HEART OF GOLD
©2009 by Richard S. Crawford
about 1,300 words
Francesca saw the man with two heads on I-90, just outside of Gillette, Wyoming. The empty plains of the Midwest are full of weird things, mostly at night, but sometimes in the middle of the day as well, so Francesca expected strange things to happen whenever she drove that route. A two-headed man was not among the expected occurrences.
He was thumbing her down, hitching for a ride, with two left arms, and that also piqued her curiosity. She pulled her pickup truck to the shoulder, fully expecting that there would be trouble, ready for it, and rolled down the passenger side window.
“Need a lift?” she called out.
The two-headed man came over to the car and leaned inward. Both heads peered at her. All three hands rested on the edge of the window. “Hey, man, you going my way?”
Francesca shrugged. “I don’t know. Where are you going?”
“Just a few miles down the road. My spaceship’s out there, see, and I’d better get back to it before Marvin tries to take it apart again.” The two-headed man opened the door and climbed into the truck. “Man, this chair is really uncomfortable.”
“Well, it’s only meant for one-headed people, you know.”
“Yeah, I dig that. Hoopy.”
Francesca revved the engine and pulled back onto the highway. “So. A spaceship, huh?”
“Yeah. Big one, too. Nice and shiny.”
“Where is it?”
“In a field a couple miles away. Say, what’s your name?”
“Francesca Alvarez. What’s yours? And why are you hitchhiking here so far away from your spaceship?”
“Zaphod Beeblebrox. And I was just checking out the scene. Looking for something to eat.”
Francesca blinked. She looked again at her passenger. The two heads, the three arms… Yep, it made sense, and she wondered that she hadn’t made the connection before. “Zaphod Beeblebrox? Like in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books? Are you on your way to a convention or something?”
“Convention? No way, man, I’m the real Zaphod Beeblebrox. You wouldn’t believe how many times people ask me that. You people here are so crazy. Oh hey, there’s my space ship way up there in the distance, see?”
Francesca peered through the windshield. All she could see was a grass-covered hill in the middle of a pasture. “All I see is a hill,” she said. “You’re ship’s called Heart of Gold, right?”
“Yeah. It sort of turned into a hill when it landed, and now it can’t take off again.”
“Can’t you just get inside and activate the Infinite Improbability drive? That should fix it right up, right? Or at least turn it into something a little more useful?” Francesca was having fun with this. It felt like she had stumbled into a live action role-playing game. Like How to Host a Murder, only with characters from the old BBC television series.
“You ever try to get inside a hill and fly it around? It’s like, really hard.”
Francesca nodded. “You’re probably right about that. But I’ve got a shovel in the back that I could let you borrow. You could dig your way in.”
“Oh, hey that would be great.”
They drove along in silence for a few minutes. Francesca kept sneaking glances at her passenger. “Your costume is magnificent,” she said at length. “That second head looks so real. I mean, it matches your facial expressions and everything. Must have cost you thousands of dollars, at least.”
Zaphod glared at Francesca with his left head while keeping his right head staring out at the world beyond the truck. “Are you kidding? This head’s just as real as this one.” He pointed at each head in turn.
Francesca stifled a laugh. “Okay, Zaphod, whatever you say. Are all of your friends with you?”
“Yeah and they’re all as freaked out about everything as I am.”
“What’s there to be freaked out about?”
Both of Zaphod’s heads looked uncomfortable. “Well, you know, Marvin said it was bound to happen sometime. What with all the infinite number of universal possibilities, and all, there’s bound to be a universe where there’s still an Earth and they know about us there and they all think we’re just fictional characters. You think we’re not real but we are. We’re totally real, baby.”
“Okay, sure. But you really are just characters in books. And a television series and a movie, too.”
“Yeah, but there’s the thing, you know? We’re real, actual people. Not fiction. If anything, I’m larger than life, so not just fiction.”
“Sure, Zaphod. Whatever you say.”
They drove in silence a few moments longer until they were alongside the hill that Zaphod had said was his spaceship.
“You want to come out and meet the gang?” Zaphod asked.
Francesca looked out at the field. Four people milled about the hill. A woman with blond hair, wearing a tight red outfit, spoke urgently to a man who wore a bathrobe and pajamas. Francesca identified them as Trillian and Arthur Dent, respectively. Another man, wearing loud, ostentatious clothing — Ford Prefect, obviously — argued with someone in a brilliantly authentic Marvin costume. The costume looked just like the one in the original TV series. All of them looked exactly like the characters as they were portrayed in the series.
Francesca was impressed with the detail and completeness of the costumes. And with how much time they must have spent putting these costumes together;
“Come on, they’re the hoopiest froods in the galaxy, man. Even Monkey Man has his moments, you know?”
Francesca smirked. “Thanks, but I’ve got a real life to get back to. You can just grab the shovel and keep it. I’ve got a lot more at home.”
Zaphod shrugged. “Suit yourself. But thanks for the shovel.” He climbed out of the truck and slammed the door shut behind him; it wasn’t an angry slam, just the slam of a person who didn’t care whether the door behind him slammed shut or whispered shut on a gentle hydraulic cushion. Francesca half expected the door to utter a contented, “Thank you for using this door.”
She had only driven a few yards when the world went wonky. The truck lurched forward as if shoved from behind, and an intense blue light flickered bright in the air, like the flash from the biggest camera ever built.
Francesca stopped the truck and looked behind her.
Nothing there but a flat, empty field.
She scratched her head, trying to remember something. She’d shared her truck for a few minutes with an odd person, but she couldn’t for the life of her remember who it was. And there was something about a television show, wasn’t there? And a series of books? The answer was right on the tip of her tongue, but she couldn’t bring it forward.
She shrugged and started up the truck again. Maybe she’d remember soon what it was she’d forgotten. But it probably wasn’t all that important.
She drove on, watching the sunrise, and thinking that it really was a wonderful world after all.
This was Story of the Week Number 42; and 42, of course, is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything, as revealed to us by Deep Thought, the massive computer in Douglas Adams’s seminal novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. So, since it’s 42, I figured I should write a story which somehow at least touches on that series.
But as I was preparing to write this story, I also discovered that today, May 11, is the eighth anniversary of Mr. Adams’s death. Learning about his death was one of the Serious Moments in my life. I can remember exactly where I was when I heard about the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle; I can remember exactly where I was when I heard about the death of Jerry Garcia; and I can remember exactly where I was when I heard about the death of Douglas Adams (for the record, a cheap hotel in the heart of Glasgow, Scotland, a mile or so away from Marks and Spencer, where I bought the tackiest towel I could find in the man’s honor). The coincidence — that my 42nd Story of the Week would be published on the anniversary of the death of the very man who revealed the importance of that number to us — simply could not go unremarked upon. It was as though the Infinite Improbability Drive was active and flying through my life, dropping off improbable coincidences right and left. So I wrote this story, which had actually been brewing in my head for a very long time.
I’m not terribly happy with this story, though. It’s hard to write about characters who were so well-developed by someone else, widely loved by so many people. I did my best to capture Zaphod Beeblebrox’s character, but I’m not sure I did such a great job.
And, finally, remember that two weeks from today, May 25, is Towel Day. So carry a towel with you on that day in honor of one of the finest humorists of the twentieth century.