Life on Mars by Frank Thomas Smith
Man needs but little earth for enjoyment,
and still less for his final repose.
For the first time, scientists have found a large, watery lake
beneath an ice cap on Mars. Because water is essential to life,
the discovery offers an exciting new place to search for life-forms beyond Earth.
The New York Times, July 26, 2018
October 23, 2000
"There is life on Mars!" Gene insisted.
"I don't understand how you can make such an unfounded statement," Jerry countered. Jerry considered himself an intellectual, having completed two years of community college before he had to go to work for a living selling fifty cents a week life insurance to poor families.
"Yeah, that's bullshit," Billy Bunions agreed. "Not even Donald Trump believes it." His name wasn't really Bunions, but he was always complaining about them. Jerry and Billy were friends and almost always agreed on everything. Or, more accurately, Billy always agreed with Jerry.
I chalked my cue stick and lined up the Q-ball with the eight-ball, feeling behind it when Gene took my silence as, if not agreement, at least acquiescence to the possibility that there might indeed be life on Mars. He was mistaken. I merely considered the argument of much less importance than the possibility of winning ten bucks if I made my next shot.
Gene mentally zeroed in on me. I think he was already planning to miss his own shot purposely -- he was by far the best player among us -- in order to be able to say, "Good shot, Frank," when the eight-ball teetered on the brink and finally dropped into the pocket with a clunk only a poolroom can acousticate. Eugene missed an easy one and I pocketed the ten. Speaking of pockets, Pocket's proprietor was Joe Pocket. An alias? - right, Joe had Sicily written all over his pockmarked face and Pocket’s was probably the only authentic poolroom left in Brooklyn: no bowling alley, TV or video games (concentration was respected), and you paid by the hour to play.
After Jerry and Bill left and I was getting my coat, Gene invited me for a beer at the bar. I should have invited him, all of them in fact, as the winner, but I needed the ten bucks for a sandwich and carfare up to Columbia where I was a lab instructor. I wasn't really underpaid, my financial condition was due to an unsavory taste for gambling.
Pocket's draft beer flowed through pipes that hadn't been cleaned since prohibition and tasted of rust, but we quaffed them down like men with a thirst. After offering to buy me another, which I graciously refused, Gene asked me to go home with him, he had something extremely important to show me. I told him I couldn't, that I had classes that afternoon, which was true, so he insisted that I drop by his place on my way home. I wasn't very keen on it because I figured he wanted to show me pictures of UFOs or something like that, but he was practically pleading, and what can you say to a guy who just threw a game and bought you a beer to boot?
I rang Gene's bell shortly after nine that night, hoping that whatever he had up his sleeve would be short so I'd have time to get home and change before meeting one of the other instructors. She was in anthropology and I wanted to discuss the sexual practices of various primitive societies with her before getting to our own. Experience has taught me that the mere discussion of sex can often make women susceptible, especially when they do most of the talking.
Gene didn't even bother to ask who I was through the speaker, just pressed the button and was waiting for me on his third floor landing, first with a silly grin, then, as though remembering the seriousness of the moment, a sympathetic frown like a funeral home director's.
She was looking out the window when I entered the apartment, and turned to greet me with a brilliant smile. She reminded me of Leslie Caron, the chameleon of "An American in Paris" (If you haven’t seen it you haven’t lived; get the video!) -- the type, that is: petite, not exactly beautiful, but most attractive, or perhaps appealing is a better word -- a gamine who might break out into ballet or the Charleston at any moment. She wore a sheer light blue dress which matched her eyes; her hair was cut boyishly short. She was charming; I was charmed. I took the hand she offered and wanted to hug her, protect her, love her. Sex with her would not be hot and steamy, but more like diving into a cool, limpid lake. (I didn't think that then, only later - in fact it just occurred to me.)
"This is Nuria, Frank," Eugene said. "uh, Nuria, this is Frank.""I'm very pleased to meet a friend of Eugene's," she said. I was struck by two things. First, I wasn't exactly Gene's friend. We were neighbors, sometimes shot pool together, and I had been in his apartment (not an impressive place, by the way, although it was now at least clean) once before for a poker game. Second was that she spoke with an accent. The Leslie Caron resemblance suggested French, but her accent wasn't French. I couldn't place it. There was a third thought as well. If I had been so taken with Nuria just looking at her, Gene, the poor bastard, must be head over heels in love with her. I say "poor bastard" because I didn't think he had much of a chance. He looked like an unwashed Woody Allen, and he breathed through his mouth, so you learned to stay far away from the exhale part. And he had pimples, although he was at least thirty.
"And I'm pleased to meet you, Nuria. Ah, where are--"
"She's from Mars," Gene said matter-of-factly before I could get the question out.
I dropped her hand and turned to Gene. He looked dead serious, but I had to laugh. "You mean the planet...Mars."
"Yes, of course, and it's no laughing matter. Look, here's a picture she showed me, taken from Mars:"
I turned back to Nuria, who was looking up at me with her almond-shaped eyes and a smallish smile. Gene must have gone bonkers if he was insisting in the poolroom that there was life on Mars because he really believed that this girl, this Nuria, was a Martian. I could hardly take it seriously though. "Do you go along with that, Nuria," I said, smiling back at her, "that you are a Martian?"
"I do," she answered and it sounded like a marriage vow. My heart skipped an octave as I wondered if these people could possibly be serious. Gene was the kind of oaf who believed in UFOs and ESP and drank carrot juice for breakfast, which didn't seem to do his complexion much good. He'd believe anything. But the girl looked intelligent and, well, good. The problem with good is that it's usually mated with innocence, which isn't a practical quality for our times.
They both seemed serious so I decided to try another tack. "But we've been to Mars, you know those gadgets roam around and take pictures and there's nothing there except the possibility that there was once water."
"But you see, Frankie.." Why did she call me Frankie? Only my mother still called me that. "..we cover up the planet with a thin layer of virtual crust to fool you. And we captured the last two probes you sent up. Remember? We'll let the two little robots you have there now rove around awhile taking pictures of rocks, then we may zap them if it gets too boring" She patted my hand and I tingled. "Please don't feel bad about it. We're afraid of your weapons and wars."
"Afraid of us?" I said. "If you can do those things you could probably blast us out of the sky."
"Oh, we wouldn't want to do that," she said sweetly. "We believe in peaceful coexistence. Besides, there are some things about you that we like. That's why I'm here."
"I see. And what are they, I mean the things you like?"
"I'm only at liberty to tell someone who is in a position to help us with them. Are you in that position?"
"If you mean do I have power or influence, I'm afraid not." I was aware that I was acting, talking at least, as though Nuria really was from Mars. Frankly, she was very hard to disbelieve.
"Do you know anyone like that?" she asked.
"You mean you want me to take you to our leader?
"This is serious, Frank," Gene said, frowning at me. But Nuria didn't get the irony. "Yes," she said.
I looked at her and then at Gene and inspiration struck. "Gene, didn't you say once that Saul Bellow is your cousin?"
"Whatever. He's a Very Important Person."
"He's a writer, not many people read his books."
"He's a Nobel prize winning writer, schmuck. Not many people read his stuff because its too deep for them, that's all. He's got influence, man. All he’d have to do is call the President and..."
"He probably doesn't even know I exist," Gene said. "I only met him once at Yehuda Goldbaum’s bar mitzvah.
“Who’s Yahuda Goldbaum?”
"You see? he's nuts about cousins, even wrote a novella about them. Didn't he go to your bar mitzvah?"
"Nah, my old man didn't think he was a serious enough Jew, likes Rudolf Steiner and all, Gene insisted."
"So what? Lots of Jews like Rudolf Steiner."
"Not my old man. Besides, Below probably wouldn't believe us anyway."
"It wouldn't hurt us to find out. I mean if he's an anthroposophist - that's what Steiner people are called - he should have an open mind, especially about cosmetic stuff --- I mean stuff involving the cosmos."
Us? including me? I was still around because I was so attracted to Nuria. If she hadn’t been there I’d have been long gone. He had a point though, so I needed another inspiration. "Where's you phone'" I asked.
I called Shorty Jameson, another lab assistant, who was working on his doctorate and was sort of a genius in genetics. "Shorty," I said, "what would the genetic makeup of someone from another planet look like?"
"Yeah, I mean it's a hypothetical question, for the moment, but just supposing that there was life on another planet, I mean advanced life, like humans."
"Who knows? What is this, a joke?"
Shorty didn't have much sense of humor and he was easy to kid, which made him wary, so I had to convince him that I was serious. We grew up together in a pretty tough neighborhood and were the only members of our gang who got out of the rut and were educated. I loaned him the first book he ever read, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which put him on the road up, so he owed me.
"No, this is serious, believe me, Shorty. Let's say someone from Mars or someplace came to Earth. Would they have the same genetic make up as us?"
"Don't see how they could," Shorty answered after a pause while he was probably wondering whether he should answer at all. "They wouldn't have came from our genetic ancestors. Why are you asking me this nutty stuff?"
"OK, I know it sounds nutty, but if I were to bring you a sample of a skin scrape or whatever it is you use, could you tell me if it came from a human being...one from Earth that is?"
"And could you tell if it didn't come from Earth?"
"What's the difference?"
“Good point. How do you get the skin to analyze?”
“We have a special instrument for that, but you could use any sharp knife…are you kidding me, Frank?”
“No, I swear to God, Shorty. Where’s the best place to take it from?”
“The skin, dammit.”
“If you want to take a skin sample to analyze the DNA, you better bring the subject here.” He paused while my mind raced. “It’s expensive, by the way.”
“Oh? how much?”
“A few thousand.”
I found out later he was just testing me to see if I was serious. I knew he could do it for nothing when no one was around in the lab, at night, for example, when the rest of geneticist nerds – including his boss – weren’t around. Like now. Shorty was still working at ten o’clock at night. But he needed motivation for that. And I thought I knew how to provide it.
“No problem, Shorty,” I said. “Wait there, I’ll be right over.” I hung up before he had a chance to protest.
It worked out just like I planned. We grabbed a cab and went to Colombia. When I introduced Nuria to Shorty and when she swore that she was from Mars, he melted like an ice cream cone in Yankee Stadium in July. He led her into an examination room in order to take the skin sample and when they came out fifteen minutes later it was obvious he would have jumped off the Empire State building if she wanted him to.
It took a week for the results to be known. I asked Nuria where she was staying and she smiled angelically. “Eugene has offered to put me up.”
Eugene, Jesus! I didn’t consider that good news, but couldn’t offer anything better because I was still living with Beatrice then, and she wasn’t the type to welcome another woman into the “relationship”, as she called it. So I needed another inspiration. You may have noticed that I’m pretty good at them.
“Well, I better stay with you,” I said, stuttering like a schoolboy on his first date. “I mean like you’re ..er.. like valuable and we wouldn’t want anything to happen to you. Right Gene?”
“What’s gonna happen to her here?” Gene protested as any red-blooded American boy would. “Besides, there’s no...“
“Oh, that’s a wonderful idea,” Nuria interrupted. “Then we can all be together.”
That, needless to say, was the end of the Beatrice relationship. Nuria slept in Gene’s bed during that week and he and I slept on the living room floor like watchdogs – watching each other. We both took a week off from work, I claiming that my mother was ill and I had to put her in a home in Florida. I don’t know what excuse Gene gave. This was done without either of us telling the other, so neither had any advantage. The three of us took walks in Central Park, went to the movies – Nuria preferred the old classics: West Side Story, High Noon, stuff like that, which weren’t so easy to find, but in New York you can find anything within reason, including An American in Paris, which she was delirious about. She also liked to eat in MacDonald’s.
On Monday morning the doorbell rang and Shorty came bursting in with a huge envelope in his hands. “It’s true, goddamit, she’s not human! I mean she’s human but not from Earth…you know… not an Earthling”. He was panting from the run up the stairs.
Until that moment I had been putting on an act of sorts. I didn’t really believe the Mars story, but was so enamored of Nuria that I never admitted it. Now all that changed. “You mean you can prove that, Shorty?” I asked.
“Of course I can, it’s all here,” he said, patting the envelope. “Her DNA’s just not ours, not even close to an Earth organism. It’s incredible.”
I looked at Nuria, who was sitting on the sofa sipping a coke. She smiled a smile that would have melted Darth Vader’s heart. “OK, Gene, it’s time to call your cousin Saul Bellow.
“Well, I don’t know…”
“Cut the shit and call him. We got evidence now. He could get us an appointment with the President.”
“Of the United States?”
“No, of the fucking Girl Scouts. C’mon man, get off your ass.”
Gene had to call a dozen cousins before he finally got Bellow’s unlisted number.
“Call him Cousin Saul, Gene;” I said.
“Everyone calls him Saulie.”
“OK, Cousin Saulie. He can’t resist a cousin. He lives in Boston now. Tell him we’ll be there this afternoon, that it’s urgent, earth-shaking – but you better not mention Mars yet.”
“What if he asks what it’s about?”
“Tell him you can’t talk about it on the phone. Think of something, for God's sake!”
Gene had to name his mother, father, three aunts and a half a dozen cousins before Bellow remembered who he was. “No, Cousin Saulie, it’s not about a manuscript. I don’t write,” Gene sputtered into the phone. “It’s really important..er…earth-shaking!…. No, I can’t talk about it on the phone.” Then he had an inspiration--finally: “It’s about this really beautiful girl I’m with, I mean she’s so special, you’ve got to meet her, Cousin Saulie, you just got to!”
That got him. Saul Bellow was in his eighties and had been married five times and obviously couldn’t resist a beautiful woman, the younger the better. He was America’s greatest living writer, our cultural icon, but I’m the only one I know who reads his stuff.
We took a cab to La Guardia airport and boarded the shuttle to Boston. Gene, Shorty and I pooled our money to buy Nuria’s ticket. We were all nervous..frantic would be nearer to the truth, except Nuria, sitting between Gene and me, who calmly ordered a Coke, gulped it down and popped some chewing gum, which she loved. It was a beautiful autumn day without a cloud and we could see New York on take-off and the sparkling eastern seaboard below us during the whole flight. Just touching Nuria’s shoulder with mine occasionally, or looking at her bare knees – she also loved miniskirts – was an infinitely better view as far as I was concerned.
Saul Bellow was expecting two people and didn’t look very pleased to see the four of us. After giving us a once-over, his hooded eyes hardly ever left Nuria. We were in his study – three walls lined with books and the fourth a picture window. Vivaldi’s “Four Season’s” purred forth from an invisible source. I was humbled being in his presence, but also excited by the knowledge that we were about to deliver a cultural uppercut that even he could never have imagined. How was I to know at that point that it would be below the belt?
Gene started trying to explain why we were there, but he was so nervous he looked like he was going to faint, so I took over. I told Bellow that both Shorty and I were scientists at Columbia U. and were honored to show him the results of Nuria’s DNA tests. Well, it took about an hour of explaining, cajoling, questions and answers, but it was mostly Nuria herself, her calm, simple insistence that she was indeed a Martian, that broke him down. Bellow sighed, poured himself a scotch and water, and nodded. Yes, he could arrange a meeting with the President.
He leaned towards Nuria, breathing heavily. "But what, exactly, is it that you want from us?" he asked.
Nuria’s eyes dilated and turned yellow. She gazed deeply into the probing eyes of this man who was sixty years her senior – or centuries younger. Finally she said it: “Disney World.”
"Yes, you see, we have heard so much about it and seen telepictures of it and our people are so curious and excited about it. We thought that if Mr. Disney could come to Mars for a while and show us how..."
“You want a concession?” Bellow croaked, “to Disney World?”
He looked very angry and turned to us, probably thinking we were pulling his leg. But when he saw us staring at Nuria with dropped jaws, he groaned.
“So you come as an emissary from Mars, you want to see our leader, and what you want from that asshole is Disney World. Is that correct?”
“Yes, Mr. Bellow,” Nuria smiled.
He sank forward and held his head in his hands.
"Mr. Bellow, are you all right?" Nuria asked innocently.
"Go on," Bellow muttered.
"What, Sir?" I said.
"Go on, get the fuck out of here, all of you," Saul Bellow growled without raising his head.
Shorty and I jumped, Nuria looked puzzled. Gene took her arm and walked her quickly to the door. She stopped before we could open it, turned to look at Bellow, who seemed to be sobbing, and said: "Goodbye, Mr. Bellow, I hope you feel better real soon."
“Poor man,” Nuria said once we were outside.
The rest of us were in shock and didn’t say anything as we shuffled aimlessly along a Boston street in the damp New England air. Suddenly Gene stopped and snapped his fingers. “Hey,” he exclaimed, “how about trying Larry King? I think he’s my cousin too.”
“Oh good,” Nuria agreed. “The king is just the person I want to meet.”
Gene patiently explained to her that Larry King wasn’t the king, that we didn’t have one, but that he conducted a popular TV interview show.
“Do you mean that I’ll be on television?
“Well,” Gene said, “it’s entirely possible.”
“Wonderful,” Nuria gushed and kissed him on his pimply cheek. “They can see me on Mars.”