The Water Eater

by Winston Marks

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Most experiments were dropped because they failed--and some because they worked too well!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

I just lost a weekend. I ain’t too anxious to find it. Instead, I sure wish I had gone fishing with McCarthy and the boys like I’d planned.

I drive a beer truck for a living, but here it is almost noon Monday and I haven’t turned a wheel. Sure, I get beer wholesale, and I have been known to take some advantage of my discount. But that wasn’t what happened to this weekend.

Instead of fishing or bowling or poker or taking the kids down to the amusement park over Saturday and Sunday, I’ve been losing sleep over an experiment.

Down at the Elks’ Club, the boys say that for a working stiff I have a very inquiring mind. I guess that’s because they always see me reading Popular Science and Scientific American and such, instead of heading for the stack of Esquires that are piled a foot deep in the middle of the big table in the reading room, like the rest of them do.

Well, it was my inquiring mind that lost me my wife, the skin of my right hand, a lot of fun and sleep--yeah, not a wink of sleep for two days now! Which is the main reason I’m writing this down now. I’ve read somewheres that if you wrote down your troubles, you could get them out of your system.

I thought I had troubles Friday night when I pulled into the driveway and Lottie yelled at me from the porch, “The fire’s out! And it’s flooded. Hurry up!”

Trouble, hah! That was just the beginning.


Lottie is as cute a little ex-waitress as ever flipped the suds off a glass of beer, but she just ain’t mechanically minded. The day Uncle Alphonse died and left us $2500 and I went out and bought a kitchen and shed full of appliances for her, that was a sad day, all right. She has lived a fearful life ever since, too proud of her dishwasher and automatic this and that to consider selling them, but scared stiff of the noises they make and the vibrations and all the mysterious dials and lights, etc.

So this Friday afternoon when the oil-burner blew out from the high wind, she got terrified, sent the kids over to their grandmother’s in a cab and sat for two hours trying to make up her mind whether to call the fire department or the plumber.

Meanwhile, this blasted oil stove was overflowing into the fire pot.

“Well, turn it off!” I yelled. “I’ll be in right away!”

I ducked into the garage and got a big handful of rags and a hunk of string and a short stick. This I have been through before. I went in and kissed her pretty white face, and a couple of worry lines disappeared.

“Get me a pan or something,” I said and started dismantling the front of the heater.

These gravity-flow oil heaters weren’t built to make it easy to drain off excess oil. There’s a brass plug at the inlet, but no one in history has been able to stir one, the oil man told me. I weigh 200 pounds stripped, but all I ever did was ruin a tool trying.

The only way to get out the oil was to open the front, stuff rags down through the narrow fire slot, sop up the stuff and fish out the rags with the string tied around one end of the bundle. Then you wring out the rags with your bare hands into a pan.

“Hey, Lottie,” I yelled, “this is your roaster! It’ll be hard to clean out the oil smell!”

But, of course, it was too late. I had squeezed a half-pint of oil into it already. So I went on dunking and wringing and thinking how lousy my cigarettes were going to taste all evening and feeling glad that I delivered beer instead of oil for a living.


I got the stove bailed out and lit with only one serious blast of soot out the “Light Here” hole. Then I dumped the oil out in the alley and set the roaster pan in the sink. Lottie was peeling potatoes for dinner, and she snuggled her yellow curls on my shoulder kind of apologetically for the mess she had caused me. I scrubbed the soot and oil off my hands and told her it was all right, only next time, for gosh sakes, please turn the stove off at least.

The water I was splashing into the roaster gathered up in little shrinking drops and reminded me that the pig-hocks I brought home for Sunday dinner were going to rate throwing out unless we got the oil smell out of the pan.

“Tell you what you do,” I said to Lottie. “Get me all your cleaning soaps and stuff and let’s see what we got.”

Lottie is always trying out some new handy-dandy little kitchen helper compound, so she hefted up quite an armload. Now, when I was in high school, I really liked chemistry. “Charlie, Boy Scientist,” my pals used to sneer at me. But I was pretty good at it, and I been reading the science magazines right along ever since. So I know what a detergent is supposed to do, and all about how soaps act, and stuff that most people take the advertisers’ word for.

“This one,” I told Lottie, “has a lot of caustic in it, see?”

She nodded and said that’s the one that ruined her aluminum coffee pot. She remembered it specially.

I poured some very hot tap water into the roaster and shook in the strong soap powder. “This is to saponify the oil,” I explained.

“What’s saponify?” Lottie asked.

“That means to make soap. Soap is mainly a mixture of some caustic with fat or oil. It makes sudsy soap.”

“But we got soap,” she said. “Why don’t you just use the soap we got?”

We went into the business of soap-making pretty deep. Meanwhile, I read some more labels and added pinches of this and that detergent and a few squirts of liquid “wonder-cleaners” that didn’t say what was in them.

In her crisp Scotch way, Lottie got across to me that she thought I was wasting soap powder and my time and cluttering up the sink while she was busy there, so I wound up with half a cup of Doozey soap flakes, filled the pan to the brim and set the concoction at the back of the drain board to do its business.


When dinner was over, I was in the living room reading the paper when I heard Lottie muttering at the sink. Lottie doesn’t usually mutter, so I went out to see what was wrong.

“Nice mess,” she said and pointed at the roaster. The stuff had cooled and jelled into a half-solid condition.

“Hah!” I said. “We had a supersaturated solution. When it cooled off, it coagulated.”

Lottie scowled. It makes her nervous when I use big words which I only do when I’m talking about chemistry and the like.

“Well, uncoogalate it and dump it out of my roaster,” she told me.

My scientific inquiring mind was stirred as I lifted the pan over to the table under the center light. We had here a gelatin of various cleaners, and every one of them claiming to be best ever. What would this new combination do?

I grabbed a pan off the stove that had a mess of scorched carrot leavings in the bottom. Lottie had been soaking it with about a half inch of water. As I reached for a tablespoon, Lottie objected. “Look, now, if you are going to start another experiment, dump that mess out first and let me work on the roaster.”

I saved about a cupful of the slimy gunk and she went back to her dishes.

“You’ll be sorry,” I said under my breath, “if this turns out to be the only batch of the finest cleaner in the whole world. And us with only a cupful.”

A minute later, I was glad she hadn’t heard me. When I dropped a little glob of the stuff into the carrot pan and stirred it around a bit, instead of dissolving and diluting in the extra water, the mixture seemed to stay the same density after swallowing up the water.

“Give me a pie tin,” I demanded.

Lottie sighed, but she got a shallow pan out of the pantry and handed it to me. Then I poured the jelly out of the carrot pan and I made my first important discovery.

The stuff was not good for cleaning out scorched carrots.

The pot was bone-dry. So were the carrots. They had a desiccated look and were stuck worse than ever to the bottom. I brushed them with my finger and the top layers powdered to dust. Then I noticed that not a droplet or smidgin of the jelly remained in the pot. When I had poured it out, it had gone out all at the same time, as if it was trying to hang together.

The carbonized carrots at the very bottom were hard and dry, too. A scrape job if I ever saw one.


The pie tin was now full almost to the rim. The globby stuff sort of rolled around, trying to find a flat condition, which it finally did. The motion was not as startling as the sudden quiet that settled over the surface after a last ripple.

The stuff looked like it was waiting.

The temptation was worse than a park bench labeled “wet paint,” so I stuck my finger in it. Right in the middle of it.

A ripple flashed out from the center like when you drop a pebble in a pool, and the ripple hit the brim and converged back to my finger. When it hit, the surface climbed up my finger about an eighth of an inch. Another ripple, another eighth of an inch, and about now I felt something like a gentle sucking sensation. Also, another feeling I can only tell you was “unclammy.”

I jerked away fast and shook my finger hard over the pan, but it wasn’t necessary. None of the stuff had stayed with me. In fact, my finger was dry--powdery dry!

Then I got the feeling that someone was staring over my shoulder. There was. It was Lottie, and she had a look of horror on her face that didn’t help my nerves a bit.

“Get rid of it, Charlie!” she cried. “Get rid of it! Please throw it out!”

“Now, now, honey,” I said. “It ain’t alive.”

“It is!” she insisted.

Lottie chatters quite a bit and pretty well speaks her mind. But she doesn’t go around making assertions. When she does come out flat-footed with a serious statement, it is always from the bottom of her 22-carat womanly intuition, and she is practically always right.

“How could it be alive?” I argued. I often argue when I know I’m wrong. This time I argued because I wanted to wipe that awful look off my wife’s face. “Come on in the living room and relax,” I said.


And then sweet-natured, honey-haired little Lottie did a violent thing. Still staring over my shoulder at the pie tin, she screamed wide-open and ran out of the house. A second later, I heard her start the car out the driveway at 30 miles an hour in reverse. She burned rubber out in front and was gone.

I hadn’t moved an inch. Because when she screamed, I looked back at the jelly to see why, and the stuff had oozed over the edge and was flowing slowly toward me.

I know a little about Korzybski and how he wanted everybody to make what he called a cortico-thalamic pause whenever they get scared as hell. So I was making this cortico-thalamic pause, which is really counting to ten before you do anything, while Lottie was leaving the house. When I got through with my pause, I jumped backward over my kitchen chair so hard that I must have knocked my head on the tile sink-board.

When I came to, it was after midnight. The kitchen light was still on. Lottie was still gone. I knew it. If she was here, she’d have had me in bed. No matter how much of my employer’s product I have sampled, never has Lottie let me sleep it off on the kitchen floor. Her 110 pounds is a match for my 200 in more ways than one, and she takes good care of her man.

Then I realized that this was not a stag beer-bust. There was something about a pot of soap-jelly.

It was still there. A long slug of the half-transparent stuff had strung down off the edge of the table and still hung there like a nasty-looking icicle.

The knob on the back of my head throbbed so much that at first I couldn’t figure what was wrong with the air. Then my aching dry throat told me what the matter was. The air was dry like the summer we spent at a dude ranch in Arizona. It made my nostrils crimp, and my tongue felt like a mouthful of wrinkled pepperoni.

When I got to my feet and looked at the top of the kitchen table, I almost panicked again. But this time the pause worked and I got better results.

Alive or dead, the gunk was the most powerful desiccant I’d ever heard of. It had drunk up the water in the carrot pot, sucked the surface moisture from my finger and then spent the past few hours feeding on the humidity in the air.

It was thirsty. Like alcohol has affinity for water, this stuff was the same way, only more so. In fact, it even reached out toward anything that had water in it--like me.

That’s why it had oozed over the pan the way it did.


What’s so frightening about that, I asked myself. Plants grow toward water.

[Illustration]

But plants are alive!

That’s what Lottie had said--before she screamed.

“So you’re thirsty?” I asked it out loud. “Okay, we’ll give you a real drink!”

I got a bucket from the service porch and took the pancake turner to scrape the gooey nightmare into it. I even caught the drip off the edge, and it seemed quietly grateful to sink back to the parent glob in the pail, which by now amounted to about a quart.

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