Sophomore slump. Even the phrase sounds wet and flat. It won't stop raining and sleeting and snowing. Your residence smells like mould. And unlike just a couple of months earlier, you can't drum up much of an interest in introductory subaquatic ecology or Elizabethan drama as a metaphor for the absurd.
You're back there – in your cinderblock room with the unravelling purple carpet. There's your roommate, George, a decent guy but boiling mad over all the popcorn you spill. And coiled in the corner: the super-powerful presence known as The Ant.
Nowadays, you've heard, university success has something to do with "being wired." Someone's decided that every room is in need of laptops, cellphones and high-speed Internet. But back within your memories of the 1970s, there is technology, too.
The Ant exists thanks to the scientists at Hoover. To summon it and put its powers to use on popcorn, or whatever else, you simply head for the custodial closet down the hall and roll it out. Voilà. Low-slung, fat tubular body (probably the reason for its name). Ugly hard-to-retract hose. Dented attachments. Tangly cord.
The Ant is an unprepossessing machine. But then you snap it on: phrrrrooooooooosh.
Popcorn vaporized. Bits of dust, dozens of paper clips – was that a pencil? – gone. First four pages of psychology paper due tomorrow: sucked up. Gum eraser, corner of the purple carpet, half a box of Wheat Chex: all gone.
You decide to tame The Ant. After all, you're not a first-year student any more. You're a sophomore. You try emptying its bag but, although The Ant has digested half of the items in your room, there's nothing in there. How can this be? You snap it off. And snap it on again.
The Ant has sunk its teeth into your L.L. Bean pant leg and you're afraid it wants more.
With other sophomores standing by for safety, you try some experiments. Suction is an interesting process. Maybe you can pick up course credit for this. You've discovered that not only does The Ant eat objects but it can drink. The Ant is thirsty for whatever sophomores pour. It'll slurp up whatever it can get from out of jugs, buckets or mugs.
It swallows instant coffee. It enjoys beer.
The Ant looks slightly larger every day, and its barrel torso has a gleam you've never seen. And then it happens. One night, a chilling scream from somewhere in the residence. The Ant has had enough. Enough of Wheat Chex and scrunched-up papers. Enough of coffee granules and half-drunk six-packs. Enough.
Months of The Ant's delicious meals and drinks cascade from somewhere deep inside it. A dark-brown tide is bubbling and fizzing. It drowns the white shag rug of the guy who lives across the hall. It floats his chrome-and-glass side table. It shuts up his stereo that liked to pound out disco tunes at dawn.
You (and even George, who's grown afraid of The Ant) are secretly impressed. And sad, because just seconds after this episode, it will not switch on. You try feeding it its favourites. You try shaking it. You try dropping it from the roof of the residence.
The Ant is dead.
Still, you're a sophomore. You vow to memorialize it in some dignified way. You'll write a paper on it or – that's it! – your thesis. You'll graduate and go on to be a world-class vacuum technician. You'll be famous. And you'll begin this important work soon.
It's either that or introductory subaquatic ecology. This is a no-brainer.
You'll begin as soon as it stops raining. And as soon as you finish that bag of popcorn …
Peter Mandel, of Providence, R.I., reminisces about his days at Vermont's Middlebury College and writes books for kids.