Wild-eyed Tommy plays the dulcimer on the streets of the French Quarter. Actually, what he does is tune the rusted strings on his trapezoidal wooden box more than he plays them. On week-end nights, so late that few tourists remain at Jackson Square, he can be found tuning his dulcimer under a balcony of the Pontabla building. His scraggly mane will be bent over the instrument, ear cocked to the dissonant zing zing of the strings he strikes with stubby mallets. He seldom looks up, absorbed in a music nobody else can hear.
This evening, on my way home from the grocery, Tommy buttonholes me on Royal Street to tell me about the extraterrestrial origins of Chalmette. Located among the phantasmal lights of the oil refineries in nearby St. Bernard Parish, this is a blue-collar town that we New Orleans city slickers love to poke fun at.
“They’re hybrids, you know,” he tells me. “The extraterrestrials colonized Chalmette a long time ago, right after they landed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1948. That’s when the first human abductions started. You can tell by the way those people talk. Why do you think they call them Chalmatians?”
“Oh, I see.” I shift my bag of groceries from one hand to another. Local wags say the last time understandable English was spoken in Chalmette was during the British invasion of 1814. “Chalmatians. Like Martians or Venusians.”
Tommy tells me that several years ago, before hurricane Katrina destroyed St. Bernard Parish, he was busted in Chalmette for just a liiittle bit—he holds up the tip of a pinkie finger—of marijuana. Then, after all the court dates and drug testing and community service there, he finally figured it out.
Chalmatians are hybrids.
“Just like the people in Zone 51,” he insists, crowding me up against the plate glass window of the fancy paper shop next door to my carriageway gate.
“Isn’t that across the lake?” I ask.
“No, silly.” He shoots me an indulgent smile. “Zone 51 is somewhere in Nevada, in between Las Vegas and Hollywood. It’s where the C.I.A. brought the extraterrestrials after they landed in Roswell, and where they started the hybrid experiments. But only one human is still alive who was involved in this.”
I’m all ears, even though a cut-up fryer is dripping through my plastic bag.
“George W. Bush’s daddy.”
This is starting to make some sense.
“He was one of the C.I.A. types who started the human-extraterrestrial hybrid experiments. Most of the hybrids were born between 1957 and 1986. But now it’s really gotten out of hand. The youngest are about twenty-five years old. You know Loose Marbles, those dreadlocked musicians with the dark, funky clothes who play on the corner down Royal Street?”
I nod. “Good musicians, and I love their look.”
He leans in and whispers. “Hybrids.”
“You can tell by all the stripes they wear. Striped socks, sweaters. That’s always a dead giveaway.”
Tommy’s pale, thin face is hard to read, hidden behind a bushy Wright-Brothers’ beard. He tells me that what tipped him off years ago was when he spotted a flying saucer sail out of the attic window of socialite Germaine Wells’ apartment. It was about as big as this, he says, pointing at the S.U.V. passing in front of us. Ever since then he’s been studying the hybrid situation, which is particularly severe in Louisiana, where they’re been experimenting on us.
“Just last month I was coming out of the Rawhide at dawn.” The Rawhide is a gay bar on Burgundy Street with a notorious back room. “Fog was rolling in from the river, and I looked up in the sky over the gate of Louis Armstrong Park at all these thick clouds crinkled like potato chips. And right in the middle was a perfect round hole big as the Super Dome. Looked like it was made by a cookie cutter. And right though the hole was the bluest sky I’ve ever seen.”
“Did you think the Chalmatians were landing?” I shift my grocery bag to the other hand and move closer to my gate.
“Seriously,” he says, clutching my arm, as if somebody finally understood. “The hybrids are at the bottom of everything. Reality itself is changing.”
Suddenly I’m staring at an enormous floating TV screen filled with air-borne basketball players. The screen is attached to the cab of a truck, and ear-splitting rap is blasting from inside. It dawns on me that this must be roving publicity for the National Basketball Association’s all-star play off being held in town this weekend. A good time to stay home, I decide. Drunken fans will take over the neighborhood.
“Do you see what I mean?” Tommy asks, pointing at the TV screen. “They’re everywhere.”
“It sure explains a lot.” I turn around, moving toward my door. “Where’s your dulcimer?” I call over my shoulder.
“It’s out of tune,” he shouts back. “Besides, I’m not playing on the street with this crowd. Are you crazy?”