A Conversation Gone Awry


John T. Anderson
42 Foliage Lane
Hapdorn 5A03F

Seventhday, 7 Fourthmonth 45B1

Dear Ken,

Melissa thinks that I haven’t been eating right lately, so she kept inviting me for dinner, and I kept turning her down. It was very sweet of her, but I just didn’t feel up to it. So when she called me last week, I really surprised her by accepting the invitation.

I no sooner put the phone down when it rang! It was Melissa again. She wanted to know if I would mind if there were another guest. Before she could tell her husband Harshan that she had invited me, Harshan told her that he had already invited someone for the same evening! It was an old friend who worked with him on the Zerpick-to-Chern run. Harshan hasn’t worked on a spaceliner since he and Melissa were married, so he was really excited about the visit.

Now that was intriguing. It would be fascinating to listen to two experienced spaceliner crewmen talk about their experiences. I’ve only been on one spaceflight, the one that brought me here, so I figured it would be a very interesting evening.

I told Melissa that I didn’t care if there was another guest. “Actually,” I said, “it would be better that way, because Harshan and his friend would be free to reminisce about old times in the living room, while you and I chat in the kitchen or on the balcony.”

“Oh, I hadn’t thought about that!” she said. “His friend is also from Halakan. They have known each other since college. If they get carried away and start talking to each other in Halakanian, I won’t be able to understand a word!”

That didn’t sound right. They would really have to get carried away to do that, unless Harshan’s former coworker doesn’t speak Thorgelfaynese. It just isn’t Homelanderly nature for a group of people to isolate one person by speaking a language that person doesn’t understand. “Don’t you speak Halakanian?” I asked suspiciously. “I flew to Halakan for your wedding, and I vaguely remember that you had taken lessons.”

Melissa chuckled. “You’d better get some new batteries for your memory,” she joked. “I did enroll in a Halakanian for Foreigners class at Fomin University while I was in Halakan, but I dropped out. All I learned was the alphabet. I have a Halakanian surname, so now I can spell it.”

“I’m sorry, if I knew that, I forgot it. Why did you drop out?”

“It turned out that Halakanian is a synthetic language,” she explained. “That means its grammar doesn’t have any rules, just exceptions. Everything is irregular! It would have taken me years to learn to say even basic things. The instructor said the best way to learn Halakanian…”

I interrupted. “I remember now! You told me. ‘The best way to learn Halakanian is to join a religion that believes in reincarnation, die, and come back as a Halakanian baby!’”

“It’s an old joke,” she sighed. “When the professor said that, I was the only one in the class who thought it was hilarious. Everyone else just laughed politely.”

Three days later, I drove to Melissa and Harshan’s apartment building, eager to hear all sorts of stories about space travel, outer space, and aliens. Never mind that we’re on Homeland, and Melissa and I are the ones who are the aliens from outer space! I arrived at their apartment building, and turned into the parking garage.

When I got to their apartment, I knocked on the door. Melissa showed me in, and after she gave me a greeting-hug, I hung my jacket on a peg in the entryway. I could hear two men laughing and talking in the kitchen in a language I couldn’t understand.

Melissa led me into the kitchen. Harshan got up and gave me a greeting-hug. His hair is still jet black, no trace of gray—I’m envious. Then Melissa said, “John, this is Harshan’s former coworker, Dekker Sahtisma.”

Dekker was a very handsome man, a little taller than me, but several years younger, by the looks of it. Of course, Humans age faster than Homelanders, so I could be wrong about that. He had high cheekbones, ears that stuck out far enough for Melissa to say they were cute, but not so far that anyone would say they were ugly, and an engaging toothy smile. He was wearing odd clothes, but I haven’t left the Duchy in years and I don’t watch much television. Maybe that’s how people dress in Halakan. After all, it’s halfway around the world from here.

Melissa turned to Dekker and said, “Dekker, this is our other guest, John Anderson. He’s a Human, like me.”

She really lapsed into her Humanity with that formal introduction, but Dekker corrected it. He stood to give me a greeting-hug that nearly knocked the wind out of me. “I’m glad to meet you,” he said over my shoulder in heavily accented Thorgelfaynese. He released me from the hug. “One doesn’t meet very many Humans, and I have the very good fortune to meet two in one evening! That’s more exotic than any experience I’ve had on a spaceliner!” He grinned broadly; then suddenly looked a little worried. His eyes darted back and forth between Melissa and me, gauging our reactions. “I haven’t offended you, have I?”

“No, not at all!” I said, throwing my hands up in melodramatic resignation, “We’re Humans, there’s no getting around that; we just have to live with it.” I paused and smiled, “It’s really quite flattering!” We all laughed.

“Well, that’s how I meant it,” he said with a toothy grin.

I had arrived about eight or sixteen minutes late, so Melissa was ready to serve dinner right away. What a feast! She really outdid herself. She even baked a pie for dessert, which is quite an accomplishment given the consistency of Homelander flour. Normally Harshan cooks for company, but tonight Melissa wanted to give him more time for his guest. After dinner, Harshan and Dekker went out on the balcony to admire the sunset and stayed there to reminisce. Melissa and I sat in the living room and chatted for a while. She told me all about Darryl’s work at Snodgrass University, and how proud she was that her adopted son was about to get his first doctorate degree. Just two more and he’ll be fully educated!

You know, I didn’t notice it until now, but even when we were alone together, Melissa and I never spoke English. Her Thorgelfaynese has gotten so good you’d swear she was born to it, if she were black.

After a while, Harshan and Dekker came back inside, and Melissa served us each a glass of harng. As she was filling the glasses, she asked me casually, “John, when you first arrived, why did you knock at the door? Why didn’t you just walk in? It’s not as if it has a lock, and you know you’re always welcome here.”

“I don’t know,” I said dismissively, “I guess I was being overly polite.”

Dekker looked puzzled. “Why would anyone put a lock on a door?” Melissa tried to explain it to him, but he didn’t get it, so she gave up. That caused an awkward lull in the conversation, so I struggled to think of something to say. As I sipped on my harng, I asked Dekker if he was wearing Halakanian clothing. For some reason, Harshan started to snicker. Dekker glared at him for a moment; then turned to look at me.

“No, this isn’t from Halakan,” Dekker said. “This is a Natonian business suit. On the spaceliners, we see passengers from Horstmingle, Zerpick, and Chern, as well as our own planet Homeland. It’s my job as a purser to make them feel comfortable, so I like to dress like various nationalities. When I’m at work, I’m always dressed in a business suit from one country or another.” He sipped his harng; then explained hastily, “Natonia is a large country in the northern hemisphere of Zerpick.”

“Yes, I know,” I said, “I vaguely remember something about Natonia in the news lately.”

Harshan looked like if he didn’t say something, he’d burst, “I never could figure out where Dekker found the closet space on a spaceliner for all those clothes!” I smiled, but Dekker didn’t say anything. He just looked into his drink and blushed.

Dekker looked up at me. “I just wore this tonight to help trigger Harshan’s memories.” He turned to Harshan and asked, “Did it work?”

“It sure did!” Harshan said, “It reminds me of the time that we had to break up a political argument between a Natonian business man and a Thorgelfaynese scholar.” Dekker and Harshan shared a hearty laugh. Melissa left the room to get the pitcher to refill our glasses.

“A political argument?” I asked, flabbergasted. “What kind of political topic could possibly involve both Natonia and Thorgelfayne? They’re light years apart! For that matter, Zerpick is even further away from here than Earth!”

Dekker put his glass down on a coaster on the end table, where Melissa promptly refilled it. “The Natonian gentleman was arguing that parliamentary democracy is superior to the technocratic form of government that you have in Thorgelfayne, and the Thorgelfaynese gentleman was politely taking exception to that.”

“Well, that was a silly argument,” I said sarcastically. Melissa filled my glass with harng as I was speaking. After taking a sip, I added in mock indignation, “It’s obvious to anyone that a technocracy is far superior to a parliamentary democracy!”

Harshan and Dekker both chuckled. Melissa had gone into the kitchen to put the pitcher back.

After that, Dekker was very curious about Earth. There’s only one ship that goes between the Alpha Centauri Transfer Point and the Earth Watch Base on the far side of Earth’s Moon, and he had never worked that stretch. I told him about growing up in Pittsburgh and how I met Bobo at the UFO club. At the time, I didn’t know that Thorgelfayne wasn’t on Earth, so I stayed in the library past closing time, trying to look up it up in an atlas until a condescending librarian ejected me. Dekker thought that was funny. Well, it wasn’t funny to me at the time, but it is now!

It’s interesting how I got used to his accent as we talked.

I told him how I came to become a naturalized Thorgelfaynese. He told me about growing up in Halakan, how he chose a career in the travel industry, and anecdotes about interesting passengers. He was fascinated with everything I said. It was ordinary stuff to me, but exotic to him. Imagine talking to a spaceliner crewman and you’re the one telling him the exotic stories! It was a real role reversal.

“It’s interesting how things work out when you trace them back,” he said reflectively, “If you hadn’t had that automobile accident, you wouldn’t have taken the bus, you wouldn’t have met Bobo, and you wouldn’t be sitting here, talking to me!”

“Sometimes good things come out of small misfortunes,” I said.

“You flatter me,” he said. “Sometimes good things come out of great misfortunes, too.”

I wondered why he said that.

We were so involved in our conversation that we didn’t notice that Harshan and Melissa had gone to bed without even giving us a good-night hug. I offered to take Dekker back to his hotel, or to put him up for the night, but he said he was staying in the guest room. I guess that meant Darryl’s old room. It certainly did explain why Harshan and Melissa would feel free to go to bed with guests still in the house.

As I drove home in the cool mountain air, I was still exhilarated by the conversation, the jokes, the good company, and Melissa’s excellent cooking.

The moment I turned into the driveway at home, I suddenly realized to my great embarrassment that somewhere in that conversation I managed to tell Dekker all about Panu.