It had been kind of a slow lunch today at Bob's Country Steakhouse, but there would be a big supper crowd tonight. Always was on Fridays. Thelma Greene could feel them coming. The thought of them simultaneously thrilled her and disgusted her. Thelma worked at Bob's. She had a highly important job. You've eat at Bob's before, right? You know those flimsy paper advertisements that they pass off as placemats? That way you'll subconsciously suck in their propaganda while you're waiting for your sirloin tips, if the conversation isn't really good. And sometimes, if the perfect table you want has just been cleared off, and fresh advertisements haven't yet been assigned, you'll just stand there and patiently wait until they're brought, as if there's no possible way for the dining process to get underway without them. Those that you'll drip your salad dressing on, and set your iced tea on until the condensation makes wet circles that're all wrinkly, and deep down you feel inexplicably bad about having messed up your nice placemat. Those.

No, Thelma's job isn't putting out fresh commercials. But if you've ever read those, then you know about what she does do. Past the spiels about the choice beef that's fresh daily and the friendly waitresses who'll be happy to bring you a dessert if you forgot to get one when you first went through the line, there's a bit concerning the salad bar. It goes something like "Our full-time 'salad person' makes sure the lettuce is green and crisp, and keeps the toppings fresh and well-stocked... to ensure the very best for you." Thelma is the salad person. She loves the title, it's just those quotation marks they put around it that bother her. "Salad person." Like it's funny or something. Well, it's not. Her salad bar is serious business. It's so important to her. The pure essence of salad bars courses through her veins, through her very soul. Thelma knows she was put on this Earth to be a salad person, and she's damn well the best one there is. Honestly.

In fact, she could be the best there is at anything, knowing her and what she can do. Because she's not just anybody. Her mama always said it was something to do with that weird rock, that falling star that landed in their back yard about a year before Thelma was born. Claimed that thing glowed so bright it hurt to look at it, even in the daytime. Made a funny humming noise too. So there was Mrs. Greene, the whole time she was pregnant with Thelma, showing that thing to folks about every day. Thelma never got to see it herself. The thing had kept getting smaller and smaller, and by the time Thelma was old enough to crawl, it was gone. Her mama had died of cancer about ten years back. So had most of the sightseers. So there was something to that rock, anyway. Maybe it was why she was cosmically powerful beyond all reckoning, maybe not. But she had become a salad person, and she was proud of it.

Yeah, it was going to be a busy night. There was going to be a lot going on, she could see, a lot of confusion. She knew that three people were going to be killed in Bob's before closing time.

It was going to be a busy night.

"Well, it ain't too crowded yet, is it?"

"No. We picked a good time to come, didn't we?"

Dolores and Minnie Mae Clontz had entered. They were two sisters in their fifties, and they were a tad early tonight. Their presence meant that tomorrow night they should be found at The Gangplank. They ate out every Friday and Saturday, and they switched off between steak and seafood so they wouldn't get tired of one or the other. Should be found there, but they won't. At that time Dolores will be in the hospital having her left leg amputated. Thelma knows she will.

"I don't know what I'm gonna get tonight. What're you a gettin'?"

Dolores scanned the enumerated wall menu. "I don't know. Reckon their taters'll be warmed over tonight?"

"They ortn't to be!" said Minnie Mae, gasping in horror. "Shew, if they's one thing I can't stand it's a warmed over tater. Can you?"

Dolores decided on a number six, and Minnie Mae believed she'd try a number fourteen. Both got salads with that. They found a good table with commercials already on it, then headed to the salad bar.

Thelma was hard at work. Her goal was to maintain the salad bar so well that at any given moment it would look perfect and be perfect. No fried okra accidentally mixed in with the chopped ham, no croutons on the floor, no droplets of thousand island that've been smeared across the countertop. She was capable of doing it, of course, but she had learned from previous experience that there's certain things you're just better off not doing in public, and that includes exercising your supreme omnipotence. She's thought literally billions of times about what she could do to improve her salad bar beyond all belief. She could just stand there behind the counter using her psionic abilities to mentally re-stock the toppings and clean up messes and destroy germs, all at twice the speed of sound. Or, if she needed something really quick, she could utilize interdimensional warps or maybe even send the thing backwards through the space-time slipstream so she would have it before it could ever be needed. And she could do away with all the stupid stuff. Like that tinted glass sneeze guard that was so fancily cut that it was impossible for people to see through, so they'd look under it and just end up sneezing on everything.

Or -- dare she contemplate it? -- Thelma's ultimate fantasy of salad bars. She could read the customers' minds, see precisely what kind of salad they wanted, and fix it herself telekinetically. Because physically, people are imperfect, and thus unable to make their salads just right with their hands. Except maybe for Mr. Brooks. But most people will get too much of this or not enough of that or forget something entirely or try something new that they turn out to hate, all of which can destroy the whole salad. But people can conceive of their ideal salad in their minds, and Thelma could transform the idea straight into reality. She would be happy, the customers would be happy, and no messes or germs would ever get near the salad bar in the first place. And it would all be so easy.

But she could never do it. She knew how people were, how they acted about stuff like that. Like that time when she was little, with Walter Smith's chickens and that used-up tube of toothpaste. Boy, her mama pitched a fit, and old Walter like to had a heart attack. Thelma didn't see what was such a big deal about it, since she got the chickens right back out and they were okay and everything. That's the way people were though, and Thelma had learned to live with them. She pulled a trick or two whenever she had the chance, but no one must ever see her doing something BECAUSE THEN SHE WOULD BE FIRED AND SHE MUST NEVER BE FIRED. Ever. Whenever the concept of being fired crossed her mind, random galaxies trillions of light-centuries away would be totally obliterated. She couldn't help it. Lord knows what might happen if she ever did get fired. But the universe need not worry about such a dire fate, because she wasn't about to let that happen.

A woman named Becky Hampton and her son Jason had worked their way through about half of the salad bar. Becky weighed five hundred pounds. Precisely. To a hundred and eighty-nine significant digits, anyway. And what's more, the exactitude was not thrown off by her calorie-burning rate or her perspiration, which was considerable, because she kept nibbling bits of cheese and croutons out of her bowl which accurately replaced the small amount of mass she was losing. In fact, the number of significant digits increased to a hundred and ninety-two. Thelma was fascinated. She flipped through Becky's mind to see if this was some conscious and well-executed scheme to stay right at five hundred.

No. Becky was just hungry.

Besides, she only thought herself to weigh about two sixty-five, which to her was a lot. Oh well. It was still interesting. So was Becky's salad. She was using a standard bowl, not one of those jumbo platters that you have to pay so much more for, but it was still the largest salad Thelma had ever witnessed the creation of. It was approximately thirteen and three-eights inches high from the bottom of the bowl up. Thelma didn't even consider that Becky might have had training in architecture and structural design which. enabled her to so perfectly orchestrate the salad ingredients with such a low item/spill ratio. By then Thelma knew that Becky just liked to eat, and she was tremendously good at it.

Seven year old Jason Hampton followed behind his mother, adorning his own modest salad as he sang the Thundercats™ theme song. Jason was small and bony, not having inherited Becky's culinary libido. He was far more concerned with his Man-At-Arms™ action figure with Battle-Damage Armor™, which he moved down the salad bar countertop like it was walking or more accurately, leaping. On each footfall Jason made an exploding sound with his mouth. He abruptly stopped at the tommy-toes and got nine of them. He liked tommy-toes. Then he began urgently picking his nose, bringing forth a product that was long and bright green. He fervently wiped it on the most convenient location, which happened to be a tommy-toe that was still in the salad bar. Then he stuck his Man-At-Arms™ into his bowl and moved on.

Jason's act had been observed closely by two people. The first was of course Thelma. She was steaming. Justice had to be done. She looked at the action-figure's Battle-Damage Armor , which was a removable smooth chest plate that could be interchanged with another chest plate with pretend scars and dents. Thelma made the small plastic chunk fall off into the bowl where it hid beneath a slice of boiled egg, and Jason's fate was sealed. He wouldn't choke to death, but boy, would those ribs hurt.

The second observer was the man directly in line behind Jason. His name was Hsfhkxlgd. He had been on Earth for four months. His vessel had crashed in a barren field under full emergency re-entry screens and silencers, because Earth was a 12-F world. Class 12 worlds were those whose inhabitants were so arrogant and xenophobic that the idea of intelligence beyond their own sphere was generally greeted with laughter, and they routinely tortured and murdered their own kind over such superficial "differences" as place of birth or pigment concentration. The F-suffix was to warn any visitors to stay within their wreckage with full energy applied to the non-detection devices, until a rescue ship arrived. In the event of inhabitant contact, visitors were advised to commit suicide immediately. Of the over three million inhabited worlds known to Hsfhkxlgd's people, only forty-three had earned the F.

Hsfhkxlgd sat in his charred cockpit for eleven days after making his distress call. He would be rescued in six years. Most natives of Hsfhkxlgd's homeworld Ga-Gringy Buhfongle would have contentedly sat there for twelve years, or twenty, what with that "12-F" printed indelibly in their minds. But Hsfhkxlgd got bored. It was easy enough to alter his surface appearance to that of the average native, retracting his third upper body appendage and making the other two look like arms and growing a head and everything. And the computer taught him the local tongue in a couple of hours. Hsfhkxlgd was just so kind and so pure and so happy that he refused to believe that any sentient life could be as twisted and cruel as the 12-F's were said to be. Said to be. He knew how it was, how stories got all exaggerated and disproportioned. Hsfhkxlgd could remember one he heard nine or ten years back, when some of his friends were talking about 12-F's. One of them had claimed that on some 12-F, there was this one being -- one, all by himself -- who stirred up a horrid planetwide war, during which he ordered the painful deaths of over six million of his own people. Know why? Because their views on their deity were different from his! Hsfhkxlgd had almost burst out laughing while his friends sat there in somber silence. There's no way that could ever be true. Surely not here, where he'd landed.

Hsfhkxlgd had quickly gotten himself a job. He worked at Food Lion labeling prices and doing stuff in the stockroom. There he went by the name Harry. It was a lot of fun to him. He was really talented with arithmetical matters, and he enjoyed getting to use the base ten number system. It was so quaint. And he got to learn a lot more about the native ways, the subtle grunts and changes in posture that held so much meaning. His people had never studied those features and so the computer had not been able to teach him them.

A few weeks ago Hsfhkxlgd decided he had earned enough money to live somewhere besides his pile of stinking ruins, so he left the engines on full camouflage and took out a nice little apartment. There he discovered the wonder of television, and through it discovered something more. He saw the pictures of tanks and explosions and dead children. He saw the planes and soldiers and streets of running terror. He saw the nicely-dressed men and women who sat and calmly described it all in strict detail every night. Then he got up and looked outside at the somnolent North Carolina town that surrounded him. Here there was no fighting and guns. Here the greatest display of hostility he had seen had been a tired mother reprimanding her youngster for eating a banana in the store. Then he decided. This world was no 12-F. This world was not like on television. That news stuff was all actors and special effects, putting on a show to curb the boredom of a near-utopian society. Or maybe to serve as a sobering reminder of what they had once been, or what they might become. It was unthinkable that such madness could coexist with what he had seen, the two worlds separated by the shortest of distances. The sloppy planet documenters must have been fooled by the fake broadcasts, which portrayed a definite 12-F candidate. The real Earth was a 2-A, at the very least. When he returned home Hsfhkxlgd would have to set things straight about this delightful world.

He had gone out to eat several times, at places like Hardee's and Burger King. Eating was a peculiar and inefficient way to supply body energy but Hsfhkxlgd had come to enjoy it, as the natives obviously did. Tonight he had decided to try dining at Bob's, and he was glad he had. The way it worked was so much better than those apathetic burger places. He was particularly fond of the participatory nature of the salad bar and the new knowledge he gained from it. A few moments ago he had noticed the girl in line behind him staring at him and sighing impatiently as he helped himself to the mushrooms. Her name was Staci Martin, and Thelma had seen that tomorrow night Staci would be in jail. Hsfhkxlgd had figured he should try to fit in, so he then started staring and sighing at Jason Hampton in front of him. This got no discernible response, so he stepped up the pace until he was grunting and moaning right in Jason's face while stomping one of his synthetic feet. Jason spun around and thrust his right hand out at him with all fingers but the third one bent down, then told him to conjure up a frequency of vibration. Hsfhkxlgd bit his fake lower lip thoughtfully. He had no idea what that meant. But he smiled pleasantly at Staci and gave her Jason's gesture, announcing in a smooth, happy tone, "Summon a pitch!'t

Well, her way of thanking him was most odd. At the risk of being rude, he wouldn't even consider doing it to Jason. It had hurt. Hsfhkxlgd's face was still stinging, and possibly Staci's hand had disturbed the pseudoplasm. He would have to go check it. Jason seemed not at all dismayed at the alien's bad manners, for he was already busy picking his nose. Hsfhkxlgd watched the brief intense labor and the subsequent depositing on the tommy-toes. He saw Thelma and how fraught with emotion she was. Hmm. Some kind of gift for the salad tender -- a tip, he believed it was called. A sort of putting back of extra flavor in exchange for what you had gotten. Thrilled to comply, Hsfhkxlgd reached deep within his nasal constructs. Uh-oh. He hadn't bothered to duplicate any mucous membranes. A bit of surplus pseudoplasm would have to do. So he drew out a thick, foot-wide sheet of shimmering turquoise and draped it gently over the cauliflower. He turned merrily to Thelma, whose eyes met his in a trouncing grip of death. Perhaps she was upset because his offering was quivering of its own volition -- or it had been, since Hsfhkxlgd glanced for it and it was gone.

"Thank you," he said before departing, his three brains frantically sorting out this new set of data. No one but Thelma had seen his monstrous blue glob. Before he ever got the idea to bring it out she had rendered it invisible to all onlookers. Then she eliminated the force that held together its component molecules. What Jason had done had been fiendish enough, but this! In some far-flung corner of the universe, the Nala Eroom Galaxy and its eighteen trillion sentient lifeforms were instantly consumed by flame. The transgressor would pay. Just wait until Jennie came to his table to see if everything was all right. Just wait.

"Aw, hon-eeee, why didn't we wait? We could have gone to The Hamilton Inn with your parents, instead of to this proletarian refuse heap. Oh, I loathe salad bars so badly! They're such an insult. Honestly! I tried to tell you, but no!"

A young couple had entered the salad bar right before Dolores and Minnie Mae had. They were Edward and Denise Millington. They were Florida people. This meant that they were rich and that their driving skills were roughly equivalent to those of a North American bison. Edward and Denise had chosen to eat at Bob's tonight looking for something a little different, someplace small and old-fashioned and Southern and everything. One of them was meeting with disappointments.

"Edward, please! People will start looking!"

They already had. The Millingtons had those loud whining voices that filled most locals with warm nausea, whether they were raised in dispute or not. Thelma was among the revolted. Not only that, but she sensed harsh turbulence ahead for the couple. Something about C.P.R. and stealing television sets. It would take a conscious level of effort to see the whole sordid mess, and Thelma didn't find it worth her time.

"The way I look at it," Edward whimpered, "the entire point of dining out is to relax and enjoy oneself, without having all the hassle and fuss of preparing a meal at home -- to get out of that kitchen, right dear?"

Denise sighed and rolled her eyes back. Edward scarcely paused.

"I love salads. I love them to a monumentous degree. They are indispensable. Thus when I go to a restaurant, I would like to have one." Edward's voice was taking on a sardonic fury as he carefully selected some lettuce. "So I ask for one. Is that so much to ask for -- a salad? And what does that plebeian waitress... well, cashier really, what does she have the gall to do? She sticks a bowl in my face and says in that sickening drawl, 'Thar ye go, hep ye-self to th' salad bar!'" Edward's attempt at the dialect wasn't too authentic. "Help myself, like I should be glad or something. Honestly. I've worked hard all day and I came here to get to rest, and here we are, Denise, laboring over our own meal with the rest of the human cattle! Hey, why don't they let us in the kitchen to bake our own potatoes and broil our own steaks! Yeah! I'll even slaughter the damn cow' Wouldn't that be great, huh? Boy, I'd love it!"

"Oh, Edward, maybe this place isn't a five-star bistro, but we knew that before we came. We're here now, so please, just try to enjoy it. Umm, look, they have sprouts! Goody goody goody! At least they're that civilized, darling. I love sprouts. They're so luscious and they have hardly any calories at all!" Denise had a deathly fear about being too fat. She would end up with a tiny salad composed almost entirely of sprouts, carrots, and a bit of cucumber, with no dressing. Denise weighed ninety-two pounds. "Besides, I don't think you worked all that hard today, dear."

Edward clutched a hand to his chest and coiled back as if she'd just stuck his foot in a blender. On "liquefy."

"What? I'll have you know I've been sweating over my typewriter for nine hours, while you and your mother were shopping in Asheville! I went back and polished some dialogue and added a few inserts and broke down the next two chapters, then I started on a new piece for the paper!" Edward rejected a couple of radishes before sighing in relief upon sighting the cucumbers. "And you say I haven't --"

"I'm sorry," Denise said sweetly. "I didn't realize. After a I thought we were going to relax on this visit."

"Well, I haven't been, though I'd like to now. And look at how I'm doing it," he ordered, shaking his bowl at her.

"You must admit, though, the salad bar is considerably replete, isn't it? Look how large it is! I don't think we could make nearly such good salads at home."

"Of course we could." Edward kept it to himself that the cucumbers looked really quite tasty.

"But we don't have all these different ingredients at home and--"

"So? Half of them we don't even like, and you could run out to Ingle's and get the rest if you wanted. And it would be so much more sanitary. Do you realize that from sitting out in the open like this that the dust alone must be--"

"Surely that would be much more expensive."

"Denise, you should know that that's hardly the point when it comes to--"

They were interrupted by a thundering boom. Becky Hampton had just finished gracefully ladling on a quart of ranch dressing and had freed her right hand to dig around in the cracker bowl for something besides those sesame things. Her left hand had not been up to the task of going solo, and the unwieldy mountain of salad willfully answered the seductive bidding of gravity. People screamed. Salad components shot out for a ten foot radius and all heads were turned to their focal' point. A bleak silence fell over Bob's Country Steakhouse. Massive throngs of extraterrestrial life immediately ceased to be. And there stood Becky, seemingly oblivious to the unearthly magnitude of humiliation and malevolence crashing down on her, who turned to Thelma and said simply this.

"Can I fix me another'n?"

Thelma wasn't too crazy about the idea, but she had to let her. It was the rule. AND SHE HAD TO GO BY THE RULES. But the rules said nothing about a little personal retribution. So she peeked into Becky's future, and there wasn't much of one there. She was a bit shocked, not because it was just fourteen months long but because of how it would end. Any punishment Thelma could think of would be mercifully sparing Becky from this, so she left her alone. Thelma never thought a human could really do that, until she saw what all that flesh and digested food was going to look like splattered across the walls of Becky's beautiful Florida kitchen.

"This shore don't look too good tonight, does it?" Minnie Mae asked, probing through the lettuce.

"No, looks sorty spoiled," responded her sister, crinkling up her nose. "Hard to find some that ain't all brown, ain't it?"

It really made Thelma mad when people complained about the lettuce. A couple years ago Bob's used to use preservative stuff on it and other parts of the salad bar. Then they found out that that preservative made some people get all sick, so they made them quit using it. They even boasted this fact on the commercial placemats. "Unlike some restaurants, we use no harmful artificial chemical preservatives on our salad bar. Instead, our 'salad person' sees to it that our salad bar doesn't just look fresh... it is fresh." But no matter how short a time you leave untreated lettuce sitting out, bits of it are going to brown. That Thelma had tried constructing these force fields that removed all the empty space from within the atoms of the bacteria and whatnot, squashing the remaining particles right together. This had worked, and did a much better job than those slipshod preservatives. But the manager had noticed how fresh and green the lettuce still looked, and he got worried that the health department would accuse him of still using the sprays, so she stopped doing that. It didn't really matter anyway, since such a small trifle of lettuce rot wasn't enough to hurt anybody. Lay it out in the sun all day, then maybe you'd have something to fret over. Still, dolts like the Clontz sisters had to complain. Thelma could only stand and grit her teeth, knowing in livid detail how Dolores used to rush home after an evening at Bob's to spend fifteen-minute stints on the toilet, blaming it all on the salad dressing and never once stopping to notice when this stomach reaction vanished. Now she griped about tiny innocuous brown flecks that made the lettuce look sorty spoiled. In this world, looks are everything.

"Oh my God! Look at this!"

"Edward, what?"

Edward had been choosing some tommy-toes. Only they weren't tommy-toes anymore. Now they were midget tomatoes. Tuh-mot-toes. And on one of his midget tomatoes he had found something. It was long and bright green.

"Christ, I can not believe this! I told you we should never have come here!" He saw Thelma, who was staring blankly at him. "Miss! Miss, I am aghast at the quality of your... your swine bar! This is an outrage! Please explain this to me, just look right here in my bowl at this... um... "

It wasn't there. Edward searched with his hands.

"Um, well... it was right here,uh--" He grabbed his forehead in panic. "What... what was it? Something bad! Something... " Quickly he regained his footing. "Well, look, I'm not at all happy with this lame excuse for a restaurant, and I think I deserve a damn good apology."

"I'm sorry, sir."

Three words. Edward had been boiling already, and that gift from Jason Hampton had blown him way over the edge. He had been planning to start yelling loud enough for the kitchen help to stop and listen. He had been mentally composing a ferociously seething contribution to the Gazette's editorial page. He had begun figuring up the grounds for a lawsuit. But first he had turned to Thelma.

She gave him three words.

And into those three words she had packed an infinitude of sincerity and pain and sorrow. It was like being blasted with the distilled grief of every tortured soul who's ever walked the Earth, not feeling it but understanding it, in the space of two seconds.

Thelma was even more sorry than that, actually. She wanted to be convincing but she had had to be careful not to kill him. It was impossible for her to ever make a mistake, but she could, from time to time, forget something. She had been distracted not only by the unusual flurry of happenings but also by her zillion unseen mental salad maintenance duties and the enormous psychic background noise that she had to always consciously block out, so it had slipped her mind. Hey, if you were constantly aware of everything that's ever happened, everything that's happening now, and most of what's ever going to happen, short of the things you might change by your own personal interference, you'd forget stuff too. Most people would do well to keep track of their own names.

If it was something she was thinking about and concentrating even slightly on the performance of, Thelma could not do it wrong. Ever. Forgetting things was different. This time doing so had upset a customer. CUSTOMERS MUST NEVER BE UPSET. She hadn't even totally erased it from his mind, to serve as a punishment for herself. That's how emotionally annihilated she was. Edward didn't quite know how much, but he had a pretty good idea.

"Um. It's all right. Really. No big deal, okay? I mean it, no problem. I'm fine." He nearly fell backwards as he staggered out of the line. "Denise, I'm going to go sit down, okay?"

She looked at him, eyes wide with concern. "Sure, darling, whatever you want to do. I'll be there in a moment." Edward turned silently and left, dumping what salad he had made onto Becky's comestible miscarriage that still had a cleanup crew laboring away.

Denise gave Thelma a strained chuckle. "Edward's like that, uh, sometimes being out in public makes him a little strange. I'm sure he'll be all right."

Thelma managed to nod politely. At the time she was subjecting herself to a series of incredibly horrible mental tortures. Imagine if you were nailed upside down to a post out in the blazing desert, and all the skin was flayed from your body and you were forced to eat it, and the powerful tendons in your wrists and ankles were severed by sharp little rotating saws while great swarms of gnats and flies and mosquitos rallied around you, some of them embedding themselves within your exposed folds of muscle, and then you were showered with buckets of salt and left to bake in the sun, remaining fully alive and aware through the whole thing. Well, to Thelma that would have felt pretty good.

"Uh, this doesn't feel too good to me, Mag, cause like, they're gonna be looking for us, and it'd be a lot easier just to stop and pick up a cheeseburger and, uh--"

"But I want a salad."

Dave Miller and his girlfriend Maggie Gibbons then came into Bob's. They were both nineteen years old. They had just finished robbing Eclipse Jewellers downtown. Actually, Dave robbed it all by himself. Maggie had just stood and watched, chewing her Bubble Yum. She didn't even hold the gun or anything. But according to the law she and Dave had both robbed the place equally. That's the way the law works.

"Couldn't it wait though, babe? Like till we get across to Virginia? Uh, I don't think you understand just how--"

"Dave, I'm hungry."

"Uh, well, okay. Just make it quick." Dave couldn't say no to Maggie. She was too beautiful and he was too stupid.

"That shore took long enough, didn't it?"

"I'd say!" Dolores said to her sister. They had made it back to their seats. "Awfullest line I ever seen at the salad bar. This place's shore filled up quick, ain't it?"

"Yeah, it shore has."

A chunk of silence ensued as they made their primary assaults on their salads. "Well," Minnie Mae finally uttered in the midst of a savage flurry, "I can't get to my lettuce. I hate it when I can't get to my lettuce."

"Don't you know that was embarrassin'?" Dolores didn't seem to have heard what Minnie Mae said.

"What?"

"That big old fat girl."

"Oh! They Lord, what about her!"

"Don't you know she's embarrassed?" Dolores repeated, leaning far across the table. This time there was fire in her eyes. To both of the ladies death was preferable by far over embarrassment. Especially public embarrassment.

"Why Lord yes! I swear, I don't know what to think about people that gets that big. I'd shore be embarrassed if I'se like that. I don't know though, I believe I'd do something about it."

Dolores seemed exasperated. "Well, I was talking about how she dropped her salad."

"Well yeah, that too. That was a big old salet, wadn't it?"

Dolores exhaled in agreed astonishment. "And I bet you she woulda eat ever bite of it too, wouldn't she?"

"Why, yeah. I swear, I don't know what to think about people that gets that big."

Dolores ate a few forkfuls, looking rapt in deliberation. "I believe that girl's some kin to Florence. Didn't she used to be a Davis? Betsy or Becky or something like that. Yeah, then she got married to one of Earl Hampton's boys. Was it Harold or Tony?"

"Seems like it was Tony." Minnie Mae really had no idea.

"I don't know. Wonder where they're a sittin' at?" Dolores stood up and looked around. Soon she located the Hampton party sans Becky, who was still at the salad bar. "Harold, that's who it is. They've got their youngun with 'em, and they's some old woman sittin' with her back to me. They, I think that's Harold's mama! What in the world's she a doin' out with them?" Dolores sat back down. "I don't even know for shore what her name is."

"Is she not still a Hampton?"

"Lord, no! She's married some other man. Earl died years ago. Remember, he's the one shot hisself in Florence's basement."

"Oh yeah."

"Anyhow, since Earl and Florence is, I mean was second cousins, and that big fat girl was Earl's daughter-in-law, then that makes that girl and Florence--"

It was the waitress. "I have a number fourteen, medium, with baked potato?" she said, looking back and forth.

"That's mine," declared Minnie Mae.

"There you go!" Her voice held a fake but pleasant joy. "And a number six, well, with baked potato." The waitress went ahead and assumed whose this one was. "Okay, you folks need anything else right now?"

Minnie Mae wanted some extra butter.

"All right, enjoy your dinner!" Then she went and pretended to like the people at the next table.

"I swear, they always bring this too early, don't they?"

Minnie Mae agreed. "You just barely get started in on your salet, then here they bring you all this other stuff to eat."

"They ort to wait a little while to where you can get most of your salad eat first, ortn't they?"

"I know." Actually, Minnie Mae rather liked eating her tater with her salet, and she knew that Dolores always got all impatient whenever they had to wait on food for lengthy periods, but she never thought to bring up such trivial details as these. After all, she had something far more urgent to worry over.

"Ah, law! This tater's warmed over!" she barked in disgust.

"It is?" Dolores then confirmed it by tasting her own. "I swear. Looks like they'd have good taters on a Friday night, as many people as they get, don't it?"

They grumbled on some more until Dolores started cutting into her steak. "I want you to look!" she bellowed. "I ordered this well done and look, right there's some pink. Right there it is!"

"Well," sympathized Minnie Mae.

"Shew, I don't know if I can eat that or not. Look at that right there! That looks like blood coming out of it! Lord have mercy."

The sisters started in eating, grudgingly, and it was a couple of minutes before they got back around to conversation.

"What about that man at the salad bar, that 'un that was complainin' about everything?" asked Minnie Mae, as if personally offended.

"They was Florida people. Him and his wife. Really just he is, cause she's from here. Dr. Osterman here in town's her daddy, and she met up with that feller in Florida somehow. All of them's big, rich, fancy people."

"Too big and fancy, if you ask me. D'you hear what and all he was fussin' over? He thought he was too good to have to make his own salet, and so he got all mad about that. Finally he went and sit down!"

Dolores was grimacing. "I know it. Crazy. You know, if plain poor folks like us can be happy and satisfied with whatever little we can get, looks like shorely them big rich dudes ort to be able to go without criticizin' and lookin' down on ever little thing that ain't just perfect. Ortn't they?"

At the salad bar one of the waitresses was in line. Her name was Jennie Campbell. She could only think about Thelma's gaze which was surely pounding into her while she was picking out some onions. She was going to have to do it. There was no way around it, and she knew it. She tried to wait for when the time was just right but it never seemed to come. So Jennie cautiously cleared her throat, and she licked her dry lips, and she spoke.

"Um, I'm fixing this for a customer. He, uh, he didn't want to fix it himself." Jennie kept her eyes locked onto her trembling hands, never once facing the salad person. God, who could? There followed a slight pause. Jennie's nervous system buckled under the strain. Then Thelma replied.

"I know."

At that point Jennie no longer had complete control over her tongue. "Sorta weird, y'know, since most people like to fix their own and everything, and this is like, the first time it's ever happened. Pretty funny, really. Ha ha ha! Sure feels funny. Ha. But I guess you've got to do whatever the customers ask, right?"

"Not enough cucumbers."

"Um." Jennie just wanted to get out of there. Fast. Why couldn't that customer've made his own stupid salad? Why'd he have to do this? The customers, they don't know. They don't know what she's like. She leaves them alone, because she has to. But the other employees -- it was all right to bother them. They all hated Thelma. All but the manager. He just adored her. Well, not her really, but her work. The salad bar always stayed in such better shape than before. Before. The placemat ads had always said "salad person," but before, there had been two of them. Kelly and Martha, a couple of teenagers. Maybe they weren't perfect workers or anything, but they were nice and Jennie had become friends with them. Then they expanded the salad bar and the manager decided it needed more help. That's when he hired Thelma. On her first day she came raring in there like she owned the place. Or the salad bar, at least. And she didn't like Kelly and Martha being there, not one bit. Right off she started in correcting them hatefully and telling them they weren't doing their work, and even bossed them around, not caring that she didn't have any position over them. The two girls were understandably upset. So things were hardly peaceful for the next week or two. Then one day Kelly and Martha were both late for work. Really late. They never showed up. Somebody tried calling their families but they didn't know where the girls were either. Nobody ever found out. It was like they'd just vanished.

The manager started to look for a couple of new attendants for the salad bar, but Thelma offered to do it all by herself. He felt kind of unsure but let her go ahead and try it. And so that salad bar, now expanded big enough to easily require three workers, was flawlessly handled by one. The manager was happy, since he had two less paychecks to dole out, and Thelma was happy, since she was given absolute dominion over every aspect of the salad bar. Everything was great for everybody, except for the other people that worked there. Actually, Thelma didn't really do anything to them much, since she only worried about the salad bar and it was pretty easy for the waitresses and everybody to steer away from there. Usually. Thelma was just... spooky. Disturbing. Especially to Jennie. And here she was, face to face with her. Jennie couldn't take any more. She slopped on some bleu cheese dressing -- wasn't that what he'd asked for? -- and took off at full tilt.

"Not enough cucumbers," Thelma repeated, not raising her volume though Jennie was already halfway across the steakhouse. But she could still hear it.

"Uh, what'd you say?" Dave asked.

"I said I wonder if that dessert stuff's any good."

Dave had just gotten a Coke and nothing to eat, but he went through the salad bar with Maggie anyway. He didn't feel like sitting down alone. He kept looking around to see if anybody was looking at them, and he sifted his cold hands through the gems in his pants pockets while his mind skittered across a thousand horrible what ifs. Thus he had no idea what Maggie might be doing or talking about.

"Uh, I don't know," Dave's mouth said with no help from him. "Which kind?" There were several, and each was labeled.

"That," Maggie said, pointing. "That bread pudding stuff."

"Bread pudding?" Dave then allotted a fraction of his mind to conversation. "Never heard of that."

"Taste of it," urged Maggie.

He was about to ask with what, but then he remembered he'd just held up a jewelry store, so what the heck? Who'd care, anyway? He drew out his right hand, and it had a gem stuck to it. It was a well-sized cut ruby that he'd been sort of squeezing on until his moist palm had conformed to its edges, and the stone hung on pretty securely. Dave never noticed it. He jammed two fingers into the dish, then bent his hand in a scooping motion that loosed the ruby. The bread pudding was soft and cushiony but there was still an audible impact. Dave ignored it. He was stupid, remember.

"Pretty good. Tastes sorta like a sweet roll except all mushy. All right, though."

"Hmm. I'll have to get some before we leave."

How could Maggie sound so confident? Dave was uncertain about even making it out of there breathing, and here she was picking out some dessert. His fears weren't a bit uncalled for, according to Thelma. She had seen his sampling at the dessert bar -- which is a subdivision of the salad bar -- but there was more to come, and it got worse. A lot worse. And so she just decided to wait for his little to play itself out, for presently she had a more pressing matter to deal with.

"'Na na, na na na na, my Angel is the centerfold...' Lessee, think I'll try some a these. Them look good too. 'I was shakin', in my shoes, whenever she flashed those baby blues... somethin' had a hold on me, when Angel passed close by... "'

The singing was being performed by a man named Willie Bissette. Willie was thirty-one years old, single, and he thinks he used to have a job but he's not sure. He wore a tattered old army jacket and his hollow face was peppered with stubble. The scent of alcohol on him was hard to miss, though the scents he carried were many and none too pleasant. Willie was making a salad. In his left hand. With his right he selected ingredients and stuffed some of the larger and more solid ones into his pockets, directly using this hand, as if the various tongs and spoons were too much trouble to fool with. Even in the case of the German potato salad. Neither hand had been washed in recent times, but Willie didn't care. Somebody else did.

"Where is your bowl?"

"Huh? Oh geez, is that what them bowls're for? Silly me, I left mine sittin' back at my reserved table with my personal valet and the keys to my Lamborghini!" Willie met Thelma's wrathful stare, and yet he was still able to use sarcasm. He wasn't drunk, either.

"Well, thanks a lot for tellin' me, cause I bet that bowl'll be able to hold a lot more'n this." He shoved his fistful of salad right up to Thelma's face, chuckling at himself.

"You are not a paying customer. You have tainted my salad bar with your filth. You will get out of here. Now." Everyone in Bob's wondered what caused a sudden roll of thunder from out of the cloudless sky.

Willie frowned and said in a calm, concerned manner, "Why so tense? You know, maybe it's your coffee."

Incredible. Willie was truly made of sterner stuff than most. Thelma darted around the counter and grabbed him by the collar. As she charged to the exit with Willie in tow, she mentally isolated the salad fixings that people had not seen him contaminate and began blasting all their germs and bits of dirt one by one into some dimension composed entirely of a substance like continually exploding napalm. The other salad fixings she would have to go back and replace physically, so people would know she was doing her job.

At the same time she was studying the perpetrator. Not only Willie's bold attitude was surprising--so was his future. Unlike most of his life up to this point, it was not base and gloomy and utterly inconsequential. It was going to be bright and happy with 2 loving wife, great kids, and plenty of money. Thelma was astonished, but her mind suddenly had to marshal its forces for tackling that German potato salad.

"God, I can't believe this! That waitress didn't get nearly enough cucumber slices! That's my favorite vegetable, and she got about five of them! And this is far too much dressing. I mean, I like bleu cheese, but really! But I could live with that, if I just had more cucumber slices."

"Well dear, why don't you go back and get yourself a few?" Denise wondered.

"Uh, no. No, this'll be okay." The effects of Thelma's apology had faded, but not entirely.

Willie had Just been dragged past the Millingtons' table, and when he heard them talking his head spun around and his mouth fell open in shock.

"Eddie!" he screamed joyously. "Hey, Eddie!"

Edward and Denise turned. Edward's face was stricken with dread. Thelma loosened her grip and let Willie walk back to their table.

"Well, well, Eddie Millington. Geez, it's been a long time-like back when we were both kids in Tampa! How the hell are ya, man? And this is the lovely missus?"

Willie tried to sit down with them, but Thelma abruptly halted that. "Do you know this man?" she asked, knowing that Edward and Willie had been best friends once. She asked anyway, since she'd rather have Willie out of Bob's altogether.

"Uh, no I don't," Edward mumbled, holding a hand over his face and looking down. "Never seen him before in my life."

Willie was baffled. "Aw, Ed! It's me, Willie! Don't ya remember?"

"Edward!" exclaimed Denise. "He obviously knows you." She turned to Thelma. "What... has he done something wrong?"

"Yes. He tried to eat without paying."

Denise became immediately compassionate. "Oh, Edward, he probably doesn't have any money," she said softly to him. "Let him sit with us . "

So Edward gave in. He looked at Willie and did a good job of acting like he'd just recognized him. "Oh! Will.' Will Bissette! Yes, have a seat! I'm really sorry. I guess all those years have just, um... "

As Willie made himself comfortable Edward slipped Thelma a twenty. "Sorry for all the trouble," he told her. She accepted it unexcitedly, then returned to her salad bar.

"Hey, no problem, dude," said Willie while swiping a couple of cucumbers out of Edward's salad. "I mean, geez, just to look at you I wouldna known you from Adam. I'da just passed right on by if it hadna been for that godawful moanin' whine you got for a voice. Soon as I heard it, I knew it hadda be good ol' Eddie!" He roughly slapped Edward's shoulder in comradeship, then ate the cucumbers. Denise was giggling. "What was you so pissed off about anyhow, man?" Without warning Willie ejected the contents of his mouth.

"Geez, that dressin' sucks!"

He helped himself to a gulp of Edward's tea and proceeded to gargle furiously for the next minute or so. "Oh, it was nothing really," Edward replied, gaping at the wet mangled remains of his cucumbers. "Yes, it looks rather trivial now, compared to other matters."

Denise jabbed him under the table for how he stressed that last part. She wasn't just being polite -- she was genuinely glad to be helping out someone down on his luck, especially an old friend of Edward's. And Willie seemed like a nice guy to her. Edward was only glad that that frightful scene with Willie yelling was over. Everyone there had looked, and they'd be talking for weeks. He still couldn't believe it was really Willie Bissette. God, how he'd changed! And now he had the whole hellish evening ahead of him.

Thelma wasn't much happier with the situation. It didn't look like Willie was going to be causing her any more trouble, though. Now anything he ate would definitely be paid for, and she'd be able to keep a close eye on him.

"Oh, I can't take my eyes off you, babe. You're so beautiful. And I love you."

"I love you too, Chris."

This romantic exchange was between Chris Reynolds and Staci Martin. They were out on a date. Staci was the girl who had been in line behind Hsfhkxlgd at the salad bar. Chris smiled across the table at her and wondered how much longer it would take. He was eighteen and she was seventeen. They were popular people. This meant that they had been born with features formed in such a way that they were automatically advanced a notch in society without needing any tedious extras like intelligence or character.

"So, did you get all that stuff about your history credits straightened out?" Staci asked.

"Uh, yeah," Chris grunted through a mouthful of enzyme-laden beef. "Yeah, I just gotta pass the exam, and everybody says it's easy. Then I can graduate. It's 80 stupid though, you know, cause I already got my football scholarship lined up at State, and they're worried about some stupid history credit. Like I'm really gonna need to know history in my life, right?"

"Yeah, it's all stupid."

Filled with passion Chris looked into his girlfriend's eyes. Maybe it would be tonight. "Hey, let's forget about this school junk. That could ruin the whole evening. Speaking of which, I was thinking we could go back to my place later and maybe watch Miami Vice."

"Yeah, I love that show! It's got great music."

"Yeah. Tonight's the one with Phil Collins as a game show host. It's really cool." Then Chris flashed his winning smile.

"And my folks are out of town too, so we'd have the place all to ourselves."

"Well, sounds pretty good! I just have to leave right after Miami Vice though, cause I told my mom I wouldn't stay out too late."

Chris had trouble masking his disappointment. "Uh, that's okay. Long as we get to spend some time together. I love you so much, Staci." What was her problem? It'd been, what, more than three weeks now! He'd told her he loved her and everything. In the past year he'd done that to fifteen other girls and none of them had taken this long. Chris was starting to get tired of her, too. But he'd spent way too much money on her at places like this, and he was looking to get some returns on his investment before throwing her back. Thelma saw that his payoff would be coming in two days if it weren't for this little obstruction. Not because of the shoot-out -- Chris and Staci would be gone before all that started. Nope, it was because Minnie Mae was going to bust her dentures.

Don't get the idea that Staci was a poor unwitting victim, either. All she knew about Chris and the delicate inner workings of his psyche was that he was a football player and one of the cutest guys around. Staci only loved him to further her own social standing. Just because it really impressed people.

"Mm-mmm, you impress me once again! The maintenance of this salad bar is sure something to brag about."

Thelma's face lit up. "Oh, hello, Mr. Brooks," she said pleasantly, feigning surprise. Mr. Brooks was a nice old black gentleman who ran a pawn shop down on the lower end of Main Street. Thelma had never seen him outside of Bob's -- well, not in person anyway -- but he came there often and they'd gotten to know each other really well. She liked Mr. Brooks not only because he was about the kindest and most noble being that she'd ever known of, but also because his salad-making artistry teetered on the edge of perfection.

"How're you tonight, Thelma?"

"Oh, busy night, but it's not been too bad I guess. At first I thought you were the manager checking up on me," she fibbed.

"Heh, heh." His laugh was deep and warm. Thelma was awed by the graceful ease with which his big weathered hands chose a slice of pickle. "Well, if he was here, I sure don't see what he'd have to complain about. All of this here looks mighty fine... so good I don't hardly know which to get and which to pass on by!"

He did, too. Like some great conductor leading a symphony of salad, he was absolutely certain of what he was doing. Everything he chose flowed together in strict balance. The lettuce and tomato, the celery and cheese, the onion and pepper, all uniting to rigidly meet his personal taste demands. There was not one sour note of clumsy spills nor a single unharmonious chord of mismatched ingredients to mar the entrancing rhapsody. Mr. Brooks didn't know it, but he was a genius, a master craftsman, a virtuoso of vegetables. Thelma was adrift on wave after crashing wave of raw sensual pleasure, until she hit something. Hard.

Something was wrong. She could taste it. Something was going to happen and it was going to be extremely bad, but she couldn't see what it was. It was like it was so horrible that her mind had rejected it before it registered, leaving just a dark impression behind. She was only sure of one thing. It was to do with Mr. Brooks.

"Oh, I just remembered this little joke I was wantin' to tell you," he said while selecting another radish. "There was this man at an airport sellin' a bunch of skulls he'd dug up somewhere, claimin' each one was the skull of the great Egyptian king Khufu. So this man comes up to him and... "

No! It couldn't be! Thelma gulped in mortal terror. Not another radish! One more would completely ravage the delicately poised flavor equilibrium, turning the whole brilliant overture into a harsh, grating cacophony. To eat such a salad would be a living hell. The corrupting radish hung there, contemptuous, like a massive, bloated insect over its unblemished target. Thelma's heart was churning. Mr. Brooks lowered the tension on the bolstering plastic tongs. Worlds shrieked in apprehension. And then

"Nah," Mr. Brooks mumbled, putting back the desperately unneeded root. "So anyhow, the guy says,'But I bought the skull of Khufu from you last week!', and he says... "

He didn't do it. Thelma hadn't interfered, either. She let herself relax, almost feeling stupid. She should have known better -- Mr. Brooks could screw up, sure, but never that bad. And then Thelma realized that the dark twinge was still there.

The radish wasn't it.

"What was it?" Willie asked while unscrewing the salt shaker. "'69? '70? Back when we were in high school... geez, those were great times. Anyhow, remember that one time when us guys went out in Mike Ferguson's Plymouth and--"

Edward cut him off right there. You could see the sweat surging out of his face at the mention of that topic. "Uh, you know, Will, you never told us how you ended up -- I mean, happened to be here in North Carolina. Quite a good way from Florida."

Willie looked as if his entire digestive system had been turned inside out. "North Carolina? Oh hell, I thought this was Texas!" Prom within his army jacket he brought forth an Exxon road map of the southwestern United States. He proceeded to unfurl it to its full extent, and it consumed a majority of the table's surface area. Edward and Denise could only look at each other in bewilderment as Willie traced his fingers along the ragged chart and mumbled unintelligibly.

Then the waitress came, the artificially nice one Minnie Mae and Dolores had. Willie obligingly put away his map. "I have a number twenty-three, rare, with baked potato," she announced sparklingly.

"Right here, thank you," Edward said.

"Okay, you folks need anything else right now?"

"Um, yes," Edward replied. "We've had a guest join us, if you could please bring him whatever he'd like."

"Uh-huh!" she shrieked so gleefully that the latter part of her affirmation went up into those frequencies like only dogs can hear. "What would you like, sir?" she asked Willie.

"Cup a coffee'd be really good, thanks," he said, again fondling the topless salt shaker.

"No, go ahead and get something to eat, Will," Edward told him assuringly. "I'm paying."

"Nah, that's okay." Willie then dumped the salt all in his mouth. "I like salt." He really seemed to be enjoying it.

"Bring him a New York strip with his coffee, please," Denise ordered in panic. "And a baked potato. Is that all right?" Willie nodded noncommittally.

"And how would you like that cooked?"

"Well," Willie said. "Good and done. And I want a extra roll with that." A damp white spray accompanied each word.

"Allll-righty! I'll be back with that shortly! Now you folks enjoy your dinner!" And the friendly waitress left, cursing that smelly bum for spitting salt all over her.

"Willie, drink some of this." Denise offered him her Diet Coke.

"Nah, I'll just wait on my coffee. Thanks, though." Willie noticed something. He looked at Denise funny. "Where's yours at?"

"My what?"

"Your food. Geez, is that all you're eatin'?"

Denise became filled with pride. "Yes, but it's plenty, really," she said, indicating her minuscule assemblage of greenery. "I'm on a diet."

Willie's reaction was somewhat like the one when he learned what state he was in, only this time he was surprised. "What? You? Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha"'- Lots of people started looking again. "God, honey, that's crazy! I mean, you can do whatever you want to, but geez! I thought you were sposed to be, like, fat to go on a diet." Willie briefly stood up so as to get a better look at Denise's slight physique. "And you definitely ain't that. Myself, I like a big woman. No offense or anything -- I think you're real cute, you just oughta eat more. Or else Eddie here's gonna hafta chain you to a big rock to keep you from floatin' away!"

Edward then started choking violently. Denise figured that he thought that was a rude thing to say, but she was flattered.

"So, uh, I noticed your army fatigue jacket there," Edward said observantly. "Were you in the service, Will?"

"What's with all this 'Will' stuff? That sposed to be mature or something? My name's Willie, okay?" Edward had been doing it very consciously, because he hated being called "Ed" or "Eddie" anymore, and he'd hoped Willie would reciprocate. Oh well. "I mean, geez, that's what you always called me in the old days. Like that one night I was talkin' about, when we went with Mike Ferguson to that TV rental place and--"

"But were you in the army or anything?"

"Huh? Oh, no. Found this offa some guy," he explained, caressing the luxurious fabric. "Anyway--"

"So what have you been doing for a living these..."

But Willie suddenly got up and walked over to a table where nobody was sitting. It didn't even have commercials yet. He took the salt shaker from it and on his way back he saw Dolores, who just couldn't stop staring at him. Willie grunted right in her face and jumped up and down a few times. Then he laid down on the floor in front of her and vibrated his limbs spasmodically, yelling "Duh! Duh!", before he sat back down with the Millingtons.

"You really shouldn't keep eating that," Denise said. "You've got some food coming and all."

"Don't worry bout it, Denise," replied Willie, opening the new salt shaker. "I'm just gonna snack on this one."

Edward tried again. "So what have you been doing for a living these days, Willie?"

"Oh," Willie said, licking his finger, "this and that, here and there. Little bit of everything." He dipped the moistened finger into the salt and tasted it, grinning.

"What kind of--"

"How bout yourselves?"

Edward hadn't expected that. "Well, Denise is a rather successful real estate agent, and I'm a writer. My first novel was published last year and I'm currently working on my second. I also write occasional pieces for a local newspaper."

"The Mountaineer?" Willie asked.

"No!" What an insult that was! "The Tampa Gazette! I told you, we don't live here, we're just visiting Denise's paren-- wait a second... How do you know the name of the newspaper here when you thought that this was Texas?"

"Huh? Oh, that. That was a joke."

Edward wanted to scream but thought better of it. "What? You were just kidding?"

"C'mon, Ed, nobody's that stupid. Not even me, I hope. Yeah, I've lived around here for close to three years, I guess. Great place. Great unemployment benefits. Thought surely you'd remember our-big Texas joke from back then.

Edward didn't and didn't care. "My God, Willie... what's happened to you?"

"I bet you remember that night though, with us two and Mike."

"Willie, don't--"

Denise spoke up. "Edward, he's been trying to say something for the last fifteen minutes, and you keep interrupting him. Now shut up and let him talk."

"Thanks," Willie said, then turned his gaze downward, where it pretty much stayed. "That night, us three guys were just gonna have a little fun, you know? Drink a little, horse around a little, and go home. So a course, we ended up gettin' drunk. Then you guys started gettin' them crazy ideas. We went to that rental place, that Quik-ee Tee-Vee or whatever it was, and you know, it was like two in the mornin', and it looked all dark inside, and we had a gun, so why not? Ha. I tried to tell you guys why not. It was illegal, you could get caught, they'd know when you tried to sell the sets, hell... didn't do a bit of good. You and Mike, you just had to do it. So I waited out in the Plymouth, lettin' you guys call me a faggot, still sober enough to be scared."

Willie paused for a little salt. "Mike got shot. His brains blew all over the place. I mean, hey, how were you sposed to know there was a guard sittin' in there, in the dark? Geez. Good thing it was you that had the gun, huh, Eddie? Got that sucker right through the lung. It didn't kill him, though. That was the bad part. You couldn't shoot him again, you was shook up so bad. And I sure as hell couldn't. Believe I was cryin'... yeah, yeah I was. We couldn't just leave him there, though, right? If he died there'd be evidence and a murder and all that, and if he lived, well, then we'd be dead.

"So I got out and helped you load him in the trunk and Mike's body in the back seat. We drove out to the waterfront scared as hell. We chained 'em to that big huge TV -- the only one we stole. Ha ha. You were afraid it might not sink, so we bashed the screen in and put that huge rock in there. Then we dumped 'em right into

Tampa Bay. Splash. Mike didn't bother me much, since he was already dead, you know. But that guy, that guard guy whatever his name was, him I'll never forget. I remember his face, those helpless eyes, his mouth slobbering pints of blood -- that guy was alive. He was about to die anyway and probably knew it, but still... I helped kill him. Till the instant he died he knew who did it. We killed him, Eddie. And to this day I've always wondered what all that salt water tasted like goin' down."

Hearing all of this put Edward in turmoil, and Denise was dumbfounded, but Willie, he just sat there impossibly smiling.

"Edward?" Denise murmured. "Is that... true?"

"Yes... of course it's true. Willie, I -- I'm so sorry. You shouldn't have to feel that way, so guilty. It's my fault. You were the smart one, you tried to stop us, and yet it's screwed up your whole life and--"

Willie laughed. "No, man. That ain't it. See, it don't matter. Nothin' does. It don't matter if I killed 'em, or you killed 'em, or if they both dropped dead of pneumonia at 106. Makes no difference at all."

"Oh, God." Edward was about ready to cry. "You were always so much better than me. So much kinder, so much smarter. Then you moved to Jacksonville and we lost touch. I was able to leave that all behind, to make something of myself, so I figured surely you--" He had to stop a second. "But you've just let it destroy you, even though you had nothing to do with it. God, why? Maybe if you got some psychiatric help--"

For the first time a trace of bitterness colored Willie's voice.

"You don't understand, do you? You still can't see. Me, I've figured it out. Life's just some big game, some amusement for whatever awful gods that put us here. One of 'em said 'Hey, let's make these little dudes that die and watch all the stupid junk they they do!' And another said 'Yeah, that should be lots o' fun! They might even get the idea that their existence is significant or something! Wouldn't that be a gas?' I saw it that night -- it just took that brilliant mind of mine a couple years to realize it. You think it matters that you got a book and a nice house and lots of money and a secure future? You think that makes you any better off than me, that I should try to be like you? You think any of that matters one bit? I'll tell you, Ed. It don't. Cause in forty, fifty years -- hell, maybe less -- me and you're gonna be right with Mike and whatsisname the guard. And after all the strugglin' and strivin' and fightin' we gotta go through, I bet somebody thinks that's pretty damn funny. I could shoot myself right now and it wouldn't matter. I could get rich and successful and it wouldn't matter. But I don't want to, so I ain't gonna. See, what I'm tryin' to do is live my life in a way that whenever the gods decide to look down on me, they won't be laughin' too loud."

"Ah ha ha ha ha ha! That one was pretty funny too, Mr. Brooks. You sure hear some good ones." Thelma hadn't found it amusing when Fred Wilson first thought it up while mowing his yard eight years ago, nor had she been captivated by Mr. Brooks's excellent storytelling skill.

"Well, I'm glad you liked 'em." She found herself flatly unimpressed as he gently applied the final flawless dollop of thousand island dressing, dripping nary a droplet. "I'll see you later, Thelma. Take care now."

"Okay. Hope you enjoy your meal." Thelma held not one iota of concern for how satisfactory his food was going to be.

Because something was about to happen to him.

And she didn't know what it was.

As Mr. Brooks left the salad bar, so did Minnie Mae, who'd been to try the dessert bar. She sat down again with Dolores, each sister dying to tell the other some new stuff. Minnie Mae got hers in first.

"I swear, did you see what was goin' on over at the salet bar?"

"What?"

"This old colored man and that woman that works at the salet bar, they was just a laughin' and a goin' on! Just like they was... big buddies or somethin'. Nigger and a white woman." Minnie Mae shuddered at the possibilities of the unknown.

"Well," snarled Dolores in disapproval, straining her neck to see the salad bar. "Yeah, that's old Thelma Greene. She's always been real weird. You know, they say her mama waSLRKGrazy drunk man's still with them Florida people, and you won't never believe what he done!"

"Ah? What'd he do?"

The conversation had slipped gears like a really bad needle sklpping across a record. Neither sister noticed anything amiss. Thelma was distraught, but not that distraught.

"He come right up in my face, this is the honest truth, and he went to snortin' and a squawkin' like somethin' bout to die, and started dancin' backs and forth like I don't know what!"

"You're kiddin'!" Minnie Mae gasped, slowly tasting the bread pudding she'd gotten.

"No! Liked to embarrassed me to death! Then he started floppin' around in the floor, hollerin' like somethin' crazy!"

"God a mighty!"

"And if I had to die, Minnie Mae, he went right back and sit down, and them Florida people acted like they wadn't a thing happened!"

"I swear! Bet that boy's retarded or somethin'."

"Yeah, liable to be, anybody that eats salt like that. Shew, I didn't know what to think when he first started hollerin' at them people! Don't you know that was embarrassin'? Especially for people as rich as them, then some old somebody like that comes up to 'em out someplace."

"Why, yeah. Bet that boy's retarded or somOOOOW! Lord have mercy!" Minnie Mae had just bitten down incredibly hard on something incredibly harder. For some reason she found it necessary to get rid of it, whatever it was. With massive force she spit it out, and twelve feet away, along with some mushy sweet roll and a chipped off bit of denture material, there landed a little red rock.

"What in the world?" Dolores exclaimed.

"Believe I bit something. God a mighty! I want you to look! Minnie Mae had withdrawn her dentures. The bottom plate didn't look too bad but the top one had gone completely in two. On the right side where she'd chomped down the teeth were all smashed in with big chunks missing.

"I reckon you'll have to get you some new 'uns."

Minnie Mae shook her head. "I swear. If that don't beat all. How much do these things cost?"

"Well, when Mary got her a new set, she said she went to Dr. Simonson and they was purty cheap, but I don't know."

Dolores and Minnie Mae went on and on worrying over the dentures. Minnie Mae never stopped to wonder what it was she'd bitten, nor to be thankful that she hadn't swallowed it, or choked to death on it.

"Hkkk--aak--hhhaak--"

"What's a matter with you, Jason?" asked his grandmother, she of the indeterminate name.

"Ah, he'll be all right," laughed his father, Harold Hampton, who began slapping the boy's back. "Somethin's just went down the wrong pipe."

"HHKK--AHHKKKKK--" Jason began flailing his arms in an urgent need for oxygen.

"Oh Lord!" screamed his grandmother. "This boy's a chokin' to death! Somebody do somethin', call a ambulance!" Everybody started looking towards the crisis. Even Becky, who then managed to break away from her repast to notice what was happening to her son. Most people sat and watched Jason start dying, but Edward jumped right into action.

"Hold on! It's all right! I know C.P.R.! I'm certified and everything!" Edward got behind Jason and put his arms around the boy's torso.

"Don't you mean the Heimlich maneuver?" asked a concerned Mr. Brooks, who was sitting nearby.

Edward was too busy to respond. He had to save the kid's life. He had to do something to keep from looking like the total jerk that he was next to Willie. This was the perfect chance. He clenched his hands together right above Jason's sternum and began rhythmically squeezing with all the manly force he was capable of.

He was going to do it. He was going to show Denise. He was wondering what those cracking sounds meant.

Mr. Brooks bolted from his seat. "Man! You're doin' it wrong!"

"Shut up!" Edward roared, continuing his anaconda-like wrenching. After all, it was a black person. What do black people know? "I took a course on performing this."

"Yeah? How many dummies'd you kill?" Mr. Brooks easily yanked Edward out of the way. He gave Jason one quick jab to the soft part beneath his wounded rib cage and out came one chunk of Battle-Damage Armor™. It was a good he did, too, because Jason had nearly had it. And not just from suffocation.

"You all right, son?" Mr. Brooks asked caringly.

"Uh... koff koff... it hurts... " Jason moaned, clutching his chest.

There was a light round of applause, but the newly-made savior was too occupied to be even politely appreciative. Edward was finding the floor particularly interesting to look at. Harold shook hands with Mr. Brooks. "I wanna thank you for savin' my boy," he said, smiling. "I'd be glad to buy your supper for ya."

"Thank you kindly, but it ain't over with yet. Fast Thinker over there hurt your boy pretty bad. Looks like some busted ribs and probably some inside bleedin', too. Make sure nobody don't cancel that ambulance, and I'd suggest you get Swifty's name and address before he wanders too far. Might just take a few hospital bills off your hands."

Harold nodded, staring heatedly at Edward. "Yeah, thank ya, mister. I'll do that. You're all right." For a nigger.

After Edward was done being interrogated and having his rich Florida ass threatened to be sued for all it was worth, Mr. Brooks approached him again.

"Son, I know you was just tryin' to help. But if you can't do something right, don't do it at all." Mr. Brooks's deeply lined features were drawn into a frown. He was one of those people who can really make you feel like dirt if you get him mad at you, whether you know him personally or not. Kind of like getting scolded by Mister Rogers.

Things were dying down when Edward returned to his seat. Denise couldn't bring herself to look at him. And Willie just laughed and laughed.

"That was pretty stupid, don't you think?" asked a young man just entering Bob's. "I mean, them stopping here instead of trying to get away."

His companion sighed. Their names were Woody and Fredrickson. Woody was the younger one. The two men looked normal, like regular people and everything. But they weren't. They secretly had a very special job. It gave them lots of power over everybody else. That's why they were in disguise.

"Look, kid," Fredrickson whispered, "they robbed a jewelry place in broad daylight. They didn't make any hurry about leaving, even with the alarm going off. They let the store owner get their license plate number. They gave an unmarked car enough time to get behind 'em and follow 'em here. So I damn sure wouldn't put it past 'em to stop off afterwards for a relaxing meal."

"Yeah, I guess," agreed Woody. He hadn't held the secret job for a great length of time, and had yet to earn the veteran Fredrickson's respect. There were other secret men out in the parking lot watching Dave's Buick. Woody and Fredrickson had come inside to make sure they didn't try to slip off on foot, unlikely as that was.

"Maybe that's them right there." Fredrickson gestured discreetly toward Chris and Staci, whose features were somewhat like the descriptions of the thieves. Staci and Maggie were an exceptionally close match.

"Um, no, I don't think so."

Disconcerted, Fredrickson shoved his brain into overdrive. "Oh yeah, their clothes don't match. Still, they might have changed, so we better keep a check on those two."

"No, that's not what I meant. That couple's about through eating, but the ones we're looking for've barely had enough time to get their food brought to them, or maybe they're still just on their salads."

Fredrickson looked at Woody like that was the stupidest thing he'd ever heard, unable to admit that it was a decent point.

"Well, I eat here a lot," Woody said in defense. "I mean, when I'm off duty and--"

"Be quiet!" Fredrickson was good and angry. "Kid, when're you gonna learn? When we're out like this, we can't let anybody know who we are!"

Thelma saw that the police had arrived. Maybe they had something to do with Mr. Brooks. She'd have to keep watch. Anyway, the cops were there, so she'd have to take care of Hsfhkxlgd pretty soon. At the time, he was anxiously waiting for someone else to choke so he could go smash some of their ribs, and worried sick over why there wasn't a chunk of the aluminum oxide mineral corundum in his bread pudding. Then right on schedule Jennie walked up to his table.

"Is everything all right... sir... ?" She gaped at him fearfully, ready to collapse.

"Yes, I'd like some more Seven-Up, please." Hsfhkxlgd didn't want it really badly, actually. He just liked saying the word "Seven-Up."

"Oh... oh, you... oh, God!" Jennie had barely stayed intact through the ordeal with Thelma, and now this. Too much. She took off running -- yes, running -- for the waitress station, then broke down and cried.

How did she know? "No! I'm sorry!" Hsfhkxlgd yelled. "I don't really want another Seven-Up, I just--" He stopped. In shock he had capped a spurious hand over his face, and he felt something wet and slimy. On his fabricated left cheek there dripped four lines of bright blue pseudoplasm, roughly the size of four feminine fingers. He'd guessed that that slap might have made his face unstable, but had forgotten about it. He could fix it, but not right there. He grabbed a bunch of napkins with "Bob's Country Steakhouse -- Fine Family Dining" embossed on them, covered up his deteriorating face, and headed for the restroom.

Simultaneously, the person responsible for Hsfhkxlgd's plight happened to be going that way herself. As Staci was walking, a brilliant red flash on the floor caught her eye. She picked up the still moist ruby and looked it over. It felt pretty heavy, not like plastic or anything, and it might be worth something, so she stuck it in her pocket. Then she met Hsfhkxlgd in front of the restroom doors.

"You!" Staci screamed and pointed. "You're that guy!"

"Uh, hello," he said kindly, struggling to make the damp sapphire napkins he held to his face seem completely natural. "No, you didn't really do this to my face. Ha ha! Really, it's okay!"

Staci turned, huffing and puffing her way back to Chris, who was standing in line to pay the check. Hsfhkxlgd dove inside the men's room in relief.

"Chris! Chris, I found that guy I told you about! The one that shot me a bird! He went in the bathroom."

"Tryin' to hide, huh?" growled Chris, tensing up his well-muscled form. "Don't you worry, I'll go in there and kick his ass." Yeah, he had to get that guy. If he could impress Staci real good, maybe she'd put out a little sooner.

"He's sort of tall, with brown hair and some kinda blue stuff spilled all over his face," Staci said. "Hurry!"

Like a raging cyclone Chris burst into the men's room. And it was empty.

Thelma had finally taken out her retribution on Hsfhkxlgd. As soon as he was all alone, she had teleported him to a far-off point somewhere in the universe. Not into the cold, hard vacuum of space. Not within the fiery heart of some enormous star. Nope, she sent Hsfhkxlgd back to GaGringy Buhfongle. He landed safely in the middle of one of his homeworld's vast oceans of hydrochloric acid, which is the basic building block of all life there. And Ga-Gringians love to swim, and are able to do so at an average rate of a hundred and eighty miles per hour, so Hsfhkxlgd only had to shed his human form and he would be able to shortly reach shore and civilization. He was highly confused, but he knew he be able to catch a transport and be reunited with his family by tomorrow, able to resume a normal and happy life.

Had Thelma made a mistake?

"Oh, God. This was such a mistake." Dave was trembling harshly. "Come on, Maggie, we're gettin' out of here. If the place ain't surrounded with cops . Oh, God."

"Wait a minute," Maggie said, eating a few last bites of salad. "Let me have a sup of your Coke."

The two were sitting off in this back corner of the restaurant.

Woody then walked around to their area. The policemen had split up to look around. Somehow Woody's badge fell out of his suit pocket and he hurriedly picked it up. When he did, it accidentally flipped open to reveal a glittering flash of shield. Dave saw it, recognized it, and was totally unhinged. He was stupid, but he was observant. He went for his gun.

"Hey, cop!" Dave yelled, getting command of everyone's attention. "Listen, uh, you just let me, I mean us, let us out of here, right now, or I'll start shootin'! Uh, I will, man, if you don't believe me!"

Woody had pulled his gun on Dave. "It's gonna be all right," he said. "Just drop the gun and everything'll be--"

Dave responded with a couple of wild shots, hurting no one. Fredrickson came running. "Woody! Don't shoot!"

Too late. He had aimed right at Dave, and the shot would have done the trick, if Edward Millington's head hadn't been in the way. His brains blew all over the place. Bob's Country Steakhouse gave way to mindless chaos. Some hid beneath tables. Some tried to make a run for it. All were racked by intense primal fear. All. Even one salad person.

It happened really fast, but basically there were a few more shots, the only other serious injury being to Dolores, who took a slug in her left thigh. Dave was trying to head for the door, not realizing how futile that was. He got to the salad bar, around on Thelma's side, and started using it as a rampart to shoot from. Then somehow Dave pushed the salad bar over. It was sort of attached to the floor, but he was breathing adrenalin and all that. At the exact same instant that Thelma's salad bar came crashing down, Dave let off an unaimed shot that went ripping through Mr. Brooks's chest, killing him on the spot.

It's not really for certain whether it was the salad bar or Mr. Brooks that did it, but right then the Earth stood literally still. Everything went dark, not just on our mudball but across the span of the universe. Only one thing still shone, and the cursed souls within Bob's Country Steakhouse were far from being the only ones to know how awful it was to see. The rock from her mama's back yard must have shone like that. She did not speak for she did not need to. Every sentient being in creation knew what was to be known. Especially Dave Miller. She set his wretched little body aflame, a quick and easy death, since the human nervous system was far too limited to accommodate what she had in mind. She cast his consciousness into that psychic torture that she had used on herself earlier. Only this time she really made it hurt. And he would stay there forever.

It wasn't over yet. She began to scream, and Earth's walking god at last utilized what she was capable of, to the fullest extent. Her scream rang out through the cosmos, and when it was over, so was everything else. The whole universe was gone. There existed nothing. Not even the color black. Just Thelma, and somewhere, a soul in silent agony.

There's no way to tell how long it stayed like that, since Thelma had erased the existence of time, too. But at some point she decided to bring everything back. Going by memory she recreated the universe exactly. Almost.

When it was done, she started time again, backing it up just a few seconds from where it had left off. The gunfight at Bob's was still underway. Dave never considered pushing the salad bar over, since it was quite impossible. Then he pulled the trigger. The bullet fated for Mr. Brooks would not budge. The gun exploded and Dave died a fiery death. Physically, anyway.

The crisis was over. Medics arrived to clean up what was left of Dave and Edward and take care of the wounded and the shock victims. The manager decided to close early, but the next day Thelma returned to her booth from which she had always worked. Again customers started letting her read their minds, like always, and she telekinetically whipped up another batch of perfect salads for them. And the customers were utterly satisfied with what she made, like they always were. There was absolutely nothing strange or unacceptable about any of this, because it had always been like that, ever since Thelma had started working there. And everybody liked it.

Thelma certainly did. She'd toyed with the idea of making the switch, and since she had had the chance to start the whole universe from scratch, why not? It worked even better than she'd dreamed. But the alteration wasn't absolute. She had still caught Willie for doing something bad, but he had forgotten for what exactly, and Edward had still been against getting a salad at Bob's, but Denise couldn't really remember why. Things like that. Thelma hadn't wanted to mess up the way things worked out.

And Thelma's salad bar was the only one of its kind. "The Ultimate Salad Bar," it was called. All the rest in the world were still fix-it-yourself. And the state of things was accepted, simply because that's the way it was. Eventually, Bob's became franchised because of the salad bar's popularity, first nationwide then international. And Thelma got the heavenly job of controlling over six hundred salad bars around the world. But that was a long way off. A lot happened before then.

Dolores had her left leg amputated and pulled through okay, but spent the rest of her days complaining about it and feeling sorry for herself. Minnie Mae went to Dr. Simonson for some new dentures and got mad because they cost too much.

Staci tried to hock the ruby but had the misfortune of choosing the pawn shop run by Mr. Brooks. Not only did he instantly recognize it as one of the stolen gems, but he also recalled having seen Staci at Bob's on the night of the shooting. On the strength of his testimony and the way her looks fit the description, and despite her true pleas of innocence, she was sentenced to six years in prison. So Chris never got to have his way with her, and his connection to a convicted jewel thief let a lot of air out of his reputation. And like that wasn't enough, he went for his college football physical and the doctor told him that he had a rather unpleasant type of herpes. Maggie, the girl who should have been in jail, had vanished in the confusion of the shoot-out. It doesn't really matter where she went, because she hadn't helped in the robbery, and she hadn't ended up with any of the gems, so it's not like she thwarted justice or anything, right?

Denise gave the Hamptons a huge out-of-court settlement, about fifty times what Jason's medical bills were, and so they were immensely happy. Denise stayed in North Carolina with her parents for a while, and they let Willie stay in a guest room. Denise and Willie comforted each other over Edward's unsightly demise, and after ten months they got married. They were perfect together. Willie quit drinking and generally straightened himself out, and in exchange Denise let her accent return to that of her native land, and she even put on forty pounds for him and both were completely happy with it. One day they called the Hamptons to see how Jason was doing, and asked them how they'd like a free well-furnished home in Tampa, Florida, and a bunch more free money, too. Harold and Becky were only too glad to take it. Willie and Denise rented a trailer in Clyde, N.C., and started driving an old beat-up '77 Ford pickup. But they still had lots of money. Willie had decided that the only cool way to be rich is to not act like it. He figured the gods couldn't laugh at him that way. And the Hampton family was loving the life in Florida. Becky liked it the best because of all the new money she had to buy stuff to eat with. About four months after they'd moved there, Becky ate so much food so quickly that she exploded. And it was too bad, since she'd easily beaten the world's record for heaviest human, but there was no body left with which to prove it.

Woody was kicked off the police force for use of unnecessary force and all that, and was given a light prison term for involuntary manslaughter. When he got work release he was given a Job at Bob's, cleaning off tables and putting out fresh advertisements.

Thelma and Mr. Brooks became much better friends, going to each other's homes and everything. Mr. Brooks still got to fix his own salads at Bob's, too. He was the only one. Then about three years after the shoot-out night, Mr. Brooks found out he had bone cancer, and not long to live. He told Thelma, and she told him about what she was and what she could do. And he believed her, without her having to expose his mind to the truth or anything. Thelma offered to cure him, and to let him live however long he wanted to. Centuries, even. He completely turned her down. He told her he'd lived a wonderful life, and now the good Lord was calling him, and he was ready to go. Thelma didn't have the heart to tell him. So when Mr. Brooks died, she carefully freed his mind and let it live in eternal happiness, like he had expected it to on its own. It was the least she could do. Those last few weeks, both Mr. Brooks and Thelma had sort of wished they'd spent their years together more wisely, gotten married and everything. But he loved her. And she loved him. And the rest didn't make any difference.

Hsfhkxlgd told his people all about the wonderful planet Earth, and informed them of how severely it had been misjudged. Ga-Gringy Buhfongle sent a fleet of diplomatic vessels to make ties with Earth, arriving a little over two years after Mr. Brooks died. Most of the defenseless craft were shot down in flight, and when the undisguised Ga-Gringians emerged from the ones that did get to land, they were all killed at once because they looked like such horrifying monsters. None of the seventy-eight ambassadors survived, and Hsfhkxlgd was in their number. When word reached Ga-Gringy Buhfongle, the outrage was incredible. Hsfhkxlgd went down as the biggest fool in their history, and his story was passed down through the ages as the single most potent warning against 12-F's. In several Ga-Gringian languages, the word for "idiot" came to be replaced by the word "hsfhkxlgd."

Thelma hadn't made a mistake, after all.

Fancy Renerings