"Are you all right, little brother?"
Muammar wondered if it was Allah speaking to him, but since the language was English and not Arabic, how could that be? Then he realized that he was being addressed by a tall black man, an African wearing dark glasses, who was bending over him. There were others standing around him, a forest of legs. Where was he?
"Come on, let's get him off the floor before somebody steps on him."
The next thing Muammar knew, he was being picked up and hustled over to a table and put in a chair. There were several bottles on the table and an ashtray full of cigarettes creating a thick, smoky haze, which made Muammar wonder if he was in hell.
"Luther, get the kid some water, if you think you can."
"You and your mother," said Luther in a deep voice that sounded as if it came from somewhere underground, another African wearing dark glasses. He left the table.
"You okay, kid?" an African with a large Adam's apple asked, dark glasses perched on top of his head. "What's your name?"
Muammar thought for a moment. Strangely, he could not remember. He reached up and touched a painfully sensitive bump on the right side of his head. "Mohammad," he said, seeing a plaque on the wall with that inscription. "That is my name. Who are you?"
"We're the High Yellows," said the stranger who had originally spoken to him. "We're on a goodwill tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. I'm Leon, Luther's getting you some water, the dude with the Adam's apple is Lucious, that's his buddy Leroy, and last but not least Red, our token Native American. Isn't that right, Red?"
"I tol' you, don't fool me with that," said Red, lighting a cigarette.
"One tenth Cherokee, so he says, and he thinks he's Geronimo," said Lucious, nudging Leroy. "Maybe we should call you Chief instead of Red, then people might know why we call you Red. It sure ain't because of your conk."
"I tol' you, don't fool me with that," said Red, unperturbed. "My great granddaddy was a Buffalo soldier, and his woman was an Indian princess who liked his sidearm. 'Nuff said."
The table guffawed, except for Muammar. Luther came back with a glass of water, set it down on the table, then stared back in the direction of the bar.
"Something wrong, Luther?" asked Leon. "I seen that look before, it's your ass-whuppin' look. Before you start something we all might regret, just whose ass are you fixin' to whup?"
"Nobody's," rumbled Luther. "Some white guy asked me for some weed. Said I didn't have any. Then he asked me if I wanted some. I think he's a cop."
"A cop out here?" exclaimed Lucious. "Shee-yit, ain't no cops out here, nothing out here at all 'cept sand and camels. Sure ain't no women, least none we can get our hands on. Right, Leroy?" Leroy nodded sadly in agreement. "This situation had to change, Leon. We believe that you have led us into a wilderness, and that state of affairs is not to our liking. We are not sure that you should be our leader anymore."
"I got us gigs, didn't I? What about tonight? Look at all these people. We're just paying our dues."
"Why couldn't we be paying our dues in Detroit or Chicago? I know, we've had this argument before and some of what you said made sense, about getting away from the racism in the States, building an international reputation, virgin pussy, and yeah tonight we finally got a joint jumpin', but Leon, this just ain't making it. We've got to go back home, and don't give me any more of that patriotic crap about how we've got to do our duty for our country. What's our country done for us lately?"
"Taken our land," said Red somberly. "From sea to shining sea. That's what they've done for us, or to us. Never trust the white man."
"Just give it a little longer," pleaded Leon. "Things will change when we play in Central Africa, where the people are more our complexion. Then you'll have more women than you'll know what to do with. Sound like a good deal, Luther?"
"Rock and roll," rumbled Luther with a smile. "All night long."
"Yeah, rock and roll," agreed Leon, taking off his dark glasses and rubbing his eyes. "Hey kid, Mohammad, what did you think of our set? You must have heard some of it. Pretty hot, huh? Bet you've never heard music like that before. We tore this place apart."
"I bet he likes jazz," said Lucious. "He's got that cool, be-bop look to him. You like Coltrane, Mingus, the Bird, Charlie Parker? That's the kind of music we should still be playing."
"Doesn't pay the bills," said Red. "You want to stay poor, play jazz. I got no use for that jive."
"Hey kid, you got any sisters?" asked Leroy. "You know, older than you who might want to show a couple country boys a good time?"
Muammar touched his bump, which throbbed painfully and seemed to be growing. "I don't know. Did someone hit me?"
"You got run over by a big ol' white guy who was in one helluva hurry to get out of here," said Leon. "Funny thing is, he looked like John Wayne on a bad night."
"It was John Wayne," interjected Red. "I would recognize that great killer of my people anywhere. Someday, he will receive his comeuppance."
"Now what the hell are you talking about?" asked Lucious. "John Wayne ain't never killed nobody, except in the movies. He's just an actor."
"Fool, movies are real, just as real as anything. The blood of my people, my brothers and sisters, are on his hands. They will be avenged."
"Red, I like you. You're one helluva drummer. But in case you hadn't noticed, you are absolutely one hundred percent out of your mind. What are you on?"
"Nothing. I do not indulge in stimulants."
"Not even the peace pipe? What kind of Indian are you?"
"A real one."
"Kind of late for you to be out, isn't it, Mohammed?" asked Leon. "I am not overly familiar with Arab customs, but you seem a little young for a place like this."
"I am looking for someone."
"Oh, who? Maybe we can help you."
Muammar tried to remember, but the information just wasn't there. Then he felt an unfamiliar weight inside his cloak, reached in and to his astonishment pulled out a pistol.
"Whoa," said Leon. "That's a mighty big cannon for a little fellow. You might hurt someone with that. I don't know who you're looking for, but you apparently mean business."
Muammar looked at the pistol as if he'd never seen it before, which to the best of his knowledge he hadn't. How had it come to be in his possession? He placed it on the table and pushed it away. "I don't want it."
"Luther, perhaps you'd better take charge of this matter. We don't want anyone getting shot who's not supposed to."
Luther leaned over and collected the pistol with one huge hand, making it disappear into a coat pocket.
Leon blew a smoke ring, studying Muammar. "You know, Mohammad, don't take this the wrong way, but you're a good looking kid. Kind of reminds you of someone, doesn't it, boys?"
"Now what foolishness do you have in mind?" asked Lucious.
"I've been thinking. We need a vocalist."
"We need a singer. It's that simple. We need a singer, or we'll never hit the big time. Someone who looks a little like a certain Southern white boy who straddles the racial divide and is stealing our thunder, if you know what I mean."
"Presley? Oh, come on. How do you know this kid can even sing? Sounds like he can barely speak English."
"Doesn't matter. We can teach him phonetically. It'll work, I can feel it, it's a stroke of genius. He's not white, but he's brown so he can stick around. We're black so get back, but maybe if we're just his band that will be back far enough so we can cash in. We'll call him the Desert Elvis. I've already got us a gig."
"You mean here?"
"No, at another place in town called Abdullah's. After we finish here, we go there. It'll be like a tryout. I'll teach Mohammed a few lyrics, give him a guitar he can stand behind, then we'll wing it. With any luck, they'll love us. What do they know in this boondocks? We can refine the act later. I know I should have told you boys that I was planning on doing this, but I thought I was going to find a singer before now."
Lucious shook his head, sighing. "I never thought I'd say this, but I wish I'd become a sharecropper like my father then become a musician. It's too crazy. I want a normal life."
"Too late," snapped Leon. "You're a musician and there's nothing you can do about it, there's nothing any of us can do about it. If we could have been something else, we would have been, you know this. I don't want to hear any more about it."
"What if the kid don't want to be our singer?" asked Luther, arms folded.
Leon smiled brightly. "Mohammed, would you like to be a star? Do you feel it's your destiny to be someone special?"
Mummar considered. He did feel it was his destiny to be someone special. Was this offer from a foreign stranger Allah's way for him to achieve that goal, or was it some Satanic trick? He wasn't even sure what he was being asked to do exactly, except that it involved music, which did have a divine connotation. A further thought crossed Muammar's mind, for some reason.
"Would I get to wear a costume?"
Leon's smile turned even brighter. "Little brother, we will get you a whole wardrobe of gaudy outfits to strut your stuff in. The girls will go crazy for you, you will look so fine. See, boys, don't I have good instincts? This kid is going to lead us to the promised land."
"What if his family don't want to go along?" asked Red. "What if?"
Leon's smile faded. "Do you have a family?" he asked Muammar.
Muammar thought hard, but there wasn't a single soul he could think of. "I have no one. I am an orphan."
Leon clapped his hands. "If this isn't a sign that the stars are smiling on us, then I don't know what is. How else could we be so lucky to find someone who so perfectly fits our needs? We are on a mission to take our music to the world and nothing is going to stop us."
"I thought this was just about getting rich, famous, and laid," said Luther.
"That too," said Leon, getting up. "Break's over. Stay right here, Mohammad. Watch the show and maybe you'll learn something."
The High Yellows took the stage. Muammar stayed put, not so much because he had been told to, but because he couldn't think of anywhere else to go. He took a drink of water and the High Yellows started playing. Muammar had never heard such loud, devilish music, but he could see the hypnotic effect it had on the people in the club, who came closer despite the deafening noise and started dancing as if they were Sufi mystics in religious ecstasy. Was this what he was supposed to learn? Muammar could see the potential power of this kind of music, but was it Allah or the temptation of the devil? He watched and listened, praying to be enlightened.