Thursday, May 9, 2019


Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Cohen (for such were their earthling names, chosen at random from an old New York City telephone directory) studied the hand-pod in Mr. Kaplan’s palm as they sat together on the 21 bus.

“Okay,” said Mr. Kaplan. “Look how strong the signal is now. I think we should get out here.”

They descended from the bus at the corner of Houston and the Bowery.

Both were well-dressed gentleman, of medium height and build, wearing new and well-cut suits that were at least thirty years out of date.

“It’s cold,” said Mr. Cohen. “We should have been given overcoats, or at least topcoats.”

“We’ll stop into the haberdashery of the Brooks Brothers later,” said Mr. Kaplan. “After we find Burgoyne and O’Toole.”

If we find Burgoyne and O’Toole.”

Mr. Kaplan showed Mr. Cohen the hand-pod.

“Look at this signal. Beeping to beat the band.”

“Which way?”

Mr. Kaplan turned the hand-pod this way and that, studying the screen. No one paid any attention to them. This was the Bowery.

Mr. Kaplan pointed his finger uptown.

“That way, it can’t be far.”

“Let’s move,” said Mr. Cohen. “I’m freezing out here.”

A couple of minutes later they stood outside a bar.

The neon sign said BOB’S BOWERY BAR.

They went in.

It was 3:16 in the afternoon on this December Tuesday, and yet the barroom was crowded. Seated near the middle of the bar were Burgoyne and O’Toole. Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Cohen walked over.

“Well, look who the Arcturian star cat dragged in,” said Burgoyne. He was drinking a mug of some dark liquid, and smoking a cigarette.

“It’s Frick and Frack,” said O’Toole, who was drinking a yellowish, viscous-looking liquid, and also smoking a cigarette.

“Can we go someplace to talk in private?” said Mr. Kaplan.

Burgoyne looked at Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Cohen, then turned to O’Toole.

“Shall we step outside to the alleyway?” said Burgoyne to O’Toole.

“Why not?” said O’Toole.

Both men raised their drinks and finished them, and each shoved two quarters toward the bartender’s side of the bar for a tip, then scooped up their remaining change. Taking their time, they stubbed out their cigarettes and climbed off their barstools. They both wore wore well-worn but well-cut topcoats, and fedoras.

“This way, gentlemen,” said Burgoyne.

Burgoyne and O’Toole led Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Cohen outside and to the alley next door.

“You know why we’re here,” said Mr. Kaplan. “Four earthling years, and not a single word.”

“Command is very disappointed,” said Mr. Cohen. “Is this what you two have been doing for four years? Sitting in a low dive drinking?”

“It’s not all we’ve been doing,” said Burgoyne. He took a fat hand-rolled cigarette from his pocket. O’Toole was ready with a Ronson lighter.

Burgoyne took several deep drags, then passed the cigarette to O’Toole, who also took several good drags, and then passed it to Mr. Cohen.

“Try this, buddy.”

“We are not here to smoke your earthling cigarettes,” said Mr. Cohen. “We are here to –”

“Smoke first,” said O’Toole, “then we talk.”

“Oh, very well.”

Mr. Cohen took several deep drags, coughed.

“It’s a little harsh,” said O’Toole, “but you’ll get used to it. “Now pass it to your buddy.”

Mr. Cohen passed the cigarette to Mr. Kaplan, who in turn took several deep drags.

The four “men” smoked two of the fat handrolled cigarettes, and then went back into the bar and drank bock beer and Tokay wine and ate hot dogs with sauerkraut and hot mustard through the rest of the afternoon and early evening, then they hopped a cab to Birdland to catch Chet Baker play.

It was two more earthling years before Command gave up on hearing anything from O’Toole and Burgoyne, or from Kaplan and Cohen. It was decided to send two more explorers, and to hope for the best.

Explorers, and Other Tales of Science Fiction, by Horace P. Sternwall, an Ace Books paperback original, 1954; out of print.

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