Kristin Matly Dennis is a high school English teacher living in Louisville, KY. Her stories have been published in Word Riot and Sawmill Magazine. She has her MFA from Spalding University.

Inventions

posted Nov 4, 2014

My grandpa spent most of his time in his basement workshop, working on the internet. He wore goggles meant for seeing into small spaces, but obscured his eyes, squished his cheeks into somebody else’s face. He never wore gloves; he said that he could only manipulate the small pliers, the threads of metal, by feel.

“This is delicate work, habbitah,” he whispered.

The internet was temperamental, easily knocked off course by noise or breath. Even though I sat in a chair across the room, I held my breath too, willing the procedure to success.

“There!” he said. “I have fixed! Go home and try your computer, see if it is working.” He smiled so big, I knew that it was.

Sometimes my grandpa said he invented the internet. Other times he said that he had only found a way to tame it so that other people could discover it. But either way, it wouldn’t have happened without him. He spent hours in the basement, tweaking his machine—a waterfall of threaded metal wire.

My parents both worked downtown so I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house after school.

My grandmother said, “Leya, come make cookies with your Mami. Come outside, the fresh air. It is no good to be in the dark basement, breathing God knows!”

Mami never went into the basement. She opened the door and yelled down the stairs at my grandpa: “Afram! Leya makes cookies with her Mami!”

I could hear Grandpa yell back, but he was too far away so I couldn’t understand, or he spoke in Arabic, a language familiar like music can be even if you can’t play an instrument. Mami replied in Arabic, which made her shouting, shrill, always sound like she was on the verge of crying.

I was afraid that they were fighting, but then Mami said in small, calm English, “Yes, you go down to Jido. You help him with his work for one minute while I cook.”

*

There was a girl at school whose uncle had invented the glue gun with a trigger. She brought one of the prototypes for show and tell. It was small and plastic, like every glue gun I had ever seen. As unimpressive as a stapler.

“They didn’t always look like that?” somebody asked, the collective question we were all asking silently to ourselves.

The girl shook her head, unsure.

The teacher said, “Before, you just had to push the glue into the back.”

We all just sat there, stared at the plastic glue gun, this show and tell nonevent.

I felt sorry for this girl, pale and plain, holding her uncle’s useless invention that seemed to demoralize everybody. I didn’t want to make her feel bad, but it felt necessary to remind us that inventions could be exciting and essential.

“My grandpa invented the internet,” I said. A few kids laughed. The teacher smiled uneasily.

“Leya.” She said my name in a way that I failed to understand.

“It’s a small machine made of metal wires that needs constant maintenance,” I ventured.

The laughing kids laughed again, looking at one another for verification. The other kids looked at the teacher, except for the girl standing at the front of the class who stared down at her glue gun.

“I watch him working on it all the time. It’s in his basement.”

“Leya, enough!” the teacher barked. I was sure she was angry because my invention had so miraculously crushed the other. How could a glue gun fight the internet, even with a trigger? But then the teacher said, “No more stories.” And I understood a little bit more about why my grandpa did his work in secret.

*

“People do not like to know how it is made,” Grandpa said. With a hooked needle, he was weaving a gold wire into a small circuit, securing it like a button to the internet machine’s base. “They do not want to know how perilous. We are spinning alone in the universe. The space is endless and very cold and it is only for gravity that we do not fall into it forever.” He looked up from his work, rubbed his eyes under his goggles, which made red shapes on his face. “Gravity is another invisible thing that was invented. Otherwise, how can life stick down?”

The machine was just a sticking place for the invisible. I could understand with the internet, which was recent and relatively unessential. But how could a machine for gravity be built, before anybody was alive to build it?

“It is the world, the earth’s shape,” Grandpa said, still intense with the needle. “It is the sticking place, shaped by the universe.” He stood up suddenly, grabbed for his wire cutters—enormous black handles with precise jaws—and snipped the gold thread with one bite. “There it is!” he said. He took off his goggles to admire his work. His eyes seemed small, broken. He blinked and squinted at the machine, like he had never seen it before. “Compared to the earth, what is this? A toy. It takes all of my time to build, but what is one man’s life against all time?”

*

Grandpa struggled against the internet, which was always bucking and breaking against its feeble metal harness.

I learned from Grandpa that for things to exist, they first have to be imagined. This is the beginning of invention.

But that is not true. Radio waves and oil existed before they were conceived. It is only the smallness of our minds that stops us from inventing everything at once. We already have all the materials to build everything that will ever be.

The telephone. The combustion engine. The radio. Ideas. But then there was thought, outlining the potential. The invisible made visible. That is the work of the inventor. Invisible things, like relationships. Somewhere down the line, somebody thought about democracy, family, domesticating animals. The first person to hold his hand out to a snarling dog: he was also an inventor.

*

I sat on my stool, watching Grandpa stretch an almost invisible wire filament between two nodes. A strand of robot hair.

“We come from a line,” Grandpa said. It was almost like he was saying, this very line of thin wire.

He stood up, stretched his arms. “We are inventors. When men in Europe slept in caves, we invented mathematics.”

“Who? The Lebanese? Our family?”

“Yes, yes. It is the same. At one time, we are all family. Arabic culture.” Grandpa could do that, collapse whole histories for his benefit. Another invention.

“Do you think it is an accident that I make the invention to change the whole century? A little boy, born in a mud house, from nothing?” He stared at me, his goggle eyes amplifying the intensity of his stare past meaning. His eyes were blurry, comically large, two televisions playing cartoons.

“I am walking down the street of my village. My mother makes laundry in the back. We do not have our own house, but must share with my uncle. My mother must do all the laundry and cleaning, like a slave. She is made bad for not having a husband, but is it her fault he is killed in a car accident? I am walking, and my shoes are small, but I do not want to say. I think, someday I will know everything. I will have power at the tip of my hand. I will make it so everybody can have something.”

Grandpa is standing as straight as he can, chest pushed out, pulling himself up to the height of his story.

But I do not see the connection. I am confused. “Is that when you invented the internet?”

“Yes. No. It is the first moment I knew it was there. It is when I felt the absence of it.”

Grandpa grabs a cloth and starts wiping down his pliers. He cannot seem to get them clean enough, although they look perfectly fine to me. But I also do not have goggles on that can make me see everything.

“You come from a line, Leya. I want you to know. I was younger than you when I started, but it was a time of war and time moves accelerated then. But creation is in your blood. My father had it, I know this even he died when I was so young. He was a child and he survived when his whole village is slaughtered with the Armenians. So many of us, killed. Just think of the inventions lost forever.”

*

Mami never participated, but she seemed to respect Grandpa’s work, revere it even. Just the fact that she called it work. But my parents weren’t the same.

Neither of my parents believed. My mom played along, charmed by the story of Grandpa, toiling away in his basement, like a Santa Claus. But my dad didn’t have the patience for it. To be fair, he had tolerated the monomania of his father a lot longer than any of us.

“How is it even possible?” Dad said. “He was a janitor..."

“At the university,” I corrected, because to Grandpa this always made all the difference. “He was surrounded by learning. He sent you to college for free.”

Dad bristled. “I know my father cleaned other people’s shit in order to make a good life for me. I don’t need my own daughter telling me.” Dad had a way, especially when talking about Grandpa, of speaking with an accent, even though he was completely American and didn’t even speak Arabic. But it was like discussing things like family obligation, filial respect, the guilt of an immigrant child—things that were Lebanese in nature—required a different dialect, a phony language.

“It is ridiculous. A small Lebanese man with no college did not invent the internet. You see what he is building? It is nonsense.” Dad swallowed the next thing, because nobody ever came out and accused Grandpa of being wrong. Crazy.

“Jido was a janitor.” Dad repeated the fact, instead of saying something else that was worse.

“And Einstein was a patent clerk,” I responded. Grandpa had planted this response so I would have it at the ready. But saying it made me realize that he continually worked against a current of doubt; other people’s only, I was sure.

“Your jido was a janitor,” Dad said with finality, as if everything he meant could live inside this statement.

He had become “my jido” so that I had a share of the responsibility.

*

Grandpa stopped working when Mami died. I was thirteen. She was old, and had been sick, but it was still a shock. The world seemed to rock on its axis, gravity pulling free from its cage. There was real danger that we would all be momentarily flung into space.

Grandpa was in his workshop but he wasn’t working. He was sitting on the stool where I usually sat. It made him look small, perched on the stool, like a pet.

“What is the point, habbitah? Who can care about this?” Grandpa was crying. He waved his hand, dismissing the internet machine away.

I didn’t know what to do with myself. It seemed strange to be standing, when I had always been told to sit on the stool, unless I accidentally knock the delicate machine and break the internet. I didn’t know if I should hug Grandpa, unless I accidentally knock him off the stool. But he already seemed broken.

I stood, hugging myself so my hands had a place to hide, and watched Grandpa cry. I wondered why he was here, crying, when the whole house was empty above us. He heard my question without me having to ask it.

“I am only in this room because it is the only place without her.”

After Mami died, I still went to Grandpa’s house after school. Although there was a question about who was watching who.

He can’t stay alone in that house became a common theme. My aunt called from New York, making half-hearted threats to move Grandpa in with her. But everybody knew what was expected. We had a guest room at the back of the house. Beige carpet; an unused, terrible bed; but a small attached bathroom with a walk-in shower.

While my parents still talked in hypotheticals, I brought it up to Grandpa directly.

“You should move in with us. We have room. Then you won’t have to be all alone.”

We sat in Grandpa’s workshop. I hadn’t seen him work on the internet since Mami had died, but being in that room was an old habit. Tools were lying where they had been last used. There was a strand of wire freeing itself, sprung to an awkward angle. I could see his hands itch. I knew it took all of his self-control to not work on the internet.

“But everything is here,” Grandpa said. He took a very long pause after, a silence the shape of what he didn’t say. I couldn’t exactly understand, only that it was about Mami. His grief was in Arabic, the language they always spoke together.

We both studied the internet, an explosion of metal, fluid as running water. “And there is always your work,” I said. I wanted Grandpa to be the same man he was before. It was too much to lose both of my grandparents at the same time.

“Yes,” he said. “There is this also.” He looked away.

*

When Grandpa accidentally caught the kitchen on fire when he was trying to heat up a can of soup, it was decided that he couldn’t live alone anymore.

“But if he needs more help than this, we will have to find another place.” This was Dad’s way of saying that Grandpa better not act crazy or he was going to get locked up in a home.

We spent a few weekends pack up the things that mattered—pictures, Mami’s linens. The rest was left for the real estate company to throw away.

When we went to pick him up at his house for the last time, Grandpa was waiting on the porch.

“What about your sculpture?” Mom asked tentatively.

“Grandpa, your work--” I said.

Dad glared at us both, but Grandpa didn’t react. “No, clothes only,” he said, holding up an old hard plastic suitcase.

I felt panicked. It was like going back to a place before computers, before email and cell phones. I had never been alive in a world like that, but the change wasn’t as drastic for Dad and Grandpa. They both remembered a world before the internet, and would just go back to living like they had before.

I wanted to run inside and save Grandpa’s machine, but I knew it wasn’t my place. Even now, I was still afraid to touch it.

*

Grandpa had spent his days tinkering with the internet, hollering Arabic up the basement steps. And his days had been full. Now he spent his time in his room. I wasn’t used to seeing him in natural light. He looked paler, smaller. He was like a houseplant set out on the porch, bleaching in the sun.

I came home from school, my house like a stranger’s in the four o’clock light, and found Grandpa sitting on the edge of his bed, tense like he was afraid of wrinkling the comforter. Fully dressed—his shirt tucked into dress slacks, belt fastened, shoes tied with double knots.

For a thrilling second, I thought that maybe he was waiting for me so we could go somewhere. It made me realize how little we had been out in the world together.

I walked into his room, and he stared right through me. Making what is plain invisible, I felt un-invented.

“Grandpa,” I said.

He jumped, like the voice came from an unseeable place. He looked right at me, blinking furiously. His face looked naked without the goggles. His eyes drowning in the thin, genuine light.

“It’s me, Grandpa. Leya.” I walked so close, the tips of our shoes kissed. “I’m right here,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder.

He jumped, but seemed to see me. “Leya?” he asked, as if he didn’t understand the word. Finally he said, “What are you doing here, habbitah?”

“What do you mean, Grandpa? I live here.”

“Oh, yes,” Grandpa said, nodding. “Of course I know,” his voice sticking in his throat. “ I was just confused.”

*

At first I didn’t go on the computer. I didn’t need to verify what I already knew, that the internet had slipped its hold and rushed back into the atmosphere. Mami was gone. Grandpa was stagnant. It seemed impossible that the world could just continue. But it was soon undeniable that the internet still worked at its frenetic pace. This didn’t make me doubt Grandpa, who had made a machine that could trap the world to a computer screen. He had made his machine so well, it was self-sustaining. The invention had outgrown its housing. I only believed in Grandpa more.

*

They said that his death, six months later, wasn’t a surprise. It was romantic, if you told it like a story. He missed Mami and was now with her in heaven. This is what my Aunt Sadie said at the funeral. But I knew better. Grandpa’s work wasn’t a sticking place for the internet. Maybe it had been, long ago, during the first spark of creation. After that, it was what kept Grandpa grounded, literally buried in his basement workshop. But once Mami was gone, he no longer had the reason.

I found him. Lying over the covers on the very edge of his bed. Fully dressed—his shirt tucked into dress slacks, belt fastened, shoes tied with double knots. I understood now what he had been waiting for.

*

I know now it is my turn. I come from a long line of inventors. I do not know what it will be, but the horizon wavers with the possibility, the shape of what is missing. Already, I feel the absence of so many things, and I’m overwhelmed by it.