I used to be a really great mimic. Anyone who knows me will tell you, I can make some of the strangest sounds, and if I hear a noise or voice that’s even remotely interesting, I am compelled to see if I can reproduce it. I often can. That talent began to really emerge in 1979, when I was not yet 14.
1979 was a great year for Science Fiction movies. Both Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien were coming out in theaters that year.
Alan Dean Foster’s classic suspense/horror work about 7 tugboat crew members returning from a deep-space asteroid pick-up and encountering the ultimate alien predator was nothing short of fantastic. And it was funny, because not that long before it was released, my mother read the book to us aloud. We found the book somewhere – a grocery store, I think, on the rack with the other novels – and she read from it every time we were in the car, or sitting at home with nothing to do. It was hysterical, because she’d start reading in this strained, frightened voice, eyes bulging from her face, body tensed, and then she’d gasp and go silent until we all cried out “HEY!” or “WHAT??”
It was a really great story, though. We struggled along with those 7 crew members, each going extinct before the eyes of the survivors, and we all cringed and tensed at the building drama and horror with each passing page.
When the movie came out, we saw it on the marquee of a theater in some mall – I think it may have been East Gate Mall, in Chattanooga, a short trip from our Bell Avenue home in Rossville, GA. The sign said, in HUGE lettering on a lighted background, “ALIEN IN DOLBY.” My brother and I squealed in delight at the sight; my mother said, “Where’s Dolby?” We had to explain to her that the sign was advertising that the movie, Alien, based on Alan Dean Foster’s novel, was being played at the theater in Dolby sound – a new technology at that time which was advertised to enhance the movie going experience with sound such as never had been experienced prior. My father agreed to take us.
Oh, what fun we had that day! My mother, not drunk or able to get drunk in theaters, can be a real spectacle at movies. We used to go to drive-ins, when they were in vogue, and we’d hear her scream at the scary parts and call out to characters on the screen. And, if I haven’t already told you, my mother’s scream was a wake-the-dead, chill-the-blood, curdle-the-marrow, murder-victim-in-the-movie type of scream that would make others jump in horror. It was great; you never saw so much flying popcorn and spilled pop in your life. Objects d’movie were flying all over around us, and the entire experience was one of the most positive I’ve had in a long time at the movies. Maybe ever.
We were chatty and wound-up on the way home, Ryan and me, rattling on about “did you see that part where …?” and “remember when this happened?”, as if the other weren’t there. The movie was vividly locked in our memories as we made the jaunt home in the dark, quiet southern night.
It was cool but not cold when we got back. Bell Avenue has exactly one streetlamp, and it was down the street from our house about half way to State Line Road. It glowed that warm yellowish tone of a really, really old incandescent bulb, and burned at what seemed like 60 watts. Dimly it tried to push back the moist Georgia air, but it ended up being a fairly useless halo of light unless you were less than fifty feet away from it. Ten big candles might’ve lit the area better.
So, near our house, you could see the light glowing like a firefly in the darkness, but it wasn’t doing much to light our yard. The grass was wet with dew and my parents milled around the yard smoking, my mother trying to marshal her courage to go in and go to bed. She had her arms folded over herself in a half-embrace, clearly shaken from the vivid images which later won best special effects at the Academy Awards, beating out Star Trek for the honor, to the dismay of Trekkies everywhere. Her light windbreaker zipped and zopped as she moved about the blackness, and the only way we tracked her was the sound it made and the glow of the flame from her cigarette.
Finally, my dad went inside the house and began to turn the lights on, though they did little to penetrate the tar-black outside the windows. Tiny islands of light emerged on the sloping lawn from the windows but they failed to offer refuge in the sea of darkness. My mother walked skittishly about the house, to the backyard between our minty-green asbestos shack and my grandmother’s old white farmhouse, passing the massive tangled bushes that burst through the ground near the ancient structure’s foundation as though they’d grown wild. She’d vanish into the blackness like a ship in the fog and then her sole, orange-ember cigarette fire would blip on like a beacon as she dragged hard on the smoke before fading back to the blackness.
I watched in deep fascination as the tiny fire lit my mother’s face into a hideous mask twisted in the pale light then dissolved it again to black. A moment later, a puff of smoke drifted like a lazy fog into the waterfall of light streaming from a tiny window in the house and then vanished into the dark again.
And I realized, that very moment, that she was a considerable distance away and couldn’t see me in the soupy dimness.
I giggled, stifling it hard beneath my sleeve, and did a quick cartoon sneak behind a bush between the window and me. I checked quickly for languishing spiders waiting to devour stray dogs or humans that wandered into its tangled web, then hunkered down out of the line of sight.
I heard the shuffling footsteps as she moved up the yard again toward the front door. There was no back entrance; she’d have to go right by my hiding spot.
Again I stifled a giggle that threatened to burst out of me. I could hear her stop, nervously and quietly calling out to my father, then me, then my brother. Of course I said nothing, whatever, to let her know she wasn’t alone out there. I heard a strangled, nervous sound come from her as a bout of the heebie-jeebies took her. I tensed. A half moment later, she walked past me, trying to be calm and rational under the strain of her imagination.
I tip-toed out behind her, set to spring, ready to pounce, about to jolt her with my hands and
cry out to startle her like she’d never been scared before.
Then, at the last minute, I lost my nerve.
“Is anybody out here?” she whispered hoarsely into the dark, the voice of someone trying to be heard over distance without using full voice. I nearly burst out laughing again, and suddenly, that very moment, that split-second, my resolve steeled.
I gripped her shoulders firmly and issued a sound exactly like the alien creature in the movie.
She tensed for a fraction of a second and her head jerked as a sound came from somewhere around her navel and erupted up onto the roof of her mouth, then smashed like a runaway freight train through her teeth. It forced her mouth open into a gaping maw and the sound tore free of her in what I swore were waves of audible tide that you could see even in the dark. It rattled roof beams and vibrated windows across the street and rolled like a comet down the street toward State Line Road, hopped across the street and I’m sure is still ricocheting today in the Tennessee Valley. It was a scream from the pit of hell, a Jamie-Lee-Curtis-would-envy-this-sound scream, a scream that would have torn a hole in storm clouds, one that was audible from space. My heart exploded into shards of bloody flesh as the auditory tsunami ripped it from my chest, and flung it still beating to the ground in front of me.
The reaction was a bit delayed as the echoes rolled away into the distance of geography and history; first my father’s head popped through the door of the house, his bushy brows knit over the top of his glasses, his mild voice intoning “What the hell’s going on out here?” Fractions of a second later, lights popped on in the house across the street; then another a few houses down, the next door neighbor’s house, the house behind my grandmother’s, and a succession of others along Bell Avenue. I couldn’t stop laughing, I couldn’t breathe, and I hobbled doubled-over into the house with my face purple and my eyes watering mercilessly. I heard my mother’s choked sob-laughs as my father (quickly) ushered her into the house before the bang of storm doors began to tattoo the beat of good, Christian people coming to check out the scream.
I don’t know if I ever laughed that hard again in Georgia, and I don’t know if I’ve laughed that hard again in my life. It was glorious.
We stayed up for hours after that, laughing and talking and being a semi-normal family. When at last we fell asleep, I remember thinking that it was, perhaps, my crowning moment for pranking. And to think, I nearly chickened out.
You know, I’ve never been able to make that sound again.