The Change

by Kathleen Hellen

Mitzi wasn’t her name; it was the name Dad had given her because it sounded like a movie star’s—more exotic—a nickname he had given her after they married, when she started working for him at the bar. A photograph of Margaret Ella Simmons posing on a beach resembles one of those 1950’s Hollywood studio publicity shots. At the corner of her mouth she had penciled in a beauty mark like Marilyn Monroe’s. She drew her eyes round and stupid-looking like a cow’s, glued a fringe of mink as eyelashes. Another photograph: Summer, 1956, my mother in a sleeveless turtleneck brandishing a cigarette like Bette Davis. In her eyes, what was it? Hatred? The affect of boredom? Despair?

Seven days a week Dad was at the Carousel, the bar he had bought when he came back from Japan after the war. Mornings he mopped the linoleum floors, switched kegs and cleaned the beer lines; scrubbed glasses at the sink, and hauled up cases—Jim Beam, Four Roses, Old Grand-Dad—from the dirt cellar; evenings he played bouncer and supervised the barmaids, including Mitzi who worked the shift from 7 to closing. In the few hours he wasn’t at the Carousel he was snoring on the couch in front of the black-and-white Motorola. He only stirred if I changed the channel to cartoons. Meanwhile, the Eva Gabor wigs were coming in the mail like party invitations. Short wigs, long. Blonde and black. A fiery copper-red. Whenever she put one on, Mitzi assumed the character: The Sex Kitten. The Mysterious Dragon Lady. The Blonde Bubble Head who waltzed around the house, singing “Que sera sera” with Doris Day on the record player, a duo of whatever will be, will be…..

By now Mitzi was having an affair with Uncle Al. We started calling him that after he showed up one Sunday with a brand-new Singer sewing machine. She’d been asking Dad to buy her one for years but he always made some excuse: the till was short three months in a row or another barmaid had quit after “stealing him blind.” The Singer hummed constantly when Mitzi wasn’t working at the bar; she hemmed Dad’s pants, made curtains for the front room that looked out like a storefront on to Main Street, she made our dresses for school she called “shifts.” The next thing we knew, Uncle Al was stopping by the apartment every weekend in his beat-up truck to take us to the farm or Spillway Lake. It got so obvious my Dad put his fist through the wall, leaving a hole the size of a dinner plate.

That was only the beginning. Mitzi started sleeping with a baseball bat under the bed. She started taking pills for weight loss my sister called “robin’s eggs.” From 120 to 100 pounds, Mitzi lost her “baby fat” Dad called it, but she was also always agitated and prone to crying jags that locked her in the bathroom for hours and from which she emerged, all red and puffy, her eyes swelled up like golf balls. My sister took over the cooking, toasting hot dogs for dinner over the burner, the way you toast a marshmallow over a camp fire. She washed the dishes, washed the clothes, kept an eye on me. “Maybe if they kill each other, I’ll get some sleep,” she’d say, and stab a sizzling hot dog with a fork.

The bar had become everything. Not only did we live in its apartment—dark rooms, dark paneling, cold linoleum floors—it had insinuated itself into our lives, exacerbating Mitzi’s drug-induced behavior. Sometimes she got so drunk she fell off her silver stilettos. Or she slept all afternoon, her bedroom reeking of cigarettes and Harvey’s Bristol Cream—the booze Dad had suggested she drink because it would be easier on her stomach. Once she tried to stab him with a kitchen knife. Another photograph: the two of us girls in halter-tops and boxy shorts. I was squinting, shaking my fist—at what? The camera? Whoever was taking the picture? “Do you think they’ll get a divorce?” I asked. But my sister was changing too. She started sneaking out at night to meet boys in the dug-out.  I made my escape in movies.

The Blob was the second in a series of sci-fi features that had hit the Anton Theater on Third and Main. I thrilled to it. How else to explain why these people called my parents had become so strange? An alien life had consumed them. Run…the trailer warned—against that oozing, creeping thing that slid into the rows of darkened seats, through the agitated shadows of the projectionist’s booth, into the movie of a movie, a red, pulpy slime that would transform us. It was everywhere. Near Whiskey Point, at the hairpin turn, so many unexplained accidents. In October two men in a car were approaching the bridge when they saw an egg-shaped craft floating above them. They were burned when the object lifted, flying away.

If only I had known its power, so insidious—not human, not animal. A growing jelly-mass of alien life-form that had slipped into the bar that August night to grab a Yoo-Hoo from the cooler. I don’t know what had awakened me. The train? A rumbling like some living thing trapped inside the walls. The shaking. A long low whining in my sleep. I slipped out of bed, tiptoed down the hallway, the cramped rooms on one side. The narrow kitchen overlooked the pony-league field and dug-outs, the tracks that stretched from here to someplace in Ohio. B&O. The P&LE. The door to the adjoining bar was shut. If the movie had a score, it would have been that finger-snapping, toe-tapping song that was the prelude to The Blob oozing toward us. On the screen, suddenly: The house lights had gone down, the curtain had drawn back, and now there was Mitzi. She had climbed up on the bar with a sledge hammer. She looked huge, feral in her leopard-print capris, Amazonian; the copper-colored wig she was wearing seemed to have burst into flame. She let out a grunt.  Her target was Dad’s new National cash register.

The first blow popped out the drawer; it sent metal like shrapnel flying everywhere. Money flew—paper bills shot out helter-skelter, swirling, floating, falling to the floor like ticker-tape in a parade; coins skittered across the linoleum, rolled, spun, collided into each other, into the metal legs of bar stools. At the second blow chunks of flying metal careened into the whiskey bottles lined up on the shelves; the bottles exploding like grenades. A piece of metal hit the neon in the “Mabel, Black Label” sign. It popped, sparked, went out in a fizzle, permanently black. Another piece of metal crippled the potato chip rack, toppling bags into the sink, under which I had crawled and was hiding. “For Christ’s sake, Mitzi,” I heard my Dad wail.

The Carousel closed that weekend for the first time. We never really talked about what happened after that. On weekends, just like he always did, Dad counted up his fives and tens; in paper wrappers, he rolled up the nickels and dimes, the quarters marked red for the jukebox. Dad got a new cash register. Dr. Golomb diagnosed the episode as “Change of Life,” but I knew better. Sometimes I would come home after school to find Mitzi in black leotards and fishnet, wigged like Abbe Lane, twisting, rolling her hips, snapping her fingers to Cugie’s Cocktails on the record player. Sometimes we danced the “Daiquiri” together. The “One Mint Julep.” “The Singapore Sling.” From room to room we did the Latin mambo, the cha-cha-cha, down the narrow hallway, back again, Mitzi leading as I followed, my sister too, sometimes—neither of us knowing where we were going, where Mitzi was taking us, into what dark alien world.