* Excerpted from a full action story to be published in the next issue of Lava Mountain: Comics and True Stories for Older Women Who Remember Other Eras and Sometimes Feel Strange About That
It's 1992, during Game 4 of the NBA Finals in Portland, Oregon. The evening is warm spring, 75 degrees. The crowd is suitably caught up in the game. The oceanic sound of humans marveling.
The third quarter begins. Pippen scores. Clyde "The Glide" Drexler breaks from the wing. In a moment, he has slam-dunked the basketball over a tangle of players. A momentarily bewildered Jordan is set for retaliation, ready to drop dozens of points on the Blazers. He rolls down the court, building momentum, signaling to Pippen. The crowd's anticipation crests. For some unknown reason, Buddha Edwards randomly guffaws on the court, losing concentration. He has always been a clown. The Trail Blazers' Duckworth turns toward Edward's laugh and stumbles on Bill Cartwright. "That's flagrant!" yells a referee, who, in a massive error, calls a technical foul on Duckworth. An assistant coach goes mad with rage and charges against a folded-up bleacher, kicking, kicking.
The game is paused. Coaches and referees argue. Everyone is shouting. The noise in the Memorial Coliseum rings against the walls and slings upward, into the center of the giant dome.
High in the arena's upper circle amid the crowd sits a man alone. A blue cap pulled over his face conceals his true identity. Mirrored sunglasses and a tan. Stiff-looking beige hair protrudes from the cap's perimeter. This man is John F. Kennedy.
History has a way of convulsing away from itself.
JFK stretches his neck to view the game, licking a red Charms lollipop.
Meanwhile, unknown to anyone at the Coliseum, a near-invisible shape moves high along the steel beams. It shifts, going upside down, hand over hand behind the giant replay screens above center court. This is Predator. The creature is exploring the arena's expansive architecture, scrutinizing the seating sections, and wheezing in a moist, monstrous manner.
Predator did not really begin in the imaginations of the coarse horses who steer the American entertainment industry. The creature was always real. An ugly, impressive, gray-green monster with a mute face and tapered, nearly demure legs, it was designed as a hunting machine in the mid 20th century by a California inventor, Al Spiral, who began this prolix tale.
Early on, Spiral's Predator invention was robotic and did not have a consciousness. Spiral wished it did. So he got some advice from his sister-in-law and worked harder. Soon enough, the creature was sentient and nearly whole. Spiral tried to get a US patent for the invention, but the application was denied, possibly because in his essay about the creature's camouflaging ability, he misspelled "barely" as "barley."
Yet the inventor had more serious woes—he was being watched. One day, men with hats came to his lab and strongly suggested he sell his Predator project to the government. Part of the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), the men wrote a check to buy everything in Spiral's lab and forced him to sign a rigid secrecy agreement, even though the inventor shouted "No!" through all the noodles that the agents stuffed in his face. The agents then swept the project into a small office somewhere within the DIA's baffling folds. A week later, as Spiral lay recovering at home, swearing off his profession, someone broke into the lab yet again, stealing the remaining project files and all the good magic markers.
In shutting down the Predator project, the DIA halted Spiral from becoming the successful inventor and creator that he ultimately might have become.
The Predator depicted in late-20th-century American mass entertainment films was a copy of Spiral's Predator. Two Los Angeles writer brothers stole this intellectual property for the screenplay that became a hit in the 1980s. Only because their grandfather's girlfriend had once worked as a nighttime cleaner at the DIA offices in Washington, DC, did the brothers discover Predator's existence. Late at night, after the raid on Spiral's lab, the creature broke out of the steel containment box where the agents had locked it. Later, the janitor rolled her cleaning cart into the kitchenette to find Predator standing awkwardly beside the toaster. She noted the word "Predator"—the creature's name as given by Spiral—branded upon its shoulder. Thinking quickly, she pulled out a camera and snapped photos before running away.
Not long after, she moved to Los Angeles and met the writer brothers' grandfather, eventually meeting his family, too. And after a dinner near Plummer Park, the brothers happened to see the Predator snapshots when the girlfriend's tote bag spilled on the grandfather's porch, along with pictures of her parents and a puppy. Immediately, the brothers, who were cheaters, ran away with the photos. They stole the Predator name and body design for their screenplay about an alien, because they realized the creature could be a movie star.
Isn't life 95 percent backstory?
Now, body steaming, climbing hand over hand, Predator looks to the crowd. It scarcely notes the basketball game below.
In the Coliseum's air, thick with the scent of popcorn vapor, hot-dog oil, and human breath, Predator crouches. Grimaces. Tenses, then sails through the arena's open space easily, almost balletically. It is at its best when lofting into the air. Air is its ally. Hulky leatherine arms raised.
Predator knows exactly where JFK sits in the upper circle: quadrant Q, section UU.
Don't people target each other and fight in order to forget about the future, where our worst experiences are soon to come?
By now, most of the upper circle's attendees have seen the creature. People stand gasping, pointing, startled—except for a blind school group and a knot of ushers huddled over a J. Crew catalog. Alarm transmits through the crowd electrically. Heads turn throughout the arena's quadrants—forests of forearms, necks, chins pointing into the air. Hordes of people crush the exits in fear. Fathers hurry sons. Mothers and aunts dash. Yet many people remain in their seats, frozen, absorbed.
All eyes are on hulking Predator, which moves more quickly than can be believed, landing with an outrageous thump beside the former president. Mildly slack-faced, JFK, wearing a T-shirt that proclaims "Crank It!" recoils. His cap tumbles, exposing a half-bald head, and his sunglasses fall askew. "Hell!" the erstwhile president seems to yell. Predator lets out a roar, exposing large fangs.
In the press box, TV cameramen whirl their cameras to capture the action, so JFK's and Predator's faces appear in tight focus on the Jumbotron screens.
Down below, a woman in a courtside seat is wearing dark glasses and a floppy hat so she won't be recognized. Neither young nor old, she has a silky demeanor: Vassar and soft milk. Her dress is blue steel, with clean design lines. Beneath the sunglasses, her eyes are very wide-set: hypertelorism.
She is attending this game as a favor to her companion's business client, along with family and friends. The group plans to leave Portland tonight for an exclusive British Columbian ski chalet.
The woman in the sunglasses, like the rest of the crowd, is stunned to see a creature floating in the air, landing in the seating section above. She is doubly stunned to see the tanned man's face on the screen. She knows this face. Except for a deep, folded-looking horizontal skin flap on the forehead, this is precisely the face of her ex-husband.
But it couldn't be him. Her once-husband is dead. He was murdered right in front of her nearly 30 years earlier. Edgily, the woman scans the Jumbotron again, for she suspects further monsters.
JFK slugs Predator, then lunges. The four arms lock, and the opponents struggle strength against strength. They tumble. JFK, sweating, lands a solid kick; Predator hisses. The upper circle's crowd tightens backward. They flip one another down the sharp cement stairs, then JFK retreats, crawling on his side, gasping, looking back at the monster. Finally, looking angry, he stands.
The woman in the floppy hat and sunglasses reels, observing JFK's small, hazel eyes that pinchingly assess everything around him. Those are his eyes. How could she have forgotten his gaze? Still, the eyes look a little dumber, she thinks.
(It's hard to understand that the lives we inhabit and feel so comfortable with will become starkly different in just a decade or two. That our lives and routines will be covered over, buried as if with crumbled earth. That the next callous generation will chew up the current one—it's hard.)
Everyone in the arena is screaming. It's mayhem. The fight halts the game. The Bulls, Trail Blazers, coaches, assistant coaches, trainers, and ball boys stand arrayed around the glossy court, hands hanging at their thighs, staring up. Jerome Kersey begins to cry, perhaps with fear of the unknown, big tears dropping to his forearms. Suddenly the teams' managers come alive, clapping and hustling the players from the court and into guarded locker rooms.
Still staring at the Jumbotron, the woman in the floppy hat takes in the impossible import of this situation. Her eyes switch while her thoughts climb the curvature of the question rising inside her: This means he never died?
In the soft privacy of her facial space, she gasps. Her mind telegraphs strange sensations to her body. Her emotions canter. Not often has she surrendered to the dictatorially stubborn requirements of emotion, but this is a shock unlike others. A curdling, spreading feeling in the stomach, a cracking-rushing in the ears. She catches at her patterned neck scarf. How could he have been alive all this time? How could the liars, the unfathomable shits, have done that, never mind the rest, while her children were still growing up, each so remote and fine?
Of course they had lied up and down about everything. Still, she thought she had understood some of the truth. But this?
The murderers long ago halted her bud of a life and stopped her from being the unshocked person she was.
That cinematic second when everything changes on a dime: It really happens. Otherwise known as luck or fortune. Fortune has throttled her, of course, the woman thinks to herself wryly. Which is kind of humiliating.
All right, fine, she thinks—it's fine. The woman stands.
"What's wrong? Do you want a hot dog?" says her companion beside her, Tempelsman. His tie has come loose, indicating aggravation—he had not really wanted to travel to this game, but the client had pressured him. The woman touches his shoulder wordlessly and then ties her hat's satin cord beneath her chin.
How strange that they all should be at this game! There's only one course of action, she sees. She must go to the top of the arena and stop Predator. Springing into the aisle, she dodges the crowd; she moves quickly up the cement stairs, picking up speed. "I am really into JFK still," she thinks, running, running.
Stacey Levine is the author of the short story collections My Horse and The Girl with Brown Fur, and the novels Dra— and Frances Johnson. She won a Stranger Genius Award for literature in 2009.