Neon Green by Margaret Wappler

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In almost any universe, the arrival of a spaceship from Jupiter in a suburban Chicago backyard would be an earth-shattering occasion. In the historically alternative 1994 of Margaret Wappler’s Neon Green, though, the Allen family views the arrival of a flying saucer in their backyard as little more than a nuisance, a guest overstaying a welcome that was already tenuous at best. Eventually the spaceship becomes a set piece in the family’s internal dramas and a witness, in a way, to an encounter of the entirely ordinary kind.

Kurt Cobain has just died, the internet is still in its infancy, and spaceships from Jupiter, first invited by Ronald Reagan and later overseen by a corporation known as New World Enterprises, have been frequent if still somewhat mysterious visitors to Earth for the past ten years. In the tony Chicago suburb of Prairie Park, Illinois, the aptly named Ernest Allen—environmental crusader and director of the local Earth Day planning committee—can’t even enjoy his fortieth birthday barbecue with his family without pointing out the ways in which the other inhabitants of the park are failing to live up to his exacting environmental standards. When his son spills lighter fluid, Ernest leaves his family to run home for soap to clean it up, refusing to let the chemical soak into the concrete. Pragmatic wife Cynthia, watching all this with bewilderment, believes that Ernest possesses “a kind of environmental Tourette’s, where he was compelled to remark if something didn’t adhere to his principles.”

The family feels justifiably frustrated with Ernest’s myopic view of the world and the limitations it puts on their lives, and after their teenaged son wins the family a visit from Jupiter through a sweepstakes, the cracks between them begin to widen. Gabe, a ham radio enthusiast, spends his nights listening to a program called The Book of Connections, on which an anonymous woman holds forth on topics from sunsets to whether the human eye can really see the color red. Artistically inclined Alison designs custom-drawn sneakers featuring flying saucers for her friends at school. And Cynthia, a lawyer, has to constantly remind her distracted husband to “be here with your family, Ernest….Be here with us,” an admonition that mostly falls on deaf ears. Ernest can’t forget his ideals for long, even as his family begs for them to lavish as much attention on them as he does the environment.

When the spaceship arrives, the air in the house starts to turn poisonous. With its display of flashing lights and loud noises that seem to have no discernible pattern or purpose, the spaceship is one more irritant in the air at first. But it’s not until the spaceship starts dumping day-glo green sludge over the back yard and the Allens themselves—sludge that New World has promised the public is safe and non-toxic—that Ernest’s suspicions really shift into high gear. He demands his family keep a log of the spaceship’s activities, which they do, if only halfheartedly, penning passive-aggressive notes to one another in the guise of watching the ship.

When later Cynthia gets a diagnosis of breast cancer, Ernest is convinced of the rightness of his suspicions about the safety of the ship’s activities. He spends time and money the family doesn’t have testing the green sludge and sharing his findings with a local environmental reporter named Marilyn Fournier whose interest in his crackpot theories may be more personal than professional.

All of this effort comes at the cost of the attention his family, especially Cynthia, needs as she works to ward off the attack of her own personal cellular-level invaders:

“Let’s make a deal,” Ernest said. “You attack the cancer and I’ll attack the spaceship. Then we’ll all live happily ever after.”

She withdrew her hand and adjusted the new hat. The lavender knit rolled up near her ear lobes, outfitted with copper studs.

“I’m uncomfortable with ‘attacking cancer’ because in the end it’s only my own body. It’s not something else… The spaceship—did you have to bring it up? It’s enemy number one now?”

“The spaceship isn’t human, Cynthia. It’s an intruder. It’s from outer space. An alien. We’re supposed to attack stuff like it,” Ernest said, a little wildly. “It’s unnatural for us to just sit around and be friends with it.”

Although it’s painful to watch Ernest hold his family, his friends, his entire neighborhood hostage to ideas that seem more emotional than rational, Neon Green is ultimately his story, and the narrative is strongest in following his descent into suspicion and hostility as his wife grows sicker and his theories about toxic substances take his investigation in an unexpected direction. But Cynthia’s story, too, occasionally offers moments of genuine loveliness, such as in this passage following a particularly nasty round of chemo:

The cancer was now a distinct presence dominating her body, a governing system she involuntarily sheltered. She told herself she was used to this—her body had harbored other beings before. Pregnant with Gabe, she’d known he was there in her body before the blood tests confirmed it. While studying for a law exam, a wave of nausea bowled into her and she clutched at her stomach. A picture emerged in her mind: a suburban street at night, with starless sky above. She strolled past house after house, all of them dark, vacated, but at the end of what turned out to be a cul-de-sac was one bungalow with a light on in an upstairs bedroom, one glowing light in the entire house….Soon the street and the house disappeared and it was just the light. The shine from a primordial being, forged in the core of herself. It was the Big Bang in the body. Combustion. Light.

Where the story falters is when it veers away from Ernest, reaching for an omniscience that doesn’t quite work, first with the alien spacecraft, then with Gabe and Alison, who like the alien presence half-seen behind the glass of the flying saucer never quite come into solid focus.

But it’s the twin metaphors of environmental obsession and cancer-as-invader that act as the centerpiece here, and they’re about as subtle as the day-glo green cover of the book, on which an abstract of a typical flying saucer hovers over an abstract of a typical American neighborhood. The image recalls science-fiction invasions of the past, everything from War of the Worlds to Alien, in which the arrival of the extraterrestrial signals a fight to the death with forces outside our control. In Neon Green the invasion exists first in Ernest’s psyche, then in Cynthia’s traitorous cells. As Cynthia’s illness progresses and the ship begins exhibiting signs of distress, all without a sense of its purpose, one begins to realize the story could easily take place without the presence of a spaceship at all. The Allens’ story is ultimately about a close encounter, though the aliens are ones we’ve known all along.

Rebecca Johns is the author of two novels. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, StoryQuarterly, the Mississippi Review, the Chicago Tribune, the Harvard Review, Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, Ladies' Home Journal, Self, and Seventeen, among others. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Missouri School of Journalism, she teaches creative writing in the English Department at DePaul University in Chicago. More from this author →