24

I've had my share of troubles in academia. I was trained in double E, electronic engineering, spent the first five years of my career working on systems design at Texas Instruments; was unhappy, so I went back to school, got my Ph.D., landed my first teaching job at Texas A & M. Fuck that; went back to school after a few years of unending grief with my colleagues and dean, who finally locked me out of the fucking building and got a court injunction against me. There was something in me, I've no idea what, that drove me into conflict with the people around me. I'd push too hard for things, travel money, release time, sex, and end up pissing everybody off. Something in me didn't care, didn't connect. I could feel my heart going hard as a rock, a little ice crystal in my chest, like the son of a drunken slut of a mother who has to harden himself against her or die. So I ended up becoming a poet. Ain't that a laugh! But I got two books published, one of poetry and one of criticism--apparently mother-bashing was hot that year--and lo! just like that was recruited by the local English department as a professor of creative writing. Perfect. Poets are supposed to be difficult people who brood and drink too much. I was given a wide berth. People treated me like a semi-domesticated rhinocerous, which was approximately how I felt.

Of course, English is nothing like engineering; I had practically nothing to do but whack off, in one way or another, so I sat around all day writing pointless poems that I loved and hated and sending them off and tinkering with the remnants of an old word processor that someone had left in my closet. That was one of the reasons I never made it in the engineering school, by the way--loved to tinker too much, and was good at it, which always pissed the drones off no end. I could make almost anything I set my mind to, inventing I guess you'd call it, except I never had the patience to get anything patented and marketed. Just made shit and used it, usually on my colleagues and their spouses in some fairly nasty ways.

Like the black box. It seemed to assemble itself, really, over the course of a particularly dull semester--the pieces just went together in a nice compact way. As usual, I wasn't exactly sure what it would do, so I tried it out while I was good and doped up: figured that way if something went wrong and I got fried, at least I wouldn't feel it. Besides, you know what they say about drunk drivers and seat belts: so relaxed nothing hurts 'em.

I'd put a small battery-pack in it, but it had enough of a wallop to stop a man's heart, poof! The idea was to place the transmogritron in the auricle of the left ear while twisting the transducer knob until it emitted a fine, high-pitched whine that was just annoying as hell. Then it was only a matter of pushing the plunger, located on top of the unit. The unit itself fit easily on my belt loop or in my shirt pocket next to my cigars; worn, it looked just like a hearing aid--not out of place on an old fart like myself. Funny thing about it, too: people would notice it, pretend not to notice, then finally commiserate with me on my hearing loss in this sappy saccharine tone--and the irony was, the damn thing was ruining my hearing, gradually. But that's another story. And it was worth it anyway, so I didn't give a shit.

Well, I tried the thing out, a little afraid but drunk enough not to worry much. When I let go of the plunger I felt something happen around me, something uncanny, spooky, but I couldn't figure out what, at first. It was a minute before I realized that the whole world around me had stopped. Dead, cold. Nobody was moving. Even my watch had stopped. The janitor outside my door was frozen in mid-sweep. Stupendous! It was an hour (a subjective hour--how else could I measure it!) before it hit me that I had stopped time.

I'm not really mercenary, mind you, but hell--think of the possibilities! Right away I began plotting, scheming. The world was mine! (Just what I needed: a world.)

So I went to the office next door, a professor of linguistics, and sure enough, he was frozen too.

I went through the ear-process again.

"Ralph? I didn't see you come in." He was unfrozen. "What can I do for you?"

"You were asking me about whether I could loan you twenty bucks, Hal."

"Yeah. You said--"

I pushed the plunger again. Everything stopped. I went down the hall to the endowed chair's office and sure enough there he was frozen in his chair, so I extracted a twenty from his fat wallet and went back to Hal's. Pushed the plunger again.

"Here's the twenty."

"Thanks, Ralph. You're a pal."

So it worked. But this was kid stuff, like engineering school. Practical jokes. The question was, what to do with it. Fame? Fortune? Sex with celebrities? I could wake up in bed with anyone I chose: Susan Sarandon, Lady Di, Prince Charles' horse, you name it. Then it hit me: I would become a publishing phenomenon! I'd write books faster than people could read them--and I'd write them about new things, alien things, things I'd never even experienced before, let alone thought about, read about or researched. I'd learn shit--not about myself (what's to learn about an old hack like me?), but about exciting things, how things go together, what it's all about. It might take me a while to find publishers for books like I envisioned, but hell, I had all the time in the world, right? World enough and time . . .

Just then, Olivia--our early Americanist--knocked on my door and came in with a question for me. Apologetic, even a little uneasy, because after all, you know, I'm just a creative writer, and what do creative writers know? I'd seen the look enough to recognize it, patronizing as all shit just under the veneer of consideration.

"Ralph, I'm sorry to bother you, but do you have a moment?"

"Sure, Olivia." Got a bunch of 'em, right up here in my ear, darlin'.

"This has been driving me crazy. There's a couplet that I can't trace in this critical edition of Fitz-Greene Halleck I'm doing, and I know I've seen it before, it has to be something fairly well-known, but for the life of me I can't figure out where it's from. I just thought, you know, you being a poet and all--"

"That I might have a handle on it. Sure. Well, shoot."

"'To mix the food by vicious rules of art, / To kill the stomach and to sink the heart.' Ring a bell?"

"Why of course," I said promptly with a big cheery smile, mashed the plunger, and sure enough, everything froze up solid. Olivia stood there expectantly, hanging on my every word--hanging slowly, mind you, since the words weren't coming too fast and furious, but hanging nonetheless--and I sauntered out of the office, feeling like a million bucks. Omniscience! At this rate I'd become a narrator before long, and not a first-person one, neither!

Well, it was harder than I thought. Took me about three hours, in fact. Kind of a pain in the butt, which made me wonder whether this game was worth the candle, but by God I found that couplet, popped back to the old office, found Olivia still hanging on my every--all right, next--word, and for a moment couldn't control myself. I reached out and caressed her breast. It felt pretty good for a statue, so I unbuttoned her blouse, popped off the cup of her bra, and took my time with it. Then, conscientious (this was early on, remember), I slid the bra back on, buttoned up her blouse, and pushed the plunger. "It's Joel Barlow, isn't it? One of the early cantos from his 'Hasty Pudding.' Canto II, if I'm not mistaken."

"Barlow! Of course! You're wonderful!" And she gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, dashed out--exuberant, yes, but also disturbed in some very interesting way. Did she retain a subliminal memory of my caresses? My next invention would have to be a mind-reader, I thought, but I could already tell what Olivia was thinking: how could that old fart know that? Joel fucking Barlow of all people! (Maybe he knew him personally. And maybe he knew me.)

So as I say, all this was early on. I was still testing out the thing, thinking about what I really wanted to do with it . . . but hell, I guess I'm just hooked on this academic stuff. The books seemed the way to go. So I wrote 'em. Dozens of 'em. At first I burned myself out some by rushing through the books, rushing through the research, rushing through the writing, and all. Then I said, shoot--what's the rush? I got all the time I want or need. So I took twelve years to write the next twenty-two books. At least it was twelve years by my reckoning, and by the reckoning of the scotch I had.

I got pretty damned tired of it, though, around year four. Looking back, I'm surprised it took that long. Two things: I was always something of a lone wolf, but all of a sudden I was lonely. And not just horny. I mean, what was to stop me? My compunctions with Olivia didn't stop me long. I fucked my way through a couple hundred frozen bodies in the first two years alone: all kinds, all positions, till my wrinkled little dick was sore. One whole class of freshpeople, boys and girls alike, in the course (for them) of a single class period. Never even worried about consent or nothing. Rape, I guess you'd have to call it, but it sure didn't feel like that. It felt like necrophilia, which I tried too, just for the sake of science, you know. But then maybe necrophilia is rape too. I don't know. The thing was, they'd just stand there with their ol' mouths hanging open. It was never long before everything else was hanging open too.

Anyhow, it went OK, all this fucking of what amounted to corpses, until one time I ran amok over in the Women's Studies program and accidentally pushed the plunger while my pants were still down and my little wanger dribbling. Must've bumped the sucker in the throes of passion, not that my geriatric throes are all that passionate, but still. Something obviously happened, because all of a sudden there I was pulling out of an animate woman who had never seen me before in her life. We both reacted with shock, the kind that has a way of blanking things out ever after, and by the time I remembered where I was and what I was doing, why I mashed that plunger again, wiped off, pulled up my pants, and was sitting in a chair halfway across the room with a silly little smirk on my face, the smirking face of an unrepentant male chauvinist pig, which I was, sort of, when I brought her around again. You could see her trying to make sense of what had just happened, then shaking it off, like a momentary psychotic episode (it didn't happen, it didn't happen, what just happened didn't happen, and it's never happened before, please don't let it happen again).

Close call, that. And all of this (as I liked to call it) "sex research" didn't do a thing for my loneliness (although it did enable me to write a later-on well-received book of what the press called "a new vision in erotic poetry"). It just made me feel more and more both in and out of control. And so every now and again I'd load some stiff body up in my van and truck it out to the desert, unfreeze it for an hour or two for an interesting conversation (you're in the desert with a total stranger, a little spooky but you're gonna talk, right?), then freeze it up again and trundle it back into town.

Yeah, you heard me right--"it." More and more the stiff bodies of my world were just that, bodies, its, things that I maneuvered around, carried around, fucked around with. I was growing, not to put too fine a point on it, fairly sick of it. I started off dreaming of textual manipulation: finally having the time to write what I wanted to write. It was supposed to be an academic exercise, somehow neatly compartmentalized, separate from my personal perversities. Somehow, somewhere along the line it had gotten entirely out of hand. And how could it not? With all the time in the world . . .

Whenever I entered the stream of time--let it flow again, thawed the great ice river of time into a torrent, for a few hours at a "time"--I was hugely successful, a late bloomer, to be sure (no whiz kid at my age), but a genius nonetheless, perhaps a previously overlooked genius, like Freud. I was the talk and the toast of the town. I had novels on the bestseller list, three and four at a time, and nobody could figure out where these damn things had come from. I had scholarly books out the yin-yang, each one published by a more prestigious university press than the last. I was courted by every major university in the country, made exorbitant job offers, which were promptly countered by my own university, until I was making more than the president--on paper, that is, since my actual earnings were far higher, given my power over the stock exchange and other trading ventures (not to mention the IRS). Whenever anyone marveled at how I found the time for all of this, I just went pshaw, this? Told them it was all old stuff, desk-drawer stuff, the work of my passionate youth (ha! youth in my fifties), shit that had been lying around for years gathering dust and mold, until my recent success made it all marketable. They bought it. After all, such things were not unheard of. The late John Gardner had said similar things; there were others. I downplayed my success, undersold my brilliance, was oh so modest--and while the world cheered, inside I shriveled.

I hated my "success." I hated my forays into "research." I wanted to go back to that simple time, that time when I'd just been a tinkerer in time, an inventor of silly gadgets, a crusty old poet, a pretty regular guy, happy. Or, well, not exactly happy, but getting by--like anybody else, which was the key. I was human before I started pushing the plunger, an ordinary Joe. After, I was a fucking golem. Maybe.

But back then I didn't really give a shit about feelings, either, unless they were good ones, ones that gave me a rush, even a rush from "helping" somebody else. Now? What did I give a shit about? Bad feelings? Well, yes, but it wasn't quite as morbid as that--and it was. I don't know. I was pretty fucked up. As fucked up as the dead bodies I was moving through, like mannekins in a department store window, cleverly crafted but hard on the outside, hollow on the inside. That was me too: I could move in a world of frozen things, but my movement was a sham . . .

Nonetheless, I did have it all. Anything a professor could want, hell--anything a human could want. I reckon. But you know, I'd give it all up, smash the little black box into plastic shards, if I could just go back to, go back--to what? Fuck that. There's nothing back there.

But there is. Me, I think. No, not that, that "me" was a powerless little shit, content with nothing but scraps, and now--I'm powerful.

Yeah, powerful like a golem. I can crush daisies and diskettes with one finger tied behind my plunger. So what the fuck? Go back? My machine won't do that. Maybe my brain will, I don't know. Keep on going here like I am? Going? Going where, to what, for whom, when?

I guess--

I'll just sit here for a while--

And drink--

Or better yet--write . . .

Back to Am I An Addict?

Copyright 1993 Doug Robinson and Bill Kaul