The party was a success! Everybody came, and everybody was having a good time chatting with drinks in hand when there was one of those mysterious lulls in the conversation where no one is talking.
“Oh, Asklie!” came a solitary female voice, “I haven’t seen you in simply ages! What a lovely gown! And your beard is so lovely, too.”
There was a sudden crash in the kitchen, followed by expletives I can’t spell in this alphabet. A balding, fifty-ish man burst out of the kitchen. It was the caterer, Sam Halston! From the large red splotch on his tuxedo, I gathered that he had just dropped the punch bowl.
“Mr. Lornifar,” he said, trying to catch his breath, “I am sorry for the irregularity, but I must meet this lady with the beard!”
“Of course,” I agreed, “however, you must keep your promise to call me by my first name.”
“Whatever you want, Bobo,” Sam agreed hastily. I pointed him in Asklant’s direction, and off he marched.
This is the last of the fruit punch, I thought, staring mournfully into my cup. How amusing! All this careful planning, and then a spontaneous remark did the job better than what we had planned.
I suppose I should explain. It was my turn to host the New Year’s party for the Earth-bound intervenors, which sent me to the telephone book to find a caterer. When I discovered a listing for Sam Halston’s Catering Service and verified who he was, I couldn’t resist: I hired him.
I set my empty cup down on a nearby table, and walked across the room to join Sam and Asklant.
“I know this is an outrageous question,” Sam ventured cautiously, “but did you ever work in a circus?”
Asklant’s eyes sparkled, “You’re Sam, aren’t you?” she asked tenderly, putting her left hand on his shoulder to draw him nearer. “I’d recognize you anywhere! In fact, I don’t think I could ever get you out of mind.” There was a touch of maternal admiration in her voice.
“So it’s you!” Sam choked out quietly. “You’re Asklant, the Queen of Mars!”
“Now you know better than that!” she chided gently, “You were there when I abdicated the throne!”
Sam stifled a laugh. “I never dreamed I would ever see you again,” he said, looking down at his shoes. “I tried very hard to convince myself that… that it didn’t happen quite the way I remember it.”
“You mean my little old spaceship?” Asklant inquired.
“You mean it was real?” Sam exploded; “Are you really from outer space?”
At this point the whole room was laughing. “Sam,” I said, pulling gently on his sleeve, “You’re the only person in the room who’s even Human!”
“You’re joshing me!” Sam exclaimed. The laughter surged again.
I gave a brief summary of the project. “Most of us here are from Homeland,” I concluded, gesturing broadly with my arm. “Asklant and a few others are from Zerpick, and we have a couple of Chernians over there where the punch bowl would have been.” Two people waved genially from the back to identify themselves.
Sam blushed. “I’m real sorry about the punch,” he explained, “I really intended to serve it, not wear it!”
Asklant smiled. “It’s understandable under the circumstances,” she said. Everyone resumed their conversations, which left the three of us to chat in relative privacy.
“Can I ask you a question?” he asked, addressing Asklant. “Do you always wear a beard?”
“Goodness no,” Asklant laughed. “It isn’t even fashionable any more. I just grew it for the occasion, so you could recognize me. Bobo told me he had hired your company to cater our little affair.”
“I see,” Sam said with a broad grin. “Isn’t thirty years—has really it been thirty years?—isn’t it a long time to spend so far from home? Don’t you get homesick for Zerpick?”
Asklant’s eyes twinkled. “This is my first visit to Earth, since…” she counted silently on her fingertips, “since the Human year 1961. I’ve been very busy since I saw you last.”
“Oh?” Sam raised his eyebrows, “Just what have you been up to?”
“I settled into a teaching position at a University in southern Natonia, got married, and had three kids,” she replied.
“Natonia?” Sam looked a little puzzled. “I thought you were from Zerpick!”
“I am, you ninny!” she teased. “Zerpick is the planet. Natonia is my country.”
“I see,” Sam said, “I didn’t know you had countries in outer space.”
“Well, we do,” she assured. “My husband died in a mountain climbing accident some years ago. My children are all grown, and all but one has left the nest. That’s about it for me!”
“That’s better than what’s happened to me,” Sam volunteered. “I mean professionally; I’m very sorry to hear about your husband.”
Asklant reached out for his hand. “I know what you mean,” she reassured him, “it was a long time ago.”
Sam smiled. “After I saw that spaceship of yours, I was filled with an all-consuming desire to learn everything about astronomy.”
“Did you study it in college?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” he affirmed. “I had grandiose plans for my future, but they didn’t pan out.”
“In what way?”
“There weren’t any openings! I had a series of odd jobs to tide me over while I was waiting, but I never got a lucky break,” Sam explained. “Finally, I started a catering service and completely gave up on astronomy. Except it’s still my hobby.”
We began to walk in the direction of the chairs.
“That’s the way things go for most people,” Asklant said. “The grandiose dreams of youth get derailed somehow, and we spend the rest of our lives feeling unfulfilled.”
“That’s how I feel,” Sam admitted, “but that certainly doesn’t apply to your career! After all, you hold a professorship in your chosen field! What more could you want?”
Asklant smiled. “Yes, I suppose it looks like a summer with the Langmufs, but it isn’t.”
Sam responded with a vacant stare. “A Langmuf is the Zerpicker equivalent of a Hugmup,” I explained, and then I realized I had just confused him even more.
Asklant was absorbed in her line of thought. “I really wanted to spend my career in the field,” she continued, “but family problems forced me to return to Zerpick, and, well, I never did get back in outer space… that is, until now.”
“That’s a shame,” Sam admitted. “I guess things are tough all over!” Asklant nodded. Sam looked down at his stained shirt and began to giggle uncontrollably. “This sure fits my character, doesn’t it?”
“What?” Asklant and I asked in unison.
“Leave it to me!” he said, pulling on his wet, stained shirt. “I’ve managed to accomplish what radio astronomers can only dream about: I’ve contacted extraterrestrial civilizations!” He was nearly doubled over with laughter.
“So?” I asked, not seeing the humor in it.
“So I’m doing it in a fruit-flavored tuxedo!” he said. Asklant and I chuckled. “I couldn’t even sell this story to a supermarket tabloid!” he complained. “They wouldn’t believe me!”
We had a good, hearty laugh.
The party’s over now, and everyone’s back on the job. Asklant is en route to Alpha Centauri to catch a ship to Zerpick, and Sam’s back in his catering business. With one change: he’s listed as a native informer and guide. He’ll be entertaining guests from all over!