I can’t tell you exactly when, but sometime during the night, I turned into Adolf Hitler.
My first clue came a little after seven o’clock, when my wife leapt out of bed and started screaming.
“Get out of here!” Kate shouted and then “Harry! Get in here!” as if I was in the kitchen or something and not lying there, blinking away the few hours of sleep that I did get, wondering why my wife was bouncing around the room like a wild cat and screaming for me to get out and come here all at the same time.
“Punkin,” I said. “What the hell is wrong? I’m right here.”
I don’t know if that registered or if she just ran out of air but there was a brief moment where we stared at each other like a black-and-white still from an old film noir. Either way, the moment passed, she sucked in another lungful, and started again with the “Get out of my fucking bed” and “Harry get your fucking ass in here”. Then she picked up her blow dryer and threw it at me.
“Okay, okay, okay,” I said and, hands held out to fend off any newly-launched toiletries, I got out of the fucking bed. “Kate. Honey. Sweetie-pie,” I said, trying to cajole her as I sidled my way around toward her side of the bed. Then I caught sight of myself in the mirror of her bureau.
“Holy shit!” I said, or words even less elegant, and bounded over the bed. Kate screamed and grabbed her curling iron, poor dear, convinced that the madman in her bedroom was now leaping to complete his rapacious intentions. But carnal knowledge of my wife while being whipped with an extension cord was not high on my list at the moment. I was on my knees in front of her bureau, staring at my reflection, shocked beyond any thought but: Jesus, I’m Adolf Hitler.
I looked up at Kate and, in a plaintive voice, said, “Jesus, honey, I look like Adolf Hitler.”
It wasn’t eloquent, but it did the trick and I was glad when Kate’s grip on the curling iron lost some of its hysterical strength and her features softened from feral to merely terrified.
“Harry?” she said, and it was music to my ears because, I’ll tell you, when a man wakes up with the face of a fascistic mass murderer, he really needs to know that the woman he loves is on his side. Suddenly, I understood Adolf’s adoration of Eva Braun.
She sat down behind me on the bed and we both stared at the face that had…well, you know. Gone was my bald dome with thinning blond ruffle, replaced by a blunt-cut mop of black hair that hung limply across my forehead. My green eyes were steel blue, my admittedly pudgy cheeks were sallow and thin, and, of course, there was that comical Charlie Chaplin mustache which at the moment was definitely Not Funny. Oddly, I noticed that my nose seemed not to have changed. It was a shock, discovering that I had anything in common with the most reviled and hated man of the 20th century, even if it was only the shape of my nose.
But even though my nose was Hitler’s nose, the rest of my face wasn’t—or at least, hadn’t been until now. At any rate, Kate and I just stared, unable to think of what to say. Gingerly, I lifted up a hank of limp hair. It felt real. And when I tugged on the mustache, I found that it was definitely attached. Kate reached forward and pulled at the flesh of my cheek, probably hoping that the whole thing would slough off like some mask in an old episode of Mission Impossible. She was disappointed when it didn’t. So was I. We stared at my face for a bit longer until Kate glanced over at the clock.
“Damn, it’s late. What are we going to do about work?”
My gaze shifted from my reflection to hers. “What?”
“Work,” she said. “What are we going to do about it?”
“You mean, are we going to go to work?”
She shrugged. “Well, yeah.”
I pointed to the man in the mirror. “Are you serious?”
She reached forward, opened the top bureau drawer and took out a few underthings. “Do you feel sick?”
No to both.
“Any pain? Blurred vision?”
“No,” I said, seeing where she was going and not wanting to follow. “Of course I still harbor a deep regret about that whole Poland thing.”
“Kate. I look like Adolf Fucking Hitler! I am not going to go to work.”
“What do you propose to do then?” She went into the master bathroom and, incredibly, started to get dressed. “Do you plan to sit around here all day?”
“Yeah, that was kind of my plan.”
“And what? Hope that it’s some sort of twenty-four hour Dictator Flu?”
“That’s not a bad idea either.”
She leaned out of the bathroom, pulling the dampened locks of her pixie haircut into what she thought was a stylish do, and gave me what had been, for the past ten years of marriage, her mantra whenever faced with a difficult decision.
“It’s better to do anything than to do nothing.”
“I can’t go out like this!”
“Shave the mustache. Put on some sunglasses. Wear one of those ridiculous caps of yours. But you won’t accomplish anything just sitting around.”
“What do you suggest?”
“How about going to the doctor?”
“I don’t feel sick. We already established that.”
“Harry,” she said around a mouthful of toothbrush and toothpaste. “You said it yourself. You look like Adolf Fucking Hitler. Go to the doctor.”
“What, like a plastic surgeon?”
She spat. “No,” she said. “Like a regular physician doctor. There has to be a reason.”
“I’ll think about it. But I’m not going to work.”
“Call me,” Kate said as she headed out the door. I marveled at her coping mechanisms. She’d been up for less than an hour. She had spruced, primped, dressed, slurped down a yogurt, and now was headed off to work as if it was any other day and she had not, in fact, woken up next to the leader of the Nazi party. But that had always been Kate’s way. When things got tough, she powered through the crisis, handled what had to be handled, and broke down later.
I, however, was cut from a different bolt of cloth. For me, Change was Bad. Change was the Enemy. Change should only come after months of notice and weeks of rigorous preparation. It definitely should not come in a single overnight wallop.
And so I stayed behind, barely able to think. I hid my face behind the curtained sheers and waved as she backed out of the driveway and headed down the street toward work. I turned and headed for the kitchen, willing to wait this thing out, no matter how long it took. That was when I got socked in the stomach.
At least it felt like a sock in the stomach. My guts wobbled and warped. I felt like I was being pulled forward, then backward. Dark splotches passed across my vision and my heart began to pound. I reached out to steady myself on the countertop and felt bathed in sudden sweat. The countertop seemed unnaturally high, and I saw that my hands—Hitler’s hands, that is—had changed. Instead of the pale, thin-fingered hands I woke up with, they’d bloomed into the heavy hands of a workman. As I turned them over, inspecting them like cabbages at the market.
I picked up the toaster. In its chrome curve I saw myself, distorted in its fish-eyed reflection, but still recognizable. The hair had shortened into a stiff black-and-grey brush, and the mustache had expanded. The nose this time was neither mine nor Hitler’s, but instead was a bulbous proboscis flanked by small, piggy eyes that completed the picture.
I was now Josef Stalin.
A tiny bell went off in my head, followed by the worst thought I’d had so far that day. I looked at the clock. It was 8:04 in the AM, and I’d just shifted from Hitler to Stalin. I ran to the living room.
The remnants of my late-night battle with our new remote still lay on the coffee table and at its feet. Our old remotes—DVD player, VCR, TV, stereo receiver, input feed switch, TiVo, Dolby SurroundSound, digital converter, premium descrambler, satellite dish control (yes, we have both cable and satellite and still Kate says “There’s nothing on tonight”), sub-woofer, tape deck, and CD changer—were all piled on the right like electronic cordwood while on the left, with a command screen like a Cyclopean green eye surrounded by a halo of buttons, wheels, and toggles, and a handset covered by collections of keys and switches, was the MX-2200 Ultimate Remote. I’d spent the whole of the previous evening and a couple of the early morning hours trying to get the MX-2200 to live up to the claims that were still splashed across its box in bright, eye-catching colors: Smart-Eye™ technology that not only learned from other remotes but “adapted” to changes in my multimedia componentry. Touted as “the only remote I’d ever need,” by 1:30 I’d been pretty well convinced that I’d bought an electronic lemon. I had downloaded the macros and command strings from the website, had synched the MX-2200 with the Channel Manager™ via the USB port, and at the end of it all the only thing I had was a stubby, eighteen-ounce scepter that could do three things: turn on the TV, tune in The History Channel, and hold open the pages of the operating manual.
But this was the little bell in my head. While I’d been working on slash swearing at the MX-2200, trying to get the TV to bring in something other than The History Channel, repetitive adverts had drilled into my skull that, starting at midnight, they were about to kick off their Dictator Marathon. Yes, a full eighteen hours of murderous ambition and clinical paranoia. I’d fucked around with the MX-2200 through Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun before I finally tossed it down on the coffee table with the other remotes and toddled off to bed.
I grabbed the TV Guide to check my theory. After Genghis and Attila, there’d been a series of shows on the various depravities of Roman emperors. Then, at 6:00 AM, a two-hour special on Hitler had come on, followed by a bio of Stalin that began at 8:00, just as I’d received my gut-punch in the kitchen. Checking forward, I saw that I had about fifty-two minutes before I became Napoleon. After that, I could look forward to being Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Ivan the Terrible, Seti the First and, just before teatime, Mao Tse-Tung and Pol Pot. What a treat! Then I’d travel to Eastern Europe for a trifecta as Nicolae Ceausescu, Marshal Tito, and wrap up the festival as Slobodan Milosevic.
The ramifications of this tried to reach my brain but skipped off my mind like an Apollo capsule entering at too shallow an angle. I simply could not believe it. To be honest, my involvement was a little more active than that. I would not believe it.
Perhaps it was all a dream. I severely hoped so. If this was a nightmare, there was the chance that I’d wake up (or die trying). Awake, I’d be in need of some overnight observation, I’m sure, but I’d be me. This was the only possibility that I allowed to even crack open the door of my conscious mind because the only other one—that somehow my body was “channeling” The History Channel—well, I simply wasn’t willing to go there.
But if my body looked like what was on The History Channel…I checked the TV Guide again and realized that waiting it out might not be my best strategy. Carefully, I reached out for the MX-2200.
The phone rang. I nearly wet myself. I went and picked up the phone.
“Harry?” It was Kate.
I brought the phone back into the living room and sat down facing the MX-2200 and the empty rectangle of the TV screen.
“Well, the good news is that I’m not Hitler anymore.”
“Oh, thank God,” she said.
“I’m Stalin.” I checked my watch. “For another 36 minutes.”
How do you explain something like this? I did my best. I told her my theory as I picked up the MX-2200 and turned on the set.
“So if I’m right, in about…33 minutes, I’m going to turn into…Oh, my God.”
“Harry? What is it?”
The TV had come on and the picture filled its breadth in stunning High-Definition (which, in fact, doesn’t do much when you’re watching a documentary cobbled together from 60 year-old footage in black-and-white but hey, who am I to complain about the march of technology?) Naturally, I wasn’t fazed by the fact that there was, indeed, a biography on Josef Stalin airing on The History Channel.
What stunned me was the fact that, in the documentary, Josef Stalin was a tall, pudgy, balding, middle-aged guy who had, I now knew from experience, Hitler’s nose.
Josef Stalin was me.
“I’m still here,” I said. “I think.”
“What is it?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“What? Is it something on the television?”
I sat up and, for the first time in our married life, gave my wife an order. “Kate. Do not go to a television. Do not, Kate. Do not.”
“Harry?” she said, her voice registering surprise and, if I read her right, a measure of hurt.
“I’m sorry, Kate. I just don’t want to know if you can see the same thing I’m seeing because, if you can, then so can others, and I really don’t want to know that, Kate. I don’t want to know it. Just let me stay ignorant, Kate. Please.”
There was silence on the other end of the line until, “All right, honey,” she said.
“I’m sorry, Kate.”
“It’s okay, Harry. It’ll be okay.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll call you if anything else…unusual happens.”
“Okay, Harry. I love you.”
That meant a lot, and I tried to tell her so, but I got all choked up and all I could get out was, “Me too.”
The transformation into the even shorter Napoleon Bonaparte was more than unpleasant. I wasted fifteen minutes retching in the bathroom and spent the rest of the hour agonized with a skull that felt like it was a size and a half too small. When ten AM rolled in, it was a relief. My body bloated as it darkened, approaching something near my normal height, and I felt positively buoyant compared to the density I experienced as the Little Corporal. I was now a sizable black man and, despite a nasty case of flatulence, I set to work.
It seemed clear to me that the MX-2200 was responsible for my case of musical bodies. I didn’t know how it had caused it, and I didn’t care. Maybe it was sunspots. Maybe it was cosmic rays. Maybe I was picking up transmissions like people who receive radio signals in their fillings. Who cared how it started? All I knew was that waiting to see what happen would not suffice. I didn’t want to see what happen and, moreover, I didn’t think I’d survive it. I had until six to turn it all off, because at 6:00 PM the Dictator Marathon was over and The History Channel went on to its premiere show of the evening: a three-hour documentary on John Merrick, aka The Elephant Man. I’d never survive.
The clock was ticking. I had to take a page from Kate’s playbook.
I started by trying to use the other remotes, but none of them worked. All night, the MX-2200 had lain there, staring at them, and its Smart-Eye™ technology had “adapted” the brains right out of them. New batteries? Ha. Whacking them soundly? Nada.
After a quick costume change from the Butcher of Angola into Saddam Hussein, I unplugged everything, took the batteries out of the MX-2200 (yes, the backup battery, too…do you think I was born yesterday?), and tried to re-boot the entire system. I had to remember where the switch was so I could actually turn the TV on manually, but when the screen flared to life, I saw statues of me toppling all over Baghdad. It was disconcerting; believe me, seeing people cheering at your downfall. I tried not to take it personally.
Later, halfway through my career as a totalitarian czar, I gave up on mechanical fixes and hit the internet, searching for patches, FAQ sheets, and Easter egg codes that I might use to reset the MX-2200. Then something truly frightening happened. I turned into Seti I.
Perhaps you’ve never considered this before, but while we literally have tons of statues and bas-reliefs of Seti I, the images of him are very stylized. We have no portraits of the man. The only real pictures we have of this rigid ruler are of his mummified remains and thus, when the top of the hour clicked over, I shriveled up like a Slim Jim pepperoni stick and could do nothing but lay on the floor for an hour and listen to my flesh crackle.
At 1:00, I plumped out like a Chinese Butterball turkey and turned into Chairman Mao. Filled with a renewed sense of urgency, I hit the web again. By 1:15 I was tracking down spook sites in search of a bit of hacker code designed to bypass the digital copyright restrictions built into DVDs. It also had the purported ability to obviate the scrambling of the premium channels. I probably broke several laws even thinking about downloading it, but I didn’t give a damn. I was now the ruthless fiend responsible for the deaths of millions of Cambodians, and time was running out. My body was about to head into a tour of the Eastern bloc leaders before it would turned into a mass of bone and lumps at the stroke of six.
I downloaded the code, then a compiler. I was seriously out of my element but, hey, these guys make it incredibly easy. If they would only get real jobs writing operating manuals, they’d be heroes. I synched up the MX-2200 and it bleeped, which I took to be a good sign since it hadn’t made a sound since I’d taken it out of the box. Hell, I didn’t even know it made sounds. I leapt up and ran back into the living room—not an easy task for a soft, aging Romanian—and I tripped on the carpet.
The MX-2200 flew, tumbling across the room like that bone the ape throws in the air in 2001: A Space Odyssey, only this one didn’t come down as a spaceship. It came down on the edge of the coffee table, cracked open, and spilled pieces like an electronic piñata. Machines blinked to life, LED and LCD and plasma displays glowing with information and requests for attention. Then the TV began to surf through its channels, about one every five or six seconds.
And so did I.
I hurdled over the couch, grabbing for pieces with hands that were first burly, then feminine. I grew breasts and lost them before I had a chance to enjoy the experience. I picked up a NiCAD battery only to drop it when I became an Old English sheepdog and lost my opposable thumbs. I was Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck in alternating moments, then Al Roker and (God help me) Emeril Lagasse. The channels began to speed by, and I could barely stay seated, much less reassemble the broken MX-2200 from the collection of shrapnel that littered the floor. I had blonde hair, an afro, a shiny Patrick Stewart dome. I was tall, short, Doris Day, and Rock Hudson. I flattened out as the cartoon networks sped by and I lay there in a kaleidoscope of day-glo colors. I regained my 3rd dimension and managed to get some of the bits together as the shifts came and went in split-second time. The SurroundSound couldn’t keep up, spitting out more noise than sound, and the input feed flipped from satellite to cable to straight from the air network feeds.
Smoke rose from the wall units and I was helpless to stop it. The channels—and myself—were a flickering blur of images. I cried out in my bass/tenor/soprano/male/female voice. I howled. I raged. Sparks flew, and the smell of burning insulation hit my snout/nostrils/nose. It all began to glow and I lay there, dreaming of merely being The Elephant Man until, not entirely unexpectedly, components started to blow.
Plastic shards, strips of metal, and chunks of wood flew. Sheetrock crumpled from the force of the blast and fell in pieces and a choking dust. The coffee table lifted up and threw itself at me wholesale. That’s the last thing I remember for a while.
Then I heard Kate’s voice. She was calling for me, but I couldn’t see anything. I hurt all over, especially in the small of my back, but otherwise I felt relatively sound. There was a crunching sound, and then I saw light. She pulled the coffee table off of me. The living room was a missile testing site.
“Harry?” she said.
“Are you…are you all right?”
“Thing so. ‘Saminnit.” I reached beneath my back and pulled out the thing that was stabbing my kidney. It was the faceplate of the MX-2200. “I think I fixed it.”
She looked at me with a look that was impossible for me to read. “Sort of,” she said.
I groaned. “Who?”
“There’ll be talk.”
She smiled. “Look at it this way,” she said. “At least you picked the young Elvis.”
She held up a compact mirror. In it I saw the youthful face that had sung its way into the American psyche.
“We’ll never be able to watch ‘Viva Las Vegas’ again.”
She shrugged. “Never liked it anyway.”