James B. Hart
For God's sake, where's my dinner? Mervin Doolittle thought angrily. Fong's twenty minutes late; he knows how I get without my pu-pu platter! Though vexed, Mervin didn't mind working late in his stepmother's fireworks emporium. In fact, despite hunger, he looked about with a hint of satisfaction. Over eight years, Reba Doolittle had raised the business from a leaky shack founded by her late husband, Dexter, to a glittering palace of pyrotechnics. Its glory pierced the gloom along Interstate 24 like a supernova and allowed its host town of Festerville, Tennessee the bathe in perpetual day. Tonight, Mervin was master of two acres of skyrockets, firecrackers, sparklers, screaming cats, cascading fountains, cherry bombs, and a dizzying host of other gunpowder-and-salts packages, not to mention Elvis collector-edition toilet seats, confederate victory headbands, Gone With the Wind thimbles, and a menagerie of bird houses, bumper stickers, and cat pans emblazoned with the ubiquitous phrase 'See Rock City'.
Sitting like a glittering potentate among the tumbledown houses of Festerville, the Doolittle empire also included a gas station, a mini-mart, and, of course, Daoxing Fong's China Hut restaurant. Banks of halogen lamps focused attention on the Emporium, but their nosey light snooped about very corner of the town. A sixty-foot sign screaming DaGlo slogans assaulted motorists as they approached. The largest flag in Tennessee --- according to the sign --- flapped beside the store, its foot-wide stripes and galaxy of stars glowing against a velvet sky. (Reba had extra stars added to enhance the effect.)
Mr. Fong brought Mervin a complimentary pu-pu platter each night before closing. The restaurant was capped with a satellite dish, making Reba's establishment the only business in Coffee County capable of receiving 1,500 channels --- a feature most appealing to Mervin. A slightly overweight, considerably underachieving 22-year old, Mervin talked little to, and cared less about, his neighbors, finding the company of Ricky and Lucy Ricardo superior to that of anyone in Festerville. This especially applied to his coworker, Twyla Bumpass, who scurried about in front of the cashier's counter like a mutchkin in heat, fastidiously preparing a new display of Chinese starballs and deliberately avoiding his sour glances.
Mervin eyed the young woman with contempt. Short and thin, with a wan, oval face landscaped by acne, stringy brownish hair and eyeglasses which could compete with Mount Palomar, Twyla was to Mervin the epitome of what ailed the human race. She hardly spoke to him; and when she did, Twyla would stammer, blush, and avert her eyes, grinning lamely and twining her fingers in her hair.
"Uh, excuse me, Mr. uh, Mervin," Twyla sputtered absently, concentrating on the display as if it might vanish should she look away, "we're out of red starballs." She bounded like a lame bunny for the front door. "I'll be right back, sir," she said, "I'll go to the store room outside and get some. You won't even know I'm gone."
"You got that right," Mervin grumbled under his breath as the door slammed behind her. He turned to watch the Lucy Channel and wait for Mr. Fong to bring his pu-pu platter.
His back to the counter and transfixed by Lucy's antics, Mervin barely acknowledged the door as it opened again moments later, admitting a tall, gaunt figure dressed in black. Without turning, Mervin, exuding the charm of a roadkill, uttered Reba's mandatory greeting:
"Howdy Doolittle. Welcome to Reba Hi--"
The stranger struck the counter with both hands the way a thunderclap hits the side of a building, blasting away Mervin's greeting. "Boy," the man bellowed, pronouncing the word with at least two syllables, "do ya' know what trouble yer in?"
Mervin jumped, lost his balance, and toppled off his stool, landing with an audible 'whoompf' behind the counter. Looking up, he say a thin scarecrow of a man with a sallow complexion, hook nose, and high cheekbones glaring back. The man acted as if he had swallowed a bottle of Vivarin --- his body twitched beneath his loose, black suit, and his fingernails clicked on the counter top. The stranger's eyes bounced like blue marbles off the boundaries of their umber hollows, scanning the showroom. Tufts of whitish hair peeked from under a baseball cap with two cupholders strapped on either side, each holding a transistor radio tuned to a different station. Mervin could hear a man hawking street-legal assault vehicles on one, and another describing how Elvis hovered in a UFO over his R.V. on the other. Mervin wanted to laugh out loud, but his pounding heart blocked his throat.
"Name's Preene ... Bocephus Preene," the man announced. "Didja know thar's commies around here?"
Mervin struggled to his feet, still fascinated by Preene's cap. "What are you talking about?" He asked, trying to remain professional.
"Thar's a Chinese rest'ernt here, ain't they?"
"Thar's a sat'lite dish atop it, ain't they?"
"They got sat'lites n' commies in China, ain't they?"
"Well, I guess so..."
Preene's logic wound to its triumphant conclusion. "Thar ya' have it! You got yersef a commie conspiracy!" Preene looked at Mervin as if he should have realized this long ago.
"You don't understand," Mervin said, relieved to be the voice of reason. "We just use the dish to get the Lucy Channel." Grinning lamely, he finished his defense with "We love Lucy!"
"Lucy was a red head, ya' know," Preene retorted, eyeing Mervin with suspicion. Pointing a bony finger across the showroom to an ornate doorway leading into the China Hut, he hissed "I'll bet thar's a commie in there gittin' secret messages over the tube right now!"
"Oh not Mr. Fong," Mervin pleaded, "he's no communist --- he's a Methodist!"
"So thar is a commie in there after all!" Preene shouted triumphantly. Right on cue, Mr. Fong popped through the door carrying Mervin's pu-pu platter. He bowed slightly and announced in a heavy, joyful accent,
"Misre Doorittle, I bring yo' pu-pu! So solly I'm late!"
Preene spun on his heels, growling. As if propelled by over-tightened springs, he whipped a revolver from his pants pocket and fired at Fong. The bullet barely missed his head, obliterating a display of Pearl Harbor commemorative thumbtacks. Mr. Fong tossed Mervin's dinner into the air. Keeping his hands raised over his head, Mr. Fong whirled around like a clockwork toy and disappeared into the dark restaurant, shouting in Chinese as he went. Mervin's pu-pu cascaded onto the floor in a slimy pool. Mervin dove under the counter.
"I'm a-goin' after that little spy!" Preene said resolutely. Both hand clasping the gun stiffly in front of him, he jumped from the head of one aisle to another, approaching Fong's door. Without looking back, he shouted "Are ya' comin' with me, boy?"
"Why did this have to happen on my shift?" Mervin wondered miserably to himself. Marsha's big date on 'The Brady Bunch' was stress enough to make him break out in a rash; now he felt angry welts rising all over his body.
Mired in self-pity, Mervin had completely forgotten about Twyla, who by now had located the starballs and was approaching the Emporium with her flammable cargo. She fixed her gaze upon the massive billboard looming above the parking lot. Awash in garish colors and embroiled in a riot of chasing lights, the expanse of shameless advertising always mesmerized her. Twyla started to sway a little as she walked. This minor release, coupled with the tepid July air, was intoxicating. Twyla surrendered to the moment and began to spin and skip to a silent band, imagining Mervin leading her and gazing intently into her eyes. Twyla loved everything about Mervin, from the way he sat on his stool behind the counter to the way he chewed his pu-pu. She hoped that maybe Mervin loved her, too.
Lost in ecstacy, her hair catching the light and wrapping around her in a luminescent web, Twyla forgot tot he dodge the service island lying like a sandbar across her river of joy. With consummate lack of grace, she tripped over its curb, straddling a waste barrel as she fell. Unaware that progress had halted, her glasses and the crate of starballs continued the journey, landing beside Preene's still-idling 1967 Cadillac.
Twyla rolled off the barrel, landed on her backside, and strained to see. The huge billboard looked like a watercolor painting run through the laundry. All around her, hazy flashes danced in sickening frenzy --- Twyla was virtually blind without her glasses. Preene's Cadillac backfired, sending sparks into the broken crate of starballs. Twyla struggled to her feet, caught a whiff of sulfur, the recoiled as if stung when the first starball launched on a screaming path into the heavens. It exploded in a crimson cloud, sending more sparks down into the crate which already sounded like a hornet's nest.
The pile sent more emissaries skyward as Twyla did yer best to run to the storehouse, where she knew a fire extinguisher lay. Arriving, she scanned the blurry lumps within and grabbed the most likely candidate. With no thought of herself, she rushed the howling starballs, guided mostly by their sound, her weapon ready. Unfortunately, she was charging the pile with a leafblower.
Meanwhile, Preene had reached the door of the China Hut. "Boy, either yer with me, or yer agin' me!" He shouted over his shoulder. Preene poised for the lunge, only to be distracted by red streaks shooting past the opaque windows fronting the Emporium. A blushing crimson glow began tingeing the glass.
"What the hell --- boy, dju see that?" Preene demanded, his voice losing its edge. Surprised by the change in tone, Mervin peeked over the counter top just as Twyla, unseen by them, reached her foe.
Twyla fumbled with her ungainly device and discovered a pull-cord on one side. Not stopping to wonder why an extinguisher would be so equipped, she yanked with all her might. The blower roared to life, exhaling enthusiastically into the pile which responded with a barrage of ruby missiles. Caught off guard, Twyla struggled valiantly to control the beast she clutched. The blower got the better of her and, in a mockery of her previous dance, they went spinning and whining across the parking lot. As the two twirled about, random snorts from the blower caught many of the starballs in mid-descent and blasted them skyward again. Twyla and the blower looked to be shepherding a swarm of angry red fireflies.
From inside the Emporium the rosy blush appeared to draw breath with the onset of an eerie mechanical howl, then shatter into myriad scarlet orbs darting in wild abandon. "Great God in Heaven!" Preene cried, "Them commie lib'rals in Washington've call fer backup! Lord, they done gone to the Red Planet fer hep --- we're bein' invaded!" Fong's threat receding, Preene began to pace in tiny circles, scratching his head with his gun and muttering in agreement with the voices from his cap. Mervin's attention alternated between him and the bizarre spectacle unfolding outside.
Twyla's jaunt ended as she slammed into the switch box on hanging beside the Emporium entrance. It exploded, and the current made her nerves sing in a million crackling voices. The blower's whine rose from base to soprano, then the beast, mortally wounded by the power surge, breathed its last. For the first time in ten years, darkness came to Reba Hill.
Singed, tingling, dizzy, and now in total darkness, Twyla instinctively sought to complete her mission. She moved with the last ounces of her strength, pressing against the Emporium wall until she felt it give way. With a lurch and a groan, she staggered through the front door. The ringing in her ears gave way to sirens as several squad cars pulled into the lot.
"My God, its here!" Preene whimpered as he watched the scene. His conference with himself had ended abruptly with the explosion and the plunge into darkness. "It's got millions of antennas, an' its givin' off some kind o' gas..." he wailed as he watched a thin, smoldering figure take command of the door, hair alive with static electricity, clutching some sinister device to its bosom and backlit by flashing blue lights and a fading red glow. Spying the outline of the blower, he hollered "Sweet Jesus, the thang's loaded fer bear, n'alls I got is this little pop-gun!"
Mervin saw his chance. His resentment for Preene had been growing with his hunger. He couldn't do anything about the alien in the doorway, but he could do something about the man who had ruined his evening and shot his dinner. Anger overriding fear, Mervin dove under the counter and sprinted across the space between him and Preene. Whooping like a constipated crane, he tackled the now-sobbing man. Preene bent at the hips in response to the tackle and slipped in the pu-pu, landing spread-eagle in the slimy mess. Mervin's momentum carried Preene, greased by the pu-pu and wailing like a banshee, into a sparkler display. He disappeared beneath a cascade of tiny boxes.
Mervin lay stunned on the floor as the sheriff and his deputy shoved Twyla aside and rushed toward Preene, their flashlights casting random bursts of enlightenment on the chaos. Mr. Fong tagged behind them triumphantly, still cursing in Chinese. Twyla hit the counter, its metal edge discharging her static buildup with a blue flash and deflating her hair. As the sheriff wrestled Preene from the display, a deputy helped Mervin to his feet.
"Its sure good Mr. Fong called us when he did!" the deputy said. "I don't think this dude could've held up to much more from you --- great job!" With bravado, he patted Mervin on the back, and Mervin felt an unaccustomed emotion --- pride.
The sheriff brushed past with Preene handcuffed and raving about alien democrats with bazookas. Mr. Fong dogged his heels, kicking him in the shins and shouting oriental epithets.
"By the way," the deputy asked as he pointed a flashlight toward Twyla, "should she be smoking in here like that? It seems kinda dangerous to me."
Mervin suddenly remembered Twyla. His impression of her changed dramatically as the whole ordeal became clear to him. Obviously, Twyla had heard the gunshot and staged the alien landing as a diversion to save him. He looked at her with awe. Such planning! Such courage! The glare of the deputy's flashlight gave her acne a pleasing texture, and the smoke rising from her body was a little suggestive. Maybe he would have to think twice about Twyla in the future.
He took a step toward Twyla and kicked Preene's cap. Mervin took the cap, walked over to Twyla, and placed it on her head, tuning it to National Public Radio. Nina Totinburg called out the news as he pried the dead and melted blower out of her hands. He grasped her by the shoulders and shook gently until she managed to stare in her direction.
"Twyla, I just want to thank you for what you did tonight. I... I think you just saved my life."
Mervin said quietly. "Is there anything I can do for you right now?"
Focusing blindly on the starball display behind him, Twyla answered matter-of-factly, "Sir,
you could turn down the radio. Nina gives me gas."