Enter the Para-Paranormal

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

Star first encountered the San Francisco Center for the Investigation of the Para-Paranormal (or S.F.C.I.P.P.N., pronounced skippin) in the late 1980s, before even Erin and Josh had come to the city. Star herself had been there for only a few years. She lived in the Mission, but not our Mission: on an as-yet unrenovated Guerrero Street, in a big flat with a back deck which looked out over all of Creation. Back then, Star was a twenty-year-old alcoholic who suffered from an as yet undiagnosed wheat allergy. Suffering in every direction, itchy, short of breath, irritable and wrong to the world. Before she came to San Francisco she’d DIY’ed her way around Portland for a year or two, a career that ended when some assholes from the interior of the continent beat her up under circumstances she only dimly remembered. She and her girlfriend fled to San Francisco in a stolen car: true fact, even if the car was stolen from her girlfriend’s mother. They settled on Guerrero and Liberty, poised to join the infamous pirate legions, to dig for gold, to claim everything she saw in the name of Mexico, to pound the shit out of any fucking Summer of Love dinosaurs who had a fucking problem with who she was. Only it turned out San Francisco wasn’t like that. It was a cool city. The people she met were inturned, like the end of a party, just after somebody’s sweetheart fell out of the window. No one had any use for Star: she was too alive, therefore too mortal.

Having traveled fifteen hours in a stolen car to get to what she thought must be the heart of the lesbian sun, the molten chocolate center, Star found herself working in a community grocery on Fifteenth and Mission, and bored. She shelved boxes of cereal, restocked bulk goods, swept, mopped. The best part of the job was when her supervisor let her shift pallets with a forklift. At night she and her girlfriend drank beer on the deck and threw the cans into the neighbor’s yard. Parenthetically, the girlfriend was called Herschel, by trade a florist’s assistant. She was good with funerals, and had a cat named Argonaut who peed in the tub.

After three weeks, Star hated San Francisco so much she was thinking of going back up to Portland or else down to San Diego where her parents were from. Then she saw an ad on the community bulletin board at the market:

Had An Experience You Just Don’t Understand?
Contact the San Francisco Center for the Investigation of the Para-Paranormal

She prank called them one night, drunk. “Hey,” she said, “I’m being abducted by aliens!”

“Really?” said the boy on the other end of the line.

“Yeah,” Star said, “they’re telling me they have a space ship full of candy!”

“Where are you?” asked the boy.

Already that was where it got complicated. The boy was supposed to hang up on her but he didn’t. Plus, what the fuck did it matter where she was? “I’m in the Mission,” Star said. “Look out the window, you might see the space ship!”

“I’m not near a window,” said the boy.

“Holy shit, dude, I’m just joking with you,” Star said. “There isn’t really a space ship. You are too weird!”

“Oh,” the boy said, “OK, then. I’m going to hang up.”

“What was that about?” Herschel asked.

“I was just having some fun,” said Star.

Then came some boring stuff that ended when Star broke up with Herschel. There was no single reason for it. She was angry at everything, and Herschel just sat in her velvety armchair drinking red wine, reading Anne Rice novels and petting Argonaut.

Star moved in with her supervisor at the grocery. Of course it was a bad idea. Gloria was ten years older than Star and at least twice as mad. She washed the soap, shaved her body hair every Thursday night, wouldn’t let Star unpack her bag because Star made the mistake of saying that Argonaut had fleas, just as a way to put Herschel down. What was worse, from Star’s point of view, then, Gloria was a poet: she was after Star to read these people Star had never heard of, whose words described no feeling Star had ever had, but instigated something deep and confused in her, an almost-gastric distress.

Afraid of that language, Star withdrew into the shell of her own bad habits. After a few disastrous months with Gloria, she went to live by herself in a one-room apartment in downtown Oakland, where she was lonely and viewless and drank more than ever. One night, for lack of anything else to do, she called the Center for the Investigation of the Para-Paranormal. “Hey, I just had an experience I don’t understand,” she said. The boy on the other end of the line waited for her to go on, but she couldn’t think of anything outrageous to say. The truth was, her recent experience was hard to understand. So she asked, “Dude, what the fuck is the para-paranormal?”

“It’s the potentially paranormal,” the boy said.

He explained: aliens were paranormal, but lights in the sky that could be aliens were para-paranormal. Ghosts, paranormal, mysterious thumping sounds, para-paranormal, and so on. “Basically,” he said, “we’re looking for observable data that science can’t explain.” He talked at some length about the Principle of Continuity, the gist of which was, scientific truth was a piece of some larger jigsaw puzzle into which every kind of weirdness might eventually fit. As with a jigsaw puzzle, the Center was looking for pieces that might lie next to the assembled design of present knowledge; the edge pieces, like life after death and extraterrestrial intelligence, could wait until later. That was the principle, anyway; in practice the Center took pretty much all the information it could get, in the expectation that every datum, no matter how weird, would find its match with some other datum, sooner or later.

“What’s a datum?” Star asked. She’d never heard the word in the singular before.

“If you’re interested,” the boy said, “I’ll send you a copy of our newsletter.”

“What the fuck,” Star said, which the boy interpreted as yes.

The newsletter was a trip: cut and pasted by hand like some kind of low-rent Whole Earth Catalog, it contained clippings from such reputable news organs as the Weekly World News, the Sun and the Fortean Times, mixed in with typed unattributed items that had to come from the Center itself. Star read through it in puzzlement. Ash was falling from the sky in Denver! In Houston, tens of thousands of paperclips became magnetized for no apparent reason, while in Bermuda a mother of three had a prophetic dream, and far away, in England, a two-headed lamb traced the outline of Atlantis with its forefoot. It was all bullshit, Star decided. She’d had her fill of the supernatural growing up: her parents and sisters lived in an atmosphere swimming with angels and demons, a colorful Christian fishtank.

But one item caught her attention. Star still had it; she unfolded a paper rectangle from her wallet:

During the course of the hypnosis sessions, which began as near as I can recall, in August of 1979, Bennewitz had become convinced that the aliens had implanted some sort of communication device in the woman’s head, and that they were using this device to control her actions. His theory was that they could actually “see” what she saw and “hear” what she heard by means of this device.

It pissed her off. Who was this Bennewitz, and how could he know what was happening in “the woman”’s head? Why didn’t the woman have a name? Why didn’t she tell the story herself? What the fuck was up with these people?

Lit by anger, Star went to the address the Bulletin came from, on Mission and Sixth. She knocked on the door and introduced herself to the surprised young man who opened: “I’m Star, who are you?” She didn’t know what she expected: some kind of control center, men in white coats, the patriarchy as seen through the lens of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. The Center wasn’t that at all. It was an office not much bigger than her Oakland bedroom and buried to the eyebrows in paper: filing cabinets with unclosable drawers, banker’s boxes of unbound looseleaf pages, a tongue of thermal paper dangling out of the fax machine all the way to the floor. It looked, Star thought, like the place paper went to die. In place of scientists, mad or otherwise, there was a boy with curly hair who couldn’t have been older than twenty-five, wearing a chewed-up RAMONES t-shirt, looking at her apprehensively, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Um, I’m David,” he said. “Can I help you with something?” he asked.

“No,” Star said, “can I help you?”

She told him that, as far as she could tell, every single item in the Center’s newsletter was written by a man, and that, if he, or the Center, was bent on putting all the pieces of the cosmic jigsaw puzzle together, they had better start looking at all the pieces, and not just the ones with little cardboard parts that stuck out. Did they have any data from women?

David chewed his lip. “Maybe,” he said, “the thing is…” He waved helplessly at the filing cabinets, the boxes, the heaps of paper. “We’re so busy collecting, we don’t have a lot of time to sort. Actually, if you want to, you could give us a hand with that?”

“I’ll be happy to,” Star said. One of the few useful things she’d learned from her father was that there was no point in starting something unless you were willing to do it all the way to the end.

Star got to work right away, and found, to her own great surprise, that something about the tedious work eased her. It was as if her desire had been guiding her all along to its secret object, clerical work. As if real desire tended toward the opposite of what you thought you wanted, as perhaps it does. The work wasn’t actually all that tedious either. It was hard to figure out where the Skippin’s papers went: reports, for example, of a football-shaped glowing object hovering over I-495 in Delaware, and, at nearly the same moment, a shower of a “red substance” in Islamabad, Pakistan; a few days later a dark spot crossed the surface of the crescent moon. Chron order or alpha? Library of Congress or Dewey decimal? The point of this stuff was that it was unclassifiable. Also none of it could be thrown away, ever. “You need more space,” Star said, despairing. “We need more money,” said Elliott, a thirty-one-year old gay Mormon who was the Skippin’s other paid employee.

The Skippin was funded by an emeritus professor of biochemistry at Stanford, a guy who’d invented something Elliott and David called “the RNA equivalent of a Post-It Note.” Like a lot of people who invent something that works, he had a thousand other ideas, all of which looked viable to him. In addition to the Skippin, he funded a place in Berkeley where public-school kids learned history and circus skills; a gyroscope-enabled scooter that was going to change the world except that it was caught up in an endless patent suit. They were all good ideas, and they were all equally hard up. Elliott and David drew far less in salary than they needed to get by, even in San Francisco in the 1980s. Fortunately for the biochemist emeritus, they were both believers. David came out of the MUFON world, where he’d made his name with snapshots of strange lights hovering over the Manzano Nuclear Weapons Storage Facility, not far from his parents’ house in Albuquerque. Star didn’t know what world Elliott came out of, but he had glisteny believer’s eyes.

Star went back to the office the next day, and the day after that. Soon she realized that if the Skippin was ever going to sort its shit out, it would need a computer. To her great surprise, an outmoded IBM PC AT with an amber-screen monitor showed up in the Skippin office a few days later. Neither Elliott nor David would say where it had come from.

“Did you guys steal this?” Star asked.

“Seventy-threes,” Elliott said, which was some kind of amateur radio thing.

Anyway, that was when Star got into databases. She worked her ass off, creating flat-file lists, then tables of relations, experimenting with different ways the Skippin’s vast store of data could fit together. Her project, to invent a feminist ufology, was on hold, but meanwhile some weird patterns were coming out of the data, like: there was more alien contact in Democratic administrations; more cattle mutilation in Republican ones. Navy fliers saw cigar-shaped UFOs; Air Force pilots saw discs. Most glowing objects glowed white or blue. Rains of fish happened more in the fall than in the spring; showers of blood happened more in the spring than in the fall.

Star’s anger, which should have fed her doubt, led her slowly to something like belief. Not that Star was becoming some kind of Bennewitz, quite the opposite, in fact. She identified not with the observers but with the data. Because what was Star? An anomaly but hardly a miracle. A girl-boy with big shoulders and a bad digestion. Star was para-paranormal, not outside the world but against it. Not that she felt any particular affinity for the two-headed lamb or the dreaming mom, or even for the woman with the alien mind control device (ha!) in her head. No. It was a general thing she picked up from the newsletter, a diffuse thing, like a storm front. A feeling that there was some other energy in the world. Star tingled. The normal was going down. She had an idea for a radically new way of categorizing the Center’s data…

Suddenly Star stopped talking.

We waited for her to go on. This was the part of the story where something happened: Star would prove that there were more things under heaven than any man’s philosophy had dreamed of, or she would see a UFO, and her hunch that she was part of the world’s weirdness would be confirmed. Or, we’d all seen the X-Files, we knew what happened when you got too close to the truth: the men in ordinary beige suits came by and loaded you into the back of an ordinary white van. They wiped your memory with that little penlight, or was that Men in Black? Anyway, the thing was, you couldn’t take the normal down without some consequences. That was how the story went. Wasn’t it? Star?

“Not really.” What happened next was, Herschel came back. Found Star at the market, said she didn’t want to go on living in a Starless world. Showed Star an ugly cut on her wrist that looked like it was on purpose although in retrospect Star wondered if it might not have been the cat. Could they try again? “Ugh, I was weak,” Star said. “In my defense, I have to say, despair looked really good on Herschel. Took off the tummy fat.” Star moved back in. Herschel laughed when she found out what Star was doing: volunteering for the who? But she didn’t try to stop Star from doing that or really anything. Herschel just wanted Star as she was. It was strange, she’d never been so easygoing before, but people did change. Also, Herschel was taking a new antidepressant, a little yellow pill that didn’t take anything away from her interest in sex. Maybe the whole mess before was mood-related? Stranger things happened, Star knew.

Meanwhile, the Skippin was becoming more and more a pain in the ass. Star’s intuition about how to organize the database turned out to be hard, if not actually impossible, to implement; she spent weeks reading manuals without making any appreciable progress towards her goal. Then she maxed out the IBM’s hard drive, and David said he would get her another, but didn’t. He and Elliott were starting a new program, to recruit amateur observers all over the San Francisco Bay Area; they spent the Center’s meager budget on blank notebooks and pencils with “S.F.C.I.P.P.N.” printed on them. Star tried to reason with them: didn’t they get that the problem was not a shortage of data? And when these so-called observers brought their notebooks back, what did they think was going to happen to them? If they thought she, Star, was going to type the data in, they could think again. David said it was no problem, they would bring in volunteer recorders, too. Holy fucking shit, Star said, and put them where? And are any of these observers going to be chicks? David shoved a stack of notebooks at Star and told her to get out and recruit, then, OK? Star briefly envisioned a network of lesbian informants, like an all-girl Ghostbusters, roaming the city in blue jumpsuits with special patches on the sleeves. But in the end she was embarrassed even to ask anyone she knew to work for the Skippin; she left the notebooks and pencils in the community market, under a hand-lettered sign that read, FREE. It didn’t matter. David and Elliott soon had observers in place, and new data was pouring in. Some of it was good data, but Star found herself wondering, more and more often, where this would end.

Where could it end? No matter how many categories Star established or how cleverly she related them, the data kept arriving, overwhelming her not-yet-operational database, and making it less and less likely that she would get to the old unsorted data in the Skippin’s filing cabinets. So she resigned from her volunteer duties. Elliott told her that it was all right, not everyone was cut out to be an investigator. Not cut out! That rankled. As if Star hadn’t been busting ass for free to improve their system. How crazy would you have to be to think you could finish a job like that, anyway? Star went back to Herschel, who’d cooked up an eggplant lasagna, and they got drunk and rolled around under the deck, lit dimly by the forgiving stars. No inexplicable lights arrived to interrupt them. Life was just going on.

Only, not quite. For months afterward, whenever Star saw a traffic light that wouldn’t change, or a single cloud in an otherwise clear sky, or the moon low and red on the horizon, she tingled. It was all part of something, she felt, and she was part of it, too. During that same period, she dreamed two or three times of a big island in the Pacific Ocean, not right off the coast of California, but close enough that on a clear day you could just see its coast, a gray-brown hairline on the horizon. In the dream, she was walking on Ocean Beach, looking for a ferry that would take her to the island. “It was so symbolic, it was stupid,” she said. “Like that dream where you’re dancing at a birthday party.” We didn’t know that dream. “Never mind,” Star said. She came as close as she ever did to blushing.

“And another thing,” she said. “One day, I just woke up and said, Holy shit, I’m allergic to wheat! Like the knowledge had been beamed into my head. What’s that about?” We didn’t know. It wasn’t implausible, maybe just para-paranormal.

© 2008-2023 Paul La Farge. All rights reserved.