The Holes and John Smith
by Edward W. Ludwig
This etext was produced from IF Worlds of Science Fiction
June 1954. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
copyright on this publication was renewed.
He was something out of a nightmare but his music was
heaven. He was a ragged little man out of a hole but he was
the bank to Stanley's four-piece combo. He waswhoops!...
The HOLES and JOHN SMITH
By Edward W. Ludwig
Illustration by Kelly Freas
It all began on a Saturday night at The Space Room. If you've
seen any recent Martian travel folders, you know the place: A
picturesque oasis of old Martian charm, situated on the beauteous Grand
Canal in the heart of Marsport. Only half a mile from historic Chandler
Field, landing site of the first Martian expedition nearly fifty years
ago in 1990. A visitor to the hotel, lunch room or cocktail lounge will
thrill at the sight of hardy space pioneers mingling side by side with
colorful Martian tribesmen. An evening at The Space Room is an
amazing, unforgettable experience.
Of course, the folders neglect to add that the most amazing aspect
is the scent of the Canal's stagnant waterand that the most
unforgettable experience is seeing the root-of-all-evil evaporate
from your pocketbook like snow from the Great Red Desert.
We were sitting on the bandstand of the candle-lit cocktail lounge.
MeJimmie Stanleyand my four-piece combo. Maybe you've seen our
motto back on Earth: The Hottest Music This Side of Mercury.
But there weren't four of us tonight. Only three. Ziggy, our bass
fiddle man, had nearly sliced off two fingers while opening a can of
Saturnian ice-fish, thus decreasing the number of our personnel by a
tragic twenty-five per cent.
Which was why Ke-teeli, our boss, was descending upon us with all
the grace of an enraged Venusian vinosaur.
Where ees museek? he shrilled in his nasal tenor. He was almost
skeleton thin, like most Martians, and so tall that if he fell down
he'd be half way home.
I gulped. Our bass man can't be here, but we've called the Marsport
local for another. He'll be here any minute.
Ke-teeli, sometimes referred to as Goon-Face and The Eye, leered
coldly down at me from his eight-foot-three. His eyes were like black
needle points set deep in a mask of dry, ancient, reddish leather.
Ees no feedle man, ees no job, he squeaked.
I sighed. This was the week our contract ended. Goon-Face had
displayed little enough enthusiasm for our music as it was. His
comments were either, Ees too loud, too fast, or Ees too slow, too
soft. The real cause of his concern being, I suspected, the
infrequency with which his cash register tinkled.
But, I added, even if the new man doesn't come, we're
still here. We'll play for you. I glanced at the conglomeration of
uniformed spacemen, white-suited tourists, and loin-clothed natives who
sat at ancient stone tables. You wouldn't want to disappoint your
customers, would you?
Ke-teeli snorted. Maybe ees better dey be deesappointed. Ees better
no museek den bad museek.
Fat Boy, our clarinetist who doubles on Martian horn-harp, made a
feeble attempt at optimism. Don't worry, Mr. Ke-teeli. That new bass
man will be here.
Sure, said Hammer-Head, our red-haired vibro-drummer. I think I
hear him coming now.
Suspiciously, Ke-teeli eyed the entrance. There was only silence.
His naked, parchment-like chest swelled as if it were an expanding
Five meenutes! he shrieked. Eef no feedle, den you go! And he
Fat Boy's two hundred and eighty-odd pounds were drooped over his
chair like the blubber of an exhausted, beach-stranded whale.
Well, he muttered, there's always the uranium pits of Neptune.
Course, you don't live more than five years there
Maybe we could make it back to Lunar City, suggested Hammer-Head.
Using what for fare? I asked. Your brains?
Hammer-Head groaned. No. I guess it'll have to be the black pits of
Neptune. The home of washed-up interplanetary musicians. It's too bad.
We're so young, too.
The seconds swept by. Ke-teeli was casting his razor-edged glare in
our direction. I brushed the chewed finger nails from the keyboard of
my electronic piano.
Then it happened.
* * * * *
From the entrance of The Space Room came a thumping and a
grating and a banging. Suddenly, sweeping across the dance floor like a
cold wind, was a bass fiddle, an enormous black monstrosity, a refugee
from a pawnbroker's attic. It was queerly shaped. It was too tall, too
wide. It was more like a monstrous, midnight-black hour-glass than a
The fiddle was not unaccompanied as I'd first imagined. Behind it,
streaking over the floor in a waltz of agony, was a little guy, an
animated matchstick with a flat, broad face that seemed to have been
compressed in a vice. His sandcolored mop of hair reminded me of a
field of dry grass, the long strands forming loops that flanked the
sides of his face.
His pale blue eyes were watery, like twin pools of fog. His
tightfitting suit, as black as the bass, was something off a park
bench. It was impossible to guess his age. He could have been anywhere
between twenty and forty.
The bass thumped down upon the bandstand.
Hello, he puffed. I'm John Smith, from the Marsport union. He
spoke shrilly and rapidly, as if anxious to conclude the routine of
introductions. I'm sorry I'm late, but I was working on my plan.
A moment's silence.
Your plan? I echoed at last.
How to get back home, he snapped as if I should have known it
Hummm, I thought.
My gaze turned to the dance floor. Goon-Face had his eyes on us, and
they were as cold as six Indians going South.
We'll talk about your plan at intermission, I said, shivering.
Now, we'd better start playing. John, do you know On An Asteroid
I know everything, said John Smith.
I turned to my piano with a shudder. I didn't dare look at that
horrible fiddle again. I didn't dare think what kind of soul-chilling
tones might emerge from its ancient depths.
And I didn't dare look again at the second monstrosity, the one
named John Smith. I closed my eyes and plunged into a four-bar intro.
Hammer-Head joined in on vibro-drums and Fat Boy on clarinet, and
My eyes burst open. A shiver coursed down my spine like gigantic
The tones that surged from that monstrous bass were ecstatic. They
were out of a jazzman's Heaven. They were great rolling clouds that
seemed to envelop the entire universe with their vibrance. They held a
depth and a volume and a richness that were astounding, that were like
no others I'd ever heard.
First they went Boom-de-boom-de-boom-de-boom, and then,
boom-de-de-boom-de-de-boom-de-de-boom, just like the tones of all
But there was something else, too. There were overtones, so that
John wasn't just playing a single note, but a whole chord with each
beat. And the fullness, the depth of those incredible chords actually
set my blood tingling. I could feel the tingling just as one can
feel the vibration of a plucked guitar string.
I glanced at the cash customers. They looked like weary warriors
getting their first glimpse of Valhalla. Gap-jawed and wide-eyed, they
seemed in a kind of ecstatic hypnosis. Even the silent, bland-faced
Martians stopped sipping their wine-syrup and nodded their dark heads
in time with the rhythm.
I looked at The Eye. The transformation of his gaunt features was
miraculous. Shadows of gloom dissolved and were replaced by a
black-toothed, crescent-shaped smile of delight. His eyes shone like
those of a kid seeing Santa Claus.
We finished On An Asteroid With You, modulated into Sweet
Sally from Saturn and finished with Tighten Your Lips on Titan.
We waited for the applause of the Earth people and the shrilling of
the Martians to die down. Then I turned to John and his fiddle.
If I didn't hear it, I gasped, I wouldn't believe it!
And the fiddle's so old, too! added Hammer-Head who, although
sober, seemed quite drunk.
Old? said John Smith. Of course it's old. It's over five thousand
years old. I was lucky to find it in a pawnshop. Only it's not a fiddle
but a Zloomph. This is the only one in existence. He patted the
thing tenderly. I tried the hole in it but it isn't the right one.
I wondered what the hell he was talking about. I studied the black,
mirror-like wood. The aperture in the vesonator was like that of any
Isn't right for what? I had to ask.
He turned his sad eyes to me. For going home, he said.
Hummm, I thought.
* * * * *
We played. Tune after tune. John knew them all, from the latest pop
melodies to a swing version of the classic Rhapsody of The Stars. He was a quiet guy during the next couple of hours, and getting more
than a few words from him seemed as hard as extracting a tooth. He'd
stand by his fiddleI mean, his Zloomphwith a dreamy
expression in those watery eyes, staring at nothing.
But after one number he studied Fat Boy's clarinet for a moment.
Nice clarinet, he mused. Has an unusual hole in the front.
Fat Boy scratched the back of his head. Youyou mean here? Where
the music comes out?
John Smith nodded. Unusual.
Hummm, I thought again.
Awhile later I caught him eyeing my piano keyboard. What's the
Oh, there, I said. A cigarette fell out of my ashtray, burnt a
hole in the key. If The Eye sees it, he'll swear at me in seven
Even there, he said softly, even there....
There was no doubt about it. John Smith was peculiar, but he was the
best bass man this side of a musician's Nirvana.
It didn't take a genius to figure out our situation. Item one:
Goon-Face's countenance had evidenced an excellent imitation of
Mephistopheles before John began to play. Item two: Goon-Face had
beamed like a kitten with a quart of cream after John began to play.
Conclusion: If we wanted to keep eating, we'd have to persuade John
Smith to join our combo.
At intermission I said, How about a drink, John? Maybe a shot of
He shook his head.
Then maybe a Venusian fizz?
His grunt was negative.
Then some old-fashioned beer?
He smiled. Yes, I like beer.
I escorted him to the bar and assisted him in his arduous climb onto
John, I ventured after he'd taken an experimental sip, where have
you been hiding? A guy like you should be playing every night.
John yawned. Just got here. Figured I might need some money so I
went to the union. Then I worked on my plan.
Then you need a job. How about playing with us steady? We like your
style a lot.
He made a long, low humming sound which I interpreted as an
expression of intense concentration. I don't know, he finally
It'd be a steady job, John. Inspiration struck me. And listen, I
have an apartment. It's got everything, solar shower, automatic chef,
'copter landingif we ever get a 'copter. Plenty of room there for two
people. You can stay with me and it won't cost you a cent. And we'll
even pay you over union wages.
His watery gaze wandered lazily to the bar mirror, down to the
glittering array of bottles and then out to the dance floor.
He yawned again and spoke slowly, as if each word were a leaden
weight cast reluctantly from his tongue:
No, I don't ... care much ... about playing.
What do you like to do, John?
His string-bean of a body stiffened. I like to study ancient
history ... and I must work on my plan.
Oh Lord, that plan again!
I took a deep breath. Tell me about it, John. It must be
He made queer clicking noises with his mouth that reminded me of a
mechanical toy being wound into motion. The whole foundation of this
or any other culture is based on the history of all the time
dimensions, each interwoven with the other, throughout the ages. And
the holes provide a means of studying all of it first hand.
Oh, oh, I thought. But you still have to eat. Remember,
you still have to eat.
Trouble is, he went on, there are so many holes in this
Holes? I kept a straight face.
Certainly. Look around you. All you see is holes. These beer
bottles are just holes surrounded by glass. The doors and
windowsthey're holes in walls. The mine tunnels make a network of
holes under the desert. Caves are holes, animals live in holes, our
faces have holes, clothes have holesmillions and millions of holes!
I winced and thought, humor him because you gotta eat, you gotta
His voice trembled with emotion. Why, they're everywhere. They're
in pots and pans, in pipes, in rocket jets, in bumpy roads. There are
buttonholes and well holes, and shoelace holes. There are doughnut
holes and stocking holes and woodpecker holes and cheese holes. Oceans
lie in holes in the earth, and rivers and canals and valleys. The
craters of the Moon are holes. Everything is
But, John, I said as patiently as possible, what have these holes
got to do with you?
He glowered at me as if I were unworthy of such a confidence. What
have they to do with me? he shrilled. I can't find the right
I closed my eyes. Which particular hole are you looking for, John?
He was speaking rapidly again now.
I was hurrying back to the University with the Zloomph to
prove a point of ancient history to those fools. They don't believe
that instruments which make music actually existed before the tapes! It
was darkand some fool researcher had forgotten to set a force-field
over the holeI fell through.
I closed my eyes. Now wait a minute. Did you drop something, lose
it in the holeis that why you have to find it?
Oh I didn't lose anything important, he snapped, just my
own time dimension. And if I don't get back they will think I couldn't
prove my theory, that I'm ashamed to come back, and I'll be
His chest sagged for an instant. Then he straightened. But there's
still time for my plan to work outwith the relative difference taken
into account. Only I get so tired just thinking about it.
Yes, I can see where thinking about it would tire any one.
He nodded. But it can't be too far away.
I'd like to hear more about it, I said. But if you're not going
to play with us
Oh, I'll play with you, he beamed. I can talk to you.
* * * * *
Heaven lasted for just three days. During those seventy-two golden
hours the melodious tinkling of The Eye's cash register was as constant
as that of Santa's sleigh bells.
John became the hero of tourists, spacemen, and Martians, but
nevertheless he remained stubbornly aloof. He was quiet, moody, playing
his Zloomph automatically. He'd reveal definite indications of
belonging to Homo Sapiens only when drinking beer and talking about his
Goon-Face was still cautious.
Contract? he wheezed. Maybe. We see. Eef feedleman stay, we have
contract. He stay, yes?
Oh, sure, I said. He'll stayjust as long as you want him.
Den he sign contract, too. No beeg feedle, no contract.
Sure. We'll get him to sign it. I laughed hollowly. Don't worry,
Just a few minutes later tragedy struck.
A reporter from the Marsport Times ambled into interview the
Man of The Hour. The interview, unfortunately, was conducted over the
bar and accompanied by a generous guzzling of beer. Fat Boy,
Hammer-Head and I watched from a table. Knowing John as we did, a
silent prayer was in our eyes.
This is the first time he's talked to anybody, Fat Boy breathed.
Nothing can happen, I said, optimistically. This'll be good
John murmured something. The reporter, a paunchy, balding man,
scribbled furiously in his notebook.
John yawned, muttered something else. The reporter continued to
John sipped beer. His eyes brightened, and he began to talk more
The reporter frowned, stopped writing, and studied John curiously.
John finished his first beer, started on his second. His eyes were
wild, and he was talking more and more rapidly.
He's doing it, Hammer-Head groaned. He's telling him!
I rose swiftly. We better get over there. We should have known
We were too late. The reporter had already slapped on his hat and
was striding to the exit. John turned to us, dazed, his enthusiasm
vanishing like air from a punctured balloon.
He wouldn't listen, he said, weakly. I tried to tell him, but he
said he'd come back when I'm sober. I'm sober now. So I quit. I've got
to find my hole.
I patted him on the back. No, John, we'll help you. Don't quit.
We'llwell, we'll help you.
We're working on a plan, too, said Fat Boy in a burst of
inspiration. We're going to make a more scientific approach.
How? John asked.
Fat Boy gulped.
Just wait another day, I said. We'll have it worked out. Just be
patient another day. You can't leave now, not after all your work.
No, I guess not, he sighed. I'll stayuntil tomorrow.
* * * * *
All night the thought crept through my brain like a teasing spider:
What can we do to make him stay? What can we tell him? What, what,
Unable to sleep the next morning, I left John to his snoring and
went for an aspirin and black coffee. All the possible schemes were
drumming through my mind: finding an Earth blonde to capture John's
interest, having him electro-hypnotized, breaking his leg, forging a
letter from this mythical university telling him his theory was proved
valid and for him to take a nice long vacation now. He was a screwball
about holes and force fields and dimensional worlds but for that music
of his I'd baby him the rest of his life.
It was early afternoon when I trudged back to my apartment.
John was squatting on the living room floor, surrounded by a forest
of empty beer bottles. His eyes were bulging, his hair was even wilder
than usual, and he was swaying.
John! I cried. You're drunk!
His watery eyes squinted at me. No, not drunk. Just scared. I'm
But you mustn't be scared. That reporter was just stupid. We'll
help you with your theory.
His body trembled. No, it isn't that. It isn't the reporter.
Then what is it, John?
It's my body. It's
Yes, what about your body? Are you sick?
His face was white with terror. No, mymy body's full of holes. Suppose it's one of those holes! How will I get back if it is?
He rose and staggered to his Zloomph, clutching it as though
it were somehow a source of strength and consolation.
I patted him gingerly on the arm. Now John. You've just had too
much beer, that's all. Let's go out and get some air and some strong
black coffee. C'mon now.
We staggered out into the morning darkness, the three of us. John,
the Zloomph, and I.
I was hanging on to him trying to see around and over and even under
the Zloomphsteering by a sort of radar-like sixth sense. The
street lights on Marsport are pretty dim compared to Earthside. I
didn't see the open manhole that the workmen had figured would be all
right at that time of night. It gets pretty damned cold around 4: A.M.
of a Martian morning, and I guess the men were warming up with a little
nip at the bar across the street.
Thenhe was gone.
John just slipped out of my graspZloomph and alland was
gonecompletely and irrevocably gone. I even risked a broken neck and
jumped in the manhole after him. Nothingnothing but the smell of
ozone and an echo bouncing crazily off the walls of the conduit.
is it.is it.is it.is it.
John Smith was gone, so utterly and completely and tragically gone
it was as if he'd never existed....
* * * * *
Tonight is our last night at The Space Room. Goon-Face is
scowling again with the icy fury of a Plutonian monsoon. As Goon-Face
has said, No beeg feedle, no contract.
Without John, we're notes in a lost chord.
We've searched everything, in hospitals, morgues, jails, night
clubs, hotels. We've hounded spaceports and 'copter terminals. Nowhere,
nowhere is John Smith.
Ziggy, whose two fingers have healed, has already bowed to what
seems inevitable. He's signed up for that trip to Neptune's uranium
pits. There's plenty of room for more volunteers, he tells us. But I
spend my time cussing the guy who forgot to set the force field at the
other end of the hole and let John and his Zloomph back into his
own time dimension. I cuss harder when I think how we were robbed of
the best bass player in the galaxy.
And without a corpus delecti we can't even sue the city.