Up to her elbows in grimy, smelly dishwater
and unable to escape little Darlene's voice: Paula Nemec had
three of her five senses thus, unpleasantly, engaged.
"How far away ith Uranith?"
Darlene's permanent teeth were coming in quickly, but she
lacked her front uppers at the moment.
"What makes you think I know?"
Paula was trying to scrub the sticking bits of pasta from
a spaetzle maker's corrugated surface. "Look it up somewhere."
"I don't know."
"Well, I've got a thience tetht
Monday. How do I find out far it ith to Uranith?"
"Get lost before I close the distance
between Uranus and my foot"that reply, just occurring
to Paula, was never spoken.
"Helllp your sisterrr!" said
an angry voice all the way from the living room, a voice that
was mannish but not male.
"Yes, Mother!" Paula called
back without looking up from the sink. "I'll ask Christine
when I get to work," Paula said to Darlene. "She
knows things like that."
A smile of nasty triumph appeared on
Darlene's fat little face, and she walked away without saying
another word. Paula was resigned to this situation; the responsibilities
of an older sibling were drubbed into her constantly, and
any amount of Darlene's brattiness was excused. If Darlene
were to bring the neighbor's dachshund into the house, impaled
on a stake, Mother would say, "What a swell idea! It
has been too long since we had a weenie roast!"
Ten minutes later, Paula had the dishes
washed and put away. The sun was lowering outside the kitchen
window and it was time to dress for her waitressing job. She
walked through the dining room to the living roomevery
other member of the immediate family was there. Darlene was
belly-down on the shag rug, watching Leave It to Beaver
on a TV smaller than the old Magnavox radio nearby. Mother
Roxy and Father Leos were in facing easy chairs; their bulky
bodies left little space around them, and Roxy's calico dress
so closely matched the upholstery pattern that it was hard
to determine where woman ended and chair began. Roxy and Leos
were watching the latest addition, Ty, as he moved his corpulent
little form on all fours and made experimental sounds that
defy transcription. Paula entered the adjacent den and closed
The hollow-core door did nothing to
dampen sounds from the living room. Ty's arrival had ousted
Paula from the large, quiet bedroom in back that Ty and Darlene
now shared. Paula moved into the converted den that had been
Darlene's bedroom; it had no windows, and its meager square
footage was further reduced by bed, dresser and armoire. The
eagerness of Paula's street clothes to be free of her and
the snugness of her yellow uniform dress both distressed her.
She had stayed the right weight for her height all the years
she was growing up, and it seemed she had escaped the genetic
curse of the Nemeces. But in her last year of high school,
finished two months ago, she had been forced to buy larger
wardrobe twice. Her family loved the hearty, heavy table fare
of mittel-Europa: red meat, potatoes, egg noodles, butter
and thick sauces. Paula had tried eating sparingly, just enough
to stave off hunger, and it hadn't helped. Soon she would
molt the tightening clothes that were almost loose a few months
Roxy and Ty were gone when Paula came
out, and Leos was looking directly at the den door. "You
tink Chollie comes to de drife-in tonight?" Leos's chin
hung so far below his jawbone that his sparse little beard
was in the exact center of his face.
"Thut!" said Darlene. The
Chatty Kathy commercial was even more engrossing to her than
the just-interrupted machinations of Eddie Haskell.
"Don't gif me your shut, little
girl," he told Darlene. "Vell?"
"Charlie is always there on Friday
night," Paula said.
"Goot. Esk him to come here soon
as he ken. De cabana gets built soon. I vant he should look
ofer de plens and figure de cost, fair price. Dose union carpenters,
dey'll gouch us if ve're not careful."
Leos and his sister Magda were second-generation
Americans who never knew their grandparents, yet they expressed
themselves in a grotesque parody of Bohunk English. Paula
found it especially irritating at the moment, and she turned
to the front door, hoping to leave without any further conversation.
"Answerrrr your fatherrr when
he speaks to youuu!" Roxy was back in the living room,
hands on hips. She had the only contralto voice in the world
that somehow qualified for the adjective 'shrill'.
"Father told me what he wanted,"
Paula said. "It didn't sound like he was expecting me
to say anything."
Leos didn't react in any way, and Roxy
said, "Alright, then, off to work. You'll be back late?"
"I'm afraid so. Friday nights
have been crazy since they opened the Starlite Theater. Aunt
Magda said she wants to stay open till at least midnight."
"Okay, if Aunt Magda says. It's
good you should get out, but remember you're part of the family."
As if on cue, the bloated faces of
Leos and Roxy firmed into warm, parental smiles. "Good
night, all," Paula said, and she exited the front door,
grateful that she didn't have to hug her parents first. Especially
her father. Leos worked at the meat packing plant that was
the town's largest employer. He showered before leaving work
and changed his clothes as soon as he was home, and still
he always smelled like the inside of a triangular can.
Paula lived on the outskirts of a town
that never seemed to gain population. Her house was surrounded
by mainly undeveloped lots, and there were no sidewalks or
street lights along the fifteen-minute walk to the drive-in.
Paula was glad to be wearing a light-colored dressless
chance that a careless motorist would make her a road statistic
during her walk home.
Not that I've got such an appealing
future, Paula thought. She lived with her family, worked for
them, couldn't get away from them. Last month she'd lost an
opportunity for a high-paying job as an administrative assistant.
After sitting up all night with colicky Ty, she had reported
for her interview looking and acting like a zombie. Paula's
paychecks went to the Nemec family collective; she wasn't
allowed to keep any of her earnings until she got out on her
own, however long that took.
"You're part of this family"Roxy
and Leos said that to her every day. Paula wasn't in a strong
enough position to reply to them honestly, and her belly was
full of accumulated, swallowed venom.
* * *
"Four kraut dogs with mustard
and tomatoes, and a large vanilla malted," Paula sang
as she clamped the food tray onto the edge of the '57 Chevy's
window. "Double bacon cheeseburger with sweet and
dill pickles, double fries, and a root beer float. Did I leave
"No, dollface, you did great.
Keep the change... No, that's not enough."
Still smiling, Charlie added two quarters
to the four one-dollar bills already on the tray. He had plenty
of money to spread around, considering what his off-hours
carpentry added to his salary from the meat packing plant.
Paula stood back a little from himher cousin had the
same stale fat odor as her father.
"Father wants you to come by the
house, tonight if you can. The cabana goes up this weekend
and he wants an honest estimate."
"Sure, that's what family is for.
Dig in, hon," he said to his fiancé as he handed
her the second half of the order. This was the first time
Paula had seen Francie. They were marrying under duress; a
brand new medical test had determined that she could expect
a girl. Francie had Charlie's tireless grin and his girth
as well, and Paula couldn't tell how long she had left until
term. Charlie was wearing a T-shirt with a broad horizontal
stripe that evening; Paula thought it made him look amazingly
like a child's top. Wrap a string around his narrow head and
pull hard, Paula thought, and how many times would he spin
before tipping over?
"Pleased to meetcha," said
Francie, her double bacon cheeseburger halfway to her waiting
mouth. Paula put the cash in her apron pocket and pressed
a button behind the illuminated stall-side menu; the white
plastic prism atop the menu went dim. She picked up trays
and late payments from two other cars in her station, and
that was it: no new orders were waiting to be taken because
no one had driven in during the last few minutes. A pleasant
surprise, in Paula's estimation. Her shoes felt tight and
her feet hurt; apparently, they were getting fatter too.
Paula spilled the paper and Styrofoam
waste into the dumpster near the cookshack, then brought the
stacked-up trays to the cookshack window. "No orders?"
asked Ruby, the cashier.
"Nope." While Ruby totaled
the receipts and figured how much of the cash was Paula's
tips, Paula said, "I'd like to see Aunt Magda for a minute."
"Sure. I'll get her."
Magda took longer than expected, and
Paula had ample time to contemplate the strange shape of the
cookshack. It was one of those loopy postmodern buildings,
made from poured concrete, that were so common lately. Seen
from above, Paula imagined that it looked something like a
painter's palette and something like an amputated kidney.
The old cookshack was bulldozed when Magda bought the property;
the galley kitchen it had wouldn't allow anyone to pass Magda
when she was standing at the stove.
"Auntie, I want to go on break,"
Paula said the instant Magda's canary-colored bulk filled
"Kent. Christine's on break. Chet
vith her on your own time."
"We're having a lull; I won't
be missed. Please, Auntie, I'd like to go now."
"I don't vant chust vun girl vaiting
on..." Magda stopped. She seemed uncharacteristically
thoughtful, as though she knew something Paula didn't. "Oh,
alright. Anyting to eat?"
"Onion rings and a lemonade,"
Paula said, hating herself before the words were out of her
mouth. She had hoped to get through her shift without eating
anything, but now she felt too hungry to resist ordering from
Magda's kitchen. The drive-in served up American cousins of
the heavy mittel-Europa food Paula ate at home, and Magda
used it to murder her husband Saul, the only member of Paula's
extended family to win her affection. The poor man had died
at thirty-nine, from a congestive heart attack.
Paula carried her order to the cedar
picnic table used by workers on break. There, sipping ice
water in a half-reclining posture, was Paula's best friend
in the world, Christine Levereaux.
"How long have you got?"
"Another five minutes," said
Christine, straightening up.
Christine Levereaux was a study in
linearity: slender arms and legs; straight, delicately shaped
nose; straight chestnut hair that flared gently in its descent
to her rib cage. Christine's presence on the staff, Paula
knew, had contributed to the summer business boom. The male
customers didn't look at Paula or the other lumpy, shapeless
waitresses that way. Even Paula's hair was shapeless, she
decided, dingy brownette hair that wouldn't take orders from
brush, gel or curlers.
Paula and Christine talked for four
of their five precious minutes about things that wouldn't
have engaged anyone else on Earth. Christine leaned forward
while she listened, and Paula secretly thanked God that Christine
was so good a friend that she showed no offense to Paula's
onion ring breath. There was no reason they should be so close,
Paula knew, or that Christine should even be working here.
Christine's father was an efficiency expert from a firm in
Southern California. He had been hired by the meat packing
plant to help modernize their operation, and brought his family
with him. Christine's senior year was passed at the local
high school, where she was the prettiest girl in her class,
one of the most well-off, and probably the smartest. She had
led the cheerleading squad and could have chosen any girl
to be her best friend.
Improbably, she chose Paula. It was
a friendship of equals, not the master-and-mascot relationship
successful persons often have with someone of lower status.
They had shared secrets and spent after-class hours at Christine's
house (Paula was ashamed to bring Christine into hers). Christine
had talked her parents into taking the pew right behind the
Nemeces at Sunday services. When their shifts coincided exactly,
Paula rode to and from work in Christine's TR3. Paula had
even driven it twice: once on the highway with the top down;
once in town cruising the streets, just to be seen by people
Christine never ate anything from Magda's
cookshack while on break. She drank ice water instead, or
ate a salad she composed from separate little bags carried
in her lunch pail. Paula knew that was how she ate at home
too: not much meat, starch or dairy, mostly fresh fruits and
vegetables. The kitchen shelf at Christine's house had several
cookbooks written in French, and Christine had no trouble
reading them. A few weeks earlier, their priest was taken
sick, and the vicar who filled in delivered a thundering sermon
about the damned, one that Paula would have expected only
in some Protestant church.
"Do you think that's what Hell
is really like?" Paula asked Christine under her breath.
"No. Hell is other people."
After the service, Christine said she had read that in one
of her French books, written by a man named... Zart, it sounded
Christine grew tense as the end of
her break neared. She looked once more at her gold wristwatch
and said, "Paula, this is our last shift together."
"I thought your dad was going
to stay here the rest of the summer."
"He is; I'm not. USC called and
said they want me to report in, pronto. Cheerleading practice
is about to start. That's it for mein the morning I
make the cross-country drive back to LA."
They sat speechless for fifteen seconds,
then Christine said, "Time's up," and took her Styrofoam
cup to the dumpster.
Paula finished eating in depressive
semi-oblivion, not noticing the taste of her food or the activity
in the lot around her. She didn't spot the arrival of late-night
manager Marty Weinshank, moonlighting from the local deli;
anyone could tell from his splintery figure that he wasn't
family. She didn't realize Magda was going home until Charlie
and Francie got out to greet her. The three of them stood
around Charlie's car, hugged one another repeatedly, and finally
wedged themselves in for the drive to Paula's house. Not for
the first time, Paula wondered how her family could feel so
close and lovey-dovey, when all she felt for them was revulsion.
Paula carried her trash to the dumpster
and hoped her feet would hold up for the rest of the shift.
Just as she was reaching for her pen and order book, the sky
was brightened by a shooting starlarge, quickly descending,
very close by.
It's going to land in town, Paula thought.
I wonder if my folks'll see it?
* * *
It didn't make a sound. Leos and Roxy
were in the living room. Darlene, still awake when the flash
brightened her window, jumped out of bed just in time to see
the meteorite come down in the back yard.
Darlene wanted to see it up close before
anyone else. She knew she couldn't leave by the window: the
screen could not be reattached from inside, and her parents
would find out the next morning. It had to be the kitchen
door, and that was in plain sight from the living room. The
strains of Count Basie filtered through her partially open
door, solving her problemM Squad was on. Her
folks were addicted to that show.
Darlene got out of bed quietly, passing
by Ty's crib, and tiptoed to the kitchen. Sure enough, the
living room, dining room and kitchen lights were all out,
and Leos and Roxy were intent on the TV screen. Darlene opened
the kitchen door without a soundit was something she'd
practiced doingstepped outside and closed the door.
If anything, the summer night was a
little too warm for Darlene's pink flannel jammies. She could
see a pale glow coming from the excavation for the new swimming
pool; the meteorite was there. She walked across the poorly
tended back lawn and stepped onto the concrete slab that surrounded
the unfinished pool.
The pool's kidney-shaped interior was
fitted with metal lathwork, the last step before the concrete
lining would be poured; Darlene could just make it out in
the sallow light. She started for the semicircular steps at
the shallow end. Suddenly there was a sound like a nutshell
cracking, magnified, from inside the pool. Darlene stopped
where she was, a few feet from the cabana footing. There was
another sound, like an exhalation, and the light turned reddish.
Then she saw a ripple of red, visible for a second over the
tile surrounding the deep end. It looked like the red vinyl
fabric her father used for wrapping up the old furniture in
the garage, but the pool installers hadn't brought along anything
For a moment, Darlene wanted to run
to her parents and tell them. They would forgive her for being
out of the house, or at least her mother would. But Darlene
wanted to see more firstthis would be a really boss
story to tell her friends. A little timidly, she walked over
the warm concrete, to the layer of cross-hatched wire that
surfaced the pool steps.
Inside the house, the phone rang just
as the first commercial was starting. The ringing woke Ty;
his caterwauling carried into every room of the house. Leos
answered the living room phone while Roxy left to fulfill
her maternal duties.
"Det Chew det vorks for Magda,"
Leos said when Roxy returned. "He said Chollie's on his...
vot's vith you?"
Roxy's facial muscles were standing
out like six-pack abs. "That kiddd isn't in her roooom!"
Roxy never yelled at Darlene, but yelling about her misdeeds,
in her absence, was different.
"Prob'ly out by the pool. Chollie'll
be here any minute, and Magda and Frencie are coming vith
him. Go make some defiled hem sendviches. I'll greb Darlene's
ear and haul in vot belongs to it."
That was acceptable to Roxy; M Squad
was in reruns and there was never any wrong occasion to prepare
food and eat it. Leos went into the back yard, and Roxy set
to work with cutting board and mixing bowl.
While Roxy was drizzling oil with one
hand and beating furiously with the other, the kitchen door
behind her clicked open, rather slowly.
"Took you long enough... that
Roxy did not look around. She wouldn't
let anything distract her when she was whipping her famous
homemade mayonnaisethe entire family knew that.
* * *
"Wait!" Ruby shouted. Paula
turned back to the cookshack window, assuming that another
order of food had just come up. "Marty wants you inside."
Paula walked around to the door and
opened it. There was a wall phone beside the door frame, and
the headset was off the hook, dangling almost to the floor.
Marty Weinshank was on the other side of the cookshack interior,
standing so that he could watch the door and a frying batch
of chicken pieces at the same time.
"It's Charlie. He's hot about
Paula picked up the headset and let
the spring-loaded door close behind her.
"What's doin', Charlie?"
"Nothin's doin', dollface. I went
to your place and nobody's around."
"What do you mean?"
"What I said. Even the kids are
gone; we looked in the bedrooms. Did your folks say they might
be at a neighbor's place?"
In the space of two seconds, Paula
saw the cookshack walls brighten from a yellow-white flare
and heard a muffled thump, followed by two men's shouts and
the simultaneous collision of crockery and iron cookware on
"Calamity in the kitchen, Charlie.
Call you back," Paula said, hanging up too fast to be
sure she'd heard Magda yell, "Chollie!" before the
headset was back in the cradle.
The problem wasn't entirely unexpected.
Most of the fittings were newly bought, but the gas stoves
were hand-me-downs from an old diner. They had been working
fitfully all week, and Magda had installation of new stoves
on her agendanot soon enough. While the assistant cook
got burn ointment for his arms and the dishwasher started
cleaning the floor, Ruby asked Marty, "Are we gonna close?"
"No. We'll stay open awhile with
a reduced staff. I'll do all the cooking. You'll double as
dishwasherI won't ask Magda to cut your pay grade."
Marty looked at Paula, who was still standing near the door,
expectantly. "Last to work, last to leave. Tell the other
girls to get the word to their customers: no hot food except
fried stuff. Then send 'em home. You'll wait all the stations
till closing time. In a few minutes, there won't be many customers."
Paula went and told Iris, the third
waitress. Time seemed to slow down when she crossed the lot
to tell Christine.
"That's it," said Paula,
trying to sound brave. "Get a good night's sleep. Call
me when you get to LA; I don't think my parents are too cheap
to accept a collect call."
Christine didn't go to her car. She
stood under the neon exterior lighting, very still, an elegant
department store mannequin in yellow livery transferred to
an Edward Hopper landscape.
"Paula... this town... You don't
want to stay here, do you?"
"No," Paula said in a diffident
little-girl voice. A car horn startled the girls; Paula stepped
aside to let the driver of a Thunderbird pull out of his stall.
"No! No, not another day!"
"Then don't. The motels I've reservedI
know they've all got two beds in every room. It won't cost
me a cent to take you to California."
It was the one thing Paula desired
most in the world. She wanted to jump up into the air.
"Oh, will you, Chrissy? I... Will
"He likes you. He'll give you
a job doing secretarial work or something. We can talk about
where you're going to live later; we can talk about everything
later. Are you free to leave?"
For a moment, Paula hesitated. She
thought, I can't up and quit my job, move out of town, I'll
catch Hell for it. Then she felt like laughing: there would
be no consequences. She was about to be free of the people
who heaped discomfort and humiliation on her, in the name
of family duty and togetherness, every insufferable day.
"Sure, Chrissy, I'm ready whenever
you are. Can I stay the last night at your place?"
"I hadn't... Well, I guess there's
no reason why not."
Christine turned in a stack of empty
trays, settled money matters with Ruby, and went to her car.
A minute later, Paula jogged to the cookshack window with
her own stack of trays; she had dumped her trash in the parking
lot rather than incur the minor delay of a trip to the dumpster.
As Ruby was handing Paula her tip money,
Marty walked up beside Ruby and shouted, "Good news!"
through the window. That hailed the dishwasher and assistant
cook, who were still on the property, discussing baseball
near the cookshack. "The service company can get the
new stoves in by noon. See you tomorrow at the usual time,
Paula smiled. "If you want to
see me tomorrow, Marty, set up a TV camera on Route
66. Tell Auntie I'm quitting, effective now."
Paula tossed her order book through
the window; it bounced off the top of Marty's shoulder and
brought down a tower of soft-serve cones. She ran to Christine's
car at full gallop, paying no more attention to her throbbing
feet than someone in sexual climax pays to a muscle cramp
brought on by foreplay.
* * *
Christine parked her Triumph right
in front of the Nemec house. The lights were on, so Paula
decided that her family had returned from wherever they'd
gone. Behind the curtained living room window, she could make
out a bulky silhouette moving slowly. Charlie and Father are
finally moving out that old radio, she thought.
Paula got out quickly, closing the
door before Christine shut off the ignition. "This'll
take only a few minutes, Chrissy. You don't have to come into
the house." Paula had already decided what she absolutely
needed; it would all fit into her laundry hamper. Just pop
that into the trunk and away to her new life in California.
Surely she wouldn't need her current wardrobe much longer,
now that she was free to emulate Christine's eating habits.
Walking up to the front door, Paula
was reminded how much she disliked the sight of her family
home. Anyone could tell, even at night, that it had no proportion
or taste. A hip-roof house with an attached flat-roof garage,
vertical board-and-batten siding, metal casement windows and
a parquet-veneer front doorlike the drive-in cookshack,
it was a shapeless building for shapeless occupants. Paula
wasn't going to be one of them.
Afterward she found out that the sound
of Christine's car had alerted them. Paula turned the doorknobunlocked
doors were the norm in her townand the gloppy red mass
simply fell through the door frame. She couldn't scream, was
engulfed before she could inhale. There was a momentary, excruciating
sear, as though every square millimeter of her skin were touched
by scalding wax. For a few seconds, she lost all sensory awareness...
then she heard a chorus of voices emerge through a glutinous
She also heard a gurgle.
* * *
No matter how she tried, Paula could
not entirely shut out those voices. They were like a raucous
party in an adjacent apartment:
"Daddy, where do you thuppoth
the red thing came from?"
"You vas dere first. You esk me?"
"I mean before Earth."
"Stop vith the stupid qvestions,
"Leooos! Don't yelll at your daughterrr!"
"I tink I ken sense herken
"Sure, Ma. You too, hon?"
"You betcha. I wonder... under
the circumstances... you think her brain will, you know, grow
up like ours?"
"Beats me. I guess we'll find
Paula wished that Christine hadn't
gotten awayher presence might be welcome. But Christine
did get away, and the authorities saw to it that the red amoeboid
thing wouldn't suck up any more people. The entire amorphous
Nemec clan was now at the South Pole, there to remain until
time stood still.
Being frozen solid didn't impair the
amoeba's new collective consciousness. The initial shock had
passed for the others before Paula was absorbed. They took
it all reasonably well and quickly adapted to their new existence,
though they missed eating (and Charlie missed his Chevy).
At first, Paula tried to move in the
direction of individual voices, as if she still had an unassimilated
body to move. Each voice became clearer, and then she saw
an unclothed image of the gross, bulbous, sexless person at
its source. They all seemed truly happy to see Paula, even
her little nemesis Darlene. After the first day, Paula withdrew
into herself as much as she could, not offering contact and
hoping the rest of the Nemeces would, more or less, forget
Total withdrawal wasn't possible, and
in any case, the warm and dusky redness, with no other sensation,
would have been intolerable. Paula had to listen in on the
others just to have something, anything to do. Listening
to themcontinually present with these annoying people
who would never have any fresh stimuli from outside, would
always think the same unrenewed thoughts, would pass all time
to come with nothing but each other.
I knew I'd catch Hell, Paula thought.