It's a Quarter to Three...
By D.K. Latta
About the author
It burst through the rolling grey clouds. A bright, stabbing light slicing through the heavens, and then it was there -- intensely bright at its core and throwing up a wave of soft glowing amber across the clouds' rippling underbelly. It hovered for but a moment, this tiny star, this pinprick of heaven; hovered two miles above the surface of the planet earth.
Then, in one instant it was a blur, shooting across the sky. And, in the next? Gone.
"This is one that'll take some of you down memory lane," rasped Sammy Richie, bookended between the frayed red curtains that framed the little stage, his microphone before his lips. "And if it does, that'll prove just how old you really are."
Polite chuckles answered his little joke, and then those in the musty dining lounge fell silent as Sammy began to sing. As he sang, his voice washed over the sparse audience like a warm wave. That was the man's magic, I guess, what had made him stand-out once upon a time.
His boyish good-looks were long gone, replaced by cracked and fleshy features and a toupee that looked as though it had been scooped up off the side of the highway, and he weighed a pound or two more than in his hey-day. Even his voice hadn't been left unscarred by time's trampling feet. It was hoarse and gravely from too many nights of playing smoke-heavy places just like this one. And the high notes? They were now just a fond dream. But he could still sing. He could still twist and tease the notes, suggesting nuances and subtleties, making the tunes seem like new even though he'd been doing them for forty years.
Sammy wasn't a singer, you see. He was a crooner. And as he opened his mouth, not just notes, but memories came spilling out. Visions of another time, another era. Of big bands and unabashed sentimentality, of dressed-up dance halls and watered-down white jazz. Of a time when the world was young and everything was possible.
And as he sang now, in a neon bedecked obscenity where you'd be wiser to brave the late December winds and take a leak outside than risk the bathrooms, he threaded the music through the air like a master weaver, managing, if not to actually transport you back to those times, then at least to form a tapestry of lost dreams and to conjure up a few warm ghosts to occupy the empty seats.
But a conjurer needs his disciples and ghosts, even the warm, friendly kind, can't haunt those who just don't care. The dining lounge was doing better business than it had in years, and even so, it wasn't half-full. It wasn't Sammy Richie's mug on the marquee that had brought them in, either, but the driving snow and wind of a prairie Christmas Eve. The parking lot was bad, the roads worse. The bikers sat in the corner with their beers, telling dirty jokes. The clean-cut family played cards. Everyone else just sat there, stone-faced, waiting, praying for the mother of all chinooks. Or at least a snowplow.
Most listened to Sammy, but few really heard.
"Thank you, thank you," he said as the tune ended, anticipating applause, any applause. A few hands went together erratically, producing a staggered approximation of approval. Sammy bowed like it was a standing ovation. "I'll be back in ten minutes, so I'll leave you in the capable hands of Wilson Jaspar and his band." The five man back-up band, comprised of pimple-faced union musicians who didn't know Sammy Richie from a kick in the pants, kicked in with something that would've stupefied an elevator. Sammy secured his mike on its rest and clambered down off the stage.
Once teen-aged girls mobbed him. Once he would have had to wade through tossed flowers and panties. Now he slipped across an open floor and up to the bar, settling on a stool two down from mine and no one so much as glanced his way.
He ordered a beer.
The bright light streaked through the sky. It hovered momentarily over Istanbul, then blurred and vanished in the blink of an eye. It criss-crossed the globe in the time it takes to draw a breath. Pausing for a fraction of a second over Kumamoto, Denver, Liverpool, Rio de Janeiro. Back and forth. Back and forth. Radar tracking systems registered it in some nations, when it slowed down sufficiently. But even then it was there and gone before its existence could even be confirmed.
Over the cities where it chose to hesitate, police switchboards came alive with calls reporting the oddity. But the light seemed ceaseless, untiring as it roamed and roamed the world.
"Great set, Sammy," said a fellow sliding in between Sammy Richie and the stool beside him, on the singer's far side. "You're killing 'em tonight."
Sammy glanced over his shoulder, taking in the dim, preternaturally quiet lounge. Then he faced forward again and put his beer-slicked glass to his mouth. "Killing them? Ira, I think they're already dead."
"Dead?" demanded the guy identified as Ira, his flaming red dinner jacket complete with sparkles on the too-wide lapels that burned a hole through the smoke. He was obviously the singer's manager. "What dead? They love you. They're just cold, s'all. It'll freeze the tits off a moose out there. They gotta be careful with their hands." He rubbed his together for emphasis. "But I can sense the love in this room, I can feel it in my bones. Can't you feel the love, Sammy? It's almost tangible." His eyes caught mine and it was too late to pretend I wasn't listening. But he didn't seem to care. "Don't you love this big lug?" he demanded, gripping Sammy's shoulders enthusiastically.
I raised my beer in a sort of toast, which seemed to satisfy Ira.
"So what's the point?" Sammy said, the words coming out in a sigh.
Ira stopped and dropped down on the stool next to Sammy. "Point? What point? I don't get you? What d'you mean 'point'?"
"In this, in doing this. In singing songs no one's heard of to crowds--" he stopped and grinned thinly, seeing the room's reflection in the mirror behind the bar, "well, an audience -- that doesn't care?"
"Care? Of course they care. They're just reserved."
Sammy Richie had only just started to hit the big time when his kind of music went the way of the dinosaur and everything else. Established acts, like Sinatra and Bennett, had enough of a rep to keep going, a momentum. But not the ones like Sammy Richie. They just went nowhere. He started out too young, and now he was too old. They wanted them hip and pretty these days, like that Connick fellow. Not old and sagging.
"I'm fifty-nine and what have I got to show for it? Three ex-wives, kids I don't even know 'cause I've been on the road so long, debts I could never pay if I lived to be a hundred...and this," he knocked his head back, indicating the lounge, "night after night of playing dumps like this, so the audience can gawk like I'm a freak of nature." His eyes caught mine in the mirror and he must have misunderstood my interest; still holding my gaze, he mumbled, "Step right up."
"Take it easy, Sammy," chided Ira softly.
"I could take any of it, except not having an audience. Not having anyone close their eyes and let the music whirl them away. Not having anyone who cared if I opened my big dumb mouth or not." A meaty hand slipped inside his jacket and came out with a pill bottle. He popped, first the lid, then a pill, and took another drink.
"What was that?"
"Nothing," he said sullenly. "Just something to help me relax." He held up the bottle away from his face, as though to study it a bit more thoroughly, and something unpleasant made him smile. "Take enough of them, and I'd relax for ever and ever."
Ira pushed Sammy's hand to the counter, as if removing the bottle from the singer's sight would remove it from his mind as well. As if every expression he'd ever heard was true. "Don't talk like that. Talk like that is crazy."
In the mirror I could see the way Sammy looked at Ira, how his eyes narrowed, like he might argue the point. Then he shrugged and put the bottle away. "It's just talk, Ira. You hear from Atlantic city?"
"Atlantic city. You know, the lounge lizard's Mecca, the home of the has-been, the ode to--"
"Yeah, I heard from Atlantic city."
Something in Ira's voice, the way he said it, must have triggered something in the back of Sammy's head. His shoulders sagged and he let out another sigh.
"Thing is," began Ira, tentatively, "everyone's all booked up. You know how it is. Maybe next year, they said."
Sammy carefully placed the tip of his index finger in the circle of condensation his glass had left on the counter, and trailed the liquid back and forth, forming arcane shapes. Like a conjurer. He stared at the nonsensical patterns with such earnestness, such conviction, that it was obvious he wasn't staring at them at all. But it was better, safer, than staring at his companion.
The singer pushed his lips out, then in.
"Sammy? Y'O.K.?" Ira said a little louder, a little more strained.
"Fit as a fiddle," he mumbled at last. Sammy Richie raised his eyes to a level with the mirror and was once more face to face with the stark reality of the room behind him. "Kee-rist," he half-whispered, half-growled. "Why do we do these things to ourselves, Ira? I mean, if either of us had any sense, we'd pack it in, right? Get a day job. I thought I could change the world with my music, or at least make it seem a little less bleak for all of three minutes and forty-five seconds. But I didn't change the world." He scratched at his toupee, eyeing his reflection critically. "It changed me."
It took Sammy a few moments to tear his gaze away from his own features and recognize the odd change that had come over Ira's. The manager's eyes had a hooded look.
"What?" demanded Sammy.
Ira cleared something in his throat, then shook his head and pretended to smile. "Nothing. Finish you're drink. You've got another set."
Ira's cheek twitched, just below his right eye.
"I've got this new act, see, a kid with hair down to here. He's gonna be the next big thing, I can feel it in my bones." Ira started scratching at his chin, working his fingers up till they were plucking at his lips. "But getting a new act off the ground, well, that takes a lot of hard work, constant work." He stopped. "Time-consuming work."
"You're dumping me? Ira? You?"
"You need more than a part-time manager, Sammy, and that's all I could be. You deserve better, man."
"You mean you deserve better, you sonofabitch." Sammy said it flatly, as if he didn't really feel it inside. "So go on, get the hell out of here."
"I wasn't gonna say nothing, not tonight, not with you being so down."
Sammy stared forward, like he was carved from solid stone, refusing even to look at the other man. Ira's shoulders sagged, like something had been scooped out of his chest, and he turned around, slowly shuffling away.
The man in the loud jacket turned.
Sammy was flesh and blood again, but battered flesh, thinning blood. "Take care of yourself, man."
A little light came on behind Ira's eyes and he nodded, grinning. "I'll still keep my ear to the ground for you, man. And don't give up, glory days are just around the corner. I can feel it--"
"--in your bones. Yeah, yeah." Sammy shook his head, grinning ruefully.
"I'll call you in a couple of days." Ira turned and started for the entrance, no doubt figuring he'd see if the snowplows had been through yet.
With his back to the bar, he didn't see the way the smile left Sammy's face. It didn't fade and it wasn't usurped by a frown or anything. It just kind of froze, all brittle like, and then shattered. Sammy drew forth his pills again and stared at the label for a long, long time. Stared at the warning about not operating heavy machinery. Out of the corner of his eye he must've caught me watching him, because he turned his head to look at me. "Merry Christmas," he said coldly.
The light came, at last, to rest over a small town in Alberta. Its burning brightness cut through the driving snow and wind that made driving a novel concept, forcing even the darkness of the night to give ground, at least a few paces. And if any had been outside to observe, they might have noticed that the focus of the light seemed to be a little, rather grungy building on the outskirts of town, with neon for a name.
The light beaming down on the little structure pulsed once.
I stared at Sammy Richie via the mirror and wondered about a lot of things, only some of them relevant. It was almost time for his second set, the band behind us and across the room well on its way to inventing a cure for insomnia, when something happened.
The tenor sax squawked. The drummer put his stick through the head. The little crowd let out an almost collective gasp. Sammy swivelled. I watched it all through the mirror.
Something had appeared on stage. Literally appeared. No bright lights, no foomp or fomp or fwak, no high-pitched whistling or shimmering in the air. One moment it wasn't there, the next it was. And I do mean it . Though vaguely humanoid, with a thin, angular skull over which was kind of a grey-mustard skin, its gender, assuming it even had one, was indecipherable. Its only garment was a flowing pink shawl that dipped and twisted airily about its figure.
It appeared to have a few extra arms and legs.
Everyone stared, open-mouthed. Even Sammy Richie. Even me.
Was this the big one? The great invasion that had been forewarned in countless '50s B-movies? Should we all fall on our knees and repent, cursing the fact that we hadn't recognized William Castle and Ed Wood for the prophets they really were? After all, there could be no doubt in anyone's mind, not even the bikers, that this was an alien being. Not from around here. The ultimate out-of-towner.
Its big eyes surveyed the room for a painfully long moment. You could have heard a pin drop. Everyone was too scared to stay, too terrified to run. Then the being cleared what I assume was its throat and spoke. It said: "I am seeking the one known as Sammy Richie."
Someone fainted over by the cigarette machine.
Sammy's mouth dropped open even wider and a collective "ooh" whispered through the lounge. Ira, by the entrance, fell back into an empty chair.
The alien seemed to gather its arms and legs together for another attempt. "I seek Sammy Richie," it repeated. "Where?"
"Uh, I'm Sammy Richie." Sammy clamped his hands over his mouth almost instantly, obviously unsure what had possessed him to betray himself to this thing, and terrified of the possible consequences.
The alien looked at him with its big eyes and slowly its expression seemed to alter, to become almost reverential. "Oh Sammy Richie, know that I and my fellows have travelled many light years to be in your presence."
"Muh-me?" demanded Sammy. "Buh-I mean-uh-whu-why?"
"Because you are simply the greatest singer the galaxy has ever known."
Sammy stared at the being, mutely, not wanting to argue with something so obviously beyond his ken, but feeling he should say something. No doubt, though, "thanks" didn't really seem appropriate, and "many light years" was a helluva long way to come just for an autograph at any rate.
"Only recently have radiowaves from your planet reached our world and the majesty of your singing, the magic of your voice, has touched all our souls. I have travelled very far to beg a boon of you, Sammy Richie."
Sammy shook his head, as though something was clinging to it. "Uh, a boon? What sort of a, uh, boon?"
"Would you visit our world, Sammy Richie? Would you let your legions of fans bask in the presence of your voice?"
"Uh, now, uh, whu-wait a minute, I, uh, that is-" Suddenly Sammy stopped. He narrowed his eyes. "Legions? What d'you mean by 'legions'?"
A pained expression, or at least an approximation of one, made itself at home on the alien's face. "I realize it will seem a pittance to one of your greatness."
"And a pittance would be -- what, exactly?"
"75 billion entities in the Murogi sector. But I'm sure you could tour the outlying regions as well."
"Suh-seventy-five," he stopped and swallowed, "billion?"
"I realize it may seem small but--"
"Nonsense." And Sammy laughed in a way that I don't suppose he had for years. "For my public, I'll go anywhere."
And an expression that looked as though it belonged on a statue of the Buddha himself glowed forth from the being's features. "Oh, Sammy Richie, oh great one, the joy you bring to my hearts knows no bounds."
"Are you crazy, Sammy?" demanded Ira, stepping forward hesitantly. "You can't just go off with this, this...this This."
Ira opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again, but no sounds came out. He cocked his head, trying to figure out the best way to attack the question.
Sammy saved him the trouble. "The fans, Ira. The fans are all that's important. Here, there, wherever."
"Then take my hand, Sammy Richie, and we shall be transported to my ship above." The alien held out an assortment of appendages. Sammy left his stool and grabbed one at random.
"Wish me luck, Ira," said Sammy Richie. And then he was gone.
After a moment, the musicians on the stage began playing something again and the bikers ordered another round. Everyone settled down, going back to doing whatever they had been doing, as if nothing much had happened at all. Ira, wide-eyed and a little shaken, sat down on the stool next to the one Sammy Richie had occupied and ordered a drink. When it came, I watched him turn it around in his hand for a bit, his mouth shifting as though working something over between his teeth. Then he raised his glass and wished Sammy Richie the very best of luck, and a Merry Christmas to boot.
I raised my glass as well.
Table of Contents
It's a Quarter to Three... is copyright D.K. Latta. It may
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