Muffin Explains Teleology to the World at Large
I told my kid sister Muffin this joke.
There was this orchestra, and they were playing music, and all the violins were bowing and moving their fingers, except for this one guy who just played the same note over and over again. Someone asked the guy why he wasn’t playing like the others and he said, "They’re all looking for the note. I’ve found it."
Muffin, who’s only six, told me the joke wasn’t funny if you understood teleology.
I never know where she gets words like that. I had to go look it up.
TELEOLOGY [teli-oloji] n doctrine or belief that all things or actions are designed to achieve some end.
"Okay," I said when I found her again, "now I understand teleology. Why isn’t the joke funny?"
"You’ll find out next week," she said.
I talked to Uncle Dave that night. He’s in university and real smart, even though he’s going to be a minister instead of something interesting. "What’s so great about teleology?" I said. He looked at me kind of weird, so I explained, "Muffin’s been talking about it."
"So have my professors," he said. "It’s, uhh, you know, God has a purpose for everything, even if we can’t understand it. We’re all heading toward some goal."
"We took that in Sunday school," I said.
"Well, Jamie, we go into it in a bit more detail."
"Yeah, I guess."
He was quiet for a bit, then asked, "What’s Muffin say about it?"
"Something big is happening next week."
"That’s what she says."
Muffin was in the next room with her crayons. Uncle Dave called her in to talk and she showed him what she was working on. She’d colored Big Bird black. She has all these crayons and the only ones she ever uses are black and gray.
"What’s happening next week?" Uncle Dave asked.
"It’s a secret," she said.
"Not even a hint?"
"Little tiny hint? Please?"
She thought about it a minute, then whispered in his ear. After that, she giggled and ran upstairs.
"What did she say?" I asked.
"She told me we’d get where we’re going." He shrugged and made a face. We were both pretty used to Muffin saying things we didn’t understand.
The next day I answered the front doorbell and found three guys wearing gray robes. They’d shaved their heads too.
"We are looking for her gloriousness," one of them said with a little bow. He had an accent.
"Uh, Mom’s gone down the block to get some bread," I answered.
"It’s okay," Muffin said, coming from the TV room. "They’re here for me."
All three of the men fell facedown on the porch, making a kind of high whining sound in their throats.
"You know these guys?" I asked.
"They’re here to talk about teleology."
"Well, take them into the backyard. Mom doesn’t like people in the house when she’s not here."
"Okay." She told the guys to get up and they followed her around the side of the house, talking in some foreign language.
When Mom got home, I told her what happened and she flat-out ran to the kitchen window to see what was going on. Muffin was sitting on the swing set and the guys were cross-legged on the ground in front of her, nodding their heads at every word she spoke. Mom took a deep breath, the way she does just before she yells at one of us, then stomped out the back door. I was sure she was going to shout at Muffin, but she bent over and talked quiet enough that I couldn’t hear what she said. Muffin talked and Mom talked and one of the bald guys said something, and finally Mom came in all pale-looking.
"They want lemonade," she said. "Take them out some lemonade. And plastic glasses. I’m going to lie down." Then Mom went upstairs.
I took out a pitcher of lemonade. When I got there, one of the bald guys got up to meet me and asked Muffin, "Is this the boy?"
She said yes.
"Most wondrous, most wondrous!"
He put both hands on my shoulders as if he was going to hug me, but Muffin said, "You’ll spill the lemonade." He let me go but kept staring at me with big weepy eyes.
"What’s going on?" I asked.
"The culmination of a thousand thousand years of aimless wandering," the guy said.
"Not aimless," Muffin cut in.
"Your pardon," he answered, quickly lowering his head. "But at times it seemed so."
"You’ll be in the temple when it happens," Muffin said to him.
"A million praises!" he shouted, throwing himself flat-faced on the ground. "A billion trillion praises!" And he started to cry into our lawn. The other two bald guys bowed in the direction of our garage, over and over again.
"You want to pour me a glass of that?" Muffin said to me.
The next day it was a different guy, with a big beard and carrying a sword almost as tall as me. When I opened the door, he grabbed the front of my T-shirt and yelled, "Where is the Liar, the Deceiver, the Blasphemer, the She-Whore Who Mocks the Most High?"
"She went with Uncle Dave down to the Dairy Queen."
"Thank you," he said, and walked off down the street. Later, I heard on the radio the cops had arrested him in the parking lot of the mall.
The next day Muffin told me I had to take her down to the boatyards. I told her I didn’t have to do it if I didn’t want.
"Shows how much you know," she said. "You don’t know anything about teleology or fate or anything."
"I know how to cross streets and take buses and all, which is more than I can say for some people."
"I have ten dollars," she said, pulling a bill out of the pocket of her jeans.
That surprised me. I mean, I maybe have ten dollars in my pocket twice a year, just after Christmas and just after my birthday. "Where’d you get the money?" I asked.
"The monks gave it to me."
"Those bald guys?"
"They like me."
"Jeez, Muffin, don’t let Mom know you took money from strangers. She’d have a fit."
"They aren’t strangers. They’re the Holy Order of the Imminent Eschaton — the Muffin Chapter."
"Oh, go ahead, lie to me."
"You want the ten dollars or not?"
Which wasn’t what I ended up with, because she expected me to pay the bus fare out of it.
When we got to the boatyards, I thought we’d head down to the water, but Muffin took out a piece of paper and stood there frowning at it. I looked over her shoulder and saw it was torn from a map of the city. There was a small red X drawn in at a place about a block from where we were. "Where’d you get that? The monks?"
"Mm-hmm. Is this where we are?" She pointed at a street corner. I looked and moved her finger till it was aiming the right place. "You should learn to read some time, Muffin."
She shook her head. "Might wreck my insight. Maybe after."
I pointed down the street. "If you want to go where X marks the spot, it’s that way."
We walked along, with sailboats and yachts and things on one side and warehouses on the other. The buildings looked pretty run-down, with brown rusty spots dripping from their metal roofs and lots of broken windows covered with plywood or cardboard. It was a pretty narrow street and there was no sidewalk, but the only traffic we saw was a Shell oil truck coming out of the marina a ways ahead and it turned off before it got to us.
When we reached the X spot, it was just another warehouse. Muffin closed her eyes a second, then said, "Around the back and up the stairs."
"I bet there are rats around the back," I said.
"I bet there aren’t."
"You go first."
"Okay." She started down an alley between one warehouse and the next. There was lots of broken glass lying around and grass growing up through the pavement.
"I bet there are snakes," I said, following her.
"Shut up, Jamie."
The back was only a strip of weeds two yards wide, stuck between the warehouse and a chain-link fence. Halfway along was a flight of metal steps, like a fire escape leading to the roof. They creaked when you walked on them, but didn’t wobble too badly.
On the roof we found a weird-looking airplane. Or boat. Or train. Or wagon. Whatever it was, it had wings and a tail like an airplane, but its body was built like a boat: a bit like our motor-boat up at the cottage, but bigger and with these super-fat padded chairs like maybe astronauts sit in. The whole thing was attached to a cart, but the cart’s wheels were on the near end of a train track that ran the length of the roof and off the front into the street.
"What is this thing?" I asked.
"The monks made it for me," Muffin said, which didn’t answer my question. She climbed up a ladder into the plane and rummaged about in a cupboard on the rear wall. I followed her and watched her sorting through the stuff inside. "Peanut butter. Bread. Kool-Aid. Water. Cheese. Diet Coke. What’s this?" she said, handing me back a roll of something in gold plastic wrapping.
I opened one end and sniffed. "Liverwurst," I said.
She made a face. "Is that like liver?"
"No, it’s peanut butter made from bologna."
"Weird. Do you see any hot dogs?"
I looked in the cupboard. "Nope."
"I should phone the monks. We need hot dogs."
She ignored me. "Is there anything else you’d want if you were going to be away from home for a few days?"
"Cheerios and bacon."
She thought about that. "Yeah, you’re right."
"And Big Macs."
She gave me a look like I was a moron. "Of course, dummy, but the monks will bring them just before we leave."
"We’re going on a trip?"
"We’re on a trip now. We’re going to arrive."
Early the next morning, Dr. Hariki showed up on our doorstep. He works with my dad at the university. My dad teaches physics; he uses lasers and everything. Dr. Hariki is in charge of the big telescope on top of the physics building, and he takes pictures of stars.
"What’s up?" Dad asked.
"You tell me," Dr. Hariki said, spreading a bunch of photographs on the coffee table.
Dad picked up a picture and looked at it. Turned it over to check out the date and time written on the back. Sorted through the stack of photos till he found whatever he was looking for and compared it to the first. Held the two together side by side. Held one above the other. Put them side by side again. Closed his right eye, then quick closed his left and opened his right. Did that a couple of times. Picked up another pair of photos and did the same.
Muffin came into the room with a glass of orange juice in her hand. "Looks more like a dipper now, doesn’t it?" she said without looking at the pictures.
Dad and Dr. Hariki stared at her with their mouths wide open. Muffin said, "The dipper was too spread out before. Don’t you think it looks better now?"
"Muffin," Dad said, "we’re talking about stars... full-size suns. They don’t just move to make nicer patterns."
"No, but if they’re going to stop moving, you might as well make sure they look like a dipper in the end. Anything else is just sloppy. I mean, really."
She walked off into the TV room and a moment later, we heard the Sesame Street theme song.
After a long silence, Dr. Hariki picked up one of the photos and asked, all quiet, "Something to do with entropy?"
"I think it’s teleology," I said.
That night Uncle Dave was over for Sunday supper. Mom figures that Uncle Dave doesn’t eat so good in residence, so she feeds him a roast of something every Sunday. I think this is a great idea, except that every so often she serves squash because she says it’s a delicacy. Lucky for us, it was corn season so we had corn on the cob instead.
After supper we all played Monopoly and I won. Uncle Dave said it made a nice family picture, us all sitting around the table playing a game. "Someday, kids," he said, "you’re going to appreciate that you have times like this to remember. A perfect frozen moment."
"There are all kinds of perfect frozen moments," Muffin said, and she had that tone in her voice like she was eleventy-seven years old instead of six. "Right now, people all over the world are doing all kinds of things. Like in China, it’s day now, right, Dad?"
"So there are kids playing tag and stuff, and that’s a perfect moment. And maybe there’s some bully beating up a little kid, and punching him out right now." She banged her Monopoly piece (the little metal hat) when she said "now." "And that’s a perfect moment because that’s what really happens. And bus drivers are driving their buses, and farmers are milking their cows, and mommies are kissing daddies, and maybe a ship is sinking someplace. If you could take pictures of everyone right now, you’d see millions of perfect little frozen moments, wouldn’t you?"
Uncle Dave patted Muffin’s hand. "Out of the mouths of babes... I’m the one who’s studying the Wonders of Life, and you’re the one who reminds me. Everything is perfect all the time, isn’t it, Muffin?"
"Of course not, dummy," she answered, looking at Uncle Dave the way she did when he tried to persuade her he’d pulled a dime from her ear. She turned around in her chair and reached over to the buffet to get the photograph they’d taken of her kindergarten class just before summer holidays started. "See?" she said, pointing. "This is Bobby and he picks his nose all the time, and he’s picking his nose in the picture, so that’s good. But this is Wendy, with her eyes closed ’cuz she was blinking. That’s not perfect. Wendy cries every time she doesn’t get a gold star in spelling, and she knows three dirty words, and she always gives Matthew the celery from her lunch, but you can’t tell that in the picture, can you? She’s just someone who blinked at the wrong time. If you want someone who should be blinking, it should be dozy old Peter Morgan, who always laughs too loud."
Uncle Dave scratched his head and looked awkward for a bit, then said, "Well, Muffin, when you put it like that... I suppose there are always some things that aren’t aesthetically pleasing... I mean, there are always going to be some things that don’t fit properly, as you say."
"Not always," she said.
"Not always? Someday things are just going to be right?" Uncle Dave asked.
Muffin handed me the dice and said, "Your turn, Jamie. Bet you’re going to land in jail."
Next morning Muffin joggled my arm to wake me up. It was so early the sun was just starting to rise over the lake. "Time to go down to the boatyards."
"Yep. This time for real." So I got up and dressed as quietly as I could. By the time I got down to the kitchen, Muffin had made peanut butter and jam sandwiches, and was messing around with the waxed paper, trying to wrap them. She had twice as much paper as she needed and was making a total botch of things.
"You’re really clueless sometimes," I said, whispering so Mom and Dad wouldn’t hear. I shoved her out of the way and started wrapping the sandwiches myself.
"When I rule the world, there won’t be any waxed paper," she said sulkily.
We were halfway down to the bus stop when Uncle Dave came running up behind us. He’d been staying the night in the guest room and he must have heard us leaving. "Where do you think you’re going?" he asked, and he was a bit mad at us.
"Down to the boatyards," Muffin said.
"No, you aren’t. Get back to the house."
"Uncle Dave," Muffin said, "it’s time."
"Time for what?"
"Where do you pick up these words, Muffin? You’re talking about the end of the world."
"I know." The first bus of the day was just turning onto our street two corners down. "Come to the boatyards with us, Uncle Dave. It’ll be okay."
Uncle Dave thought about it. I guess he decided it was easier to give in than to fight with her. That’s what I always think too. You can’t win an argument with Muffin, and if you try anything else, she bites and scratches and uses her knees. "All right," Uncle Dave said, "but we’re going to phone your parents and tell them where you are, the first chance we get."
"So talk to me about the Eschaton," Uncle Dave said on the bus. We were the only ones on it except for a red-haired lady wearing a Donut Queen uniform.
"Well," Muffin said, thinking things over, "you know how Daddy talks about astronomy things moving? Like the moon goes around the earth and the earth goes around the sun and the sun moves with the stars in the galaxy and the galaxy is moving too?"
"Well, where is everything going?"
Uncle Dave shrugged. "The way your father tells it, everything just moves, that’s all. It’s not going anywhere in particular."
"That’s stupid. Daddy doesn’t understand teleology." She waved her hand at the world out the window. "Everything’s going to where it’s supposed to end up."
Uncle Dave asked, "What happens when things reach the place they’re going?"
Muffin made an exasperated face. "They end up there."
"What else would they do?"
"All the planets and the stars and all?"
He thought for a second. "In perfect frozen moments, right?"
Uncle Dave leaned his head against the window like he was tired and sad. Maybe he was. The sun was coming up over the housetops now. "Bus drivers driving their buses," he said softly, "and farmers milking their cows... the whole world like a coffee-table book."
"I think you’d like to be in a church, Uncle Dave," Muffin said. "Or maybe walking alone along the lakeshore."
"Maybe." He smiled, all sad. "Who are you, Muffin?"
"I’m me, dummy," she answered, throwing her arms around his neck and giving him a kiss.
He left us in front of the warehouse by the lake. "I’m going to walk down to the Rowing Club and back." He laughed a little. "If I do get back, Muffin, I’ll have your parents ground you forever!"
"Bye, Uncle Dave," she said, hugging him.
I hugged him too. "Bye, Uncle Dave."
"Don’t let her do anything stupid," he said to me. We watched for a while as he walked away, but he never turned back.
Up on the warehouse roof, there was a monk waiting with a McDonald’s bag under his arm. He handed it to Muffin, then kneeled. "Bless me, Holy One."
"You’re blessed," she said after looking in the bag. "Now get going to the temple. There’s only ten minutes left."
The monk hurried off, singing what I think was a hymn. We got into the plane-boat and I helped Muffin strap herself into one of the big padded seats. "The thing is," she said, "when the earth stops turning, we’re going to keep on going."
"Hey, I know about momentum," I answered. I mean, Dad is a physicist.
"And it’s going to be real fast, so we have to be sure we don’t run into any buildings."
"We’re going to shoot out over the lake?"
"We’re high enough to clear the tops of the sailboats, then we just fly over the lake till we’re slow enough to splash down. The monks got scientists to figure everything out."
I strapped myself in and thought about things for a while. "If we go shooting off real fast, isn’t it going to hurt? I mean, the astronauts get all pressed down when they lift off..."
"Jeez!" Muffin groaned. "Don’t you know the difference between momentum and acceleration? Nothing’s happening to us, it’s everything else that’s going weird. We don’t feel a thing."
"Not even wind?"
"The air has the same momentum we do, dummy."
I thought about it some more. "Aren’t the buildings going to get wrecked when the earth stops?"
"They’re going to stop too. Everything will freeze except us."
"The air and water freeze too?"
"In spots. But not where we’re going."
Suddenly there was a roar like roller-coaster wheels underneath us and for a moment I was pressed up against the straps holding me down on the seat. Then the pressure stopped and there was nothing but the sound of wind a long way off. Over the side of the boat I could see water rushing by beneath us. We were climbing.
"Muffin," I asked, "should one of us maybe be piloting this thing?"
"It’s got a gyroscope or something. The monks worked absolutely everything out, okay?"
A long way off to the right, I could see a lake freighter with a curl of smoke coming out of its stack. The smoke didn’t move. It looked neat. "Nice warm day," I said.
After a while, we started playing car games to pass the time.
The sun shone but didn’t move. "If the sun stays there forever," I asked, "won’t it get really hot after a while?"
"Nah," Muffin answered. "It’s some kind of special deal. I mean, it’s stupid if you set up a nice picture of kids playing in the park but then it gets hot as Mercury."
"Who’s going to know?" I asked.
"It’s not the same," she insisted.
"How can we see?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, is the light moving or what?"
"It’s another special deal."
That made sense. From the way Dad talked about physics, light was always getting special deals.
The water below us gradually stopped racing away so fast and we could sometimes see frozen whitecaps on the peaks of frozen waves. "Suppose we land on frozen water," I said.
"Oh. Your turn."
"I spy with my little eye something that begins with B." Right away I knew she meant the Big Macs, but I had to pretend it was a toughie. You have to humor little kids.
We splashed down within sight of a city on the far side of the lake. It was a really good splash, like the one on the Zoomba Flume ride when you get to the bottom of the big long water chute. Both of us got drenched. I was kind of sad there was no way to do it again.
Then I thought to myself, maybe if we were getting a special deal on air and water and light and all, maybe we’d get a special deal on the Zoomba Flume too.
We unstrapped ourselves and searched around a bit. Finally we found a lid that slid back to open up a control panel with a little steering wheel and all. We pushed buttons till an inboard motor started in the water behind us, then we took turns driving toward shore. Every now and then we’d see a gull frozen in the sky, wings spread out and looking great.
We put in at a public beach just outside the city. It had been early in the day and the only people in sight were a pair of joggers on a grassy ridge that ran along the edge of the sand. The man wore nothing but track shorts and sunglasses; the woman wore red stretch pants, a T-shirt, and a headband. They each had Walkmans and were stopped midstride. Both were covered with deep dark tans, and as Muffin pointed out, a thin coat of sweat.
I wanted to touch the joggers to see what they felt like, but when my finger got close, it bumped against an invisible layer of frozen air. The air didn’t feel like anything, it was just solid stuff.
Down at one end of the beach, a teenage girl was frozen in the act of unlocking the door into a snack stand. We squeezed past her and found out we could open the freezer inside. Muffin had a couple of Popsicles, I had an ice cream sandwich, and then we went swimming.
Lying in the sun afterward, I asked Muffin what was going to happen next.
"You want to go swimming again?" she said.
"No, I mean after."
"Let’s eat," she said, dragging me back toward the boat.
"You can’t wiggle out of it that easy," I told her. "Are we the only ones left?"
"I think so."
"Are we going to freeze too?"
"Nope. We got a special deal."
"But it seems pretty stupid if you ask me. Everything’s kind of finished, you know? Show’s over. Why are we still hanging around?"
"For a new show, dummy."
"Oh." That made sense. "Same sort of thing?"
"Oh. Where do we fit in?"
Muffin smiled at me. "You’re here to keep me company."
"And what are you here for?"
"Everything else. Get me a sandwich."
I reached into the basket and pulled out the sandwich on top. It was inside a plastic sandwich bag. "Didn’t we wrap these in waxed paper?" I asked.
This is my most reprinted story, based on an idea I’d had for years before I finally found the right way to put it together. Believe it or not, the first time I tried to write a story on this premise, it was a sordid tale about a shipwrecked sailor and a dockside whore. I won’t even try to explain how the one story changed into the other — I like Muffin too much to sully her reputation.
Incidentally, this was the first story in which I decided to have fun with the title. Science fiction stories typically have terse no-nonsense titles... and for a long time, I thought titles like that were absolutely necessary if you wanted to be taken seriously as a writer. Finally, of course, I realized what a ridiculous notion that was — not only did many great stories have out-and-out florid titles, but one doesn't always want to be "serious" anyway. Therefore, I chucked out my preconceptions on what titles "must" be and have felt better ever since.