I have a hard time saying ‘no’ to Slippy the Wibble. Don’t judge until you find yourself being ‘stared down’ by an extraterrestrial that looks like a giant prune suspended by four worms. Here’s a hint: When they don’t have eyes, they never blink.
So when Slippy wanted a two hundred gallon aquarium to house his pet octopus, I caved. Aside from the fact that it took up a huge amount of space in the living room, it meant giving up the big screen TV, which meant I was going to have to watch the Superbowl on twenty-one inches in my den.
Slippy had become more obsessed with human relationships with animals than our relationships with extraterrestrials. His sudden interest in pets grew into investigation of animal husbandry, wildlife conservation, and pig wrestling.
Slippy coaxed his octopus onto one of his tentacles and passed him from one to another. I couldn’t pronounce the name he gave it, but it was something like Sudley, so that’s what I called it. The translator on Slippy’s communications arm chirped. “Who are the animal authorities?”
I put down the arrow I was trying to fletch. My concentration was fading fast anyway due to the increasing meat and onions aroma from the kitchen. “Animals don’t really have authorities. They’re either wild or tame, and whoever owns them… bosses them.”
“Authorities over proper care of them.”
“It depends on the—”
“Take ‘im to the zoo.” My mother popped in from the kitchen, sizzling plates in hand. She dropped one on the coffee table in front of me and left another for Slippy, then went back for the tortillas.
“I’m not sure that’s what he—”
“Just show it to him,” she said. “He always seems to know if it’s right when he sees it.”
Slippy contracted and expanded his tentacle in a way that moved Sudley to the tip and dropped him back in the aquarium.
“Let’s go to the zoo,” he said.
It always seems to go this way. I try to narrow down what he’s looking for, but we wind up on a goose chase until we get lucky. Fortunately, I really liked the zoo, so what the heck.
“What the heck,” I said. “Tomorrow.”
We said a quick grace—Slippy always emitted a dulcet hum when we did—and dug into mom’s scrumptious fajitas.
Slippy seemed to enjoy the zoo, but he blew off the most interesting animals, like the otters and the polar bears, then spent almost an hour in front of a tapir. Georgetta had also finagled us a tour of the care facilities, so we saw some babies and methods of care first hand.
When Slippy seemed satisfied, we headed for the exit.
“What did you think?” I asked.
“I comprehend the attraction.” The way two of his tentacles shimmied in a circle made me think of a teenager with attitude. “However, this place isn’t about animal care. It’s about caring for animals on exhibition.”
“The purpose is not to find the best care, it is to care for what is displayed.”
“I see.” I didn’t see. Maybe a little, but I thought it was a mighty fine hair he was splitting. “Okay.”
He squished himself into the back seat of my car.
“I was going to suggest a farm. Do you want to check one out?”
“Yes,” he said. “And maybe a circus.”
“No circus in town,” I said. I knew the owner of a family farm in the next county. He raised livestock and grew grain, corn, soybeans, wheat, or whatever was on his annual rotation.
I thought it’d be nice to get away from the fruits and nuts of the city, so I headed that way.
The acidy smell of pig shit burned my nose. Mr. Campbell was getting a little long in the tooth, so his son, Douglas, showed us around. I used to whistle ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’ to drive the old man crazy, but it didn’t faze his son.
We checked out the pigs, the lambs and the cows. Slippy even pet a lamb. They had chicken coops, too, but Slippy kept his distance from them. Douglas explained the daily routines of care, and the sun was nearing the horizon by the time he finished.
On the way home Slippy expressed his admiration of the technical methodologies for breeding and raising.
“You found what you were looking for?”
“No.” The round part of his body rippled and one of his tentacles whipped, which I’d come to know as humor. “That was more care of food than care of animals.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Ah. I see what you mean.”
I was listening to Katie Melua’s ‘I Will Be There’ when Slippy jolted me out of some whiteline fever.
“Stop the car,” he said. “Head back the other way slowly.”
The country road was empty, so I slowed, turned around, nearly putting my wheel into a ditch, and crept forward the opposite way until Slippy stopped me again.
We got out, and he easily flopped his body over a barbed-wire fence without touching it. I pushed the middle wire down and squeezed through myself, following him to about twenty-four beehives clustered together, a smoke can fuming in the middle. A man in a bee suit pulled frames out of one of the beehives and set them upright in a plastic crate on a wagon.
“This man is an authority on animal care,” said Slippy.
He tried to explain it to me, but hours into it I couldn’t comprehend why the honorarium belonged to that man, which made the moment very important to me. I’ve come to figure out that it feels like the ‘Aha!’ moments with an extraterrestrial bring you closer to understanding him, and in a way they do, but mostly they don’t. Those are the moments you realize you think a lot alike about something. It’s the moments that just don’t jibe at all where you know there’s an opportunity to understand something truly alien.