I never said I knew how to dance. Drink, yes; dance, no. Anita always said I danced like a hibernating bear.
So how did I come to be sitting at a table, front and center, at the hottest dance club in D.C.? Yet another job for which I was spectacularly underqualified.
I was nursing a Dos Equis, wedged between two other people who showed no signs of joining in the merriment. To my left was Larry, who’d staged an impressive resistance to both Blades of Glory and the Kennedy Center; he sat intent as an anthropologist. On my right sat the woman I was coming to think of as “Jillian Of Course,” who appeared to be the team gofer, dogsbody, and, at the moment, chaperone to the stars.
The star in question was on the dance floor, dancing with a tall, graceful Latina. And he was good. He could swivel his hips, snap his knees, and pop his shoulders just like the King, and he had the same air of abandoning himself to the music while remaining conscious of the audience he was entertaining. His eyes glittered with fun below the wild fringe of hair shaken loose from its Brylcreem. His teeth brushed his lower lip as he sent his smile around the dance floor.
Larry leaned my way. “There’s a piece of fruit wedged in my beer bottle, Hank,” he said.
“That’s a lime,” I said.
“You can leave it there, or take it out and run it around the edge of the bottle like this,” Jillian said, and demonstrated.
He tried it, then held the lime wedge between a fastidious thumb and forefinger and drank. “Very tasty,” he said. “But do all evening entertainments on this planet now involve drinking alcohol?”
“Pretty much,” I admitted. “Unless it’s a spaghetti dinner at the First Baptist Church.”
He nodded. “Do people ever drink martinis anymore? I believe that was the fashionable drink when I was here before, although I never got to try one. The Siesta Coffee Shop and Frank’s Atomic Diner did not serve alcohol.”
Jillian told him that there were circles in which martinis were still fashionable, and circles in which they’d made a comeback, but that wine had largely replaced cocktails as a social lubricant.
I’d had hopes tonight of staying in my hotel room and catching up on my e-mail and phone mail, both of which were piling up. I’d even cherished hopes of a non-alcoholic night, so I sympathized with Larry.
“You don’t have to drink alcohol, you know,” I said to him. “We’ll order you a Coke.” I flagged down the waiter, who returned with a Coke. It was decorated with a maraschino cherry skewered by a pink plastic sword, which Larry eyed with interest.
I turned to Jillian and said, “So, do you ever get to say no to the Big Cheese?”
“Ginger?” she said. “No.”
“What about your personal life?” I said.
“What about your personal life?” she said.
“Missing in action since my girlfriend moved in with my dissertation director.”
“I knew there was a reason why I was avoiding graduate school.”
“Nothing but heartache,” I said. “Take it from me. Of course, my students adore me.”
Larry nudged me. “Tell her about your dissertation,” he said.
“Larry, even I am not interested in my dissertation,” I said.
He looked at Jillian. Her tangle of auburn hair was at half-mast; apparently, the clip that held it more or less pinned to the back of her head did not work overtime. “It’s about semiotics,” he said. “He can tell you fascinating things about ketchup and hot sauce bottles.”
“Really?” she said.
“No,” I said.
Elvis returned to the table to introduce his partner, who was wearing a short, red, spaghetti-strapped diaphanous number that I saw Jillian eyeing with envy. Jillian was still wearing a charcoal-gray pin-striped pantsuit.
“Come and dance, Larry,” Elvis urged. To me he said, “Larry is a swell dancer. He’s just shy.” To the beautiful Lydia, he said, “Larry is enjoying a Coke right now—the pause that refreshes. Maybe when he’s finished he’ll get up and bust some moves.”
“What would you study in grad school if you went?” I asked Jillian.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Public administration, maybe. Maybe law school.”
“Wow!” I said. “That takes a lot of dedication.”
“Why I’m not there,” she said. “I don’t know if I can do it—if I have the stamina.”
“Are you kidding? If you keep up with Ginger DiAngelo, you have the stamina for anything.”
She smiled at that. When she smiled I noticed something about her face. I said before that it was a face that looked like it had been designed by a committee. I now realized that every member of the committee had made his or her part perfect according to some personal model of perfection. They just hadn’t consulted, or considered the whole effect. That made her not beautiful or even pretty, but unique and intriguing and, yes, appealing. She had large, wide-set hazel eyes that almost made you miss the delicate molding of her petite nose. She had a narrow, rather pointed chin under a mouth that seemed too broad for it. Her smile stretched a thin but well-defined upper lip across nice teeth and a full lower lip. The longer you looked, the more appealing it all was.
In any case, I should clarify that I’m not knocking uniqueness. I am perfectly well aware that I could be a grad student from Central Casting. If Hollywood ever seizes on grad school as the hotbed of lust and ambition that it really is, I’ll be a shoo-in for the extra who speaks lines like, “But Professor Fliegl, we had an appointment at two-thirty. Don’t you remember?” or “Still working in the library. And you?” or “I just can’t decide whether to go on the job market this year as an A.B.D., or wait until next year when the diss is finished.”
“I’m learning a lot from her,” she said. “She’s the best at what she does.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I can see why she would be.”
Elvis was back on the dance floor, learning a line dance from Pedro and George, our hosts for the evening.
“Of course, some clients are easier to promote than others,” she said, watching Elvis.
“He’s a natural,” I admitted. “Just an ordinary android from outer space, with charisma.”
“Our bosses want him to appear tougher, more threatening,” Larry said. He was sucking on his cherry. “They regard him as something of a—what do you call it? A mess-up?”
“Screw-up,” I said, surprised.
“I chose him for this mission because I thought it would suit his talents,” he said. “Ginger says that we must build trust, and it’s obvious that he’s better at doing that than I am. We don’t have much time, after all. Our bosses are not in agreement about this mission, and I fear that we could be recalled any day.”
“So you went back to the ship this afternoon?” I said.
“There were pigeons sitting on it,” he said. “And lots of—.” He waved an expressive hand. “It was covered. I believe they can detect the hum. They seem to like it. But if anyone sees them, standing around on the air like that—.”
“They’ll think they’re hallucinating,” I said.
“So the ship’s really invisible?” Jillian asked. “How does that work?”
“Not very well, apparently,” Larry said.
Elvis boogied back to our table.
“Hank, come and dance with me,” he said. “Lydia’s taking a powder in the toilet.”
“Not a good idea, big guy,” I said.
“Well, look at all the dancers out on the floor. What do you notice?”
He turned around and gazed at the dancers. He shrugged one shoulder, which appeared to be an alien equivalent to our two-shouldered variety. “They are all different shapes and colors. They are wearing different outfits.” Trust Elvis for the sartorial review. “Some of them are dancing along with the music, but maybe some of them are listening to a different tune in their heads.”
“Who are they dancing with?”
“Other people.” He seemed baffled.
“Do you see any men dancing with men?”
“No. That’s because on Earth—.” I caught myself. “In our culture, rather, men don’t dance with men, they dance with women.”
“Oh. So can I dance with Jillian?”
“Sure,” I said. I’d been preparing an explanation, and was brought up short when he didn’t ask for one. Probably he thought all of our customs were weird, and it was no use asking for an explanation that wouldn’t make sense, anyway.
He dragged a protesting Jillian onto the dance floor. As she was led away, she mouthed something to me that looked like, “Terrible. I’m terrible!”
“So, Larry, did you contact your superiors?” I asked. “You guys find any Earth products to import?”
“Refrigerator magnets,” he said. “We think they would be a big hit in the Peshtafoon Galaxy.”
“Do they have a lot of refrigerators there?”
“No, but it’s heavily populated by beings like Elvis.”
I tried to imagine a galaxy of beings like Elvis, and couldn’t.
“You know—androids with metallic skin. We would sell the magnets as body art. We are also considering bungee cords. Both of these items can be made out of corn.”
“How about kitty litter?” I asked. “They make that out of corn these days. You guys got any need for an absorbent—something that would soak up fuel when your spaceships leaked?”
“No, we have microorganisms that do that,” he said. “But perhaps the Hokkis could use it. They are extraordinary architects and engineers, the Hokkis, and they build most of their structures out of sand.”
I pictured a race of hyperintelligent ants, but caught myself. There I go, I thought, assuming that Earth ants aren’t hyperintelligent. If we were marooned together on a desert island, they’d certainly be better prepared to survive than I would. Semiotics will only get you so far.
“I know that Ginger was hoping for a McDonald’s franchise, but I’m afraid we don’t think that would work. It would involve transporting perishable food over too great a distance. But snack items—we might have a market for those. Twinkies and Ding Dongs and Ho Hos, cheese doodles and Little Debbies—those might sell well, especially among the more primitive beings of the Lesser Rhon Galaxy.”
“Makes one giddy just to contemplate Ho Hos in space.”
“And movies, of course. We want to import those. Especially Westerns and Bollywood.”
“I can see the appeal,” I said. “They are both genres with a strong moral dimension.”
He nodded. “Of course, where I come from, nobody would root for the cowboys or the Indians. We would root for the horses.”
“I’d love to read the reviews.”
“It will take extensive negotiation, though,” he said. “Much as we dread nuclear weapons in space, there are those who believe that advertising in space would be worse.”
“I can see why they would,” I said. “Look at Elvis.”
“Yes,” he said. “He has a great enthusiasm for American products. They are not things that he needs, or would actually use, but he is attracted to them by advertising.”
I excused myself to go the bathroom, and when I came back, Larry was on the dance floor, demonstrating a dance. Elvis was right; he was good—or at least, I presumed he was. I took it on faith that the caterpillar undulations he was doing and the finger-fluttering that accompanied it were bona fide.
I should never have let Elvis talk me into trying it.
“But it’s a line dance, Hank,” he said, as he lifted me out of my chair by my elbow. “Boys can dance with boys in a line dance, as long as there are some girls, too.”
Within ten minutes, I was bent over, clutching a chair and gasping for breath. My back, which was an ordinary hominid back, and not an especially strong one at that, was not designed to imitate a caterpillar, and it had gathered itself into a cowering, quivering mass of pain a hand’s breadth below my ribcage. My fun was over before it had started.
When we entered our hotel room an hour later, I was leaning heavily on Elvis, so I had no choice but to go with him when he turned right around and left, motioning for Larry to follow.
In the hall, Elvis said, “We’ve been insected.”
“Infected?” I said.
“Bugged,” Larry said. “He means we’ve been bugged.”
Elvis nodded. “With listening devices. Shall I disable them?”
“I have to pass on this decision,” I said. “I’m in too much pain to care. Just set me up next to a bug and I’ll drown out everything else with my moans and sobs.”
Larry was rubbing his forehead and looking tired. “Go ahead,” he said.
“It would be good to know where they came from,” I said. “Be nice if we turned out to have business competitors we don’t even know about, but that’s probably just wishful thinking. I don’t suppose, in this day and age, we’ll find g-men skulking in the stairwell.”
“I could find the receiver,” Elvis said, “if you think the recording device would help.”
“I doubt it,” I said. “I’m betting it won’t be tagged as property of the F.B.I.”
“Then I’ll disable them,” Elvis said, “as soon as we put you in bed.”