Hotlips Grogan may not be as handsome and good-looking like me or as brainy and intellectual, but in this fiscal year of 2056 he is the gonest trumpet-tooter this side of Alpha Centauri. You would know what I mean right off if you ever hear him give out with “Stars Fell on Venus,” or “Martian Love Song,” or “Shine On, Harvest Luna.” Believe me, it is out of this world. He is not only hot, he is radioactive. On a clear day he is playing notes you cannot hear without you are wearing special equipment.
That is for a fact.
Mostly he is a good man--cool, solid, and in the warp. But one night he is playing strictly in three or four wrong keys.
I am the ivory man for this elite bunch of musicians, and I am scooping up my three-dee music from the battered electronic eighty-eight when he comes over looking plenty worried.
“Eddie,” he says, “I got a problem.”
“You got a problem, all right,” I tell him. “You are not getting a job selling Venusian fish, the way you play today.”
He frowns. “It is pretty bad, I suppose.”
“Bad is not the word,” I say, but I spare his feelings and do not say the word it is. “What gives?”
He looks around him, careful to see if anybody in the place is close enough to hear. But it is only afternoon rehearsal on the gambling ship Saturn, and the waiters are busy mopping up the floor and leaning on their long-handled sterilizers, and the boys in the band are picking up their music to go down to Earth to get some shut-eye or maybe an atomic beer or two before we open that night.
Hotlips Grogan leans over and whispers in my ear. “It is the thrush,” he says.
“The thrush?” I say, loud, before he clamps one of his big hands over my kisser. “The thrush,” I say, softer; “you mean the canary?”
He waves his arms like a bird. “Thrush, canary--I mean Stella Starlight.”
For a minute I stand with my mouth open and think of this. Then I rubber for the ninety-seventh time at the female warbler, who is standing talking to Frankie, the band leader. She is a thrush new to the band and plenty cute--a blonde, with everything where it is supposed to be, and maybe a little extra helping in a couple spots. I give her my usual approving once-over, just in case I miss something the last ninety-six approving once-overs I give her.
“What about her?” I say.
“It is her fault I play like I do,” Hotlips Grogan tells me sadly. “Come on. Leave us go guzzle a beer and I will tell you about it.”
Just then Frankie comes over, looking nasty like as usual, and he says to Grogan, “You are not playing too well today, Hotlips. Maybe you hurt your lip on a beer bottle, huh?”
As usual also, his tone is pretty short on sweetness and light, and I do not see why Grogan, who looks something like a gorilla’s mother-in-law, takes such guff from a beanpole like Frankie.
But Grogan only says, “I think something is wrong with my trumpet. I have it fixed before tonight.”
Frankie smirks. “Do that,” he says, looking like a grinning weasel. “We want you to play for dancing, not for calling in Martian moose.”
Frankie walks away, and Hotlips shrugs.
“Leave us get our beer,” he says simply, and we go to the ferry.
We pile into the space-ferry with the other musicians and anyone else who is going down to dirty old terra firma, and when everybody who is going aboard is aboard, the doors close, and the ferry drifts into space. Hotlips and I find seats, and we look back at the gambling ship. It is a thrill you do not get used to, no matter how many times you see it.
The sailor boys who build the Saturn--they give it the handle of Satellite II then--would not know their baby now, Frankie does such a good job of revamping it. Of course, it is not used as a gambling ship then--at least not altogether, if you know what I mean. Way back in 1998 when they get it in the sky, they are more interested in it being useful than pretty; anybody that got nasty and unsanitary ideas just forgot them when they saw that iron casket floating in a sky that could be filled with hydrogen bombs or old laundry without so much as a four-bar intro as warning.
Frankie buys Satellite II at a war surplus sale when moon flights become as easy as commuters’ trips, and he smoothes out its shape so it looks like an egg and then puts a fin around it for ships to land on. After that, it does not take much imagination to call it the Saturn. Then he gets his Western Hemisphere license and opens for business.
My daydreaming stops, for suddenly Hotlips is grabbing my arm and pointing out the window.
“What for are you grabbing my arm and waving your fist at the window, Hotlips?” I inquire politely of him.
“Eddie,” he whispers, all nervous and excited from something, “I see one.”
I give him a blank stare. “You see one what?”
“One flying cuspidor,” he says, his face serious. “I see it hanging out there by the Saturn and then suddenly it is gone. Whoosh.”
“Hallucination,” I tell him. But I look out hard and try to see one too. I don’t, so I figure maybe I am right, after all.
I do not know about this “men from space” gimmick the science-fiction people try to peddle, but lots of good substantial citizens see flying cuspidors and I think to myself that maybe there is something to it. So I keep looking back at the Saturn, but nothing unusual is going on that I can see. My logic and super-salesmanship evidently convinces Hotlips, for he does not say anything more about it.
Anyway, in a few minutes we joggle to a stop at Earthport, pile out, wave our identification papers at the doorman with the lieutenant’s bars, and then take off for the Atomic Cafe a block away.
Entering this gem of a drinking establishment, we make our way through the smoke and noise to a quiet little corner table and give Mamie the high-sign for two beers. A few minutes later she comes bouncing over with the order and a cheery word about how invigorating it is to see us high-class gentlemen instead of the bums that usually hang around a joint like this trying to make time with a nice girl like her.
“That is all very nice,” I say to her politely, “and we are overjoyed beyond words to see you too, Mamie, but Hotlips and I have got strange and mysterious things to discuss, so I would appreciate it if you would see us later instead of now.” With this, I give her arm a playful pat, and she blushes and takes the hint.
When we are alone, I ask Hotlips, now what is the trouble which he has.
“Like I tell you before,” Hotlips says, “I have a problem. So here it is.” He takes a deep breath and lets fly all at once. “I am in love of the thrush, Stella Starlight.”
I am drinking my beer when he says this, and suddenly I get a snootful and start coughing, and he whams me on the back with his big paw so I stop, more in self-defense than in his curing me. Somehow, the idea of a big bruiser like Hotlips Grogan in love of a sweet fluffy thing like Stella Starlight seems funny.
“So?” I say.
“So that is why I play so bad tonight,” he says. Seeing I do not quite catch on to the full intent of his remarks, he continues. “I am a happy man, Eddie. I got my trumpet, a paid-for suit of clothes, a one-room apartment with green wallpaper. Could a man ask for much more?”
“Not unless he is greedy,” I agree.
Hotlips Grogan is staring at his beer as though he sees a worm in it and looking sadder than ever. “It is a strange and funny thing,” he says, dreamy-like. “There she is singing, and there I am giving with the trumpet, and all of a great big sudden--whammo!--it hits me, and I feel a funny feeling in my stomach, like maybe it is full of supersuds or something, and my mouth is dry just like cotton candy.”
“Indigestion,” I suggest.
He shakes his big head. “No,” he says, “it is worse than indigestion.” He points to his stomach and sighs. “It is love.”
“Fine,” I say, happy it is not worse. “All you got to do is tell her, get married and have lots and lots of kids.”
Hotlips Grogan’s big eyebrows play hopscotch around his button nose, so I can tell he does not think I solve all his troubles with my suggestion.
“You are a good man, Eddie,” he tells me, “but you are too intellectual. This is an affair of the heart.” He sighs again. “I am never in love of a girl before,” he goes on, more worried, “and I do not know how to act. Besides, the thrush is with us only a day, and Frankie already is making with the eyes.”
“So what should I do, give you lessons?” The idea is so laughable I laugh at it. “Anyway, Frankie always makes with the eyes at thrushes.”
“Yes,” Hotlips Grogan admits, “but never before have I been in love of any of the thrushes Frankie has made with the eyes at. Frankly, Eddie, I am worried like all get out about this.”
“Sometimes I do not even understand the way you play even before the thrush comes, Hotlips,” I admit. “Like for instance yesterday when we play ‘A Spaceship Built for Two.’ This is a song, as you know, that does not have in it many high notes, but even when you play the low notes they sound somewhat like they maybe are trying to be high notes. It is a matter which is perplexing to one of my curious nature.”
Hotlips looks sheepish for a minute and then he says, “It is a physical disability with me, Eddie. When I am young and practicing with my trumpet one day, I have an accident and get my tongue caught in the mouthpiece, and it is necessary for the doctor to operate on my tongue and cut into it like maybe it is chopped liver.”
“I am sorry to hear this, Hotlips,” I say.
“I do not tell anyone this before, Eddie,” Hotlips confesses. “But afterward when I play the trumpet, I play two notes at one time, which at first is pretty embarrassing.”
“This is great, Hotlips,” I proclaim as a big idea hits me; “you can play your own harmony. With talent like that, and my brain--”
But Hotlips is shaking his head. “No, Eddie,” he says. “The other note is way off in the stratosphere someplace and no one can hear it, even when the melody note is low. And the higher the note is you can hear, the higher the other note is you cannot hear. Besides, now I cannot even play what I am supposed to play, what with the thrush around.”
I sit there with my beer in my hand and think about it for a while, while Hotlips looks at me like a lost sheepdog. I scratch my head but I do not even come up with dandruff.
Finally, I say, “Well, thrush or not, if you play no better than you do this afternoon, Frankie will make you walk back home without a spacesuit.”
“That is for positive,” Hotlips agrees sadly. “So what can I do?”
I am forced to admit that I do not know just what Hotlips can do. “However,” I say, “I have an idea.” And I call Mamie over and tell her the problem. “So you are a woman and maybe you know what my musician friend can do,” I suggest.
Mamie sighs. “I am at a loss for words concerning what your friend can do, but I know just how he feels, for it is like that with me, too. I am in love of a handsome young musician who comes in here, but he does not take notice of me, except to order some beer for him and his friend.”
I click my teeth sympathetically at this news.
“And I am too shy and dignified a girl to tell him,” Mamie continues sadly. “So you see I have the same problem as your friend and cannot help you.”
“See,” I whisper to Hotlips, “it is perfectly normal.”
“Yes,” he hisses back. “But I am still miserable, and the only company I desire is that of Stella Starlight.”
“Maybe it really is your trumpet,” I suggest, not very hopeful, though.
Hotlips shakes his head. “Look,” he says and takes the trumpet from his case and puts it to his lips, “and listen to this.”
Inwardly, I quiver like all get out, because I figure that is just what the management will tell us to do, once Hotlips lets go. Hotlips puffs out his cheeks and a soft note slides from the end of the trumpet--low, clear, and beautiful, without a waver in a spaceload. Only a few people close by can hear the note and they do not pay us any attention, except to think that maybe we are a little nuttier than is normal for musicians.
From his first note, Hotlips shifts to a higher note which is just as pretty. Then he goes on to another one and then to another, improvising a melody I do not hear before and getting higher all the time. After a while I can hardly hear it, it is so high, but I can feel the glass in my hand vibrating like it wants to get out on the floor and dance. I hold on to it with both hands, so my beer will not slosh over the side. Then there is no sound at all from the trumpet, but Hotlips’ cheeks are puffed out and he is still blowing for all he is worth--which is plenty, if he can play like this when Stella Starlight is around.
I tap Hotlips on the shoulder. “Hotlips, that is all very well for any bats in the room which maybe can hear what you play, but--” He does not pay me any attention.
Suddenly there is a large crinkle-crash of glass from the bar and a hoarse cry from the bartender as he sees his king-size mirror come down in little pieces. At the same time, glasses pop into fragments all over the room and spill beer over the people holding them. Even my own glass becomes nothing but ground glass and the beer sloshes over the table. At the moment, however, I do not worry about that.
There are other things to worry about which are more important--like Hotlips’ and my health, for instance, which is not likely to be so good in the near future.
Like I say, Hotlips does not play loud and it is noisy in the place, so there are not too many who hear him. But they look around, all mad and covered with beer, and see him there with the trumpet in his hand and a funny look on his big face, and they put two and two together. I can see they figure the answer is four. And what makes things worse, they are between us and the front door, so we cannot sneak past like maybe we are just tourists.