The Desert Elvis
Muammar was sure that he had entered hell. People he could only see as a writhing mass of bodies were shouting, stomping, and clapping their hands as if they were all mad or wanted to be. The High Yellows had set up their equipment on a small stage tucked away in a corner and were getting ready to play.
"This is just the beginning," Leon shouted, guiding Muammar towards the band. "You'll be bigger than the real Elvis before I'm through with you, and we'll ride on your coattails. Today Ghadames, tomorrow the world!"
They stepped up onto the stage, where a stout, middle-aged Arab with a droopy mustache was waiting by a microphone on a stand. He looked at Muammar in surprise. "This is the Desert Elvis?"
"The one and only," announced Leon proudly. "Sings like you wouldn't believe. He'll knock your socks off."
"I don't wear socks."
"Your sandals, then. I guarantee you won't be disappointed. Quite a crowd we attracted, eh?"
"Yes, very strange. Suddenly, they all just showed up. I imagine that most of them are with the movie company."
"Someone's making a movie here?"
"Legend of the Lost. It's a John Wayne picture."
"Really? Damn, don't that beat all. Anyway, we better get started. The natives are getting restless."
The crowd howled wildly, as if they wanted blood. Muammar could not understand their excitement; was it for him? Such passion was something that should properly be reserved for Allah, the Prophet and his teachings, or for the Arab cause, nothing else was worthy or deserving. Still, Muammar could not help feeling flattered at being the center of this attention, as if it was right somehow.
The Arab with the droopy mustache took hold of the microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said in accented English, "tonight we have with us a very special act all the way from America, making their first North African tour. Please welcome, the High Yellows!"
The crowd erupted in a roar of approval, mixed with ear-splitting whistles and raucous cheers. Muammar remained stoic. He studied the Arab at the microphone, who smiled at him as if they were in some conspiracy together. This was apparently Abdullah and Muammar had the strong feeling that he knew the man somehow, but could not recall the circumstances.
"Also for your approval," said Abdullah, extending a worn hand in Muammar's direction, "making his world debut, a local boy trying to make good, please give a warm Ghadames welcome to---the Desert Elvis!"
The crowd exploded in a paroxysm of frenzied delight, jumping up and down and screaming at the top of their lungs, the noise deafening in such a small space, men and improperly dressed women---or were they women? It seemed to Muammar that some, perhaps all these putative females, were actually men wearing women's clothing and make-up. He barely had time to be shocked when various articles began landing at his feet in the manner of offerings, billfolds, keys, watches, combs, packs of cigarettes, gum, jewelry, pieces of clothing, some of which to Muammar's inexperienced eye appeared to be female undergarments; at least, they were lacy underwear he could not imagine any man wearing, even an infidel. Muammar went to kick off some of these garments which were burying his feet and slipped, going into a split and barely keeping his balance, arms windmilling, causing several audience members to shriek with unparalleled delight.
"Attaboy Mohammed, shake what yer mama gave ya!" shouted Leon as the band kicked into action, trying to, if not drown the crowd out, as least battle them to a standstill.
Muammar just stood there holding the guitar and looking at the audience disapprovingly, which only seemed to add to their excitement. He accidentally let his hand fall and strummed a chord, causing a number of people standing closest to the stage to swoon, their unconscious bodies grabbed and handed back over the heads of the crowd, their places immediately taken. Muammar strummed the guitar again and created the same reaction, but this time he felt the power he held. This was no ordinary guitar, it was electrified somehow, a cord sticking out of the bottom, and Muammar could feel the power it had to move people in ways he could not imagine. Was this the means by which Allah intended for him to fulfill his destiny as a great leader? He almost believed it was, he sensed that path was there for the taking, then he realized that when Satan appeared, it was always, always, in disguise.
Muammar unslung the guitar from around his neck, grabbed it by its long handle like an ax, then with all the strength and determination he possessed began smashing it on the stage, not once but several times until the instrument was destroyed beyond repair, its power gone, nothing left of it but the piece that remained in Muammar's hands, its shattered body hanging by a single wire and trailing on the floor like a vanquished monster. To his satisfaction Muammar noted that the band had stopped playing and the crowd, amazingly, had gone silent as well. He looked and thought he saw a friendly face, a fellow Arab in a headdress.
"Brother!" Muammar cried out in Arabic. "We must free ourselves from all foreign corruption and influences. United nothing can stand against us as nothing can stand against the sands of the desert. We must follow the example of Nassar and Egypt and reclaim our past greatness as surely is our destiny, Allah willing!"
The Arab in the crowd disappeared from Muammar's sight. He paused, undaunted, ready to make a truly inspired speech, a speech he had the oddest feeling he had made somewhere before, when he was interrupted by the crack of a gunshot and a bullet whizzing by his head and slamming into the wall behind him. For whatever reason Muammar did not feel unduly alarmed, as if he was impervious to bullets or could not believe that it was meant for him, then all hell broke loose, the crowd screaming and yelling hysterically again but this time in terror and trying to flee in one body. Muammar just stood on the stage not knowing what to do, until Luther picked him up and tucked him under one arm as if he was a goat being stolen and in this manner he joined the exodus out of Abdullah's, everyone spilling out the back exit, just another wild and wooly night in Ghadames, Luther using Muammar as a club to fight his way through people until they came to the band's truck under which the other High Yellows were hiding, and they joined them.
"I don't know what you said, Mohammed," said Leon as they watched everyone running around and trying to flee Abdullah's, "but whatever it was, you sure got someone riled. I'd suggest that you refrain from making those same comments in the future, whatever they were, at least as long as you're on the same stage as us. Aside from that, for your first time out, I thought you did great. You have a natural talent, a charisma. With a little practice, nothing will stop you!"
"We left some of our equipment behind," said Red. "We've got to go back and get it."
"When things die down."
"Hey, isn't that John Wayne?" said Leroy.
Holding a handgun, John Wayne stumbled out of Abdullah's. He stopped and looked at the weapon as if he didn't know what to do with it, then flung it aside and ran off with all the others.
"He's here making a picture called Legend of the Lost," said Leon. "What can I say, it's a small world."
"Are we still getting paid for this gig?" asked Lucious. "It's not our fault things blew up---is it?"
"Don't worry," said Leon. "We're here on a goodwill tour for the U.S. State Department to spread American culture, remember? Now that's usually gratis, but ol' Leon got a special deal. We're on the government dime. I just hope we don't get blamed for causing an international incident. Aw shit, there's Abdullah. I guess we'd better go and find out."
Abdullah was standing alone by the rear exit, smoking a cigarette and looking thoughtful, things having finally quieted down. The High Yellows and Muammar crawled out from underneath the truck and went over to him.
"Sorry about the ruckus, Abdullah," apologized Leon. "Sometimes things get a little heated when the Desert Elvis puts on a show. Quite a performance, wasn't it? Smashing his guitar and all. Bet no one's ever done that before."
Abdullah nodded. "My nephew has unexpected talents."
"Your nephew? You know this kid?"
"He's my nephew Muammar. Who did you think he was?"
"He told us that he was an orphan named Mohammed. We met him at the Cafe H after he got run over by some big lug who turned out to be John Wayne. He's got quite a bump on his head."
"Indeed," said Abdullah, examining the bump, then looking Muammar straight in the eye. "Do you know who I am?"
The fog lifted. "You are my uncle," said Muammar.
"Do you know who you are?"
"What are you doing with these men?"
"I thought I was going to be their leader."
"Ah, I see."
"You can still be our vocalist," said Leon. "I guarantee that you've got one helluva future waiting for you in the music biz."
"My path lies in another direction," said Muammar, not to the disappointment of the other High Yellows, he observed.
"So be it," said Leon. "We'll just have to find someone else. In the Big Picture of things, there's always someone else. Come on, boys, let's pack up our things. We've got a long ride to our next gig in Timbuctu."
There was a collective groan from the High Yellows. "Can't we just go home?" whined Leroy.
"No way, we're just getting started. I'm going to make stars out of you boys yet, despite yourselves. When I make a promise, Leon delivers!"
"Where would we be without you," grumbled Red, as they went into the club to collect their equipment.
Abdullah eyed his nephew curiously. "What have you been up to since we last spoke?"
Muammar touched the bump on his head gingerly, trying to remember. "I'm not sure. I was with---Miss Loren! We were looking for John Wayne. He tried to shoot me, I just saw him throw away his gun."
Abdullah leered knowingly. "You play with fire, sometimes you get burned. Old desert proverb."
"What are you talking about, Uncle?"
"Miss Loren, of course. John Wayne obviously regards her as his. I know all about these things. I'm proud to see that you're a chip off the old block, Muammar," Abdullay said, clapping his nephew on the shoulder. "Frankly, I was getting a little worried."
"Worried about what, Uncle?"
"You spend too much time reading and worrying about things beyond your control. It's not healthy. A man must be a man if he is to be a man."
Muammar rolled his eyes, wishing he still had amnesia. The elderly were so tiresome sometimes. His foot touched something on the ground. It was the gun John Wayne had discarded. Muammar bent and picked it up.
"Perhaps you should give that to me," his uncle said. "You should go home and rest. Forget all thoughts of revenge."
"I have no thoughts of revenge."
Muammar gave his uncle the gun. He had no use for it anyway. Then, to his surprise, his uncle pulled out a sheathed dagger.
"Here. Take it."
"You think I would leave my nephew completely unarmed? Allah helps those who help themselves. A knife is better than a gun, anyway. Just remember, it is only for your protection."
Muammar took the dagger just as the High Yellows came out with their equipment. They loaded their vehicles with a practiced ease, then got in themselves.
"Take care of yourself Mohammed, or Muammar, whatever your name is," said Leon, hanging out a window. "You too, Abdullah. Sorry if we wrecked your place, but frankly, there wasn't that much to wreck. When we become big stars, we'll come back and make it up to you by putting on a free show. How's that sound?"
"May Allah be with you," responded Abdullah, smiling.
"You too, baby. Cool. See you guys around."
The High Yellows drove off, honking their horns. Despite himself, Muammar waved goodbye, many things still unclear to him.
"I think I'll clean things up, then go to bed," his uncle informed him with a sigh. "I suggest that you do the same, Muammar."
"I will, Uncle. Good night."
"Remember, revenge is the devil's folly."
"Yes, Uncle. Good night."
His uncle went inside his establishment. Muammar supposed he should help him clean up, but there were other things on his mind. He remembered being with Miss Loren and trying to help her find John Wayne, but why? And why had John Wayne tried to shoot him? Out of jealousy, as his uncle believed, or was there some other reason? Maybe John Wayne was part of some plot to eliminate anyone who believed in Arab independence; that seemed more likely to Muammar. Perhaps they were just natural enemies.
Muammar headed back to the hotel. It seemed he had little choice but to go to bed as he had promised his uncle. He felt as if he was still forgetting something, probably to do with John Wayne, but he could not recall what it was. The night was cold, and as he walked Muammar wondered if it held any more surprises for him.