Victor Neilson is at the Lucky Penny supermarket, deserted due to recession, worrying about affording his son’s dental work. He calls his wife Margo, who is working on a petition to force the city to clear lots of ruined buildings, and then takes a coffee break at a cafe across the street where he talks to shoe salesman Jack Barnes about the book of the month club. Margo fixes her brother Ragle Gumm a sandwich as he obsesses about a contest entry, where his ability to recognize patterns provides him an income as long as he keeps up his streak of correct answers. Then she and her son Sammy get in their VW and go to pick up Victor.
That evening, Junie and water department employee Bill Black, the next door neighbors, pay the Nielsons a visit, interrupting a Sid Caesar show, to Victor and Ragle’s irritation. They needle each other about jobs over lasagne and expresso. After dinner, they play poker. Sammy interrupt to ask Victor for help with a crystal radio set. Junie suggestes he listen for UFOs, as supposedly Ragle hears them. Victor goes to the bathroom to get pills for indigestion and has a strange, vivid recollection of the bathroom light having a pull cord instead of a switch.
The next morning, Sammy goes to school, and Margo drives Victor to the store, and Ragle starts his daily research fo the contest. My Lowery from the paper comes to drop off checks and ask the order of preference of entries. It turns ou the paper lets Ragle submit 10 entries, and on the 8 times he missed with all 10, they let him “borrow” against past entries. Neither the paper nor Ragle have any motive to reveal this dishonesty — the paper benefits from having a recognizable name a the winner. Ragle thinks maybe there is no right answer at all. Ragle takes a break and visits Junie, who invites him swimming. he is attracter to her despite being annoyed by her shallowness. He forces a kiss on her, and she withdraws. he goes to the soft drink stand. As he waits, the stand dissolves into a label; the sixth time he has had such an experience. He takes the label, and adds it to the 5 others he keeps in a metal box.
At sunset, Sammy plays with two friends in some ruins. Back at home, Rgle confesses to Victor that he’s considering dropping out of the contest, switching jobs, maybe going to a VA hospital, maybe take philosophy classes through the GI Bill. How does he know the piano exists? Over dinner, he thinks about the relationship between words and objects. After dinner, Ragle tells Victor of his feelings for Junie and his recurrent hallucinations, saying “time is out of joint”. Ragle finds that Sammy has 3 labels, identical to the ones in his collections, that he has found in the ruins. Ragle goes there, and brings back a phone book containing nothing but disconnected numbers and a magazine featuring Marilyn Monroe, who none of them have ever heard of. They discuss Victor and Ragle’s hallucinations. Margo asks if they’re being duped. Victor tells Ragle to turn his pattern-identifications talents to his.
Bill Black gets notes regarding calls to disconnected numbers, and goes to visit Stuart Lowery. It turns out the contest is a way to monitor Ragle. Black worries that Ragle is becoming sane. He asks his wife Junie about Ragle. She thinks Bill is suspicious that she is having an affair, and starts telling obvious lies. Junie leaves when the doorbell rings. It is Kay keitelbein from Civil Defense, looking for volunteers. Junie recommends Ragle.
Kay knocks on the Nielsons’ door and asks for Ragle. Ragle finds out that Junie recommended him, assumes this is a rendezvous, and volunteers. Black comes by to check on Ragle; Ragle and Victor quiz him about Marilyn Monroe. Black claims to know her. Black sees the phone book, gets upset, tells them that it’s from upstate, and takes it. He calls Lowery and complains that they got a current phone book. Lowery thinks it’s from the ruins and asks Black why they didn’t pave them. Black says that they are county property, and speculates that the items were planted intentionally. The phone book contains several numbers for Ragle Gumm Inc.
The next day, Sammy takes his radio to his clubhouse in the back yard. The reception is bad, so he makes an antenna that runs the length of the yard. He picks up something sounding like a rocket ship control. Ragle stops by Kay Keitelbeins’ to find out the schedule. He helps her son move a desk, and despite his military background, he is exhausted when they finish. He reminisces about military service to Walter.
Vic does a simple psych experiment with his coworkers; they have an unusually common reaction. On the bus ride home, he focuses on a point, and sees the bus as a wireframe and people as scarecrows.
Victor arrives home to find Ragle, Marge and Sonny in the clubhouse listening to the radio. Ragle is cataloguing sounds. Bill and Junie Black stop by to invite them to dinner; Marge and Vic are confrontational, accusing them of tresspassing.
Ragle figures that the signals are coming from a nearby landing field, and then hears them discussing him. Ragle decides to leave immediately, and gets a cab to the bus station. The cab takes him to the Gazette office. He asks the cab driver to take him out of town, but the driver refuses, quoting a city ordinance. At the bus station, the ticket line doesn’t move. Ragle meets two soldiers from the airbase up the highway whose car has broken down. They go to the car, then try to find a place to buy a spare tire. The first gas station is closed, and the second doesn’t have the right tire, but the attendant at the third loans them a truck.
A man watches a tape of instructions for stopping the truck while putting on a police uniform. He receives a phone call telling him to leave. He goes out and tries to pull Ragle over; Ragle evades him and pulls off at a roadside barbecue, switches vehicles, and continues in a stolen truck. He turns off onto an abandoned road and ends up flipping the truck and continuing on foot. He walks to a house where he meets a couple that look like Mrs. Keitelbein and her son. He asks if he can stay the night, and says he was contemplating suicide. They let him stay in the basement, and admit that they recognized him from the newspaper contest.
William Black gets a telegram saying that Ragle escaped the fake cop. He ponders how many lives will be lost if Ragle escapes.
Ragle finds a radio at the Kesselman’s house, and assumes they are the enemy. He confronts them, and locks them in a closet. He finds a phone book matching the bizarre one from the ruins. He returns to the closet to find that the Kesselmans have drilled a hole through the wall and escaped. He finds a videotape, unknown technology to him, with him on it. And he finds a newspaper from 1997, 40 years into the future, and a Time Magazine from 1996 proclaiming him Man Of The Year. Then he is recaptured by men in maintenance worker outfits.
Ragle wakes up at home. Vic and Margo tell him he was brought home drunk by a cab driver. He starts on his contest, when Junie arrives to see him. She tells him about the telegram; he remembers nothing. She says she is leaving Bill and wants to be with him.
Junie calls Ragle, flighty and irritating. Then Keitelbein calls about the Civil Defense meeting; Ragle goes unwillingly. The ladies at the meeting discuss thermonuclear war as Ragle becomes more and more disoriented. Walter Keitelbein brings out a model for an underground factory; Ragle is sure he’s been inside that factory before. He goes to the supermarket to talk to Vic. Ragle tells Vic about his escape attempt and shows him his collection of labels, and Vic tells Ragle about his wireframe bus experience.
Bill Black talks to Mr. Neromi, who has been spying on Ragle. Black states that the Keitelbeins are actually the Kesselmans, but that he doesn’t know the purpose of the Civil Defense meetings, as the Kesselmans get their orders from another department. He worries about losing Ragle.
Margo arrives at the supermarket to pick up Vic and Ragle, to find that Ragle has commandeered a truck, and that he and Vic are planning to go on a trip. Vic asks her to lie to Black about Ragle’s whereabouts. Vic and Ragle hit the road, with the driver locked in the back of the truck. They pass into the outside, where the road becomes a modern divided highway. They find mandatory bumper stickers in the glove compartment, and let the driver out of the back to ask him about them. He warns them they are in for trouble, confirms that the stickers are necessary to get by the tanks, and then heads off on foot. Vic and Ragle get by uniformed guards at a checkpoint, before reaching a town. They park and find a restaurant, where they get some modern currency and are menaced by teenage punks.
The punks follow them. Ragle and Vic pay them off to leave, and end up going back to the punks’ apartment. In the apartment are girls with suits and shaved heads. They have a scare when someone knocks, but it is just the landlady. Ragle and Vic lie, saying they were produce sellers here to look at a room. The landlady retorts that fruit is radioactive. They learn that the war has been going on for three years, just like the contest, and that the enemy are Lunatics, colonists on the moon. Ragle realizes that his contest entries are actually part of Earth’s missile defense. The landlady tells him that “Ragle Gumm” is a group of people, and that the real Ragle Gumm made millions designing hats and synthetic aluminum before committing suicide.
Ragle decides to call the number on the card from the truck driver. They go to a drugstore, where the clerk is Mrs. Keitelbein. She tells him the number is Armed Services in Denver, then asks him how much he remembers. She is a Lunatic who has been trying to get through to Ragle. Ragle had chosen to go over to the Lunatics, so they made him forget his past and set up the contest as a premise for him to continue using his talents. She gives him a reorientation kit, including the Time Magazine with his biography. She tells him he is safe; the drugstore is in motion and is now between towns.
The President had outlawed lunar development as an economic protectionist measure. The Vice President used the President’s illness to reverse course. The FBI arrested the colonists receiving the funds the V.P. had allocated. The colonists attacked the Earth soldiers on the moon, and civil war broke out. Expansionists on Earth were put in concentration camps. Kesselman is one of the small number of Lunatics on Earth. Vic and Ragle argue; Vic had been an isolationist while ragle had been an expansionist.
Bill Black comes to talk to Margo, who accuses his wife of spying. Black says Junie isn’t his wife, that she was assigned to him but doesn’t know it. He says there are 1600 people in town, so he missed the Kesselman / Keitelbein mix-up, so they were able to get to Ragle and jar his memory. Bill is actually Major Black in missile defense. He plans to wait at the Nielsons’ house until Ragle returns. Junie comes over and yells at him; he dismisses her. Bill admits that he and Margo are married, but she was considered a better fit for the Nielson household and so was reconditioned for that role.
Vic and Ragle argue. Ragle had been worn down by the stress of plotting missiles and gone to a spa on Venus, where he realized that the desire to migrate is fundamental. He started dreaming of a peaceful childhood. Keitelbein says he wasn’t reconditioned, he was pulled to his past by his own nature. Ragle decides to stop doing missile defense, knowing that Earth will capitulate to Lunar demands without him. He prepares to go to Luna.