IRWIN AND THE MACHINE
Fiction By James W. Morris
My friend Irwin called me late one night.
"Cold fusion," he said.
"Huh?" I asked, drawing out the reply, speaking as slowly as I was able, buying time. I had been sleeping and was still half in my dream, which featured goats. Being chased by goats. Various sizes, various colors. All mad at me. They were being quite unreasonable.
"Cold fusion," Irwin repeated.
The goats vanished. "What about him?" I asked.
"Cole Futzman, right? That kid you and I tied to a tree in Fisher's Park. Seventh grade, I think. We were mad cause he hit puberty before we did. A twelve year-old with a hairy chest. That's just wrong. We—"
"No, you idiot. Cold fusion."
Irwin waited. I could tell by the quality of his silence that he knew I was unfamiliar with the term.
He sighed, then said: "It's a scientific theory--generally discredited--that nuclear energy can be produced at room temperature."
"Could provide cheap, safe energy for the entire world if it were true."
"But it's not true, which is a pity. Nonetheless, I got drunk the other night and decided to test it out. My motives were almost completely altruistic."
"Sure," I said. "But you're not an inventor; you're an unemployed—"
"I know. I'm unqualified. And I got an 'F' in high school chemistry, if you remember. But I took the casing of my mother's old VCR, designed a fuel cell, rigged some electrical components, then, suddenly, inexplicably, was struck by an interesting thought, a sharp insight—you could say I had a sort of epiphany."
"Yes, I realized I didn't have any idea what the hell I was doing. So I shut the thing off—at least, I thought I did—and went to bed."
"And you're calling me now because...?"
"Come over. You'll find out."
I looked at my bed, my warm warm bed, which was calling me back. But I could do without the goats, and tomorrow was an off day from work, so what the hell. I started getting dressed to leave.
The streets were empty; the night was dark and cold. Nevertheless, as I approached Irwin's door, I noticed a slight uptick in my mood; I started to feel pretty good. Happy, almost. Which is weird, if you know me.
Irwin let me in. He was grinning.
"You feel it?" he asked.
"Happy. Do you feel happy for no reason?"
I looked at Irwin's face. It was now displaying a wide lopsided smile. The rare sort of smile usually displayed when he saw someone trip down a flight of stairs or get their fingers caught in a car door. You know, on special occasions.
"Yes...as a matter of fact," I said, a little suspiciously, "I did notice that as I approached your house—"
"It's the machine. It's emanating something that makes a person feel good. Come, take a look."
We went to the doorway of the dining room. I noticed that Irwin had cleared a space in the piles of junk (his newly deceased mother was a hoarder, and Irwin hadn't much improved the place) but I could see that he had purchased a new walnut table and placed his invention in the center of it.
We stood side-by-side and looked at the machine, which was square and emitting a pleasant hum.
"Isn't this crazy? The closer you get to it the better you feel. See, I started by—"
(Here, frankly, I cannot report what was said, as I stopped listening to Irwin. Instead my consciousness was overwhelmed by an intervening vision, a startlingly powerful series of brain-filling images: a visitation. It grabbed me and wouldn't let go. In this vision, which was persuasively realistic, I found myself living in a house. It was a modest, comfortable structure, a bungalow situated on a pleasant country lane. Clear sunlight shone through the window; it was a temperate day in early spring. I heard an appealing sound outside, rose from my chair, and went to the glass. The sound was the voice of a young woman, singing softly to herself as she approached the front door of the house, unaware of being observed. I knew her: she was quite beautiful and loved me. And she was singing because she was happy and she was happy because she was coming home to me. I felt pride and immense joy; I vowed to be worthy of her love.)
"—such an unusual fuel for the fuel cell, I don't know. And I don't quite know what the machine is sending out—"
"It's love," I said.
"Love," I said. "Somehow you've built a machine that emits unconditional love."
Since it was still about an hour before closing time, we went to the bar down the street to talk about things. But we didn't talk. We sat there for most of the hour, a beer in front of us, and stared at nothing.
Finally, Irwin leaned in close. He whispered, "So, did you notice the table?"
I blinked back tears. The vision I'd had an hour ago—the love, the rapture it left behind—had completely faded. I felt empty again. But I managed to ask, "So you bought a new table for it?"
Irwin gave a surprising little leap from his chair, so happy was he with this answer. "It's not new! It's that same old table. Being so close to the box has restored it somehow, has...returned it to new." He sat back down and added in a quieter tone, "No, better than that. I believe the emanations from the box have transformed the table to what might be called its—I don't know—ideal state."
We both thought about the humming box. Was such a thing possible?
"Well, what now?" I said, after a time.
"Well, if it worked for the table, maybe it will work for me," Irwin said.
"How do you mean?"
"I mean that love is supposed to bring out the best in people, yeah?"
"And the worst."
Irwin laughed. "No, it's supposed to be ennobling, right? And this machine is putting out pure love. So...I'm going to become the ideal version of myself. I'm going to sleep with the box under my pillow."
This was Irwin's plan: I would spend the night in a chair in his room, carefully monitoring my friend as he took the humming box to his bed, slipped it under his pillow, went to sleep, and woke up in the morning in an ideal state. Immediately, I sensed that there were several flaws in this proposal, not the least of which was that it seemed to me unlikely that someone as (let's face it) debased as Irwin could ever reach something that a reasonable person might call an ideal state. I mean, I'm no philosopher, but is the ideal version of a devil an angel, or just a more efficient evil-doer? Irwin seemed so pleased with his idea that I kept my doubts to myself, however.
So I settled in the chair to watch Irwin make his preparations. He carefully placed the humming box beneath his pillow, winked at me, then fell asleep quickly. Relatively soon after that—and this was another flaw in the plan—I fell into a deep sleep as well. Hey, I know I shouldn't have, but have you ever closely watched someone while they slept? It's really, really boring, even if you think there's an outside chance they might transmogrify or whatever.
It turns out I was near enough to the machine to feel its effects in my dream. In it, I was a boy, the youngest of four brothers. My brothers were big. I was small. One day I went to watch them and their friends play a game of two hand-touch street football against a group of tough kids from a nearby neighborhood. Of course, it ended up virtually being tackle football anyway: vicious two-handed shoves sent ballcarrier after ballcarrier sliding painfully along the rough asphalt surface of the street or headfirst into parked cars. I didn't play. I was too young and small. I stood forlornly on the sideline, pacing alongside the knot of neighborhood adults who had gathered to watch. Near the end of the game, which was tied, one of the boys on my brothers' team got injured. He rose from a tackle with one arm bending in a wildly unnatural way. There was no choice—my brothers had to let me play or forfeit the game. They put me in a corner of the end zone and told me to stay out of harm's way while the other team kicked off. The ball took an odd bounce over the head of one of my brothers, however, and went—miraculously—right to me. I grabbed it in full stride and, using my small size as an advantage, zipped around the grasping arms of the opposing team. My brothers, surprised at first, soon gathered themselves enough to throw some vicious blocks downfield. It was a touchdown—the game was over. But even before I crossed the chalk-drawn goal line, I received my reward: the gleeful looks of pride, the amazed, affectionate expressions on my big brothers' faces as they threw their blocks and watched me race past.
I awoke toward morning, the love from my dreamed brothers still very much with me. In real life, all I have is a much older sister who more or less pretends I don't exist, so I reveled for a few moments in the warm vestigial regard of my three imagined siblings, I'll admit it.
Then I glanced over at Irwin, at his new shape, and all good feelings fled.
There is a mathematical formula wired into man's consciousness—the proportions of the physical shape of human infants: overlarge head and undersized body, the relational size of the eyes to the head, etc. These proportions can be precisely measured mathematically, turn out to be consistent in the young of most creatures across the animal kingdom, and have clearly evolved to evoke in the observer a strong, chemically-induced protective impulse. So when I saw that Irwin's head had shrunk overnight to the size and appearance of that of a six month-old infant, I was of course incredibly surprised, but not as horrified as I was an instant later when I realized that this gurgling baby's head was still attached to Irwin's adult, two hundred and twenty-pound body.
It was the worst thing I ever saw.
I jumped to my feet, knocking the chair over, and fled to the kitchen. I sat there for a minute or two, then went into the living room and sat there. Finally, I crept back to the bedroom, peered through the doorway, and took another look to make sure I hadn't been dreaming.
I hadn't been. Babyhead Irwin was lying contentedly on his back, his big feet kicking off the blankets, his gnarled, middle-aged hands snatching at the air.
I thought about going to the bathroom to throw up; it just seemed like the thing to do. But instead I gathered myself and re-entered the bedroom.
"Irwin," I said, determined to see if I could communicate with him in his new state, "how are you feeling?"
Babyhead Irwin rolled his pale blue eyes my way. He drooled a little, then averted his face, uninterested.
I righted the chair and sat down. I began to ask myself questions: Why would the ideal age of a human being be six months old? It was true that by that age very few people have cut anyone in a knife fight or screwed old friends in real estate scam. But was there any creature needier, or more selfishly solipsistic?
And why hadn't Irwin's body come along for the ride? I reached beneath the damp pillow and extracted the machine, which seemed dead, no longer humming. One could surmise that it had been changing Irwin a bit at a time and ran out of fuel. I remembered that Irwin said he had utilized an unusual substance for this purpose, but I couldn't recall if he told me what it was.
Finally, I developed the following strategy: first, I would wait. Perhaps the machine's head-shrinking effect would prove to be as temporary as its ability to transmit love. Second, I would search Irwin's house to see if he left a record of what he used for fuel. It seemed possible that I could find a way to recharge the thing and use it to shrink his body down so that it would at least match his head. To be frank, I didn't have a third step firmed up in this strategy should the others fail to produce results, although I suppose the logical thing to have done then would be to turn Babyhead Irwin over to the scientists, see if they could figure things out. But that seemed a rotten thing to do to one's oldest and dearest friend, even if he was now a—sorry, Irwin—horrible freak.
Five days passed.
During the first day, I scoured the premises, looking for any info Irwin might have left behind detailing how he built his dreadful machine. His mother's house, as I said, was packed full of useless junk; I found six headless Barbie Dolls sewn to the outside of a purple bowling ball bag, an old videotape of the movie "Frankenhooker," and two empty cat food cans inside a dented Pope Paul VI lunch box, a water-stained green spiral notebook with no writing on any page but the last, on which was centered the neatly-printed phrase "bunions/caramelized onions." I never found any record of Irwin's plans for his invention, and after I opened a door on the top section of the hutch and a greasy plateful of ancient, gnawed, spareribs fell on my head, I gave up looking.
The second day I attempted to communicate with Irwin, asking pointed questions that would require nothing more than a yes-or-no shake of his baby head. But I never did receive any sort of real response, although he did cry once and put up his hands as if he expected me to pick him up.
On the third day I decided to take Irwin outdoors as an experiment, see if my horror at his appearance was shared by the public at large. He couldn't walk and was, of course, to big to fit in any stroller I might find, but I was able to put him in a wheelchair I rented (with his credit card). I wrapped Babyhead Irwin up warm as I could and wheeled him to the park. Well, it quickly became clear that yes, the public at large did indeed share my horror at his appearance—most people who noticed him just clamped their hands over their mouths and walked backwards, but a few ran away fast as they could. On a positive note, Irwin seemed to enjoy the outing, gurgling contentedly in his chair.
On the fourth day, as I passed by Irwin's refrigerator I noticed something jammed behind it, which proved to a big stuffed doll that undoubtedly belonged to his mother. It was a boy doll and came with a dusty porkpie hat that I decided might fit Babyhead Irwin. It occurred to me that placing a hat on his baby-sized head might make it seem bigger, and therefore less horrible. But I have to tell you that it did not; somehow it just made things worse.
That night my disturbing dreams returned. The goats chasing me had baby heads.
By the fifth day I had given up. Throughout the many years of our association, I have helped Irwin in many ways—I rushed him to the hospital when he accidentally drank drain cleaner, I defended him in bar fights, even when he was in the wrong (which he always was), I even gave him an alibi in court when he was charged with running over that crossing guard. But the current situation was different. I won't get into the practicalities of caring for a man-sized baby, but try to imagine how many little jars of pureed apricots he managed to get through. And anyone who has changed the diapers of an infant that size can tell you that there's a limit to how many days a person can face this task without having his spirit broken.
So I was doing a sort of demoralized trudge through the dining room to the kitchen on the morning of the fifth day, wending my way along the narrow hoarder's trail Irwin's mother had left between crap piles, when I came across the table Irwin had used for his invention.
It had returned to its battered state.
I walked quickly to the bedroom. There was Irwin, standing beside the bed, his head returned to normal size. He surprised me by charging forward and embracing me. (It's awkward when two men hug. You have to lean forward in a weird kind of way—otherwise your junk might touch and that would be gay.)
Irwin let me go and sat down. He was blinking a lot. He had an amazed look on his face, like someone just returned from twelve consecutive roller coaster rides.
"It's a myth," he said.
"What is?" I asked.
Irwin didn't answer at first, just laughed in a creepy way. Then he said, "Just like cold fusion," and laughed again.
I tried asking him many questions about his experience, of course. He just waved them away with his hand.
"But are you all right?" I asked. "At least tell me that. Are you all right?"
He met my gaze and nodded.
I sat beside him on the bed for a minute, then got to my feet again. I probably should have stayed, made sure everything had actually returned to normal, but to be honest I had a wild itch to get the hell out of there. And I had things to do at home. Laundry, for example. And my turtle wasn't going to feed himself.
"I'll call you later," I said, gathering my things.
I closed Irwin's front door behind me. It was bitter cold outside and a silent snow was falling. I put my head down and started walking. The only footprints were mine; the city seemed deserted.
As I approached my apartment, I remember thinking: Thank God, thank God, thank God.
Thank God love does not last.