sure I’ll love it the more I get to know you.”
“Good answer. It’s natural, you know. No dyes.”
Carl scoffed. “Come on. You must have an interesting gene set.”
“My name’s Alcina.”
“Did . . . did you come here by yourself?”
Alcina grinned. “Nah, my friends are hanging out in the pits. One of them has a car that ran in Showroom Stock.”
“Did he win?”
“No, she didn’t.” Alcina smiled, slid her arm around Carl’s waist, and leaned her head on his shoulder.
She smelled like lemon blossoms on a hot August morning. He turned his head and kissed her, her dark eyes closed, pale lips parted. He half expected to wake up in his room at the Travel Lodge Motel where he’d been holed up for the past week, ever since his wife kicked him out. This is some kind of waking dream he thought. But when he opened his eyes after the kiss, Alcina smiled at him. Her hair burned in the late afternoon light.
In a tight three-column formation, the field of Outlaw Sprint Cars circled the track, waiting for the green flag to drop. The roar from their 900-horsepower engines made conversation impossible. Carl replaced his earplugs. Alcina pulled her ragged hair over her delicate pierced ears. The grandstands shook as the crowd stood to watch the start. Twenty-one methanol-powered racers shot forward, their roar loud enough to distract motorists on the nearby freeway.
Carl and Alcina held hands and watched. With only a third-of-a-mile oval track to work with, the sprint cars did more sliding into corners and slamming into each other than flat out racing. Methanol fumes burned Carl’s eyes and he dabbed them with a tissue. Alcina sat upright and stared wide-eyed at the racers, mascara-laden tears streaking her pale cheeks; she looked like a beautiful female version of Alice Cooper. Carl offered her a tissue but she ignored him.
After several spectacular crashes and race delays, about half the field crossed the finish line, exited the track and shut off their engines, their silence deafening.
With tissue in hand, Carl turned to Alcina and said, “Here, let me.”
He wiped the black tear streaks from her cheeks, wetting the Kleenex to remove smears. Her lips trembled and she kissed him hard, her entire body shuddering.
“You . . . you really like racing, don’t you?” Carl murmured.
“Yeah, the power of machines . . . ”
“Huh. I felt the same way once. But my interest shifted to larger forces: energy, matter, gravity, cosmic inflation, that kinda stuff.”
“Yeah, those things are really cool. But the rumble of race cars does more for me, turns me on.”
“Ah, and I thought it was my professorial personality.”
She laughed and kissed him on the nose. “Come on, let’s get outta here.”
“What about your friends?”
“I told them not to expect me back.”
Carl smiled. “Pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?”
“Is that a problem?”
In silence, they drove in Carl’s Prius to the never-closed Denny’s in Pismo Beach. Carl ordered coffee; Alcina ordered a Grand Slam breakfast with extra bacon.
“So, do you live around here?” Carl asked.
“No. I’m from a planet far away.”
Carl chuckled. “Ah, do all your citizens have chartreuse hair?”
“Yeah, mostly. But the lucky ones have blue or purple hair; comes from cross-breeding with the Calcidites.”
“Huh, all we have here on earth are a few redheads. Your home must be exciting.”
“I suppose. So what about you, how come you’re out here trolling for babes since you’re married?”
Carl remembered his wedding ring and grinned sheepishly. “Well, I’m living in a motel while my wife figures out if she still loves me. I suspect she doesn’t.”
“How’d that happen?”
“You really want to know?” Carl leaned back in the booth and fingered his coffee cup.
“I’m always interested in what attracts and repulses humans.”
Carl laughed. “Yeah, repulsive, the very word my wife used.”
“If you don’t want to tell me, that’s cool.”
“She complains I’m married to my work . . . she’s right . . . but then that’s probably just an excuse.”
“Yeah, it’s easy to lie, especially about love or its opposite.”
“So what’s your story?” Carl asked, smiling. “Have you been on earth long?”
“Not so long, maybe three of your years.”
“Huh. Except for the hair you fit in well.”
“Thanks, that’s the idea.”
“Do you have . . . a boyfriend?”
“Not here . . . and I’ve been gone too long.”
Alcina warmed her hands around her mug of tea and gazed out the window at the black sky full of stars and galaxy clusters. Their silence deepened.
“So what about your tattoos?” Carl asked. “I think some of the notations are part of calculating the red- or blueshift of stars or maybe vacuum decay.”
Alcina smiled. “You’re the first person to recognize them. I love cosmology.”
Carl laughed. “Most humans think that’s the art of making people beautiful.”
“Cosmology and cosmetology are both beautiful.”
“Well you definitely don’t need the latter. You’re . . .”
Carl sat back and stared at Alcina’s face. He could have sworn that her eyebrows were dark arches stretched across a perfect pale forehead. But now they matched her hair, blazing green-yellow. And her eyes had changed from dark to a hazel color. Probably just fancy contact lenses, Carl thought. But the eyebrows; maybe I’m remembering wrong . . . sucked in way too much methanol fumes. The blazing eyebrows made her look happy, accessible, more vulnerable.
They exchanged synoptic versions of their life histories, with Carl doing most of the talking and Alcina volunteering little. But when they talked science, Carl realized that she knew her stuff. She probed the depths of his knowledge and seemed to be mentally cataloging everything he told her. After a couple hours of intellectual sparring, they ended up debating which model of the universe’s demise was most probable.
“Well, whichever one happens, our sun will die long before the universe does.” Carl sat back, feeling smug about his pronouncement.
“Yeah, maybe your star will be gone. But mine . . .”
“Right, right, the one that warms your planet, far far away.”
“Carl, you have some very . . . very useful ideas.”
Carl grinned. “Thank you. That’s high praise coming from a brilliant extraterrestrial.”
Alcina didn’t smile. She reached across the table and laid a hand on his arm. “We should go.”
“Yes, we should.” Carl noticed for the first time that very fine chartreuse hair covered the tops of her lower arms, giving then a golden glow when light flashed across them. Her eyes had turned the color of new pennies.
“Your . . . your hair is changing . . . and so are your eyes,” Carl stuttered.
“Do you like them better now?”
“Yes. You’re beautiful.”
“Good. Let’s go.”
“Ah . . . to my place?”
Carl hurriedly dumped some cash onto the table and they left the almost empty restaurant. He felt awkward, not having been with a woman other than his wife for more than a decade. They drove in silence to the motel. Inside, Carl apologized for the mess and hurriedly straightened the bed covers. The lights clicked off. Alcina had removed her clothes. Her hair glowed in the dark, a bit disconcerting, but it made navigation easier.
They made frantic love until every bone in Carl’s middle-aged body ached from his effort to keep up. Spent and out of breath he collapsed onto his pillow. With Alcina’s head resting on his chest, he fell fast asleep.
A strip of morning sun shone through the curtains and cut a light path across the motel room. Carl woke to an empty bed. He checked the bathroom. Alcina had fled, leaving nothing behind but memories of the day before. He dressed and walked to the motel lobby where a free continental breakfast awaited. The manager brewed a fresh pot of coffee and bade him good morning.
“Say, you didn’t happen to see a young woman this morning with chartreuse hair?” Carl asked sotto voce.
The manager grinned. “No, sure haven’t. And I would remember something like that.”
Carl nodded and fixed himself a bowl of bran flakes and coffee. During the following week he couldn’t stop thinking about Alcina. His graduate class in astrophysics seemed dull and incomplete without her agile mind probing his knowledge, pushing him toward a better understanding of the cosmos.
Carl drove to the Speedway on Friday night and sneaked into the pits, asked the gearheads if they’d seen her. Most just laughed when he described Alcina as the girl with yellow-green hair. He retired to the Denny’s restaurant, sat in a booth and tried to remember what quadrant of the night sky had dominated her attention. His own image reflected in the window glass. He stared, wide-eyed. The ends of his hair had turned chartreuse. By the next day he’d become one of them. ✦