Philip K. Dick

The Short Happy Life Of The Brown Oxford


Copyright ©
Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan 1954

"I have something to show you," Doc Labyrinth said. From his coat pocket he gravely drew forth a matchbox. He held the matchbox tightly, his eyes fixed on it. "You're about to see the most momentous thing in all modern science. The world will shake and shudder."

"Let me see," I said. It was late, past midnight. Outside my house rain was falling on the deserted streets. I watched Doc Labyrinth as he carefully pushed the matchbox open with his thumb, just a crack. I leaned over to see.

There was a brass button in the matchbox. It was alone, except for a bit of dried grass and what looked like a bread crumb.

"Buttons have already been invented," I said. "I don't see much to this." I reached out my hand to touch the button but Labyrinth jerked the box away, frowning furiously.

"This isn't just a button," he said. Looking down at the button he said, "Go on! Go on!" He nudged the button with his finger. "Go on!"

I watched with curiosity. "Labyrinth, I wish you'd explain. You come here in the middle of the night, show me a button in a matchbox, and --"

Labyrinth settled back against the couch, sagging with defeat. He closed the matchbox and resignedly put it back in his pocket. "It's no use pretending," he said. "I've failed. The button is dead. There's no hope."

"Is that so unusual? What did you expect?"

"Bring me something." Labyrinth gazed hopelessly around the room. "Bring me -- bring me wine."

"All right, Doc," I said getting up. "But you know what wine does to people." I went into the kitchen and poured two glasses of sherry. I brought them back and gave one to him. We sipped for a time. "I wish you'd let me in on this."

Doc put his glass down, nodding absently. He crossed his legs and took out his pipe. After he had lit his pipe he carefully looked once more into the matchbox. He sighed and put it away again.

"No use," he said. "The Animator will never work, the Principle itself is wrong. I refer to the Principle of Sufficient Irritation, of course."

"And what is that?"

"The Principle came to me this way. One day I was sitting on a rock at the beach. The sun was shining and it was very hot. I was perspiring and quite uncomfortable. All at once a pebble next to me got up and crawled off. The heat of the sun had annoyed it."

"Really? A pebble?"

"At once the realization of the Principle of Sufficient Irritation came to me. Here was the origin of life. Eons ago, in the remote past, a bit of inanimate matter had become so irritated by something that it crawled away, moved by indignation. Here was my life work: to discover the perfect irritant, annoying enough to bring inanimate matter to life, and to incorporate it into a workable machine. The machine, which is at present in the back seat of my car, is called The Animator. But it doesn't work."

We were silent for a time. I felt my eyes slowly begin to close. "Say, Doc," I began, "isn't it time we --"

Doc Labyrinth leaped abruptly to his feet. "You're right," he said. "It's time for me to go. I'll leave."

He headed for the door. I caught up with him. "About the machine," I said. "Don't give up hope. Maybe you'll get it to work some other time."

"The machine?" He frowned. "Oh, the Animator. Well, I'll tell you what, I'll sell it to you for five dollars."

I gaped. There was something so forlorn about him that I didn't feel like laughing. "For how much?" I said.

"I'll bring it inside the house. Wait here." He went outside, down the steps and up the dark sidewalk. I heard him open the car door, and then grunt and mutter.

"Hold on," I said. I hurried after him. He was struggling with a bulky square box, trying to get it out of the car. I caught hold of one side, and together we lugged it into the house. We set it down on the dining table.

"So this is the Animator," I said. "It looks like a Dutch oven."

"It is, or it was. The Animator throws out a heat beam as an irritant. But I'm through with it forever."

I took out my wallet. "All right. If you want to sell it, I might as well be the one who buys it." I gave him the money and he took it. He showed me where to put in the inanimate matter, how to adjust the dials and meters, and without any warning, he put on his hat and left.

I was alone, with my new Animator. While I was looking at it my wife came downstairs in her bathrobe.

"What's going on?" she said. "Look at you, your shoes are soaked. Were you outside in the gutter?"

"Not quite. Look at this oven. I just paid five dollars for it. It animates things."

Joan stared down at my shoes. "It's one o'clock in the morning. You put your shoes in the oven and come to bed."

"But don't you realize --"

"Get those shoes in the oven," Joan said, going back upstairs again. "Do you hear me?"

"All right," I said.

It was at breakfast, while I was sitting staring moodily down at a plate of cold eggs and bacon, that he came back. The doorbell commenced to ring furiously.

"Who can that be?" Joan said. I got up and went down the hall, into the living room. I opened the door.

"Labyrinth!" I said. His face was pale, and there were dark circles under his eyes.

"Here's your five dollars," he said. "I want my Animator back."

I was dazed. "All right, Doc. Come on in and I'll get it."

He came inside and stood, tapping his foot. I went over and got the Animator. It was still warm. Labyrinth watched me carrying it toward him. "Set it down," he said. "I want to make sure it's all right."

I put it on the table and the Doc went over it lovingly, carefully, opening the little door and peering inside. "There's a shoe in it," he said.

"There should be two shoes," I said, suddenly remembering last night. "My God, I put my shoes in it."

"Both of them? There's only one now."

Joan came from the kitchen. "Hello, Doctor," she said. "What brings you out so early?"

Labyrinth and I were staring at each other. "Only one?" I said. I bent down to look. Inside was a single muddy shoe, quite dry, now, after its night in Labyrinth's Animator. A single shoe -- but I had put two in. Where was the other?

I turned around but the expression on Joan's face made me forget what I was going to say. She was staring in horror at the floor, her mouth open.

Something small and brown was moving, sliding toward the couch. It went under the couch and disappeared. I had seen only a glimpse of it, a momentary flash of motion, but I knew what it was.

"My God," Labyrinth said. "Here, take the five dollars." He pushed the bill into my hands. "I really want it back, now!"

"Take it easy," I said. "Give me a hand. We have to catch the damn thing before it gets outdoors."

Labyrinth went over and shut the door to the living room. "It went under the couch." He squatted down and peered under. "I think I see it. Do you have a stick or something?"

"Let me out of here," Joan said. "I don't want to have anything to do with this."

"You can't leave," I said. I yanked down a curtain rod from the window and pulled the curtain from it. "We can use this." I joined Labyrinth on the floor. "I'll get it out, but you'll have to help me catch it. If we don't work fast we'll never see it again."

I nudged the shoe with the end of the rod. The shoe retreated, squeezing itself back toward the wall. I could see it, a small mound of brown, huddled and silent, like some wild animal at bay, escaped from its cage. It gave me an odd feeling.

"I wonder what we can do with it?" I murmured. "Where the hell are we going to keep it?"

"Could we put it in the desk drawer?" Joan said, looking around. "I'll take the stationery out."

"There it goes!" Labyrinth scrambled to his feet. The shoe had come out, fast. It went across the room, heading for the big chair. Before it could get underneath, Labyrinth caught hold of one of its laces. The shoe pulled and tugged, struggling to get free, but the old Doc had a firm hold of it.

Together we got the shoe into the desk and closed the drawer. We breathed a sigh of relief.

"That's that," Labyrinth said. He grinned foolishly at us. "Do you see what this means? We've done it, we've really done it! The Animator worked. But I wonder why it didn't work with the button."

"The button was brass," I said. "And the shoe was hide and animal glue. A natural. And it was wet."

We looked toward the drawer. "In that desk," Labyrinth said, "is the most momentous thing in modern science."

"The world will shake and shudder," I finished. "I know. Well, you can consider it yours." I took hold of Joan's hand. "I give you the shoe along with your Animator."

"Fine." Labyrinth nodded. "Keep watch here, don't let it get away." He went to the front door. "I must get the proper people, men who will --"

"Can't you take it with you?" Joan said nervously.

Labyrinth paused at the door. "You must watch over it. It is proof, proof the Animator works. The Principle of Sufficient Irritation." He hurried down the walk.

"Well?" Joan said. "What now? Are you really going to stay here and watch over it?"

I looked at my watch. "I have to get to work."

"Well, I'm not going to watch it. If you leave, I'm leaving with you. I won't stay here."

"It should be all right in the drawer," I said. "I guess we could leave it for a while."

"I'll visit my family. I'll meet you downtown this evening and we can come back home together."

"Are you really that afraid of it?"

"I don't like it. There's something about it."

"It's only an old shoe."

Joan smiled thinly. "Don't kid me," she said. "There never was another shoe like this."

I met her downtown, after work that evening, and we had dinner. We drove home, and I parked the car in the driveway. We walked slowly up the walk.

On the porch Joan paused. "Do we really have to go inside? Can't we go to a movie or something?"

"We have to go in. I'm anxious to see how it is. I wonder what we'll have to feed it." I unlocked the door and pushed it open.

Something rushed past me, flying down the walk. It disappeared into the bushes.

"What was that?" Joan whispered, stricken.

"I can guess." I hurried to the desk. Sure enough, the drawer was standing open. The shoe had kicked its way out. "Well, that's that," I said. "I wonder what we're going to tell Doc?"

"Maybe you could catch it again," Joan said. She closed the front door after us. "Or animate another. Try working on the other shoe, the one that's left."

I shook my head. "It didn't respond. Creation is funny. Some things don't react. Or maybe we could --"

The telephone rang. We looked at each other. There was something in the ring. "It's him," I said. I picked up the receiver.

"This is Labyrinth," the familiar voice said. "I'll be over early tomorrow. They're coming with me. We'll get photographs and a good write-up. Jenkins from the lab --"

"Look, Doc," I began.

"I'll talk later. I have a thousand things to do. We'll see you tomorrow morning." He clicked off.

"Was it the Doctor?" Joan said.

I looked at the empty desk drawer, hanging open. "It was. It was him, all right." I went to the hall closet, taking my coat off. Suddenly I had an eerie feeling. I stopped, turning around. Something was watching me. But what? I saw nothing. It gave me the creeps.

"What the hell," I said. I shrugged it off and hung my coat up. As I started back toward the living room I thought I saw something move, out of the corner of my eye.

"Damn," I said.

"What is it?"

"Nothing. Nothing at all." I looked all around me, but I could not pin anything down. There was the bookcase, the rugs, the pictures on the walls, everything as it always was. But something had moved.

I entered the living room. The Animator was sitting on the table. As I passed it I felt a surge of warmth. The Animator was still on, and the door was open! I snapped the switch off, and the dial light died. Had we left it on all day? I tried to remember, but I couldn't be sure.

"We've got to find the shoe before nightfall," I said.

We looked, but we found nothing. The two of us went over every inch of the yard, examining each bush, looking under the hedge, even under the house, but without any luck.

When it got too dark to see we turned on the porch light and worked for a time by it. At last I gave up. I went over and sat down on the porch steps. "It's no use," I said. "Even in the hedge there are a million places. And while we're beating one end, it could slip out the other. We're licked. We might as well face it."

"Maybe it's just as well," Joan said.

I stood up. "We'll leave the front door open tonight. There's a chance it might come back in."

We left it open, but the next morning when we came downstairs the house was silent and empty. I knew at once the shoe was not there. I poked around, examining things. In the kitchen eggshells were strewn around the garbage pail. The shoe had come in during the night, but after helping itself it had left again.

I closed the front door and we stood silently, looking at each other. "He'll be here any time," I said. "I guess I better call the office and tell them I'll be late."

Joan touched the Animator. "So this is what did it. I wonder if it'll ever happen again."

We went outside and looked around hopefully for a time. Nothing stirred the bushes, nothing at all. "That's that," I said. I looked up. "Here comes a car, now."

A dark Plymouth coasted up in front of the house. Two elderly men got out and came up the path toward us, studying us curiously.

"Where is Rupert?" one of them asked.

"Who? You mean Doc Labyrinth? I suppose he'll be along any time."

"Is it inside?" the man said. "I'm Porter, from the University. May I take a peek at it?"

"You'd better wait," I said unhappily. "Wait until the Doc is here."

Two more cars pulled up. More old men got out and started up the walk, murmuring and talking together. "Where's the Animator?" one asked me, a codger with bushy whiskers. "Young man, direct us to the exhibit."

"The exhibit is inside," I said. "If you want to see the Animator, go on in."

They crowded inside. Joan and I followed them. They were standing around the table, studying the square box, the Dutch oven, talking excitedly.

"This is it!" Porter said. "The Principle of Sufficient Irritation will go down in --"

"Nonsense," another said. "It's absurd. I want to see this hat, or shoe, or whatever it is."

"You'll see it," Porter said. "Rupert knows what he's doing. You can count on that."

They fell into controversy, quoting authorities and citing dates and places. More cars were arriving, and some of them were press cars.

"Oh, God," I said. "This will be the end of him."

"Well, he'll just have to tell them what happened," Joan said. "About its getting away."

"We're going to, not him. We let the thing go."

"I had nothing to do with it. I never liked that pair from the start. Don't you remember, I wanted you to get those ox-blood ones?"

I ignored her. More and more old men were assembling on the lawn, standing around talking and discussing. All at once I saw Labyrinth's little blue Ford pull up, and my heart sank. He had come, he was here, and in a minute we would have to tell him.

"I can't face him," I said to Joan. "Let's slip out the back way."

At the sight of Doc Labyrinth all the scientists began streaming out of the house, surrounding him in a circle. Joan and I looked at each other. The house was deserted, except for the two of us. I closed the front door. Sounds of talk filtered through the windows; Labyrinth was expounding the Principle of Sufficient Irritation. In a moment he would come inside and demand the shoe.

"Well, it was his own fault for leaving it," Joan said. She picked up a magazine and thumbed through it.

Doc Labyrinth waved at me through the window. His old face was wreathed with smiles. I waved back halfheartedly. After a while I sat down beside Joan.

Time passed. I stared down at the floor. What was there to do? Nothing but wait, wait for the Doc to come triumphantly into the house, surrounded by scientists, learned men, reporters, historians, demanding the proof of his theory, the shoe. On my old shoe rested Labyrinth's whole life, the proof of his Principle, of the Animator, of everything.

And the damn shoe was gone, outside someplace!

"It won't be long now," I said.

We waited, without speaking. After a time I noticed a peculiar thing. The talk outside had died away. I listened, but I heard nothing.

"Well?" I said. "Why don't they come in?"

The silence continued. What was going on? I stood up and went to the front door. I opened it and looked out.

"What's the matter?" Joan said. "Can you see?"

"No," I said. "I don't get it." They were all standing silently, staring down at something, none of them speaking. I was puzzled. I could not make sense out of it. "What's happening?" I said.

"Let's go and look." Joan and I went slowly down the steps, onto the lawn. We pushed through the row of old men and made our way to the front.

"Good Lord," I said. "Good Lord."

Crossing the lawn was a strange little procession, making its way through the grass. Two shoes, my old brown shoe, and just ahead of it, leading the way, another shoe, a tiny white high-heeled slipper. I stared at it. I had seen it someplace before.

"That's mine!" Joan cried. Everyone looked at her. "That belongs to me! My party shoes --"

"Not any more," Labyrinth said. His old face was pale with emotion. "It is beyond us all, forever."

"Amazing," one of the learned men said. "Look at them. Observe the female. Look at what she is doing."

The little white shoe was keeping carefully ahead of my old shoe, a few inches away, leading him coyly on. As my old shoe approached she backed away, moving in a half circle. The two shoes stopped for a moment, regarding each other. Then, all at once, my old shoe began to hop up and down, first on his heel, then on his toe. Solemnly, with great dignity, the shoe danced around her, until he reached his starting point.

The little white shoe hopped once, and then she began again to move away, slowly, hesitantly, letting my shoe almost catch up to her before she went on.

"This implies a developed sense of mores," an old gentleman said. "Perhaps even a racial unconscious. The shoes are following a rigid pattern of ritual, probably laid down centuries --"

"Labyrinth, what does this mean?" Porter said. "Explain it to us."

"So that's what it was," I murmured. "While we were away the shoe got her out of the closet and used the Animator on her. I knew something was watching me, that night. She was still in the house."

"That's what he turned on the Animator for," Joan said. She sniffed. "I'm not sure I think much of it."

The two shoes had almost reached the hedge, the white slipper still just beyond the laces of the brown shoe. Labyrinth moved toward them.

"So, gentlemen, you can see that I did not exaggerate. This is the greatest moment in science, the creation of a new race. Perhaps, when mankind has fallen into ruin, society destroyed, this new life form --"

He started to reach for the shoes, but at that moment the lady shoe disappeared into the hedge, backing into the obscurity of the foliage. With one bound the brown shoe popped in after her. There was a rustling, then silence.

"I'm going indoors," Joan said, walking away.

"Gentlemen," Labyrinth said, his face a little red, "this is incredible. We are witnessing one of the most profound and far-reaching moments of science."

"Well, almost witnessing," I said.

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