THE HOUSE FROM NOWHERE.
by Arthur G. Stangland
New neighbors are always exciting. But the anachronistic MacDonalds offered a bit too much.
The morning paper lay unread before Philon Miller on the breakfast table and even the prospects of steaming coffee, ham, eggs and orange juice could not make him forget his last night's visitors.
On the closed-circuit Industrial TV screen glowed the words, Food Preparation Center breakfast menu for July 24, 2052. No. 1, orange juice, coffee, ham and eggs. No. 2, waffle, coffee....
Automatically he punched the button for No. 1. Oh, his visitors had made matters appear justifiable. The presidential election campaign was going badly, Rakoff the chairman said, and his poll-quota for the election had been upped from twenty-five grand to fifty.
A stainless-steel capsule popped into the transparent wall dock. Of course the party quota system was taken for granted, he mused, removing the capsule, but it was an obligation you didn't welsh on. The muscle boys in the party organization saw to that. But still, fifty thousand....
Across the table John, his sixteen-year-old adopted son, stirred. "I guess you aren't as hungry as I am, Phil."
"What? Oh, sorry." John--down here for breakfast? What was the matter? The kid sick or something? Every morning he took his meal to his room to eat in solitude. Funny kid.
Philon removed the food capsule from the wall dock, stopping the soft gushing of air in the suction tube. Setting it on the table he snapped it open and removed the individual thermocels of food.
Philon poured coffee from the thermos and absently stirred in cream and sugar. Fifty thousand....
John was well into his breakfast already. "Phil, I was down to visit those people on the corner--you know, the house that appeared there over-night."
"Their name is MacDonald," John said. "And they have a son, Jimmie, just my age, and a younger girl, Jean. Gosh, you ought to see the inside of their house, Phil. Old-fashioned! At the windows they got something called venetian blinds instead of our variable mirror thermopanes. And you know what? They don't even have an FP connection. They prepare all their meals in the house!"
John's excitement finally aroused Philon's attention. "No Food Preparation service? But that's unheard of!"
"They're sure swell people though."
"Where in the world did they come from?" Philon poured more coffee.
"Some place out West--Oregon, I think. Lived in a small town."
"How come their house appeared over-night?"
"Yeah, I asked them about that," John said. "They said their house is a prefab and it was cheaper to move it from Oregon than to buy one here. So they moved in one night--lock, stock and barrel."
John looked at Philon with a tentative air. "And another thing--Jimmie and Jean are their real children."
Philon began to frown in disgust. "Real children--how vulgar! No one does that anymore. That custom went out years ago with the Eugenic Act of two thousand twenty-nine. Breeding perfect children is the job of selected specimens. Why, I remember the day we passed our check over to Maternity Clinic! You were the best specimen in the place--and you carried the highest price tag too--ten thousand dollars!"
At that moment Ursula, his wife, her green rinse tumbling in stringy tufts over her forehead pattered into the breakfast room. Her right eye was closed in a tight squint against her cigarette smoke.
"Well, do I get my share of breakfast," she muttered, "or do I have to scrabble at the trough like the rest of the hogs around here?"
Philon nodded at a third thermocel in the capsule. "That's yours, Ursula." He fixed her with a cocked eye. "What time did that gigolo get you home this morning?"
Ursula blew the hair out of her eyes, then took a good look at her husband. "Why all the sudden concern about my affairs? I feel like going to the Cairo I call up Francois. He dances divinely. I feel like making love I call up Jose...." She shrugged. "So, I say, why the sudden concern? All these years you say nothing. Every minute away from home you're involved in big deals to make money, steal money--maybe even eat it."
He looked at her cryptically. "I've got to raise a fifty-grand quota."
Without even looking up from her breakfast Ursula said absently, "Oh, that. It is election year again, isn't it?"
"And I'll have to ask you to cancel all unnecessary expenditures for the time being."
She shook her head. "Can't--I've already reserved Love's Passion for this afternoon and a whole block of titles for three months."
Philon compressed his mouth, then practically blew the words at her. "Damn it, Ursula, you're spending too much time psycho-dreaming these cheap plays. You know the psychiatrist has warned you to lay off them. Stimulates your endocrine system too much. No wonder you live on sleeping pills."
"Oh, shut up!" She stared at him, the anger in her tugging at her loose mouth. "If I feel like a psychoplay I'm going to have me a psychoplay. It's the only stimulation I get any more."
Muttering, "T'hell with it!" Philon got up from the table and walked into the living room. Slipping into his gray top coat and hat he ascended to the copter roofport.
Before stepping into the copter seat he paused to study the MacDonald house on the corner. Odd-looking house at that. Mid-twentieth century, yet it looked brand new.
Then, putting the house out of mind, Philon shot his copter skyward and joined Skyway No. 7 traffic into town.
Descending on his office building he left the ship in care of the parking attendant and by elevator dropped to his floor. At a door marked Miller Electronic Manufacturing Co. he walked in.
In his office he slouched into his chair and stared at the small calendar on his desk. Rakoff wanted the fifty-thousand before Royal Pastel Mink Monday. One week--that wasn't very much time.
Flinching from the unpleasant problem, he stared at the city skyline, his mind drifting lazily. He thought about Royal Pastel Mink Monday. Some said it was just another Day dreamed up by furriers to make people fur-conscious. Others said it commemorated a period of great public indifference which cost large numbers their freedom to vote.
Of course the other party had their symbology too--like the Teapot Celebration. No one seemed to know for sure what it meant. Anyway, why worry how they started? Why did people knock on wood for luck--or throw salt over their left shoulder?
But then once in awhile there arose some who spelled out a strange lonely cry, calling themselves the conscience of the people. They spoke sternly of the thin moral fiber of the country, berating the people for what they called their amoral evolution brought on by indifference and negligence until they no longer could hear the still guiding voice of their conscience. But they were scornfully laughed down and it seemed to Philon he heard less and less of these men.
In the late afternoon a whip from party headquarters dropped in. "Hello, Feisel," Philon said with little enthusiasm for the swarthy-faced man.
Without even the formality of a greeting Feisel smiled down at Philon in a half-sneer. "Well, Philon, how we doin' with the fifty grand, eh?"
Philon tossed a sheaf of papers on the desk with a gesture of impatience. "Now look, I'll raise the fifty G's by the end of the week."
Feisel lifted a thin black eyebrow and shrugged elaborately. "Just inquiring, my friend, just inquiring. You know--just showing friendly interest."
"Well, go peddle your papers to somebody else. You make me nervous."
Feisel sniffed with injured pride. "That's gratitude for you. And just when I was going to put a little bee in your bonnet. I thought you'd like to know what happened to another guy just like you. You see, he got ideas, instead of digging to get his quota. He tried to lam out and you know where they found him? On the sidewalk below his twenty-third-floor window."
As Feisel went out, Philon swore softly at his retreating back. But Feisel's little story sent a chill through him.
That evening when he descended from his copter port and stepped into his living room he was surprised to hear young voices upstairs. Deciding to investigate he stepped on the escalator. At John's door he poked his head in.
A young blond-headed boy with bright clear eyes turned to look at him and a younger girl with short curly hair smiled back.
John said, "Phil, this is Jimmie, and Jean, his sister. They don't have a home-school teleclass rig yet, so they're attending with me."
"I see." Philon nodded to the children. "And how did you like your first day at school?"
"Fine," Jean said, beaming until her eyes almost disappeared. "It was fun. The teacher was talking about the history of atomic energy and when I told her we had one of the first editions of the famous Smyth report on Atomic Energy she was surprised."
"A first edition of the Smyth Report? No wonder your teacher was surprised." Through Philon's mind ran the recollection that first editions of the Smyth Report brought as high as seventy thousand dollars.
The children's excited chatter was suddenly interrupted by the front door chimes. Stepping to the wall televiewer, Philon pressed a button and said, "Who is it?"
A pleasant-faced man with a startled look said, "Oh--sorry. This gadget on the door-casing surprised me. Ah--I think my children, Jimmie and Jean, are here. I'm Bill MacDonald."
Behind him Philon heard Jean suppress a dismayed cry. "Gosh, Jimmie, it's late. Daddy's had to come for us!"
Philon said, "And I'm Phil Miller, MacDonald. Come in. We'll be down in a moment."
The MacDonald children and John headed for the stairs in a happy rush, ignoring the descending escalator, two steps at a time. Philon followed at a meditative pace, his thoughts trooping stealthily abreast. Seventy thousand dollars. Now, if he were to....
"Beautiful home you've got here, Miller."
Philon came out of his daydreaming to see MacDonald coming into view around the corner of a living room ell.
Philon took his extended hand. "Thanks. Glad you like it."
Jean broke in breathlessly. "Oh, Daddy, you ought to see how they conduct classes--by school TV. You write on a glass square and it appears immediately at the teacher's roll-board. And when you--"
Jimmie interrupted. "Aw, lemme tell 'im something too, Jean. Dad, John used a spare TV for Jean's freshman class while we 'showed' for junior class on his. Gosh, in history, Dad, their old newsreels go back to World War Two. I even saw your Marine unit--"
MacDonald cut his son short. "That's enough, Jimmie. You can tell us about it later." He herded his children toward the front door. "Thanks, Miller, for letting the kids use the school TV. I'm having one installed tomorrow."
After they left John said with a sparkle Philon had never seen before, "You know, Phil, those are the most interesting kids I've ever met. All the others I know are bored stiff. They've been everyplace and they've done everything.
"But Jimmie and Jean ask more questions about things than anybody I know. They're really interested. Every time I drop in on them they're studying history beginning with the middle of the Twentieth Century. They're absolutely fascinated and read it like fiction."
With more on his mind than his neighbors' unusual behavior Philon said, "Mmm." He stood looking at the boy for a long moment until John finally shifted self-consciously.
"What's the matter, Phil?"
Philon ended his musing. "Tomorrow night we're all going to call on the MacDonalds. And while we're there I want you to slip that copy of the Smyth Report out of their library."
For a moment the young boy's smooth face was a blank mask. Then it filled in with shocked surprise, then resentment and finally anger. "You mean--steal?"
"Of course. If they're too innocent to realize the value of the book that's their hard luck."
"But, Phil, I can't imagine myself stealing from...."
Impatiently, Philon said, "Since when did you suddenly get so holier-than-thou? Life is harsh, life is iron-fisted and if you don't keep your guard up you're going to get socked in the kisser."
John said slowly with a certain tone of shame, "Yes, I know. As far back as I can remember you've told me that. But in spite of it I can't help feeling it isn't right to treat the MacDonalds that way. They're too nice, too good."
"Look, John. You might as well learn the hard facts of life. All the high-sounding arguments for a moral world and all the laws on the books implementing those arguments are just eyewash. Sure, the President swears that he will uphold the constitution and enforce all the laws.
"Then we carefully surround him with counterspies--wire his rooms with dictaphones, slit his mail, install secret informers on his staff. All because no matter who the party is able to elect we don't trust him--because the society he represents does not trust itself."
"Is that why we have more and bigger jails than ever?"
Philon shrugged. "All I'm trying to tell you is don't go soft-headed or the world will take your shirt."
The next day before leaving for the office Philon said to his wife, "Call up the MacDonalds and if they're going to be home tonight tell them we'll be over for a visit."
Ursula made a face. "Do we have to call on those people? They'll bore me stiff."
"For heaven's sake, Ursula! It's a matter of vital importance to me--and you also, if I have to appeal to your wide streak of selfishness."
"I can't see it."
"I'll explain later. I've got to go."
During the day Ursula called him. "Well, Phil, I called as you said and I've committed us for dinner tonight."
"Dinner! Hmm, they are convivial people."
"Yes and the dinner is going to be cooked right there in their house. How vulgar can some people get?"
That evening while dressing Ursula said, "Phil, John spends a lot of time at the MacDonalds'. What do you suppose he sees in them? It gets me the way he quotes them all the time and reports their least doings. Today he came tearing into the house and said, 'Ursula, it's wonderful!' I said, 'What's wonderful?' And John said, 'The dinner they're cooking at MacDonalds'. I've never smelled anything like it in all my life. Why don't we cook in our house like they do? Mrs. MacDonald was baking cookies and let me have one right out of the oven. Mmmm, boy was it good!'"
Ursula finished, "Now, I ask you, did you ever hear anything so barbaric--cooking in the house and having all the odors permeate the whole place?"
"Well, we'll see."
Later when they arrived at the MacDonalds' they were welcomed with a quiet warmth and friendliness that Philon cynically assumed to be a new and different front.
As they sat down to dinner Mrs. MacDonald, a rosy-cheeked woman with a quick and ready smile, said, "I'm sorry we aren't able to get a connection yet. So everything we're eating tonight is right out of our deep-freeze."
John Miller said, "Gosh, Mrs. MacDonald, as far as I'm concerned, I'd rather eat from your deep-freeze anytime than from the FP!"