The Device – R Kofman
September 26, 2021
The device has many purposes.
My friend Matt asked it to help with his nightmares. “OK,” said the device, and made it so that whenever Matt was dreaming he knew it. So now when he sees something scary or disturbing, he can thumb his nose at it.
My friend Sheila’s child was overly restless. She bullied other kids instead of playing with them and could hardly sit still to eat, let alone learn to read or write. Simply being next to her was difficult. “I’m going mad,” Sheila told the device, struggling to keep her child in tow. “OK,” said the device, and made it so that time passed very quickly for the child, who hasn’t been bored or restless since.
My nephew Zack split his leg roller skating. “Roller skating is my life,” Zack told the device. “Now they say I’ll never skate again.” “OK,” said the device, and made it so that Zack was no longer interested in roller skating. Instead he became interested in building elaborate castles and figures out of torn up toilet paper.
My father Henry went to see the device. “I’m gay,” he said, “and it has taken me 40 years to admit this to myself. 40 years of my life wasted.” “OK,” said the device, and it made him young and energetic again. Soon after, my father left and we haven’t heard from him since. That was three years ago, so he must be very happy.
If you bring a sick animal to the device, it can be healed no problem. The animal will go into the device and when it comes out it will be fully healed. It will also have no blemishes or marks, and missing teeth will have grown back. It is possible it will look a little older or a little younger. Because of this, many have speculated that it’s not the original animal that comes back but an approximate copy. Where does the original go? No one knows, but this doesn’t seem to be a dealbreaker for most.
Our town mayor went to see the device. “People don’t like me,” he said. “They say my policies are leading the town to ruin.” The device zapped him, and suddenly he was granted the skills of a suave gentleman. Now he is a big hit wherever he goes.
My brother, a policeman, went to the device. “I regret my decision to become a cop,” he said. “There’s no crime in this town, so I feel like my life has no purpose.” The device zapped him and suddenly he saw crime everywhere. Jaywalkers, delinquents, potential hoodlums. He pursues them relentlessly and is very happy about it.
There is only one rule concerning the device. It only works on sentient beings. So if you’re trying to turn a pile of bricks into a million bucks, you’re out of luck. Also the device doesn’t always work perfectly. This is especially evident when it works with bodies.
For example, my sister’s friend Susan was beautiful but then over five years lost her beauty. So she went to the device. “I want to be beautiful again,” she said, “and for it to last longer this time.” The device then invited her in (it always does this), but she declined (as nearly everyone does now). Then the device zapped her and afterward she looked almost the same. Yet beauty is an ineffable thing and not always tuned to age or obvious physical markers. So those who see her must admit she is beautiful. Yet there is also something distressing and alien about her. Yet she seems happy enough with the whole arrangement.
Another example: one time some foolish young person told the device they wanted to be able to fly. The device invited them in, but they didn’t go, so the device zapped them. The next day they started growing wings, but not how you might expect. Instead of two big wings, or even four, they grew thousands of tiny, tiny wings, all over their body. It was hideous to look at, but with all their wings straining indeed flight was possible, or at least they could hover an inch or two above the ground.
It is the prevailing view that these ‘imperfections’ stem from improper use of the device. Firstly it is clear that if one takes up the device’s invitation to enter, it works much better. But nowadays people are wary of going in, so most simply accept the risk that comes with getting zapped. It is also true that the more broad and ambitious a request is, the higher the likelihood of failure. Multiple people have requested immortality, and were immediately vaporized by the zapper. Someone requested immortality and actually entered the device, but after they came out they found they could hardly move. Their metabolism slowed to a millionth of the normal rate and now they are a statue somewhere.
But most are convinced that if they phrase their request with care and keep it modest, everything will turn out at least OK, though even here there is no guarantee. Once a semi-popular musician asked to become a better songwriter. He was a great singer and guitar player, but his songwriting needed a little work. After the device zapped him, he was able to write a few hit singles. Yet he grew bored with the simplicity of the music he was making. So he began making stranger music, which no one could understand. And now he found that he couldn’t go back to making his old music, and that moreover he hated it and hated all music that people listened to. Destitute and shunned over his musical preferences, he made his exit from society. Now I hear he lives somewhere off in the woods. Birdsong, apparently, accords with him. So perhaps he ended up OK after all.
The device was discovered about five years ago on town land, making it municipal property. Now people come from all over the world to use it. Imagine that. Last week we got a prince from Malaysia. It seems the only people not too interested are myself and my sister. We both have pretty good lives, except my sister can’t get pregnant. Yet she refuses to use the device for this purpose.
It is one of the few purposes the device will not serve.
I myself never had much interest in using it. My life is good and I like having to struggle for things. A little struggle, I believe, is optimal. My interest is in the device itself, or more precisely the mystery of it. Though scientists have tried to understand it, even interrogated it directly, after everything there are still no good answers. But it occurred to me that I might try my luck, so a few days ago I made an appointment.
Now the hour has arrived. I can skip the line because I am a longtime townsperson and haven’t used the device yet. Who knows if or when another chance like this will come.
I enter the cave that holds the device. I travel with a tired looking attendant down a long escalator. The person ahead of me is just coming up. “I asked it to take away a memory,” she says, looking dazed and happy. We continue on our way.
Finally we reach the chamber. The attendant walks me in and I see the device. It is much smaller than I anticipated, or perhaps it is dwarfed by the size of the chamber. Around it buzz many machines, men, and instruments. The attendant leads me right up to it. It is like a wing of a plane or the top of a tiny tower wedged into the ground. They have followed it down a hundred miles, yet still it continues, deeper, deeper.
I stand before it.
The attendant looks at me, hurrying me with his eyes.
So I begin talking to it, with a rancor that stuns me a bit.
Where do you come from?
Who put you here?
Was it god, was it aliens?
Was it a mistake, or part of some grander plan?
What was that grander plan?
To all this the device is silent. From the side the attendant speaks to me as if I were a child. “Look, it doesn’t answer questions. It helps people with their problems. You have to phrase your request in the form of a problem. Do you understand?”
Device, my problem is . . . I am very curious about the truth of your mystery.
As soon as I say it, I know I have erred. The attendant sees my face. “Sorry,” he says. “No take backs.”
And indeed a new light has come over the device. Its image wavers and it speaks.
The thin outline of a door appears, and another hole, through which comes the zapper. It is a squeaky, slightly bent thing. A trickle of rusty juice flows down as it extends. It looks far different than in the pictures, definitely worse for wear. At its head, which draws very close to me, is something like a cluster of crusty grapes.
The device speaks
Do you want to come in?
The door opens. Inside it looks absolutely pristine. I quickly run through the math once more in my head. Assuming the worst, if I die in there and another version of me comes out, what’s the difference? It all balances.
So the choice is clear. The zapper cannot help me. If I were to use it it would just make me stop caring about the mystery, just like it made my nephew Zack stop caring about roller skating. But I must know, so I step into the pristine interior.
Immediately the door snaps shut and the floor gives way. I am tumbling, tumbling. For how long? It isn’t clear, but I pass through concentric ring after concentric ring. I am a literary man so I may do the sight justice: it is like falling through an endless series of bottomless cups.
And as I fall, so too am I reminded of a literary phrase, a famous one I think: ‘The descent to hell is the same from every place.’ Indeed, but could there be a more direct route than this?
When I emerge from the device I wonder if any of my questions ever got answered. Probably, I think, but nobody who’s been inside remembers much.
Mostly I rejoice in the fact that I have come out at all. I feel different, though almost nothing has changed. Yet it is like a new feeling of life is coursing through me. Life fills me, from my fingers to my bones to my hair. I feel it even in my hair. And as I celebrate the passing weeks the true meaning of the device begins to dawn on me.
The device has many purposes, but chief among them is marketing, and thank God for that.