“Lights, Like Marfa”


M. J. Downing

“You know, lights, like in Marfa,” the taller said, sitting at the bar to my far left.  The shorter fellow nearer me returned his gaze, blinking and shaking his head ’no.’  The taller guy might have been sixty, might have been thirty. I had a hard time pegging his age.  He looked distinctly western, to me: lean enough to make him seem tall, no matter his height; hair, chin whiskers, and mustache the same silvering blond. Creased from squinting at so much sun, his leathery face held troubled, glinting eyes.  The jeans and dark denim shirt he wore, frayed at all edges but still intact and clean, were growing old with him. “Durable” I muttered. 

The shorter, fleshier guy who sat between us was out of place in this bar, “ The Watering Hole,” on Route 66, just out of Flagstaff. He shook his balding head, and said,

“Yes. I hear what you are saying, but it makes no sense to say that they aren’t, well, mechanical.”  He wore a convention badge from some UFO federation, meeting in Sedona. His gut stretched out a black polo shirt bearing the logo “CLUE,” on the left chest. I had seen it spelled out on his back as I walked in a few minutes ago. CLUE was “the Cleveland Ufo Enterprise,” which I figured was an acronym that he had struggled with—probably more than his UFO research. 

I’d walked down from my cheap motel a few blocks away, glad of the cooler temperatures up this high, even at midsummer, trying to let some of the dust of the road settle off of me. It was a long haul from my church office in Richmond Virginia. “The Watering Hole” featured about eight tables, a short bar, a gritty tiled floor, and an old juke box. It was a place for the locals, I figured, and now they centered their attentin on the two guys to my left. As I stood at the door and then walked to the bar, I heard enough of their conversation to be intrigued.  I learned that the lean western type had a problem that he was trying to explain to this shorter, fleshier fellow. 

The leathery westerner had been trying to explain to the CLUE fellow that he thought that things that folks called UFOs were actually living things, organic, though he lacked that vocabulary.  I listened to his straining voice, heard his effort to express his mystery.  I could see by his furrowed brow and clenching jaw muscle that he desired to share his theory with someone; this CLUE fellow might just have been the most recent, willing listener. Maybe they had been at a meeting or something.  I would never find out why their conversation had started. Things were not going well, though, for either of them.

The tension that had grown between had risen to a noticeable level when I walked in the door.  All eyes present were on them, expecting trouble or at least a diversion from the usual summer night outside Flagstaff.  That I entered precisely at that point made me think that I had been led here to listen to this conversation. That would be like God, to drive me across the country and drop me into this watering hole to help someone.  Their discission was held at high enough volume that no one would see me as guilty of prying.

“Mechanical?” the western fellow shot back. “No. They ain’t mechanical nor any kind of machine. Well, the ones I’ve seen, anyway, don’t have anything machine like about them.  They were mostly, like I said, light, and, and, well, just bein’ there.”

“Yes, but something has to make the light, right?” CLUE said, drawing a derisive nod and snort from the westerner.

“No. I don’t think you can hear me. I told you,” he claimed, opening his eyes wider so that I could see more of their steely blue, “that the thing itself gives off light, like a firefly, or something. I’ve heard that there’s things in the oceans give off light like that too.  They’re living things.  And, it weren’t no light like you get out of a lamp or somethin’.  I’ve seen enough of that to know it.”

“So, real bright, like halogen or something?”

“No—yes—real bright, but softer somehow, like it didn’t almost hurt to look at, and the whole time it was quiet, as still as the deep night itself.” His voice softened as I guess he recalled some sensation.  I shudder ran through me as I felt it too.  I began to sense a kinship with this hard-bitten fellow, for I was seeking a way to express something of the a similar sort, only my mystery had been clarified for me. I just couldn’t figure out how to act on it and stay in my pulpit.

The western guy went on in a  softer voice “That light bathed me in peace and, and, and thoughts, like, well, thoughts that I’d never had before began to cross my mind, thoughts of home, but not like a house, or family, like…like being home everywhere and nowhere, all at once, and not botherin’ about why.  They gave me this feeling, well, the way I felt then, that is, in the light that came over me…”  His voice trailed off, faltering, and he took a sip of his beer to cover it. Try as he might, he could not find the words to express the most important moments of his life, and my heart went out to him.  I could no longer find the words to utter from the pulpit that would help my congregation come to grips with what it means to be the Church.  But there I go, saying ’Come to grips with,’  like it’s something you can hold onto—something that I can get folk to take hold of. How can they, when I can’t?

“Well, certainly, they have the sort of technology to render their propulsion systems soundless,” CLUE guy said, shaking his balding head as he began to look for a way off of his barstool without seeming rude to his companion.  He caught me looking at the two of them and a blush ran across his face.  He smiled nervously and gave a minute shrug of his shoulders, like an apology.

“What the h—“ the rawhide looking guy said, turning to glare at CLUE, “There you go.  Propulsion systems, again, like it was something that somebody could make.  I’m telling you,” he cried, causing a few heads down the bar and at nearby tables to turn in our direction.  He laid a large fingered, callused had on CLUE’s shoulder, “If it was something made, then God made it. It was there to me. Like you are now.  I could sense it, like I can you, or or, him” he stabbed a finger in my direction, “and I can’t do that with no machine.  Never could.  I felt it there with me, not just by me, like a machine would be.  I know machines, like my truck, and things like that ain’t alive.  It was like us.  It, well, I felt like it was thinking of me, you know, paying attention to me.”

“No one doubts that beings capable of spanning the distance between stars would possess a high degree of intelligence,” CLUE said, slipping off his stool.  The western fellow turned on his seat to face his retreating companion, the lines of his face creasing into something between a smile and a grimace. He rested his hand on the bar, as though to keep it from shaking.  He drew a deep breath as though to shout something. He held that shout, though, held that breath for second or two and then blew it out in an exasperated sigh.  He nodded his head side to side in what looked like a final resignation.

“I can’t talk to you,” he muttered and turned his back on CLUE, who nodded his grateful acceptance of the situation and left on quiet steps, as though to keep from disturbing the western fellow.  The troubled soul looked deep into his beer, which was nearly empty, shook his head, and closed his eyes, trying, I guess to hang onto the memory of what he had seen or trying, maybe, to think of a better place to be.  You see that look a lot in bars.

“You can talk to me,” I said.  His head snapped in my direction, intense eyes fixing on mine. “See, I think that maybe I’m in a similar position.  My name’s Will.” He looked at me hard for a minute and I worried briefly that I’d angered him. I thought maybe he’d shout at me. Something in him changed that anger into acceptance, though, and after a short minute he smiled at me and gently shook his head ‘no,’

I let him sit there, staring into his glass for a moment, hoping that I could find way to talk to this fellow, who seemed to me in his quandary to be some sort of spiritual brother.  I knew better to try and cajole him.  This fellow wanted to have a real talk, with someone who wanted to understand him. I cast about for a way to bridge the gap between us, for I knew that somehow, I needed to talk to this stranger about his lights, maybe my  lights, too, although mine shown out from the Beatitudes.

“What are the Marfa lights?” I asked.  I really didn’t know and couldn’t recall hearing about them. It seemed like a reasonable start.

“Just lights in the sky, mister.  Sometimes up high, sometimes down low, like you’re looking at car lights or something coming down the slopes.  See’em down in Texas.  Marfa’s the town where you go to see ‘em.  You know, Marfa lights?” His tone was friendly enough but tired.

“I can’t say I’ve ever heard of them,” I said. “I’m from the east coast, Richmond.”

“Virginia? Been there enough,” he said and smiled. I hoped that with something like a place he could attach me to, I’d have a shot at seeming like a guy worth talking to. It worked.  He turned in my direction, his eyes still tired, willing to offer at least the acceptance of another traveler, another guy going from somewhere to somewhere else.

“I drive that rig parked over yonder in the truck lot.”  He gestured out across the big highway that ran in front of the road side strip that held “ The Watering Hole,” a Mexican eatery, a convenience store and gas station, and a hardware store. I had come into the bar wanting to treat myself to a cold beer, an infrequent indulgence back home but somehow fitting out here.

“Was just in Richmond, maybe a month ago, doing a run for a med equipment company.” He mentioned the name of a hospital system to the south of the city, the other side of town from my church, and I shook my head, mentioned the roads and apologized for all the construction that was going on down on I 95. He asked what I was doing so far from home.

“I’m headed up to the Canyon tomorrow,” I said, drawing a deep, appreciative nod from him, “Just needed some time away, you know? And a member of my congr—um, one of my buddies, told me that he had a two night reservation day after tomorrow down in Phantom Ranch and another night at Bright Angel for the next day.  He couldn’t use them—business, you know–so, he gave’em to me, since I needed to get away. My wife shooed me out the door, and here I am.”

He nodded his sandy, graying head and extended his hand to me.

“Mines Albert,” he said, catching my hand in his heavy sandpaper grip, “Albert Pratt. What ya lookin’ for in the Grand Canyon, Will?” He kept his place, a stool between us, and offered me a friendly enough grin so that I’d keep on talking.  His prescient question, though, took me back.  What was I looking for in the Grand Canyon? Why had I agreed so quickly to drive most of the way across the country and walk down into the world’s biggest hole in the ground?  I stuttered around an answer that started with, “Never been there,” which was true, passed through “wanted to see it for myself, what I’d always seen on tv and such—never been out west” and ended with,

“Like you, I guess I’m trying to figure out how to live with a truth I’m coming to grips with.”  He smiled deeper, uttered a low, sympathetic chuckle and shook his head, in acknowledgement of a shared failing on both our parts, the sort of smile one man gives to another for having done the same kind of stupid thing, the sort of acceptance that says, welcome to the human condition, brother.  It was a smile that said he wouldn’t trade his seeming stupidity for anything. I let my words just stumble into silence.

“Hard to talk about the important things, ain’t it?” He laughed, a long dry chuckle and finished with “Helluva life, huh?” and laughed enough to make me want to join in.

“Yes,” I nodded, glad of the laugh but unsure of where to turn next.  I consulted my own beer glass for a moment, like it could help me figure out what to do. I thought about how to explain that I’d come to an understanding of the Kingdom of God that would—no, really should—change the nature of my life, my faith, my career. I’d been talking to people about their faith for ten years now, at Fourth Presbyterian back home in Richmond. Talking about faith, about salvation, had been my life. I’d been acknowledged as a good preacher, too, powerful, stirring.  And I never stopped studying The Word, either. And it had led me to this: in my studies I had come face to face with the meaning of The Kingdom of God that Jesus was talking about in the Beatitudes.  It had little to do with the stuff I had sent out from the pulpit for the last decade.   I was famous for my revival-like sermons.  I was good at the “turn or burn” stuff, gifted, people had told me about helping them feel the need for their salvation.  I had realized that for my entire career, I had been telling my congregation what they wanted to hear: they were saved, and that was that. I told myself that I had done genuine good in those sermons, but I stood more convicted by the notion that I had done little to act like Jesus urged me to act in his parables, in the actions of the Beatitudes. Now, I could not fathom how to face my congregation and say that I’d failed to help them, that there’s more, way more to being a follower of Jesus than just dying and going to heaven.  Where would I start?

“Am I right, that you think what other people see as UFOs are something organic, you know, life forms?” I countered, trying to turn the conversation away from the source of my discomfort.

“Can’t say about anyone else,” he said, nodding, “or what they have seen. But the experiences I’ve had tell me that I’m looking at something—organic, was it?” I nodded and said

“Yeah, organic.”

“I like that word. Organic.  That means something that grows, right?”

“Yeah,” I said, “That’s a good way to say it.  Its natural, has a life span, a, a,  biology, has ways to grow, consume, reproduce itself and such.” He squinted, his knotted brows pulling his glinting eyes deep in the folds of his eyelids, hiding them and sharpening their focus.

“You know, I didn’t have that word for it,” he said, drawing a hand across the heavy stubble on his chin, “But, dawg, don’t that make sense? They’re natural, like.  They’d do that stuff like we do. ‘Course I can’t prove any of it.  It was just what I experienced. They was just, organic, like me, like you. They live here, just like we do. We just don’t know how to talk to them. But you know, Will, I got the feeling that they’re trying to talk to us, tell us somethin’ good, true, and important.”

He asked for another beer, and I asked for an ice water, and he told me about seeing the lights in Marfa once, when he was a kid, when his folks visited kin in Texas, back before the good townspeople of Marfa had turned seeing the mysterious lights into a tourist attraction. He saw nothing wrong in that, he said, because folks had to make what they could out of what life deals them, and Marfa was something of a hard deal in his eyes.

Then, Albert Pratt opened up.  He told me about the other times that he’d seen such things. He’d taken to the life of a trucker sometime on his mid twenties, couldn’t seem to maintain a relationship with one woman, or settle down in one town.  He wanted to wander too much, just be rootless.  So, he took to life on the road.  He’d worked for several different trucking firms long enough that he could afford to buy his own rig, be his own company.  He kept adds in many papers across the US, in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Denver, Phoenix, and San Francisco, which kept him in work. It sounded like a lonely life to me, but he said that the road was his home. He didn’t own any more than he could keep in the cab of his rig.

Then, he offered me more detailed stories of random trips across the desert southwest, the passes of the Rockies, or the dark woods of the cold north, of seeing the beings of light, sometimes close, sometimes far away.  He’d seen them right overhead when he’d sleep under the stars or just outside his cab when he was driving. He’d seen them dance on mountain peaks and play hide and seek with him in wooded valleys off the highway.

“It was like visits, you know?  Like they knew me, or wanted to, like they were curious, just like you were, when you heard me talking to that UFO guy a while ago. It’s like they know that I recognize ‘em.”

“Do they ever communicate with you?” I asked, trying to keep the thought that he might be crazy far back in my mind. 

“Naw. Not in talk or using words, even when they come up close.  It’s sort of like they just say without saying, you know, ‘Hiya bub! Good to see ya again.’ Well, maybe that’s just what I think they say. Other times, quieter times, it’s different, like they want me to feel peace. I don’t know.”

“Yeah,” I said, nodding, “Like Wittgenstein said, what can be shown cannot be said.”

“Huh? Who?” he asked leaning forward as though to smell something suspicious. Maybe Albert had to worry about me being crazy.  That’s a risk when you know something sure.

“Never mind,” I said, trying to shelve my education so that I could keep on talking to this man who sought to trust his experience, much as I needed to do my own experience of Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes.

“I just mean that it’s a matter of living something rather than trying to express it,” I said.  I drew a sharp breath. A shiver ran up my spine.  My own words rang loud in my head: “It’s a matter of living something rather than trying to express it.”  They echoed back and forth, up and down in my mind. It was as though someone else had said them. They might as well have been written in letters of fire in the air before me.  Albert Pratt saw the look on my face.  Maybe he even saw the words in the air between us. They were true, and I no longer thought of him as even remotely crazy.  He smiled and nodded.

“Guess that was a mouthful, huh?” he asked, laughing, like he had caught me out. Had he somehow known that I had to find those words?  He nodded his head, like he knew what I was thinking and said

 “It’s your turn, anyway.  I told my story. Now, you tell yourn.”

I stared at Albert, then back to the bar, then back to Albert, who gave me his attention, his full attention.  I don’t think anyone, except my wife, Jeanie, had ever given such consideration to what I had to say.  This was my chance.

“Albert, I’ve been preaching to people about the Christian life and getting to heaven, now for a decade.  Now, I’ve recognized with a certainty that matches your experience with those lights, that Jesus wants us to follow him in order to change this world, not just join him in the next.  It’s about now, the Kingdom of God. Maybe we even need to find a new way to see it, since ‘kingdom’ is an old idea.  Maybe God’s Community, or God’s Milieu, or…” I could see by the frown on his face that he was struggling with my vocabulary.  “It’s just that, mostly I understood the Kingdom of God as heaven, you know, later, the hereafter…”

“Which wasn’t what He was here after?” Albert quipped, laughing and referencing an old joke that I could barely recall. We laughed and a couple at a nearby table laughed, too.  I explained for some minutes how I had spent my life thus far, thinking that the Church was Fourth Presbyterian, that it was the Session, my congregation, the group of folks I was put in charge of to get them ready for heaven. It seemed to me like I put greater effort into the building fund and the budget.  I’d certainly preached more than my share of stewardship campaigns in ten years, but I doubted that my congregation was much prepared to live, or die for that matter, by what I’d taught them.  I had as much concern for social justice issues as anyone, I told Albert.  It’s just that I had never experienced the ideas behind Jesus’ words before, and they were revolutionary beyond anything I’d ever read or thought about.  I explained how they turned the world upside down, looking at it from the perspective of God’s extravagant love for us. Jesus wasn’t about divisions, about who was right or who was wrong, who was in or who was out. He wanted us all to love one another as His Father loves us. Buildings didn’t matter, nor did budgets or just those Sunday morning professions of faith, as much as taking on the new way of looking at our lives as God’s beloved children, being in an active, immediate relationship with God in this very moment, the only one we will ever have to work with. 

I suppose that my volume had increased as I got into my message.  I finished my last words and saw that I’d drawn everyone’s attention in the bar.  Several heads nodded.  One guy in the back applauded softly. Some folks turned away, not wanting to face me or anyone. My face turned red.  The bar tender smiled at me and raised his own glass of ice water to me in a toast.  Albert smiled and nodded. He reached out and shook my hand again.

“I reckon you sound about as crazy as I do, Will.” Albert said, taking another drink of his beer. He regarded me for a moment, finished his beer, and stood up to leave.

“Thanks for listenin’ and for sharin,’” Albert said, getting up to head back to his life.  He paused a step or two away.

“Do you think God loves those lights I see?”

“I know that if God made ‘em, he loves ‘em, loves them as much as he loves us,” I whispered, knowing the truth of my faith in that statement, knowing, too, how crazy it sounded.

  He clapped me on the shoulder and asked for the name of my church, which he claimed he’d visit, next time he was in Richmond, which he said he hoped would be soon.

“You know,” I said to him, half way across the room as he was leaving, “I started this conversation thinking that I was helping you.  It was the other way around, I guess.”

“Nossir,” he said, “it was just the way it needed to be for both of us, don’t ya think?”  I nodded my head in agreement, noting that the other folks in that Flagstaff bar were watching us both.  As he hit the door, he called back, “You know that, as far as the world is concerned, that you’re pretty much crazy now, right?”

“Yep,” I said, “ I guess so.”

“Yessir.  Good way to be, ain’t it?” he offered, smiled and stepped out into the dark.

I watched his tall, spare form disappear across the parking lot, his tattered denim blending into the night. I thought about his words for the next several days, down in the deep, hot solitude of the Grand Canyon floor, in the rigors of hiking down into it and out again.  I thought about them in the whirling crowd of faces from all over the globe, all those who had sought the wonders of the Grand Canyon. I heard them in the smatterings of Cantonese and German that I heard overlapping one another in the Bright Angel Lodge gift shop up at the Canyon’s south rim.  I thought about them on the drive home, finding random country stations on the radio, passing from one state into the next, always heading home, anxious to see Jeanie again and hold her in my arms, anxious to step back into my pulpit again after a week long hiatus that seemed to take have taken years.

As I found my way through the West Virginia hills, I wondered if my congregation would think that I had gone crazy, like the folks in the bar did, like Albert Pratt did.

“God,” I prayed aloud more than once, “I hope they do.”

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