Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and GrilleSteven Brust
This book is dedicated to my children:
Corwin, Aliera, Carolyn;
and to Toni, who doesn’t have one yet.
I’ve been a wild rover
For many a year.
“The Wild Rover,”
Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille has the best matzo ball soup in the galaxy. Lots of garlic, matzo balls with just the right consistency to absorb the flavor, big chunks of chicken, and the whole of it seasoned to a biting perfection. One bowl, along with maybe a couple of tamales, will usually do for a meal.
As for entertainment, Feng gets some of the best Irish musicians you’ll ever hear—good instrumental backing, fine singing, some stupendous fiddle playing, and driving energy. Hell, some of the songs are actually Irish.
I was there that Thursday, sitting in my favorite booth—back middle, just under the picture of the big, grinning Chinese fellow with the mustache and the cowboy hat—while I waited for the rest of my band, the Jig-Makers, to finish tuning. It’s my favorite booth because you can see the whole dining room to your right and most of the taproom to your left, and you get a great view of the stage.
We weren’t playing tonight, but Fred, the manager, let us use the stage to practice. The place used to have live music every Wednesday and Thursday, as well as on the weekends, but it didn’t pay, so Fred canceled it. He was the practical sort; not me, I’m sentimental. This has caused me any number of difficulties, but there it is. My other problem is that I’m easily distracted. Sorry about that. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Thursday. Which reminds me: Did you hear the one about how, after the nuclear attack, the town of Sanctuary, Venus, had to change its name? To Sanctuary, Jupiter? Anyway, Thursday was the day someone lobbed an atomic warhead at Jerrysport, Mars, and reduced it to rubble.
It was damned uncomfortable when the bomb hit; we must have been within a mile or so of ground zero. If we’d been much closer that would have been it for us, and I might never have found out what goats are really useful for, but it wasn’t, so I did and maybe I’ll tell you. In any case, I was knocked to the floor, and then I rolled and something fell on me and I blacked out for a while. It hurt to wake up again, but I didn’t mind too much, since I was having a confused dream about Irish ghosts and they all looked like geeks.
Fully conscious, I decided I wasn’t injured, since a headache doesn’t count as an injury. Diffuse, pale light came in through the frosted windows high on what had been the west wall when the place was built and the north wall in Ibrium City and the south wall in London and Jerrysport. The room contained vast quantities of ambient dust. I thought about my band over in the taproom, but they were safer there than I was here, as long as the pool tables didn’t start flying around. I was pleased I remembered them; one effect the jump has, we’ve learned, is disorientation, to a greater or lesser degree. I’m not sure why. After the first one, it took me a few days to remember even the most basic things, and a month later there were still bits and pieces coming back. And with the jostling we’d gotten lately, it was bound to be pretty bad.
I pulled myself up to a sitting position and looked around. Fortunately or unfortunately, there had been no customers in the place, but that wasn’t surprising, as I’ve found that business always slacks off when there’s a nuclear alert in a city.
Someone said, “You all right, Billy?”
Billy? I blinked twice. Yeah, that was me. I looked for the voice, and spotted a likely-looking pile of debris—likely-looking mostly because it was moving. I stood up, decided I weighed more than I should, and sat down. I tried again, took a couple of deep breaths, and helped remove a table, tablecloth, and part of a booth from Rich Vonderick, who had a neatly trimmed beard, a bear-like build, and the personality of a rabid crocodile on Valium.
“I’m fine,” I told him. “You look a bit dusty, though.”
“Yeah?” he said. “What could have caused that?” This was irony.
“Something about an atomic warhead, I think.” So was this.
“Yeah,” he said. Then, suddenly, “Eve!”
“She’s in back,” I said quickly. “I saw her just a minute or two before it hit.”
“Oh.” He relaxed. “Okay.”
See that? I had trouble remembering who I was, but had no trouble remembering who Eve was, or where I’d just seen her. Fascinating thing, the mind. I said, “Glad you were here.”
I snorted. “I’m not going to get left behind; I have too much to do.”
“Uhh…ask me tomorrow.”
“Right.” He looked like he might be about to argue, but instead said, “Where are we?” as if I’d know.
“We’ll find out,” I told him. “When the place opens for business. Got your tool kit?”
“Always,” he said, glancing around and spotting it. “Why?”
“It’ll probably be useful in getting the lights working.”
He nodded. “Any idea who else made it through?” There was a certain amount of tension in his voice; we’ve both known people who happened not to be in the restaurant at the right time.
I said, “I’m pretty sure everyone did.”
“Good,” said Rich. “In that case, how about if we ask Libby for a drink?”
“Drink?” said someone behind me. I turned around in time to see a short, pretty, dark-haired woman walking in from the taproom.
“Hey, sis,” I said. “How is everything?” A moment later it occurred to me that she wasn’t really my sister; I just called her that.
“Hi, Rose,” said Rich. “How do you feel?” Rose. That was it.
“I need whiskey,” she said.
“How’s the band?” said Rich.
“Jamie broke a D-string and the bridge on my fiddle collapsed and Tommy lost his last pick and we can’t find the tipper for the bodhran and I need whiskey.” She blinked twice by way of punctuation.
I said, “But all the instruments are okay, right?”
She cocked her head to the side and said, “If the instruments weren’t okay d’you suppose I’d be so calm?”
“Damn,” said Rich, who only pretended not to like our music. I think.
I said to Rose, “You aren’t scared or anything, are you?”
“Noooo,” she said patiently. “I just need whiskey.” Then she frowned. “I couldn’t hear at first, though, and that scared me. And it sounds like you’re talking through a tunnel, although it isn’t as bad as it was a few minutes ago. And I forgot where this room was for a minute.”
“It’s the jump,” said Rich. “My vision keeps going in and out. It probably will for a few days yet.”
“Whiskey will help,” said Rose confidently.
I went up to the hole in
the wall where waitresses got drinks. Then I turned back and said, “Libby isn’t here. She was probably in back or something when it hit. I hope she’s—”
“I’ll look,” said Rich.
“Nothing can happen to Libby,” explained Rose patiently. “She wouldn’t allow it.”
I tended to agree with her, though I couldn’t say so. At that moment, however, I heard her in the kitchen calling to Fred to get the power switches. I felt tension go out of my shoulders. Then I wondered where the power switches were and it bothered me that I couldn’t remember. I closed my eyes and saw my hand reaching to open a metal box—right. Top of the stairs, back of the kitchen. I opened my eyes.
“What is it, Billy?”
“Nothing. No need to stand on ceremony.” I shuffled around to the bar and came up with a bottle of Jameson, passed it to Rosie, sat down.
“Thanks,” she said, cracked it, and swallowed some, and closed her eyes. A beatific smile lit her face. Then she came up behind me, still holding the bottle, put her arms around my neck, and kissed my cheek. “We were worried about you. We didn’t know where you were when the bomb hit.”
“I was in here waiting for you guys to tune, as usual.”
“Ohhhh,” she said, and kissed me again. “You could have asked about the rest of your band.”
“If anyone had been hurt, you wouldn’t have been so calm.”
She nodded. Then, “You know,” she said in a reflective tone of voice, “getting nuked all the time is really bad for our practice schedule.”
Rich held out his hand. Rosie put the bottle in it and he took a hit, passed it back, at which point Eve came in. Rich stood up and they held each other for a while. She was short, with long, straight hair that must be called “fair” rather than “blond.” It was a touching sort of scene, the two of them standing there, broken by Jamie’s voice from the next room, calling, “Rooose!”
She turned her head so she wasn’t yelling into my ear and called back, “Yes, dairlin’?”
“I need smokes!”
She kissed my cheek again and sashayed back into the taproom. I walked over to the waitress stand and got coffee started. Rich raised his head from Eve’s shoulder and said, “Want to look around outside?”
I said, “You crazy, Charlie?”
“How do you know we aren’t going to be hit again?”
He shrugged. “How do you know we are?”
I shrugged. “Maybe later,” I said.
“Oh, c’mon. Aren’t you curious about where we landed? And when?”
“Yeah. But either I’ll have plenty of time to look around, or there’s no point in it.” He had made me curious, however, so I went over to one of the windows and pulled the heavy blinds aside. It was daylight, and we seemed to be in a light commercial district—if this time and place made those distinctions. There was a great deal of variety in style and size of structures, but, judging by a pair of preteen boys who were locking their bicycles and a middle-aged couple who were walking by, the people looked like people. This was good. I was always afraid we’d end up somewhere with one-eyed, green-scaled monsters who eat radios or something. Just people, though. Two women walked by, arm in arm. At the time and place I had left, they wouldn’t have done this. In London they would have, but it wouldn’t have had any significance. In Ibrium City it would have meant they were lesbians. In Jerrysport it meant even less than it had in London. What the hell.
No one was looking at Feng’s, though, which was good even if expected. I’ll never know how that’s done, but let the record show that I’m curious. The kids finished locking their bicycles (I made a note of the fact that bicycle locks were used) and went into the building directly across the street from us. It showed every sign of being a bakery. I hoped it was a good bakery, so Feng’s would carry fresh bread like we had in Ibrium City. My mouth watered as I remembered that crusty sourdough from the—
The place that was now radioactive dust. Great. Isn’t it fun how you always remember the right sort of stuff?
Presently Rich stood next to me and watched for a while. I said, “I think I’ll go see how my band is doing, maybe do a tune or two, then I’ll worry about the outside.”
“Okay.” He looked down at Eve and said, “How ’bout it?”
She nodded, her head still buried in his shoulder. I wondered if she wanted to see the outside, or just didn’t want to be separated from Rich. He said, “I’m glad I put the bike in the back hall this morning. Was that this morning? Never mind.”
I said, “Going to get the power working first?”
“Good,” I said, moving toward the taproom. “Have fun.”
Big, blond, bearded Jamie was smoking a cigarette and holding a dustpan while Rose swept shards of glass into it. Tom, tall and very skinny with fair hair and scraggly beard, was blotting the floor with a bar towel.
My instrument was, indeed, still in its case next to the table. I sat down and hauled out banjo and tuner, plugged the one into the other, and tuned to an open G. I had a moment of panic that I’d have lost this skill, at least temporarily, but I guess only my head was affected, not my fingers.
Jamie said, “Shouldn’t we help get, uh, this place in shape?”
“Feng’s,” said Tom.
“Yes, we should,” I said. “But I’m not going to. Not until I’ve done a couple of tunes.”
“All right,” said Jamie. “What should we play?”
“Something we already know,” said Rose.
“Good idea,” I said, “since all of our music is probably buried under three tons of flour in the back room.”
Tom said, “We could go back there and play flower music.”
Jamie said, “You’re so weird.”
Fred came strolling through the taproom, turning off lights that didn’t work, I suppose in preparation for restoring power. He said, “I trust everyone survived the experience?”
“Uh-huh,” said Jamie.
I heard sounds in the next room that were probably Libby taking care of this and that.
I picked up the banjo, feeling just a bit guilty, and said, “‘Beggarman.’”
Jamie said, “Right.”
Tom said, “Maybe we’re so far in the future they don’t have beggars anymore. Then we can’t play it.”
Jamie said, “You’re so weird.”
I hitched the capo up another two frets, slipped the fifth string under the nail, checked the tuning again, adjusted it. Then I said, “One…two…one, two, three, four—” And we did it. It’s our own arrangement, three times through the whole thing, bumping the speed each time, with a vocal verse the first and second. It’s a good warm-up tune. I blew the first run-through of the “a” part at top speed, but that was okay. By the time we were done, we were all much calmer. Just about that moment the lights came on.
“Yea,” I said.
We played about another half dozen tunes, then Tom put his mandolin down and announced, “I’m hungry,” as if he were amazed that this could happen.
“So am I,” said Jamie.
“I could eat,” said Rose.
“Yeah,” I said. “Me, too. I guess that means we ought to find out what we can do to get the kitchen working. I’ll ask the Fred unit.” I sighed, knowing that this meant I was about to be put to work. Nor was I wrong.
An hour of hard labor later, Fred joined us at the table, one arm protectively around Lobby, who needed protecting like I needed a pet armadillo. Fred was thin, quiet, and nowhere near as dull as he looked. In addition to being cook and waiter, he was de facto manager of the place, and, according to Jamie’s theory, was someone who actually spoke with the semi-mythical Feng himself. Libby was of medium height and buxom and exuberant and charming. She said, “So, what a fun place this is. Someone should find if they still have Hags disease so we’ll know whether to put pancakes and flounder on the menu.” Fred and I chuckled.
/> Jamie said, “That reminds me. I got this from, uh, I don’t remember. Some guy in Jerrysport. Watch.” He stood up and stomped on the floor, like, stomp stomp, wait, stomp stomp, wait. “You know what that is? CPR for a Hags victim.”
Jamie thought this very funny. So did Rose. Actually Libby and Fred chuckled, too. There’s no accounting for taste.
Speaking of taste, we were all eating gyros and saganaki with baby peas in vinegar when Rich and Eve came back in, wrapped around each other as usual. We turned and stared at them. Eve was smiling and Rich had that glow in his face that he gets after a wild motorcycle ride.
“Well?” I said. “What’s it like?”
They sat down at the table with us, and Rich said, “What can I say? I laughed. I cried. I fell down. It changed my life. It was good. The end.”
“Thanks,” said Jamie.
“Does that mean we’re at the end of the universe?” asked Tom.
“What’s the place like?” I said.
Rich smiled happily. “I don’t think we’re in the same solar system anymore,” he said.
There was a great deal of quiet all of a sudden. Tom said, “Well, really, what’s a star or two among friends?”
I said, “Did you get funny looks, riding the bike around?”
“A few,” he said. “Not many.”
Jamie said, “How odd is it?”
“The bike?” said Tom.
“The sky’s funny,” said Rich. “It’s great. You should go look at it.”
Jamie gave an exaggerated shudder, which he did well. He was very big, and much too handsome for his own good.
Tom said, “What kind of movies do they have here?”
Rich ignored him. I said, “Man, you’re weird.”
“That’s Jamie’s line,” said Tom.