“Aliens Love Oranges”
by Sue Burke
Lois made it a point to educate customers at her bar. If the three young ladies occupying bar stools wanted to chat about space aliens, Lois Moody had news for them.
“Those people are aliens,” she said. Lois shielded her hand behind some beer tappers and pointed at a nicely dressed couple near the jukebox. “Go listen to them. They have that alien accent.” She slipped one of the girls a dollar. Jessica winked, slapped a serious expression on her face, and walked purposefully to the jukebox. She lingered long over the selections, returning wide-eyed as a Burt Bacharach song bounced out over the speakers.
“They do talk wrong,” she whispered. “They say ‘aboot’ instead of ‘about’ and ‘proh-gress’ instead of ‘prah-gress.’ It’s like they can’t almost speak English right.”
“That’s how you tell,” Lois said. “Aliens can’t figure out how to say the letter O. Have y’all ever heard a body talk like that?”
Scarlett, wide-eyed, shook her head no.
“They look so normal,” Candace said. If she leaned to her left, she could see the couple reflected in a mirror decorated with peace signs. They both drank Screwdrivers. “You’re making this up,” Candace finally said.
Lois said no and stepped down the bar to pour a hard cider for a customer. “You know,” she told the customer, “hard cider was invented by Johnny Appleseed. That’s why he planted all those trees. Hard cider is pretty easy to make, and Johnny, bless his heart, wanted to help out farmers who would have had to mash up some corn liquor instead. My daddy used to make corn liquor up in Alabama. It could keep a man busy.”
Lois returned to the young ladies. “I’ve been watching them for a long time, them aliens, and I can’t quite figure out why they’re here. There’s a lot more of them, I can tell you that. I’m lucky they come here, so I can keep watching.”
She kept her eye on the aliens and on other customers as they came and went until closing time. As much as she could, she talked with everyone. Customers liked attention, and Lois needed customers. Despite a towering live oak draped with picturesque Spanish moss in the parking lot, Moody’s couldn’t attract the tourists that ventured off Interstate 75 to the little Florida town of Lake Avernus. Moody’s depended on locals.
After Lois’s husband died, the working men who had patronized the bar found someplace else, but lately a few people in their 20s had dropped in. Lois made them feel welcome. They came back with friends. They dressed like hippies — the style again, apparently. Lois found suitable items her daughter had never bothered to clean out of the attic and claimed them for the bar. She installed posters of flowers and Jimi Hendrix, and ordered special jukebox music. She plugged in a lava lamp next to cash register. Young people made the place so much more fun.
When Jessica, Scarlett, and Candace came back the next Sunday, as they usually did, Lois had more news. “They don’t like the cold, the aliens, not a bit. That’s why they’re in Florida.” The girls had spent their weekend working at a waterslide park thwarting tourist children’s attempts to drown each other. They appreciated the diversion.
“I think they can see heat,” Lois said, “just like special cameras can. Things must look a lot different to aliens. On a warm sunny day, everywhere they look they’d see a nice, warm glow like a fire in a fireplace.”
Jessica asked if the lava lamp gave off heat. Lois let the girls touch it. The base felt pleasantly warm.
“I wonder if they’d like it if I got candles for the tables,” Lois said, “They could just sit there and watch and enjoy.”
“It would be beautiful,” Scarlett said.
“There’s something else,” Lois said. “That couple you saw last week came back and had Screwdrivers again. They’re here to manage one of those winter thoroughbred farms. The man wears his watch on the inside of his wrist. I wonder if they all do that.”
Candace, with a wicked smile, rotated her watch to the inside of her wrist. “Maybe I can fool them into thinking I’m one of them.”
The next day, Lois bought candles, and then stopped at a roadside stand to buy three bags of oranges and a gallon of fresh-squeezed orange juice. The black-haired, pale girl who waited on Lois kept her eyes down. She wore a name tag that said “Mustang,” and she wore her wristwatch on the inside of her wrist.
“Do you like horses, honey?” Lois asked. “Having the name Mustang, and all. Or was that your parents who liked horses?”
“I chose that name. I use it on the Net, and I like it.” Her tone of voice did not invite further comment — but she had the slightest hint of an accent.
“You should come visit my place, Moody’s, just over that way on 44.” Lois reached into her purse and pulled out a book of bar matches. Mustang paused, then took it. “The first drink will be on me. I’m Lois, I own it, and I’ll be glad to see you.”
Not many people said they were glad to see Mustang. After an estranged high school career and then a try or two at community college—and despite good grades—she had wound up as an assistant manager at a fruit stand, still living with her parents. Her major friends were gleaned from the alt section of the Internet. She didn’t frequent bars, and didn’t plan to visit Moody’s, but just before she closed the stand that night, her final customers came from a tourist bus that should have stayed at Disney World. The tourists didn’t believe that proper oranges might have a touch of green or brown, unlike the dyed-bright, dry, tasteless tennis balls sold in chain supermarkets.
Mustang was still grumbling when she walked toward Moody’s, and hesitated a moment at the front door. She made a deal with herself. If she didn’t see that old lady right away, she was going to walk right out. But there stood Lois stood tending bar. Behind her was a weird sign: “Free orange for every customer.” Weirder, the place was retro, with black-light posters and Grateful Dead music. Most of the customers looked the same age as Mustang and weren’t dressed like Land’s End echoes. On each of the dozen tables sat a candle burning inside a wine glass, and three more candles sat on the bar.
Mustang hadn’t been in many bars in her life. In fact, she had only been to lounges attached to restaurants — with her parents. However, she had seen people go into bars on television. With second-hand aplomb, Mustang dropped herself onto a bar stool in front of Lois. “They look kind of pretty,” Mustang said, tilting her head at a candle and not smiling. If this Lois wasn’t really glad to see her, Mustang would have her free drink and go.
“So, honey, what’s your favorite drink?” Lois moved one of the candles closer to Mustang. Almost defiantly, Mustang said she didn’t drink enough to have a favorite. Lois suggested a Screwdriver, “unless you get enough orange juice at work.”
“You can never get enough orange juice,” Mustang said. As Lois served her, she got Mustang to talk about how to judge the best oranges, about tourists’ inability to judge, and about the horses pastured near the fruit stand. From time to time Lois had to sell drinks or clear tables, but Mustang was used to waiting on customers, too, and could hold a thought for the duration of a transaction. Mustang bought herself a plain orange juice just to hang around a little longer. When someone went to put a couple of bucks into the juke box, she asked Lois if there was any Elvis in the selections. Lois said no, and Mustang actually smiled. As Mustang left, she declined to take an orange, but said she might come back.
That Sunday, Lois informed Jessica, Scarlett, and Candace that aliens had become just like humans, and they loved horses and especially loved orange juice. The free oranges might encourage more aliens to come to Moody’s. “Oh, and they hate Elvis,” Lois said. Jessica sighed. She loved old music.
The oranges, or something, did attract more customers. Sometimes Lois told customers that oranges were an ancient symbol of safe travel on long journeys. Others she told about aliens, candles, Elvis, and horses—in their original form aliens used to be horses, or at least something that looked a lot like horses, so they felt comforted by the presence of horses. One customer, a ponytailed man named Greg, told Lois that aliens had made all the major advances in astronomy—aliens who didn’t necessarily know they were aliens, but who knew they loved stars.
Life for Mustang continued too much as it always had. Tourists aggravated her, her parents pestered her, and someone she thought was her friend on an alt board flamed her. She wanted to be somebody. She had picked the name Mustang because mustangs were escaped horses gone wild out West. If she knew where she wanted to go, she’d escape, too. She had thought about San Francisco or Miami, where she might fit in. She had never told anyone besides her on-line friends she was a lesbian—actually, being a lesbian was theoretical at this point, anyway. As far as she knew, there had never been gay people besides her in Lake Avernus, except one boy from high school who had left town as fast as he could.
Mustang could imagine going to San Francisco or Miami, she just didn’t know what to do when she got there, how she would be somebody, and that was the main thing, so she stayed and tended a fruit stand. If she was going nowhere, at least she wouldn’t need a road map to get there in Lake Avernus.
She knew, however, that lesbian and gay people visited lesbian and gay bars. Visiting a regular bar felt like a tiny step toward escape, so she went to Moody’s again. Lois greeted her like a friend. As she handed Mustang a drink, she leaned forward to talk privately.
“Do y’all believe in space aliens?”
“Like on Star Trek?”
“Sure, honey, but here, in Lake Avernus.”
“Well, they’re hiding pretty good.” Mustang sipped her drink—tangy orange juice, with a warm feeling when she swallowed the vodka. A candle down the bar caught her eye.
Lois kept talking. “I think they’d have to hide to avoid being caught like on X-Files.”
“That would explain my parents.” Mustang expected Lois to shush her and tell her that her parents deserved respect for all the sacrifices they had made for her.
Lois simply nodded and moved the candle closer to Mustang. She waved to someone walking in the door. A man with a ponytail sat on the bar stool next to Mustang.
“How’s the stars, honey?” Lois asked him. She poured him a beer. “This is Mustang. She’s fond of horses but not Elvis. Mustang, this is Greg.”
Mustang wondered if Lois was making a joke at her expense, but Greg looked at her seriously and hopefully. Maybe Lois was trying to set her up. It wouldn’t work.
“We were talking,” Lois said, “about space aliens. Mustang doesn’t think she’s seen any, but I expect as how aliens would be hiding.”
“I don’t even know why they’d bother to come here,” Mustang said.
“All sorts of trouble could be happening on their home world,” Greg said. “Or they crashed. I imagine they’d feel homesick every time they looked at the stars. Do you like the stars?”
Lois was walking away. Mustang would have to talk to this man. “I don’t know much about them,” she said into her drink.
“Maybe looking at the stars would make them feel better, like looking at pictures of home.”
Any minute now, Mustang thought, the man would ask her what her sign was.
“Of course,” he said, “the constellations would all look different.”
“I never understood how constellations look like anything.”
“They don’t. That’s just to give astronomers landmarks, like a map, so they can say they discovered a planet in Pegasus, and everyone knows where they mean. Did you know they’ve found a lot of planets? Have you looked much at the stars?”
“I hated science in high school.”
“They probably didn’t teach it well. Let me show you. I’m studying astronomy at Tampa College.”
He stood up to take her outside. Mustang hesitated.
“Lois,” Greg said, “would you watch our drinks? I’m going to look at the stars with Mustang. I won’t bite, honest. It’s perfect out.”
She expected him to try something, and she was ready to slug him, but instead he talked non-stop about telescopes and galaxies as he led her to the shadow of the big live oak. “You start with the North Star,” he said, and showed her how to find that, and then had her look south until she saw some pairs and triplets of stars at angles to each other, Pegasus. With him helping her, she could find a lot, so although the night was cold by Florida standards, they stayed outside for a long while. Back inside, Greg told her more.
She went home that night with a head full of strange, beautiful names like a forgotten language: Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Pleiades, Orion, Castor, Pollux, Polaris, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Aldeberan, Procyon, Sirius. She had seen Venus and Jupiter and the Milky Way. Pegasus was named after a winged magical horse, flying through the sky.
Lois debriefed Greg after Mustang left. The stars had captivated her. “We might have a live one,” he said. “Grumpy, though.”
“Homesick, like you said.” Lois said. “I’ll watch out for her.”
When Jessica, Scarlett, and Candace came in on Sunday, Lois told them about Mustang the alien. “The thing is, I don’t know as she knows what she is. It seems to make it hard on her. She loved them stars, though.” The girls wanted to meet her.
At home, Mustang spent hours devouring everything about stars and space in the junior encyclopedia in her brother’s old room, and then spent days online looking for more. The Internet was filled with science. NASA had libraries of downloads. She acquired pictures of a giant red storm on Jupiter and a of nebula called M-31. NASA gave tours, too. Mustang wanted to go.
When Lois came to the fruit stand for oranges and juice, Mustang asked about the astronomy student. Lois loved it when her customers got along. “You’ll just have to come back some time and see him,” she said. “How about Sunday night?” Back at the bar, Lois made sure Greg would come on Sunday, too.
When Jessica, Scarlett, and Candace arrived after work, Lois pointed them toward a table where skinny girl in a faded T-shirt, drinking a Screwdriver, talked to a man with a ponytail. Candace adjusted her wristwatch as they walked over.
“May we join you?” Jessica said.
Mustang looked up to see three buffed and sleek young women wanting to horn in. She had been talking to Greg about the Hubble Space Telescope, and she wanted to know more. But Greg invited them to sit down. They introduced themselves. There was a moment of silence.
“Don’t mind us. Just keep talking,” Jessica said.
“We were talking about ultraviolet astronomy,” Greg said. “NASA is looking for more quasars.”
“I visited NASA once, the Kennedy Center,” Scarlett said.
“Was it good?” Mustang asked.
Pretty soon Jessica proposed visiting the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday, when they all had a day off. Mustang felt talked into going, as if these women liked her too much too fast, but she wanted to go, and her own car probably wouldn’t make it that far. So on Wednesday morning they piled into Jessica’s car. Mustang had downloaded and printed out a map to the space center. They sat Mustang up front as the navigator and set off.
The women had a mission. Jessica, Scarlett, and Candace stuck with Mustang in the museums and on the bus tour, pointing out things Mustang might want to see, and running interference through the crowds of tourists for her.
Mustang had expected—or feared, really—the whole thing would be hokey, like the other Florida fakeries meant to amuse tourists. It wasn’t. Mustang saw a real space shuttle on Launch Complex 39. It was huge. She saw a Saturn V rocket, which was more huge. She saw spacecraft that had flown in space, a lunar module that had landed on the moon, and real space suits. She saw scientists—maybe even astronauts— carrying reports and equipment around. The moon rocks looked like a plain black rocks, and not very big, but they were rocks from another planet.
“Alien rocks,” Candace said and winked at her.
After two hours on the bus, when they got back to the “Spaceport USA” visitor center, someone in a spacewalk suit was standing outside the building next to the huge NASA sign to pose with visitors.
“Go stand with him,” Jessica told Mustang.
Mustang felt mortified, but everyone was watching, and she didn’t want to make a scene. The spaceman towered over her in a bulky white suit and a gold-mirrored round face mask. He laid a gloved hand on her shoulder and waved at the camera.
“Wave, Mustang. Smile,” Candace ordered. The spaceman patted Mustang’s shoulder sympathetically. She smiled and waved. It was hokey, but not so bad. As she walked away, she wondered if Jessica would give her a copy of the photo so she could prove she had actually been there. It was the doorway to new worlds. They piled back in the car.
“What do you think?” Jessica asked Mustang. “Do you want to be an astronaut?”
“I want to be something,” she said.
“After I went the first time,” Scarlett said, “I wanted to learn to run an amusement park so they would all be as good as that one. Or run something right. They screw up the water slide where we work.”
The girls started talking shop. Mustang didn’t have much to say. She watched the sun dropping in the west, and thought about orbits.
“Do you have a boyfriend, Mustang?” Candace asked.
Mustang was startled out of her thoughts. She considered the question, and felt a nervous part of her pacing in the back of her mind. She decided to test their friendship. “Well, actually, I prefer girls,” she said as calmly as she could.
There was a pause. “Oh,” Scarlett said, “that’s so human.”
Mustang wasn’t sure how to take that, but before she could say anything, Jessica had a question.
“So what’s it like? Are girls easier to date than guys?”
Mustang mumbled that she didn’t know.
“Of course not, she never had to date guys, lucky her,” Candace said. Candace laughed, then Scarlett, Jessica, and finally Mustang. That was that. When they got back to Lake Avernus, they agreed to meet again that Sunday at Moody’s.
Mustang spent the following days putting serious thought into college. She downloaded admission information from several colleges and checked into their space sciences programs. She pondered tuition costs. She sent e-mail to admissions counselors. She tried to remember beginning calculus—she had actually been good at math, which hadn’t made her popular. Her mother became so happy about Mustang’s interest in higher education that Mustang was glad to go to work, where she could quietly enjoy the scent of oranges, watch horses wander idly in pastures, and marvel at the size of the universe.
At Moody’s on Sunday, Lois and a customer struck up a conversation sparked by a coin they found in some change. “The name came from a British explorer, Albert Canada, you know,” Lois told him. “He made it clean out to the Rockies. They named a state after him, too, Alberta. They haven’t updated the picture of the queen on the coin, though. She’s a lot older now.” Lois reached to hand him his coin.
“Keep it,” said the customer, and walked away smiling.
Mustang walked in and took a bar stool. Lois greeted her cheerfully.
“Look, Mustang, a Canadian quarter. It has a moose on the back.”
“My mother is from Winnipeg,” Mustang said. She looked at the coin. She had always thought that moose had bigger antlers. “She says it’s really cold there in the winter, and that’s why she married an American.”
Lois began to make Mustang a drink, a Screwdriver, easy on the vodka, easy on the ice. Mustang liked it that way, and she was good for business. “That’s interesting,” Lois said. “It’s good to hear you talk. You might want to try talking more. Folks are just naturally curious, and it makes them feel good to learn new things. I think you’d be surprised at how much people are concerned with one another.”
Due to a head cold, Jessica didn’t come that night. Candace and Scarlett and Mustang rehashed their trip to the space center. “I understand now why we can see vapor trails from shuttle blast-offs all the way here,” Mustang said. “The rockets are enormous.”
“It takes a lot to go fast enough to get all the way to space,” Scarlett said.
“Escape velocity,” Mustang said.
“You were paying attention on the tour,” Candace teased. “You do want to be an astronaut.”
“Astronauts are all scientists these days, so I’ll have to become a scientist first,” Mustang said. It was possible. The universe was a big place. When Mustang looked at the stars on the way to her car, she knew that she was looking back into the beginning of time.
Inside, Lois asked Scarlett and Candace how the trip went.
“She liked it,” Candace said. “She stopped being crabby the minute we got there. She hasn’t gotten crabby since.”
“She had this funny look on her face, like everything was beautiful,” Scarlett said. “Maybe she felt closer to home.”
“Come on, she’s not really an alien,” Candace said. “She’s just a loser who needed a clue.”
“If she is an alien,” Scarlett said, “she probably doesn’t know it. Even if she isn’t, we can be nice to her. I don’t think she’s had people be nice to her.”
Lois nodded. Scarlett understood people.
Candace pouted. “So we’re going to keep playing games with her. I don’t think that’s fun anymore.”
Mustang arrived at Moody’s two weeks later with an announcement. “Not all the paperwork is done, and the loans and scholarships aren’t nailed down, but it’s pretty sure I’m heading to the University of Chicago in January. I’m going to study astronomy.”
Everyone hugged her. Greg and Lois exchanged knowing looks. Scarlett worried out loud about the cold weather in Illinois. Jessica pulled out the photo of Mustang with the NASA greeter in the space suit. Mustang studied it with surprise. She actually looked good in a snapshot for once, unless it was the candlelight.
Candace grabbed the photo. “Here’s the astronaut,” she said, pointing to the spaceman, “and here’s the alien he just met,” she said with a smile, pointing to Mustang.
Jessica looked at Candace, furious. She had just ruined everything. “What she meant,” Jessica said, turning to Mustang, “is that to the spaceman, humans are aliens. Assuming that the spaceman isn’t from Earth.”
Scarlett tried to help. “It would be so much fun to actually meet an alien.”
In a honeyed voice, Candace asked Mustang, “Wouldn’t you like to meet an alien?”
Mustang considered this. Her friends wanted to talk about aliens, and Mustang had things to say. “I would like to meet aliens. Scientist are looking for them, you know.”
“Out in space?” Scarlett said.
“With radio telescopes,” Mustang said. “Messages will probably get here before spaceships do. There are some projects looking for messages transmitted from other planets, and we’ve sent some messages ourselves.” She noticed everyone staring at her. Lois was right—people were curious. She kept talking.
“I think there really are people on other planets. I don’t know what makes me so sure, but I am positive they’re out there, and I want to find them. That’s what I’m going to study at college.”
“So,” Greg said, “you don’t think any have actually arrived on Earth yet?”
“If they were here,” Mustang said, “how could we tell?” Everyone laughed. Mustang didn’t get her own punch line, but to be a good sport, she joined in the laughter.
After she had left, everyone relaxed. “She never did catch on,” Candace said.
Jessica glared at her. “I could have killed you.”
“She’s not really an alien,” Candace said.
“Either way, we did a good thing,” Scarlett said. “I want a career, too.”
“She is definitely an alien,” Greg said. “I think there’s aliens all around, and she’s going to do great things in astronomy. I just wonder if she’ll ever find out.”
“Sooner or later,” Lois said, “a body knows home.”
Lois hosted a going-away party for Mustang. Jessica brought her a helium balloon shaped like a star and a copy of the spaceman photo. Scarlett gave her a T-shirt imprinted with a galloping horse. Candace, smiling broader than everyone, gave her an orange-scented candle. Greg presented a bottle of NoDoz. Mustang got a little maudlin as she said goodbye. Her wet eyes reflected the room full of candles. “I promise I’ll come back and visit every time I’m in Lake Avernus.”
Lois eventually hired Scarlett to help manage the bar and taught Scarlett every aspect of running a business. Elvis remained banned from the jukebox. When the retro fad passed, Lois and Scarlett redecorated with a horse theme. Free oranges became a trademark of the bar, and business stayed busy. Scarlett kept a wondering eye on customers. Some of them loved oranges a lot.
At school, Mustang applied herself to radio spectroscopy. She returned to Moody’s from time to time as her studies stretched from undergraduate classes to graduate work. Lois and Scarlett agreed that contact with space did her a world of good. Each time she visited, Mustang seemed more content.
On a hot summer night, Mustang hurried in carrying a sheaf of papers, eager to share the contents with Lois and Scarlett. She pointed to computer-printed charts and graphs.
“This is a mathematical language. All it says is hello—but hello from light-years away,” she said breathlessly. “I was the one to recognize it, and they just confirmed it at MIT. Watch the news on Monday. I’ll be back in Chicago, and I’ll probably be on TV. This is just so great. I found them. I really found them.”
“How could you tell it was from them?” Scarlett asked.
Mustang shrugged. “I don’t know, and everyone keeps asking me that.”
“I expect it just looked familiar,” Lois said. “We’re going to have a lot to tell each other.”
Sue Burke wrote Aliens Love Oranges after visiting her grandmother in Florida. She now lives in Spain, where there are lots of oranges and many people wear their wedding rings on their right hands, which she finds very suspicious. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, and she is a member of the Asociación Española de Fantasía y Ciencia Ficción.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish