When I got back to the room, I found Robbie hanging out with two bodyguards. He was uncharacteristically dressed up, wearing a restrained plaid sports coat over his Eric Clapton tee shirt, a pair of khakis and sneakers. He was waiting for Larry and Elvis, whom he was taking to his mother’s retirement complex for dinner. Ginger and company had decamped, and Larry was in the bedroom helping Elvis decide what to wear.
“Hey, wow!” Robbie said when he saw me. “You’re, like, totally transformed!”
I reached up and pulled off the wig, then stroked my bare chin self-consciously. I’d removed the dark glasses in the elevator so that I could read the buttons.
“What do you think?” I said.
“I don’t know, man,” he said, shaking his head. “Give me some time to get used to it.”
This was not a response that inspired confidence.
I heard Elvis’s voice, coming from the bedroom. “You don’t think it makes me look too—.”
“Too what?” Larry sounded baffled.
Robbie raised his voice. “Bigness is your thing, dude. Embrace your bigness.”
Elvis appeared in the doorway. He was wearing a blue-green cable-knit sweater, cargo pants, and—I kid you not—blue suede shoes. “But, Robbie, don’t you think this sweater makes me look fat?”
Robbie and I and the two bodyguards looked at each other. The two bodyguards had the appearance and builds of Samoans, and looked like brothers.
“Yo, man,” one of them said, “that sweater is fly.”
“Is that good?” Elvis said hopefully.
“It’s the best,” said the other. “It’s dope.”
“Who told you you looked fat, anyway?” Robbie asked. When Elvis didn’t answer, he rolled his eyes. “Aw, man, I told you to lay off that television. The boob tube’ll turn your mind to mush.”
“You a big man,” said the first bodyguard, “like us. Nothing wrong with that. Where we come from, all men are big. I don’t hear no complaints from the ladies.”
He and his brother laughed.
Elvis turned to me. “Hank?”
“Totally fly,” I said.
“Then I’m almost ready,” he said to Robbie, and retreated to the bedroom.
The Samoans went back to a video game they were playing that seemed to have something to do with extraterrestrial combat. I sat down on the other end of the couch from Robbie.
“How you doin’, man?” he asked.
“Fine,” I said. “You?”
He gave me an intense look. “No, I mean, how you doin’?”
I shrugged, a little confused.
“Let me tell you something,” he said. “Hanging out with those two—it’ll change your life, man. Did mine.”
“Yeah?” I said.
“Damn straight,” he said. “If Larry hadn’t come along when he did, I’m convinced I would’ve ended up a corporate drone with a couple of divorces and a house in the ’burbs. Well, I got one divorce, but that’s not my point. My point is, I would never have opened my eyes and looked around, man. And I don’t just mean at the world, I mean at the whole friggin’ thing, the whole enchilada. Know what I mean?”
“I’m not sure.”
“The universe, man! Everything that’s out there. I mean everything. God, too, ’cause he’s out there—or she’s out there. I mean everybody and everything that doesn’t look like you and doesn’t act like you and doesn’t think like you—hell, probably doesn’t even breathe like you. Infinity. Eternity. All of it.”
“You know how big the universe is? You ever thought about that? These guys traveled two hundred and fifty million miles—well, two hundred and fifty million from here to the edge of their galaxy, and who knows how big that fucker is. So, anyway, they traveled two hundred and fifty million miles, and it was like—oh, I don’t know—driving from here to Tierra del Fuego, maybe, not even to China. And we’re only talking about this dimension, this universe, not even taking into account all the other possibilities. You think about that?”
“I’m beginning to,” I said.
He’d been leaning toward me, and now he sat back. “That’s what I’m talking about. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. You start thinking, you never stop. No end in sight. Sometimes I used to feel like my head was going to explode.” He raised his hands to enact the explosion. “The Little Bang, know what I mean?” Then he leaned in again. “We live on this microscopic speck of dust in a remote corner of a dust cloud made up of a kazillion specks of dust circling around these amazingly intense energy fields, and ours is pretty small as energy fields go. We’re so fucking primitive that it was practically yesterday, cosmologically speaking, we noticed that the damn universe doesn’t revolve around us. Miserable and discontented as we are—I’m talking about humans, now—we think we’re superior to every other life form on this planet. And yet these two guys traveled two hundred and fifty million miles to warn us to stop what we’re doing or face annihilation. Twice. And one of them got shot for it last time. And came back. Now what is that?”
He searched my face. I was interested but unenlightened.
He sat back again. “That’s love, man. What else could it be? What the hell else could it be?”
I didn’t have an answer for that one, either.
He raised an index finger for emphasis. “And it ain’t personal. That’s the thing. They didn’t know before they got here that they were going to meet up with a Robbie and Betty Donovan and a Hank Jones that they might be kind of sorry to annihilate, stupid as we are. It’s like if you actually considered ants and their feelings before you stepped on them or mowed down their anthill. It’s pure love of all creation—undeserved and unearned and, for that matter, unreturned. Once you start to think about that, man, your insides will change as much as your outside.” He tapped my knee and winked at me. “More.”
He stood up as Elvis and Larry re-entered the room. “Ready to boogie?” To the brothers, he said, “Which of you gents has the pleasure of being our escort for the evening?” One of them raised his hand, stood, and shrugged into his Spartan Security windbreaker. “You remember where you parked the Range Rover? Good. Sure you don’t want to come along, Hank? It’s Italian night. No? Can’t tempt you? Okay, then. See you later.”
After they left, I lay down on the couch. My back was feeling the strain of my little sojourn in the park and the conversation with Robbie had left me light-headed as well.
Joe, the remaining bodyguard, invited me to play whatever he was playing, but I declined.
“You don’t have to babysit me, you know,” I said. “The targets just walked out the door.”
“Orders, man,” he said. “Round-the-clock security. Anyway, what would happen if a hopped-up Rambo type showed up at the door right now, and found out that there was no spacemen here to blow away? You think he’d just say, ‘Oh, okay, then. Sorry I bothered you’?”
“I see your point,” I said.
“I don’t mind telling you, though, I’d like to be here if that guy does show up when Elvis is here. They say he can incinerate a guy just by looking at him. You believe that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t especially want to see it.”
“Well, I do,” he said. “Long as it’s a really bad dude, and not just room service or the air conditioner repair guy.”
“You hungry?” I asked.
“I’m always hungry,” he said.
“Well, maybe in another half hour, after I’ve rested my back for a while, we can go get something to eat.”
The phone rang, and Joe answered it, then handed it to me. “Jillian,” he said.
“Oh, god, I’m glad you’re there,” she said. “I think I left my Palm Pilot in the kitchenette. Could you look and see?”
“What does it look like?” I said.
Silence. “You’re kidding, right?” she said.
“I don’t get out much,” I said. “My date book is not so crowded that I can’t keep it all in my head. I know what an iPod is because my students all have them. But when they make appointments with me, they just write it on the backs of their hands.”
“It looks kind of like a black cell phone, only thinner and wider.”
“Hold on.” I heaved myself off the couch and went to look. I found an object like the one she’d described on top of the microwave. I picked it up and went back to the phone. “Yeah, it’s here.”
“Great. Now, would you just look and see what time my hair appointment is tomorrow morning?”
“How do I do that?”
She talked me through it, and I told her when her appointment was.
“Great! Thanks a million, Hank,” she said. “Hey, how come you’re not at dinner? Didn’t you want to meet Robbie’s mom? Or is your back bothering you?”
“It’s not too bad,” I said. “I just thought they might appreciate a little privacy. After all, from her perspective, she hasn’t seen him in more than fifty years.”
“Are you kidding?” she said. “Have you ever been to dinner at a retirement complex? Privacy is the last thing they’ll get. So what are you doing? And which bodyguard are you doing it with?”
“It’s Samoan Joe. He’s playing video games, and I’m just resting. In a little while, we’ll go out to dinner.”
“Hey, how’d it go with your new look? I’m sorry I wasn’t there to see it.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I might’ve gotten picked up in the park. There was this woman there, and she came and sat on the same bench I was sitting on, and she was reading Douglas Adams.”
“She said she was a writer. And she brought up the spacemen. But she didn’t act like she knew I was connected to them. I mean, she connected my name, but she didn’t think I looked anything like the Hank that was hanging out with the aliens.”
“Sounds bogus to me,” she said.
“I told her I’d just moved into the neighborhood, and she offered to show me around tomorrow.”
“Aren’t you going to Mount Vernon tomorrow with the boys?”
“I don’t know. Is that where they’re going?”
“Yeah. But dress warm—you’re going by boat, and it could be cold.”
“Are you going?” I said.
“I’m thinking about it. I have kind of a date.”
“Can’t you bring him along?” I said.
“Maybe,” she said. “We’ll see.”
I put on my wig and asked Joe to pick a restaurant, and we went to a great Latin American place where nobody seemed to recognize me. Then we walked around, and ended up at Murphy’s again. It wasn’t a neighborhood that ran to bars, and I didn’t especially want to do my drinking at the Marriott with the conventioneers. There was a different crowd in the pub at this time of day, mostly young professionals from the neighborhood. Joe told me his life story, which was way more interesting than mine. He and his brother Paul were both studying to be personal trainers.
By eleven o’clock, all of the networks were running stories about a previous visit to Earth by spacemen Lawrence Smith and Elvis Preston. Somebody at Betty Donovan’s retirement center had probably tipped them off. The newscasters hadn’t yet located any witnesses, except for Betty and Robbie, who were too busy playing canasta to answer their questions, but I figured that it was only a matter of time before witnesses and false witnesses started coming out of the woodwork. The morning shows would each score at least one, I felt sure of that.
I lay in bed that night and imagined what it might feel like to be as excited about my prospective career as Joe was about his. The truth was that Joe was much more impressed by my impending Ph.D. than I was, and he was even more impressed that I had to write a book to get it.
“Wow, man, that’s great,” he’d said. “When they publish your book, I can say I know a famous author.”
And I’d been too bored with myself, and with my rather threadbare dreams of life as Professor Jones, to correct his mistaken impression that dissertations led to acclaim and renown. Instead, I had changed the subject.
Now, I told myself, “It’s Friday. On Monday morning, you’re supposed to be back in the classroom. Okay, you’ve bought a few days of grace, but that’s going to run out soon. What do you intend to do? You planning on walking away from all your coursework, not to mention the money you’ve invested, just because you bumped into a pair of spacemen in a bar when you were feeling down?”
I thought about everything Robbie had said about how meeting the spacemen had changed his whole perspective. I tried to imagine the infinitude of space, and pictured two superior extraterrestrial beings traveling through it to end up on barstools next to me in Bloomington, Indiana.
“Yeah,” I said to myself. “That’s exactly what I’m thinking about doing.”