Sam was attempting to tend to the barbecue in between gusts of black smoke and surges of yellow flame. The rest of us sat on lawn furniture, chatting and drinking soft drinks.
The skinny young black fellow leaned forward and turned his head towards me. “So what is this holiday supposed to commemorate?” he asked in a musical tone.
“It’s supposed to remember the people who died in a war,” I answered. I bent forward to rescue my soft drink from Rouster’s inquisitive nose. “Hey Sam,” I called, “Why did you name your dog Rouster?”
“Because she rousts me out of bed every morning,” he answered, trying to wave the smoke out of his eyes. “Oh, this smoke is awful!” he exclaimed. The smoke was Sam’s own fault. He wanted to treat his alien visitors to a traditional American cookout on Memorial Day, and he refused all offers of assistance.
“How long ago was this war?” asked the oriental woman seated on the green chaise lounge. She took a bite of cole slaw with exaggerated daintiness.
“I’m not sure exactly which war we’re supposed to be commemorating,” I confessed, “but the most likely candidate for the honor was a half a century ago.”
“One hundred and twenty-eight years ago?” she asked, “That’s quite recent!”
The young black fellow hastily swallowed a bite of potato salad, “No,” he said, “Fifty years ago. They use a decimal numbering system.”
“You’re quite right,” the woman conceded gracefully, “I forgot about that!”
Behind me, there was the scraping sound of the screen door sliding open and shut. “Hey Sam!” came an unpleasantly loud voice, “Do you want these platters yet?” I looked over my shoulder. Harla was standing behind me waving two large dishes in his hands.
“Yeah, Harla” Sam said curtly, “bring them on over. I think these babies are done!”
“Are you sure you will not be harmed by the smoke inhalation?” the oriental woman asked softly.
“Heck, no!” Sam wiped his face with the back of one hand, obviously relieved that his ordeal was over. “It looks a lot worse than it is!” Harla was busy at the grill, loading up the platters with barbecued chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs. I lured Rouster into the house and left her there, so we could eat in peace.
“You seemed to be quite irritated by the smoke,” the woman continued.
“It stings the eyes, Ing; it’s just a minor irritant.” Harla brought the food over to the table where everything was set up, and we all gathered around. Sam explained what everything was, and demonstrated the proper assembly of hamburgers and hotdogs. Everyone cautiously followed suit, except for the oriental woman.
“Is something wrong, Ing?” I asked, pointing at the food.
“Oh, nothing at all,” she replied, “I’m a vegetarian. I’m told Sam that I’d be very content eating these wonderful salads.” She looked around for our host, “Sam?” she called, “Can you tell me the recipe for this luscious cole slaw?”
“No recipe involved!” Sam laughed. “You can buy it ready-made at any grocery store!”
“Oh, how handy!” Ing smiled.
After we had loaded up our plates and had made ourselves comfortable in our chairs, Sam took the floor. “As you all know, this is the last day before you go out on your own,” he began.
“Excuse me, Sam,” the skinny black fellow interrupted, “but before you begin, could you tell us how you came to operate a half-way house for interstellar visitors, such as us?”
Sam blushed. “That is a little embarrassing.”
“Come on, Sam, you’re among friends,” Harla urged, “Certainly you can tell us!”
“Oh, all right.” Sam looked up at me, “Ken already knows this story, don’t you Ken?” I nodded. “It began when I met a Zerpicker by the name of Asklant. She let her beard grow and joined the circus!”
“What a novel idea!” Ing rubbed her chin, intrigued, “What a shame that Homelander women don’t have facial hair!” I could almost detect genuine regret in her voice!
“She had to summon a shuttle to Earth Watch Base, and I saw it.” Sam’s eyes grew large as he recalled the thrill. “Wow, was that ever an experience! But I couldn’t tell anyone about it.”
“Why couldn’t you?” Harla interrupted.
The skinny black fellow swallowed what he was chewing so that he could offer an explanation, “No one would believe him. Humans aren’t generally aware of the Spiral Arm Cultural Exchange.”
“That’s right!” Sam continued, “I had no further contact with non-Human Homelanderoids until Dr. Bobo Lornifar hired me to cater the New Year’s party.”
“Oh, so you’re the one,” Ing squealed with delight. “I heard all about that! That was really very touching.”
Sam blushed again.
“This barbecued chicken is delicious, Sam,” the skinny black fellow said in his melodious voice, “but it is equally messy. Do you have any napkins?”
Sam nodded, and put down his hamburger so that he’d have a hand free for pointing. “They’re the white paper squares on the far end of the table.” The black fellow peered over the table for a moment, located the napkins, and quickly put them to good use.
“I understand that two of you will be working under Dr. Bobo Lornifar in the eastern United States.” Everyone nodded affirmatively. “Ing, who is your supervisor?”
“Hrokla Mahrti,” she said, “I’m going to be a waitress in Vancouver, Canada!” She shook her left hand jubilantly over her head. “Imagine, all this education and training to become a waitress on an alien planet! I can hardly wait!”
We all chuckled.
Harla spoke up. “My supervisor, as you said, is Bobo Lornifar. I’m going to start work tomorrow selling shoes in Brattleboro, Vermont.” Harla’s eyes surveyed us all. “I’ve never met Bobo,” he confessed, “What’s he like?”
“Weren’t you supposed to meet him on the Moon before you came to Earth?” Sam inquired. This was irregular! Ing looked concerned. The skinny black fellow shoveled potato salad into his mouth, as if to create an excuse for not answering.
“That is the normal procedure,” Harla agreed, “but every time we scheduled a meeting, something came up.” Harla looked at us, desperate for some advance information on his new boss.
“I know him,” I volunteered. “I’ve been his Human field assistant for nearly four years now. He’s a very genial guy, and I’m sure you will grow to like him as much as everyone else has.”
Harla looked slightly relieved.
“What about you, Norri?” Sam asked the skinny young black fellow, “Can you remember your supervisor’s name?” Sam’s eyes sparkled with playfulness.
“That wasn’t a funny joke,” Norri replied.
“Joke?” Ing looked puzzled. “How could that have been a joke?”
“My name is Norri Lornifar!” he shot right back, “Bobo is my father! Somebody explain it to me: I travel twelve light-years from home and end up working for my father!”
“I understand that Bobo is stationed locally in Washington, DC,” Harla observed, “Will you be working here, too?”
“No, I’ve been assigned to Atlanta,” Norri sighed, “I’ve got a position as a janitor. The really interesting part is…”
My folding chair chose that very moment to fold without warning. It collapsed right underneath me, sending my barbecued chicken, my iced tea, and my arms and legs in all directions! Harla picked me out of the wreckage, and I made a half-hearted attempt at salvaging my remaining dignity.
Ing broke the sudden silence. “Are you all right, Ken?” she asked solicitously.
“Yes,” I said, “in fact, I’m not normally this graceful.” I brushed myself off with my hands. Norri handed me a few napkins so I could wipe the ketchup off my shirt. I sure do have a way with making a good first impression!
I stood there with my hands on my hips, surveying the scene of the crime. The unfolded folding chair lay there on the ground, smirking at me in its haughty way. “I’ve never quite learned how to ride those contraptions!” I sighed.
“Well, there’s hope for me yet,” Harla concluded.