It was an inconvenient day for Dawdle the dachshund to turn into a fax machine. Not that there is any convenient time for ontology to come unglued, but Carol already had plans: a nice catch-up chat with the children while walking Dawdle in Rittenhouse Square, followed by a family lunch at Le Castagne.
Carol didn’t notice anything amiss until shortly before eleven, when the door chime rang. Kim peeked in without entering when Carol opened the door. “Hi, Mom. Is the Stepford Baptist here yet? If he is, I’m waiting in the lobby.”
“Your brother hasn’t arrived yet,” Carol said. “If you fight with him again, I swear, Kimmy, I will write you out of my will. Are you coming in, or not?”
Kim came in, her step hesitant. She wore her hair in a low-maintenance bob, and was letting some gray creep into it for the first time, Carol noted with approval.
“Dawdle! Time for walkies!” Carol called.
Kim said, “I thought you wrote both of us out of your will last month.”
“Then I’ll slander your law firm on call-in radio shows, and write crank letters about your summer stock troupe to the newspaper,” Carol said. “Don’t underestimate me, Kim, I am old and filled with guile.” She put her hands on her hips. “Dawdle! Where is that dog? Kim, help me find him. I don’t want him to do his business behind the couch and upset the cleaning lady. She’s Mennonite, so she’s not allowed to swear, and it makes her all grumpy when she wants to and can’t.”
Carol’s apartment was not large. The two women were able to search it thoroughly in a few minutes. Dawdle could not be found.
“Did he slip out when you opened the front door?” Kim asked. “Mom, what’s that in the fish tank?”
“Oh, no. I hope he didn’t. I keep reading about dognappers who catch pets and sell them for research. Poor Dawdle.”
“Mom, I think there’s a DVD player in your fish tank.”
The door chime rang. Carol went to answer it. “I’m not speaking to him!” Kim yelled.
Carol opened the door. “Hi, Mom,” Robert said. “Sorry I’m late.” He embraced her. He wore his thinning hair in a pompadour. His face was perpetually fixed in a rictus that Kim had dubbed “The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa on Strychnine.”
“Hi, Kimmy!” he yelled across the room. “The blessings of Christ on you!”
“Fuck you!” Kim yelled back.
“Don’t be mean to your sister,” Carol said. “Come on in, we’re missing a dog.”
“Be mean to her?” Robert let his mother go. “Mom, I’m wishing her God’s love.”
“No, you’re not, you’re saying the same thing she is, only in different words. I really think you were less annoying when you were a Hare Krishna, even though you smelled of curry all the time.” Robert had eventually gotten over the Krishnas, and Osho, and Scientology, but then had discovered evangelical Christianity, and showed no sign of getting over that.
“Why is there a DVD player in the fish tank?” Kim asked. “Mom, that’s abnormal.” She walked over to Carol and rubbed her hand across her mother’s back. “Listen to me,” she said soothingly. “You lost your dog somewhere. There’s electronics in the fish tank. I know you don’t want to hear this, but as we get older, we become forgetful, and easily confused. There’s no shame in that, Mom. It happens to everyone. An assisted-living facility—”
Carol shook off her daughter’s hand. “We’ve discussed this. It is my intention to live alone, increasingly unable to care for myself, in a midden of ever-deepening squalor and filth, until some day robbers break in and kill me. My mind is quite made up.”
Kim made an exasperated noise. “You’re not living in squalor, you’re just becoming a little forgetful—”
“Mom,” Robert said, “why is there a fax machine on the dog bed?”
As they watched, the fax machine beeped twice and spat out an advertisement touting a penny stock. “Spam,” Kim said in a disgusted voice.
“I enjoy spam,” Carol said. “I never knew there were so many exciting ways to enlarge my penis. Robert, are you choking?”
“I’m fine, Mom.”
“Anyway,” Carol said, “It seems I no longer have a dog to walk, and you can’t very well walk a fax machine, so let’s just have lunch. I’m famished.”
A blue and yellow parakeet fluttered in from the bedroom and perched on the back of the sofa. Kim said, “Do you want to put your bird back in its cage before we go?”
“I don’t own a bird,” Carol said. “That is, I didn’t until now.”
“What the hell is going on here?” Kim said. She rose, went to the fish tank, and with some effort pulled the DVD player out and put it on the rug. “Sorry about the wet,” she said. “Mom, look in the tank. See any fish missing?”
Carol examined the tank. “Brutus isn’t there. He was the only fish. He ate all the others. He was very insecure.”
“Get the fax machine,” Kim said, “and put it here on the floor with the DVD player. Robert, watch the parakeet. Don’t take your eye off it.”
“Kim,” Robert asked, “is this some Wicca thing? I can’t go along with that.”
“Well, I don’t go along with snake handling and foot washing, so we’re even,” Kim said.
They sat, not speaking, Kim and Carol watching the electronics, Robert with his eye on the bird. The parakeet whistled. Hot summer sun poured through the living room window.
Without warning, without a sound, there was a brown and white ferret sitting on the floor. Its fur was sopping, and when it shook itself, it sprayed the three humans with water droplets. The ferret looked around, spotted the parakeet, and leaped for the couch. The parakeet chirped wildly and fluttered up against the ceiling.
After frantic efforts by Kim and Robert involving much yelling and climbing over the furniture, the terrified parakeet was captured in a bedsheet and released into the bathroom. Robert slammed the door behind it. After scratching at the bathroom door for a minute, the ferret gave up the hunt and settled itself into Carol’s lap. She gently dried its damp fur with a dish towel. “You see?” she said. “You two are perfectly capable of getting along and accomplishing something, if you only try.”
“Mom,” Kim said, “forget that. There’s something very weird going on here. Look around. Where’s the DVD player I took from the fish tank? I think . . . I think it turned into the ferret. Oh, my God.”
“How odd,” Carol said.
“Understatement of the year,” Kim said.
“The DVD player turned into a ferret,” Robert said. “Before that it must have been the fish: that’s why it was in the fish tank. What about the parakeet?”
“The parakeet flew out of the bedroom,” Carol said. “Let me look.” She deposited the ferret on the couch and went into the bedroom, returning a moment later. “My clock radio is missing.”
“The clock radio is fluttering around the bathroom, crapping on the towels,” Kim said. “Pets and consumer electronics are turning into each other.” She laughed, but her laughter had an edge to it, as though it were ready to break into a shriek of terror.
Robert was on his knees, his eyes closed, his lips moving, his hands in an attitude of prayer.
Kim grabbed a pillow from the couch and threw it at him. “Stop that! We need less superstition, and more practical action. What is the world going to be like, when an iPod can turn into a Siamese?”
“But why should an iPod change into a Siamese?”
“Maybe reality got sucker-punched by vacuum fluctuations? Our collective subconscious is having a nervous breakdown? LSD in the water supply? Any of those is more likely than an invisible guy in the sky working miracles.”
“I meant ‘why’ more in a teleological sense,” Robert said. “Why would God change an iPod into a Siamese? Maybe it’s justice in the manner of Dante’s Inferno. Maybe we are being punished with our own sins.
“We can’t tell the difference any more between our digital toys and our pets. We give our computers pet names. We get mad when they don’t do what we want. Then we go and treat our pets like objects. We chop their ears and tails to fit our fancy. We breed them into grotesque shapes. We ignore that they are our fellow living beings. Maybe this is God’s judgement on our confused feelings.”
A Shar-Pei stood where the TV had been.
“Good Christ, you personalize everything,” Kim said. “Everything is about you, you, you. Can a raindrop fall from the sky without your interpreting it as a judgement by God on the human condition? Your whole religion is an exercise in the metaphysics of narcissism.”
“Look at you two,” Carol said. “And a moment ago you were doing so well together. Just stop it, both of you, or . . . or I’ll send you both home and deal with this myself.”
“Mom,” Kim said, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m not going to leave you alone with it.”
“And I’m not going to abandon my mother to the tender mercies of a daughter who spent the formative years of her life going to Marxist orgies,” Robert said.
“You dipwad, the Marxism and the orgies were months apart!”
“And she got over it, just you as got over that Oregon guru with the hundred Rolls-Royces,” Carol said. “Why can’t you accept that? People change, Robert.”
“Ninety-three,” said Robert in the pained voice of innocence falsely accused. “He only had ninety-three Rolls-Royces.”
Kim drew a deep breath. “I need a smoke,” she said. “I’m going out.”
“We’ll go together,” Carol said. “I’ll walk the Shar-Pei, since Dawdle is now a fax machine.” She frowned. “Normally I wouldn’t leave the ferret alone in the apartment, but it will probably be a cell phone or something by time we get back.”
“Then it’s useless to walk the Shar-Pei,” Kim said. “It’ll just turn into something else, too.”
“But he wants to be walked,” Carol said. She knelt and put her arms around the dog, which licked her face. “Isn’t he the sweetest thing? I love Shar-Peis, but they’re too large for the apartment.”
Kim was correct. By the time Carol, Kim, and Robert exited the elevator in the building’s lobby, the Shar-Pei had become a tabletop grill. They left it with the concierge.
On Rittenhouse Square the sun was shining, a hot summer breeze blew bits of paper down 18th Street, and the iPods and cell phones of passersby were all turning into parrots and cockatoos that fluttered up into the sycamores. Kim lit a cigarette.
“Do you imagine people will start turning into things, too?” Carol asked. “I think that would be fun. I wanted to be an airplane when I was a little girl. A beautiful silver airplane, flying all over the world, landing at airports in exotic foreign lands. Or maybe an albatross. They fly all over the world too, don’t they? Instead, I became a librarian.”
“Accept Christ,” Kim said. “Maybe he’ll turn you into an albatross. He turned my brother into a loon.”
“I pray for your soul every night, Kim,” Robert said.
“Blow me,” Kim said.
Carol said, “After I decided to major in Library Science, my father didn’t speak to me for a year. He thought I’d never marry. I think he was confused about the difference between ‘librarian’ and ‘lesbian.’ Polysyllables easily confused him. He sent me away to college because that was what you were supposed to do with young people. He was shocked when I came back different. New opinions, new hemlines. Cigarettes. Socialism. He never quite recovered. I enjoyed being a librarian, though. Kim, I’m sure Robert enjoys being a Methodist, or Baptist, or whatever he is. Why be mean to him?”
“Because he’s dumb?” Kim said. “Because when we were kids Robert was perfectly normal, and fun, and we were best friends. When he went away to college I cried and cried, but he never came back. Instead we got this Baptist robot wearing Robert’s skin and talking in his voice. Give me my brother back, dammit!”
“I’d rather have Dawdle back than a fax machine. But it’s no good fretting over it,” Carol said.
Laptop PCs and plasma screen TVs attached to leashes littered the walks that crossed Rittenhouse Square. Carol looked at her watch. “Le Castagne isn’t open for lunch for another thirty minutes. We have no dog to walk so—no, wait, there’s a dog.” One of the plasma-TVs-on-a-leash had turned into an English bulldog, which stared about confusedly. Carol walked over and took its leash. “How lucky! Let’s go.”
They strolled beneath the oaks and elms that shaded the square’s wide grassy lawns, towards the center, where an iron fence enclosed flower beds and the bright spray of a fountain could be seen above the tops of cannas. A lunchtime crowd of white-collar workers from nearby office buildings and locals on a stroll usually filled Rittenhouse Square at this hour, but today the crowd was sparse. One hyperventilating man with staring eyes pulled a cordless phone behind him on a leash. On a bench an old woman sat with a coffeemaker in her lap, stroking it with her hand and looking lost.
Kim and Robert walked behind Carol and talked on their cell phones.
“Have you got any contacts at Penn?” Kim said. “In the Physics or Philosophy Departments? Maybe someone who’s done expert witness work for us. Yes, I know philosophers don’t work as expert witnesses much—”
“So what does Dr. Brindle think?” Robert said. “Well, if you can’t get through to him, maybe that’s because his phone has turned into a hamster or something. Can someone drive to his house? I’m sure many people will find this a terribly upsetting situation, and I think the congregation would welcome guidance from the church elders.”
“Could it be construed as a product defect if a rotisserie turns into a spaniel?” Kim said into her phone. “There may be some tort risk for the manufacturing divisions of some of our clients. How long will it take to put together a memo on the subject?”
“Everything is at sixes and sevens,” Robert said into his phone. “Might this situation all be an illusion of Satan? Although, if we’re being tempted to sin, I’m darned if I can figure what sin we’re being tempted to.”
“‘An illusion of Satan’?” Kim said. She lowered her phone. “Doubtless there’s a guy in a red union suit with horns and a tail behind it all. Robert, the sin I’m being tempted to is to smack you upside the head for having the IQ of broccoli.”
Robert lowered his cell phone. He said, “I will not be lectured to by a spiritual nihilist whose response to a metaphysical crisis is to worry about tort liability.” He spat out the words.
Carol turned around and said, “Both of you, stop it!” Kim’s cell phone turned into an iguana. Robert’s turned into a Burmese python. Both shrieked, and dropped the reptiles onto the grass, where they slithered away. The bulldog at the end of Carol’s leash was now a camcorder.
“I only get to see my children a couple of times a year,” Carol said. “Is a pleasant walk and a family lunch too much to ask? I have asked you two twice to be civil with each other, yet you seem incapable of this.”
Kim said. “I don’t—oh, my God, what’s that?”
While they had been talking, the three had crossed Rittenhouse Square diagonally and emerged where 19th Street ends at Walnut. One by one, the sycamores that lined the curb were turning into giant clockwork soldiers, pulling themselves out of the earth, and marching down Walnut Street. They sang “Green Grow the Rashes” as they walked.
“This is worse,” Kim said. “It’s not pets or electronics. Whatever is happening, it’s spreading. The world’s going insane.”
“It’s not worse, it’s not insane,” Carol said, “it’s just different.” She put her hands on her hips. “I’ve had it with both of you fussy old hens. You are even worse than your grandfather at dealing with change. Things change. People change. Life goes on. Lunch happens. I’m pushing both of you out of the nest, and not a moment too soon. It’s time you learned to fly.” She waved at one of the mechanical soldiers walking by. “Yoo-hoo! Are you fellows going anywhere near the 1600 block of Chestnut?”
“Yeah, I guess we could,” the soldier replied in a voice that reminded Carol of a sousaphone, if sousaphones could speak. The other soldiers chimed in, saying “Aye!”, “Yo,” and similar expressions. They sounded like the brass section warming up in the orchestra pit.
“Give me a lift, please?” she asked.
“Mother, no!” Kim yelled.
“Pleasure,” the mechanical soldier said. He reached down an immense enameled tin hand and scooped Carol up, placing her on his shoulder.
“Put her down,” Robert yelled. “Mother, it’s too dangerous!”
“Ignore that silly man,” Carol said.
“Whatever you like, lady,” the mechanical soldier said.
Carol looked back. The mechanical soldier was marching along smartly, clanking and whirring like a machine shop. Kim and Robert ran after them, shouting, but rapidly fell behind.
“I’m going to have him drop me off at the restaurant,” Carol called back to them. “I still want to have lunch with you two, but I’m leaving you to your own devices if you want to meet me there. Be inventive! Help each other. Use your imagination.”
Walnut Street itself had begun to change: now it was a Roman stone causeway, now a meadow crossed by wheel traces, now a Venetian canal through which Carol’s mechanical soldier splashed on giant legs. Far behind, Kim and Robert paddled about in the green water. Carol thought she saw Kim help Robert into a gondola, but then they were lost in the distance among the boats and the gulls and the glitter of the sun off the water.
“I did so want to have lunch with the children,” Carol said to the mechanical soldier. “But they simply must learn to accept each other and get along. Sometimes we just need a good strong kick in the tushie to get us out of a mental rut, don’t you think?”
“If you say so, lady,” the soldier said.
“Oh, I know, it’s not your problem,” Carol said. “I do ramble on so. I hope Le Castagne hasn’t turned into a pine forest or a Civil War monument or something. I adore their chef’s polenta-crusted scallops. Still, even if it’s gone, maybe something else on Chestnut Street will have changed into a restaurant. That’s the way it was in the 1970s, every time you turned around, there was an exciting new place to eat.” The camel on which she rode clumped down the sandy track through a sunbaked mud-brick souk where turbaned merchants cried their wares, and Carol had to duck her head beneath the drooping fronds of palm trees. “It was fun, then, but I’m always ready for something new.”